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Obama in Hiroshima:
The Shallowness of American Atonement

| May 28, 2016

truman hiroshima memodial obama

‘This is the greatest thing in history,’ President Truman told a group of sailors dining at his table on board the Augusta as he was returning from Potsdam, immediately after hearing of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. Above, the memorial to the dead in Hiroshima. (Thilo Hilberer)

How convenient, this forgetting — this respected ignorance — that the only nation to have ever used the deadliest of all weapons of mass destruction, the only nation to have terrorized a country by means of those weapons, the only nation to have nuked civilians, twice, with questionable necessity, obliterating 340,000 lives (by the time all the deaths related to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were tallied five years out), is us, the United States.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive How convenient that it has taken 71 years, a lifetime of lifetimes not lived, for a sitting American president finally to make the pilgrimage to Hiroshima, as President Obama did Friday, depositing a wreath at the peace memorial before alluding in words to death that fell from the sky that day. Moving words. Stunted, too. There was no apology. Of course not. We’re America. We don’t apologize. Not for atrocities. Not for mass murder. Not for the most spectacular of war crimes, the quickest, most efficient extermination of civilians in history by the most peace-loving nation in history.

How convenient the distance — geographic, historical, but mostly willed — from the horror those bombings inflicted, the “pity and terror,” as Richard Rhodes described it in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” the men of the Manhattan Project could foresee even as they built the bomb and saw its first test in the New Mexico desert that July dawn in 1945. “Now we are all sons of bitches,” Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test, told Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project director, within moments of the blast. “We waited until the blast had passed,” Oppenheimer would later recall, “walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried.” And Oppenheimer remembered a line from Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

No amount of metaphysical anguish or contrition could approximate the suffering the bomb would unleash 21 days later, not on desert sands but on Hiroshima’s human beings, where the world ended 43 seconds after the Enola Gay, the B-29 carrying the four-ton “Little Boy,” dropped it over the courtyard of Shima Hospital. “It was all impersonal,” is how Enola Gay Commander Paul Tibbets described it.

To him, maybe. Not to those below, where birds ignited in midair and human beings left their silhouetted outlines on the side of buildings. In the words of a fifth-grade boy who survived: “I had the feeling that all the human beings on the face of the earth had been killed off.” A husband helping his wife: “While taking my severely-wounded wife out to the riverbank by the side of the hill of Nakahiro-machi, I was horrified, indeed, at the sight of a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeballs in his palm. He looked to be in great pain but there was nothing I could do for him.” A first-grade girl: “We were still in the river by evening and it got cold. No matter where you looked there was nothing but burned people all around.”

So tell me, now. How could a web site for so many years sell a “Little Boy Bomb Replica signed by Pilot and Navigator of the Enola Gay,” for $350 plus $15 for shipping and handling? There was a picture of the blue bomb, “hand crafted solid mahogany replica,” 1/12 scale, “approx. 10 inches long.” Why was the website hawking print after print of the Enola Gay and Tibbets, of a “combo special” (autographed Tibbets book and print, “$95 + FREE SHIPPING!”)?

Because that’s what Tibbets did in his old age and until he died in 2007. He peddled WMD memorabilia, as repugnant a trade as the kind that specializes in the trinkets of Nazism or the gold teeth of Pol-Pot’s harvests. People bought in. That’s what happens when atrocity is not only overlooked but transformed into something essential and heroic. Harry Truman did it politically when he declared the dropping of the bomb “the greatest thing in history.” Tibbets did it folklorically. And a war crime became a whoop. The website disappeared sometime after his death in 2007, but only to be replaced by still-current websites hawking similar, if a little less lurid, memorabilia.

There’s no begrudging Tibbets for fulfilling his mission on Aug. 6, 1945. No one had the right to demand of him that he represent some kind of national atonement. But there’s a difference between a soldier honoring his service and a war lover celebrating it. Tibbets didn’t just defend his role in the bombing. He reveled in it, toured on it, profited from it, reenacted it. He used his stature to slur history and the memory of the Hiroshima victims when he joined forces with veterans groups opposing a Smithsonian exhibit featuring the Enola Gay and the victims of the bombing. The exhibit went on, the historical context and Japanese perspective summarily censored.

It may be crude to speak ill of the dead. But it was a Paul Tibbets specialty. He told Studs Terkel in a 2002 interview, just months after the 9/11 attacks, that nuking Arab and Islamic capitals was the best response. “If,” he said, “the newspapers would just cut out the shit: ‘You’ve killed so many civilians!’ That’s their tough luck for being there.” What a hero.

Obama had the grace not to mention Tibbets or the Enola Gay Friday in Hiroshima. But what he also left unsaid, the apology unspoken, was not so honorable. That silence had nothing less of a complicit stench with the “silence in the grove by the river” that John Hersey described in “Hiroshima,” where “hundreds of gruesomely wounded suffered together,” as Father Kleinsorge, a survivor, described it to Hersey. “The hurt ones were quiet; no one wept, much less screamed in pain; no one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily; not even the children cried; very few people even spoke. And when Father Kleinsorge gave water to some whose faces had been almost blotted out by flash burns, they took their share and then raised themselves a little and bowed to him, in thanks.”

That silence has not been atoned for.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him @PierreTristam. A different version of this piece appeared in 2007 at the death of Tibbets.

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35 Responses for “Obama in Hiroshima:
The Shallowness of American Atonement”

  1. anonymous says:

    I have no words for this newest Obama tactic. I’m not sure what he is trying to prove.

  2. Knightwatch says:

    This nation has surely done a lot of great things, but we Americans have done evil things, too. Acknowledging the bad and the ugly does not detract from the good … it serves as a reminder that there’s a very thin line between good and evil and we’re all too capable of both. No one can deny that we fought WWII for all the best reasons. And, while it’s debatable whether we needed to drop two atomic weapons on Japanese cities to end it, what’s not debatable that we killed tens of thousands of men, women and children who didn’t start the war and didn’t fight in it. It is right and proper for our president to acknowledge those deaths as representing the evils of war and nuclear weapons. He is not “apologizing”. He is reminding us all of the sorrows of war, and cautioning against its repeat.

  3. Tired of it says:

    Once again it is not surprising that your would write such a piece of trash. If you knew about WW II history you would know about the extreme cost of AMERICAN lives that would have been lost if we were to have invaded the mainland of Japan. Japan had no intention of surrendering and the cost of AMERICAN lives that had been already lost in the Pacific Theater was astronomical. As a MARINE I find it totally offensive that you would have thought that an alternative would have been to kill more MARINES by invading the mainland of Japan vs the action that our leaders took to end the war. How about taking the time to write an article on the atrocities that were done to both military and civilians of the countries that Japan invaded.

  4. BeachcomberT says:

    PRI reports that Matthew Bunn, a Harvard expert on nuclear weapons, had this observation about the Obama visit: “It’s an amazing irony of history that the president who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his soaring disarmament rhetoric is also the president who has laid out literally a trillion dollar program over the next 30 years to modernize every aspect of the US nuclear arsenal to last, essentially, forever.”

  5. Mark says:

    You are beyond belief. You don’t have a clue. “Terrorized”? What do you call what japan did to all those Asian nations and the U.S. Playing footsie and fair? How many more Americans would have been lost if we didn’t use the bombs to get them to finally stop? Your ignorance is astounding.

  6. Steve Robinson says:

    Putting Paul Tibbets aside for the moment, the lesson we learned from the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that the world must never allow it to happen again. It was a point made eloquently by Barack Obama (reminding us once again of the fundamental decency, class, intelligence and humanity that is possible in an American president, which will vanish if the loathsome Trump succeeds him), and an apology, were it to be uttered, seems, well, trivial.
    We don’t need to replay the debate: Would the “fanatical” Japanese really have fought to the last man? Was the emperor actually on the verge of surrender even before the bombs were dropped? Would U.S. forces have taken a million casualties in an invasion of the Japanese mainland? No matter. The U.S. is the only country to have used nuclear weapons against an enemy. Conversely, for nearly 71 years no one else has used one, despite the fact that during these decades the world has endured more than its share of paranoid leaders and freelance lunatics and sadists. Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists knew exactly what they were about to unleash in August 1945. But everyone else had to see it to truly understand the dreadful destruction of these first, comparatively small nuclear weapons. The images, in words and pictures, of burned flesh, melting eyeballs, radiation poisoning and a flattened moonscape, are as much a part of our collective awareness as the photos of stacks of skeletal bodies in the Nazi concentration camps. And I have to believe that the carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is on the mind of every world leader, whether knave or statesman, whose arsenal includes nuclear weapons. Would Khrushchev and Kennedy have lobbed nukes at each other in 1962 had the War in the Pacific ended conventionally? Would Israel, at the breaking point in 1973, have been tempted to annihilate its enemies with a battlefield nuke? India and Pakistan in their endless deadly dance? Dick Cheney?? … We will never know, but we do know that in a world of provocation and brinksmanship the decision has always been to stand down.
    This is obviously of little comfort to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their descendants, a decision taken by a U.S. President to use them as props in a grotesque bit of theatre for all the world to see. But their legacy is that no one else since has had to suffer the same fate, with or without an apology.

  7. Lin says:

    Yes, it is awful, this story of Japanese suffering
    War is hell
    But this is the end of the story about the war since it ended a few days later
    Where is anything in this story about atrocities all over Asia starting in early 1930s
    Pearl Harbor?

    American sins?

  8. r&r says:

    What the hell are you talking about?? Apologize for defending ourselves. They declared war when they bombed Pearl Harbor and Killed hundreds of thousand of American Military.They should be apologizing. This is a Piss poor article to be put up on your website on this most celibrated weekend. You realy piss me off.

  9. footballen says:

    While the act was horrific I cannot see how ending a world war requires atonement but then again I have actually fought in a war myself.

  10. Vincent A. Liguori says:

    When will Japan apologize for: Pearl Harbor, Nanking, China-slaughter of Chinese in pits by bayonet, Banga Island Massacre-slaughter of Australian army nurses, the Bataan death march, the Sandakan death march, murder and cannibalism on the Kokoda Track,confiscating women to sexual slavery in Jap army brothels, mutilation and murder of Dutch civilians in Borneo,murder and cannibalism of captured American pilots. The list of Japanese atrocities goes on and on. God Bless the American and Allied armed forces and President Harry Truman!

  11. Brian Riehle says:

    Pierre…..let’s put a little different frame around this picture for the benefit of those of your readers who only get their news from Flagler Live.
    Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor pulling us into World War II.
    Japanese military forces killed over 5 million innocent civilians in Asia during the war.
    Japan was a wartime ally of Nazi Germany….6 million innocent Jews murdered.
    Japan has not apologized.

  12. Just me says:

    And this is why this once great republic is doomed. This mindset of America being the root of all evils in the world by our left that is all but total control in the government (public) schools , collage’s , university’s and the media. They rewrite history to tell how bad we where and are. Has this republic done bad yes BUT not as this hit piece says. This writer thinks war is or should be like a video game where only those actively participating are involved. war should be avoided BUT when it is brought upon us we should fight it totally to obliterate not just the foot soldiers who where doing what was told of them to do. war should then be fought to obliterate the ideology and will to continue their war of those who brought it on. The truth is the use of those horrific weapons ended a war years earlier with less loss of life especially American life then if we where forced into a conventional invasion of Japan.

  13. Rich Mikola says:

    The United States has nothing to atone for. The Japanese got what they deserved! God bless Harry Truman. They should have nuked Tokyo.

  14. William Moya says:

    In several news channels this past week there were discussions on the use of the atomic bomb in Japan, I was somewhat surprise that almost without exception the participants follow pretty much the orthodoxy that it was done to end the war and save lives i.e. the losses would have been three or four times greater had we continued with conventional attacks.

    Putting aside the inflated figures, we can ask why didn’t we use nuclear weapons in the Korean war,Vietnam war, recent conflicts …..etc, you get the picture. The Japanese were brutal and not just to us, thus bringing upon themselves the resentment of just about everybody else in the Pacific. However, the most damaging aspect of using the atomic bomb for us is how it changed us, Bainbridge was right on the mark.

    We have in our culture, both foreign and domestic policy, a credibility complex that leads us into terrible decisions that turns conflict resolution into a zero sum game.

    It seems to me that Truman was a man clearly out of his depth that made him ill suited to be President, he was guided by his own prejudices (antisemitism and racism) and either a non existence knowledge of history or a very narrow interpretation of it.

    Coincidentally were toying with the idea of electing a replica of Truman, a man that according to his supporters will learn on the job and let us know after he is elected what he’ll do. Meanwhile the press plays the fiddle to the tune of the fake equivalence that hey have found to be so profitable.

  15. Veteran says:

    Putting this article out on the weekend we honor the Americans who have died defending our nation is disgusting and Obama going to Japan is wrong. He should have done this on August 6th or 9th, the anniversary of the bombing.

  16. Buylocal says:

    Japan, I am sorry we had to do what had to be done at the time. I think you have forgiven us as we have you.
    Pierre, I my opinion, your article is one sided and redundant at this time.

  17. Outsider says:

    Seriously, Mr. Moyà? Obama was not qualified to be assistant manager of a Dairy Queen, and in fact has been given eight years of on the job training. He held no executive experience whatsoever, never running so much as a one car funeral. It took seven years under this ideologue to get the economy to a point where some people are convinced all is good. Who couldn’t do that given a credit card with 0% interest, no payments, and no credit limit that allowed him to borrow more money than all previous presidents combined? That bill will come due soon enough when the fed can’t hold near zero interest rates any longer. Trump doesn’t need to know everything about everything to run the country. How do I know this? Because I met him once, and he asked myself and a colleague pointed questions in our area of expertise, and made a decision based on that. That tells me he while he may not be an expert, he knows where to find the experts, get the right information, and make a decision based on others’ knowledge. Obama never followed the advice of his advisors, claiming boldly that he could do their jobs better than they could. Hence, we got a failed state in Libya, a failing Obamacare system, had to redeploy into Iraq after he pulled our troops out, again, against the advice of people who knew better. One year after pulling our last tank out of Europe, we had to redeploy when Russia moved in. How’s the TSA working for us now? Good God, I could go on for three more pages but I just don’t have the time. Trump, or any other good manger does not have to be an expert in every field; that’s why ALL presidents assemble a cabinet full of experts, except for Obama, who has a cabinet filled mostly with cronies and sycophants. Sure, Trump is no speaking expert, but you know what? I am tired of slick, eloquent politicians lying to us while they screw us up the ass, saying one thing while doing another. If a communication style that needs a little work is what we have to endure to get someone who works for the American people then I will pay that price, quite happily. The choice is Hillary or Trump, so I pick Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States, and do so enthusiastically. Have a great day!

  18. Red White & Blue says:

    Pierre you Lebanese prick………….One day your going see your worthless middle-east country and a few others in that crap hole of the planet, light up with mushroom clouds so big mo-ham-head will wish he was Amish . .

    Happy Memorial Day to ALL American Veterans

  19. Sherry says:

    Here’s a French (Reuter’s) article on the subject. . . right click to translate it to English. . . take a read all the way to the bottom for a ( distorted?) perspective from China and North Korea. Interesting to note that the Americanized version of the same Reuter’s article doesn’t contain that part.

  20. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    Wow, I haven’t seen this much butthurt over something obama’s done by the loony tea party right in at least a month. Japan, if you haven’t noticed, is an ally. Sure, they weren’t during the second world war, and during that time they had two atomic devices dropped on them. Regardless of whatever rhetoric is being launched at the time, e.g. “they were trying to find a way to surrender the west just didn’t understand,” this is a very good move by the united states, especially since japan is jockeying to form a military again.

    As for japan apologizing for transgressions against china, you’re right to a degree. The missing point is that japan and china aren’t friends, and I think one could make a pretty damn good argument that china isn’t chinese either. China is whatever is left after the cultural revolution drives or kills the smart people out of it over ideological reasons, much like the GOP. Japan has pretty good relations with taiwan and malaysia, where many of the chinese refugees from the PRC fled. I think japan should just wait for china to collapse due to financial reasons and its population’s continued descent into idiocy, and then be friends with what’s left. Then they can apologize.

  21. William Moya says:

    Au contraire Mr. Outsider, Mr. Obama graduated from two of the nation’s best school and taught constitutional law at a premier university in the Midwest. He could have worked in one of the elite law firms in New York or Chicago, instead he chose public service and also served the community that needs his help the most.
    I really wish we could have the conversation which you insinuate, unfortunately it’s practically impossible to do, your candidate is a fascist, racist, and a bigot, this is undeniable and you are asking us to somewhat gloss over that so that we can discuss his policies. Imagine us living in the 19th century talking about Polk yes he wants to have more slave states and invade other countries, but hey he will make America by invading other countries and richer for the few at the expense of the blood and sweat of everybody else. Haven’t we learn enough about autocratic egomaniacs? Apparently not.

  22. The Oracle says:

    When America is attacked, we have the obligation to defend ourself. We did what we had to do to save our lives and protect our country and our rights. As terrible as bombing Hiroshima was, we have nothing to apologize for. In fact the Japanize owe America a huge Apology.

  23. Time for Everyone to Atone says:

    Since we now all agree that American’s should atone and apologize for decision made my men who share our heritage, even though none of took part in those decisions, I think the time has come to demand atonement from a few other people.

    1. Americans need to apologize to the Native American tribes for stealing their land and murdering their people.
    2. Britain’s need to apologize to American’s for not allowing the colonies to become independent without war.
    3. The south should apologize to the north for seceding and causing the civil war.
    4. The north should apologize for the war of northern aggression.
    5. The Japanese should apologize for Pearl Harbor but only after the American’s apologize for stealing Hawaii from the natives.
    6. The Japanese should apologize to the Chinese for the awful experiments conducted on their people during WWII
    7. Germany needs to apologize for Hitler but only after the French apologize for the restrictive sanctions placed on Germany which caused crippling depression and led to his rise.
    8. France’s atonement for Napoleon is long overdue.
    9. Egyptians owe Israelis an apology for slavery but American’s owe Africans apologies for slavery as well. That of course should take place after Africans atone for Queen Nzinga Mbande selling Africans into slavery.
    10. Britain’s owe Aborigines an apology for turning Australia into a penal colony.
    11. Russian’s owe Russian’s an apology for Stalin killing more people than anyone in history, and they owe Everyone an apology for the cold war.
    12. And I think Mongolia owes a lot of people an apology for Ghengis Khan

    Now I am sure I am forgetting some countries but maybe we should just all say sorry every time we see anyone because someone who may have shared our heritage, no matter how distant, probably wronged someone who shared their heritage.

  24. Sherry says:

    @ Red, White & Blue. . . you and others like you . . . who are so full of poison and hatred towards your fellow human beings. . . you are a complete embarrassment and anathema to our civilization and society.

    I hope you seek and receive the help that you so clearly need for your tortured soul.

  25. Sherry says:

    Excellent, intelligent comment Mr. Moya!

    My thinking on this subject is that killing/brutalizing other human beings for ANY reason is NEVER EVER justified or honorable or right or civilized. . . or any of the other words used to convince ourselves that we are somehow correct to do such horrific things to others of our species.

    I am proud of President Obama for his compassion. . . which is not a weakness. . . it takes much more courage in this world to be compassionate than brutal. He has set the tone for steps toward a greater peace in the future. . . away from nuclear proliferation in other countries.

    While I personally think Japan and other countries should also step up and recognize their own responsibility for such horrific crimes against humanity. . . since we like to think of the USA as being the best and most civilized country on the planet, then why shouldn’t we take the lead in acknowledging that all acts of brutality/war (by every name) is unacceptable on every level. Complete atonement may not have been accomplished, but President Obama has shown that nations can learn from historic tragedies and evolve towards a more cooperative and healthy future for all civilizations on earth.

  26. JimB says:

    More Trash from Tristam.
    As a veteran I am offended.
    God bless our troops and our veterans.

  27. Oldseadog says:

    How convenient of Pierre to forget the sacrifice so many American military lives have been lost in defending
    this country so people like him can continue having the absolute right of freedom of speech!

    God Bless America on this Memorial Day May 30, 2016

  28. michael murphy says:

    Well Pierre I guess you would have to have been a Citizen of the United States to understand the Brothers and Sisters Moms and Dads we lost during that War.The Japs Killed a lot of Innoceent people at Pearl and Slaughtered a lot of OUR People as Prisoners, It shows your lack of Class Printing this story now.Pierre I heard your from the Middle East Im guessing your people don’t feel the need to Apologize for any of your Mass Murders. PEACE TO ALL.

  29. PCer says:

    Obama did not apologize for dropping the bomb. The bomb was a necessary evil to end the war. Japan has apologized countless times for their actions during WWII….including when they surrendered unconditionally days after the bombs were dropped. We broke them, what else do you people want?

    Sadly, many of the readers cannot see through their hate for the president to see any good he does. I truly believe he could walk hand in hand with a resurrected Christ through the Mall in DC and you would still find reason to fault him for something.

    My grandfather and godfather fought in the Pacific Theater. Thank you to all of our men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice so that we could have this free debate.

  30. Common Sense says:

    I am amazed at the ignorance displayed by so many of the commenters. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were a terrible tragedy for all of mankind. Just like Germany, Japan is now an ally. We all lost in that terrible war.
    We should concentrating in preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again.

    Red, White and Blue, your comment is vulgar.

  31. Veteran says:

    Yes Mr. Moya, Obama SAID he went to all those schools but has never released any transrcipts so has he really? People in his same class year have never heard of him. He was a lecturer at the U. of Chicago, not quite the same as a professor my friend. When Trump takes office he will get all these documents released, and Sherry please leave the USA with Whoopie, Rosie and the rest of them! Outsider you’re opinion rocks!

  32. William Moya says:

    Sherry, thank you for your kind words, we tend to forget that we are having a conversation, as the curator of this website frequently remind us. As now a reader and contributor to these pages I see that you have developed quite a following, congratulations.

  33. sick of failures says:

    What would Jesus do?

    As it relates to this article, unfortunately (and innumerable other demonstrations) , there is an extreme lack of Christian morality as there is no case to be made in proving the purpose of always being superior all of the time.

    The reason I quit listening to Christians hell-bent on intrinsically jamming their self-righteous ways against all others comes down to the undeniable inability of these same Christians being capable of showing me in what they do, not what they say… their “Christ-like” lives. Go ahead Bible beaters… show me the good book’s verse(s) what is the verse that says, “forgive, turn the other cheek, but when all else fails insert your agenda and aim to kill as many innocents as you can…” Hello, Jesus, can you hear me?

  34. Geezer says:

    sick of failures:

    Speaking of Christians……..

    The bomb dropped on Nagasaki wiped out 8500 of the 12,000
    Christians, a community who had survived Japanese oppression
    to that point.

    On Aug. 9, 1945 at 11:02 a.m., while attending Thursday morning mass,
    hundreds of Nagasaki Christians were boiled, evaporated, carbonized
    or otherwise erased from existence in a radioactive fireball which detonated
    500 meters above the cathedral.

    At 3:00 that morning, the B-29 Super-fortress that had been christened
    “Bock’s Car” took flight from Tinian Island, with the perfunctory prayers and
    blessings of its Lutheran and Catholic chaplains.

    The community’s massive Cathedral with its spires one of only two Nagasaki
    landmarks that could be positively identified from 31,000 feet.
    That church became Ground Zero for the 10,000 lb atomic bomb named
    “Fat Man.”

    The black rain that came down from the mushroom cloud contained the mixed
    remains of Nagasaki Shintoists, Buddhists, and Christians.

    God won’t bless anyone involved in the carrying out of this war atrocity.
    Admittedly Nagasaki was a secondary target due to cloud cover, but
    the bombardiers used the cathedral as an aiming point.

    People need to think a minute before saying “God bless.”
    Also know that God supposedly hates war and doesn’t take sides.

    War itself is an atrocity.

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