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Hiroshima: Our First Nuclear War

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima was whisking through compact cities and along green rice fields and rural homes. Some of the cities, the larger ones, stretched out into the distance and curled peacefully out of sight behind picturesque mountains.

As the train approached Hiroshima, I began to feel uneasy—intensely aware of the train’s throbbing and pounding rhythm. I grew tense as I looked out over the hazy rooftops of the city. The low, ominous rumbling of the train seemed to invade my soul, stirring up the uneasy premonition that we were about to peer into humanity’s awesome capacity to destroy itself.

I was with a small team of journalists invited to Hiroshima to get a fuller understanding of the horrible physical and human destruction resulting from the world’s first atomic bombing in 1945. For two weeks I would listen to doctors and historians in Hiroshma and view the evidence showing what happened in that city one August morning 37 years ago. Most of all, I would talk face to face with the survivors, whose eyes had seen the unthinkable and whose flesh had felt the searing blast of that first A-bomb.

To say that the stark lessons of Hiroshima and the urgent warnings of its survivors are desperately needed today is a colossal understatement. The bomb, which left that city a smoldering desert, was a toy compared to those in the bulging arsenals of the 80’s. The U.S. Catholic bishops are currently preparing a grave statement on the immorality of nuclear war. A nuclear freeze debate is raging across the country. Both events are hints of the immense danger that faces us and our critical need to absorb the message of Hiroshima as never before.

When the Bomb Exploded

The city of Hiroshima is like a big hand placed flat down between surrounding mountains with seven river-fingers running into the bay of an inland sea. At 7:31 a.m. on August 6, 1945, the 350,000 citizens of this delta city heard an “all clear” signal canceling an earlier air-raid alarm. Young and old breathed a familiar sigh of relief and set out for their normal morning activities, unaware that three American B-29’s were at that moment flying toward Hiroshima from the South Pacific Island of Tinian 1,700 miles away.

At 8:15 a.m. the A-bomb was dropped from one of the planes and exploded in midair some 1,800 feet directly over the center of the city. A massive fireball was formed, 10 times brighter than the sun, sending out searing heat so intense that it melted roof tiles directly below it. People exposed directly to the heat rays within a half-mile radius of the hypocenter (the point on the ground directly below the bursting point of the bomb) had no chance whatsoever and died from severe burns. Not only their skin but even internal organs were ruptured by the heat.

People as far away as two miles away from the hypocenter suffered skin burns from the intense heat that radiated from the fiery blast. Spontaneous combustion of buildings, fences, railroad ties and other materials occurred within a mile-and-three-quarter radius from the hypocenter.

Along with the heat damage of the bomb, of course, was the physical blast itself. The violent explosion caused by the sudden expansion of air obliterated any wood structures within the first mile and a quarter of the hypocenter. Concrete buildings near the hypocenter were severely damaged.

People near the hypocenter, whether inside or outside the buildings, were blown into the air. Many were trapped under fallen buildings which also caught fire. Others, even if more than a mile away, were injured by flying glass, metal or wood splinters.

“I was visiting my brother’s house almost a mile from the hyocenter when the flash occurred,” recalls Fumio Miyamoto, who was 35 at thte time of the explosion and now resides at Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Survivors Home. “I was blown into the corner of the room. [Being indoors, he was not burned by the bomb’s searing heat rays.] I began bleeding from my left eye, which had been hit by a flying piece of wood. When I stood up, blood was pouring from my forehead like a stream of water. I ran out of the house. I saw that most of the houses in the neighborhood were destroyed, and the road was covered with roof tiles and debris.

“My mind was blank, wondering what had happened. When I looked up at the sky, I saw a big mushroom cloud. It was shimmering with red, blue and purple light. It was beautiful! Yet it looked like a monster standing over the city.

“Some young girls, students in their early teens, came running toward me. Their clothes were torn and shredded and they were almost naked. Their bodies were charred, but white spots were showing where the burnt skin had peeled off. They were running around frantically—hysterically—and crying out ‘Mommy.’ I really doubt if they survived; they were so seriously burned.”

Around 100,000 people died in Hiroshima on the day of the bombing or within a short time afterwards, with thousands more dying in the weeks and months ahead. Not all the deaths were caused by burns or by collapsing buildings and other effects of the explosive impact. Many were to die as the result of radiation. For instance, thousands were affected either by the initial in-air radiation doses emitted by the exploding bomb itself or from residual radiation, such as from radioactivity remaining in the soil and rubble or that coming down in the form of fallout. The most famous fallout was the “black rain” (rain darkened by soot, dust and smoke churned up over the city) that started falling over the western part of Hiroshima about 20 minutes after the explosion.

Many who were at first fortunate enough to escape all visible injury died later from radiation sickness. Shortly after the bombing thousands developed symptoms of fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. In some cases, this included vomiting of blood or bloody discharge from the bowels or in the urine. Most of those who had received heavy doses of radiation died within two weeks after the bombing.

A Buddhist monk described, for example, how his sister died eight days after the bombing. She had been in a streetcar almost directly below the point where the bomb exploded. She had suffered no burns because she was shielded by the streetcar. She came home after the bombing to her family with no apparent injury except a tiny cut on her nose, but she died on August 14 from “radiation sickness.”

Still other radiation aftereffects were to show up: loss of hair, bleeding gums, inflammation of skin, the decrease of white blood cells. In the months and years that followed, it became clear that those exposed to radiation were more susceptible to leukemia and various other forms of cancer, as well as to cataracts and other diseases. Infants exposed to considerable radiation in their mother’s womb at the time of the bombing, if they survived at all, frequently suffered abnormalities in their development such as microcephaly (smallness of head, often involving mental retardation.)

The Hiroshima Peace Park And Museum—and Its Director

When visitors come to Hiroshima, their first destination is likely to be the Peace Park that nestles like a tranquil island between two rivers in the center of the city. (The city has been completely restored.)

The central momument of the Peace Park is the arch-shaped memorial cenotaph, which enshrines a stone coffin containing the list of names of those who died from the atomic bombing. Each day hundreds of people, including many foreigners, pause in silence before this cenotaph, praying for the victims or lighting sticks of incense to be placed in a sand-filled box. Scattered among the shade trees of the Peace Park, which lies directly below where the bomb exploded, are dozens of other memorials to A-bomb victims.

Our small group of journalists spent several moments paying our respects at the cenotaph, and then walked back along the wide open lawn in front of it to the second most important structure in the park, the Peace Museum. The long rectangular structure is built above the ground and supported by pillars which serve as a kind of gateway into the park.

The director of the museum, Akihiro Takahashi, met us at the museum’s upper level and personally led us through the exhibits. The museum is filled with dramatic photos (e.g., showing the rubble-strewn city and the human injuries) and other items on display—pieces of twisted metal, melted roof tiles and additional bomb-damaged materials—which tell the grim story of the disaster.

In one room is a glass display case in which stands the figure of a young boy whose school uniform is burnt and tattered to shreds. Takahashi explained that he always feels a profound sadness when he passes this exhibit. The boy reminds him of his own dead classmates and of himself—a young teenager on the day of the bombing. When the bomb exploded, Takahashi was in a schoolyard with 60 classmates and not quite a mile away from the blast. Most of his classmates were to die. He himself was severely burned on the part of his back and arm that faced the searing explosion, with skin peeling off the burnt areas. His ears first swelled from burns, then shriveled. Glass from the school windows flew across the schoolyard and into his elbow and hands. His right hand is still badly scarred and gnarled into a fist-like position.

Unlike most of his classmates, Takahashi was very lucky to survive. He was able to find his house still standing nearby. More importantly, his family was able to secure a doctor at a time when 80 percent of the doctors and nurses had been killed and many of the remaining were injured.

After the tour, Takahashi sat with us in a private lounge. A gentle, warm, soft-spoken man, he seemed eternally sobered by the sad horrors of 1945. And yet he conveyed compassion, hope and serenity—without visible traces of self-pity, anger or hatred.

How is it, he was asked, that he and other survivors can display a warm disposition and bear no anger toward what has happened to them? “There have been times,” he answered, “when the other survivors and I felt anger toward the leaders of the Japanese government and military, as well as toward the leaders of the United States who made the decision to drop the bomb.

“We can’t hide these feelings entirely or say we don’t have them. But we must transcend them. Hatred on our side cannot erase hatred on the other side. We must overcome our grudges and our hatred and work for understanding and peace between nations and races. Only true understanding among peoples can bring peace.

“Yes, we survivors have to overcome our grudges about the atomic bombing, and hope in turn that the Americans can overcome their grudges about Pearl Harbor. But I’m not saying that either side should forget the past. For it is in remembering the past that we may learn not to repeat it.”

A Teacher’s Story

During our stay in Hiroshima, we heard many gripping eyewitness accounts of what this planet’s first nuclear war was like. The stories of the hibakusha—the Japanese word (pronounced hi-bak’-sha) for victims of the bombing and those who survived the experience—are powerful, inspiring and need to be told.

One such story is that of Hiromu Morishita. From the first moment he sat down with us, we sensed that this slight, humble 50-year-old high school teacher was a special human being. He conveyed a reverent, gentle, even saintly spirit. Although the bomb had severely scarred the left side of his face and mouth, removing his ear, it had not diminished in the least his human dignity. This is his story:

“I was 14 years old and in the ninth grade when the bomb exploded. Because there was a manpower shortage, students were mobilized to help in the war effort. Some students worked in military factories.

“Others, like myself, were tearing down buildings and making fire lanes as a precaution to fire spreading in case of air raids. At the time of the explosion, some 70 classmates and I were just receiving instructions about piling up roof materials. We were nine-tenths of a mile away from the hypocenter of the blast. As soon as I saw the flash, I put my hands over my ears and fell flat on the ground as previously instructed.

“Suddenly I felt as if I were thrown into an iron melting pot. There was a tremendous illumination all around and everything was glowing. When I stood up, the skin of the left side of my face which had been facing the flash was hanging down.

“Without knowing what I was doing, I went into the river nearby, shoes, backpack and all. One student there asked me how he looked. He looked as if rags were hanging down his face like the meltings of a candle. Obviously, I looked the same but didn’t want to know it. While I was in the river, the atmosphere took on an eerie silence and became dark—like dusk at wintertime. I started hearing voices and shouts from others, but in this eerie atmosphere it was like I was hearing mosquitoes.

“I followed the crowd out of the river and began climbing the side of Mount Hijiyama nearby. When we got to the top and looked out over the city, I saw that all the houses and buildings had become completely flat and fires were starting in places.

“A group of soldiers walked by. The skin was hanging from their faces and hands. They held their hands aloft before their chests like pictures of Japanese ghosts. Their caps had protected part of their hair and skin, but below the caps, their skin was completely peeled like reptiles’. It was such an eerie scene—these soldiers marching toward us like a group of ghosts—that bystanders became terrified and suddenly began reciting Buddhist chants, commonly sung at funerals. It was clear that something very strange—’out of this world’—had happened, but I had no idea what it was.

“In a state of fear and shock, I tried to go home. I climbed back down the mountain, but all the houses were collapsed and the electric wires all tangled. My severe burns started to hurt. I dampened a towel in water and cooled them as I walked along. I came to another river and saw people staggering to its banks and collapsing there. Corpses were floating down the river. Many were charred and black. The eyes of some were popped out of their sockets. Because of the spreading fires and the wall of heat, I could not get any closer to home.

“Toward evening when the fire subsided, I walked along the railroad tracks. The railroad ties, spontaneously combusted by the heat blast, were still smoldering. My body was swelling from the burns. My mouth was swollen and my left eye was completely shut when I reached the place where our house had stood. It had burned to the ground, and I was informed that my mother had burned to death under the house.

“Filled with confusion and grief, I began walking to the home of some acquaintances in the suburbs. Finally, when I neared my destination, I collapsed from exhaustion in a rice paddy. They found me and took me in. It was summer time, and the serious burns on my face and hands and thighs became infected. They were covered with a bloody pus, and the bandages had to be removed often, causing severe pain. I was groaning from morning till night. I was placed inside mosquito netting to keep the flies from coming in and laying eggs on my wounds. Every day people were dying and being cremated at the river bank. I was very depressed because I thought I would soon die and be cremated too, Those caring for me hid all the mirrors in the house, so I could not see my face.

‘In those weeks and months after the bombing, I thought humanity would surely never think of waging war and using nuclear weapons again. After some length of time I even grew optimistic, thinking that humanity could lead a happy life using the benefits of nuclear power. But then President Truman ordered the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb and my fears multiplied. I still have feelings of hope deep down in my heart, but at the same time I have memories imprinted in my heart that cannot be erased—the memories of the scorched bodies of children scattered here and there after the A-bomb exploded.

“I have three children now. And sometimes my memory of the scorched children is superimposed on the faces of my sleeping children. And whenever I hear a siren, I get frightened. Sometimes as I’m teaching, I get a sudden fear of everything collapsing. My optimistic feelings that humanity will avoid making a stupid mistake are offset by the pessimism of everything suddenly collapsing. Both feelings exist at the same time. I am just a mere mortal with both good and bad in me. I think its a good idea for everyone to have the feelings of both optimism and pessimism coexisting within them. If people could keep both in mind—the dangers as well as the hope—the whole world might stay on a safer course.”

A Dress Designer’s Story

Chiyoko Kimura was 30 years old when the A-bomb flattened Hiroshima. For some inexplicable reason, which she calls “miraculous,” she did not follow her normal route to work that morning and escaped ceratin death. Some two miles away when the blast occurred, she received only slight injuries. Now a dress designer, the friendly and cheery woman was interviewed in her tiny Hiroshima shop. As her story begins, she is walking away from the center of the city toward Hiroshima Bay, August 6, 1945. Suddenly…

“I heard a very high-pitched sound, like someone scratching on glass with a diamond. At the same moment came the flash of beautiful orange light. It was very hot as if I were standing next to a glowing heater. I was thrown into a ditch next to the road. When I regained consciousness, I saw blood all over my arm, but soon realized the injury was only slight….I started walking to my work place near the bay where I was a clerk at a military facility. I ran into three soldiers looking toward the city in silence. I looked back toward the city. For the first time, I saw the giant fire pillar, beyond imagination, ascending with such enormous speed into the sky that I felt sucked up by it. It was all red, but reddish-black higher in the sky. When I got to the military facility, many injured were already lying around.

“To get back to the city the next day, I had to climb over all the debris. I discovered that our three-story house was completely flattened, but fortunately my family had some­how crawled safely out of the rubble. Elsewhere some of my relatives died. One cousin was burned all over. She really saw terrible things and to this day she cannot tell of her experience. And she feels so guilty! She heard people crying for help, and she had to leave them behind. She feels terrible that she could not help them. [Ms. Kimura cried and brushed tears from her cheeks as she talked about her cousin’s anguish.]

“Three days after the bombing, I went back to the bay. I saw ships taking dead bodies out to the islands. Soldiers were carrying corpses onto the ships on stretchers. The corpses were all black, swollen twice their normal size, faces like watermelons, skin hanging from limbs. The ships carried bodies away for days.

“Back in the city, too, there were piles of corpses along the road. They had to be soaked in kerosene and cremated. Thousands of corpses were cremated in schoolyards. The wounded were coming to schoolyards and other open areas where there was no debris so they could collapse and die. Thousands were dying every day and had to be cremated, often by their own family members.

“Words can’t express what I have experienced. Yet I can be more objective and calm than some people because I was farther from the explosion. The people closer to the hypocenter—those like my cousin with the more horrifying experiences—are often unable to talk. And yet these stories must be told. If not, the next generation will not know what nuclear war is like. As I get older, I feel more compelled to tell of my experiences. The number of hibakusha is decreasing. I believe the reason I miraculously survived is so that I can tell the story.”

A Priest’s Story

Father Tadashi Hasegawa is a Catholic priest and pastor of Hiroshima’s Misasa Catholic Church, which stands not far away from where he had been severely injured by the A-bomb in 1945. He sat with me in his rectory and, after serving iced coffee, told his story with animated gestures.

“I was with some 15 students on the river bank when the bomb dropped. I was 14 years old and a little over a mile from the hypocenter. At 7:30 that morning the air-raid warning had been lifted, and some of us students were taking a swim before reporting for our 8:30 work assignment at the nearby school. I was up on the bank. I heard a B-29 coming and those of us who were gathered there spotted it in the sky.…I fell face down on the ground. The bomb exploded and I was surrounded by yellow light. It was as though ping-pong balls of light were falling all around me. Tremendous heat burned fiercely into my back as well as into the back of my head, arms and legs. My clothing caught fire.

“The students who kept looking at the sky when the bomb exploded suffered burns all over the front of their bodies. They all died within two weeks of the bombing.

“Because my clothes were burning, I jumped into the river. When I hit the water, my whole body felt stabbed with sharp pain. When I got out of the river, my skin came off and hung down from my fingernails. I had to walk like a chimpanzee because of my hanging skin.

“All the houses in the area were flattened to the ground, and fires were beginning to spread. Burning debris sucked up into the blast was falling from the sky. Pieces of broken glass and tile were pelting down around me. To avoid the falling, flaming debris, I went into a small bomb shelter but had to leave when smoke began drifting in. As I started upstream, I saw thousands of dead bodies along the riverside and floating in the river. No doubt, they had fled from the burning houses. At times, I had to crawl over the bodies on my hands and knees. Eventually I arrived at a park. Around evening, I began vomiting blood and diarrhea started.

I was taken into someone’s house. My father had located me and was searching in vain for a doctor. Finally, he went to a Jesuit monastery in the vicinity. It was filled with injured people, and there seemed to be no chance of finding help. But just as he was leaving, the Jesuit superior told him that he would come himself to visit me. The Jesuit was none other than Father Pedro Arrupe, a missionary in Hiroshima who would one day go to Rome as head of the whole Jesuit Order. Father Arrupe came to wash my wounds, which were encrusted and contaminated with ash and mud.

“I could not move. I was lying on wax paper placed over a mat. My condition was critical, and Father Arrupe tried to treat me for three or four days. That’s all he could do. Infection set in, followed later by intestinal disease, and for weeks my life hung on a thread. By the time Father Arrupe came back on September 30, 1 was just skin and bones. He just looked at me and broke into tears.

“On that same day—after Father Arrope left—a German Jesuit showed up at my side quite mysteriously and providentially. My family and I were Buddhists at the time, but he used words like God, heaven, Jesus Christ, crucifixion. He asked my family to give him some water, and he baptized me. He then told my parents that I would sleep for one week and they should not touch me. My mother was very worried because my condition was horrible at the time. Thousands of maggots were in the wounds all over my body. Puss was oozing everywhere and I had a terrible bed rash.

“But I fell into a peaceful sleep for a whole week, My mother checked on me often, afraid she would find me dead. The priest checked on me about the third day and then came back after a week. He told my mom she could touch me. She began peeling the bandages off my arms and found that they came off easily, with no adhesion. She found dead maggots on the wounds, and the wounds were much better. They had healed on my back and all over.

“After my remarkable recovery my family became interested in the Catholic faith and were all baptized the following year. I went on to study for the priesthood and was ordained in 1965. I believe I was allowed to live and become a priest so that my prayers and Masses might help console the souls of those who died from the atomic bomb, In many cases, whole families were wiped out and no one was left to mourn for them. As a priest, I am able to remember them.

“Suffering is a difficult mystery. I feel strongly that the suffering of Jesus on the cross somehow includes the suffering of the hibakusha and all future suffering. Therefore, the suffering of these victims can have some meaning in that they are part of Jesus’ offering to the Father. Theirs was not a useless death. Although the sufferings of the hibakusha and those of Jesus were different phenomena and their magnitude is hard to compare, they are connected at a profound level.

“I am a hibakusha, I think the atomic bomb is an evil brought about by human beings. And I think it is necessary for us human beings to be honest before God and confess that we committed this evil. Also, we should be part of the anti-nuclear movement, but not so much out of fear, or a selfish concern that my life be spared, as that everyone on the planet may enjoy life in the future.”

New Modes of Thinking

The hibakusha have been plunged into the hell of human suffering and in many cases have risen up with a new kind of humanity3a humanity marked by gentleness, forgiveness, a desire for international peace and harmony. Moreover, they represent, according to some observers, a new way of thinking which is crucial for human survival in the nuclear age. The need for this was suggested by Albert Einstein when he said: “The splitting of the atom has changed everything except our mudes of thinking, and so we drift to unparalleled catastrophe.”

Having experienced the first nuclear war in their own flesh and bones, the hibakusha are compelled to replace humanity’s old modes of thinking with new ones. For example, they know that nations have to find new ways of resolving international conflicts. The old rules no longer hold up in a nuclear age. To settle a territorial debate by destroying whole civilizations is insane.

“The Hiroshima bomb is tiny compared to today’s nuclear weapons,” insists hibakusha Fumio Miyamoto, holding up an imaginary pea-sized bomb between his fingers. “The word war cannot really express the reality of what happened In Hiroshima. It was beyond description. If world leaders knew the true misery of that war, they would work much harder to renounce nuclear weapons.

In a profound way, the hibakusha have experienced their own finiteness, as well as the limitations of humanity in general, including its capacity to be destructive. Shigenobu Koji, a Buddhist monk, insists that the admission of our human weakness and capacity to sin is a first step to overcoming the enmity that leads to war. Though he was not injured by the bomb, several of his family members were killed or injured by it. And the temple of his father, also a monk, was de­molished. In his Buddhist way of thinking—and that religion is prevalent in Hiroshima—he does not harbor hatred or revenge toward the Americans for dropping the bomb. “Retaliation is not the Buddhist way of thinking. ‘Better to surrender than retaliate’ is our belief,” he explains.

What is most fundamental, according to Koji, is that each side recognize its own weakness and capacity to sin, whether it’s the Japanese, who started the war, or the Americans, who dropped the A-bomb. “We have to transcend the discussion of who started the war or who committed the greatest atrocities—and simply be conscious, on both sides, that we are capable of committing sin.” Once we admit our weakness, our capacity for evil, then we can move toward peace and reconciliation through divine help, Koji believes.

As a class, the hibakusha seem to have a sense that all people must move beyond a narrow, national self-interest and look to the good of the whole human family. As one hibakusha put it, “We have to change our way of thinking from protecting our country to protecting humanity.” They are often distrustful of political leaders—on both sides—whose military decisions commonly inflict sufferings on innocent people.

Fumio Miyamoto, for example, faulted his own leaders for promoting the notion that “the Emperor was sacred and should rule the world—which gave rise to the invasion of China and Korea…” With other Japanese, he believes the defeat of Japan was not without benefit, at least in that it destroyed the old imperial system. At the same time, however, he insists that the “U.S. authorities should have been more humane and given second thought to what they were going to do with an inhuman kind of weapon.”

Seeing the transformation-through-suffering that has taken place in many of the hibakusha, and how potential hatred has been converted into compassion, one is reminded of the poet Wordsworth’s thought after struggling with his sister’s death: “A deep distress has humanized my soul.” Thus, there emerges the perplexing question: Will all have to become hibakusha before arriving at the new way of thinking? Or can sensitivity to their suffering and message of peace lead to similar conversion and insight?

Signals of Hope and Peace

Each August 6, thousands of hibakusha, relatives and other visitors pour into the Hiroshima Peace Park. They come before the cenotaph and the other monuments to honor and pray for the dead, quite conscious of the fiery horrors the victims suffered in 1945.

At the close of the day, however, there is a ritual that balances the grief with a measure of peace and serenity. It is the “lantern ceremony.” When night falls, relatives of the victims write the names of their loved ones on colorful, candle-lit lanterns, made of paper on a wood base, and set them adrift on the rivers next to the park. This is actually an old Buddhist rite to console the souls of the deceased. In the aftermath of the atomic bombing, however, the lanterns also recall the many corpses that floated down the same rivers in 1945. The scene is one of quiet sadness, and yet the tranquillity and beauty of thousands of yellow and orange lanterns drifting soundlessly on the dark rivers as far as the eye can see is mysteriously consoling and soothing. Somehow they seem to offer a resolution or sublimation to the tragedy, bringing peace to anguished souls.

In fact, the drifting lanterns almost become a symbol of the transformation from violence to peace that has occurred within many of the hibakusha who survived. Perhaps the ceremony is sending signals of hope—namely, that despite the fire and violence and fury, human dignity and beauty and serenity can prevail.

The scene of tranquil beauty suggests that peace, and not destruction, is humanity’s ultimate dream—and one that can be achieved. The hihakusha would be the first to rejoice if the rest of the human family could arrive at new ways of thinking and being without going through the fierce schooling of nuclear war. After all, that is their deepest and most precise motivation for telling their stories.