6. The bombed people

Silence. Then bewilderment: ‘I felt as though I had been struck on the back by something like a big hammer,’ recalled a young woman, ‘and thrown into boiling oil ...I felt as though the directions were all changed around.’ Science fiction: the blast blew so hard that a group of boys working in a field were lacerated by blades of the grass that surrounded them. Absurdity: while birds, insects, lizards, and households pets vaporized, several survivors remember seeing carp swimming peacefully in ponds or cisterns hours after the bomb had struck, and rats were seemingly unaffected. And horror, as people looked up, dazed, or began to stumble, walk, or run—where?— anywhere else, to find water for their burns or thirst, medical help, or loved ones. ‘We finally came across some living human beings,’ remembered a primary-school student named Iwao Nakamura. ‘But maybe it would be more correct to say that we met some people from Hell. They were naked and their skin, burned and bloody, was like red rust and their bodies were bloated up like balloons.’ A grocer, badly burned, saw, and participated in, a nightmare:

The appearance of people was. .. well, they all had their skin blackened by burns. . . They had no hair because their hair was burned, and at a glance you couldn’t tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back. . . They held their arms bent [forward] like this. . . and their skin—not only on their hands, but on their faces and bodies too—hung down... I can still picture them in my mind—like walking ghosts.. . They didn’t look like people of this world . . . They had a special way of walking—very slowly . . . I myself was one of them.

‘When I came to my senses,’ a soldier told Kenzaburo Oe, ‘I found my comrades still standing erect and saluting; when I said, “Hey”, and tapped their shoulders, they crumbled down into ashes.’27

They walked to the rivers and to the slopes of Hijiyama Hill, which seemed to offer relative protection from whatever might come next. A military policeman, weeping, stroked a young girl’s face, and murmured, ‘I have a child this age, how is she now?’ At an impromptu aid station in the skirts of Hijiyama, Toyofumi Ogura found several women, badly injured, who ‘howled and screamed as if possessed for the children they’d lost’. Nearby was the counterpart to this scene, as children, in agony of pain, cried for their mothers. Futuba Kitayama watched them die, one by one. Amid the horror, Ogura found a friend, Professor Watanabe, feasting on pumpkin roasted by the bomb’s heat. Invited to taste, Ogura found it ‘surprisingly good’. An officer named Matsumura, bloodied at the waist but feeling the tug of duty, made his way to the hillside headquarters of Lieutenant General Yamamoto, his chief of ordnance. Yamamoto glanced at Matsumura, then asked, ‘Is your son [musuko] safe?’ The younger man was briefly confused: he had only daughters, as the general knew. Then, seeing Yamamoto smiling, he realized that it was an incredible joke; the general had glimpsed Matsumura’s bloody trousers and used a word that meant both ‘son’ and, in slang, ‘penis’. Matsumura was able to assure the general that his musuko was intact.28

Others hurried to hospitals, hoping to find medical care. Most found disappointment. Of the city’s forty-five civilian hospitals, only three were sufficiently undamaged to accept and help patients. Both military hospitals were uninhabitable. Over 90 percent of Hiroshima’s doctors and nurses were killed or injured by the bomb; a month after the attack, only thirty doctors were healthy enough to resume their duties. Medicines, supplies, and surgical equipment had been destroyed, patients who had already been in hospitals now needed urgent care from wounds caused by broken glass or fallen plaster, and within days whoever could stand up long enough to help was forced to confront the perplexing phenomenon of seemingly healthy survivors suddenly sickening and dying as if by some evil magic—radiation poisoning, though it took weeks for Hiroshimans to understand what it was. (When Ogura’s wife, Fumiyo, died from radiation on 19 August, the death certificate he obtained for her listed the cause of death as heart failure.) Makeshift aid stations around the city were overwhelmed. The healthy, or relatively healthy, or walking wounded, administered to the injured, swabbing wounds with iodine but leaving them otherwise uncleaned. Workers established a system of triage, as they tried to save those who seemed to have hope of surviving. To the consternation of family members, the most severely injured were left on the ground to die.29

Michihiko Hachiya, the doctor who had been lifted by the blast off his living-room floor, found himself naked and bleeding from wounds in his neck and thigh. He yanked glass splinters out of his flesh, located his wife, Yaeko, who was also hurt (and who tied an apron around her husband’s waist), and headed for his hospital, several hundred yards away. Hachiya’s wounds were too much; he sank to the road, urging Yaeko on. Soon colleagues appeared and hoisted him onto a stretcher, on which they bore him, to the Communications Building adjacent to the hospital, which was already too crowded to admit more patients. They passed him through a window into a janitor’s closet, now an emergency aid station. ‘The rooms and corridors were crowded with people, many of whom I recognized as neighbors,’ Hachiya wrote. ‘To me it seemed that the whole community was there.’ A nurse bathed his wounds in iodine, a treatment he endured through clenched teeth. Then fire broke out in the hospital next door and everyone was evacuated. Drenched with water from a fire hose, providentially working, and dragged into an open area to escape the flames, Hachiya passed out. He came to and looked around. ‘Hiroshima’, he observed, ‘was no longer a city, but a burnt-over prairie.’ The fire spared the hospital’s first floor and Hachiya was now moved there. A colleague closed his forty wounds with sutures and he fell asleep.

When he awoke he saw the apocalypse. Patients were crowded into the ward ‘like the rice in sushi’, the overflow under the stairway and in the front garden. Most were burned, and many of these, Hachiya could see from his bed, were gravely ill. His wife lay in the next bed, her face and body white with ointment. Food and water were as scarce as medicine. ‘Disposing of the dead’, Hachiya observed, ‘was a minor problem’—corpses were trucked off by an army detail to be cremated—‘but to clean the rooms of urine, feces, and vomitus was impossible’, raising fears that disease would spread. Hospital employees who made it in to work over the next several days told harrowing stories of death and grief. Patients, who continued to stagger in, touched Hachiya in their gratitude for a straw pallet on the noisome floor, a spoonful of rice gruel, and a kind word from a nurse. Confined to his bed by his wounds, consumed with guilt while he watched his colleagues attempt to cope with the human tragedy that grew worse each day, Hachiya found himself increasingly desensitized to the misery around him. ‘Parents, half crazy with grief, searched for their children. Husbands looked for their wives and children for their parents. One poor woman, insane with anxiety, walked aimlessly here and there through the hospital calling her child’s name.’ Within two days of the bombing, Hachiya reflected: ‘People were dying so fast that I had begun to accept death as a matter of course and ceased to respect its awfulness.’ (In the Red Cross Hospital, bedridden and half-dead patients identified themselves by writing their names in blood on the walls beside them.)

Hachiya struggled out of bed on the 11 th. He was buoyed by rumors that Japan had retaliated for the bombing of Hiroshima, annihilating, with ‘the same mysterious weapon’, the major cities of California. He joined his medical colleagues on rounds, ministering to the injured as much as their limited resources would allow. He also left the grounds in search of assistance, supplies, and news. Rumors kept flying: Japan had turned the tide, or was on the verge of being invaded. One proved true—the Emperor would address the nation over the radio on the 15th. At the appointed time, Hachiya and others crowded into an office at the Communications Bureau to listen. They heard an unfamiliar and barely audible voice through the crackle and hiss of static; Hachiya caught only the phrase, ‘Bear the unbearable’. At the end of the broadcast the Bureau Chief, who had been closest to the radio, announced that the Emperor had told the nation that the war was lost. Hachiya was stunned. He returned to the hospital. ‘The one word—surrender—had produced a greater shock than that bombing of our city,’ he recorded. ‘The more I thought, the more wretched and miserable I became.’ The discovery that death by radiation awaited thousands who had appeared to be recovering was still ahead of him.30

It was already hot by 8.00 on the morning of 6 August, so Shin Bok Su, a Korean woman who had come to Hiroshima with her husband eight years earlier, helped her family—grandma, and her children, 7, 4, and 13 months—remove the heavy clothes and protective headgear they had worn in their backyard air shelter the previous alarm-filled night. Su’s husband had gone to work. ‘Suddenly, “pika!” a brilliant light and then “don!” a gigantic noise.’ The world turned upside down. Through the darkness she heard grandma calling for help; she found the old woman lying on top of the baby, trapped by two pillars that had held up the house. Using a knife blade supplied by a neighbor, Su managed to get them free. She could not find the other children. Her husband came home, so covered with soot that she failed to recognize him until he spoke. Fire spread to the house as they dug desperately through the rubble, then soldiers arrived and insisted that they leave, finally dragging them away. They returned the next morning to find the house burned to the ground. Su found the corpses of her children when she discovered a line of buttons from her son’s shirt. Her daughter’s charred form was barely visible, curled next to her brother’s.

‘You couldn’t walk the streets without stepping over the dead.’ A week after the bombing, Su and her husband were told they could pick up their children’s remains at their school. When they arrived, they were handed two yellow envelopes. Then opened them and discovered the vertebrae of adults. They consecrated the bones to the river. Meanwhile, in late August, Su’s husband, who had appeared to suffer no more than a scraped knee, suddenly sickened, and his hair began to fall out. They took the baby and hopped on a freight train, laden with demobilized soldiers, and headed for Osaka and more sophisticated treatment. But the next morning he died: ‘His body turned black. Blood seeped from his skin. He smelled awful.’ A friend told Su that the government was prepared to pay death benefits to those who had lost family members in the bombing, so Su went to the Hiroshima city office and filled out the requisite forms. The clerk looked at the family’s surname and rejected the application on the grounds that the dead were Koreans. She protested; her husband and children had died because they were Japanese. ‘Who had suddenly decided we were aliens?’ ‘I don’t know,’ shrugged the clerk. ‘The orders came from above.’31

Kimura Yoshihiro heard and saw the American plane. He was in the third grade and had just arrived at school, though, because the teacher had not yet shown up, he and his friends were chatting. There was bright yellow light, then ‘a big sound’, and Yoshihiro was knocked out. He came to when wood falling on his back stunned him with pain. He found his sister and they hurried home. They discovered rubble, then their father pulling at it frantically. Their mother, he told them dully, was dead, killed instantly when a nail had penetrated her skull. They must leave the city. They sheltered that night under a railway bridge, warming themselves when the rain and wind sprang up by the fires of burning houses. ‘There were almost no ordinary-looking people there. They had swollen faces and black lips.’ Yoshihiro got thirsty and went to the river to drink. There were so many corpses there that he had to keep pushing them aside to find room to dip into the water. The next day they reached a relative’s home in the countryside. Yoshihiro kept crying for his mother. On the 15th his sister died—‘a hard death’, he remembered, ‘for her eyes were open... staring at me’. Eventually Yoshihiro’s father remarried, and the family moved back to Hiroshima. ‘I hate war now from the bottom of my heart,’ Yoshihiro told interviewers six years later. ‘I don’t hate anybody because Mother is dead, but I hate war.’32

A footnote: given the scope of the calamity for the Japanese and Koreans in Hiroshima, it can be nothing more. There were about two dozen American prisoners of war being held at three locations in central Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Most of them were killed by the bomb or by furious Japanese after the bomb had been dropped. Two—a Navy pilot named Norman Roland Brisset, and an Air Force sergeant named Ralph Neal— survived briefly, and were united with a B-29 crew that had earlier been pulled from the water by a Japanese fishing boat and brought to Hiroshima on the 17th. Nearly beheaded by their captors and abused by Japanese still homeless at the East Drill Ground, the Americans were saved by their interpreter, Nobuichi Fukui, from the Dartmouth class of 1928. Fukui put the men on a truck and drove them out of harm’s way, but when they reached the train station he removed the prisoners’ blindfolds and ordered them to look. ‘One bomb!’ he kept repeating. Along the way they stopped to pick up Brisset and Neal. They were in bad shape. They had heard the blast and felt the fire and survived by jumping into a cesspool. That night, they worsened and began screaming in agony. The B-29 crewmen gave them morphine and asked their captors for additional help. ‘Do something?’ asked the Japanese doctor in charge. ‘You tell me what to do. You caused this. I don’t know what to do.’ The two men succumbed at dawn. They knew no more about the atomic bomb than the thousands of others it killed.33

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