The Time Machine: The Survivors of Hiroshima

This week, the Time Machine recounts stories of some of those who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

“Why is it night already?” five-year-old Myeko had asked her mother on August 6, 1945. A few moments earlier, she had been dug out from the debris of a collapsed house by her frantic mother. Hatsuyo Nakamura, the widowed wife of a tailor, had three children, all of whom she pulled out of the debris soon after the explosion. Towards the end of the war, Kyoto and Hiroshima were the only Japanese cities that hadn’t yet been raided by the American B-29 planes. The people of Hiroshima had organised themselves, each neighbourhood was equipped with bomb shelters and alarms. They were expecting to be bombed any day. The alarms went on every morning and night. Some had stopped taking it seriously.

But Nakamura was not one of them. The night before ‘Little Boy’ was dropped, there had been an announcement on the radio advising the people to evacuate to their designated safe areas because nearly 200 B-29s were thought to be approaching. Nakamura had thus dressed her three children and taken to a nearby military shelter, where they waited and slept uneasily. They heard the thunder of planes crossing at about two in the morning. Thinking the danger had passed, she took her children back home but found that there was a fresh warning being issued. It was 2:30 a.m. Her children were tired. She didn’t have the heart to make them trek back to the military base. Rolling out their bedrolls, the weary family went to sleep around three in the morning. Just four hours later, they were woken by a blaring siren. Nakamura rushed to the head of their neighbourhood association to ask him what she should do, and he told her to stay home unless the siren issued an urgent warning, which was a series of intermittent blasts from the siren.

She went back home, put some rice on the stove and sat down to read the paper. When the all-clear was sounded at 8 a.m., she breathed a sigh of relief.

Her husband had died very recently in the war, and ever since then, she had taken his sewing machine and become a seamstress herself to support her children. She heard her children waking up but told them to stay put in their bed rolls.

As the rice was cooking, she was looking at her neighbour hammering and making adjustments to his house. Then there was a flash. “Everything flashed whiter than any white” she had ever seen. She tried to step towards her children but the force of something picked her right up and threw her into the next room. She found herself buried under rubble with timber and tiles everywhere. Her house was situated three-quarters of a mile from the centre of the explosion. Nakamura didn’t hear anything. ‘Little Boy’ was all too silent. She didn’t know what hit them.

Once she had managed to free herself from the debris, she heard her children crying for help, trapped under the fallen building material. She clawed at the rubble till she was able to pull them out.

Then, the family, along with a neighbour, decided to head for Asano Park – a forested area where they thought they might be safe – with rucksacks filled with emergency supplies. As they walked through the streets of Hiroshima, they heard several muffled cries for help.

Most of the buildings had collapsed. Only the Jesuit mission house remained standing, where they saw Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge running about the vegetable garden in bloodied underclothes.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) was the only structure left standing in the area where the first atomic bomb exploded on August 6, 1945. Credit: Bill Green/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Father Kleinsorge was a German, a missionary at the Society of Jesus. The 38-year-old priest lived at the mission with three other priests. They were all foreigners in war-time Japan.

That fateful morning, Father Kleinsorge had woken up at six. It was a Monday morning. He had read mass at the chapel at 6:30 a.m., addressing only a few worshippers. The siren blared and interrupted their prayers. The priests went to a larger building. After a while, Father Kleinsorge stepped out to search the sky for planes. He was satisfied when he saw the regular American weather plane passing. Reassured that nothing untoward was going to happen, he went back inside to eat breakfast with the other priests.

After the all-clear sounded at 8 a.m., they dispersed. Father Kleinsorge retired to his room on the third floor, took off the military uniform he was wearing at the time and went to bed reading a Jesuit periodical. He was about a kilometre from the centre of the explosion. The white flash of the explosion disoriented him and he remembered thinking that a bomb had fallen directly on them. He didn’t remember how he got himself out of the building, but he found himself wandering around the vegetable garden in nothing but his underclothes, bleeding from several small cuts.

The Red Cross’s hospital was also within a kilometre’s radius from the centre of the explosion, and just moments before the hospital splintered from the force of the explosion, Dr. Terafumi Sasaki was attending to a man who was afraid he had syphilis. Sasaki had just drawn blood from the man’s arm and was taking it to the lab to conduct a Wasserman’s test. The blast tore through the building. Sasaki was one step away from a window when he saw the flash and crouched down, and told himself to be brave. His spectacles had flown away, the bottle of blood he was taking to the lab had broken, its contents splattered. But because of where he was positioned, he was mostly unhurt.

Effects of bombing in Hiroshima. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Effects of bombing in Hiroshima. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The hospital, however, was heavily damaged. And the man, who just moments ago was afraid he might have syphilis, was now dead.

Chaos descended as a steady stream of injured survivors made their way to the disintegrating Red Cross Hospital. The sky darkened after the bomb. A large majority of the injured lay screaming for help under that sky, unattended. There were 150 doctors in Hiroshima that day – 65 died in the explosion. Many others were injured and incapacitated. There were 1,780 nurses, of whom only 126 survived. At the Red Cross Hospital, there were six doctors who were able to help. And Sasaki was one among them. Overwhelmed by the confusion, the complete lack of structure and the tide of patients streaming in, he borrowed a pair of spectacles from an injured patient and began working his way through the stream of injured – attending to those nearest to him first.

From among those who survived, there were some who wondered how such devastation could have fallen out of a silent sky. They were puzzled. The explosion was peculiar – soundless, fireless. The fires were caused by things crashing into an inflammable material. Absolutely not typical of the fires that were to be expected of B-29 raids.

By evening, thousands of wounded people lay on the sand bars of Hiroshima’s five rivers as a Japanese naval launch announced that a naval hospital ship was going to arrive to take care of them. By then the people of Hiroshima had begun to realise that something was amiss. Nakamura’s three children were vomiting – a symptom that several others were also displaying. Meanwhile, there was concern that the tide was rising and some of the injured might drown before a doctor could attend to them. The naval hospital ship never came.

A year later, on August 31, 1946, The New Yorker published a historic issue. It carried only one story – the story of Hiroshima. Earlier that year, in May 1946, they had sent John Hersey to Hiroshima, who had collected the stories of Nakamura, Sasaki and Father Kleinsorge and a few others who had survived the first nuclear disaster. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, the Americans struck Nagasaki with ‘Fat Man’. But even a year after that, very little was known in the Western press about the effects of a nuclear bomb. Hersey’s account was personal and detailed the smallest things about the lives of the survivors he had interviewed.

The New Yorker had at first thought that Hersey’s story should be published as a series, but eventually decided against it, and for the first time in the publication’s history, they dedicated the entire issue to Hiroshima. They sold out at once, and several other newspapers wanted to print it as a series. The BBC read it out on the radio too. Albert Einstein too had ordered a thousand copies of that issue, because, for the first time, the true extent of the devastation nuclear bombs were capable of had become apparent in the American public sphere.

Eventually, Penguin, the publishing house, acquired the right to publish Hersey’s story as a book in November 1946 – simply titled Hiroshima.