Memoirs of Hiroshima

By Shigemichi Shirai

In the year of Japan's defeat in the Pacific War, I was boarding in Kyoto as a student. The departments of liberal arts had been closed by then, and I, a philosophy major, was working at the Mitsubishi Aircraft Plant located in Uzumasa in the northwestern part of the city. At the beginning of August, I was able to take some days off. Because frequent air attacks interrupted the slow train I took, I got home in Hirano-machi, Hiroshima, on the morning of the fifth of that month. I accompanied a friend who was on his way home to Kyushu.

On that afternoon, the two of us walked around the center of Hiroshima. Most of Japan's major cities had been hit by air raids by that time. It was puzzling to me that only Hiroshima, then an important military center, had escaped damage. I saw a large standing signboard carrying a report on the many Okinawans who had chosen death by refusing to surrender. I didn't know why, but there were very few citizens in town. I remember the streets were crowded with soldiers on short leave.

In the evening, according to my vague memory, we received a circular from the neighborhood mobilization unit. I remember it was about the leaflets dropped by the American forces that recommended evacuation before the large air raid they planned for the next day. I paid little attention to the warning, and went to sleep under a flax mosquito net with my friend. In the middle of the night, the air-raid alarm started as expected, reverberating throughout the city. After a while, I heard the roar of a large formation, but as I was very tired, I just remained under the mosquito net. Nothing happened; the war planes flew away in the direction of the Japan Sea.

Early in the morning, I saw my friend off at a nearby streetcar stop. Back home, I fell asleep again under the mosquito net. While dozing off I was aware of the sound of the preliminary air-raid alarm and the close whir of a plane. Then, all of a sudden, there was a great explosion. The pillars tilted, the roof tiles fell. Through an opening in the collapsed roof, I saw the blue of the summer morning sky. I thought some enormous bomb had been dropped at close distance. There was a short silence. Then I heard agonizing cries, like from hell. I noticed I myself was smeared with blood all over because of the splintered glass. Blood was pouring out of a cut in my right wrist. Using my left hand and mouth, I tore off a piece from the mosquito net and applied it to the cut to stop the bleeding. I felt no pain. But then, at an instant, I had an inexplicable horror of death. That was the moment I directly experienced the brutality of war and the fragility of human beings in the face of the physical forces employed.

Southwest of my house was Senda Elementary School. Most of the pupils had presumably moved to the countryside for safety; an army shipping group occupied the entire school building. I struggled along barefoot to the school gate, where I immediately was confronted with the terrible sight of the devastated unit. In one corner of the ground, a troop of soldiers had fallen as they stood in formation -- some face down, others on their knees, all writhing in agony. They were stripped down to the waist; they had probably been exposed directly to the flash during their morning exercises. I remember that a man who appeared to be a superior officer staggered to his feet and scolded the soldiers: "You should be ashamed -- men of the Imperial Army falling like that!"

People living in the neighborhood rushed on to take shelter in the school. It was a miserable sight. Many of them wore burned and worn summer clothes, or more precisely, rags -- bare feet dragging, skin burned and peeled off. They were crying in the pain of their burns and injuries, and screaming out meaningless words, crazed at the shock of the flash.

With these victims I went to a field of sweet potatoes that was being raised on the entire playground [because of food shortages], until I reached the center. There, I collapsed on the ground, feeling as if my strength had finally failed me. I was bleeding profusely.

Up above, there was a strange expanse of black clouds. It was such a vast stretch that it almost completely covered downtown Hiroshima. It was not so low as to shade the low-angled rays of the morning sun; thus, it was not exactly like an eclipse. Yet the dusky color and unfathomable depth of the cloud mass completely blocked the light from above. Everywhere in the dark mass, in varying colors, clouds attracted and spawned more clouds like a storm, creating layers of horrible, rugged serpentine forms. Surrounding the mass were white clouds with a touch of brightness, and farther out the usual, deep blue summer sky.

What in the world was that black cloud mass with such ominous, destructive energy? What had exploded and where? Why had I heard the sound of an explosion only once, and nothing after that? In the midst of the crisis, suspicions were gathering rapidly in my mind. I couldn't have possibly known that it was an atomic bomb. I could only imagine that a bomb had been dropped to the huge gas station located at the war plant in the city. I thought the soot emissions had gathered up in the sky.

Many houses near the elementary school suddenly burst into flames. The fire spread to the school building, and, fanning strong summer winds, spread to the trees in the yard. Soon hot smoke began to gather nearby. People (I suppose there were nearly a hundred of them) struggled with each other to move to the south end of the schoolyard for safety. Some carried their belongings on their backs, others ran with loaded carts. A few shouted to me as they passed by: "Get away, young man, or you'll be burned to death."

I tried to stand up a few times, but each time I felt dizzy and fell. As I saw the blood flowing out of my body spread and leave a dark stain on the ground, I became totally despondent. Far beyond the black cloud mass the bright sky, contrasting the ridges of the Chugoku mountains, reminded me of the deep blue autumn skies of Seoul, where I spent my childhood. The face of my mother, who had died there, appeared clearly before me. I was twenty-two years old, and that number also appeared and disappeared in the sky, growing then shrinking in size. Once a friend had told me that in one's last moments, one saw everything that had happened in one's life. Now I knew it was true. All my family, all my friends, all the events and and scenes -- everything I saw in a moment, as if I were seeing a film played backwards at high speed. (The philosopher Kierkegaard would have called it the instant, the atom of eternity breaking into time. The Japanese Zen monk Ryokan would have sung with even greater intimacy: "Looking back, it has been only a matter of fifty-some years / The rights and wrongs of a human being just pass in a dream.")

I seemed to be in a deep coma. In it I heard the voice of strangers and sensed the scorching heat of flames. When I recovered consciousness, I was doubtful of the brightness of the world in which I found myself. I was not really awake -- not until I saw a train of trucks filled with bomb victims pass by. I said to myself, "This is the war we are fighting. I have escaped from death." Now I remembered that some time before I saw rows of military stretchers loaded with soldiers being carried hastily across the school ground. So the rescue workers had picked me up on one of the stretchers in passing. I found myself left by the side of Miyuki Bridge, which ran across the Kyobashi River located to the south of the elementary school.

I stood up and waved down one of the trucks. As I was lifted and stood on the loading bed, I felt hopeful like an adventurer -- not a military man -- who blazed a trail in untrodden wilderness. The truck passed by Koryo Middle School, famous for its baseball team, before it arrived at Ujina Port. I saw a long row of Red Cross tents along the wharf, crowded with wounded people. The truck passengers were guided into the hull of a wooden ship, which I thought had a displacement of around 50 tons. It was the early afternoon of August 6.

It was very dark in the hull of the ship. Some thirty of us A-bomb victims were bundled together on the ship's planks. Everyone was injured by the explosion and its intense light, or by the falling houses and fire, and yet they were still left untreated. A group of injured refugees, in ominous silence.

The ship began to move. After a while, two medical corpsmen appeared with flashlights. They cast the light on one face after another, and took our pulses -- to see whether we were alive. If we were, they asked our name, age and address, wrote this down on a cargo tag, and attached it to the body -- in my case, to the belt of my trousers. Probably they did so in order to facilitate identification when the victim died.

There was no distress or sorrow. No anxiety or despair. All there was to it was the fact that the explosion had burst through our everyday world and thrown us down to the bottom of hell. I didn't know why, but there was a slight element of ludicrousness in the realization of that fact. I noticed this when I thought I had finally failed in being a human and become "cargo." In fact, war was really a process of handling human beings as things and bringing them, with proper tags, to death, or rather, to decomposition.

The ship came to a halt. I learned only later that we then arrived at Ninoshima Island. We expected we would be landing soon, but actually we had to wait until late at night. I imagine the island had been designated as a shelter in preparation for an air raid on Hiroshima. The unexpected amount of incoming cargo might have caused a long delay in the unloading work.

The darkness in the ship's hull deepened even further. Meanwhile, the air-raid alarm sounded a few times. The sound of the alarm always made all the women and children scream. Perhaps it reminded them of the terrifying flash.

A middle school student happened to be lying by my side. Since we were both student, I felt a common bond, so I spoke to him. He said he went to the middle school affiliated to Hiroshima Higher Normal School. He was burned on the face and both arms. The burns had now discolored and swollen, a pitiful sight. I thought the student had lost his sight completely; he constantly moaned in a low voice, "This is hell, this is hell." I could do nothing whatsoever but console and encourage him in his suffering.

In the midst of this hell, there occurred a typical tragicomedy: a policeman lost his senses. Wearing his long saber -- the soul of a police officer -- he trampled the wounded with his leather shoes, while roaring and rushing about furiously. A storm of boos and screams arose everywhere in the hold, turning the hell into a fighting scene. A policeman really ought to maintain order and safeguard the weak! Unable to remain indifferent, quite unawares I stood up and scolded the poor, crazy man: "Cut it out, y'damn fool!"

I disliked those people who gave themselves airs under the shelter of state power during the war. I certainly saw the police officer as one of those people. In retrospect, however, he was not a policeman but a human being. Hell is the place where naked human beings, stripped of all power and airs, are packed together, pushing and tormenting one another violently. He must have looked deeper into the abyss than I did. By putting him down, I performed with him in the tragicomedy. I think I was too proud and puffed up to penetrate the reality of hell.

Finally, we landed. Against the background of the summer night sky, a naked bulb was casting a dreary light on the wooden pier. A long row of victims climbed out in silence, all in their clothes they happened to wear at the time of the explosion.

Ninoshima Island, which served as part of the military center Hiroshima, had a quarantine station from the days of the Sino-Japanese War [of 1894-95]. We spent almost a week in one of the buildings. Rush mats were spread on both sides of the passage between the two doors, and each of some forty bomb victims was provided with a blanket. Once a day, an army doctor went around with some of his men, but all they did was to replace bandages and apply antiseptic. I remember that while I was in the building, I read articles about the new type of bomb dropped to Hiroshima and the Soviet Union's advancement into Manchuria. So I assume that at least newspapers were being circulated.

The middle school student I had met in the hull of the ship lay beside me again. In a few days he no longer said anything, nor ate anything. The burns on his face and arms began to break and got infested with wriggling maggots. It seemed that he did not even have the strength to keep the flies away. Most of the victims in the building were suffering from burns, and all of them were in the same wretched condition.

One day an officer dressed in a dark blue navy uniform visited our building. He looked dazzlingly smart to me, as I was barefoot and looked just like a beggar. That was the poor student's father. He said he would put his son in a military hospital, and carried him away in his arms even before I could say good-bye to my friend.

On the other side of the passage in front of me was a stocky middle-aged man stripped down to the waist, who I assumed was a drafted laborer from the Korean Peninsula. He had completely lost his mind. He took no meals. From morning till night, he just repeated the same motion: leaning on the pillar beside him, trying to stand up, only to slip down, and giving it another try. He did this tirelessly, over and over again. If we regard the start of man as walking upright, the repetition of the instinctive motion might have involved a dark, primitive drive toward humanity, groping for the faint light of consciousness. One day, however, his motion suddenly stopped. In front of me, he slipped from the pillar, crashed heavily against the floor, and slowly lay down on his back. He never rose again. After a while, a medical corpsman came along, covered the corpse nonchalantly with a straw mat, and walked away. The body had been left there for a full day before it was carried out on a stretcher.

Every evening, the beach wind blowing in through the doors brought the smell of corpses being burned. When such unusual events began to turn into a matter of course, I noticed that the number of the victims in the building had dropped to a half since -- I didn't know when.

The Asahi News of July 29, 1995 reported:

Fifty years ago, on the sixth of August, when the atomic bomb exploded above Hiroshima, more than 10,000 victims were carried by ship into the quarantine station on Ninoshima to be treated with the medicine stored there. It is said that the medicine ran out soon, leading to several thousands of deaths. It took many days to burn the corpses using oil and incinerators. Many of the remains then buried in air-raid shelters and other places have yet to be excavated.

We cannot blame anybody for the uncertainty of this article, for it concerns the period of great confusion just after the bombing. The estimated numbers of injuries and fatalities caused by the atomic bomb include much speculation. I would think that the medicine really ran out, but even if it had been otherwise, it is questionable how effective the medicine would have been for preventing the many deaths caused by the tragic bombing. However, my direct experience during the days I spent in the building on Ninoshima, combined with the occasional remarks from former corpsmen, nurses and victims, testifies to the fact that the later half of the article is entirely true. The people who were quantified as such an extremely vague, I would say even rude, estimate of "several thousand," those who were carried to the island as cargo and who were not even tagged, are still under the ground of Ninoshima. Even now it wrings my heart that as one of the more than 10,000 people, I could not share the fate of those several thousand.

Suddenly, we were ordered to move out to make room for wounded servicemen. Taking this as granted, we got out of the building, went down the wooden pier, and got on board a freight vessel again. By the time I was on the upper deck, it was already bright. The waves on the Seto Inland Sea glittered in the rising sun, and on the other shore, the green leaves on the mainland mountains looked beautiful. It was a brief moment of liberation from the house of death. Nature was such a great consolation.

The ship reached a pier close to Miyajimaguchi. From there we were carried by truck to a village called Ishiyama, where we were taken to the main hall of a temple. There were about fifty bomb victims.

Early that afternoon, we stood in a line on the edge of the main hall for treatment by the village doctor. When the army-supplied pure white bandage was replaced by a colored cloth that looked something like a diaper, I was keenly aware of the discrimination between the military and civil sectors.

In the evening, each of us received a rice ball. At that moment, a man -- I didn't know whether he was the chief priest of the temple or head of the village -- stood up and said to the victims packed in the main hall: "Ladies and gentlemen, the villagers have raised this rice by the sweat of their brow. Please take it with gratitude." This preaching made me mad beyond words. I could understand why he said it. But that aside, how did he feel about the sufferings of those people? They had been hurt both physically and mentally; they had wandered on the brink of death; they had been driven away by the army. The temple was the last shelter they had found. His remark made me decide that I would rather separate from the group of victims than be treated as a beggar under the care of the temple.

I visited the village office the following morning. I received a war victim's certificate, five yen, a pair of straw sandals and a stick. Then I took a mountain road to Hiroshima. After walking in the hills for some time, I came upon a small rice paddy and a shabby farmhouse that almost looked like a shack. In front of the house, an old woman stood still in white cheogori, a traditional Korean dress. Perhaps my miserable appearance and injuries let her know that I was hibakusha, an A-bomb victim; she hurried into the house, came out right away with a large straw hat in her hands, and handed it to me without saying a word. I offered her cordial thanks and walked away.

Her farming family had probably come from the Korean Peninsula during Japan's colonial rule, perhaps by Japanese command, or due to living difficulties. Under the cruel oppression and discrimination against Koreans, the old woman still could be so selfless as to silently offer a hat to the poor Japanese student that I was. What a difference from the stupid sermon at the temple! She practiced compassion in the original sense of the term: suffering together. I believe that was exactly the starting point of humanity that goes "beyond the differences of race, nation, or class" [as the Vow of Humankind says]. Year after year, I cherish even more the memory of the old Korean woman, who could not possibly be alive now.

I finally reached Koi Station, in the western part of Hiroshima City, early in the afternoon. As far as I could see to the south and east from there, downtown Hiroshima had been destroyed and fallen into rubble.

A half century has passed since those days. Today the world is dominated by the overwhelming power of technology and the conflict between egoistic national systems. In essense, it is not a bit different from what it was at the time of the atomic bombing.

It is extremely difficult for me to talk about Hiroshima. No amount of words could exhaust it. It is something about which I really should remain silent. I believed that it is most appropriate to offer prayers in mourning the dead. I have never returned to Hiroshima since the the atomic bombing; I just could not relive those hellish scenes. But without realizing it, I have come to the twilight of my life. I decided to write this article at the earnest request of another A-bomb victim now iving in Nishimomiya, located east to Kobe, to hand down my experience to future generations. (August 25, 1995)

Translated by TAKAHASHI Nobumichi in collaboration with TOKIWA Gishin and Jeff SHORE

June 2, 1996