When 60 years ago the United States became the first (and since then the only) country to use atomic weapons by dropping them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Those at the hypercenter, or ground zero, were the “lucky” ones — they were instantly vaporized. Others died, but not instantly, living their last moments in pain and misery. Their flesh melting off, many perished while looking for water to ease their suffering.
There is no official count of how many people were killed directly by the blasts, except to say that it was in the hundreds of thousands. Over the years, tens of thousands more died due to the effects of radiation exposure.
Another group, today called “hibakusha” (Japanese for “those who suffered an explosion”), survived the bombing, but were never the same again.
Taniguchi Sumiteru, now in his mid-70s, is a hibakusha. He is also a leader of a survivors’ organization in Nagasaki. During a session this month at the United Nations sponsored by the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, he spoke of his own experience and his desire for peace. His testimony is reprinted below.
– Dan Margolis
In 1945 I was 16 years old. On the morning of Aug. 9 that year, I was riding my bicycle 1.8 km north of what was to become the hypercenter of the explosion of the atomic bomb. When it struck, I was burned on my back with the heat ray of the fireball, as high as 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Celsius at its center, melting rocks and iron, and also with the invisible radiation. The next moment I was blown off together with the bike about 4 meters and smashed to the ground by the blast. The blast had a velocity of 250 to 300 meters per second. It knocked down buildings and warped steel frames.
The earth was shaking so hard that I lay down on the ground and held on so as not to be blown off again. When I looked up, the buildings around me had been smashed. Children who were playing near me had been blown down like they were mere dust. I took it that a big bomb had been dropped nearby and I was struck by the fear of death. But I kept telling myself that I must not die.
When the commotion seemed to be over, I rose up and found my entire left arm had been burnt and that the skin was hanging from it like a tattered rag. I reached for my back and found that it too had been burnt. It was slimy and covered with something black.
My bike was bent and twisted out of shape, the body, the wheel and all, as if it were spaghetti. Houses nearby were all crushed and fires were breaking out from the houses and on the mountain. Those children who had been away were all dead: some were burnt to a crisp, others looked uninjured.
There was a woman whose hearing was all gone and face swollen to the degree she could not open her eyes. She was injured from head to toe, and groaning in pain. I still recall the scene as if I saw it only yesterday. I could not do anything for those who were suffering and desperately calling for help. I deeply regret that, even today.
Many hibukusha were burnt to a crisp and died while seeking water.
A living hell
I walked like a sleepwalker and reached a factory nearby. I sat down and asked a woman to get rid of the burnt skin dangling from my arms. She tore a piece of cloth out of what was left of my shirt, put machine oil to it and wiped my arms. I guess that factory workers thought it was their factory that was the target of the attack — they urged me to flee somewhere else before another possible strike.
I tried with all my strength but I couldn’t even get up nor walk. A man carried me on his back up to the mountain and laid me down on the thicket. People there were saying their name and the home address in the hope that it would be conveyed to their family members by survivors. They died one after another while asking for water.
When the night came, the U.S. aircraft strafed the survivors on the ground. They could see humans moving by the light of the fires across the city. Some stray bullets hit the rock next to me and fell on the grass. The U.S. forces were unrelenting. They still wanted to attack the people who were already suffering what I can only describe as hell.
At night there was a drizzling rain. I sucked the water dripping from the leaves and spent the night. When the morning came, it seemed that all who were there were dead. I spent another night there and in the morning of the third day I was rescued and taken to the neighboring city 27 km from Nagasaki. By that time, the city’s hospitals were all full with victims, so that I was taken to an elementary school, which had been turned into a makeshift facility to accommodate the victims.
Slow, agonizing recovery
Three days later — six days from the bombing — my wounds started to bleed, and with the bleeding I gradually started to feel the pain. For more than a month I could receive no proper medical treatment. All they could do was burn newspapers, blend their ash with oil and apply it to my wounds.
By September the Nagasaki University hospital staff had managed to restart medical practice at an elementary school in Nagasaki City, though the school building had no windows due to the bomb blast. I was sent there and for the first time I received what can be called modern medical treatment.
First, doctors tried to give me a blood transfusion. But the blood wouldn’t go into my blood vessels, probably because my internal organs were damaged by radiation. I suffered serious anemia and the burnt flesh started to rot. The rotten flesh would drain out of my body and pool underneath. Nurses placed rugs underneath my body to collect the filthy discharges and threw them out a number of times a day.
Generally those hibakusha who suffered burns or injuries were infested with maggots. The tiny worms got into their bodies from the wounds and ate their flesh. But for me this did not happen until one year later.
I could not stir an inch, not to mention sit or lay on the side. I helplessly lay on my belly and was crying out for a merciful death in the excruciating agony. No one believed that I would survive another day. Every morning, I would hear doctors and nurses whisper at the bedside, “He’s still alive.”
Later I learned that my family was all prepared for my funeral. I lingered on the verge of death but failed to die. I was somehow made to live. Because I could not move an inch, my chest suffered severe bedsores even to the bones. As a result my chest looks like the flesh was scooped out of it and even today you can see my heart beating between the ribs.
Wounds that do not heal
It took one year and nine months before I was finally able to move and after three years and seven months I left the hospital, though I was not completely cured. I went in and out of the hospital many times until 1960.
Around 1982 tumors started to appear on the keloid scars on my back and they had to be taken out. After that a rock-hard tumor formed on my chest, the cause of which doctors are unable find a medical explanation. It reappears every time it is taken out. Now it is believed that since the skin and flesh were burnt, the subcutaneous cells and fat that are essential for human survival have been destroyed and this causes a rock-like tumor to form.
Half a century has passed since “peace” was restored. As I look at the aspects of our society today, we are in the process of forgetting the painful past. But I fear oblivion. I fear that forgotten memories are leading to a renewed affirmation of the atomic bombs.
There is a colored film on the atomic bombings that contains footage of myself as one of the numerous hibakusha. When I see it I relive the pain and the hatred for war.
I am not a guinea pig nor am I on exhibition. But those of you who happen to be here to see me, please don’t turn your eyes away from me. Please look at me again. I survived miraculously but you can still see the accursed scar of the atomic bombs all over the bodies of the hibakusha.
I want to believe in the strength and warmth in your eyes. Nuclear weapons and humans cannot coexist! No one should be made to suffer the pain we have gone through. I sincerely hope for all of humanity to live a rich and peaceful life. To that end I call on you to join our best efforts to build a world without nuclear weapons. If humans wish to live as they should and deserve to, the only way is to abolish nuclear weapons once and for all.
I cannot die in peace before I make sure that there is no such weapon left on earth.
Let there be no more Nagasakis. Let there be no more hibakusha. Let us spread the cry for a world free of nuclear weapons.