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For Those Who Pray for Peace
Under the Assembly Hall
- Sueko Kamatsuka (maiden name, Yamane)
52nd Graduating Class of Hiroshima Jogakuin High School before the war
Residing in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa prefecture
Once again, we are about to welcome August 6th. Even now I cannot forget the day when the red oleanders framed the hot summer sky.
In August of 1945 the war in the Pacific was intensifying by the minute, and the American B-29 planes were bombing our country day in and day out. Most of the larger cities were burned, and hushed rumors of our country's defeat had spread. These were tense days, since most citizens were preparing for defeat but were still expected to fight for the country until the "day of victory."
I was a student 17 years of age at that time. In 1944 the ordinance for Student Mobilization Workforce was passed, and the male students traded in their pens for guns and were sent off to the battlegrounds. Middle school students went to work with high spirits to produce weapons in munitions factories. We were assigned to the Hiro Navy Shipyard in Kure City. I operated a 6-foot lathe that was larger than myself, and I dedicated my time and energy to making parts for warships.
In March they held an unprecedented graduation ceremony. We attended the ceremony in white bandanas and monpe pants. Appropriately enough for wartime, our distinguished guests were military engineers clad in their uniforms, complete with gold lace.
For four months after graduation, we continued to commute to the factory from our dorms and work the same schedule as the military, with no holidays. We used to say our week consisted of "Monday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Friday." It was indeed tough times and we worked diligently.
Unexpectedly, at the end of July, those who proceeded to higher education were allowed to go back to school, a group of us returned to our homes in Hiroshima. It was nice to be back home after about 14 months. Finally I was allowed to go back to Jogakuin College, and I enjoyed life as a student for about a week. There was nothing more precious than the lectures in the morning. I studied hard and during the breaks I spent time talking with my friends. It was such a joy to live the college life, and the campus was lively. Then came the day of destiny.
The Cruel Sight of Hell
It was a clear and hot day. In the morning the temperature soared to 30 degrees Celsius. The students of Jogakuin College were scheduled to join the Student Mobilization Workforce to work at Toyo Kogyo (currently, Mazda) in Mukainada the following day. We were gathered at the Chapel for the morning service and were just about to head back to our homeroom in order to from new groups for mobilization.
Suddenly there was a giant blue-white flash that struck my eyes like a fire pillar. Immediately I was knocked to the floor by a thundering boom. I felt something large crushing my body. I'm not sure how many minutes passed…perhaps it could have been seconds. I must have fainted as I came to, grasping for air. I wiggled frantically and realized that I could move my head, arms and legs. I wasn't in pain but I couldn't see anything. I wondered what had happened, especially because the air raid warning had ended a little while before. In the swirl of confusion I told myself to relax. I strained my eyes to look around and saw a tiny ray of light. The air was dusty, and it was suffocating. I crawled to the ray of light with all my might. I realized that the light was coming from the other side of a crack in a fallen door.
I lifted the door up and escaped. I was safe! Finally I realized that the whole building had collapsed and I was trapped under the Assembly Hall. I saw many of my friends crawling out from under the rubble, injured. They were all pale and in such shock that they couldn't even speak. Some had wounds on their heads; their hair was covered in pasty blood and looked quite awful. Some were calling for their mother. Most of us stood in a stupor, not fully comprehending what had just happened.
The town around us had also been altered completely. Power lines were hanging everywhere and all the buildings were in ruins. The roads were filled with debris. There was barely a clear path to walk along. I realized that it wouldn't be wise to walk barefoot, but most of my classmates had lost their shoes in the blast. I searched hurriedly for the shoe cabinet under the rubble and brought back as many shoes as I could carry. Now that I look back, it is strange to me how oddly calm I was under such severe conditions. Fortunately, I did not have a single injury.
In the past, when I was in the Student Workforce in Kure City, the air raids continued day and night, and every time the warning alarm sounded I would swiftly escape into the bomb shelter. Once, when I didn't make it to the shelter, I had a near escape by hiding under a flight of stairs, as the showering machinegun bullets shot through the walls and windows of the wooden building. I must have had really good luck, for countless times I had successfully walked the tightrope between life and death. Once again this day I escaped without an injury, while my friends with whom I chatted just ten minutes before were dead under the rubble. Fate can be so fickle.
In the confusion, my classmates and I started to head to the nearby Sentei Garden (Shukkeien) which was assigned as a refuge. That is when I heard another friend call out from under the rubble. Startled, I ran closer. Although no one not visible, I could tell from the amount of moaning that there were many people trapped under a collapsed wall. We tried to lift the wall, but with just a few girls' strength it wouldn't budge. We called to our classmates under the wall to encourage them; there was nothing else we could do. Time passed in frustration. We were at a loss as to what to do. That's when our school principal, Mr. Takuo Matsumoto, came by and told us to run away. "It's fortunate that you survived. The fire is approaching so I want you to escape immediately to Mt. Ushita. All right?" He said, almost shouting. We realized that the time had come to say goodbye to our friends. We kept looking back, each time apologizing in our hearts and folding our hands in prayer. I can still, to this day, hear my friends' cries for help.
I ran into a friend who seemed to have broken her thighbone. She was sitting down and could no longer walk. She was much bigger than I was, but I mustered up the strength to hold her up and take her to Sentei Garden. Sentei Garden was nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood in Kami-nagarekawa. Usually it was a 5-minute walk from the school campus at the most, but it took us considerably longer since we had to walk over fallen pillars and power lines. Step by step, we walked through the rubble, taking care not to lose our footing.
I looked around and noticed that there was something strange about the appearance of the people who roamed about. I took a closer look and realized that most of them were nearly naked. Their bodies were swollen red and some were so indistinguishable that it was hard to tell whether they were men or women. Their skin was peeling off, giving off the false impression that there were rags or torn paper hanging from their limbs. I couldn't comprehend why they looked this way. A few days later, I learned that these were the burn victims of the atomic bomb.
The grounds of Sentei Garden were filled with refugees. They were all asking for water. "My burns are hot. Please pour some water on me." I found a broken shingle and headed to the river to find some water, but stopped in my tracks when I wondered if it was the right thing to do. I had heard that if you give water to burn victims, they die. I saw some burn victims running towards the river screaming in madness, "It's painful! Somebody help!" Most ran out of strength before they reached the water, and so there was a mountain of dead bodies on the riverbank.
"Where is the first aid station? Is there a doctor somewhere?" A man yelled in the distance. I felt helpless. The training I had for air raid evacuations was meaningless now. The whole city was destroyed, and it was impossible to organize a relief operation. But at that time, nobody knew of the scale of destruction, and everyone thought that they were the only victims of a bombing.
Hiroshima had the reputation of being a military city. Near our school was an Army Corps of the West 2nd Troop, and two military training grounds were nearby. I saw many soldiers who were among the walking-wounded. The soldiers' heads were burned except for the portion previously protected by their helmets. It was horrific to see their gleaming eyes peeking out of their swollen faces. The wide belt, tall boots, and military "sash" between knee and foot were the only sign that indicated they were soldiers, for the rest of their uniforms had been burned off of their bodies. I saw someone pick and devour a green tomato. It was all that was left in a stranger's back yard. The unripe tomato must have that person's thirst.
Girls cried in search for their family, and burn victims tumbled around in pain. I thought to myself that I was living in hell. Soon the city was engulfed in fire. The swirling flames swallowed everything in sight. It was impossible to step into the city center. Suddenly I became concerned for my parents and sisters and became lonely.
When I got to the riverbank behind Sentei Garden, the sky turned dark and large raindrops started to fall. The shower of rain was black, for some reason, and my white blouse turned gray.
The Kyobashi River behind Sentei Garden was one of the fastest flowing rivers in Hiroshima, churning devilishly at certain times. The tide was high and the water rose to the dykes on either shore. My friend and I dove in without hesitation, not even bothering to walk to the bridge to cross the river. We held onto a piece of a wooden pillar drifting in the water and used it for flotation as we swam. We struggled with all our strength not to get swallowed in the rapids and make it to the other side. We walked to Mt. Ushita, through the burning city. The heat from the flames dried our clothes in about five minutes.
Our school had a large campus ground at Mt. Ushita. I remember how the grounds served as a place for exercise and recreation, land for farming and burning coal. During the war the students and teachers worked in cooperation to produce food. This was a valuable experience. No sooner had I arrived at Mt. Ushita than we heard that the fire was spreading into the mountains from the town below. I didn't want to get trapped in a mountain fire. My friend Ms. M, who had been traveling with me from school, invited me to stay at her home on the outskirts of Hiroshima. I was a little concerned about leaving my family behind, but she convinced me that it was important for us to be safe. Ms. M's family had been taking refuge in Nakafukawa along the Geibi railroad. We heard that the road that led to Hiroshima Station was on fire, so we had to climb over Mt. Ushita to get to her home. I didn't have a watch so I didn't know exactly what time it was, but my guess was it was well into the afternoon by the time we started hiking.
Ms. M and I, along with another friend, Ms. T, started up the mountain on an unfamiliar trail. We walked for a few hours only to realize that we had gotten off the trail completely and were lost. Tree branches had torn our clothes and we were covered in scrapes. Somewhere along the road we had lost our shoes. We hadn't eaten since morning, but we were so concerned about fleeing to safety that we didn't feel hunger. Soon the sun set, and the day grew dark. We quickened our stride, as if to outpace fear and anxiety. We shared words of encouragement.
When we finally saw the dim light of Hesaka Station in the distance, my heart filled with relief. We could hear the train whistle far away. The three of us ran towards the station since we didn't want to miss the train. The train to Miyoshi was packed to the brim with refugees.
We squeezed our way in. Most of the passengers were injured and many lay on the floor. I heard them groaning. The heat in the dimly lit train car was unbearable. Even worse was the nauseating smell from the burnt skin.
We arrived at Nakafukawa Station and Ms. M led us, stumbling in the dark. I believe it was after 7 in the evening by the time we finally made it to her house. Her parents greeted us warmly. Suddenly, all of the stress from the day and a sense of relief hit us and we cried in each other's arms. That was the first night in a year that I slept so well into the morning.
Heaps of burned bodies
Early the next morning Ms. M's father offered to take his bicycle to Hiroshima to check on our homes. He didn't want us to be in danger. We washed our clothes in the stream behind the house. It was a nerve-wrecking day, worrying about the wellbeing of our families. In the evening Ms. M's father brought home some news. He told me that although my house was burned to the ground, all of my family members escaped safely. My chest swelled with joy, but I was unable to express my delight when we were told that Miss T's family was missing. Ms. M and her family kindly let us stay another night. Once I recovered my energy, I was anxious to see my family's faces and I left in a hurry, barely saying a proper thank-you. My heart was already in Hiroshima. I took the train from Nakafukawa to Yaga Station and walked the rest of the way into the city.
When I arrived, I was shocked to see that the whole city was burned down to the ground. I could see the mountains of Koi to the west, from Hiroshima Station, as if they were within arm's reach. There was nothing about the city that looked familiar. As far as the eye could see, everything had turned into a pile of rubble and gray ash. There were also mounds of bones here and there. Perhaps they marked schools or military camps. There were countless black bodies lying everywhere, and the numbers only escalated as I approached Aioi Bridge near the epicenter. Their arms covered their heads and their faces were distorted in anguish. I felt a terrible anger boiling inside of me. I cannot describe the bitterness I felt towards the cruelty that, in a split second, put people into such a state. Hiroshima, nicknamed the City of Water for its seven rivers, had many bridges. Most of these bridges were crumbled or burned down, and I walked a long way to find bridges that would take me across the river. When I passed through Tenma-cho, I found my cousin cleaning up the rubble of his house. My brother-in-law was with him, and for the first time since the bombing I was reunited with my family. I cried, no longer able to contain my emotions.
I finally arrived at the burned remains of my home in Ogochi-machi. There was nothing that resembled the house that I left that morning on August 6. Everything had turned to ash. The only thing to indicate that I was on the grounds of my house was the granite pillar that marked my father's business at the front gate. I stood in a daze.
"Mother, I'm home," I tried yelling. My mother and sister jumped out of the bomb shelter. My mother cried with joy, her face wrinkling with pleasure. "You're safe! I didn't think you would have survived," she said. My father was safe, too. On any given day at that hour in the morning he would have been in the home office and would have been crushed under the building. But as luck would have it, that day he left early in the morning to go to Fukuyama on business. He saw the flash near Hongo Station of the Sanyo Honsen Railroad. After he finished his business, he hurried back but was unable to enter Hiroshima. He spent the night on the outskirts and returned to the field of ruins the next day. Every time he saw a girl's body lying on the ground, he checked to see if it was one of his daughters. He didn't even dream that I would have survived, much less escape unscathed, since my school was only about 1 kilometer away from the epicenter. At home, during the blast, my mother had been cleaning the hallway and was safely wedged in between beams and frames. Neither of my sisters, who were also home, was badly injured. It was miraculous that every family member survived. Many others in Hiroshima envied our good fortune.
My father's company was a subcontractor for the military and dealt with lumber. The lumberyard burned for three days straight, and the basement filled with ashes. The fire had still been burning in a dim glow when I first arrived home.
I lost two of my aunts. One lived near the epicenter and was crushed by her house; the other escaped but the fire caught up with her because she had broken a leg. We never recovered her remains, or found out where she breathed her last. My brother-in-law, who married my sister after the war, was in Kako-machi at the time of the bombing. He nearly died from the countless shards of glass that pierced through his skin. Although he miraculously survived, his health suffered, and he spent the rest of his life going in and out of the hospital. He died at age 46 of cancer. I remember him telling me that years after the bomb, he still had some glass in his body.
Many families were wiped out near the epicenter. In those days families sent the young and elderly in refuge to the countryside. And yet the family members who claimed to be strong enough to remain in the city were dead, leaving the weak behind.
There were many casualties from my school. I was told that the juniors and teachers who were working at the building demolition sites were all killed. A single atomic bomb wiped out the lives of 200,000 to 250,000 people.
Sudden Death from an Unknown Cause
Shortly after, the war ended. Since we were living in a shelter without even a radio we heard the news a day later. We were too busy caring for the injured people who stayed in our shelter to be disappointed about losing the war. Rather, I remember feeling relief that I no longer had to live in fear for my life. The sirens and air raids stopped precisely on August 15. The eerie searchlights in the sky disappeared and nights were calm again. Peace returned to the ruins of Hiroshima.
But everywhere, the people of Japan were battered from hunger and fatigue. People's hearts were degenerated in the chaos after the war. In Hiroshima, many died before their wounds healed. Many seemingly healthy and uninjured people developed a sudden high fever and diarrhea. Their bodies deteriorated, while their gums bled and hair fell out. People died under trees and half-broken buildings, as they called their family's names from their shelters. I was told that those who escaped to the suburbs and evacuated to refugee camps didn't receive proper care for their burns and injuries since there was a severe shortage of bandages and medicine. We cremated some bodies at my father's factory. It was a simple cremation, using pieces of wood scavenged from the ruins with a tin sheet on top. I still remember staring fixedly at the blue-white flames.
People began to return to the city and started building sheds out of tin sheets. They lit candles inside of these makeshift homes and sometimes you would even hear laughter. We were poor, but our spirits were recovering. My brother returned from the battlegrounds and our family spent the next three months in the bomb shelter. We were young and unafraid. When the time came to rebuild our home, the women of the house joined in with hammers and a plane. American soldiers who passed by the construction site would park their jeep and watch the strange sight of women doing hard labor, but I think this was pretty common for the time.
Lest Not Forget the Atomic Bomb
Although some experts predicted that Hiroshima would be barren for 70 years, our city recovered superbly after the war ended. The world was watching the city on which the first atomic bomb was dropped. The citizens who survived united and strived for revitalizing the town.
The following spring brought blue-green sprouts of grass, and even the scorched trees had young branches growing out of their roots. I was delighted to see green in our city again. The appearance of mountains and rivers now resembled the days before the war. The vegetation turned color with the change of seasons and reminded us of the joy of being alive. Perhaps only those who have experienced war really understand the sacred and precious nature of peace.
When I look back at our history of the last half-century and reflect upon the problem of nuclear weapons, I realize the importance of speaking about the tragedy that Hiroshima experienced. There are many who still suffer from the aftereffects of radiation exposure. I live in constant fear of falling ill from the radiation.
My friends who ran to safety with me that day died in their 50s, one by one. I remember how hard we worked through the chilling nights in the Student Workforce; how we labored at the factory production line without wiping the sweat from our brows; and how we escaped death during the bombing. After fighting so hard to stay alive, I can only imagine that they must have died with regret that the happy days of their lives were too short.
On the 25th anniversary of the bombing, I finally had the chance to revisit my school. The grounds in Mt. Ushita had been transformed into a beautiful college campus, and the mountain trails were now paved over, complete with a bus route. The surroundings of the campus were abundant with nature. I stood in the quad and reflected on the passage of time with deep emotion.
Every year on August 6, I become restless. Even though I still live in Hiroshima, this anniversary day fills me with the urge to run away. Now that I have aged, I watch the memorial ceremony on television. I pray to the gong of the Bell of Peace, in memory of all that were sacrificed. I pray that we will all live in peace.
… 77 years old