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For Those Who Pray for Peace
The Four Dimensional Flames
- Hisayo Atago (maiden name, Sakoda)
56th Class of hHiroshima jogakuin High School before the war
Residing in Nagasaki City, Nagasaki prefecture
It has been almost 40 years since I, a genuine Hiroshimaite, moved to Nagasaki. Six decades ago I stood under the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima.
It was 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 when I stood at the back entrance to Icchu Middle School in Zakoba-cho of Hiroshima. It was a mere one kilometer away from the epicenter. Back then the government was dismantling homes in a grid pattern, to prevent the spread of fire in the event of an air raid. As a second-year high school student, I was assigned the job of collecting shingles and lumber from the demolition sites.
Just then, I was standing at the front of the row of students and was talking with my friends about koden (Amonetary offering to the departed soul) . My classmate's brother was killed in the Kure air raids, and we were trying to figure out how much we should contribute as a contribution (koden). There was an explosive sound of an airplane above. "That's strange, I just heard the siren that signals the end of the air raid alert," I thought, and just as I looked up a bright flash lit up everything in sight. The flash looked like lit magnesium. This powerful light had such a force that its weight pressed down on me. I was yelling as I fell down flat, my arms flailing as if I were trying to swim into the ground.
I must have lost consciousness. I'm not sure for how long. When I came to, I saw the bright blue sky. There was not a single cloud. It was a clear, pleasant, beautiful, bright blue sky. I had ducked down to the ground, but somehow I was flipped over and on top of my chest lay a thick concrete wall of the fence. It was unbelievable. I wondered if this was a dream. For a while I simply looked at the sky in bewilderment. It's so beautiful… I've never seen a sky like this before… "Help, God!" "Mother!" I heard from afar. The survivors who couldn't move were crying for help.
My proper grandfather, who didn't drink, smoke, or even sit cross-legged, used to tell me many tales from the past. He raised me, his favorite first grandchild, to love literature. "Dear God, is this reality? Could this really be happening?" cried out the girl who loved literature. I saw a shadow of a person move to the right. It belonged to a man who was wearing tattered clothes and was holding his arms out like a ghost. His face was so bloated that it looked like a crab and I could barely make out his expression. He was the only person in my field of vision.
"Mister, help me! I'm over here, get me out!" I shouted as loud as I could, but there was no response. I realized I wouldn't be able to rely on anyone to help me. I had to get myself out of this mess. When I moved my body, somebody yelped in pain. There was someone else under the fence. Since I couldn't move, I just kept my body stiff, looking up at the sky. I noticed the concrete that was pressing down on my chest was, until a moment ago, a portion of the fence that belonged to the house above the rock barrier. I wondered what on earth had happened. If this was a nightmare, I wished I could wake up soon.
There was a crackling sound. Black smoke soiled the sky. It seemed there was something burning in the direction above my head. I had to escape, even if I caused pain for someone below me. I moved my body gently. This time there was no voice. "Oh, my shoe…" Under the thick concrete, one of my khaki shoes made of cardboard and canvas fell off. But I couldn't be bothered. I scooted my shoulders over, swung my hips, bent my legs and inch by inch, scooted up. It was a miracle that I was able to get out from under the heavy fence.
I wonder how much time had passed. I no longer had any sense of time. When I got out from under the fence, I looked down at my leg. Through a tear in my monpe pants, I saw in the darkness the skin over my left kneecap had split open. It looked like the inside of a pomegranate. "No, I'm not hurt" I said to myself as I stood up. It seems people get their sense of direction from buildings. Now that all of the buildings around me had vanished, I couldn't tell which way led to the station. There was a flow of people walking back and forth over the rubble on the paved road. Stepping on the debris, I headed to the road. I still don't know why I went that way, but in any case, I did. I walked in the brilliant sunshine as I tried to wipe away the worry about my knee. "It's really nothing. I'm not injured," I said over and over, as if I were casting a spell on myself.
I want to go home. But I wonder which way I should go? Then, "Ms. Sakoda," said a voice suddenly. The voice belonged to a girl holding her arms up by her chest, whose facial features were melted off and whose torn clothes were hanging from her body like seaweed. "It's me, Tadaoka. I was working at the luggage room when there was a loud boom and it got dark. Everything disappeared. Take me with you."
I was class leader and my sense of responsibility awakened. "OK, come with me," I said and took her hand. Her tender skin shifted in my hand. "Ouch!" She had been burned terribly.
"Follow me," I said simply. The people walking by weren't bothering with anyone else. They all passed by as if they were on some mission. "Ms. Sakoda, I can't walk anymore."
"No, you've got to walk. Come on, be strong," I grabbed the end of her clothes and pulled. We saw a horse and carriage approach from afar. "I can't walk anymore. I'm going to hop on!"
Getting on the carriage meant that she would be headed back to the way we came from. What difference did it make? We were moving under the operation of a hopeful outlook that if we went somewhere, there will be something waiting for us. We didn't ask for permission to take a ride, and the driver didn't tell anyone to get off. There was a cool-headed sense about the situation, the reality of everyone having to fend for themselves. And at the same time a strange bond between people was formed as the boundaries of ownership blended away. I pushed my friend up onto the back of the carriage. We didn't even say goodbye.
There was a muddy puttees on the ground by my feet. I wondered why anyone would throw it away. I picked it up and tied it around my pomegranate of a knee. "That should do." I started walking again, alone. The road came to a river. Firemen, clad in their uniforms, tight girdles, and iron helmets, were instructing people at the foot of the bridge. "How do I get back to Koi?" Finally I was meeting someone that could give me directions. "You can't get to Koi. It's impossible, the whole city's on fire. You should cross this bridge and flee to Hijiyama." I couldn't quite give up, and so I asked the next fireman. "Which way to Koi?" "There's no way to get there. The whole town's a mess." This young girl, who just last month experienced her first menstruation, couldn't get home. I wandered back and forth in bemusement.
The tide was high and the river flowed in a quiet indigo. I turned around slowly and saw nothing but destroyed homes, some plumes of smoke rising, and a few lonely buildings along the white concrete roads that forked out in two directions. Ahead of me across the bridge was a streetcar line and I could tell that the houses along the riverbank had started to sizzle. This area seemed to be on a transportation route and from time to time, trucks arrived and parked by the foot of the bridge. People passing by would climb onto the trucks under the firemen's instruction and were carried away. I didn't want to get on a truck. It felt like they would be taking me further away from home.
I'm not sure how long I was squatting there. Suddenly, I noticed the opposing riverbank was spitting sparks and burning wildly. I wonder if it was an illusion that I remember seeing bright red flames, even though it was in the middle of the day. I heard burning wood crackle and pop, and the biggest fire I have ever seen unfolded before me. People did not challenge this fire. They just watched it burn. Water from tanks, bucket relays, sandbags, fire dampeners made of coarse rope and bamboo sticks with a sharp diagonal cut… nothing would stop this fire. In the luggage room where Ms. Tadaoka had been working were a heap of air raid hoods and emergency kits that the students of the Mobilization Workforce always carried. The first aid kit contained a triangular cloth for slings, scissors, tweezers, a selection of medicines, and roasted rice and beans in a tea can. That was supposed to be enough to carry us through emergencies, and yet, none of those things were of any use, either. The muddy puttees wrapped around my left knee had become loose and made a coil around my ankle. I tugged and pulled, but it just kept falling.
The citizens of Hiroshima all believed a bomb was dropped directly over them. They all waited for help to arrive. But after waiting and waiting and finally realizing that help was not on its way, they understood that they had to get through this on their own. All of our daily preparation and common sense went out the window. We were all thrown into the crucible of an unprecedented disaster beyond our imagination.
Four kilometers from the epicenter, in the western town of Koi, my mother who was 35 and in the last month of her pregnancy was caught in the bombing along with my three brothers. My father in the Civil Defense Unit was at his post in the city. My mother had just put to bed my almost 2-year-old brother, who had been suffering from colitis for a month. From the window in the bathroom she saw a flash reflect against the roof of the main house. Then there was a large boom. "The house was bombed. A flare bomb was dropped on the house," she thought. The bathroom door wouldn't open. She banged and kicked the door open and ran through the outside hallway. She picked up the youngest one. In the meantime, the shingles, walls, windows, and glass were showering down everywhere. She wondered for a moment why a fire had not started even though they had just been bombed. She pried the backdoor open, stood out in the side alley, and saw that everything had turned into piles of rubble. She had no idea what could have just happened. Then people from the city started arriving in clusters, dragging their tattered clothes, their skin hanging from their faces and hands, their arms held up in front of them like ghosts.
There was a bomb shelter under the house but it was so terrifying that she didn't feel like going underground. It seemed like fire was spreading from the direction of the post office. She grabbed the rice that she had just cooked and that was still in the pot. She also grabbed cans of medicine, the safe, a sewing machine, and anything else valuable she could find and threw it in the large neighborhood fire cistern. Then she escaped to the mountains.
Around that time, black clouds covered the sky and a shower of black rain fell. People started rumors that the Americans were showering them with gasoline and were planning to bomb and burn them all. At sunset my father returned with a chief Buddhist priest, who was working with him in Air Defense. They said they held hands and ducked under flames to get home. Since then, it has become their habit to say how they would have never made it alone. Out of the eleven members who were mustered to the Defense Unit from Kure, they were the only two who survived. Nobody knew what became of the others, and their bodies were never found. The two things weighing on my father's heart were the fact that I was missing and that he lost the metal military helmet in his care. But as soon as he returned, he headed to Koi Grade School to help as a volunteer fireman. He took care of the refugees that gathered in the crowded assembly hall. In a few days, maggots started to grow in the people's wounds and my father picked them out. He moved the dead bodies to the middle of the schoolyard, stacked them up, and cremated them. After his shift, he would go out into the city to find me. Once, when he heard the buzzing of a plane and threw himself into a ditch, someone tried to take the straw hat he was wearing.
"Hey, I'm still alive!" he yelled, and the stranger apologetically gave it back. "Father always goes to help other people in the moment of crisis, and is never of any use to his own family," was one of my mother's pet phrases. As a man of the Meiji era , it was his characteristic to save face.
Relatives from my father's hometown Saeki-gun came to pick up my hungry and lonely mother and her children. After the black rain, the relatives took my 3- and 5-year-old brothers on a bicycle, and my mother took my sick brother in a stroller and headed to the countryside. By the time she arrived at the relative's house, the two brothers, who had arrived there earlier, were crying at the top of their lungs. The relatives were at a loss with what to do. Once my mother settled into the house, my absence started to weigh heavily on her heart. She no longer cared about our renovated home that we just moved into a month earlier or any other material thing. She just wanted her daughter to be alive. She is alive somewhere. There's no way she is dead, she believed firmly. And yet, the image that kept coming to her mind was of her first-born daughter tumbling around on the floor in pain from her burns. Just this morning her daughter had left the home in a hurry, saying she was going to be late. How could she let her leave, just like that? Why didn't she say "Yasuhiro's not feeling well, and you're father is gone. Why don't you stay home"? Why did she let her go to school? They don't even let her study! Regret filled her heart. "Get your nose out of those books and help me with the house work!" she would yell at her daughter. She shouldn't have yelled at her. I wonder what she is doing now. What has become of her? She questioned, as she watched her sons who were romping around, now content that their mother was with them. Desperately, she pushed aside her dark worrisome thoughts and told her self, she's alive, I know my daughter is alive.
The fire across the river roared intensely and I could feel its heat on my cheeks. I supposed it would scorch the heavens and burn until nothing was left. The fire's intensity was so strong that it didn't even seem real. As I watched the flames, I thought about the survivors of the Kure air raids. Those who survived the blasts from the bombs were caught in the fires that started everywhere and were burned alive. They said the only survivors were those who jumped into the river. The river! I shall dive into the river in front of me. When I descended the stone steps to the water, I saw a raft with a few people on it. The water slopped against the stone steps. I figured the water was about as deep as my height. I treaded water and slowly made my way to the raft. Once I reached the raft, I noticed I couldn't control my left leg. Having grown up a tomboy, I couldn't comprehend why something as simple as climbing onto a raft was giving me such difficulty. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get up. It must be because of the wound, I realized. I had been pretending that the wound wasn't there. I glanced at it and saw a gaping diagonal wound of about 15 centimeters above my knee, and on the inside of the flesh were blue blood vessels crossing from left to right. I wondered if the yellow chunk about the size of my thumb was fat. There were two or three pomegranate mouths here and there, looking quite devilish. I didn't see a single drop of blood. The flesh was a soft white like peeled shrimp. It seemed more suitable to describe the wound as some unwelcome creature stuck on my leg.
The puttees fell off in the water. I have no recollection whether I still had one shoe on or if I had bare feet. I decided to bite the bullet and get back on the shore. The raft was already full and people were still trying to climb on. I'll survive, whether I stay in the river or not. My conviction was strong. I wonder where this confidence came from. I walked along the riverbank with the flow of people and headed to the outskirts of the city.
There were people just like me who were walking with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Others had backpacks and bundles of belongings under their arms. People with tattered clothes and some neatly dressed, all gathered together and walked in the same direction, headed for safety. It was silent. "What did you do to your leg?" asked a young woman who was passing me by. "Oh, you poor thing, use this as a bandage." She took out the standard triangular cloth from her first aid kit and wrapped it around my knee. I was grateful. I didn't think to ask for her name. "I'm in a hurry, I've got to go," she said. She was the only person who spoke to me. I wonder if she is still alive.
A water pipe whose faucet was blown off violently squirted water out. Suddenly I was thirsty. I stepped on the debris to reach the pipe and gulped down the water. I took a break and drank, took another breath and drank. I gulped down as much water I could take in and then started to walk again. I remembered the firemen at the bridge saying that the Army Clothing Depot(factory for military unifomus) up ahead was being used as a first aid station. That's where I'll go. But there was no such thing in sight. Then I came to a house partially destroyed. By the entrance I saw a faucet in the area for washing your feet. My young and innocent mind thought I should drink as much water while I could. I wasn't very thirsty but I twisted the faucet and drank. I sat down in the shade of a pine tree. A cool breeze blew… soon I would wake up… and realize… that this was all a dream…
Tired, I lay down, but suddenly I became nauseated and threw up violently. I didn't have enough strength to get up and clean it up. I just turned my head to the other side and lay there. The half-destroyed home seemed to be a dormitory. But there wasn't anyone around to put sand over my vomit. I'm not sure when or how long I fell asleep. I awoke with a chill. The nightmare was reality. I was struck with the urge to go to the bathroom. I picked up my right leg, then I tried to prop up my left leg, but it wouldn't move. It was as if I had a heavy rock tied to it. The weight on my leg kept getting heavier and heavier. The devil was sitting on it. I tried again, to no avail. My left leg had become a boulder covered in moss. The sun was setting, and there was nobody around. The urge to urinate kept getting stronger. My leg wouldn't move. I wonder how long it took me to twist and wiggle into a position where I could finally relieve myself. By the time I was done, I was drenched in sweat.
I suppose this is what they mean when they say "in a fire you muster superhuman strength." Encountered by an unprecedented shock, I swam and then walked several kilometers with my damaged leg, without feeling any pain. But now that I had sat down and taken a rest, my leg would not even move. Inch by inch, I scooted myself away from the puddle of urine and vomit. On any other day, this injury was serious enough for a few adults to rush to my rescue, strap me on a board, and carry me to a hospital. The girl who had nobody to rely on but herself mustered up all her strength to scoot away from her excrements. I pondered over whether to spend the night there or try to make it to a first aid station. It seemed the choice was already made for me. I just can't get anywhere under these conditions. Then I found a stick about the length of my height. It took a long time to push my body over to the stick. I took breaks in between and finally fought myself up. "It doesn't hurt. It's not heavy. This wound really isn't anything," I told myself with each step I walked. Then again, I'm not sure you could call it walking.
It was a painstaking and laborious journey. The large sun was setting on the other side of the vegetable fields. Surrounded in the beautiful dark red world, I advanced about 10 meters every 30 minutes. An old lady carrying medicine walked toward me. She was on her way to gather some water. "Where is the Army Clothing Depot?" I asked. "Oh dear, the Clothing Depot is all the way over there. You must have passed it. They're treating wounds and taking care of people there, you must turn back." How long was the road back to the clothing depot! After all that effort to get to where I was, I had to turn around. I leaned on my walking stick and step by step, continued to sidle along the road.
The Army Clothing Depot was crowded but rather organized. A man in his 40s, clad in white, gave me 11 stitches. There was no anesthesia. I don't remember his face. He wrapped my knee tightly with white bandages and I rested on the floor on a grass mat assigned to me. Once I lay down with a blanket, I was content. I noticed I had burns of about 5 square centimeters on both of my elbows. They stuck a tag on my chest with my name and address on it. Lying down calmly, I looked up at the ceiling and felt overwhelming happiness and gratitude, after my experience of walking through hell. My single-grass-mat colleagues surrounded me. Most of them were writhing from their completely burned body,or with front or back burns. Some couldn't lie down and others couldn't sit. The sides of their bodies that were showered by radiation, had suffered burns, but at the time no one knew how all this had happened. The relief workers cooked rice porridge in a large pot, ladled it into bowls, dropped a single pickled plum in each, and handed them out.
I took the bowl in my hands but could not bring myself to eat it. There was a middle school boy next to me whose eyes were swollen shut and whose mouth was deformed from burns. He was slurping down his porridge. "Kin-chan, right?" I asked. "Yeah, who is it?" He replied. He couldn't see well. "It's me, Sakoda." He was the son of a neighborhood restaurant owner, and I had gone to the same grade school as he. We promised to go home together.
The refugee camp at night was a living hell. I could hear explosions in the darkness. "Help!" "I'm scared!" "Mother!" Terrified shrieks swirled around. Until then, we used to brag about watching air fights and B-29 bomber planes fall and crash, but after August 6, we would get shaken up just from the sirens of the air raid alerts. Hearing explosions frightened the life right out of us. The darkness added to the fear. The absence of sounds of explosions didn't necessarily put anyone at ease, either.
Then the babbling would begin. "Oh, look, bubbles! One bubble, two bubbles, three, four…" the counting went on and on. Sometimes a bubble would burst. "It disappeared! It's gone. Bubbles… oh, look, bubbles! One, two…" Sometimes the bubbles kept coming, up to seven or eight hundred, and at other times, they would burst after ten. Then, competing with the bubbles, "Hari Mao, it's Hari Mao! You've come to save us. Great! Hari Mao of Malai… Hey, everyone, it's Hari Mao!" a shriek of joy praising the hero, would echo in the room. Adding to the mix were groans protesting the pain, crying, and a whiff of bad smell. The voices of the darkness knew no end.
Daylight was welcome! Having suffered minimal burns, getting my wound treated, and being of a sane mind, my biggest concern now was how to go to the bathroom. I would leave my grass mat, crawl on the floor, go down the stone steps to a quiet place hidden from others' view. I still didn't feel like eating the porridge being served at the front steps. I kept drinking and filling up on water. The hard-and-fast rule seemed to be "don't give the patients water," especially the patients with burns, since it was thought to give water to burn victims would cause death. The patients begged for water, panting and gasping here and there, but nobody would bring them any. When the voice asking for water stopped, that was when they were dead. For me, the only thing that would get past my throat was water. Every time I went to the bathroom, in desperation, I would secretly fill up on water. I figured if I died from it, I would be better off. (This was actually what contributed to my detoxification. It was also good that I vomited. My body was able to keep a reserve of strength because I couldn't walk. I realized later, that for me, all signs pointed to LIFE.)
By my grass mat, which had become my whole world, an old woman came into view. A bandage was wrapped around her head, covering her right eye, which was swollen shut from being hit. It was Ms. Ono, my sewing teacher from grade school. She used to wear hakama and swing around her ruler when she got mad at us. "Oh, you too are alive. That's good, it's really good we're alive," she took my hand as tears streamed down her one eye. She told me that Ms. Tai, who was from the same class, was here with full-body burns. Ms. Ono sent her brother, who was visiting from Kure, to all of our parents to give them the news of our survival. (I heard later that Ms. Tai died before her parents could come, and Kin-chan died shortly after arriving home.)
I endured three dreadful nights. Around noon on the 9th, my uncle and cousin arrived with a cart from the countryside to pick me up. They brought canned tangerines, which was a precious commodity at the time. Today I don't even like canned tangerines but that day it was the most delicious and superb food on earth. I ate without even taking a breath. "What are you going to do with the can? I need a can," said a man nearby. I noticed everyone around me was watching me eat. It was obvious they didn't really want the can, but the content still left inside. I took a large breath and offered it up.
My uncle, who was fully expecting to pick up my dead body, stepped on the pedals like a shogun returning in triumph. The burned city was still sizzling. I saw a body that had been crushed by a telephone pole, but left the body uncovered after the pole burned away. Floating in the river, there were bodies bloated to three times their normal size. Hell had stuck around with its gaping mouth here and there.
It took three hours by bicycle to get to my father's hometown on the edge of Saeki-gun. It was a place filled with fond memories of my childhood summer breaks. I used to chase my father on my children's bike to go visit our ancestors' grave, and later caught tadpoles in the stream.
There was a hubbub of people coming out of my uncle's house. I saw a tangerine box with one side torn open with two small feet sticking out. The child was wearing a familiar looking yukata . I had stumbled upon my 2-year-old brother's funeral. "Mrs. Sakoda, Mrs. Sakoda! She's alive. She's fine and has come back!" someone called.
My mother came out in disarray, unable to hide her emotional confusion. Her legs would not move, and she just stood there. The stuff welled up in her eyes and distorted her vision.
"She was alive…she IS alive!" I was one of less-than ten survivors out of the two hundred and something students at Zakoba-cho. And this was the starting point of an even more turbulent era in my life.
… 73 years old