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For Those Who Pray for Peace
Silent Flash of Light
- Setuko Thurlow (maiden name, Nakamura)
56th Graduating Class of Hiroshima Jogakuin High School before the war,
2nd Graduating Class of University of English
Residing in Ontario, CANADA
On August 6, 1945, I was a 13-year-old eighth-grade student and a member of the Student Mobilization Program. We students were starting our first day of work decoding messages at the Second General Army Headquarters, 1,8 kilometers from the hypocenter. We were on the second floor of a wooden building. At 8:15 a.m., just as Major Yanai was finishing his pep talk urging us to do our best for the Emperor, I saw a bluish-white flash like a magnesium flare outside the window. I remember the sensation of floating in the air. As I regained consciousness in the total darkness and silence, I realized that I was pinned in the ruins of the collapsed building. I knew I was faced with death. Strangely, the feeling I had was not panic, but serenity. Gradually I began to hear my classmates' faint cries for help. "Mother, help me" "God, help me!" Then, suddenly, a man's voice said, "Don't give up! I'm trying to free you! Keep moving! See the light coming through that opening. Crawl toward it and try to get out!" By the time I came out, the ruins were on fire. This meant that most of my classmates were burned alive. A soldier ordered me and a few surviving girls immediately to escape to the nearby hills.
I turned around and saw the outside world. Although it was morning, it looked like twilight, probably because of the dust and dirt sucked up into the mushroom cloud. People at a distance saw the mushroom cloud and heard a thunderous roar. But I did not see the cloud because I was in the middle of it. I did not hear the roar, just the deathly silence broken by the groans of the injured. Streams of people were slowly shuffling from the city centre toward the nearby hills. They were naked or tattered, burned, blackened, and swollen, and some had eyeballs fallen out of their sockets. They were bleeding, ghostly figures like a slow-motion image from an old silent movie. Some held their hands above the level of their hearts to lessen the throbbing pain of their burns. Strips of skin and flesh hung like ribbons from their bones. Often these ghostly figures would collapse in heaps never to rise again. With my few surviving classmates, I joined the procession, carefully stepping over the dead and the dying.
At the foot of the hill was a military training ground about the size of two football fields. Literally every bit of it was covered with the injured and dying, who were desperately begging for water, often in faint whispers. But we had no containers to carry water, there were no medical supplies of any kind, and we did not see any doctor or nurse. We went to a nearby stream to wash the blood and dirt from our bodies.
Then we tore off parts of our clothes, soaked them with water and hurried back to hold them to the mouths of the dying, who desperately sucked the moisture. We kept busy at this task all day. When darkness fell, we sat on the hillside, numbed by the massive scale of death and suffering we had witnessed, watching the entire city burn all night. In the background were the low rhythmic whispers from the swollen lips of the ghostly figures, still begging for water.
In the center of the city were about 8,000 students from grades 7 and 8 who had been mobilized to help clear fire lanes through the city. Out in the open, close to the explosion, nearly all of them were killed instantly, vaporized without a trace, and more died within days. In this way, my age group in the city was almost wiped out. My sister-in-law was a teacher supervising students at this task. Although my father and I searched for days, we never found her body. She left two little children as orphans.
One of my best friends, Ms. Muramoto, was working on the fire lanes. She lived long enough to tell us of the last moments of our classmates, who were drinking muddy water to quench their desperate thirst. Although their eyes were swollen shut or eye-balls had come out, they recognized each other's voice. They gathered together and in whispering voices sang hymns such as "Nearer my God Thee." One by one the students died. The supervising math teacher, Ms. Mutsuko Yonehara, suggested that she might help those who could walk to reach the Red Cross Hospital. Ms. Muramoto put her hand on the teacher's shoulder and felt the skin and flesh come loose. She could see the teacher's white shoulder bone.
All the hospitals were destroyed or severely damaged, and the majority of health care professionals were killed or seriously injured. Injured people who managed to reach a damaged hospital lay on the floor in the scorching heat and in their filth or on the ground outside with hardly any medical attention. As a result maggots covered their bodies.
Those who could be moved and who had friends and relatives to help were taken to other towns and villages for care and cremation. For example, when my uncle finally located his badly injured daughter, fearing another atomic bomb, he loaded her on a cart and walked all night pulling her to safety in a mountain village.
Fortunately my father was out of town that morning and my mother dug herself out of the ruins before they caught fire. However, my sister and her four-year-old son, Eiji, were crossing a bridge at the moment of the explosion and both were terribly burned, blackened, and swollen beyond recognition. My parents could later recognize my sister only by her voice and by a unique hairpin she wore. They lingered for several days without medical care of any kind, until death at last released them from their agony. Soldiers threw In their bodies in a ditch, poured on gasoline, and threw a lighted match. They turned the bodies with bamboo poles, saying, "The stomach is not burned yet", "The head is only half burned." These I was, a 13-year-old girl, standing with my parents, witnessing this most grotesque violation of human dignity with no tears or other appropriate emotional response. A friend of mine later told me of returning to where her home had stood and finding the skeletons of her entire family and not being able to shed any tears. The memories of this kind of behavior troubled me for many years until I learned from the research of U.S. psychiatrist Professor Lifton of Yale University, who said that in such a sudden massive immersion in overwhelming and grotesque suffering and death, the emotional response shut down as a defense mechanism. Lifton coined the terms "psychic closing off " and "psychic numbing." I am personally grateful to Lifton for his insight, which has assisted my own psychological healing.
Besides the terrific blast and the heat which was one million degrees Centigrade at the point or explosion, the unique and mysterious effect of the atomic bomb was radiation, which afflicted many people. For example, my favorite uncle and aunt, who were in the suburbs, had no external injuries. But a couple of weeks later they began feeling sick and developed purple spots on their bodies. We did not know then that the sickness was due to radiation. According to my mother, who cared for them until their deaths, their internal organs seemed to be rotting and dissolving and coming out in a thick black liquid. Later we were told that if purple spots appeared on our bodies, this was a sure sign that we would soon die. Every morning, our routine was anxiously to examine our bodies for the dreaded purple spots.
Thus my beloved city of 360,000, close to ninety percent of whom were women, children and the elderly, suddenly and totally became a scene of devastation, heaps of ashes and rubble, skeletons and blackened corpses. By the end of 1945 approximately 140,000 had perished. However the effects of radiation continue down through the decades, even to the present. The tragic legacy of Hiroshima has been extended not only to the people of Nagasaki three days later, but to American and Australian soldiers, Pacific islanders, North American aboriginal people, down winders and Russians, wherever uranium mining and weapons testing, and actual use have taken place.
After we could adjust to the traumatic defeat and surrender, we began to feel a great sense of relief and liberation from the oppression of our ultra-nationalistic and militaristic society. We felt hopeful for the future of democracy promised by the U.S. Occupation, which also introduced needed reform in education, agriculture, women's political and social rights, labor unions, corporate structures, etc.
In contrast, however, the U.S. Occupation imposed psycho-social-political oppression on Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. For example, within days of Japan's formal surrender they introduced a Press Code in Japan. This meant a rigid censorship of anything critical of the U.S. and particularly anything to do with human suffering caused by the atomic bombs. The Occupation authorities confiscated diaries, poems, photographs, movie film, microscopes, slides, and doctor's records on the treatment of radiation, some 32,000 items in all. Autopsies had to be done in secret and the results passed from hand to hand under threat of prosecution. Because of this politically oppressive and hostile milieu, survivors were deprived of the normal process of grieving following their massive trauma and had to suffer in silence and isolation.
An additional injury to the psyche of the survivors was caused by the American establishment of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its mandate was solely to study the effects of radiation upon human beings but not to offer treatment, even though thousands were suffering from inadequate medical care. The ABCC did not even share its research findings with Japanese doctors, who were trying to deal with the new and unknown medical problem of radiation without adequate knowledge. The survivors' sense of outrage at being treated as guinea pigs in the original atomic bombings and now by the ABCC had to be repressed because of Occupation policies.
With the end of the Occupation and the return of full sovereignty to Japan in 1952, a flood of political, scientific, medical and historical information became available, enabling researchers, scholars, and journalists for the first time to see the experience of the survivors in historical perspective and global context. Gradually they became aware that the main motive for the atomic bombings was political to impress the Soviet Union and to force Japan to surrender before the Soviet Union could enter the war against Japan and claim the territorial rewards promised by the U.S. and Britain at the Yalta Conference. They did not see the atomic bomb was necessary to bring about a Japanese surrender.
Some survivors became able to conceptualize and articulate the meaning of nuclear weapons as a threat to planetary survival. This ability enabled them to transcend their own personal tragedies and empowered them to become committed to the mission of warning the world of the dangers of the nuclear age. At about the same time information became available about Japan's crimes and atrocities in the war so that we no longer saw ourselves solely as victims but also as victimizers of our fellow Asians. We began to pressure the Japanese government to acknowledge Japan's past crimes and atrocities during the war.
As a result of my reading and study, I soon learned that the indiscriminate mass murder of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was contrary to international law but was carefully planned and executed at the highest levels of the American government. The Interim Committee advised the President to use two bombs as soon as possible, without prior warning, and the targets to be industrial or military centers surrounded by workers' houses. Richard Falk, professor of international law at Princeton University, put it this way:
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were viewed as contributions to the ending of a [popular and just] war. Therefore they have never been appraised in the necessary way as atrocities. They have never been understood as they certainly would have been understood had Hiroshima and Nagasaki been located in [an Allied country]. Somehow we have got to create that awareness, so that Hiroshima is understood to have been on the same level of depravity, and in many ways far more dangerous to us as a species and as a civilization than was even Auschwitz.
Through my own experience of that fateful day, its immediate aftermath, the years of Occupation, the post-occupation period and through my own studies I became overwhelmed by the sense of secrecy, enforced silence, manipulation, deceit, misinformation, and half-truths, which I came to believe have been characteristics of the nuclear age from the beginning. I believe the highly centralized decision making of nuclearism-the dependence on nuclear weapons for security-is a serious erosion of the foundation of democracy.
We survivors regard nuclear weapons as the ultimate evil which cannot coexist with humanity, because they have the potential to annihilate our species and civilization. Modern nuclear weapons are a thousand times more powerful than the primitive Hiroshima bomb. Therefore we demand nothing less than the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Anything less than abolition is compromise with evil. Some may say this is naive and utopian. But today even generals and admirals with detailed technical knowledge and experience of these weapon systems are also advocating the total abolition of nuclear weapons.
Let us reflect on the great social revolutions of the past, such as the abolition of slavery, the end of colonialism, the end of apartheid, women's rights and civil rights for all in the United States. These movements began in the minds of a few, were scoffed at, and eventually triumphed. Like these movements the abolition of nuclear weapons is basically a moral issue to ensure the future for our children and all future generations. As a high school student I happened to read a report of the World Council of Churches. I felt electrified to read their definition of peace. "Peace is the process of struggle to provide justice for all."
In the Peace Park in Hiroshima is a cenotaph with the inscription, "Let all the souls here rest in peace; For we shall not repeat the evil." What mistake and whose mistake were purposely left ambiguous. Some wanted to point an accusing finger at America but I was pleased that the citizens' committee put the issue on a higher moral and philosophical plane, signifying the universal need for nothing less than a cultural transformation away from our obsession with violence and war.
On the occasion of his visit to Hiroshima, Pope John Paul "stated that to remember the past is to dedicate oneself to the future. To remember Hiroshima is to dedicate oneself to peace." Please join in the prayer and vow of the survivors of Hiroshima. "Rest in peace; the mistake will NOT be repeated."
…73 years old