The first atomic bomb that the townspeople remember on his birthday
HIROSHIMA – The cloudy and drizzle day seemed so appropriate. This was our most anticipated stop on an 11-day Sea of Japan cruise before the pandemic. And it turned out to be a very sober and unforgettable experience.
We were here, about 100 meters from the zero point where the first atomic bomb fell on August 6, 1945, immediately killing 78,100 people and ultimately killing several thousand.
Our Japanese tour guide acknowledged in a neutral tone, “It shortened the war.”
A gutted riverside building with a skeletal dome, once an industrial showroom, is maintained as a visual reminder of the devastation caused by nuclear weapons that razed almost every building within a mile radius . Across a river in the center of town is Peace Memorial Park, a grassy area laid out as a memorial and advocacy for peace and the eradication of nuclear weapons.
Townspeople and visitors normally fill the park on the anniversary of the bombing to commemorate that horrific day 76 years ago by floating lanterns through the labyrinth of interlocking rivers with prayers and messages, urging to peace and more Hiroshimas. Due to the COVID pandemic, the event has been reduced this year, as in 2020.
Monuments and a memorial museum in the park carefully document the events of that day and their aftermath. As groups of tourists, mostly Japanese students and in uniform, drifted from monument to monument, there were no smiles.
You couldn’t help but feel a tinge of grief and wonder what thoughts had crossed their minds upon seeing Americans in the midst of these tragic reminders. If there were any negative feelings, they weren’t apparent.
One of the most heartbreaking sights is reflected in a statue of a little girl on a high platform shaped like a bomb. His outstretched arms hold the wings of a simulated metal bird. The bird is a crane, the Japanese symbol of happiness and longevity.
The statue represents the true story of Sadako Sasaki, who was 2 years old when the bomb hit him in Hiroshima. After being diagnosed with leukemia 10 years later and hearing the legend that anyone who folds 1,000 cranes would get a wish, Sadako began folding cranes in the hope that she would recover.
She managed to fold 1,300 before dying at the age of 12.
She was among the 122,000 other people who died of radiation-induced cancer and other illnesses in the days, weeks, months and years following the bombardment.
Children all over Japan know the story of Sadako, and every day hundreds of colorful origami of crane wings are placed on a railing near the statue by schoolchildren and other visitors.
The names of all those believed to have perished as a result of a bomb exposure are listed and commemorated by an inverted U-shaped, flowery structure and pond. The ashes of some 70,000 unidentified victims are buried in a nearby mound.
West of the monuments in adjacent two-story buildings, the Peace Memorial Museum shows the impact of the atomic bomb in exhibits, videos, and printed and recorded explanations in English and Japanese.
In a recorded interview, Kosuke Shishido, a former business consultant who was a colonel stationed at army headquarters in Hiroshima, said he felt a huge explosion.
“I saw a lot of people coming out of the city center,” he says. “They were crying for help, their skin was melted and hung around their arms. … I can’t describe what I really saw because it was hell on earth. … we couldn’t help.
“I saw a very strong light, a flash,” said Michiko Yamaoka, a retired seamstress, in another recorded interview. “I was 800 meters from the center of the explosion. Almost instantly, I felt my face swell. I thought I was directly hit by the bomb and was dying. … Shortly after, I felt my body fly through the air and then passed out. When I came to myself, I was in the dark under a pile of broken bricks. … My hair was burnt – my face swelled like a balloon. I wondered why my shirt had been burnt and was hanging around my arms. I quickly realized that it was not my shirt but pieces of skin hanging from my arms. I saw people fetching water and they died shortly after drinking it.
Yamaoka was one of a group of 25 severely burned and disfigured young women brought to the United States for treatment in the 1950s.
“I had a lot of operations for a year and a half in New York,” she says. “I was hosted by seven different American families. I discovered that there was no official financial support. The project was supported by the goodwill of many American families. Really, I appreciate it.
For 30 years, she said, she couldn’t bring herself to talk about what she went through. Today, she accepts invitations to tell her story to groups of Japanese students and occasionally lectures at the Peace Memorial Museum.
An exhibit titled “History Lessons” addresses Japan’s guilt in the WWII atomic bomb attack.
“We must never forget that nuclear weapons are the fruit of war,” notes one entry. “Japan too, with its policies of colonization and wars of aggression, has inflicted incalculable irreversible damage on the peoples of many countries. We need to think about war and the causes of war, not just nuclear weapons. “
Hiroshima is today a bustling island seaport with over a million inhabitants, more than double the number when the bomb hit. It has six rivers with over 100 bridges, large downtown shopping and entertainment areas, half a dozen universities, and one of Japan’s top soccer teams.
We left the city with a warm feeling after brief encounters with two of its citizens. The first came to our aid in a large underground mall in the city center. Aware that we were lost as we searched for a bank, a smiling middle-aged woman graciously led us through a maze of shops, upstairs and next to a bank.
After converting a few traveller’s checks into Japanese currency inside the bank, my request to know where we could find an internet cafe was overheard by a young deputy manager. Unable to speak English, the man waved for an exit, and we followed him outside, across the street and for four blocks, avoiding the raindrops, before d ‘reach a huge store of electronic devices. Downstairs there was a cafe.
A smiling nod and a handshake was his way of saying “sayonara”.
Si Liberman is a retired editor of the Asbury Park Sunday Press who lives in Palm Beach.