The survivors of the atomic bomb attacks in Japan

Hiroshima mushroom cloud nuclear bomb explosion
Hiroshima mushroom cloud nuclear bomb explosion (© By 509th Operations Group, via Wikimedia Commons)

On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. 75,000 people died instantly. 75,000 more were injured. Thousands were killed in the fires that ravaged Hiroshima in the following days. And thousands more would be killed by the effects of nuclear radiation. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. 40,000 people were killed there; 80,000 injured. To mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing, three survivors recount their story.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 2, 1995


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “The Survivors”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

I witnessed the living hell of this war at the age of 22. Half a century later, it still remains vivid in my heart and my mind.

On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima Japan. 75,000 people died instantly. 75,000 more were injured. Thousands were killed in the fires that ravaged Hiroshima in the following days. And thousands more would be killed by the effects of nuclear radiation. 3 days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. 40,000 people were killed there; 80,000 injured. This is the story of 3 of the survivors. In Japan, they’re known as the hibakusha.

On the morning of August the 6th, the authorities had cancelled both the air raid warning and the precautionary warning. So, we were relieved. There were 150 students at my school, and about 60 of us were playing in the playground. Most of the other students were already queuing up for the morning assembly meeting.

Akihiro Takahashi was 14 years old when the bomb exploded. He was at a school 1.4 kilometres from the hypocentre, the point of impact.

Suddenly, there was a deafening roar. We heard an enormous blast. We saw a bright light and then everything turned to darkness. We couldn’t see anything. We survivors of the atomic bomb are generally called “pikadon”. “Pika” means a terrible flash of light and “don” means the rolling sound of the bomb. I don’t know why but I have no recollection of the flash at all. All I remember is the sound of the blast. After a while, the smoke dissipated, and I could see again. I noticed that I had been blown 10 metres backwards. All of my 150 schoolmates were lying all over the place. I heard later that no one had been killed by the blast, but in the days and the weeks after, many of the students died, one after the other.

It was also morning in Nagasaki when the second atomic bomb exploded three days later. Yoshiyama Hideko was 22 at the time and worked in a factory 1 kilometre from the hypocentre.

August the 9th was a hot day. At around 8 o’clock, I was taking a street car to work. We heard an air raid siren. We all went running out of the tram. When the air raid siren stopped, we got back onto the street car. I went to work at the factory. At around 10 to 11, I went to the bathroom. Just as I was leaving the lavatory, the bomb exploded. I was on the third floor when the bomb was dropped. I tried to go down the stairs. I saw many of my friends who were trying to get out from underneath the rubble. They were screaming, but I couldn’t do anything for them. I couldn’t help them. Even though they were crying for water, I didn’t give them any. To this day, I still regret that. I was just numb at the time. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wandered around the factory for 3 days. I saw many dead bodies. The corpses were charred, completely carbonised. The dead bodies were red, and they became soft. When I tried to move them, my fingers sank into the bodies. It was so hot! There were flies everywhere, and they laid their eggs. There were so many maggots on the corpses. Some of the women had tried to protect their babies by covering them with their bodies. Some of the dead women were pregnant. EB: Why were you wandering for 3 days? I still don’t understand why I spent 3 days walking around the factory. I was no longer myself. I wasn’t a human being any more. My family came to the factory to search for my body. They hadn’t seen me in 3 days, so they believed I was dead. There was so much devastation around the hypocentre that they couldn’t enter the area. But they asked an officer for permission to search for my body. They’d even brought along a stretcher to bring my corpse away. They found me just wandering around the factory like a robot or something. They were so happy to have found me alive.

They put me on a stretcher and took me back home. I lived in Nishiyama, 2.8 kilometres from the hypocentre, and my house hadn’t been destroyed. On my way back home, I saw many dead bodies, carbonised corpses, as well as 2 cremations. Throughout the city, families were cremating the corpses of their relatives. Many people had been so badly burned that they were unrecognisable. I was numb. I couldn’t feel anything when I saw how badly burned people were. Their beautiful skin was peeling off like burnt clothes. I couldn’t give them water. I still really regret that now. It was such a living hell.

After the explosion, I looked around. Everything was destroyed. The school building had been flattened. The houses around the school were all gone. I just kept wondering if Hiroshima had simply disappeared. I saw that I was wearing my school uniform, and it was burnt and in tatters. The skin on both my hands and legs and also my stomach and back was peeling off, and I was really scared. I can’t describe it. I had a burning feeling all over my body. The first thing I thought was that I had to get out of there. During air raid drills, we had been taught to go to the river. All of us fled to the river. One of my friends kept on yelling: “Wait for me! Wait for me!” And then he started shouting: “Mommy! Mommy, help me! Help me!” And he cried. So I told him: “don’t cry. We’ve got to get out of here as fast as possible.” Sometimes I just prodded him on. Other times, I told him off, and that’s how we made it to the river. There was a river right near the school, but unconsciously I was heading towards the river near my house. It was something like half a kilometre or a kilometre away. EB: Since everything was gone, was it very disorienting? Yeah, because I was seeing an incredibly hideous scene. There were survivors staggering in every direction. Some of them had skin hanging from their hands because they had been so badly burnt. And many people’s clothes had been burnt and they were in tatters. Some people were almost naked. I remember a man whose eye was hanging out of its socket, and a woman who had pieces of glass sticking out of her body. It really was like hell on earth. There were so many dead people. Luckily, there was a small path leading down to the riverbank. So, we headed towards the riverbank. But the debris was blocking parts of the path, so we had to climb over the rubble on our hands and knees.

Fire broke out and then it turned into an inferno. All we could hear was this deafening roar. It sounded just like a volcano. There were flames shooting up high above our heads. We managed to escape the fire. We finally found a small wooden bridge, and we crossed the river. But, unfortunately, at that point, I lost my friend. When I got to the other side, I just couldn’t see him any more. My body was badly burned. My back felt like it was on fire. I remember soaking myself in the river 3 times, and that cold water felt like the most precious thing on earth. After, I went to a first aid station. It was in a bamboo bush. They put me in a tent, and after I received first aid, a black rain of radioactive material and dust started to fall. Luckily, I was in that tent. I was at least safe.

Almost all of the survivors needed medical treatment. But many of the doctors and nurses had been killed in the explosions. Dr. Hida, who was 28, was working as a military doctor in the Hiroshima military hospital. He was fortunate.

Early in the morning of August the 6th, I went to a village 6 kilometres away from the hypocentre to treat some patients, so I did not experience the blast directly. Right after the explosion, I headed back and opened a clinic. Thousands of people came to receive treatment, and later on, other doctors came to help me out. We were putting oil and bandages on the burns and trying to stitch up the patients, anything to stop the bleeding. There’s no cure for radiation. There were no shots or medicine available at all.

All the windows were shattered, and I had pieces of glass sticking out of my arms, face and the rest of my body. When I tried to pull the pieces out, I started bleeding, and I lost consciousness. I don’t know how long I was out. But when I regained consciousness, I was surrounded by glass and rubble. There were too many pieces of glass to count. I took out one big piece that day, and even today, I have some scars on my arms. I was operated on for breast cancer some time ago, and the doctor extracted a big piece of glass. The doctor saw on the X-rays that I had another chunk of glass in my body, but he couldn’t find it during the operation. The doctor also removed pieces of glass from my eyes and nose. But I still have a piece of glass in my breast. For years, when I scratched my skin, pieces of glass would fall out. There are still many slivers of glass in my body. You see, there’s a big scar here. They removed my breast because I had cancer. I believe it’s linked to the radiation. The reason is that 10 years ago my younger sister died of leukemia. I also have many friends who died of lung cancer, stomach cancer and other cancers related to radiation.

Many, many people died because of severe burns. But then what really surprised us is that people who had no apparent injuries started dying. We had never seen the effects of radiation before, so we had no idea what was happening to people, what was killing them. We were even more surprised when people who arrived in Hiroshima 3 or 4 days after the bomb exploded also started dying. EB: I’ve heard many times people say, the people who were affected by the blast simply died. But was it a very painful death or did it go quickly or were they suffering for a very long time? Those people who died immediately experienced no pain at all, obviously. The people who died a few days later were in severe pain. But what I remember most clearly is the victims’ despair. They didn’t know what had happened, and they didn’t know what to do.

My doctor came to see me regularly. He was an ear, nose and throat doctor, but I couldn’t complain because there was no medicine or anything at the time. I was one of the lucky ones to get medical treatment. I had to stay in bed for 1.5 years. I had to lie on my back for 1.5 years. All the doctor did was to put iodine and some oil on my burns. I found out later that I was unconscious for 3 weeks. More than a third of my body was burnt, including the back of my head and my back. The skin was completely gone from my hands and my legs. All you could see was flesh. I think I had really terrible burns all over my body. The doctor would come by twice a day, in the morning, again in the evening. In the morning, he would put gauze on my wounds, and when he came back in the evening, the wounds had dried, and it really hurt when he pulled off the gauze. I still remember shouting: “stop it! Stop it!” EB: Did you want to die during that year and a half? I did not want to die. My neighbours were dying one after the other. One of my best friends also died. I used to go to school with him every day. My family would whisper these things to the people who came to visit us. My parents didn’t want me to hear the news, but somehow I did. So gradually, I began to fear death. Every day, I had to fight off death. I really thought I was going to die, but a year and a half later, I started walking around, and I thought: I made it. I’ve been given a new lease of life.

I don’t remember anything. Several temporary clinics had been established throughout the city. My mother visited one of the facilities and asked the doctor to come to our house. He took one look at me and said I would eventually die. But he gave me some medicine anyhow. I was unconscious most of the time after the bombing. I wasn’t eating much, so I didn’t have any energy. When I regained consciousness, I didn’t have any energy to move. I just sat or lay in bed for the next several months. A year later when I had recovered, my family told me I had vomited so much and my urine was full of blood. When I regained consciousness, I didn’t feel any physical pain, just emotional pain. Here I was: 22 years old, when you are supposed to be at the height of your beauty. My head was bald, my face scarred. I lost my hair. I lost so much hair! When I looked at myself in the mirror, I felt terrible. I saw my face and felt like killing myself. I was bald and my face was full of scars.

In the beginning, I was almost the only one treating the patients, which meant just about everyone in the area. In a situation like that, you get irritated and frustrated quickly. You despair. But I couldn’t feel sorry or sad for these people. I couldn’t feel anything. I was like a zombie. I had to do something, but there was nothing I could do. There were hundreds of people dying around me. I looked around and there were these eyes that were just staring at me. I felt like people were begging me with their eyes to treat them. I tried to avoid looking at eyes, but I couldn’t avoid the stare of one of the men. I can’t forget those sparkling, bright, glowing eyes. I couldn’t do anything for him. I just touched him on one of the few spots on his body where he hadn’t been burned and then he died. I learned as a doctor how important small things like this are for the patients.

EB: During the year and a half that you were in bed, was there enough food and was there enough water for you and your family? We had enough water, but there were serious food shortages. My mother had to sell some of her clothes to buy food for me. My grandfather would take the clothes to a rural area near Hiroshima and he’d exchange them for food. The farmers didn’t accept money at the time. Barter was the only way to get food. Luckily, we lived near the port, so we’d go fishing sometimes, and then we’d exchange the fish for rice and vegetables.

After Japan surrendered, the country was occupied by the United States. The American policy was to cover up the effects of the radiation bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the 8-year occupation, the Japanese government was ordered not to have any contact with the survivors. At the time, there were police officers posted in front of the survivors’ houses, and if people tried to make contact with the hibakusha, they would get into trouble with the police. So when the survivors needed help the most, they didn’t receive it, and they began to lose faith in people. At the time, people thought radiation was an epidemic. Society isolated the survivors. That’s the way it was in those days. It wasn’t prohibited by law, but they were segregated. The majority of doctors and Japanese people did not know what happened to the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Japan’s surrender, people were just trying to rebuild their own lives. Some Japanese did organise a movement to help the hibakusha, but they faced intense pressure from the authorities and the occupation forces. Many people were arrested, and so the movement had to be disbanded.

I would like people to understand that the hibakushas’ agony was not really the physical pain. Many lost families, their loved ones, their friends, but they had to keep on living despite all the discrimination they faced in society. Many of them suffered from fatigue and weakness, so they couldn’t hold down a normal job like others. They could not go to school. They were not treated as normal human beings, and I think that was even more painful than the physical suffering. They have also had to live with uncertainty all their lives. They never knew if they might contract cancer or leukemia like their friends and relatives did at the time of the bombing. They lived and are living with the constant fear that they will die soon. I think this is the most painful thing of all.

EB: So, the months and the years went by. Did you eventually get married, and did you marry a hibakusha? This is a story that I rarely tell. After the atomic bomb, I stopped having my periods. I was also bald, so I didn’t feel like a woman anymore. Several years later, I war veteran asked me to marry him. He’d lost a leg in the war. We got married, I think, because we had experienced the same type of pain and wanted to share it. But I was so tired. I couldn’t satisfy him sexually. Our marriage lasted only 5 years, and then we separated. I returned to my parents’ home, together with my daughter. My husband knew I was an atomic bomb survivor, and I talked to him about my experiences. His family was from Hiroshima, and some of them had been killed by the bomb. I didn’t have any trouble speaking to him because he had survived the war, and I had survived the bomb. I thought we had similar experiences. That’s why it wasn’t difficult to talk to him about it. I married him because he’d lost a leg. I knew he would have a hard time finding a girlfriend. EB: Were you afraid your husband would leave you because you were a hibakusha? No, I was young at the time. I didn’t realise it then, but the collapse of our marriage must have been my fault. I couldn’t satisfy him.

My wife was not an A bomb survivor. She’s a returnee from Korea. I was worried about my health and what would happen after I got married. I was obsessed by this, and I would often speak to my wife about it. My wife knew from the very beginning that I was an A bomb survivor because the go-between was also an A bomb survivor. The go-between told me that my wife didn’t think it was important that I was a hibakusha. The most important thing for her was the type of person I am. EB: When did you tell your children that you were a hibakusha? I have no children. My wife and I were not able to have children. The doctors still haven’t been able to determine whether the radiation might have affected my genes.

My daughter knew all along that I was an atomic bomb survivor. I was really worried about her health because I was afraid I might have passed something on to her. But she’s quite alright, and she got married. EB: Did you marry again afterwards? No, I didn’t remarry. I live together today with my mother and my two sisters – four old women living together in the same house. My two sisters never got married. They were discriminated against because they were atomic bomb survivors. Also there weren’t many eligible men then because of the war. Today, I’m old and alone, living together with 3 old women. I wanted to change my life, but we can’t change our lives. We’re physically weak. We’re not receiving enough money from the government. That’s what I mean when I say that my life is not so good. That’s what I feel now. I felt many times that I should just commit suicide. It started a year after the bombing and lasted for several years. When I was in my 20s, I had scars all over my face. I was bald. I felt I should commit suicide. I’ve been hospitalised 21 times. I’ve been operated on 5 times: on my longs, breasts, throat and leg. I also have a weak heart. But I still feel now that I have to live for the sake of those who died in the bomb. I feel I represent them when I speak to young people. That’s why I’m doing my best to stay alive. I believe it’s my duty to tell young people about my experiences. I believe I’m working for peace. That’s why I don’t regret having lived.

I’m often asked if I feel guilty because I survived the bomb. But I always so no. Of my 60 classmates, only 13 survived the bomb. But I am proud that I saved the lives of two friends. I don’t feel any guilt. My duty is to recount the experience and to give my testimony. I feel that’s my mission to convey the importance of peace to the younger generation. I have to speak out to ensure that the people who died because of the bomb have not died in vain. It’s my duty.

There was nothing positive about the bomb. Survivors were given a new lease of life you might say, but we have always lived with the fear that we would die prematurely because of the radiation we received. Today, the survivors can receive medical treatment and counselling, but what we need most of all is for the Japanese government to admit that the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki because Japan began the war with the United States. We want the Japanese government to apologise to the world for having started the war and apologise to us too. If the government does this, we will finally feel that these 50 years have not been in vain. What happened in Hiroshima half a century ago should never happen again. The atomic bomb should never be used again. That firm conviction is perhaps the only good thing that came out of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“The survivors” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Ronald Kane. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.