Just before a five-ton plutonium bomb detonated one-third of a mile above the city, unleashing a fireball exceeding 540,000 degrees and propelling a blast that pulverized buildings and carbonized flesh over three square miles, Wada, 18, was at a streetcar terminal, taking a lunch break after his driving shift.
Taniguchi, 16, was riding his bicycle while delivering mail; an undersized boy, he barely reached the pedals. Nagano, also 16, was back working in an airplane parts factory after an air-raid alarm had sent her scurrying home. Do-oh, 15, was inspecting torpedoes in a weapons facility, forced to wear loose-fitting trousers that the fashion-conscious teen hated. And Yoshida, 13, was lowering a bucket into a well when he noticed two parachutes piercing the clouds. “Hey look!” he called out to his friends. “Something’s falling!”
These would be their last moments of normality, of lives that, though at war, had avoided the worst of it. So many Japanese cities had been firebombed, and Hiroshima had just suffered the first atomic-bomb attack in history days earlier. But Nagasaki, one of Japan’s most religiously and culturally diverse cities, had been spared. Until 11:02 a.m. local time, Aug. 9, 1945.
Wada Koichi, Nagano Etsuko, Taniguchi Sumiteru, Do-oh Mineko and Yoshida Katsuji tell their stories of survival in Susan Southard’s riveting “Nagasaki.” The survivors of the bombings represent “the only people in history who have lived through a nuclear attack and its aftermath,” Southard writes, and their stories are entirely relevant in a world that still wrestles with weapons of mass destruction.
John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (1946) will remain the classic English-language account, from the first flash of the bomb through the year that followed. The power of Southard’s book is less in the detail of those early weeks and months — though she certainly does justice to that period — than in the long arc of the survivors’ stories.
The hibakusha (the “atomic-bomb-affected people”) suffered injuries that nearly killed them; endured radiation-related illnesses; and lived through shame, isolation, guilt and suicidal impulses. They fought a nuclear war for their entire lives; the only victory is in living long enough to share the experience.
It took Taniguchi 17 months to sit up and nearly four years before he was discharged from the hospital. The skin on his back and arms had melted away. “He cried every time he heard the instrument cart approaching,” Southard writes, “and when the nurses removed the gauze from his back, he screamed in pain and begged the nurses to let him die. ‘Kill me, kill me,’ he cried.”
Portions of his chest rotted away after all that time facedown in bed. “Scientific knowledge has progressed enough to develop highly sophisticated missiles,” he told Southard, after a lifetime of back surgeries and skin grafts. “But there is no cure for my illness.”
Nagano’s greatest pain was the torment over losing her younger brother and sister in the attack. Feeling lonely, she had recently brought them back to Nagasaki, against her mother’s instructions, from their grandmother’s house. She long blamed herself for their deaths.
“I still think I should have died instead of them,” she tells Southard. Her mother blamed her as well; it took them decades to reconcile.
Yoshida suffered severe facial injuries and was released from the hospital 16 months after the bomb. Over the years he endured multiple surgeries on his mouth, intended to increase his ability to eat, but he could open only wide enough for tiny bites.
Yoshida eventually married, but his wife confessed that sometimes she feared looking at his face at night. And he knew that kids teased his children, until one day he heard his son reply to another boy: “My daddy was hurt by the atomic bomb. It’s nothing scary!” “I was saved by my son’s words,” Yoshida said.
Wada, an orphan at 12, was old enough to remember prewar Japan. He was shocked by Pearl Harbor and “questioned a little whether Japan was truly fighting to save people.” He feigned blindness to avoid enlistment but was labeled an antiwar student and beaten by police.
Trapped under a beam at the streetcar terminal following the bomb, he avoided significant injuries and began carrying others to safety, never knowing who survived. Wada, who retired in 1987 after 43 years with the Nagasaki Streetcar Co., spent a decade gathering information about the 110 drivers and conductors who died in the bombing. “When I stand here,” he says next to the monument he created for them, “I remember those times and cannot laugh or smile.”
The left side of Do-oh’s body was burned in the bombing, hundreds of glass fragments were embedded in her back, and glass and wood gashed the base of her head. She stayed hidden in her home for eight years, ashamed to show her disfigured features, her pimples smelling of rotten fish, and contemplated suicide. “What had God given me this life for?” she asked herself.
Finally, she began working as the Nagasaki representative of a cosmetics company, hoping to help young hibakusha whose faces were scarred or burned. She moved to Tokyo at age 26, a brave move for a single woman then, and spent three decades there. Fearful of having a sick child, she never married and threw herself into her work, becoming her company’s first female executive. “Going to Tokyo was the true starting line of my life,” she told Southard.
It took five years for Nagasaki to count the lives lost. The official estimate was 73,884 killed, 74,909 injured. The deaths from radiation exposure were drawn-out and brutal. Symptoms began with fevers, diarrhea, hemorrhaging, delirium, death. If you survived this early onslaught, radiation contamination continued for decades in various forms of cancer and other afflictions.
It took more than a decade for Japan to pass the Atomic Bomb Victims Medical Care Law, which funded semi-annual medical examinations, although with onerous requirements, such as a certified statement by a public official or a photograph proving one’s whereabouts at the time of the bomb.
Southard is critical of the U.S. occupation authorities in Japan, who restricted scientific studies and news reports on the hibakusha. She is particularly troubled by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, charged with studying the health impact on survivors in order to better protect Americans in case of future attacks.
Commission doctors examined the hibakusha, photographed them, collected blood and semen samples, but did not treat them. “At a time when hibakusha were just beginning to come to terms with their identities as the only victims of atomic warfare in human history, the Americans who dropped the bombs imposed on them a disturbing new identity as research specimens for the U.S. government,” Southard writes.
Employers were wary of the hibakusha’s potential health problems; others were reluctant to marry them. For a long time their status was a source of shame, so they hid it.
Both Wada and Nagano married other hibakusha. Wada rarely spoke about his experience to his children; Nagano and her husband rarely spoke of it even to each other.
But the silence did not last forever. To varying degrees, all five chose to become kataribe, storytellers, sharing their experience with schoolchildren, activists, historical societies and international bodies. “Their willingness to reveal themselves allows us to understand what it took to survive after surviving,” Southard writes.
Or as Taniguchi put it, “I realized that I must live on behalf of those who died unwillingly.”
Do-oh died in 2007, Yoshida in 2010. The youngest of the hibakusha are now turning 70 — they suffered the blast before birth, exposed to radiation in the womb. We will not have them much longer. Yet their story is as timely as ever. American politicians debating the nuclear deal with Iran would do well to spend some time with Southard’s “Nagasaki.” It does not tell us what to do. It only reminds us of the stakes.
“Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War,” by Susan Southard (389 pages; Viking; $28.95)