Archive for Sunday, June 23, 2002

Bombing survivor perpetually haunted by atomic blast

June 23, 2002


Who would have believed that India and Pakistan ever would be talking about settling their long-standing differences with nuclear weapons? And, as history repeats itself, the U.S. president is warning his nation to listen as he and his Cabinet talk seriously about threats of nuclear explosions and "dirty" bombs on American soil.

It's like the bad old days of the Cold War when Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev threatened the United States with the words "We will bury you," and Americans knew he had the bombs to do it.

Since the Berlin Wall toppled, fears of a nuclear war went the way of Douglas County's 53 fallout shelters.

But Hiroshima, Japan, resident Akihiro Takahashi, 71, a survivor of the World War II atomic blast, thinks it's better that we don't forget the devastating power of nuclear weapons.

"I fear what will happen in Japan when the generations who experienced World War II are gone," said Takahashi, former director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

In a 2000 interview, Takahashi talked about surviving the bomb. Given recent news, that discussion again appears timely.

The bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, was called "Little Boy." It was rated at 15 kilotons, the equivalent of 30 million pounds of explosives. Compared with today's nuclear weapons, it truly was a little boy.

Through a teen's eyes

Still, the Hiroshima blast generated temperatures estimated at 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of 620 miles an hour. More than 100,000 people died when the bomb burst. Within five years, another 70,000 were dead of radiation-related illnesses.

When Little Boy hit Hiroshima, Takahashi was a 14-year-old junior high student. His school was about a mile from the center of the blast.

Through a translator, he told his story:

"When I started junior high, all of the boys wanted to grow up to be soldiers. Maybe to be a pilot and go to the enemy and kill as many as possible was my dream. I was told by my teachers that this was the right thing to do," Takahashi said.

In fragile health, he spoke slowly and deliberately.

"Basically the war on civility lies as the fault of the Japanese government. During the war as a child, I participated. Now, I know it was wrong. As students we didn't attend classes. We demolished houses to make "fire escape zones" in the event of a bombing attack. There was forced labor and no freedom," he said.

Takahashi's ears sit flat against his head, and when he stroked his face with his hands, his fingers were bent at odd angles.

"We lined up in the school yard with 160 students. A student pointed and said there was a B-29 in the sky. The sky was clear and beautiful, and the plane approached with a vapor trail. Because we weren't afraid we watched it. Teachers came out and ordered us to line up when there was a roar of sound, and it suddenly turned pitch black. There was a flash of light around my head. Suddenly a blast came with blue light ... blue flash. Without knowing, we were blown away by the blast. Smoke was clearing when I came to. I was blown 10 meters. Other students were lying in the school yard. The wooden school was flattened. I saw distance but no buildings ... only a few. I thought Hiroshima had vanished.

'I felt a fear'

"I checked my body. The heat had ignited my uniform. I had burns all over my body. The red flesh was exposed and burned. All of the students had the same burns. I felt a fear. We had been trained to run to the river bank to avoid fire. I ran to the river. A voice said, 'Takahashima, wait for me.' I looked back to see my friend Yamamoto. We walked to school together every day. He was crying for his mother to help him. It did no good to cry."

Takahashi stared into space as he waited for his translator to catch up.

"Many survivors made a line and proceeded holding their hands and feet in front of them with the skin peeled down, virtually naked. Their skin was hanging off their bodies. My body and others were covered with glass fragments. I saw a woman standing with her eye hanging out. A woman with red flesh exposed. I saw some corpses among them, a gruesome one with her internal organs hanging out of her stomach. A baby was crying by its dead mother.

"These things I remember."

As he ran for the river, the path was blocked by burning debris from houses. He and his friend managed to crawl over the fire.

"At the moment we got to the river, fire spread all over the place like a volcano eruption. I still remember clearly the fear I felt that time. We were really lucky. Fire was started by the heat rays that ignited everything. Many people were trapped under the debris. Many people had to leave family members trapped in their burning homes. At the river bank, we ran across a small, wooden bridge that saved our lives. At some point without noticing I lost my friend Yamamoto. He was found but died five days later. When I recovered from my burns, I hid from his mother.

Struggling back home

"My body was hot. I got into the river, which comforted me. The river was covered by dead bodies. There was a small rescue point in the river where someone took me. Lots of people were seeking treatment."

Then, he said, came black rain containing lethal radioactive dust.

"Some people covered with black rain had effects of radiation. I was inside a tent the first time I saw it," Takahashi said.

After the rain stopped, he began walking toward his home, nearly four miles away.

"I wondered how a boy badly injured could walk so far. Someone called my name and said 'Please bring me home ... help me.' It was a classmate. The bottom of his feet were peeled off to the bone. He couldn't walk. I was too burned to carry him, so I told him to crawl on his hands and knees. We would alternate that with him standing on his heels as I supported his weight. We were exhausted when suddenly I saw my great uncle and his wife. I shouted, and they looked shocked."

His relatives had been in a nearby town and escaped the blast. They carried the boys home.

"When I got home, my mother cut my clothes off with a knife," Takahashi said. "For a year and a half, I underwent treatment for burns. My family knew an ear, nose and throat doctor who came to our house every day to treat my burns."

Before the bombing, there were an estimated 300 doctors in Hiroshima. Sixty survived.

Since 1971, Takahashi has been hospitalized 32 times and has various injections weekly.

"I've seen all kinds of doctors except gynecologists and pediatricians. I fear for my life every day. I realize the hardness of life. There remains scars all over my body. Most seriously on my right hand. I remember seeing red flesh there. Can't move my right hand, only my thumb. Both ears are flattened.

"I am an example of what can happen by the atomic bomb, and I believe nuclear weapons should be abolished."

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