06 August 2015

Hiroshima and The American Bomb

In time of war Japan, like many other nations, has pressed its children into service of some kind. And they were put to work in Hiroshima in 1945 too.

Hiroshima was where I stood in the bright Spring sunshine beside the river – part of the rich delta on which the city of Hiroshima has stood for centuries. It is the capital of the Prefecture now and had been the seat of government from time to time as the power shifted across the past seven hundred years or so: feudal lords, shoguns and their samurai, and emperors.

I stood in the Peace Memorial Park, the site of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It is on a narrow strip of land between the Honkawa and Motoyasu Rivers which make up part of the delta of Hiroshima. The Aioi bridge spans the rivers where they join and from it I had seen the iconic anti-nuclear weapon monument, the skeletal A-bomb Dome.

The Peace Park had a beautifully simple memorial to the dead. It was in two sections. The dominant piece was a stone coffin-like chest that holds the names of those who died from the bomb. Mounted over it, forming a shelter was an inverted parabola. The shelter was a shape recognisable to Japanese as a 6th century house roof – a metaphor for protection of extended family. It was aligned so that, looking through it from one end, I could see the Dome. An inscription carried a message to the dead, 'Sleep peacefully here. We shall not repeat the evil'.

'Sleep peacefully here. We shall not repeat the evil'  
© DJackel 2015

This was where I stood. In the warm sun, just across the river in sight of the location of the school, in sight of the dead skeleton of the Dome. As a statement about war it was pure genius. It said nothing. It said exactly what I let it say. What is said to me was unbearable.

At 8 am on the 6th of August in 1945 the spot of my standing was mostly traditional Japanese wooden houses: wood frames, timber floors and mats, tiled rooves with chains of upside down bells to direct the rain water to the ground. The houses stood in neat rows, their low rooves visible from the air and recorded by the cameras of the US Air Force who took the images as part of its 'before and after' program to record the nature and extent of the damage caused by an atomic explosion. They had done so over Nagasaki as well. The photos are in the Museum.

Yoshito Matsushige; Minutes after the American bomb

An 'after' photo shows an unploughed field with the occasional stark black tree trunk standing more or less erect. Every hundred metres or so a single ferro-concrete building shell remained. The contents of all of them, human and non-human, had been blown out and pulverised, vaporised or instantly burned. A three-story school building stands in the photo, a damaged shell, starkly empty. Were there children in school at 8.15 that day? If they were, nothing remained of them, their teachers, their books and equipment, their lunch boxes, their school bags, their sports equipment, their chairs and desks, their bodies, their clothes. There air raid sirens had sounded intermittently all night so nobody had slept much. But by morning the all clear had sounded so the students would have been in school or on their way, but tired.

© DJackel 2015
In 1945 the population of Hiroshima was about 350,000 people, most of them women and children together with the men of the military bases around the town. Probably half the population died instantly; cremated where they stood, or blown apart or burned where they sat. Over the next few days people died of horrible burns or, the most unfortunate ones, of cancers of all sorts as the damage to the chromosomes in the cells of their body tissues took effect.

Yoshito Matsushige; as the bomb exploded

Yoshito Matsushige was a press photographer working in Hiroshima in 1945. He arrived at a spot about 2.3 km from ground zero at about 11 am, not quite 3 hours after the blast. It took him 30 minutes to make the decision to photograph the unimaginable, the incomprehensible. His first image taken that morning has been enlarged to giant size and mounted just inside the first exhibit hall of the Peace Museum. It is an arresting image. It records a group of junior high school children attempting to clear rubble to create fire lanes. They are blurred into the background. In the foreground a group of people – all shoeless – stand, looking dazed, in a rough line on one side of the street. One of them is a young woman carrying a baby in her arms, its mop of black hair visible in the crook of her arm. Matushige wrote that she kept on crying out, 'My baby, open your eyes. Open your eyes'. It never did.

Only the shadow remains ...

A display case held a single rusted child's tricycle. Shinichi Tetsutani was riding it in front of his house that morning. He was nearly four. He died that night from his burns. His father, knowing he had no money for a funeral was unable to have the body cremated. Such was the number of bodies rotting in the Spring warmth, that he decided to bury his son and the trike in the backyard. Years later the boy's skeleton was exhumed for burial in a family plot and the bike was donated to the Museum. And there it was, that little, rusted little boy’s toy: an intensely powerful, eloquent testimony.

I fought back tears with an effort. I could take no more.

I made for the sunlight again, as if needing reassurance that the world was still habitable. In a weird act of defiance I found the Museum coffee shop.

I ordered a soft-serve ice-cream: powdered green tea and vanilla. An elderly American woman sat at a table clutching a strawberry and vanilla swirled cone, Shinichi’s trike a very few metres from her from her back in the museum. She spoke to her daughter, 'get me a napkin'. Her daughter, standing beside me at the counter, checked then replied, 'they don't have any'. Mother (exasperated), 'you've got to be kidding'.

'Sleep peacefully here. We shall not repeat the evil'.

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