Survivors of the Bomb
The nightmare of a nuclear attack remains largely theoretical — except for those persons who were in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945. In those two cities, more than 200,000 people died, and thousands of those who survived suffered terribly from burns, trauma, radiation sickness, and later cancers. Survivors of the atomic bombs were called “Hibakusha”; the word in Japanese means “explosion-affected persons." We can’t talk about the dangers of nuclear weapons without examining the effects of these weapons on those who actually experienced them. In this episode, we hear from three Hiroshima hibakusha.
Shigeko Sasamori was 13 in 1945; she recalls her excitement at seeing the shiny airplane and watching the parachute that slowed the descent of the “Little Boy” atomic bomb. Shigeko survived but suffered from terrible burns over much of her body.
Setsuko Nakamura was also 13 and also in downtown Hiroshima on August 6th, helping the city government. She was the only survivor in her class that day, but her psychic scars remain to this day. She suffered from acute radiation exposure, which killed many who initially survived.
Dr. Michihiko Hachiya was the director of the Hiroshima Communications Hospital who was wounded in the attack. He would spent the next few weeks in a desperate but largely futile attempt to treat the thousands suffering from injuries, burns, and what later is revealed as radiation sickness.
Expert Dr. Ira Helfand, of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, explains the physical effects of the bomb that people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced, and the consequences of these effects on human bodies. Dr. Helfand also points out the utter inability of the medical establishment to deal with such an overwhelming catastrophe and emphasizes that the situation would not be noticeably better in a nuclear attack today.
After their horrific and traumatizing experiences, these hibakusha reflect on how they were able to continue living, and what they would like the world to know about the realities of nuclear weapons.
I’m Lisa Perry, and this is AT THE BRINK, a podcast about the dangers we face from nuclear weapons, and the stories of those who are fighting to protect us.
In this podcast series so far, we have looked at the many ways we are at risk of a potential nuclear disaster. But few people have fought harder, and spoken louder, to protect us from nuclear weapons than those who have experienced firsthand the devastation and horror they cause.
In the 75 years since their creation, nuclear weapons have only been used in war twice. On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. It is estimated that between 70 to 160 thousand people, as many as one half of the total population, were killed in the attack, or died in the months following from injuries or radiation poisoning. Three days later, a second attack on the city of Nagasaki would kill an additional 40 to 80,000 people. But this episode is not about those who died. This episode is about those who lived.
These are the stories of the Hibakusha — or “bomb-affected people.” To Hibakusha, the consequences of using nuclear weapons are not theoretical.
In this episode, you will hear the personal accounts of three Hibakusha, recounting in their own words what it was really like to live through the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and what they want the world to know about nuclear weapons.
You should be warned that we have not censored these stories in any way, and this episode contains graphic descriptions of death, physical trauma, and suffering. We think it is important for people to hear these unvarnished accounts in order to understand what we truly risk from nuclear weapons, but we advise discretion for young or sensitive listeners.
My name is Setsuko Thurlow.
I was born In Hiroshima in Japan, as a seventh child of [Japanese name] and [Japanese name] Nakamura. Father was very old fashioned. He didn't talk very much, he didn't want to waste his mouth for garbage words, he said. But my mother was different. She was very sociable, she loved talking. Japanese couples don't express their emotions openly, but I could sense by listening to my mother, she really respected my father.
As a young child, of course, Japan was already involved in military action, so life was to be tighter controlled, less supplies available. But still lots of happy times and nice things available. My uncle used to take me to a good restaurant, which served ice cream even in the middle of the winter. That was the only restaurant in Hiroshima which had that.
To me, my home represents the garden and the flowers and fruit trees, because one of my father's hobbies was gardening. And he was always teaching me about the plant and the flowers.
And I have a happy memory. And this time of the year, the peonies are gorgeous. One day I saw him wrapping the buds with thin rice paper. I asked him, what are you doing? Well, just wait and see this weekend. And when the weekend came, he took all the wrapping paper away. The sun was pouring down. All of a sudden they were blooming beautifully. That's a kind of life I remember, with happiness and pleasure.
The morning of August 6th, 1945, was the last time Setsuko Thurlow would ever see that garden. Thirteen-year-old Setsuko left home that morning to head to the Second General Headquarters in downtown Hiroshima, where she and her fellow grade seven classmates were starting their first day of a new assignment, helping the Japanese war effort.
I left the house, oh, about seven o’clock, seven-thirty. I met my girls, my schoolmates in front of Hiroshima Station. And I was a leader, so I guided this group of about 30 girls to the second army headquarter, second floor of the large wooden building, which was situated about one mile away from the hypocenter, ground zero.
And then about eight, the man in charge of our student, Major Yamahe, spoke to us. “This is the beginning of the official appointment, today you start to act as assistant for military, and you work for emperor! Do the very best for Emperor's sake!” That kind of pep talk. We said, “Yes, sir, we'll do our very best”! we shouted.
At that moment I saw the bluish-white flash all over. And then the sensation of flying up into the air and I still have that sensation up in the air, my body was rotating. That's the end of my memory.
Elsewhere that same morning, another 13-year-old schoolgirl, Shigeko Sasamori, was with her classmates in downtown Hiroshima. Since all the able-bodied young men were caught up in the war effort, the young middle school students of Hiroshima were enlisted to do manual labor, widening the streets and knocking down houses to help protect the city from fires in the case of a bombing.
Thousands of schoolchildren were outside that morning, less than a mile away from the so-called “hypocenter” of the bomb. Shigeko was in the street with her girlfriend, admiring the cloudless August sky when a silver plane flying overhead caught her attention.
I heard the airplane, I look up to the sky, then I saw the airplane coming this way. That day, Hiroshima was very hot, no clouds, beautiful blue sky, great shiny airplane, had a long white tail. Look like a picture.
So I said to my girlfriend, "Look up. The airplane is so pretty." And I would point up to the sky. See I didn't know that was a bombing airplane. Because B-29 come quite often on Hiroshima But it never dropped, they go back. So we are not scared.
Almost same time, I saw white things coming down. Later I heard that was the parachute, and the bomb hung onto the parachute coming down. But I didn't know. I said, "Oh, something white." Everything, everything together, when I say to my friend, "Look up," Then I had a very strong force, strong wind. Then I lost consciousness.
Shigeko awoke to an eerie darkness.
When I am conscious, I look around, no sound, no taste, no feeling. The first thing I saw was people moving very slowly in front of me. Schoolteacher taught us in case of fire bomb drop, children have to follow adults. So I just follow them.
Shigeko was in a profound state of shock, as were most survivors, and was struggling to comprehend the chaos happening around her.
I couldn't feel anything. Not scared, not pain, nothing. Numb. Then all of a sudden a baby screamed. I look around and everybody almost naked. And people are hurt, and bleeding from head, or face. There is mother trying to nurse baby. Mother and baby red all over. Blood makes everybody so red.
And then, I heard a man say, "Go over the bridge to go other side.” So I follow the people over the bridge, and still didn't think I'm hurt myself. I don't feel anything. Just moving, that's all. I went about one mile away over the bridge to school. I got there, many people in the schoolyard, sitting or lying down. By that time I was so weak, so I sit there under the big tree, and I say, “Somebody pay attention, give me water, tell my parents.”
Collapsed beneath a tree in the schoolyard, Shigeko Sasamori eventually lost consciousness.
Elsewhere, Setsuko Thurlow had awoken, her last memory having been the sensation of her body flying through the air. The Second General Headquarters where Setsuko and 30 of her classmates had been receiving their assignment, had collapsed on top of them, and when Setsuko came to, she found herself pinned under the rubble.
When I regained consciousness in total darkness and silence, I tried to move my body. I couldn't move. So I knew I was facing death and strange thing is I didn't feel panic. I calmly accepted the fate. I thought I am dying here. That’s a strange thing.
Then I started hearing my classmate whisper, “God help me, mother help me.” I could hear Misondo’s voice on that side. So I knew I was not alone, I was surrounded by my girls.
Then suddenly somebody from behind started grabbing my left shoulder. Says don't give up. Don't give up. I'm trying to free you so keep pushing, keep kicking and you'll see the light coming from that direction. Yes sure enough, in the total darkness I could see some light. And you crawled toward that light as quickly as possible. He was just moving something. Finally, I was free. I looked back and thought about my friends. But it was burning already. I couldn't get back.
Try as she might, Setsuko could do nothing to help her classmates trapped inside the burning headquarters. Forced to retreat from the building as the flames began to spread, she began to see things moving in the smoke.
It was dark, like twilight, so I couldn't see for a while. Then I began to see some moving dark objects nearing me. They certainly didn't look like human beings, but they were human beings. It was, I call it, a procession of ghosts. Their hair was just standing up, melted faces, the skin, and the flesh were hanging from their bones, just hanging you know.
And some lost legs and arms, and nobody was running. Just moving, shuffling, I guess many of the people couldn't even see which way they were moving. Their faces were swollen and some people's eyeballs were in their hands. So they were moving, but then they collapse, that's the end of their life. And as they collapse, stomach burst open, and I saw intestine and everything. I wasn't scared. It was something which was just simply happening.
And the soldiers said, “You girls, join that procession and escape to the nearby hillside.” So we did. The strangest thing, it was so quiet. In a situation like this you would think the entire city would be panic-stricken, people running, “Hey help me, I'm in trouble!” But it was as though the city was dead.
While Setsuko and Shigeko were downtown when the bomb was dropped, 42-year-old Dr. Michihiko Hachiya was home with his wife, sleeping off a long night shift at the Hiroshima Communications Hospital where he worked as Director.
A decade after the attack, Dr. Hachiya would publish a record of his experiences under the title “Hiroshima Diary.” Dr. Hachiya passed away in 1980; we’ll hear excerpts from his diary read by a voice actor.
Suddenly, a strong flash of light startled me and then another. The view where a moment before all had been so bright and sunny was now dark and hazy. Moving instinctively, I tried to escape, but rubble and fallen timbers barred the way. A profound weakness overcame me, so I stopped to regain my strength. To my surprise, I discovered that I was completely naked. How odd! Where were my drawers and undershirt?
Dr. Hachiya found his wife in the garden, and together they looked for an escape from the sudden chaos that had sprung up around them.
We stood in the street, uncertain and afraid until our own house began to sway, and in a minute, collapsed in a cloud of dust. Other buildings caved in or toppled. Fires sprang up and whipped by a vicious wind began to spread.
It finally dawned on us that we could not stay there in the street, so we turned our steps towards the hospital. Our home was gone; we were wounded and needed treatment; and after all, it was my duty to be with my staff. This latter was an irrational thought, what good could I be to anyone, hurt as I was.
Dr. Hachiya had been injured in his face, neck, and leg by glass and flying debris, and as he and his wife struggled towards his hospital they saw victims desperately seeking water to soothe their burns and to quench their thirst, anything that could bring them some relief.
Between the Hospital and the center of the city, I saw nothing that wasn't burned to a crisp. Streetcars were standing at Kawaya-cho and Kamiya-cho and inside were dozens of bodies, blackened beyond recognition. I saw fire reservoirs filled to the brim with dead people who looked as though they had been boiled alive. In one reservoir I saw a man, horribly burned, crouching beside another man who was dead. He was drinking blood-stained water out of the reservoir.
The survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima had no context for what they were witnessing since, at the time, the world did not know that an atomic bomb even existed, much less what it was capable of.
Dr. Ira Helfand is a Co-President of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. A former emergency room physician, Dr. Helfand now studies the potential health consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. He explains the cruel mechanics behind what happens when a nuclear weapon is used on a population.
Ira Helfand The destruction that nuclear weapons caused is multifaceted. First, there is an enormous explosion, with tremendous winds generated, tremendous blast pressures. And these forces are lethal to people who are exposed to them. People are crushed by falling buildings. They're blown through the air by the explosion generated winds. They suffer various other kinds of pressure injuries. Their lungs collapse, their eardrums are perforated, and so on.
It was this powerful concussive force which Setsuko and Shigeko experienced picking them up, and which leveled the building Setsuko was in.
Beyond the blast force, the heat generated by the explosion, and the subsequent fires, have devastating effects on anyone who survived the initial blast
A large nuclear explosion generates heat in the millions of degrees, and it is literally hot as the surface of the sun. The largest group of people killed by a nuclear bomb are killed by the fires that are started and by the direct heat that emanates from the explosion itself. So if people are close enough, they're literally vaporized. In Hiroshima, people simply disappeared and their shadows were burnt into the stones behind them, but they were gone. They were just vaporized.
Tragically, because so many Hiroshima schoolchildren, like Shigeko, were outside that August morning working to clear the streets, Shigeko and Setsuko’s peer group suffered one of the highest rates of death in the immediate blast, with many parents unable to even find a body to bury.
Most of Shigeko Sasamori's 200 classmates would die in the attack, including the girlfriend who stood next to her as she pointed out the bomb falling from the sky. Setsuko Thurlow's sister-in-law was a teacher and was also outside with the students that day.
My own age group, I think that was the hardest hit. Each group just vaporized. And my own sister in law, that very day she took the train came to Hiroshima and she was assigned to supervise those 7000 students. We never saw her again. Her seven-year-old child was living in the country. One day I asked how he felt about the fact that his mother never came back. He didn't say very much, but he said for some time, every day, every late afternoon, he walked over to this train station to look for his mother.
Dr. Helfand explains that those who were far enough away from the hypocenter to survive the blast were still subject to the intense heat emanating from the explosion.
Many people had terrible burns. And the survivors often talk largely about the burn victims, people who had literally their skin burned off of them, who were desperately thirsty from all the fluid loss through these large areas of the body that had been burned.
When Shigeko Sasamori had collapsed in the schoolyard as she begged for water, she was completely unaware, that, outside and unprotected when the bomb detonated, she had been severely burned on the upper half of her body. The numbness she felt, was because the nerves in her skin had been burnt away from the heat of the blast. Shigeko's parents, who had survived, would eventually find her, hovering near death.
My mother and father, they thought I'd die any minute. Can you imagine? My face all black. Underneath the blackness, infections. And not just face, all over. All over, my chest, and half my body, and shoulders, and arms. My neighbors come to say, "How is Shigeko?" My mother listened to me breathe. "She's still breathing." See, everybody thought I'd die.
As Shigeko Sasamori’s parents attempted to keep their daughter alive, Setsuko Thurlow struggled with how she might help the masses of wounded people that surrounded her. Setsuko had followed the lines of survivors escaping the rapidly spreading fires and now found herself at a large military training field.
That place was just packed with dead bodies and dying people. And everybody’s begging for water. All they can utter is “Give me water, water please,” they whisper to us. We went to the nearby stream and we tore the blouses and soaked them in the water and we dashed back with that wet cloth and put it over the mouth of begging people and they suck the moisture out of the wet cloth.
I know it's a trivial thing but that was the only thing we could think of. About 80 percent of healthcare professionals were killed. I don't know how many thousand people filled that huge training ground. They didn't get any care or any medicine. They simply died in that way.
The steep death toll of August 6th was in part because so few were able to access medical care, due to the indiscriminate destruction of the atomic bomb.
Most of the hospitals were destroyed. Most of the medical personnel were killed or themselves badly injured. Most of the medical supplies were destroyed by the fires or they were very quickly used up because of the enormous numbers of people who needed medical attention.
Despite the terrible damage to medical infrastructure and personnel in Hiroshima, those who survived did their best with what was left. Dr. Hachiya, despite being seriously injured, had still rushed to what remained of his hospital to give aid. Unfortunately, when he arrived, he found the north wing of the hospital on fire. After a long night, the hospital staff finally beat back the flames, but not before it had destroyed an entire wing, and all the supplies within it.
Smoke was still rising from the second floor of the hospital, but the fire had stopped. Hiroshima was no longer a city, but a burnt-over prairie. To the east and to the west everything was flattened.
Dr. Hachiya was badly wounded, and could only watch as the few remaining able-bodied doctors and nurses tried to treat the crush of injured patients who came to overwhelm what was left of the hospital in the days following.
In the space of one night, patients had become packed, like the rice in sushi, into every nook and cranny of the hospital. The majority were badly burned, a few severely injured. All were critically ill. They came as an avalanche and overran the hospital.
Like Michihiko, many of the medical personnel in Hiroshima were injured or killed in the attack. Not knowing what strange new weapon had been used against them, many in the city simply called it the pikadon, which translates to "flash-boom."
Eighty doctors out of 190 in Hiroshima were killed by the pikadon, and many of them had been my friends. The hospital staff had an impossible task. There was scarcely a patient who was not in need of urgent surgical care. Even the clerical staff and janitors were organized and instructed to help. People were dying so fast that I had begun to accept death as a matter of course and ceased to respect its awfulness. I considered a family lucky if it had not lost more than two of its members.
In the days immediately following the attack, families desperately tried to reunite with their loved ones. Setsuko Thurlow’s father had survived the blast, and her neighbors would rescue her mother from beneath the rubble of their demolished home. They would manage to find Setsuko at the training ground the next day. But Setsuko would find that her older sister and her favorite nephew were not so fortunate.
She had a little boy, 4-year-old child. This child was a treasure. She wanted to protect him during the war and staying in the city was dangerous so she evacuated them to the countryside to protect him, but the very night before the atomic bombing, she came back to Hiroshima. My father was very cross. “Why did you come back to the dangerous city?” She said I have to get medical attention and I will leave the city as soon as possible. Next morning she left early with her child, going to the doctor's office. They were walking on the bridge which was not far from the explosion and…She was badly burned.
Their image is the most painful thing for me to recall, to share with people, because the day after when I saw them again, and they just didn't look like human beings. My little four-year boy was a black and melted chunk of flesh, that's how his body was transformed. But he was still begging for water, in a very faint voice, “water please, water please.” He lived several days, agonizing. Only the death relieved him from that agony.
While some escaped uninjured, no survivors escaped unscathed. In the face of unimaginable horror, a common refrain from survivors was how they felt unable to process the sheer scale of what they had witnessed. Setsuko Thurlow spoke of the immense guilt she felt for years because she was unable to react as she watched her sister and her favorite nephew being cremated in a mass grave.
Japanese soldiers came. They just dug the hole in the ground and threw the dead bodies and poured the gasoline and threw that lighted match. With the bamboo, they kept turning the body, “Hey this side is not burned on the stomach, it’s half-burned,” and this 13-year-old girl, I just stood there, my parents standing there too, we just stood there in a stunned way. We were not emotionally responding to the situation. Well, this is a memory which troubled me because I never had tears, I never cried Why? Why? Why did that happen? Why was I so inhumane, or I just wasn't like normal human beings.
Years later, Setsuko would come to understand that her reaction was a protective mechanism, meant to shield the psyche from the trauma of what she had witnessed.
If we responded to every little horrible situation, we couldn't have survived in that horror of August six. My friend went back where her house had stood and found her entire family as a white skeleton. She stood there and she couldn't even have tears.
Most families in Hiroshima would lose members to the pikadon. So when Setsuko's family learned her favorite uncle, who often took Setsuko out for ice cream, had survived uninjured along with his wife, they were overjoyed. But they would soon discover that the effects of this new weapon continued beyond the flash-boom.
My father's younger brother, who evacuated from the center of the city, the first news we heard was that they survived. They are OK. But then we got the news that he and his wife both are very sick. they started suffering from total fatigue, diarrhea, and all kinds of symptoms. By the time my parents got there, their internal organs were just rotten and melting and coming out as a thick melted fluid. And they didn’t last long
Having lived through the first atomic bombing, tens of thousands of survivors were now beginning to experience the insidious and lethal effects of radiation.
Everybody died in a different time, different way. Very randomly, mysteriously.
In the days and weeks that followed the attack, many people began to exhibit the same types of symptoms Setsuko saw in her relatives. Dr. Hachiya, who had returned to his rounds after recovering from his injuries for five days, also saw these symptoms and was baffled.
We thought that by giving treatment to those who were burned or injured, recovery would follow. But now it was obvious that this was not true. People who appeared to be recovering developed other symptoms that caused them to die. So many patients died without our understanding the cause of death that we were all in despair. Hundreds of patients had died during the first few days; then the death rate declined. Now, it was increasing again.
The symptoms of radiation poisoning were largely unknown at the time. Those close enough to the hypocenter received such a high dose of alpha and gamma radiation that it destroyed their cells and tissues, killing them within hours. But most people did not show the effects of the exposure right away,
Large numbers of people died from radiation sickness. This was terrifying to people because they didn't know what was happening. They had survived the initial attack, and now their body just gave out on them. And in a very painful agonizing way, they deteriorated over a number of days and then died.
The effects of radiation depend on the dose. If it's a very high dose, people will die within a matter of hours. At lesser doses, the primary effect is on bone marrow. And people who were exposed at levels that are great enough to cause a marrow suppression will, unless they receive very intensive care, will die as a result of either bleeding or infection. At slightly lesser doses, people develop primarily stomach and intestinal symptoms.
In his diary, Dr. Hachiya describes being overcome by bouts of fatigue, fever, and gastrointestinal distress. He and many of his staff members at the hospital would suffer from radiation sickness themselves, even as they worked to treat their patients, who were struggling with the same mysterious condition.
Many people who appeared to be healthy and had escaped uninjured were beginning to die with symptoms of bleeding and hemorrhages beneath the skin. Many had developed foul, painful, bleeding ulcers in the mouth and throat, and severe uterine hemorrhaging was common among the women. Some patients were beginning to lose their hair. Unconsciously, I grabbed some of my hair and pulled. I did not have much hair in the first place, but the amount that came out made me feel sick.
To make matters worse was the vomiting and diarrhea. Patients who could not walk urinated and defecated where they lay. Persons entering or leaving the hospital could not avoid stepping in the filth, so closely was it spread. The people who were burned suffered most because as their skin peeled away, glistening raw wounds were exposed to the heat and filth. This was the environment patients had to live in. It made one's hair stand on end, but there was no way to help the situation.
But while many would eventually recover, what no one knew at the time, was that some survivors would continue to suffer consequences of their exposure for the rest of their lives.
Leukemias start to show up about four or five years after the exposure. Solid tumors started to show up, in large numbers of 10 to 15 years later and continued to occur for decades after the exposure. Children are much greater risk than adults, for radiation exposure. In terms of a radiation sickness, they're just generally more fragile and less likely to survive an acute radiation illness, but they're also at much higher risk of cancer.
Many women who were pregnant who had significant radiation exposures, miscarried. And many of those children who are born, develop childhood leukemia. The relatively small numbers of people were still alive who survived the attacks are still at greater risk of getting cancer.
There are no words that can truly encapsulate the horror of what happened to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the pain and hardship they had to endure afterward. It’s easy to imagine that living through such an experience, survivors might give up in despair and bitterness. And Setsuko tells us that, some did go that direction. But many more were able to find their way out of this trauma, to find reasons to live, to rebuild their city, and to cherish the lives they were able to continue.
Hibakusha, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki survivors, well that was a massive trauma. And some people just couldn't take it. They couldn't live. They committed suicide. they had all kinds of social stigma problems. They suffered a lot. But many people came out of that trauma and stood up and courageously started speaking out to the world saying elimination of the nuclear weapon. Well, to me, they're heroes.
I came out of that rubble, and I had so many questions. Why did this have to happen to me? But somehow supportive adults around me showed me the way to continue living, to take very good care of my own life because I survived. That life is important, that life is worth living, And I'm most grateful. And I think I have used that life very well. I wanted to use my life to help people because I have experienced it with my own life, the importance, and value, the preciousness of life.
Having lived through unimaginable trauma, each Hibakusha would find their own way to handle what they had been subjected to.
Dr. Michihiko Hachiya and his wife would spend the months following the attack sleeping on the ground of a burned-out and windowless wing of the hospital with other newly homeless staff members, as they worked around the clock to treat their sick and injured patients.
Both the doctor and his wife would eventually recover from their injuries and radiation sickness, and in the years following, the doctor would be convinced by his colleagues to publish his journal in order for others to learn from his unique first-hand account of the medical impacts of a nuclear blast.
Hiroshima Diary was published in 1955; the same year the Soviet Union tested its first hydrogen bomb, a new type of nuclear weapon roughly 100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Dr. Hachiya would go on to use all the proceeds of the diary to create a scholarship fund for the many Hiroshima children orphaned by the war. The original manuscript of his journal is now housed in the former Hiroshima Communications Hospital, a section of which has since been converted into an A-bomb museum. Dr. Hachiya passed away in 1980 at the age of 76. While he describes that time as the worst thing he had ever endured, he closes his journal expressing his profound appreciation for life.
Dr. Michihiko Hachiya
I am a Buddhist, and since childhood have been taught to be resigned in the face of adversity. I have lost my home and my wealth, and I was wounded, but disregarding this, I consider it fortunate my wife and I are alive. I am grateful for this even though there was someone to die in every home in my neighborhood.
Despite her terrible burns, Shigeko Sasamori has also gone on to live a life marked by gratitude and giving to others. 10 years after that fateful day in August, Shigeko would be one of 30 young female Hibakusha selected by an American charity to be brought to the United States for advanced medical treatment. This group of Hibakusha would be dubbed by the American media as the “Hiroshima Maidens.”
Shigeko required skin grafts to correct extensive scar tissue which had fused together parts of her hands, neck, and face, limiting her speech and mobility. She would undergo 30 surgeries over the course of a year while living in New York with an American family. Her time spent in medical settings would inspire her to go into nursing when she returned to Japan. The primary sponsor of the Hiroshima Maidens was Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review; he invited Shigeko to return to the United States to continue her nursing career. She moved in with the Cousins, and would eventually consider Norman Cousins as an adoptive father, even naming her son Norman Cousins Sasamori.
Shigeko developed intestinal and thyroid cancer later in life, a relatively common occurrence for many survivors, but she has thankfully recovered, and today lives comfortably in Los Angeles.
After becoming a mother, Shigeko began to talk about her experiences in public, out of a desire to protect innocent children from ever having to experience what she went through at 13 years old.
I like people to know what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They drop the bomb on humans, not soldiers. That's not right. So I don't want to use nuclear weapons, never again. Why making more? That I'm angry. Don't use money for nuclear weapons, use money for people. Help each other.
Although she was physically uninjured, Setsuko Thurlow would suffer from the effects of radiation sickness for a long period after the bombing. Her struggles to get adequate care led her to become an advocate for better treatment of the Hibakusha in Japan. In 1954, when the U.S. hydrogen bomb test “Castle Bravo” caused radioactive fallout to reach Japan, she became an anti-nuclear activist. After attending University in Hiroshima, she moved to Virginia to study sociology, and later received a master's degree in social work from University of Toronto. She married a Canadian historian, Jim Thurlow with whom she had two sons. Today, this grandmother of two is a proud Japanese-Canadian citizen residing in Toronto.
Setsuko Thurlow has spent over half a century advocating against nuclear weapons, traveling the world sharing her testimony and warning government leaders about the danger of inaction in the face of these dangerous weapons. When she is asked why she continues, in her 80s, to work so hard to eradicate nuclear weapons, she tells people it is in honor of her sister and nephew.
So memory of that sister and her four-year-old child. And that's often shared with people because that memory just keep driving me, compels me. I can't stop. That should never happen to any human beings, That's just a burn to my retina.
Although she is a survivor, she has refused to be a victim, and instead has become a champion in a tireless campaign against the very weapons that traumatized her and hundreds of thousands of other people.
In 2016, after her decades of advocacy, Setsuko was instrumental in helping to draft the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear weapons, legislation put forth at the United Nations by the International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN.
The nuclear ban treaty, as it is often called, was an audacious strategy that many thought could never succeed. But on July 7, 2017, Setsuko was on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly when something she never expected to witness happened. The ban treaty passed.
I really couldn't believe it. People just jumped up and screamed, and that, you know hugged and kissed, and I couldn't do that. The first thing I thought about at that moment, I thought about the tens of thousands people, innocent people indiscriminately murdered by that bomb. And I was saying to them — Look! We've finally got here. We arrived here! And we're not going to let that happen again to any human being. We're not there, to the final point yet, but I said that we'll keep working. Just wait.
Later that year, Setsuko would join ICAN director Beatrice Fihn to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICANs work.
Standing on that stage in Oslo, Norway, Setsuko shared with the world what she had learned after a lifetime of resilience and activism.
Setsuko Thurlow (speaking at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony)
Through our agony and the sheer struggle to survive – and to rebuild our lives from the ashes — we Hibakusha became convinced that we must warn the world about these apocalyptic weapons. Time and again, we shared our testimonies.
When I was a 13-year-old girl, trapped in the smoldering rubble, I kept pushing. I kept moving toward the light. And I survived. Our light now is the ban treaty. To all in this hall and all listening around the world, I repeat those words that I heard called to me in the ruins of Hiroshima: “Don’t give up! Keep pushing! Keep Moving! See the light? Crawl towards it.”
On the seventh of July this year, I was overwhelmed with joy when a great majority of the world’s nations voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Having witnessed humanity at its worst, I witnessed that day, humanity at its best. We Hibakusha had been waiting for the ban for seventy-two years. Let this be the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.
LISA PERRY We know this was a hard episode to listen to, so if you made it this far, thank you. We want to express our immense gratitude to Setsuko Thurlow and Shigeko Sasamori for allowing us into their homes, and for trusting us to share their difficult stories with the world. If you liked our show and want to help raise awareness about these issues, please subscribe and share our show with your friends. The more people who know about the problem, the closer we can come to pushing for a solution. To learn more about our guests and their work, go to our website at www.atthebrink.org. And be sure to listen to our next episode, where we tell the full story of the UN nuclear ban, and talk with people who are working to abolish nuclear weapons.
At the Brink is made possible by the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. These organizations work tirelessly to combat the global threat of nuclear weapons.
We thank University of North Carolina Press for their permission to use of excerpts from HIROSHIMA DIARY: THE JOURNAL OF A JAPANESE PHYSICIAN, AUGUST 6–SEPTEMBER 30, 1945 by Michihiko Hachiya. Hiroshima Diary was translated and edited by Warner Wells, M.D. Copyright 1955 by the University of North Carolina Press, renewed 1983 by Warner Wells.
This podcast is a creation of the William J. Perry Project. This episode was produced by Jeff Large and Maggie Fischer from Come Alive Creative, and Ryan Hobler is our composer and audio engineer.
Thank you to our listeners — You're helping us to try and save the world one podcast at a time. I'm Lisa Perry. Thanks for listening
Hibakusha (Hiroshima survivor)
Dr. Ira Helfand
Emergency Medicine physician; co-founder Physicians for Social Responsibility; co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
Hibakusha; co-founder, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN)
- Read Hiroshima, by John Hersey
- Read Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6-September 30, 1945, by Michihiko Hachiya M.D.
- Listen to Dr. Helfand’s Ted Talk, Can We Prevent Nuclear War?
- Visit the website Hibakusha Stories. Here are links to the stories of Shigeko Sasamori and Setsuko Thurlow