Hiroshima's Survivors

A 4-part series introducing listeners to living survivors of the atomic bomb blast.  Originally aired on PRI's The World in 2006.

This four-part series introduces listeners to some of the more-than-250,000 living survivors of the atomic bomb blast, including a woman who has only recently gone public with her memories, Korean immigrants whose status as outsiders has made their ordeal even more difficult, and Japanese-American Hiroshima survivors now living in California.  Below is the transcript of the four-part series.

Listen to part one of the four-part series:


Sixty years ago this Saturday a US warplane dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Little Boy was followed three days later by "Fat Man," which exploded over Nagasaki.

Six days after that Japan surrendered to U.S. forces. The Pacific War was over.

Between them the two bombs killed 120,000 people outright and close to a quarter million more over time. Tens of thousands died from radiation sickness.

We're going to spend this week in the company of some survivors of the Hiroshima blast. Most of them were children in 1945. What they experienced on the morning of August 6th changed them for ever.

Hiroshima is a place whose reputation precedes it -- overwhelms it, in fact.

It's easy to forget that this is a living city.

Hiroshima has rebuilt itself, as so many Japanese cities have done after wars or natural disasters. This city, though, could never conceal its history behind sparkling new buildings. Not without changing its name.

In any case, Hiroshima deliberately makes connections with its past. The streetcars are part of that. You can still ride one of four refurbished streetcars that survived the atomic bomb, though most of the city's fleet are ultramodern.

There are other reminders of Hiroshima's past. A couple of half-destroyed buildings, a memorial, a museum. But many of the living reminders - the people themselves-- are silent.

Akiko Naono grew up here, knowing that her aunt had lived through the atomic bomb. She says her aunt doesn't talk about the experience. "There was only one time when I was a high school student, I begged her to tell me her story. That was the only time she told me her story. She just says she doesn't want to talk about it."

Until recently, that was also the case with Sueko Hada. Hada says "I didn't talk about it, at least in a formal way. But I would watch the commemoration on TV with my children every August 6th and I'd talk about it a bit then. No details though."

On this day, Hada has agreed to meet us for an interview. She is a small, thin woman, dressed in a black trouser suit. Hada has brought along her daughter, her two granddaughters and her one-year-old great-granddaughter. The story she tells us is horrific. It contains many details that even her granddaughters didn't know before this day.

In August 1945, Hada lived with her parents and her four elder sisters in a house that was barely a half mile from the point where the bomb hit.

On that morning, her parents had already left the house to go to work. She and sisters were eating breakfast.

Suddenly there was a flash of light, followed by a tremendous explosion. That's all Hada remembers of the blast. She lost consciousness.

When she came to, she found herself trapped under a collapsed wall. Her sisters were, too. Sueko Hada was seven years old when this happened.

Sueko Hada: "I managed to claw my way out from under the rubble," Hada says. "By now, our house was on fire and the cries of my sisters were getting fainter. I left to look for help. When I went outside I saw that everything had totally changed. Although it had been a beautiful morning, it looked like twilight now. Everyone was injured, badly injured. No-one was helping other people, they just looked after themselves. I myself was bleeding from a neck wound. There was blood all over the white clothes I was wearing.

"I wanted to return to the house, but I got lost - the landscape had totally changed. I didn't know which way to go! The only thing I could do was follow the other injured people. Still to this day, my sisters' voices haunt me. I can hear them saying 'Please call for help!' That's the most painful thing - that I ran away from my sisters. I've felt guilty about this since that day. I'll feel guilty as long as I live. I will never be happy."

None of Sueko Hada's sisters survived. Hada herself was in a daze.

She was utterly unable to comprehend this new world, inhabited by strangers. "I didn't recognize anyone," she says, "so all I could do was follow the others. I saw terrible things. There were people with their eyeballs hanging out of their sockets. There were others whose cheeks had been ripped open from the corners of their mouths to their ears. I saw a young mother running with a headless baby on her back. I saw someone else with his belly ripped open and intestines spilling out. Most of these people looked like ghosts - it truly was a vision of Hell. But pretty soon, I got used to seeing these things. Everyone did."

Hada eventually made it to a makeshift camp outside of town. She stayed there for a few days. "More and more injured people were being brought in every day. I just waited there, always hoping that my parents to come to pick me up. But then, suddenly, the refugee camp was shut down because the military thought it would be targeted in air raids.

Sueko Hada: "I had nowhere to go. A soldier took pity on me, gave me some money and told me to take the train to his grandmother's house. But on the train a woman stole all my belongings. Then someone else offered to take me to my elementary school. There I met one of one my teachers. He'd returned to the school to look for missing students. It was the first time since the A-bomb had hit that I had come across anyone I knew. When I saw him, I felt as if I met a Buddha in Hell."

Hada's teacher was alive, but her parents weren't. Her entire family had been wiped out by the bomb.

Sueko Hada grew up very quickly after that. She knew she was on her own.

A few years after Atomic bomb struck, she decided she'd have to get married to survive. "At the time I was being raised by relatives. It was very hard for them, especially after they had a baby. I need they had to reduce the number of mouths to feed. round about then, a man offered to take me as his wife. I said yes, and we got married the month I graduated from junior high."

Hada had children, but she was often distant from them.

Only rarely did she talk about what she'd been through. "Even though he was little, my son cried when I told him my story. I think he was in third grade. He cried and said 'I'm so sorry mom.' Generally, I didn't want other people to know I was a Hiroshima orphan. It wasn't respectable to be an orphan. Also, a lot of Japanese people believed that if you'd been exposed to A-bomb radiation you had a contagious disease. I know many other survivors who have concealed their past from friends and neighbors."

Hada, though, no longer conceals her past. She even talks about her health problems, often the most sensitive issue for A-bomb survivors. She's had many illnesses. In 1987, doctors told her she wouldn't live five years.

Sueko Hada hasn't exactly come to terms with her life story, but she does want to make sense of it by retelling it. This interview is as much for the family members she'd brought with her as for anyone else. Hada's granddaughter Yuko is 23.

Yuko says that she, like all children in Japan, learned about the A-bomb at school. But lectures in class, she says, don't compare with hearing it direct from your own grandmother.

Yuko's, elder sister, Yoshiko, says she now feels she has inherited her grandmother's memory. Holding her one-year-old baby she says "It's my responsibility to pass this on to my child."

The baby is named Luna, and she's a delightful surprise for the 67-year-old Hada. "I always thought I would die in my forties," she says. "I never imagined that I would be able to see my great grandchild."

These lighter moments are rare, and they're often followed by dark observations. It happens several times during our interview. First contentment, then foreboding.

Sueko Hada: "Today, I'm so grateful to see my family living in happiness," she says. "But I get nervous because I was at the height of my happiness the day before the A-bomb was dropped. Our family had a meal together for the first time in four months. And then the next day, my life was destroyed."

There seems to be enough tragedy in Hada's story for an entire generation, but in fact there are ten of thousands of people with similar stories.

Like Hada, they describe what they saw as a hell populated by ghosts.

Like her, they are unable to feel happy.

Like her, they worry that radiation is still in their bodies.

Akiko Naono -- the woman who coaxed a few A-bomb memories out of her aunt- has heard the stories of more than a hundred survivors. She recently compiled those in a book. Naono uses the Japanese word "hibakusha," which means bomb-affected people.

Akiko Naono: "Every time I talk with hibakusha I feel so painful because in a way they are reliving their trauma again."

But many survivors feel they have to do that now. They're concerned that their stories will die with them, and that their suffering will have been for nought. So, they're speaking of their experiences for the very first time.

Akiko Naono: "One aged hibakusha literally told me 'now I've told you my story, I can die in peace.'"

The story told, the memory preserved.