A few survived to cry after atom bombs fell 50 YEARS AFTER THE ATOMIC BOMB

July 30, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

HIROSHIMA, Japan -- They were young and strong and most of all lucky -- if that is the correct term to describe people who saw their families die. Who saw a world end in fire, who wished they were dead themselves. They are the survivors, the people who 50 years ago experienced the atomic bombings near ground zero.

Nothing has ever matched the speed of that destruction. At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, the center of Hiroshima became mostly ash, and before that minute had passed more than 130,000 people were injured so badly by radiation or blast that they were dead or would die within four months.

On Aug. 9 at 11:02 a.m., it was Nagasaki's turn. Another 70,000 people would die. The debates about whether and how the United States should have used the bombs, nicknamed Little Boy and Fat Man, were for a future that just then seemed hard to imagine.

There was a war, destruction and unusual horrors -- that is what people knew. For weeks, even years, the survivors did not know what had hit them. All they knew was what was gone.

Suzuko Numata was 21, living in Hiroshima. The war had already turned against Japan, but in August 1945 little news circulated at home about the country's defeats.

Not that there weren't hints. Rice had been replaced at mealtimes by a paste of soybeans. Radishes and yams -- the delicacies of earlier years -- had disappeared. But the bad news was discounted as darkness before dawn.

"We were taught we would never lose," Ms. Numata says, "and we never doubted it."

She worked at the city's communications center. It housed the central post office and the telephone exchange.

Her father worked there, too, and every workday began with her washing desktops. Within a city constructed mostly of wood, the communications center was a rarity, a structure made of reinforced concrete. It had sturdiness that might withstand a bomb blast.

And bombings were expected. Hiroshima was an important army center, and the air raid sirens wailed several times a day to warn of the approach of U.S. aircraft. But the planes always chose other targets.

The city's residents considered themselves lucky: the saturation bombings that had set Tokyo and Yokohama alight had never arrived.

A few minutes after midnight Aug. 6, the sirens sounded again. Ms. Numata and her family stayed in a shelter until the all-clear signal, at 2:10 a.m. It was another night that offered little rest.

As Ms. Numata was leaving the shelter, the sky still dark, the B-29 bomber nicknamed Enola Gay was lifting off from Tinian Island carrying a single bomb. Little Boy -- a long, tapered cylinder with tail fins and a uranium core -- was on its way.

Ms. Numata heard the sirens again in the morning. She thought about staying in a shelter but decided in favor of heading to work. The all-clear came at 7:31 a.m.

The Enola Gay and its two escort planes had been detected by radar, but the Japanese air force decided to husband its limited strength. So the sirens did not sound again.

A beautiful flash

Ms. Numata was at the communications building at 8:15, rinsing towels. She recalls being conscious of a beautifully colored flash -- an unnatural prism of red, yellow, orange, green, blue. Then of a wind. Then of darkness. Then of a terrible pressure from the air.

She was told later that she had cried for help. Some men pulled her from debris just ahead of a rolling fire, the flames moving as fast as ocean waves. She heard her father shouting her name. He saw what she could no longer sense: her left foot was almost severed at the ankle.

The miracle was the presence of a doctor, and to save her he amputated the foot. Despite the lack of anesthetic, she felt nothing. She lay on the ground. When her senses returned, she could hear pleas for water and cries of agony. She could see people so badly burned they ceased to appear human.

For three days she lay there, and a black drizzle of fallout rained on her and Hiroshima. Another passing doctor saw her leg, saw that an infection was spreading. She remembers that someone held a candle to light the doctor's work. This time the amputation was above the knee and men had to hold her down.

An infirmary of sorts was established in the remains of the communications building. So unknown, so dark was this world that no one could understand the sufferings or promise that they would end.

The 100 or so people in the concrete rubble saw their gums

bleed and their hair fall out and felt skin become brittle, as if in three days they had aged 30 years.

No one knew that the affliction was from radiation.

The building became less of an infirmary, more of a morgue. Bodies were piled on top of bodies. Maggots infested the wounds of the living. Of the people there, perhaps 90 died. Ms. Numata was moved from the wreckage to hospitals. It would be many operations and two years before she returned home.

She would become a teacher. Within a few years, marriage seemed a possibility. "It was discussed, but the man's parents opposed it," she says.

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