For survivor, memories of horror will never die

Remembering Hiroshima

July 31, 2005|By Chiaki Kawajiri | Chiaki Kawajiri,Sun Staff

Editor's note: Sun photojournalist Chiaki Kawajiri recently visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, Japan, dedicated to the memory of the dropping of an atomic bomb there 60 years ago this week. There, she heard the story told by Setsuko Iwamoto, 75, who was a teenager when the bomb made her hometown synonymous with the horrors of war.

SETSUKO IWAMOTO saw a light and another blue light. Then she lost consciousness.

At 8:15 a.m., Aug. 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was used as a weapon for the first time in history. Its blast, heat and radiation killed about 140,000 people. The number - which continues to climb today as people die of injuries and disease from the bombing - includes Koreans, who were forcibly brought to Japan as laborers, and American and other Allied POWs.

Hiroshima was destroyed instantly.

Iwamoto, then a 15-year-old schoolgirl, awoke to the cries of children.

"Mommy, mommy, help me, mommy, help me," she heard.

As she stumbled from the school's debris, the voices faded.

Although it was morning, it became dark. It was quiet for a moment. Then the school was filled with children's screams.

Iwamoto couldn't see anything. Then she saw her teacher, who despite her skin coming off was still trying to save children.

"Go to the mountain," her teacher directed. So, Iwamoto started to walk.

The skin from one of Iwamoto's arms was coming off. Half of her body was burned. Her throat was dry and painful, but she kept on walking.

She passed by many people with melted skin. Skin separated from their backs and hung low to make them look as if they were wearing skirts. Skin from their legs was just barely attached to their heels.

Some people had their eyes popped out, and others had their intestines coming out of their abdomens. Some had been pierced by hundreds of shards of glass. They walked like ghosts, she said.

The dead were everywhere.

Some saw their loved ones dying in front of their eyes but couldn't help them, couldn't save them.

The burning drove people into the water to relieve their pain. They died there. The seven rivers in Hiroshima were filled with bodies.

There were many children in the river, screaming with pain.

A teacher told them to sing a song for the emperor - "Our body belongs to the emperor."

Soon, those little heads dipped under the water and never came up. Iwamoto's friends asked her to go into the river with them. Although she was in agony from the burns, she refused and kept walking toward Mount Hiji because that is what her teacher wanted her to do.

Iwamoto never saw those friends again.

As she walked toward the mountain, Iwamoto came across badly burned young mothers who pleaded, "Please, please save my baby."

She wished she could. She, too, was suffering from severe pain. She couldn't save any of these babies. This haunts her still, 60 years later.

There were babies who were suckling from mothers' breasts, not knowing their mothers were dead.

Bodies were everywhere. Dead mothers had their arms around their dead children. Other small dead children clung tightly to each other.

As Iwamoto walked closer to the mountain, one lady saw her walking barefoot. She said, "Oh, dear, you have no skin on your feet." She gave Iwamoto her shoes. But Iwamoto's burned feet hurt so badly that she couldn't wear them.

When she arrived at the mountain, Iwamoto found a temporary aid station. She rested there until her family found her on Aug. 15, 1945, the day World War II ended.

At the aid station, other wounded survivors asked Iwamoto to pick maggots off their bodies. In those hot August summer days, flies laid eggs in the badly burned flesh.

You couldn't find the eggs. But when they hatched - and it was painful- you could pick the flies up with chopsticks.

When her grandparents finally found her, they took her to their home. Since they couldn't find any medicine for her wounds, her grandmother used cucumber juice, which she heard was good for the burns. Food was scarce; Iwamoto didn't know how her grandmother got the cucumbers.

The burns were so painful that Iwamoto cried and told her grandmother she didn't want her arms and legs anymore. Soon, her hair was all gone. She was bleeding inside and suffering from diarrhea. A huge growth appeared on top of her head. It kept bleeding and soaked her pillow in red.

Still, there was no medicine. Her grandmother somehow found herbs that she heard helped control tumors. She marinated them in salt and applied them to the growth. Then her grandfather took his razor and cut it off her head. It was the size of a baseball.

During this ordeal, she never saw a doctor. But the care from her grandparents healed her enough.

That fall, children were called by the newspaper to return to the school site to find and pick up their classmates' bones so that they could be properly buried.

There were so many children's bones by the doorway of school. She realized it could've been her bones there, and it could have been somebody else picking up her bones. Tears came running.

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