SGI Quarterly

Issue 81 | July 2015

A Long Journey | Setsuko Thurlow

  • Peace
  • Disarmament
  • Nuclear Abolition

Photo credit: © Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Atomic bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow delivered the following testimony at the Truman Legacy Symposium, held in Florida on May 16, 2014 to assess Harry S. Truman’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons against Japan.

On that fateful day, August 6, 1945, I was 13 years old and a member of the student mobilization program. We were at the army headquarters, 1.8 kilometers from ground zero. At 8:15 a.m., as Major Yanai was giving us a pep talk at the assembly, suddenly, I saw in the window a blinding bluish-white flash, and I still remember to this day the sensation of floating in the air. As I regained consciousness in the silence and darkness, I found myself pinned by the collapsed building. I could not move and I knew I faced death. I began to hear my classmates' faint cries: "Mother, help me." "God, help me." Then, suddenly, I felt someone's hands touching my left shoulder and heard a man saying, "Don't give up! Keep moving! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl toward it and get out as quickly as possible." As I crawled out, the ruins were on fire. Most of my classmates in that room were burned alive. A soldier ordered me and two other girls who had survived to escape to the nearby hills.

Outside, I looked around. Although it was morning, it was as dark as twilight because of the dust and smoke rising in the air. I saw streams of ghostly figures, slowly shuffling from the center of the city toward the nearby hills. They did not look like human beings; their hair stood straight up, and they were naked and tattered, bleeding, burned, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands and some with their stomachs burst open, their intestines hanging out. We students joined the ghostly procession, carefully stepping over the dead and dying. There was a deathly silence broken only by the moans of the injured and their pleas for water. The foul stench of burned skin filled the air.

We managed to escape to the foot of the hill where there was an army training ground about the size of two football fields. It was covered with the dead and injured, who were desperately begging, often in faint whispers, "Water, water, please give me water." When darkness fell, we sat on the hillside and all night watched the entire city burn, numbed by the massive, grotesque scale of death and suffering we had witnessed.

It was a temptation to quit and remain silent, but I came out of this experience with a stronger resolve to work for peace and disarmament.

My father left town early that morning, my mother was rescued from under our collapsed home, my sister and her four-year-old son were burned beyond recognition while on their way to the doctor's office, and an aunt and two cousins were found as skeletons. My sister-in-law is still missing. We rejoiced in the survival of my uncle and his wife, but about 10 days later, they died with purple spots all over their bodies, their internal organs seeming to have been liquefied. My own age-group of over 8,000 grade seven and eight students from all the city's high schools were engaged in the task of clearing fire lanes in the center of Hiroshima. Many of them were killed instantly by the heat of 4,000 degrees Celsius. Many were simply carbonized or vaporized. Radiation, the unique characteristic of the atomic bombing, affected people in mysterious and random ways, with some dying instantly and others weeks, months or years later from its delayed effects. And radiation is still killing survivors today.

Thus, my beloved city of Hiroshima suddenly became desolation, with heaps of ash and rubble, skeletons and blackened corpses. Out of a population of 360,000, most of them noncombatant, women, children and elderly became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. By the end of 1945, some 140,000 had perished. As of now, at least 260,000 have died in Hiroshima alone from the effects of the blast, heat and radiation. As I use the numbers of the dead, it pains me deeply. Reducing the dead to numbers trivializes their precious lives and negates their human dignity.

Not only did people have to endure the physical devastation of near starvation, homelessness, lack of medical care, rapidly spreading social discrimination against survivors as "contaminated ones by nuclear poison," total lack of service by the Japanese government, the collapse of the authoritarian, militaristic social system and the sudden introduction to a democratic way of life, but also they suffered from psychosocial control by the Allied Forces Occupation Authority following Japan's surrender. The Occupation Authorities established the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the sole purpose of this commission was to study the effects of radiation of the bombs on human beings, and not to provide treatment to the injured. Needless to say, the survivors felt they were treated like guinea pigs not once but twice, first as the targets of the atomic bombing, then as the subjects of the medical research. The Occupation Authorities also censored media coverage of survivors' suffering and confiscated their diaries, literary writings, films, photographs, medical records, etc.—32,000 items in all. The triumphant scientific and technological achievement in making the atomic bomb could freely be written, but the human suffering inflicted by the atomic bomb was not to be heard by the world. Following the massive trauma of the bombing, survivors had to repress themselves in silence and isolation, and were thus deprived of the normal process of grieving.

Display photograph of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb explosion at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. [Photo credit: © Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures/Uniphoto Press]

With the return of full sovereignty to Japan in 1952, a flood of political, scientific, medical and historical information became available, enabling scholars, researchers and journalists to see survivors' experiences in historical perspective and global context. They became aware that the main motive for the atomic bombings was political rather than military. They rejected the American myth that the use of the bombs was necessary to avoid a costly invasion of Japan and saved lives: firstly, because the invasion (Operation Olympic) was not scheduled until November 1, almost three months after the actual bombings; secondly, the American government knew that the Japanese military organization had practically ceased to function; thirdly, they also knew that the Japanese government had made initial overtures for a negotiated surrender; and fourthly, that the unclarified status of the Emperor in an unconditional surrender was the main stumbling block for the Japanese. Also extremely important was the US desire to position itself as the dominant power in East Asia in the postwar period. In addition, some American decision makers wanted to test the new weapons of two different kinds on two cities that had been purposely left intact. With the understanding of the historical perspective, the survivors saw themselves as pawns in the opening moves of the Cold War rather than as sacrifices on the altar of peace.

Speaking Out

On the cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is an inscription which reads, "Rest in peace; the error will not be repeated." What error and whose error were purposely left ambiguous. Although some wanted to point an accusing finger at the US, a consensus was reached to view the issue on a higher philosophical plane, as a universal need for nothing less than a cultural transformation away from our obsession with violence and war.

We hibakusha, survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, are convinced that no human being should ever have to experience the inhumanity, illegality, immorality and cruelty of the atomic bomb as we did, and that our mission is to warn the world about the threat of this ultimate evil. We believe that humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist and that it is our moral imperative to abolish nuclear weapons in order to secure a safe, clean and just world for future generations. With this conviction, we have been speaking out around the world over the past several decades for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

In the summer of 1954, I arrived at a college in the US on a scholarship. At a press interview, I gave my frank opinion about the US hydrogen bomb test conducted at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which caused the islanders severe public health problems and environmental damage. In addition, the test caused radiation-induced illness to every member of the crew on a nearby Japanese fishing boat, as well as the death of one member. As a result of my remarks, I began to receive unsigned hate letters. This was my introduction to the US. This hostile reaction forced me to do some soul searching. It was a temptation to quit and remain silent, but I came out of this experience with a stronger resolve to work for peace and disarmament.

I was deeply disturbed by the way many Americans uncritically and blindly followed the government line justifying the atomic bombings. It was a chilling reminder for me of the wartime behavior of Japanese in unthinkingly swallowing government propaganda and brainwashing.

Examining the current reality of the world's efforts for nuclear disarmament, we hibakusha are dismayed and disturbed at the lack of tangible progress toward that goal.

During this lonely time, I was able to come across the writings of some scholars with profound analyses of the issue. One of them was Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, who said: "The bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were viewed as contributions to the ending of a popular and just war. Therefore they have never been appraised in the necessary way as atrocities. They have never been understood as they certainly would have been understood had Hiroshima and Nagasaki been located (in an Allied country). Somehow we have got to create that awareness, so that Hiroshima is understood to have been on the same level of depravity, and in many ways far more dangerous to us as a species and as a civilization than was even Auschwitz."

The failure to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as atrocities, regarding those two 1945 bombs as "good bombs" that contributed to winning and ending a just war, helped the American conscience accept the subsequent development of nuclear weapons, thus linking the justification of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the disastrous nuclear arms race and the Cold War.

Examining the current reality of the world's efforts for nuclear disarmament, we hibakusha are dismayed and disturbed at the lack of tangible progress toward that goal. We see the nuclear-weapon states' lack of political will for nuclear disarmament demonstrated by the non-ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; noncompliance with Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; the 17-year deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament; the failure to negotiate a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East; the continued modernization of nuclear arsenals, etc. Thus, a small number of nuclear-weapon states have kept the world hostage in fear and anxiety while squandering trillions of dollars away from meeting human needs in order to build ever more destructive weapons of mass destruction. This is an intolerable and unacceptable reality.

What should be our response to the nuclear status quo? I have shared my painful memories of the impact and consequences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In the 70 years since then, nuclear-weapon states have developed much more sophisticated nuclear weapons, 17,000 of them, enough to kill every one of us on the planet many times over. Is it not about time we do some soul-searching, critical thinking and positive action about the choice we make for human survival? I urge you, younger people in particular, to do just that.