Yasuaki Yamashita was a six year old school boy living in Nagasaki whose world was shattered on August 9th, 1945 when the second atomic bomb was dropped by an American B-29 three days after the bombing of Hiroshima.
Yasuaki was playing in the mountains catching insects when a friend told him to be careful because of the overhead planes. After running home, he escaped to the family shelter and heard a huge crashing noise that appeared to be like thousands of lightning bolts striking at the same time.
Feeling his mother's body covering his body, Yasuaki heard another huge explosion and then total silence, noticing that the windows and doors had all been shattered and the roof had disappeared.
His sister's head was covered in glass and she was bleeding, and she said she felt she was covered in oil; a sign of possible chemical weapons. Though she had a prosthetic leg, she was able to run with Yasuaki to take refuge in the mountains, where they watched the city of Nagasaki burn.
Yasuaki movingly spoke of his experience this past Monday at the University of Tulsa as part of an event sponsored by Hibakusha Stories, a UN affiliated NGO dedicated to educating a new generation of students on the horrors of the atomic bomb and empowering them with tools to build a world free of nuclear weapons. (http://www.hibakushastories.org/)
On the day the bomb was dropped, Yasuaki remembered a "tremendous and indescribable scene of desolation in which everything in the city burned up," and which was followed by a "terrible time when there was acute food shortages."
One of Yasuaki's young friends was so badly burned on his back that his wounds became infected with maggots, causing him to die two days later. Yasuaki's father was killed as he had been working in a naval shipyard and was instructed to go near the epicenter to help the victims.
Though Yasuaki and his sister survived, he faced health problems and discrimination that prompted him to move to Mexico where he has worked for the last 40 years as an artist.
Yasuaki stressed that people at the time did not know much about radioactivity and its effects and that many who were in the bomb's vicinity died later from leukemia and other cancers and others committed suicide because they could not bear the survivors guilt or discrimination.
Yasuaki's talk was followed by the testimony of Shigeko Sasamori who spent the morning of August 6th, 1945 creating fire breaks in the city of Hiroshima with her junior high school class. When the Enola Gay US B 29 bomber appeared overhead, Shigeko told her classmate to look up at the plane in the sky. Just at that moment, she saw a white parachute dropping from the plane. Then all of a sudden, she was blown back by the force of the explosion, and lost her consciousness. When she awoke, everything was pitch black, though Shigeko was able to make out some people walking slowly, with their skin hanging from their bones, bleeding profusely.
Trying to get back to her school, Shigeko sat down near a big tree and again lost consciousness. With her face burned beyond recognition and swollen "like a football", she spent the next five days in a big auditorium where an unknown person brought her to be rescued or to die. Her parents combed the city looking for her, eventually finding her through her persistence to repeat her address and say her name over and over.
Along with many of her classmates, Shigeko's grandmother died in the atomic attacks and an older sister got cancer and died.
In 1955, Shigeko was brought to New York as part of a group of young women known as the Hiroshima Maidens, sponsored by author and activist Norman Cousins, and she underwent numerous plastic surgeries. She has since survived three cancer operations. When her son was born, she told him "you will never go to war to kill other people and kill yourself." She herself has worked tirelessly for nuclear disarmament and peace and urged others in the audience on Monday night to do the same.
Much historical scholarship has found that the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki was unnecessary for the U.S. to win the Pacific War as Japan had already expressed willingness to surrender. It was largely gratuitous, a first strike in the Cold War designed to send a message about U.S. power to the Russians (See Gar Alperovitz' classic study, Atomic Diplomacy).
If one reads the scholarship carefully, one can also find the war in the Pacific was not necessarily a just one, as the FDR administration can be seen to have provoked Japan through a naval buildup in the Pacific and economic embargo that legitimized the actions of hardliners in Japan. These policies were undertaken because Japan threatened U.S. desires to control the Asia Pacific, considered key to world domination going back to the early 20th century.
Thomas A. Bailey, a sympathetic historian noted that "Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor....He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient's own good...because the masses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats."
Hibakusha Stories is a wonderful organization which offers a rare opportunity for audiences to see the humanity of the people whose cities and communities were destroyed in the atomic attacks.
The hibakusha represent a voice of conscience in our troubled world today. They speak not only for the victims of atomic horror, but many other victims of U.S. military power and war more broadly.
Their warning about nuclear weapons is especially dire since the U.S. has embarked on a trillion dollar nuclear weapons modernization program as part of a new Cold War with Russia.
If we are wise, we will listen to the Hibakusha and collectively act to prevent future Hiroshimas and Nagasakis and related horrors from ever happening again.
Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).