“Everybody Else in the World Was Dead”: Hiroshima’s Legacy

Posted on August 6, 2019 By

(compiled by John Whitehead)

The American atomic bombing of Hiroshima was 74 years ago today, August 6th. To mark the anniversary, we share stories from bombing survivors, in Japanese hibakusha (“bomb-affected people”).

Hibakusha Stories

Sadako Sasaki, the young girl who died of leukemia (probably caused by the atom bomb) after completing her 1,000 crane origamis, 1955

Dr. Michihiko Hachiya was at home that morning, which was “still, warm, and beautiful. Shimmering leaves, reflecting sunlight from a cloudless sky, made a pleasant contrast with shadows in my garden as I gazed absently through wide-flung doors opening to the south . . .

“Suddenly, a strong flash of light startled me—and then another. So well does one recall little things that I remember vividly how a stone lantern in the garden became brilliantly lit…

“Garden shadows disappeared. The view where a moment before all had been so bright and sunny was now dark and hazy.” (Hiroshima Diary)


Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a widowed seamstress with three children, was in her house when “everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen…[T]he reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step (the house was 1,350 yards, or three-quarters of a mile, from the center of the explosion) when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house.

“Timbers fell around her as she landed…everything became dark, for she was buried…She rose up and freed herself. She heard a child cry, “Mother, help me!,” and saw her youngest—Myeko, the five-year-old—buried up to her breast and unable to move. As Mrs. Nakamura started frantically to claw her way toward the baby, she could see or hear nothing of her other children.”

Mrs. Nakamura “crawled across the debris, hauled at timbers, and flung tiles aside, in a hurried effort to free [Myeko]. Then, from what seemed to be caverns far below, she heard two small voices crying, “Taskukete! Tasukete! Help! Help!” (John Hersey, Hiroshima)


A first-grade girl tried to help her mother, who was trapped under their house’s burning wreckage:

“I was determined not to escape without my mother. But the flames were steadily spreading and my clothes were already on fire and I couldn’t stand it any longer. So screaming, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ I ran wildly into the middle of the flames. No matter how far I went it was a sea of fire all around and there was no way to escape.

“So beside myself I jumped into our [civil defense] water tank. The sparks were falling everywhere so I put a piece of tin over my head to keep out the fire. The water in the tank was hot like a bath. Beside me there were four or five other people who were all calling someone’s name.

“While I was in the water tank everything became like a dream and sometime or other I became unconscious…

“Five days after that [I learned that] Mother had finally died just as I had left her.” (Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb)


Mikio Inoue remembers “We were walking along the streetcar line at the foot of Hijiyama. Wherever we went we saw dead horses and bodies lying here and there. The remaining fires were giving off a lot of smoke. Not a soul was in sight. It was when I crossed Miyuki Bridge that I saw Professor Takenaka standing at the foot of the bridge. He was almost naked, wearing nothing but shorts, and he had a rice ball in his right hand. Beyond the streetcar line, the northern area was covered by red fire burning against the sky. Far away from the line, Ote-machi was also a sea of fire.

“That day Professor Takenaka had not gone to Hiroshima University and the A-bomb exploded when he was at home. He tried to rescue his wife who was trapped under a roofbeam but all his efforts were in vain. The fire was threatening him also. His wife pleaded, ‘Run away, dear!’ He was forced to desert his wife and escape from the fire….

“His naked figure, standing there before the flames with that rice ball looked to me as a symbol of the modest hope of human beings.” (from Unforgettable Fire: Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors)


A five-year old girl recalled that

“The whole city…was burning. Black smoke was billowing up and we could hear the sound of big things exploding…Those dreadful streets. The fires were burning. There was a strange smell all over. Blue-green balls of fire were drifting around. I had a terrible lonely feeling that everybody else in the world was dead and only we were still alive.” (Quoted in Rhodes, Making of the Atomic Bomb)


Yasuko Yamagata remembers “[The morning after the bombing] I started from school toward the ruins of my house in Nobori-cho. I passed by Hijiyama. There were few people to be seen in the scorched field. I saw for the first time a pile of burned bodies in a water tank by the entrance to the broadcasting station. Then I was suddenly frightened by a terrible sight on the street… There was a charred body of a woman standing frozen in a running posture with one leg lifted and her baby tightly clutched in her arms. Who on earth could she be?” (from Unforgettable Fire)


More hibakusha stories are available online.


Hiroshima’s Legacy

People have drawn notable lessons from the Hiroshima bombing and the additional nuclear bombing of Nagasaki on August 9th:

“Reference was made to my agreeing that abortion is taking a human life, which it is. However, let us remember that war is also legalized killing, that the pilot that dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed human life. He got medals for it. We bless our troops when they go into battle to kill human beings, so that the taking of human life…is not a strange behavior in a society.” (Dr. Frank Behrend, whose practice included abortions).


“Presidents, members of Congress, and other leaders have made life or death decisions that resulted in thousands of deaths. Some of these decisions – such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – are justified by many Americans, even if many deaths occurred…Somehow we can tolerate our leaders making life or death decisions affecting many lives when they are faced with difficult situations such as international aggression. We find understanding and empathy for them if they make a mistake – even if their decision brings death to other human beings, yet we don’t want to let a woman make a decision affecting only her own life and the life within her.” (Beverly Wildung Harrison, Christian ethics professor, Union Theological Seminary)


“How do we know our own identity? By limits; by boundaries; by law; by order. And I think we lost all of these at 8:15 in the morning August the 6th 1945 when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. That bomb blotted out boundaries of life and death, civilian and the military; and trust among nations. And so abortion from that point on is defended on the ground that one may do whatever he pleases.” (Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “The Approach of Midnight”)


“[The atomic bombing’s] proponents even now justify it primarily . . . not by denying the intention of killing the innocent, but by reference to casualties prevented, a consequentialist justification. . . . [thus passing over] the subsequent history of our nation, a history that includes further acts of indiscriminate killing during the Vietnam War, a standing resolution to destroy the Soviet Union if it were first to attack us with nuclear weapons, and the eventual adoption by the nation in its domestic affairs of death as a solution to be embraced for its consequences—before birth, as in abortion or human embryo destructive research—or at the end of life, in [Physician-Assisted Suicide] and euthanasia. These are, sadly, natural choices for a country swayed by consequentialist justifications; the way to those choices was paved by the literally catastrophic choice to destroy Japanese cities (as before them, German cities) for the sake of military gain.” (Christopher O. Tollefson, “On the Dangers of Thanking God for the Atomic Bomb”)


“I was sitting in the wrong end of a police wagon the first time I questioned nuclear weapons . . .

“We had been protesting abortion. I was thinking about nuclear weapons because a couple of those in the bus were peace activists who had long rap sheets from years of anti-war protests. I, on the other hand, was a Republican-voting, independent Baptist church-attending, conservative-leaning, law-abiding (well, until now) kind of Christian. I was awed—and grateful—that these peaceniks would join the likes of me in common cause against another kind of violence. My new friends adhered to the ‘seamless garment’ philosophy, also called the consistent life ethic, one committed to the protection of all human life, whether from war, poverty, racism, capital punishment, euthanasia, or abortion.” (Karen Swallow Prior, “Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian”)


For more from John Whitehead on similar topics, see:

Rejecting Mass Murder: Looking Back on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The Wages of War: How Abortion Came to Japan

See Karen Swallow Prior’s article in our blog, with a link to the full article:

Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons



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