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A-Bomb Survivors Tell Their Stories in Brooklyn

Morgan Schweitzer

You cannot go wrong peddling tales about zombies and the undead these days. Last week, a crowd of teenagers sat in the basement gym of a Brooklyn high school listening to a story about the real thing, their jaws slack and eyes wide.

Setsuko Thurlow, 78, a native of Japan, leaned forward in her plastic folding chair, speaking in a halting, quiet voice. “They didn’t look like human beings,” she was telling the group crowded around her. “They looked like ghosts. They were covered in white dust. Their hands were pointing upward to the sky and they were burned through. The burned flesh was hanging from their bones. Those who could still walk, they walked like this—” and here she raised her bent arms before her, hands level to her shoulders, palms down the way the crazed zombies do in the movies. Not a snicker was heard. The ninth- and tenth-graders stared at her hands.

“They were walking or shuffling,” she continued, “with the most terrible injuries. Some people’s eyes were liquefied. Some of them, their eyeballs were in their hands. Many more people were just sitting or lying on the ground among the dead bodies and people who were near death.”

All of this horror, Thurlow told them, she saw when she was younger than they are now. “I was a girl of 13,” she said. “Can you imagine?”

Not many of us can. This real-life day of the living dead famously began on the morning of August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan, when the first atomic bomb was dropped. It does not get talked about much these days. So many newer atrocities command our attention. But few rival this one in its sudden and lethal scope. All these years later, there is still no fixed tally of the dead. American military experts said 60,000; Japanese put the figure closer to 200,000, including the thousands who perished later from the radiation poisoning that fell silently from the sky.

Also still debated is the decision to drop the bomb, along with the one three days later on the city of Nagasaki. The generally accepted wisdom here is that it was a sensible alternative to hundreds of thousands more American casualties in an already terrible conflict. Others consider it one of history’s most monstrous crimes.

But you don’t have to agree on either body count or strategy to believe that children of this century are well-served to learn from the horrific events of the last one. And since those who endured these unimaginable sights are fast slipping away, a group of educators has been bringing some of these last survivors of the bomb to meet with New York City schoolchildren. The project is called “Hibakusha Stories.” Translated literally, the term means “bomb-affected people.”

“These are stories that are not easy to tell, and stories that are not easy to listen to,” warned project leader Kathleen Sullivan as she introduced three survivors to 150 students at Brooklyn International High School on Flatbush Avenue near the Manhattan Bridge. The student body is composed of children of recent immigrants. They get a full academic load, while still mastering the language of their adopted land. Sullivan read off a roster of home countries: “Anyone here from Guinea?” Cheers erupted as a dozen hands shot in the air. “How about Pakistan?” More cheers, more hands. The list went on, from Tibet to Yemen, 18 countries in all.

The students spent weeks in preparation for the visit. The history of the bomb was studied, along with the specifics of the nuclear arsenal that hovers over our heads. They read about the arms treaty that sits locked up in Congress. When the three Hibakusha visitors arrived in the early afternoon, they first spent an hour in teacher Erin Collins’s classroom showing students how to turn colored paper into the delicate cranes that are the symbol of the Japanese peace movement.

Downstairs in the basement gymnasium, the students broke into three groups to hear the stories.

Reiko Yamada told of assembling for an 8 a.m. drill in her schoolyard under a hot sun. Someone pointed out an American B-29 high above, a familiar sight even though Hiroshima had been spared bombings up until then. Yamada watched the white arc of a vapor trail against a blue sky. “That’s pretty,” she thought. Then came a white flash and a blast that knocked her to the ground. She and her schoolmates ran to a nearby shelter but it was already overflowing. They sat outside, pelted by a sudden rain. This was the radioactive “black rain” from the bomb, she learned later. “The sun looked to be gone with heavy gray clouds hanging over the sky.”

Toshiko Tanaka was six years old and on her way to school when the bomb fell. She raised her right arm to protect her face. This produced severe burns on her arm, head, and neck. She ran to where her now-destroyed home had stood. Her mother was safe but didn’t recognize her own daughter. “My hair was all frizzy from the heat, my face black from the dust, my clothes like rags.”

Setsuko Thurlow was spared the fate of 8,000 other seventh- and eighth-graders who were helping to prepare the downtown area for likely attacks. Directly under the blast site, they became instant cinders. Thurlow was a mile away with 30 classmates at their own military assignment. An army major had just finished urging them to do their best. “We said, ‘Yes, sir, we will!’ At that second, I saw the bluish-white flash out the window. Then I had the sensation of floating up in the air. The building was collapsing, and my body was falling together with it. I lost my consciousness.”

Thurlow was pulled from the rubble by soldiers moments before the building ignited in flame, killing those still trapped inside. “Outside,” she said, “it was dark like twilight because of all the dirt and dust and smoke blown up through the rising mushroom cloud. After a while, it became light enough for me to see some moving objects.” This is how she came to view the parade of the near-dead moving slowly past her.

She and two other girls made their way to an army training grounds on the outskirts of the city. Two football fields long, it was filled with the dead and the dying. “The heat from the blast was 7,000 degrees Celsius,” she told the students. “You can imagine what this did to their bodies. They were burning up inside. We wanted to be helpful, but we had no cups, no buckets to bring the water. So we three girls went up the hill to a stream. We washed the blood off our bodies and then tore our blouses and soaked them in the water. We brought them back to the crowds of people. We put this over the mouths of the dying who tried to suck every moisture from it. And they looked at me and said, ‘Thank you,’ and that was the end of their lives.”

The students listened to these stories in silence. A few minutes later, when they reassembled, Kathleen Sullivan asked them to report on what they had heard. Several came to the front of the room. “I feel so sad for them,” said a girl from Guinea. Thurlow stepped before the audience. “I hope we convinced you that nuclear weapons are terrible things,” she said in closing. “This generation will soon pass away. It is going to be your world. Each one of us has the power to do something.”


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