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Then and Now Photo Essay

December 21, 2013

Life After Death in Nagasaki

What happens when a city is destroyed by a nuclear weapon


Part 2: A Walking Tour

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War Industries

After finishing at the Atomic Bomb Museum I began my tour of the city by walking east from the hypocenter towards the famous half-standing torii shrine seen in the first pictures. A map I'd picked up at my hostel indicated that the built-up residential neighbourhood I traversed had once been the Mitsubishi steel and armaments works, employing 7,500 people. 6,000 would die, many at their work benches.

From a purely military perspective the bomb was a great success: Though there were no military units stationed in the city, save a pathetically equipped anti-aircraft regiment, there were a number of industries working to supply the Japanese war machine. An estimated 17,000 to 22,000 workers in these factories were killed, and several armaments plants were annihilated. Today the odd commemorative plaque is the sole evidence that these factories once existed.

A local landowner put up a plaque to show the famous torii shrine that survived the blast once stood here. If you look carefully you can see a bridge spanning a small stream in the 1945 photo that has been paved over today. The white fencing on the left in the 2013 photo shows the stream's route today.

The gutted remains of a factory across the Urakami River from the hypocenter. American scientists were dismayed to find the smokestacks standing and theorized their aerodynamic shape saved them from destruction. This was unacceptable and would have to be fixed in future bombs.

This was the Mitsubishi-Urakami Torpedo Works. American observers noted with grim satisfaction that the torpedoes used in the attack on Pearl Harbour were manufactured here.

This children's playground was once the site of the Mitsubishi steel and armaments works. Industrial lathes withstood the shockwave but their operators were turned to ash.

Urakami Cathedral

Interspersed amongst the factories were neighbourhoods, public buildings and schools. The bomb did not differentiate, nor was it intended to. I proceeded to Urakami Cathedral, some 500 metres from the hypocenter. Today the church is filled with photo-snapping Japanese tourists. Nagasaki is a magnet for visitors from across the Japanese archipelago, attracted to the city's relaxed atmosphere, pleasant scenery and interesting history (the history that predates the atom bomb).

Before it was destroyed in 1945 Urakami Cathedral was the largest church in East Asia. The building's mere existence speaks volumes about Nagasaki's unique and fascinating history, for centuries serving as Japan's sole gateway to the world.

Urakami Cathedral has been rebuilt today a few metres back from its original position. You can just see the belfry peeking out from behind the new building on the left of the recent photo.

During the Edo period that stretched from the 17th Century to the 1850s, Japan energetically isolated itself from outside influence. Every foreign attempt to contact Japan was rebuffed and any Japanese who tried to leave the country faced the death penalty.

The one exception to this rule was in Nagasaki. A small trickle of traders, Portuguese then later Dutch, were allowed to peddle their wares in this port on Kyushu's south-east coast. Nagasaki quickly gained a reputation throughout Japan as a multi-cultural city (relatively speaking) where exotic Western goods could be found.

The rebuilt Dutch Factory near the harbour. A single Dutch East India Company ship was allowed to dock at Nagasaki every year and trade with the Shogunate. The place was a fascinating hybrid of 17th Century Dutch and Japanese architecture. This part of the city's history is the main emphasis in the tourism brochures.

In the 16th Century, Portuguese Jesuits began proselytizing on Kyushu and a large Catholic community sprang up around Nagasaki. The famous daimyo (feudal lord) Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to see this new belief system as a threat to his power and banned the practice, violently persecuting Christians, and driving the religion underground.

In February 1597, 20 Japanese and six foreign Christian missionaries were arrested in Kyoto and Osaka for preaching their faith. The daimyo knew that Christianity was spreading rapidly in Nagasaki, so to discourage the villagers there he had the missionaries brought to Nagasaki and marched up this hill in deep snow. On this spot they were tortured and crucified before the distraught locals. One of the Japanese priests is said to have preached to the crowd from his cross. When news of this event reached Rome, the Pope canonized them, making them the 26 Martyrs of Japan.

At the start of the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s, Japan opened its doors to the world and freedom of religion was restored. A French missionary arrived in Japan after the ban was lifted and was shocked to find that, despite centuries of banishments and persecutions, Christianity had secretly flourished: almost all the villagers in Nagasaki were 'kakure kirishitan' or 'hidden Christians'. For appearances sake they had presented themselves as Buddhists or Shintoists but in secret they passed their Christian faith on from generation to generation. When the survival and perseverance of this long forgotten branch of Christianity became known, it was celebrated as a miracle by Christians around the world. Now that the long-awaited religious revival had arrived the villagers decided to build a soaring neo-Romanesque style church, the Urakami Cathedral. The effort began in 1875 and was only completed fifty years later.

In 1945 Nagasaki still had the largest Christian population in Japan. At 11 am on August 9 the church was packed with worshippers, holding mass in the run-up to the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

The church was only 500 metres from the hypocenter. The two-foot thick brick walls did not withstand the blast. Nobody inside the church survived. Those who didn't burn were crushed beneath the crumbling spires. Of the Church's 12,000 strong congregation, 8,500 would die.

Rosary beads found in a confessional. The intense heat has melted them together. Was someone holding them at 11:02 am?

In the 1950s the church was rebuilt (a few metres back from its original spot), a symbol of the dogged faith of the people of Nagasaki which survived not only the atom bomb but centuries of persecution under the shoguns.

Urakami Cathedral's belfry cast down by the blast. It has been left in place.

The destruction could scarcely have been more total.

Nagasaki Medical College

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion tens of thousands suffered from hideous injuries. Under normal circumstances Nagasaki was comparatively well prepared to deal with a mass casualty event: the city hosted advanced medical facilities at the Nagasaki Medical College and its accompanying hospital. There were hundreds of doctors and medical students at the college that day. Tragically, both buildings were only around 700 metres from the hypocenter.

I walked through the quiet campus. Here and there a plaque indicated so many scores of people had died in this or that place. My tranquil surroundings under a crisp winter sun were difficult to reconcile with these appalling casualty figures. Could this have actually happened here?

The entrance gate to Nagasaki Medical College. Though shielded from the blast by a hill, the shockwave still managed to crack the stone pillar on the right and move it several inches, where it has remained.

The new buildings constructed to replace the old at Nagasaki Medical College are hidden behind trees. Though the original concrete buildings survived the initial blast, they were soon gutted by flames. All of the city's water towers were knocked down in the shockwave, depriving the survivors of any means to fight the growing conflagrations. They could only watch helplessly as these buildings, and the invaluable medical supplies within, were consumed.

This dorm, used to house foreign medical students studying at the university, was the only building to survive the blast that remains in use today. It was difficult to find, tucked away in a corner of the rebuilt university's grounds, yet the blackened concrete walls offer grim testimony to the events of that day.

Some 800 doctors, medical staff and students were killed. The hospital and medical facilities were largely obliterated, which made caring for the thousands of wounded effectively impossible. In the immediate aftermath the doctors that survived would have had to treat all sorts of injuries: appalling burns, internal organs ruptured by the shockwave, shattered bones from flying debris, glass lacerations that cut people's skin to ribbons, the list goes on. Soon they'd discover there was another insidious threat: radiation poisoning.

The movie Threads (which we'll return to in a bit) explained the difficulties these doctors would have faced: "Without drugs, water or bandages, without electricity or medical support facilties, there is virtually no way a doctor can exercise his skill. As a source of help or comfort he is little better equipped than the nearest survivor." There was water to be found, but they would have been unaware it was heavily contaminated by radioactive fallout.

In these desperate circumstances the local schools would have to suffice as casualty clearing stations until aid could arrive from the outside. One of these schools was my next stop.

Yamazato Primary School

When I climbed the hill to Yamazato Primary School I wasn't sure I was in the right place. Class was in session and I could see children playing soccer on the field. There were no groups of tourists like at the cathedral. It felt odd treating a busy school as a somber tourist attraction, but the pamphlet assured me there was a memorial here. What I found here has stayed with me to this day.

Yamazato Primary School.

I strode to the entrance and saw a sign indicating there was a museum inside. The door was unlocked and there was nobody around so I let myself in. It was a tiny wood-panelled room packed with display cases containing artifacts from that day. Melted bottles, stopped clocks, photographs and paintings. According to a tiny bilingual placard the paintings were created by pupils who survived the blast, and they depicted events that happened right here. Some of them were disturbing.

A painting by one of the school's former pupils. Note the shards of glass from the blown in windows.

An old man startled me as I examined the image. He was beaming, apparently surprised and happy to find a visitor. He must be the museum's curator. He was old enough, I thought, to have here on that day. He launched into an explanation, apparently about the painting, but took my earnestly bewildered looks to mean I did not speak Japanese. He didn't speak English. He turned to a desk and fetched a sheaf of English-language pamphlets and pressed them into my hands. He gestured eagerly for me to follow him outside, and led me around the back of the school. The laughter of children filtered out from the classrooms. We came to some holes dug into the cliff face which couldn't have been more than four feet high. They were pathetic excuses for air raid shelters.

Air raid shelters dug in August 1945, just in time for the bombing.

He waited patiently as I took some pictures. Had he been here that day? What had he seen? What happened here? I wished I could speak Japanese.

A nearby plaque included a quote from a 26-year-old teacher named Hideyuki Hayashi who had sought refuge in this hole when the bomb went off. Later I found the rest of his harrowing account.

An air raid siren had sounded early in the morning on August 9. After about an hour it was taken off. It had already been decided that the teachers wouldnt go into school that day. Instead, after the air raid alert was lifted, all the teachers would dig air raid shelters.

The male teachers went to work with their pickaxes. By 11 o'clock we had finished digging the hole. Then the female teachers formed a line and started carrying away the earth we'd dug out. When the digging work was done I climbed about halfway up the cliff face to measure its height. Then all of a sudden an explosion rang out. I wasn't expecting that because the all clear siren had sounded. By that time I was used to the sound of explosions, and wouldnt go into an air raid shelter if I heard one go off. Instead I'd look up into the sky to see where the bombs were coming from.

On that one occasion however I had a real sense I was in danger. I had never had that feeling before. I dashed into that air raid shelter we'd just dug up. Two of the female teachers were amazed I was diving into the shelter and they followed me in.

The next instant there was a tremendous sound like a series of thunderclaps. Immediately afterwards came a brutally hot blast wind, unlike anything I'd ever experienced. The two women behind me wailed out in terror and the three of us crushed into the back of the air raid shelter.

We waited there for what felt like an eternity, but it was probably only three or four minutes. Then we went back outside. The sight that met our eyes was absolutely unbelievable.

The air raid shelters today. The colourful collections of origami on the right are present at all the atomic bomb memorials.

The weather had been incredibly good that morning, but now the sky was pitch black, just like on a rainy day. The next surprise we saw was that the men who had just been resting on the side of the cliff and the women who had lined up to take out the earth were all laying on the ground. They'd been knocked over by the blast.

At that time the women wore heavy work garments over their regular clothes but now all their clothing was torn to shreds and stained bright red with blood. Their entire bodies were scorched and they were all screaming in pain. And their faces, well their faces were all black, as if covered in ink. Their hair was in complete disarray and looked like tattered bird's nests. These were people I saw all the time and knew, but their appearances had changed so much I had to go around asking are you Mr. and Mrs. so and so.

When I looked closer I saw something was hanging from their limbs and bodies. It looked like dirty rags or ragged pieces of cloth. This was actually skin that had peeled off in the heat of the blast. The skin from their arms hung down from the palms of their hands, which were the only parts that hadn't been burned. All the teachers were in agony from the burns they suffered all over their bodies.

One female teacher had been blown ten metres by the blast, and she died instantly when she hit the cliff face. Oddly, her body was totally naked and none of her clothes were anywhere to be seen. Two other female teachers had been finishing up duties in the staff room and had been on their way back to where we'd been working. Theyd been thrown somewhere by the blast but I couldn't tell where. I searched and searched for their bodies, but I was never able to find them.

I could hear screams from up the cliff, so I went to go investigate. When I got there I found the young male teacher who had just been up there with me measuring the cliff height.

His entire body was scorched and he was absolutely covered in burns. What's more his eyes had been pushed into his head and he'd bit off his tongue. He kept screaming out "Kill me! Kill me!"

I told him to be strong and lifted him up on my back. Then I carried him into the air raid shelter where the other teachers were. But he still kept crying out for someone to kill him. His strength gradually ebbed away and he finally died that evening.

The hole Hideyuki sought refuge in, and in which his colleague was only the first of many to die.

Around that time the dozen or so female teachers who had been in the fields came back. At first I was happy because I thought they were uninjured, but when they came closer I saw their entire bodies had been burned. They kept saying how cold they were and how much pain they were in. I went into the shelter and got the black curtain we used for the science room projector and draped it around them. As soon as the material touched their skin they cringed with pain. It must have really, really hurt them.

After that the teachers with the burn wounds began to crave water. I went down to the water main but not a single drop came out. The water system had been destroyed.

The school was surrounded by farms at that time and at all the wells I went to the ropes that held up the buckets had been burned by the blast and the buckets had fallen into the wells. I went to a number of wells and finally found a bucket that would fill up.

Back then they told us to never give water to burn victims. When they are close to death giving them water will make them pass that much sooner. So I just moistened their lips with the water and told them not to swallow it. But they just gulped it down like it was the most delicious thing theyd ever tasted. After that I didnt have the heart to tell them not to swallow it.

The old man led me back around the front of the school. We walked by a class experiment to grow alfalfa laid out by the shelters. Amidst these solemn surroundings they struck me as a stirring symbol of hope.

A class project.

He led me to a plaque. Then he grinned, bowed and went back inside. I read the plaque.

At 11:02 am on August 9, 1945, a blinding flash of light suddenly filled the sky. Buildings and other structures were ripped apart and the entire northern section of the city was transformed into a sea of fire. The teachers and children working or playing outdoors at Yamazato Primary School were instantly burned to death.

The three-story ferroconcrete school building which stood on the site of this schoolyard was ravaged from the inside by fire and part of the third story was destroyed. Of the 32 adults working at the school that day, Principal Hisakichi Mawatari, 25 teachers and two other employees died. Also, it is estimated that among the 1,581 pupils enrolled at the school, 1,300 were killed in the explosion. The school was used as a temporary relief station during the weeks after the bombing and treatment of the injured was carried out by medical teams. But the death rate was very high and every night flames from cremation pyres scorched the sky over the schoolyard.

The original school building underwent successive repairs and was used until 1988. In August that year it was torn down and replaced by the present building. This plaque is installed here by the citizens of Nagasaki as a prayer for the repose of the souls of the many people who died here, and also in the fervent hope that this tragedy is never repeated in the world.

1,300 of 1,581 children. I tried to wrap my head around that number.

Then I walked over to a simple memorial, like so many others around Nagasaki. Yet somehow it affected me more than anything else I'd seen.

A child prays in a sea of flame.

I looked back up at the school. On that day some of the students had been in class and many died as they sat at their desks. Yet the same building had been refurbished and used until 1988. Could you imagine having to go to school in a classroom where your brother or sister had been turned to ashes? There were some boys playing soccer on the field, the same field where kids just like them had been incinerated not so long ago.

The body of a very young boy burned to cinders near this school. You can see he was clutching at his throat in his final moments, gasping for air. Was he a student here?

This was too much. I left the school grounds, shaken. I had to stop and sit for a time. I tried to force myself to imagine how this place had been transformed into hell on earth. I tried to imagine the thousands of children that met such an indescribably horrific fate. It was impossible to do. It was all so peaceful now.

The River

The night before while doing research I had read an account from a student at the school, Michie Hattori. She talked about some friends who had walked the short distance down to the river after the blast, and what they had seen. I gathered myself and resolved to make the same walk down the hill.

Michie and her friends had been hiding in another hastily dug "air-raid shelter" (hole in the ground) some distance from the school when the bomb exploded. Most had been badly burned. What she wrote is the stuff of nightmares.

'Let's go back to the school. It's only a couple hundred meters,' one of the classmates suggested. We traveled slowly because each step caused pain. Our thoughts were that a bomb must have gone off near the shelter and burned a short distance around us. We didn't even dream what devastation covered our entire city.

The route to the school seemed strangely flat and empty. Someone asked, 'Weren't there houses here when we came to the shelter?' The whole world appeared so surreal we just accepted that structures could disappear off the face of the earth. We were living a terrible nightmare.

My classmate Fumiko scampered about 50 meters ahead of us. When I looked up to see why she was calling, I saw her pointing to a large form on the ground.

'Look over there,' she shouted. 'It has escaped from the zoo. It's an alligator.' It lay in our path to the school, so we approached with caution. Fumiko found a rock.

She drew back the rock above her head as she approached the creature. Then, Fumiko froze in her tracks, screaming hysterically. I ran to her side. The face looking up at us from the crawling creature was human. The shrieking in my ear kept me from hearing what the face was trying to say. I could just see it pleading for something — probably water. No clothes or hair were visible, just large, gray scalelike burns covering its head and body. The skin around its eyes had burned away, leaving the eyeballs, huge and terrifying. Whether male or female I never found out.

The head fell forward — face in the dirt. It didn't move after that. Fumiko crumbled to the ground and I dropped beside her.

Monument to the women and children in the Peace Park.

When we felt like standing up, we plodded on toward the schoolhouse. Fumiko and I encountered two or three groups of people. They appeared numbed, standing around victims who were on the ground. We saw nothing we could do to help, and we moved on.

Because of the dust and debris, we couldn't see the school building until we were almost upon it. It appeared to have remained sound, except the windows were blown out. We soon saw the other students who had stayed in the schoolyard. Fortunately for them, most were on the opposite side of the building from the blast.

Two girls wore makeshift bandages on their arms. Flying glass from the windows had caused their lacerations. Many of them displayed the bright red faces and hands, which I have come to know as characteristic of second-degree burns. The reinforced concrete-block building offered protection in case of additional explosions, we thought. So, we remained with the group for about half an hour.

It seems a little petty to me now, but I wanted to go into the building to retrieve my books and belongings. A student in our group said, 'I think one of the teachers is dead.' It's funny how my books seemed so important, but my parents had purchased them from their meager income. I was determined to enter.

The blast knocked out our electricity, which added to my dread as I made my way along the hall. Only the dimmest light filtered through the thick dust and smoke. Though a little disoriented, I found room 1-Kumi, my homeroom. Glass littered the floor and lay on the desks, but my books were intact. I tucked them under my arm and retrieved my hat, pulling it tightly to my ears.

Once again in the hallway, I heard a person's voice. The door to 3-Kumi, the room next to mine, stood ajar. The voice from inside called, 'mizu, mizu' — water, water. The door seemed stuck with his body lodged against it, so I pushed with all my might to get in. He screamed in agony when the door moved his body. I recognized Sakamoto Sensei — Teacher Sakamoto. He had wrapped his shirt around his bloody leg. Blood also oozed from the side of his neck. Lifting the crimson-soaked shirt, he motioned to his thigh by nodding his head.

The only sounds he made were gurgling grunts. I saw the wide, gaping slice in his leg. His thighbone showed white in the bloody pool. He looked up at me and mouthed the word mizu. I ran to my homeroom because I knew where cups and a full teapot sat. Returning, I held the cup for him to drink.

He emptied it and motioned with his head toward a pile of overturned desks. I missed the word he whispered. Holding my ear closer I barely heard him say, 'Tani.'

'Tani Sensei?' He nodded. I walked behind the pile of desks and saw on the floor a woman's body with a slab of broken window glass on her chest. I wrapped one of my books around the edge of the glass and attempted to move it. I probably screamed when I saw her head; I don't remember. The head had been virtually severed, but her eyes remained open. The sight of the inside of her windpipe haunts me to this day.

I filled Mr. Sakamoto's teacup with more tea and left it for him. I could do nothing more for him or for Miss Tani.

Almost out the back door, I was nearly crushed by my classmates rushing into the building. 'Look at my arm,' one said, showing it to me. I saw large dark wet spots. 'The rain is black…large drops and they hurt when they hit you.'

Before I returned to the school from the shelter, four of the students who suffered the most painful burns had departed for the river. They planned to bathe their wounds in the cooling water. The explosion apparently knocked over the city's water towers, bringing the pressure to zero at our school. The Urakami River runs through the middle of the town and drains into Nagasaki Harbor. Our school was located a couple hundred meters from the river.

In such a state of shock I don't know if I made sense, but I attempted to tell the group about the fate of the teachers. I continued trying to get my story out when the four girls returned from the Urakami. All were crying. Two girls could only be described as hysterical. The others attempted to hug us and then quickly pulled away in pain from their burns.

They told us how they reached the river where hundreds of severely burned people were trying to cool their injuries in the water. The girls described many as looking like dead trees with their bark peeling off — skin hanging from their faces and hands. Along the shoreline floated bodies, some stacked two or three deep. A few still moved, lacking the strength to pull themselves out onto the bank.

This is presumably the spot Michie's friends came to the river. Today it is filled with goldfish.



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