21. My Life, Narrowly Spared
August 6th, 1945
I was working for an automobile company in Senda-machi in those days. On this day my father was to attend the funeral of a relative in Toriya-cho at 8 o' clock, the place that turned to the hypocenter of the atomic bombing. Since an air-raid warning had sounded early that morning, my parents begged me to stay home taking a day off. My job was in the accounting section and it was impossible for me to take a day off as the company' s payday was soon. So, I had my younger sister take a day off who was working as a member of volunteer corps at a light metals factory. When I left home, the air-raid warning had already been lifted. Underneath my office section of the company was a concrete-built underground air-raid shelter. Beside my desk there was a safe, from which I took out a portable safe and was resting. By 8 o' clock five workers including the section chief next to my desk were already in the office, sitting at each own desk with all gloomy faces.
Then, the moment of a flash and quake, I plunged into the underground air-raid shelter along with the structure and the safe. I was caught under the safe and became totally unconscious due to the hard blow on my head. As for what happened thereafter, I have to put together the stories that were told to my mother and sisters by the people of my company who had rescued me.
My father at the funeral was thrown into the Motoyasu River along with the house as it stood around the ground zero. He struck hard on his chest and lost consciousness temporarily. When he came to, he heard his pregnant niece nearby, in a critical condition, calling her 4-year-old son' s name. He gathered his strength, and carried his niece out of the water leaning himself on the house wreck. He laid her at the foot of the Motoyasu Bridge and said to her, “ I' ll be right back” and headed for his house. However, the streets were filled with the debris of buildings, electric poles and wires making them hardly passable. Fires everywhere also hampered him. After 6 o' clock in the evening, he at length reached home half dead. He had his injured head bandaged with a puttee. Staggering barefoot, he got in and collapsed. He began moaning, which showed how serious his condition was. When told that I hadn' t been home yet, he sadly said that getting to Senda-machi would be out of question as the city was a sea of fire. That night the sky was crimson red and the city kept on burning.
My father insisted that someone go to search for me, in his struggling breath, so my mother left my father to the care of my sister, who was also wounded, and set out into the streets enveloped with dark smoke and blocked with debris. Through the raging fires she hurried to Senda-machi. The faces and bodies of those she saw on the way were just beyond description. With the skins of face, back and limbs peeled and drooping, people kept their hands at the chest high exposing the flesh. Those who couldn' t be recognized men or women in torn clothes, that covered little of their bodies, were silently moving toward the outskirts of the city. There were people in agony between life and death. Some were trying their best to escape, tumbling with exhaustion after they managed to get out of the collapsed house having been chased by fire. Some woman was yelling crazily, carrying the body of a headless baby on her back. There were blood-covered people looking like red Dharma. Also I saw a person who was crying, “Help, help, I' ll be caught by fire”. It was something like what we would call a “veriest hell”. My mother almost fainted even though she was a pretty stouthearted woman. But the sight of misery made her more and more concerned about me and drove her forward to go through cobwebby, entangled electric wires to the vicinity of my company. There was no trace of my company structure as it had been burned down. Since around the area was ablaze, she could not even look for me and had to go home in dusk.
Just when my mother got home, a person from my company brought information about me. “ Mori-san (my maiden name) and the section chief were caught under the safe and lost consciousness. With the threat of fire, we hurriedly pull them out. We could feel her pulse, while the section chief had died instantly with his head broken. We carried both to the Miyuki Bridge. Then an army truck passed by and stopped to take just Mori-san who was alive and went away somewhere. She was undoubtedly very seriously injured, and I came to tell you about that”. My father had little hope of my survival but insisted to go to search for me.
Waiting for daybreak, my mother set out to search for me. She took the same route as yesterday toward Senda-machi, counting on what people were talking. On the way she saw many bodies floating in the river. When she made as far as to the Miyuki Bridge, she tried to find Koryo Middle School but everything was burned down and still smoldering here and there. She saw countless corpses as well as the fatally wounded and she could not ignore those in critical condition. For those who wanted water she looked for water and gave it to them. She walked and walked, and came to Tanna, then to Hiuna in vain. Then she had information that lots of injured people were taken to Ninoshima Island, which prompted her to head for Ujina. There she learned a disaster certificate was needed to get on board the ship, so she couldn' t help turning around. The city was still smoldering everywhere and the stench of the rotten bodies and cremating them filled the air. Walking through it, my mother arrived home in the late afternoon.
Back at home she found everything was so wretched: my father was in agony with serious injuries, I remained missing, my younger sister had a swollen face with cuts, plus inside the house was messed up by the blast. My mother later said that she would have rather died at that time. My father' s condition got only worse but no doctors were available. There was no way of tending him but give a tender stroke on his hard hit chest and abdomen all night.
My mother could not give up about me. She entrusted my sister, whose condition had been slightly eased with less pain and bleeding, to take care of my father. My mother would say to my father, “ Darling, I' m going to try again today” and he would answer in his agonizing condition, “ Yeah, go find her. ” My mother never dreamed it would be the last time to see him alive when she left home early in the morning. At Ujina she struggled to board a ship. Anyway when she arrived in Ninoshima Island, it was already after noon. She gave my full name at the office. Then an officer said to her, “Here is a list of the dead. For others, please look for the wards. ” She saw a heap of dead bodies around there and more and more were being taken to outside. Such a scene made her lose hope, but she tried anyway to look for me one ward after another.
Failing to find me anywhere, my mother went back to the office for more information. There she was told about another place where the most critical patients were accommodated; the foot of the mountain across from this ward. My mother hurried to the place mentioned right away, where she found over 200 patients lying on a single layer of straw mat with equally tangled hair and bloody, dusty faces. Unless you took a look one by one very carefully, you wouldn' t have identified anyone. Since it was the last ward to go through, my mother was searching extra carefully. A young woman in a torn chemise and panties, lying at a little center back of the ward, caught her eyes. She found the woman wearing a charm around her neck, which made her jump up to have a closer look. It was me. My mother opened the charm to find a piece of paper with my name and address on it along with the Miyajima Misen god' s guardian charm. She was convinced that it was her daughter. She found no way to express her joy of that moment and thanked god for his work, pressing her hands together in prayer. She later said that her exhaustion over the sleepless nights and days had just vanished at that moment.
As I was unconscious, my mother asked an orderly about my condition. He said, “ Due to the hard blow on the head, there is excessive bleeding from her left ear, plus contusion all over. Since she remains unconscious till now, she has little chance for survival, so she is left as she is”. The surprised mother took a closer look at me. She found badly lacerated wounds on my shoulders, waist, legs and so on, and those wounds festered, breeding maggots. My mother asked an orderly for medicine and took a very good care of me. But the medicine given was just Mercurochrome and gauze, so all she could do was to dress the maggot-infested wounds with it. While tending me, my mother also looked after others as she felt so sorry for those seriously injured. Since they all looked so terrible that the scene appeared nothing but a living hell. Dead bodies were taken out one after another and the space was filled with new people who equally had little hope to survive. In addition to the foul smelling from festered burns and cuts, excrement was left alone, so the stench in the ward was unbearable. Anybody would have almost fainted. Under such circumstances my mother, in spite of her exhaustion, devoted herself to taking care of me.
In late afternoon my mother asked the orderly to get some thin barley gruel in a bamboo container. She slowly dropped it into my mouth and my mouth made a move to take in. This encouraged her immensely; you' ll survive, I' m going to make it happen! Since then she got the gruel every time and gave it to me little by little. At home my father suddenly fell into a critical condition in the afternoon. “ Isn' t she back, not back yet? ” Calling my mother again and again in his struggling breath, my father died, closing his 59 years of life in solitude, having only my younger sister at his bedside. He died around 3 o' clock in the morning coinciding with the time my mother found me. My sister was totally at a loss and just waited for my mother to return impatiently.
My sister had been waiting for my mother but she did not come home yet this day.
My sister kept waiting for Mother as long as she could, with Father' s body as it was. However, in the summer heat she couldn' t keep the body any longer, so she asked a favor of the neighbors. She had the body carried to the nearby mountainside and cremated it alone. Worried about Mother who hadn' t come home yet, my younger sister must have been overwhelmed with anxiety, sorrow and loneliness. With no knowledge of her husband' s death, my mother was continuously tending me. Despite her devoted care, my condition showed no improvement. Instead, the festered injuries got even worse.
Morning came. The orderly announced a sudden closure of our station in Ninoshima Island as of today. We were to move to Miyauchi Elementary School. Still in a coma, I was accompanied by my mother and carried to the school; first on a danpeibune, a kind of flat freight boat, together with other patients, then on the back of a truck. Exposed directly to the summer heat, a number of people died on the way.
At the elementary school, for the first time a doctor saw me. “ No chance．．．” was his opinion. My mother spoke with the doctor about taking me home so that she can let me die at home. The doctor said that I was likely to die before reaching home. My mother was worn out but she needed a cart in order to take me home. She was also concerned about the family back at home, so anyway she decided to hurry home for a cart, having entrusted the care of me to a woman, who had come for tending a patient near me. Back at home she was told about my father' s death. The news robbed her of all the strength she managed to retain. She collapsed. My mother gave my sister the direction to the Miyauchi Elementary School and made her hurry to the school, saying that Mother would come for me with a cart tomorrow.
My sister said to Mother that she needed a good night sleep, and hurriedly left for the school worrying about her condition. Arriving at the school late that afternoon, my sister asked for some gruel for me. A person in charge gave her some, mumbling complaints, “ I' ve just finished my job”. Even so, my sister felt appreciative when it was given. All night long she watched me, who could only take a little of gruel but not utter even a word.
My mother set out for the school early in the morning but arrived only after noon. She wanted to take me home as soon as possible, so she and my sister put me on the cart and covered with a straw mat to keep me from the sunlight. They took turns pulling or pushing and traveled over 20 kilometers. My mother would lift the straw mat frequently on the way to confirm that I was still breathing. “ She' s still alive, still alive”, reassured Mother gained strength and hurry home, forgetting the heat. Rubble made their trip very difficult, in particular from Kusatsu and on, so it was already dark when they got home. They were relieved to see I was still alive, and cried forgetting their exhaustion. “ We made it, we made it. We were right about our decision. ” For six months after the A-bomb exposure I remained unconscious, sort of.
That' s how my marathon-long fighting against the sickness began. Having lost my father, my mother worked very hard in spite of her age to cover my medical cost. That mother is gone now. I am also very grateful to my sisters who tended me so hard. Since I survived from the jaws of death, I should live my life to the full. Our life after the A-bombing was just tough. Potatoes were our staple food and we ate porridge made of rice and edible weed, mugwort or starwort as vegetable substitutes. Also, we fished seaweed in the Inland Sea off Kusatsu and racked our brains for ideas how to eat them.
I greatly appreciate my life here in the Home where I have things to live for. I am enjoying calligraphy and handcrafts with others.
Written by Kazuko Sagawa (66)
- The place of my A-bomb exposure
- Senda-machi, inside the factory office, 1.7km from the hypocenter