Courage of Desperation

Kazuo Matsumuro

The all-clear was sounded at 7:30 that morning. In those days, to minimize the emotional upset of its effect on the people, it was given by means of megaphones instead of loudspeakers. Probably like all the other citizens of Hiroshima, I thought the alarm had been given because of reconnaissance planes, which flew over daily.

I do not know how many minutes lapsed; but when I came to, I was imprisoned in a dark, cramped, dusty place. No matter how hard I tried, I could not move. I was nauseated. Where was I? What had happened?

In the next minute, I became aware of the crackling sound of flames. “The house is on fire!" I knew only one thing: I was alive and had to save myself somehow. As the faces of my wife, children, and parents flashed through my mind, I tried to call out. I doubt that I made a sound. I was obsessed with the desire to go on living; and I heard desperate cries from outside, from other people who did not want to die


Something huge -- a great beam -- lay on my chest. I tried to move it. It would not budge. With a desperate effort, I managed to free my left arm. Encouraged, I continued to strive to break free. My head struck something, and I saw a shaft of light. The beam was starting to give way. Clawing and struggling frantically, I liberated myself from its weight.

Crawling out, I saw that my house was no more than a heap of broken timbers, smashed tiles, shattered glass. I was sick at my stomach and weak. Blood gushed from gaping wounds in my thighs. I was bleeding from my ears, nose, and mouth. But to my relief, there seemed to be nothing wrong with my abdomen.

Heat from the flames raging everywhere forced me to cover my face with my hands. Struggling to my feet, I felt a stabbing pain in the waist. Later I learned that I had fractures in the bones of my back and hips.

By a miracle, I found my eyeglasses -- unbroken -- and put them on. Swirling smoke and dust clouds obliterated almost all light. Here and there, thin shafts of sunlight broke through. And sparks showered from rapidly spreading fires. Laboriously I walked toward what had been the street but was now a tangle of fallen timbers and telephone wires.

Picking my way through the debris, I heard an urgent cry for help. I looked in the direction of the sound, where, under the wreckage of a fallen two-story building, I saw a young mother and her small daughter pinned between a broken rafter and a cabinet of some kind. Though they could move a little, they could not get out. Thrusting out a hand, the mother screamed for help. Part of the wreckage of the house was already in flames. But I heard many other calls for help, some already weak and resigned from people soon to be swallowed in a great maw of fire.

Occasionally, half-naked, blood-covered men emerged from the wall of flames. Like ghosts, they scurried about in search of safety. Some of them had been exposed to powerful radiation. As they outstretched their limp hands, the skin peeled off and hung from their fingernails. Blood oozed from raw flesh exposed by monstrous burns. None of them made a sound. They were too stunned to weep or cry out.

Gradually, the dust settled, and the smoke thinned. The only blot on the blue, clear, midsummer sky was a gigantic mushroom-shaped cloud glittering golden as it spiraled upward.

Staggering to a nearby river, I observed refugees wandering about, apparently too dazed to mind the broiling heat of the fires. On the river bank, a woman stooped over a severely injured man and shaded his face from the sun with a hat. She was praying. Hair remained on the front part of the man's skull. It had been burned away entirely from the back.

Walking as best I could to the Tsurumi Bridge, I noticed that the sea tide had raised the water level. Refugees swarmed at the shore. I thought some of them were swimming, but I immediately realized they were floating and dead. On the stone steps leading into the water sat a man in his early fifties, half in the water, half out. Then, dead, he rolled into the river and floated slowly away.

On the other side of the bridge, I saw a pretty little girl of about five lying on her back in the middle of the road. Wearing nothing but panties, she was holding her burned arms high to keep them from coming into contact with the many slivers of glass buried in her chest. The midsummer heat beat down on her mercilessly. "Please give me some water." She had probably pleaded this way with other passersby: she spoke automatically and unconsciously. The sight of her broke my heart. My own daughter, from whom I was now separated, was the same age.

"The soldiers will come soon and give you medicine and water. If you drink now, it will only make you hurt more. Be a good girl and wait a little longer."

I moved on to what seemed to be a safe place in a back alley leading eastward toward Mount Hiji. Later, I came back to see how the little girl was. She had already died.

During the sleepless night I spent on Mount Hiji, I made up my mind to look for my parents, who had been in the Yaga district of the city. I would have to go to Hiroshima Station first and then follow the tracks to Yaga. Though I was in no condition to walk long distances, I had to do what I could to find them and rescue them -- if they were still alive.

Limping, almost crawling, I reached Tsurumi Bridge, where, owing to the action of the current, the river was nearly at a standstill. People in clean clothing -- obviously from neighboring towns-- were observing a riverboat engaged in some kind of operation. Soldiers on the boat were trying to accomplish the difficult and grisly task of disposing of corpses. There were too many to lift to the deck. The soldiers tied the bodies together with rope and tugged them as they would have pulled a raft. Even after the operation was repeated many times, there were still more corpses floating on the river.

Crossing the bridge, I passed the place where, on the day before, I had heard the call of the imprisoned mother. The house had burned. Scattered about were charred, crisp human bodies. There must have been more in the debris.

Near the place where the Koi Hospital had stood, an old woman was busily chipping at a burned telephone pole with a rock the size of her fist. On the ground nearby lay the dead body of a boy, of four or five. The old woman was collecting chips and slivers of wood from the pole and sprinkling them on the body of her grandson, whom she hoped to cremate. Patiently, stoically, silently, she continued her labor with mechanical motions. She shed no tears; and in spite of my profound sympathy for her, I could shed none.

The many refugees thronging the streets all outstripped me, since I could walk only very slowly. Swarms of maggots -- alive in spite of the death-dealing radiation of the bomb -- feasted on flesh of the human beings in whose bodies they had hatched. My worry about my parents intensified. I was impatient with myself for being too injured to move faster. In my heart, I prayed for them and said, "Take courage. Live. I'll come. I'll rescue you, even if I must crawl all the way. Wait!"

Normally, it is possible to walk from Mount Hiji to Hiroshima Station in twenty minutes. Smeared with blood, sweat, and dust, I needed four hours to cover the distance.

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