Hellish Years After Hellish Days

Toyomi Hashimoto

Though at each anniversary the skies over our city are blue and peaceful, the memory of that day in 1945 still troubles my body and soul.

In spite of the wartime conditions, my husband and our little son and I lived a happy life. Many of our neighbors envied us. On the morning of August 9, 1945, I walked to the gate to see my husband off to work. My three-year-old boy, Takashi, went out to play with some of his little friends. I was alone in the house and relieved that the air-raid alarm had just been lifted.

Then, in the distance I heard an approaching airplane. "Japanese?" I wondered. I stepped outside to see my son running to me, calling, "Airplane! Airplane!" The moment we reentered the house, there was a blinding flash followed by a tremendous explosion. The roof of the house caved in, pinning us under a mountain of debris.

Hours passed. I do not know how many. Then I heard my son crying softly and calling for mother and father. He was alive. I tried to reach for him, but a huge beam immobilized me. I could not break free. Though I screamed for help, no one came. Soon I heard voices calling names of neighbors.

My son was bravely trying to crawl from under a heap of clay that had been one of the walls. His back was turned to me. When he faced me, I saw that his right eye was obliterated with blood. Once again, I tried to move, but the beam would not budge.

I screamed so loud and long that I must have lost my voice. I called to the people I could see scurrying about, but they did not hear me. No one answered until the lady next door finally pulled my son out of the wreckage.

Happy that he was at least temporarily safe, I suddenly became aware of a sharp pain in my breast, left hand, and stomach. With my free right hand I grabbed a piece of roofing tile and scraped away the dirt covering my chest. I could breathe more easily. As I tried again to crawl out, I saw that a huge nail was stuck in my stomach. "Fire! Fire!" I could hear people shouting around me. It was either break free or burn to death. With a violent wrench, I pulled myself from under the beam. In doing so, I ripped the flesh of my stomach. Blood spurted from an agonizing gash in my body.

I was at last out of the ruined house. Still, my son was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the kind lady next door had led him to safety. I had to search for him, but I could only limp slowly because of the pain in my stomach.

I decided to go to a nearby hill, which was open and might offer some security. As I crept slowly along, people more seriously injured than I clutched at my feet and pleaded for help and water. Among the piteous cries I heard loud voices shouting, "Leave the old people! Help the children first." I wanted to help, but I was in grave need of assistance myself. All I could do was promise to come back with water, if it was possible.

On my way to the hill, I met a neighbor and friend. Looking long and intently at me, she finally said, "It is Toyomi, isn't it?" I knew that my dress was in tatters and that I was bloody and dirty. But now, stopping to examine myself for the first time, I learned worse. One of my ears had been cut nearly off. It and my whole face were caked with congealed blood.

"Thank heaven you're alive!" I heard a familiar voice saying. Turning, with intense happiness, I saw my husband, who was holding our son in his arms. We climbed to the top of the hill together, walking among countless corpses.

On the hilltop, a kind man gave us bed sheets, candles, sugar, and other useful things. At once we began to try to do something for Takashi, who had lost consciousness. After a while, as we dripped sugar water into his mouth, he awakened.

He had already lost the sight of his right eye. Myriad slivers of glass were embedded in his head, face, body, arms, and legs. An air-raid alarm, still in effect, prohibited lighting candles. In the pitch darkness, my husband and I picked out as many pieces of glass from his body as we could find. So full of life and energy until that moment! Now blind in one eye and covered with blood and dirt! Still he bore everything bravely and only asked, "Am I being a good boy?" Pride at his courage and grief for his pain forced us both to weep quietly.

I made bandages from the bed sheet. Placing some boards over two large rocks, I made us a shelter. We were fortunate to be together. In the dark, we could hear people calling the names of their loved ones. I wondered what had happened to my younger and elder sisters.

The light of dawn showed us a hell. Corpses, some burned to cinders, others only partly roasted, lay everywhere. Barely living, faintly breathing, others rapidly drew toward death. A horrible stench filled the air.

In a few days we were taken to a bomb shelter where, in spite of a food shortage, we managed to live for a month. I was in such pain that it was excruciating to carry my son to the toilet. Nonetheless, he and I went daily to a nearby clinic for treatment. As days passed, my hair began falling out; and blood oozed from my gums. My husband was too ill to walk. We began hearing rumors that the bomb that had destroyed Nagasaki was of the same kind as the one that had fallen on Hiroshima. People who had not been injured in the blast began to die, one after another. We waited for our turns to come.

Near the well from which we had to draw all our water corpses were cremated. On our way to the well, we had to pick a ghoulish way through a field of human bones. Often in the morning there would be a dead body by the well that had not been there the evening before. I wondered who would take care of our corpses when we died.

But we did not die. In September, my two drafted brothers returned from the war. My younger and elder sisters turned up, safe and well. In October, we rented the house in Oura where I live with my family today.

In about a year, I began noticing purple spots on my body. I tired easily and suffered occasional sharp pains in the head. I learned that my white-blood-corpuscle count had dropped drastically. Aware that all these symptoms characterized the atomic diseases, I became apprehensive about my future. My husband was so ill that he could not work. By the time Takashi entered primary school, it was becoming difficult for us to make ends meet. Nor was our son's lot in school easy. Cruel neighborhood children hurt him deeply when they jeered and called him a one-eyed devil.

A single bomb had wrecked a peaceful and happy family. True, my husband had not gone to the battle front, but we were nonetheless as much victims of the war as the survivors of soldiers who had died fighting. The government offered financial assistance to such people, but none to our kind. With rising anger, I often asked myself why they discriminated in this way.

To all these trials was soon added my husband's total desperation and determination to kill himself and our son so that I could try to find some happiness on my own. I had to guard him constantly. Even so, he succeeded in making a number of attempts to strangle himself and our son. When, in 1948, he was taken to the police by a neighbor who found him trying to hang himself in the garden, he collapsed on the floor, crying, "Let me die. I can't stand the agony of living any more."

Since he could not work, I had to support the family by serving in restaurants, nursing the sick, and doing whatever odd jobs I could find. Over the years, my determination to keep on going was strengthened by the births of two more children. Still, sometimes I too weakened and contemplated suicide. My work was arduous, and I was weak. Occasionally I fainted on the job.

But even this was not to be the limit of what I was to witness and endure. In 1952, four months after his birth, I noticed something queer about one of my fourth son's eyes. I took him to an ophthalmologist, who diagnosed the case as cancer of the eye. Very rare. One case in ten thousand. He added that unless the eye was removed at once, the cancer would spread; the eye would eventually pop from its socket; and my son would die, withered like a blasted tree. I was too shocked and terrified to cry.

The same doctor recommended that I take my child to a university hospital for treatment. At first I hesitated. We had no money to pay for such care. But I could not sacrifice my son's life. Resolving to scrape together the funds somehow, I took him to a university clinic where the first doctor's diagnosis was confirmed and where I learned that without immediate surgery there was grave danger that the cancer would spread to the other eye. Even in the light of this knowledge, however, I could not consent to having my child's eye removed.

About fifteen months later, this same child began to cough in an odd way. I wanted to take him to a nearby hospital but could not: I owed them money. Instead, I took him to a smaller hospital some distance from our home. The doctor at first said it was only a neglected cold. But when the child got no better and I took him to the hospital again, I was told that it was diptheria and that he would have to be hospitalized at once at the Nagasaki Hospital. Where was I to get the money?

I asked my elder brother's wife for aid, but she was too short of funds. Nevertheless, she offered to lend me her own son's health insurance policy. Her boy was three, or about a year and a half younger than my fourth son. Though terrified that our insurance fraud would be discovered, I had no choice but to accept her proposal.

Now my son was able to have good medical treatment. Vaccines were tried for a while, but they soon failed to have effect. The doctor insisted on surgery. Though the operation was a success, it had been necessary to install a respiratory device in my son's throat. The device was covered with thick gauze, which had to be kept constantly moist. If it dried, phlegm would accumulate and strangle the boy. Since there was no money to spend on private nurses, I had to stay by his bedside constantly. My younger sister offered to help me, but a few days of the grueling routine exhausted her and made her ill. Late at night when the doctor made his rounds, he would try to cheer us: "Keep it up. You're doing a good job."

Finally, my child's condition improved. To my delight, he was to be released from the hospital. The time had come to remove the respiratory device. But the doctor who was in charge made a mistake and cut an artery in the throat. The day before he was to have come home, my son died, strangled on his own blood.

The doctor knelt by the bed, groaning for forgiveness. I blamed him. But recriminations would not bring my boy back to life. I had falsified the insurance papers and had no alternative but to remain silent. Upon arriving in the hospital room, my husband collapsed. Weeping bitterly, he blamed himself for being unable to earn money to support the family.

My fourth son died on May 10, 1954. On the nineteenth of the same month, I was given work as a scrub woman in the university hospital. My pay, five hundred yen a day, was barely enough for survival and left nothing for luxuries. When our eldest son was in the sixth grade, penury threatened to deprive him of the chance to participate in the school excursion marking the end of primary and the beginning of middle school. After consideration of our condition, his school allowed him to go on the trip free of charge. But because of my work, I could not see him off. Our next-door neighbor was kind enough to do it for me.

My happiness at the birth of our fifth son, in June 1956, was to be short-lived. I had hoped he would be a reincarnation of the baby I had lost. And in the most tragic and ironic way, he inherited the same eye disease that had afflicted his dead elder brother.

Why? My husband was a good, kind, gentle man. No one could speak ill of him. I had done no one wrong. I had always tried to be kind to the weak and the elderly. I was considered an excellent mother and housewife. Why, among my five brothers and sisters, had I been singled out for this suffering? My frequent and repeated prayers at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines had no effect. The white film covering my son's eye was permanent. So deep was our physical and spiritual desolation at the time that the whole family agreed to commit suicide if it should become necessary to hospitalize this little boy.

My husband did not wait for the rest of us. His final suicide attempt left him ill and broken. Once again, there was no money. I pleaded with municipal officials, telling them how my husband's weakened physical state prohibited his working. I explained his history to them and said that I earned only the smallest income as a scrub woman. Finally, they agreed to provide him free hospital care and to put our family on government relief. Our condition had improved a little. But after about three months in a hospital bed, quietly, peacefully, my husband died in his sleep.

Though we did not know it then, our worst trials were over. My eldest son, limited by partial blindness, could not choose an occupation freely. He apprenticed himself to a shoemaker. I continued to work hard in the hope of providing a better future for the other children. Almost before I knew it, three years had passed; and I had been given a chance to remarry.

My second husband, who is crippled in both legs, is a skilled carver of tortoise-shell ornaments. As my children grew up, they earned money and contributed to the general fund so that little by little we were able to buy electrical appliances and ultimately to live an average family life on my husband's earnings alone.

Takashi, my oldest child, in spite of the loss of an eye, now works for a transport company and is the father of two lovely children. Immediately before he entered primary school, a doctor who gave him a physical examination told me that my fifth son's eye cancer had stabilized and would spread no farther. At the time of writing this, he was a senior in high school.

Though we have suffered, our family has, at least in part, survived. There are many others for whom the atomic-bomb sickness remains a constant source of pain and despair or an ever-present threat. Only people who suffer from this kind of illness can know its full terror. Even doctors do not always diagnose it accurately.

Young people today have been fortunate enough never to experience war. But they must not forget. It is the duty of those of us who have lived through the hells of the atomic bombings and the years of agony following them to proclaim our experiences so that war and its evils can be recognized for what they are and abolished from the earth.

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