Miraculous Survival

Eiichi Sakogoshi

IN AUGUST, 1945, I was a medical corpsman at the First Army Hospital, at Motomachi, Hiroshima. Our Hospital was considered the finest of its kind in all Japan. In addition to my corpsman duties, I was an orderly for the hospital general affairs section, I prepared lunch for the officers and, in the afternoon, delivered papers and documents to military units located throughout Hiroshima. I liked my afternoon work best because I was usually finished early enough to stop at our house for a snack and a chat with my mother.

On August 5, 1945, as usual, I made my rounds and dropped in at our house. It was getting dark, and no one was there. Our next-door neighbor told me that mother had gone to the public bath. I went into the kitchen and ate something. Then, before returning to my outfit, I asked the same neighbor to tell mother I had been by and that I had eaten some food I found in the kitchen. I did not know then that I had missed my last chance to see my mother.

Shortly after I returned to our unit, B-29s began circling overhead. They flew about all night. None of us slept because we had to make shelter provisions in the event of a raid. At dawn, we ate breakfast and went to the hospital field, where daily morning assemblies were held. August 6 was a fine, hot summer day.

After assembly, I returned to the office, where I heard the radio announcement that the air-raid alarm in effect earlier in the morning had been lifted. The radio began to buzz with static when suddenly a great flash of yellow light swept over the earth. "A direct hit on us," I thought. It lasted only a moment, but it seemed very long to me.

Lying on the floor, I knew I was injured and thought I might be dying. The faces of my mother and others close to me flashed through my mind. Then I was suddenly awake. Crawling from under the rubble, I looked around and was appalled to see that the city had disappeared. I could see for miles, all the way to Ujina, the southern tip of Hiroshima. The much-vaunted First Army Hospital was a heap of wreckage. Hiroshima Castle -- gone.

Then I glanced at myself and realized that like the city I was disfigured beyond recognition. The skin had peeled from my face. My head was bleeding and burned. Strange objects seemed to be lodged in it. Then I felt an excruciating pain in my back. My shirt was on fire. Rolling in the dirt, I put out the flames. Checking to make certain that none of my other garments was burning, I immediately began to look for a place to hide in safety.

The hospital was infernal chaos. Scores of bodies littered the ground. Pandemonium reigned in the demolished hospital, where soldiers, nurses, and other people on duty were now reduced to the same wretched condition as the patients. Some scurried about aimlessly; others fell to the ground to wait for death. For the first time, I was brought face to face with the horrifying reality of war, and I was overcome with fear.

All of us soldiers had been prepared to die, but I had always hoped that with luck I would survive the war to return to ordinary civilian life. But now, with death striking all around with ghastly speed, the possibility of my living seemed remote. Terror gripped me.

I ran desperately as far as the Aioi Bridge over the Ota River. The heat from the fires raging around me and the pain of my wounds became intolerable. I jumped into the shallow river and stood, water to my shoulders, as my pain subsided little by little. Of the many other people who fled into the cooling waters, not one was completely uninjured. One of the refugees, who turned out to be an army surgeon, stood near me. I told him about my injuries and asked what I could do to help myself. For a long time, he stood silent, then with an air of stupefied resignation said, "None of us can do anything. They've dropped something awful. What can it be?"

Burning buildings collapsing into the river had heated the water. Everything seemed to be aflame. I climbed on the bank and began to run along the river's edge. I had to get away. I would suffocate from the heat if I remained there.

Finally, as I approached the mountains, I began to be able to breathe freely. A cool, fresh wind caressed my burned body and face. "Real air, at last," I thought, luxuriating momentarily in the scent of the breeze. But at that very moment, I collapsed to the ground and vomited a yellowish liquid. Nausea was followed by a horrible thirst. My throat seemed to be on fire. Struggling to my feet, I rushed in search of water. Apparently alone in the area, I found a broken pipe in the wreckage of a house and drank deep of the water flowing from it. But no matter how much I drank, in a matter of two or three minutes, the scorching thirst returned.

As I walked northward in search of more water, the sun turned deep red, as if it had been thickly painted with blood. Twilight, then darkness descended. It began raining great greasy, blackish drops of a substance that did not seem to be water. I felt as if the end of the earth had come.

Just when my thirst had become unbearable again, I came upon some men from the Kure Naval Base distributing water to victims of the bomb. I joined the group, crying, "Water, water!" But the seamen would allow us to have only a little at a time, since too much would be bad for our burns. What they gave was not enough for me. I retraced my steps in the hope of finding the broken pipe again. But I could not.

I became aware of a throbbing pain in my head, which made a strange sound at each step I took. I felt as if something heavy, something liquid, were lodged in my skull. When I shook my head, blood gushed, covering almost my entire body. With exploratory fingers, I touched the top of my head and found splinters of glass embedded in my flesh.

But I had to go on. I was raised in this part of the country and knew that there were streams in the mountains. Climbing one hill in the Ushita district, I located a small stream, just as I had suspected I would. First, I drank the fresh, cool water, then bathed my body. There was no one else around. Sitting in the clear mountain stream, I looked up at the sky and began to think of many things.

I longed for the war to end, for the army to be disbanded. But what was going to happen to us, to Japan? What of the people who managed to survive the Hiroshima bombing. I thought of my mother. I knew she could not have survived. I had seen the whole neighborhood of our house in raging flames. But, unable to weep, I slept.

In a few hours I woke. It was completely dark, but the city was still aflame. Descending the mountain, I found an improvised first-aid station where hundreds of refugees were receiving treatment. I too was treated. Someone gave me a cigarette to smoke, and I returned to the mountain, where I spent the rest of the night.

For the next two weeks, I roamed aimlessly about the district where our house had stood. I no longer remember clearly what I did during that period; but I know that though I had given her up for dead I continued to search for my mother. It was some time before I learned for certain that she had been killed when the bomb exploded.

Later I was hospitalized in the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital. For two or three months, I hovered between life and death. Even after I was released from the hospital I had to return periodically for treatment. Somehow, I pulled through the worst, but I was under treatment until the end of the year. Then I was evacuated to a place called Muro, a village facing the Seto Inland Sea. I walked there on crutches; it took three days.

Having come from a devastated city, I found the sea and mountains both beautiful and soothing. From this point began my struggle with the symptoms of radiation sickness. They persisted for years, and it is miraculous that I have survived at all.

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