Proof of My Death

Komaichi Taniyama

IN SPITE OF THE unfavorable course of the fighting, during the last days of World War II, when I was employed in the oxygen-torpedo section of the Mitsubishi Arms Plant, we worked diligently, secure in the belief that ultimately we would win. Many of the people in our department were women who wore white bands with the red rising-sun emblem on their foreheads to show that they were members of the Patriotic Service Corps and the Volunteer Corps.

On August 9, 1945, our day began, as usual, with a pep talk from the factory director. When it was over, we all turned to our tasks. At about nine-thirty, I heard a siren for an air-raid alert. Going immediately to the watchtower on the roof, I began to scan with binoculars. In the partly clouded sky, I could not see a single aircraft. The caution alert sounded, and I went back to work. It was swelteringly hot in the factory. We all sweated copiously.

Shortly after eleven, we were about to hoist and move a torpedo we had just assembled when suddenly something brilliant -- something like lightning -- flashed. My first reaction was to look up to the high-voltage cable to see whether it had made contact with something. No, it was all right. I looked out the windows on the left and right. In the next instant, another flash blinded me; and heat waves enveloped everything. Quickly, I covered my eyes, as we had been taught to do in air-raid training. Just before I lost consciousness, I had a strange sensation of floating in midair and of being carried by a roaring wind.

When I woke, it was quiet and very dark. Where was I? Was I alive or dead? Though my mind was befuddled, I had enough presence to pinch my cheek. The pain convinced me that I had not died, yet.

But I was surrounded by impenetrable darkness. Trying to stand, I struck my head on something. I touched it. It was concrete. I had been buried. A direct bomb hit had trapped me. Suddenly, I felt death near. Memories flooded my brain. My whole past in an instant. How brief life is.

Just then I perceived a thread of light in the darkness. Red light. It must be from flames. There had been jets of gas flame at intervals of about twelve feet in the factory. They must have ignited some oil. In the dim light, I saw that I was trapped in a narrow space between an iron torpedo-molding plate and part of the collapsed ceiling. The fire seemed to be spreading fast. My little space started filling with smoke. It was difficult to breathe. I suddenly realized that I would die if I did not escape at once. I was seized by a passionate desire to go on living.

Like a trapped rat, I scurried and crawled around the little space in search of a way out. Not a crack anywhere. I pressed my shoulder against the molding plate, but it would not budge. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I almost gave up hope.

But hope does not die easily. The molding plate would not move, but what about the concrete ceiling? I looked. It was cracked. Then there flashed in my mind the recollection of having stumbled on an iron bar in my scurrying to and fro. I searched and found it, a fairly large screw auger. My last chance. I began jabbing and stabbing at the crack in the concrete with all my strength and desperation.

For what seemed like hours, I worked frantically at the task. At last, I had made a hole large enough for me to crawl through. Later, some time after I had freed myself, I at last saw that my hands were bloody and blistered. I could not use them normally for more than a week.

I had been trapped under the mold for hours. Once free, I was appalled at what I saw. The factory compound was a sea of flames. I heard cries and groans from all directions. One of my fellow workers was pinned between warped posts on the second floor. He called for help. Beside him was a dead body skewered on a piece of iron framework.

More cries of pain, this time from below. I saw two women and a man pinned under a large working table. Putting my shoulder to the edge of the table, I tried to move it. But I could not. The cries subsided; two of the three had already died.

The flames had reached me. My clothes had been either burned or torn; I was naked from the waist up. Unable to do anything for the last of the three people trapped under the table, I dashed for refuge from the fire. My mind was dazed, and I have only the vaguest recollections of what I did next. Little more than half conscious, I ran and ran, through horribly hot air charged with screams and pleas for help. I felt someone briefly pulling my hand.

When I fully regained consciousness, I was in an air-raid shelter beneath the Shotoku-ji temple, more than a hundred meters from the factory compound. A woman was nursing my wounds and cooling my chest with muddy water. She said my chest was badly hurt. My right shoulder had been ripped open so that the bones of the joint were bared. It must have happened when I was blown about by the first blast.

Before long, the smoke and heat in the shelter forced me to go outside. But the combination of the all-enveloping flames and the summer sun was intolerable. I hurried to a nearby muddy stream, took off my trousers, dipped them in the turbid water, and used them to cover my chest and shoulders. I decided that walking upstream was the only way to safety. On my way, I saw the Zenza Primary School. Jets of flame were spurting from its windows.

Somehow I had escaped to join throngs of refugees fleeing in the direction of Mount Kompira. Having barely escaped death, we walked in stunned, dazed silence. We heard the roar of circling planes overhead. At one point, we encountered Japanese soldiers leading four American prisoners of war. The winners, blue-eyed and laughing, were being scolded by their pathetic Japanese captors. At the top of a hill, we saw the entire Urakami Valley in flames. Black smoke spiraled upward from the raging fires.

With no realization of where I was or where I was going, I simply followed the others. Suddenly I was surprised to see that we had come as far as Hotarujaya. There an old lady, whom I had never met before, took pity on me. She bandaged my bleeding shoulder and gave me sandals to wear, saying it was dangerous to go barefoot, as I had been. Asking where I lived and learning that I came from Yagami, she told me of trucks running in that direction and directed me to the truck stop. But when I got there I found the line of people waiting so long that I decided to walk home.

I suppose it was the old woman's inquiry that suggested going home as fast as possible. I walked a lot that day. Although I saw many abandoned bicycles, I was too confused and muddled to think of taking one. When I reached my neighborhood, people who knew me stared in incredulity. I was so disfigured by my wounds and by blood and dirt that they did not recognize me.

My brothers and sisters were relieved that I was alive and shocked at my condition. I craved water, but my poisoned body would not retain it. I vomited something streaked with a yellowish substance. The mirror showed me a blackened face with white eyes and teeth. My mother, returning from a search for me, was both relieved and shocked by the sight of me. I was taken at once to a nearby hospital for treatment.

That night, I could not sleep. I spent the whole night telling my family of my experiences. My room opened on a highway along which traveled a seemingly endless procession of refugees fleeing the destroyed city, horrifying testimony of the destructive power of the bomb.

On August 15, the emperor shocked the nation by making a radio announcement of surrender. Until then, we had all been convinced that ultimately Japan would be victorious.

In September, one of the workers in our factory called on me with the disturbing news that I had been listed among the dead. On the following day, leaning on a walking stick, I went with him to the shattered wasteland that had been our place of work to clear the matter up. We passed through streets still littered with corpses, though a month had elapsed since the bombing.

When I told the man in charge of our department that I was actually alive, he refused to believe me. I was second from the top on the list of casualties. My wounds had so altered my appearance that he could not recognize me. Many of the people killed in the fire in the plant had been so charred that identification had been impossible. After a few moments, my boss went into the next room for a short while. He returned with a box wrapped in white cloth. It bore the inscription "The Remains of Komaichi
Taniyama." Proof that I was dead! It was not until one of my fellow workers identified me definitely that my boss would agree to reinstate me. But it was sad place in which to be reinstated. Only skeleton buildings remained. Dead bodies and ox and horse carcasses lay putrefying on the ground and poisoning the air with a horrid stench. Corpses floated in the waters of the nearby river or lay sprawled on its banks.

Three months later, my gums began to bleed, my hair fell out in tufts, and purplish spots developed all over my body. I suffered from anemia and apathy. I did not regain moderately good health until 1957. Since that time, the symptoms of radiation sickness have not recurred. But one purple spot has persisted on my right arm. It refuses to disappear, as if it were a symbol of the horror of the bomb and a reminder that we must never allow a tragedy like that of Nagasaki to occur again.

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