Double Death Sentence

Shigetaka Iwanaga

When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, on August 9, 1945, I was a member of the military police and was in charge of accounts and inspections of war supplies and civilian aid-defense shelters. Inspecting the shelters, my main work, was part of a program to remodel the facilities and enable them to withstand flame-thrower attacks in the event that United States troops landed on the home islands.

I was conducting one of these inspections when the atomic bomb fell. Soon people of both sexes and of all ages, some clothed, some naked, hurried into the shelter and almost at once fell dead. Corpses practically clogged the entrance. Sensing the danger of remaining in such a place, I began to wade through the dead bodies toward the exit. There I found still more mounds of corpses.

Upon escaping the shelter, I first went to the Shiroyama Commercial School, in the auditorium of which were stored three years' provisions for the civilian population. The building and the provisions were in flames when I arrived. Many of the soldiers who had been hastily mobilized to save what they could from the fire were seriously wounded. Still other injured soldiers were dissolving powdered milk in a large cauldron and doling it out to the refugees who had come seeking food.

For some reason, that evening, another soldier and I were walking behind the Shiroyama Primary School when we heard women crying from a small river. Descending to the bank, we saw three naked, injured people. To my horror, I realized that they were three sisters I had known. One of them had her small children with her. I lifted the eldest sister to my comrade, who remained on the bank. I saw that her eyes had been burned out and that she was blistered all over. When I touched her, the skin peeled off, causing her such pain that she cringed from me. After much careful and laborious work, we succeeded in getting them to the relief squad.

Later, I was forced to go to a special guard and police headquarters in Naminohira to report on the situation in Shiroyamamachi. The Urakami River and the Komaba Bridge over it were clogged with dead bodies. When I reached it, the bridge was already burning. There was nothing for me to do but push my way through the corpse-choked waters of the river. Carrying my sword and tying my cap on my head with a towel, I ran as fast as I could, in rubber-soled shoes.

As I went along, I heard people pleading for water. Today, I can still hear their cries and feel remorse at having been unable to do anything to relieve them. We had been ordered not to give water to the injured because it would only hasten death. Forcing myself not to hear their cries, occasionally stumbling over the dying, I hastened on my way.

As I raced on, I suddenly experienced a strange delusion. The flames of the city reminded me of the time when I had taken part in the Japanese amphibious assault on the Chinese coast during the Shanghai Incident of 1937. The inferno in the streets of Nagasaki suddenly became the flames of Shanghai, until the urgent cries of the Japanese around me brought me back to reality.

Near the police box at Ibinokuchi, I saw a dead baby and, not far away, its injured mother, who was screaming and desperately trying to crawl to her child's side. I picked up the little corpse and placed it by the mother, who died almost immediately. Weeping aloud and vowing to get even some day, I ran farther. Just as I came to a cotton mill, where in the past I had seen American prisoners of war working, I stopped, terrified as the walls of the building tumbled in flames into the street that I would have been passing if I had not stopped with the dead infant and dying mother. In their deaths they had saved my life.

Approaching my final destination, I found the heat from the roaring flames so intense that I was forced to pour water over my body to continue. Tangled fallen wires tripped me at every step. Only my sense of mission made me go on. Ultimately, I reached the Tamae Bridge, where the fire was less intense, and then continued to the headquarters, where I made my report.

My duty done, I suddenly felt crippling pain in my feet. Examining them for the first time, I saw that the rubber soles of my shoes had burned away and that my feet were stuck with countless glass splinters. My whole body ached. My clothes were in rags. There was no medical team at the headquarters, but in the supply room I managed to get some iodine and some clothes and shoes.

I spite of the pain in my cut and burned feet, I still had to work. I was assigned several tasks, including guarding Nagasaki Station, disposal of corpses, and cremation. Later I guarded Emmyo-ji -- ironically, the Temple of Survival -- where wounded, most of whom died, were taken. I was enraged and indignant as I watched innocent, noncombatant, unarmed civilians suffer and perish. What had they done to deserve this?

Another of my jobs was checking people leaving the city, helping the elderly and children, and preventing able-bodied young people from fleeing. In one instance, it was my duty to force a young man with a bundle to return to the destroyed city.

Before long, I found myself under a double death sentence. Rumors were rife at the time that anyone who lost hair or suffered from bleeding gums was doomed to die of radiation sickness. I had lost some hair, and blood oozed from my gums. Then, after the surrender, word leaked out that all members of the military police were to be hanged.

The latter rumor proved false first. Before long I was discharged from military service, and no blame was laid on me. But the sentence of death from radiation sickness still hung over my head. Shame and humiliation accompanied me on my return to my home village. To be prepared if suicide should become inescapable, I always carried a sword, wrapped in a blanket.

My health deteriorated because of a strange, persistent fever that the doctors found impossible to identify. After a period of great suffering, I recalled eating mugwort to cure a high malarial fever contracted while I had been in China. Instinct must have led me to eat the herb that time. I decided to try again. Every day I ate some of the mugwort that grew in my village. In a fairly short time, my gums stopped bleeding; and even sharp tugging would not pull my hair out. I began to feel better, the fever subsided, and I regained the will to live.

The second death sentence had been lifted. Throughout the decades that have passed, I have continued to pray for the repose of those who died in the Nagasaki holocaust.

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