On August 15th following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Emperor asked Japan to endure the unendurable. Ten minutes later my commanding officer, Kenji Takagawa assembled us in the main lecture hall. He openly wept as he announced that we had failed in our duty to protect Japan. “Japan’s shame is our shame. The defeat lays on our shoulders.” Then he recommended us all to return to our families and try to rebuild our shattered lives. All of us stood there stunned as he quietly returned to his office. From the lecture hall we watched through his office window as he drew his service revolver, put the short gray barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. As chief medical officer on base I was required to examine him, and fill out the death certificate.
Strangely, afterwards, I felt almost nothing. It was more than shock. I’d seen enough officers in the Philippines commit suicide during the retreat to recognize the draining numbness brought on by shock. I had not realized how quickly I could resign myself to a set of circumstances, now matter how difficult. I wondered if it was dishonorable to be more concerned about returning home to my family the fate of my now dead commanding officer or my country.
After finishing my duties concerning my commanding officer, I returned to the barracks and hastily packed my rucksack with a couple of rice balls, a small blanket, and water for my canteen. Then caught the first train I could out of Osaka south towards Hiroshima.
The train was packed well beyond capacity. Most of the passengers were standing in the aisles pressed tightly together. The interior of the train was dark, and hot. I could not see out the windows on either side of the train because of the packed bodies crowding the train. It seemed like all of Japan was on the move, either looking for displaced relatives, or relocating to safer cities. Because of my uniform a small space was made for me on the wooden bench on the left side of the train. I felt guilty, knowing that I wasn’t truly worthy of this seat. The ghost voice of my dead commanding officer’s speech rang in my head. I gave up the seat to a tired old woman, who was held up by the dense crowd only because there was no room for her to fall. She thanked me and asked where I was heading.
“Hiroshima. My wife and two year old daughter have gone to live with my uncle. Our apartment complex in Tokyo was damaged in an air raid.”
She sucked in her breath loudly and said, “Very bad.”
I wondered what she meant exactly. I meant to ask her more, but her heavily lidded eyes soon closed as she drifted off to sleep. I’d heard on the radio that a new type of bomb had caused extensive damage to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there were no other details given. I couldn’t imagine the destruction being any worse than Tokyo.
The humid August heat and the cramped conditions caused all of us to sweat profusely, our bodies sticking together. Everyone tried to ignore the rancid discomfort so as not to shame each other.
Occasionally we would stop in a small town or city to let passengers off, but the train remained crowed almost all the way to the outskirts of Hiroshima. We all slept leaning against the people next to us. When I dreamed I was with my wife again in the spring before the war. Then the jostling of the train would shake me back to the present. I spent the most of the long train ride standing and worrying about the safety of my family.
The train arrived late in the evening about eight kilometers short of Hiroshima at Hesaka station. I asked the conductor why we didn’t continue into the city. He pointed down the track to what looked like a large cloud of smoke.
“The track ends there. We can’t go into the city anymore.”
I decided to spend the night in the station, and begin looking for my family in the morning. Some of the windows in the station were broken out, and long black stains from what looked like rainwater ran down the side of the building ruining the white paint. I walked a little ways from the station to a small hill overlooking the city. By this time it was completely dark. Above me the sky was clear and the stars were very bright, but above the area where I estimated the city to be hung a greasy looking cloud of black smoke.
I could hear a few other people on the hill talking, trying to locate the lights of the city center, but like me they couldn’t see any activity, aside from a few pale lanterns from some small boats moving slowly up the Ota River. There was no sound coming from the city either, but I thought I caught the scent of burnt industrial materials similar to those I had seen in parts of Tokyo.
I was very tired from the long train ride, and returned to the station. A hard wooden bench served as my bed that night. I was hoping the morning sunrise would relieve my bad feelings and give me strength to begin searching for my family.
The weak sunlight shining through the broken windows warming the side of my face woke me at dawn. Images of my nightmares woke with me. I remembered artillery shells exploding against the hill side in scorching flames of orange and red, my friend Tanka san being engulfed by the flames, and then the Americans screaming as they advanced on our bunkers. As always after this nightmare the anger and fear turned my stomach, a left over gift from the war in the Philippines.
I went outside clear the bile from my throat, resisting the urge to spit, but then I changed my mind and angrily hawked the yellow colored spittle to the ground. Sitting in the dirt facing the river I breathed slowly, counting each breath to calm my pounding heart. Gradually the memories began to fade. Weak outlines of the bright flames still remained in my mind, but the terrifying images and sounds receded.
When I stood up I could see the tops of many houses on the outlaying areas, but there were very few large buildings still standing. I thought I could see the dome of the Department of Industry building, but I wasn’t sure. The large greasy cloud of smoke still hung over the city. I couldn’t judge how wide spread or extensive the damage was, but uneasiness in my stomach was starting to build as my fear rose. I felt it was urgent that I began searching for my family.
I hiked down from the hill through some rough terrain to the river. The cool green grass growing on the muddy banks did little to reassure me. I bent down at the water’s edge to refill my canteen, but the water was brackish and warm to the touch. A large number dead or dying fish were floating on the surface of the river, their white carcass’s looking eerily like human corpses. Surprisingly, the gulls were not feasting on the fish. In fact, no gulls were to be seen or heard anywhere. I stopped for a moment to examine one of the dead fish, to see if there was something wrong with it, but I was distracted by my own reflection in the water. My eyes had become brown dead pools; my hair was still cut to military regulations, though many cloudy streaks of gray disrupted the rich blackness, deep lines of stress, gaunt cheeks from lack of food, dark circles under my eyes all worked together to devastate the handsomeness of my face.
How old I had become during this war. Like the old woman on the train had said, “Very bad.” Why were there no gulls, or animals of any kind here? It didn’t make sense.
A slight breeze from the south carried the muddy smell of the river along with another scent I didn’t recognize at first, but increased my fear for some reason. There were many footprints in the mud and the grass was trampled flat in places. Many people had recently traveled through here in a hurry. In the distance I could hear machines coming to life. Trucks and the rattling boom of the heavy machinery moved through the city somewhere. Their direction and purpose were indistinct. The work sounded hurried. I continued to follow the river south towards the city. I hoped the bridge a few kilometers downstream was still intact so that I could cross to reach the city center.
On the west bank people finally appeared. I wanted to wave, but dared not. Dozens of funerals were taking place. Monks in their orange robes chanted the funeral rites as black smoke rose from the funeral pyres. The smoke rose and wiped across the river wildly, intermingling and swirling as if the spirits of the deceased were battling one another to escape from this world. I could hardly bear to see how many dead were laid out on the banks of the river awaiting their cremation. I had seen bodies stacked several meters high in the Philippines, but this wasn’t the jungle. I began to wonder if the bodies of my wife and daughter occupied one of the piles.
I will keep going. Cross the bridge and continue to the city center to my Uncle’s home.
Crossing the bridge, I noticed the face of it was scorched black, and large potholes marked where concrete had been blown away. Here, the river was a milky brown color, maybe due to the ash from the funerals. I stopped on the other side of the bridge and said a short prayer for the dead, and another for my wife and daughter. I felt like getting on my hands and knees and begging for their lives, maybe offering up my own to whatever God’s would listen, but then I felt foolish, harden my thoughts so I could return to the search for my family.
On the other side of the bridge a residential area just on the outskirts of the city began. The houses in the neighborhood had shattered windows, and some tiles from the roofs had been sheared away, but for the most part they were still intact. Fires had gutted several of the houses, but aside from this the area was not as damaged as I had expected to be. Maybe it is not as bad as Tokyo.
People were repairing the damage the best they could. They moved sluggishly, seeming to have exhausted their joy for life. No happiness showed on their faces, only the tight expression of those resolved to hardship or death.
I began turning away from their stares, or looking at the ground to avoid their eyes. Their sorrow and burdens were not mine, and I felt awkward passing among them.
Something else was there also; a density like the crowd on the train. Anger. I suddenly realized that being a soldier I was a tangible connection to their misery. I walked on faster, staring at the ground as much I could, only lifting my head when the rumble strewn on the ground required me to do so to avoid tripping. I could feel the guilt rising in my heart, and I did not want it to distract me finding my family.
To block the shame and guilt, I thought of my wife waving to me in the sun as I was shipping out for the Philippines. She was just pregnant than, and wearing a light peach colored summer Kimono. There were tears in her eyes as my ship left port, but I could see the pride she felt also, and the strong assuredness that I would come back to her unharmed. The stench alerted me to the destruction further on before I actually saw it. The course smell of burnt plaster and wood choked my nostrils and stung my throat. I took a sip of water from my canteen trying to wash the taste of burned plastic and rubber away.
Closer to center of the city the destruction became more pronounced. Only a few kilometers beyond the bridge houses were totally collapsed or burned to the ground. The contrast to the neighborhood only a few kilometers away was almost incomprehensible. Except for the sound of the trucks and machinery off in the distance it was dead silent here. I saw no one trying to rebuild these homes. I’d seen enough battle sites resembling the destruction I saw here to know that most of the people in this area could not have survived.
Even with my experiences in the Philippines I had no way of comprehending what the bombs true power. Then I saw the outline of a human body burned into the side of a concrete garden wall like it had been drawn there with chalk. They had been trying to run away from the blast. A small pile of black ashes lay at the bottom of the garden wall. Everything this person had been, their very essence had been so thoroughly destroyed. Surely their spirit will wander in agony in this place.
“What kind of terrible weapon could have done this?” I wondered aloud.
“The flash from a fallen star and heat like the center of the sun did this. That is Sato-san. I was standing over there when it happened.”
The voice sounded ancient, pained, on the verge of insanity, but trying to hide it. I turned from the wall and saw a person sitting on a pile of rubble staring at me. At least it retained the basic shape of a person. I was reminded of the gingerbread cookies my mother had once made that had melted slightly in the oven. I could not tell for certain if it was a man or a woman. All of the hair and most of its facial features had been charred black. The few patches of healthy smooth skin that remained seemed out of place, like a new blade of grass growing in a wasteland.
“Onamae wa desu ka.” What is your name, I asked gently.
“Satsumi, Kiko Satsumi.”
I didn’t want to talk to her; the scaling blackened skin turned my stomach. She sat with her arms stretched out in front of her like a zombie. “Mizu.” Water, she demanded. I gave her a drink from my canteen. She drank in great gulps, spilling some the water down her front. Several of her fingers were missing; the burn marks had turned scarlet where infection had begun to set in.
“Why have you come to Hiroshima? No one should come to this place anymore. We are the dead, and should be left that way.”
“My family. They were in the city near Shima Hospital when the bomb fell.”
She began talking to herself, no longer listening to me. I watched her as she tried to find a comfortable position to sit in. Each movement she made caused quiet little groans to escape from her lips.
“It hurts so much when I try to move. Everyone I knew was killed by the fires in this neighborhood, my husband and children and parents all died in that house over there. I was spared for some reason, I don’t know why.”
She began to sob hysterically and I didn’t know what to say to comfort her. I wanted to help her somehow, but at the same time I was repulsed by her physical condition. Again, I stared dumbly at the ground trying to be respectful, but also hiding my disgust. The thought of my own family having possibly burned like this replaced everything else in my mind. I left her with the canteen and told her I would try to send help when I reached the city center.
I have truly seen the dead now. Never before, even when walking through fields of corpses have seen death like this. What of the rest?
I tried to hurry, but was able to travel only one kilometer in an hour. It looked as if an earthquake, hurricane, and firestorm had all touched down on Hiroshima simultaneously. The infrastructure of the city was shattered. Twisted pieces of metal from buildings and huge slabs of concrete littered the ground like broken seashells on the beach during low tide; the streets were buried in debris several meters deep in some places.
As the day progressed I felt the temperature rise. I kept telling myself that maybe only certain parts of the city were destroyed like Tokyo and Osaka. I had seen whole neighborhoods completely intact that had been right next to bombed out industrial plants. Maybe my Uncle’s house had survived somehow, and my little daughter was playing in the tiny garden behind the house, waiting to meet me.
The humidity combined with the effort to climb over the rubble began to take its toil on me. Often I had to stop to remove slivers of wood and glass from my hands. Dirt and ash mixed with the blood from my palms. Visions of the burned woman kept entering my mind.
Disturbing thoughts of my wife and daughters bodies horribly scarred from the fires crept into my head. I couldn’t hold onto the pleasant memories anymore. Too much anxiety crowded my heart. I kept seeing only the worst possibilities.
So far I had seen only brick, concrete and steel framed buildings that had survived to any extent at all. Almost all of the houses I saw had collapsed or burned, if not both. My uncle’s house was a two-story house made almost entirely of wood and paper. He’d built it himself many years ago with the front porch facing the river, so that he and my aunt would benefit from the cool breezes coming off the water in the humid summertime. I could not picture something as beautiful, and fragile as my uncle’s house surviving the kind of destruction I was seeing.
Several times I came upon corpses burned so badly that they were nothing more than ash statues trapped forever in their death poses. I tried to avoid them, but in some places they were so thick, having fallen in mass groups. Those I was forced to touch left a sooty residue on my fingers. The more fragile ones collapsed when I brushed against them. Clouds of dust from the rubble on the ground mixed with human ashes spun off together in the wind.
I didn’t want to breathe the ashes of the dead into my body, and the nauseating smell of burned flesh was almost overwhelmingly powerful now. I placed a handkerchief over my mouth to protect myself from the ash, but I was still forced to breath in the stench. The dead had become as great an obstacle as the piles of concrete and glass that filled the streets. I avoided what looked like main streets. The debris was thickest there. Burned out cars and the ash remains of the people that had been on the street made it nearly impassable. I didn’t think I could stand walking through there.
I might have known some of the people on this street, could have played with them as a child.
I believed I was two kilometers or less from my uncle’s neighborhood. It was impossible to tell who these ash bodies had been when alive. They seemed as if they had been dead for millions of years, an archeological find, rather than the victims of a recent disaster, but I knew that wasn’t true.
An alley way between two tall heavily damaged buildings provided some shade. At the end of the alley a large mound of debris was piled up over ten meters. The collage of objects imbedded in the mound created a morbid fascination for me. I saw roof tiles melted and broken, a pair of black rubber boots, a piece of bright yellow kimono with a dark blue pattern of flowers charred black as it receded into the pile. I climbed up the right side of the mound slowly. The debris shifted loosely under my feet. Sometimes the blackened shape of an arm or hand would appear, and I would try to climb past the spot quickly in a panic.
When I reached the top of the mound I could see the dome and shattered remains of the Department of Industries building. I ran down the other side of the mound. I tripped half way down, and tumbled to the bottom of the pile. I scratched my arm, and was bleeding from a gash on my forehead. I had to stop for a moment to tend to my wounds. Two torn strips from one of my shirt sleeves made decent temporary bandages for my head and arm.
When I reached the grounds of the Shima Hospital all I found were the gray concrete blocks from the destroyed foundation and half a crumbling wall. Trees that should have had green leaves with a touch of yellow as they prepared for autumn were nothing more than scorched lifeless trunks. The houses and buildings that would have normally surrounded this area and nestled my uncle’s house between them were gone.
I searched the area over and over for a sign of my family, but there was nothing, only piles of dark ash. I tried to think if there was anywhere they could have gone outside of the city on the day of the bombing, but I knew that they would have all been home, probably preparing to leave for work. I fell to my knees weeping uncontrollably, wringing the soft ash in my hands. This I could not endure.
About the Creator
Steve Howard's self-published collection of short stories Satori in the Slip Stream, Something Gaijin This Way Comes, and others were released in 2018. His poetry collection Diet of a Piss Poor Poet was released in 2019.