Berger’s Burg: Japanese storytellers recount horrors of the atomic bombs

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WARNING: This column contains vivid descriptions of atom bomb victims.

On Dec. 7, 1941, at 7:49 a.m., Japanese torpedo-bombers swooped over Kahuku Point on Oahu in Hawaii and blasted Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States into World War II. This attack killed 2,403 U.S. sailors, soldiers and Marines.

The war raged for nearly four years, resulting in death and destruction on both sides. Japan vowed never to surrender and would resist to the death. On April 1, 1945, the island of Okinawa, the last stepping stone to Japan, was invaded by American forces. The bloody fighting continued until June; at the end of the battle, more than 12,000 Americans had been killed in three months.

It was anticipated American losses would reach in the hundreds of thousands if Americans were to invade Japan. These numbers persuaded President Harry Truman to unleash the atomic bombs on Japan.

On Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima — 140,000 of 327,457 residents died — and another over Nagasaki — 70,000 of 286,702 died. These figures do not include the thousands who would die over the next few decades from cancer and other ailments linked to radiation.

Even with this horrific loss of human life, the Japanese argued against surrender. The war minister declared: “I am quite sure that we could inflict great losses on the enemy, and even if we fail in the attempt, our 100 million people are ready to die for honor.” Emperor Hirohito overrode the war minister and chose to surrender unconditionally.

Throughout Japanese history, elderly storytellers, called kataribe, have spun folk tales for younger generations, but the ancient legends of dragons and ogres cannot match the grisly stories of the bombings’ after-effects. It is one thing for a child to read about it from a history book, but another to hear a kataribe tell it. Yet only a small number of survivors were willing to be kataribe and describe their stories. For most, it was too painful. But some agreed to tell their stories.

One kataribe, after 50 years, finally told his story. “I was 15 when the bombing of Nagasaki took place. I was badly burned. In front of me was another badly burned mother carrying a baby in a cloth on her back, gently rocking back and forth so it could sleep. I looked more closely, and I saw the baby no longer had a head. The mother didn’t seem to grasp what had happened and had lost her mind.”

Another kataribe described her experience as a 10-year-old. She stepped out of an air raid shelter after the blast and reached her house. She found a burned body on the ground, with its hands covering its face. When she pulled the charred hands away, she saw it was her older sister.

At first, a third refused to tell her story because it hurt so much, but finally consented: “It always feels as if it just happened yesterday. I found my mother in a friend’s house, and when I tried to pick up her body, the ashes crumbled.”

Another tells of her younger sister who survived the bombings, but never recovered her strength. After a stomach operation, the wound never healed and maggots grew in the sore. The sister would pick the maggots out with chopsticks, but still they multiplied. The wound gave off an offensive odor, so people held their noses when she approached. Finally, the sister jumped in front of a train.

Yet another was thrown to the ground and lost his right arm and right eye in the bombing of Nagasaki. When the doctor began amputating his arm Aug. 15, and his arm was just half sawn off, the surgeon stopped to listen to an important radio broadcast. That was how this kataribe heard his emperor’s voice for the first time, announcing Japan’s surrender and the end of the war.

So, the pro and con debate about dropping the bombs still lingers. Few Americans, following the Pearl Harbor attack questioned Truman’s use of the new weapon, which came on the heels of the bloody Okinawa campaign. But time marched on, and today revisionist historians and political activists maintain, more than 66 years later, that the atomic bombing of Japan was militarily unnecessary and morally unacceptable. Which side are you on?

With so many nations in possession, or will be in possession, of more advanced and sophisticated deadlier bombs, the world must stand up and not allow nuclear bombs ever to be dropped again.

Mankind’s very existence depends upon it.

Contact Alex Berger at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

Updated 6:32 pm, October 10, 2011
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