U.S. and World Politics

Hiroshima Survivor Speaks Out

By Sophie Shevardnadze

The world looked total destruction in the eye 73 years ago, when American nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, can humanity come together and prevent the catastrophe from ever happening again? RT asked nuclear weapons disarmament activist, Hiroshima bombing survivor Setsuko Thurlow.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Setsuko Thurlow, survivor of nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, welcome. It’s really great to have you with us. 

Setsuko Thurlow: Thank you.

Sophie Shevardnadze: You were in Hiroshima in August 1945, when the nuclear bomb was dropped on the city. We now know that a nuclear bomb kills not only at the moment of explosion, but for many years after. You weren’t far from the epicenter of the explosion—were you exposed to radiation, did it make itself known later?

Setsuko Thurlow: Everybody in the city was exposed to radiation. We were all contaminated to a different degree of seriousness. Some people were killed immediately, some people survived but they started developing symptoms like loss of hair, internal bleedings, bleeding from the gum, diarrhea, fever—those things. Practically all the people who were in the city or who entered the city to rescue the dying people got contaminated too. So we all shared the common symptoms for some time. I lost my hair, had internal bleeding, bleeding from the gum, diarrhea.

Sophie Shevardnadze: I read that someone pointed you out of the burning building and you crawled out…

Setsuko Thurlow: That’s correct.

Sophie Shevardnadze: What happened then? How did you find your family, how many of them survived?

Setsuko Thurlow: On the next day, August 7th, in the morning hundreds, thousands of people were just sitting on the nearby hills. We hardly slept; we kept watching the entire city burn all night. And then, the Japanese soldier came around with a megaphone and said: “Is there Setsuko Nakamura?” I said: “Here I am!” “Your parents are here looking for you!” And I was surprised. I saw my parents and learnt what happened to them. My father left town early that morning on the 6th of August, he was out in the fishing boat in the Inland Sea. He loved fishing and that was his day-off. And suddenly he heard something and saw a mushroom cloud rising. He knew something terrible happened so he came back. My mother was doing dishes after breakfast and she too was buried under the collapsed building. She had to be helped. She was helped and was able to escape outside of the city. How they came together I don’t know. But they told me that my married sister and her four-year-old child who had been evacuated, moved out from the city of Hiroshima in order to protect themselves from air raids. But they came home the night before to visit us. That morning they were on their way to the hospital, they were walking over the bridge—the mother and her four-year-old child—and they had no chance. By the time I saw them that morning they were just blackened and swollen. You just couldn’t recognize them. They were simply blackened melted chunks of flesh. They survived for about four days, they kept begging for water, but there were no doctors or nurses, no food, all we could give them was some water. In my very close family eight people perished. My sister-in-law was a high school teacher; she was in the center of the city, supervising about seven or eight thousand students who were mobilized to do the task for the army in the city to establish the fire lane. So they were doing the physical labor at eight o’clock on August 6. It was so hot, many boys took off shirts, and then detonation took place right above them—500-600 meters above them. They were the ones who simply vaporized, melted or carbonized. From my school 321 girls simply disappeared.    

Sophie Shevardnadze: Setsuko, what were the days, months after the bombing like? How did you survive in a burnt-out city? Did you even know what had happened? I mean, it was the first time something like that ever took place…

Setsuko Thurlow: I thought Americans finally caught us because they had been air-raiding most of the cities especially since March 1,1945. So we, people in Hiroshima were beginning to feel very anxious. Hiroshima was supposed to be tenth largest city in Japan at that time. But even smaller cities had been bombed, most of the cities had been bombed. How come we hadn’t been attacked? Every day and every night B-29s flew around but they didn’t drop any bomb. Little did we know, that the Americans had already selected Hiroshima as a target for the new type of bomb, which they already had.

Sophie Shevardnadze: The American government’s position has been that bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were needed to save American soldiers’ lives from being lost in a potential war on the ground. How do you feel when you hear that? Does this explanation sound logical to you? 

Setsuko Thurlow: That’s an American myth, just a myth, because Japan had been exhausted, finished by that time. I can verify that, we were practically starving at home. The soldiers in the Pacific or any other battlefield didn’t have any food, munitions. We were finished. The war ended and the Japanese were considering surrendering. There’s much historical evidence that the use of nuclear weapons wasn’t necessary, and most of historians acknowledge that.  

Sophie Shevardnadze: I read you saying that the U.S. occupation forces brought you a sense of relief and liberation from the oppression of Japan’s militaristic government. But those were the people who, like you were describing so vividly, brought total destruction to your city, killed hundreds-of-thousands of people, eight people from your immediate family died. Did you not connect the U.S. soldiers with the atom bomb? Was there any hatred in you towards the Americans, or you were grateful they have brought the end of the war with them?

Setsuko Thurlow: At that time, I would say, most of the people in Hiroshima who experienced the atomic bombing, we were in the numbed condition. All the experience was so massive and grotesque, and our psyche wouldn’t accept that. That meant the cessation of emotions, we were not responding to all the horrible scenes inside. If we had responded normally we wouldn’t have survived. So in that condition people’s emotional response to many things that were happening around us wasn’t as sharp and normal and powerful as you would expect. You have to remember this very point.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Setsuko, I know that the U.S. occupational forces also imposed their sort of oppression—on the bombings survivors. What was it like?

Setsuko Thurlow: Let me give you a couple of examples. The United States established an institution called ABCC (Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission) and people were very happy that finally we got some medication, medical experts who knew what this was all about, who would help Japanese doctors who were at a loss. But the sole purpose of the ABCC was to study the effects of radiation on human bodies, not to help the people sick because of the radiation. The survivors felt they were used as guinea pigs twice: first time as a target, second as a subject for research. You can imagine that. Occupational forces didn’t want the media, newspapers to write anything that could be seen as disadvantageous to occupational forces. And if a newspaper writes something about the destruction and especially human suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this would be considered disadvantageous. This would have to stop. So they censored and forced some media companies to close up shop. This is not exactly a democratic thing to do. And the survivors wrote diaries. They had correspondence. Some people wrote haiku—a Japanese literary form—when they had pains. They had to express that by writing haiku. They had photographs, films, even medical information. All these things were confiscated, and 32 thousand items were shipped back to the United States because the scientific triumph of the United States of producing the atomic bombs was OK, the world could find out. But the human suffering these bombs caused—this was not to be found out by the world. That was the reason why.     

Sophie Shevardnadze: So I want to talk a little about the American reaction towards what happened 73 years ago. President Obama was the first American president to come to Hiroshima in 2016. He delivered a very emotional speech, but never said sorry for America’s decision to drop the bomb. I know that the American public went nuts over the suggestion that he could apologize, with the pundits relentlessly mocking that idea. My question is—why in your opinion is it so hard for the Americans, why are the Americans so uneasy about owning up to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings?

Setsuko Thurlow: I suppose even today, 73 years later, they must believe what they did was justifiable. It was justified to end the war quickly, to rescue American G.I.’s lives. That was OK. I think, that mentality still continues unfortunately. Not thinking people though, many Americans woke up, it was such an atrocity; an unacceptable, immoral, illegal act that the United States took. And many Americans are sorry about that. But as a state, as a nation, I guess they are too proud to apologize. I know, apology was a very contentious and controversial issue. I feel that if he had offered it we should have accepted it. We deserve to accept it. But he chose not to. And he couldn’t, I suppose, because of the political milieu in the States especially during the presidential election time. But it’s not totally inappropriate if he did offer that apology. You know, in the war everybody did horrible things that were against the international humanitarian law. The Germans did, the British did, the U.S. did, the Japanese did too.   

Sophie Shevardnadze: But in most cases nations do apologize. The Germans made sure that their life after World War II was one big apology. British people apologized many times as well.

Setsuko Thurlow: And remember, both Germany and Japan were tried by the Tribunal.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Yes.

Setsuko Thurlow: And the Japanese military leaders—six or seven of them—were hung. So the losers were tried, but the victors—no matter what they’d done—were not to be tried. It’s a very unfair world—I understood that even as a child.

Sophie Shevardnadze: The memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been kept alive thanks to people like you—and governments remember those lessons as well. There has not been a single combat use of a nuclear bomb since 1945. To me, it seems that humanity has learned its lesson, has seen enough to not ever use nukes again. Do you have less faith in humanity than I do?

Setsuko Thurlow: No, I do have faith. If they don’t have it now, they will. Certainly, I have faith in humanity. This humanity must continue to live and this civilization must be preserved. I think, it’s ridiculous that some goofy people are threatening each other by saying their bombs are bigger than others’ and “we have more of them.” Imagine, such childish impulsive statements are being exchanged by those people. Anyway, it’s hard to believe those things are still happening. But I think people are gradually learning. More than anything, I’m grateful that hundreds-of-thousands and millions of people around the world came to realize, NGOs and 122 nations signed to adopt a United Nations treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Sophie Shevardnadze: You said over and over again that you’re doing this so that the deaths of your loved ones won’t be in vain. Do you really have to make amends for what happened in 1945? It wasn’t your fault, you didn’t drop the bomb; it wasn’t you who started or fought that war. Why do you feel that you’re responsible in some way? Why do you burden yourself with it?

Setsuko Thurlow: Look, I experienced this, I witnessed the massive death and destruction. Anybody with the conscience and moral sense can’t just remain silent about that horror. Something is wrong. Somebody did it. Somebody created such destruction and massive death of humanity. An entire city just disappeared with one bomb—that was caused by human beings. Then we have to stand up and stop that kind of behavior by the human beings who are responsible. The United States was responsible. They never said sorry about that, unfortunately. More important is to make sure that something like that will never happen again to any human beings. To us that’s the highest priority. We have to stop that. And this is why we have been speaking out about our painful experiences for the past seven decades. Believe me, it’s not easy. Each time I talk about it, I try to embrace but still I don’t succeed, it pains me. But I keep doing it because there’s no other way I can live. This is my moral imperative. I guess, that would be my answer to your question.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Setsuko, thank you so much for being with us. I have no words actually to express my gratitude. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Setsuko Thurlow: I wish I could speak more. I really would. This is the first time that I speak to the Russian people.

Sophie Shevardnadze: I promise you we’re going to have another lengthy interview in the near future. I promise you that much.

Setsuko Thurlow: I hope so. I really want the Russian people to think about life and death. It’s the life of every citizen I’m concerned about, not the national or international security and all these military joggings. Yes, it’s important for us to know such things, but the most important thing for us is to remember our humanity. That’s the most important thing.

Sophie Shevardnadze: I hope your message gets across and people will hear it, understand it and take it close to heart. Thank you so much. We were talking to Setsuko Thurlow, Hiroshima bombing survivor and disarmament campaigner, discussing how her grave experience should help us address the nuclear danger today.  

RT, August 3, 2018