A child's experience:

My experience of the atomic bomb

by Tadataka Kuribayashi


The Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) and RERF Labor Union decided to distribute my note about my A-bomb experience, which I wrote almost 30 years ago, on the occasion of the '94 A-bomb anniversary. I feel a little uneasy, but I was glad to be able to cooperate. The evacuated elementary school students including myself have reached the age of 60 and many of us have grandchildren now. I have served at the RERF for almost 34 years. The 6 months I spent in Tsutsuga Village in the northern part of Hiroshima Prefecture still remains, vividly in my memory even after so many years. It might be difficult for young people to imagine what happened in those days, but I want them to know that there are many people who underwent similar experiences to mine and that they are still very much alive. It is worthwhile, perhaps, to go back once again from the affluent life we are now enjoying to the "starting point". [This note was included in "Koho Tsutsuga" (PR journal of Tsutsuga Village, Yamagata County) published in September 1975.]
In late June 1966, I decided to visit Tsutsuga Village of Yamagata County for the first time in 21 years to do some sketches for an art exhibition. Probably because it was early Sunday morning, the diesel locomotive from Yokogawa to Kake was not crowded. High school girls in white sailor blouses were talking and smiling in a carefree manner. It was a peaceful sight with no trace of darkness at all.

With the sound of a bell, the diesel locomotive left the platform. At that time, there was something that touched my heart, and I turned my eyes to the landscape outside the window. The sorrow and loneliness I had felt when I had parted from my mother for collective evacuation on 12 April 1945 came vividly to my mind.

Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall before the dropping of the atomic bomb

Collective evacuation

On that morning, I, then in the 6th grade of a national elementary school, went to the school for the last time with my mother. On the previous night, my father managed to procure some sugar, extremely scarce and precious in those days from somewhere, and my mother made botamochi (sweet rice cake dumpling covered with bean paste) for me. It was a simple dinner compared to the present standard, but the last the three of us, my parents and I, had together.

I don't remember what the teachers said at school that day. The evacuation was probably a measure to get the children, who would have become a drag on parents in air raids, out of town, but it saved the lives of thousands of children from the disaster of the atomic bomb. We walked to Yokogawa Station in a line. It was the last time for me to see the old and quiet castle town of Hiroshima.

When the train left Yokogawa Station, the parents were not allowed to enter the platform, so they got together at the ticket gate to see off their children. I tried to find my mother, but couldn't. The train heartlessly slid out.

Mr. Kuribayashi's family in 1940. At the center in the front row is the author, who was then in the first grade of a national elementary school.

Saihoji Temple in Tsutsuga Village

On that day, after changing trains several times, I arrived at Tsutsuga Village for the first time. Saihoji, which had handsome copper roofs, was chosen as our lodging house. First I noticed its large main room with several tens of tatami (straw) mats and gilded sculptures inside. The dinner was wonderful sekihan (rice cooked with red beans), but the children, who ate too much on the train, did not eat it and were hungry later.

The children were in good cheer to see many things new to them, but at night, because of the parting from parents, one or two of them began to cry. Then it spread among many children. From the next day, a total of 19 children, including boys and girls from the 3rd to 6th grades began their lives in the village. The village people were kind to us. On the first day, they held a welcome party at a school, and gave us red and white rice cakes. It was a happy first step for us.

After a while, we began to be troubled by lice. Although it was late April, it was cold in the village, located in the mountains. It was very difficult to exterminate these strangely-shaped creatures. The matron became busy with the extermination work every day. The matron was the wife of Mr. Yamakawa, the teacher who led us from Hiroshima, and she helped me in various ways during my evacuation life.

The building of the Tsutsuga Village National School was not large, but the hallways were always shining from constant wiping. There were strict ways of cleaning: Lift your back while wiping the floor; wipe the floor with your spirit; and so on. Gradually I got used to the custom and after a while I did not feel the work troublesome. During the exercise hours, we always climbed a hill at the back of the school and played war games. Running on the hill was fun, but the hunger that came later was painful.

On holidays, all the children went into mountains to gather wood for fuel and whatever edible herbs we could find, including butterburs. Sometimes we went to distant villages to get potatoes. These holiday events were fun for us.

Another pleasure for us was the visit by school teachers. The teachers were strict at the school, but at the temple they were like kind brothers. Especially, Mr. Mori, a young teacher, often told us ghost stories and was popular. Ms. Nogami sang songs with her beautiful voice.

Boys in the 6th grade were naughty and disobedient. We took defiant attitudes toward the matron on every occasion. There was not anything sweet to eat, so we licked water colors to her surprise. After one week of the evacuation life, one of the children contracted pneumonia. No rice was left so Mr. Yamakawa had to visit the Agricultural Association every day, but the children complained one after another without appreciating the trouble he went to. How I feel sorry for him when I think about it now. I also feel sorry for Ms. Amago, who was assigned to the Temple later. She was a young female teacher and the number one victim of the attacks by naughty children.

A section of Saihoji Temple. Some children hid in the room at the end of the corridor to weep, thinking of their parents.

Reunion with my mother

Under the circumstances, a most delightful day came. That was a visiting day for parents on 30 June. During the two and a half months since the evacuation, we had exchanged many letters, but we were overjoyed with the chance of seeing our parents.

My mother came. There were strict restrictions on the gifts, and parents were not allowed to bring luxurious foods and goods, but many violated the rules. Though "luxurious foods" in those days were not really luxurious, I had a slight grudge against my mother, who strictly followed the rules and brought only parched sesame seeds mixed with salt, pickled ume (Japanese apricot), and a few other foods. But I immediately forgot my grudge. In the precincts of the temple, my mother cut my long hair. After me, she cut the hair of one child after another. I still remember vividly my mother with a hair clipper in her hand.

On that night, a small reception party for the parents was held. I made a simple opening remark by means of flag signaling. Each child sang a song and a few happy hours passed by. I sang "Ware wa Uminoko" (I am a child of the ocean) in a loud voice.

I wonder what kind of dream I had on that night, when I slept with my mother. I didn't think much about the war or the shortage of food. I was just happy being with my mother though I didn't know when I would be able to see her next time. However, the visit was short and transient. In the morning, the parents had to leave. We went out to the road to see off our parents, who were to leave in a truck. When the truck started, all the children began to run. We ran after the truck, calling the parents in tearful voices, but the sight of the truck blurred with tears and disappeared.

Hardships in the evacuation life

In early July, summer came to this village in the mountains close to the northern border of the prefecture. Not a day passed without potatoes on the dining table, and I more or less enjoyed them boiled with wild herbs. We had parched soybeans between meals. Everyone was especially nervous about the amount of rice, and had a deep attachment to a bowl of rice. We compared the weight of the bowls with both hands, and after choosing the heavier one, compared that with another bowl. This required patience, but everyone did this carefully. The senior students were allowed to choose a bowl first, and small children could not pick up a bowl before them. For parched soybeans, smaller children were first allowed to choose a bowl that they thought contained the largest number of beans.

We came to learn the sutras by heart and chanted them in the morning and evening without looking at scriptures. Someone learned how to make straw sandals, and the technique spread among the children, some of whom became really skillful. Around that time, instead of lice, children began to have flees, and the matron continued to have busy days.

At school, we were busy working in the farm as well as digging pine roots and collecting flax. Children from the town tried to prove that they could work just as hard as the robust village boys. A small river close to the temple was the best recreational spot. The feel of cool water under abundant green leaves made me forget the lapse of time.

Precincts of a shrine adjacent to the national elementary school in Tsutsuga Village.

The fatal day (6 August)

The weather was fine in the village on the morning of the 6 August, which was more than one month after the parents-visiting day. In the precincts of a shrine adjacent to the school, we boys in the 6th grade were undergoing training in the Morse signals. Cool breeze blew under ginkgo trees, and the cicadas seemed to be singing the joys of summer. Suddenly I felt something warm on my left cheek and turned back. It seemed like a strong reflection from a mirror. Then a roaring sound shook the whole village. While I was wondering what had happened, a column of clouds appeared above the mountains in the south. That was not an ordinary cloud but of a superb pink color. Gradually it assumed the shape of a mushroom and rose to the sky.

When I returned to the temple, the matron said she had felt a strong tremor even in the temple. As time passed, the fine sky gradually became dark, and in the late afternoon, a lot of cinders of paper and other things fell down from the sky. First a rumor said that an arsenal had exploded, but I later heard that a fire engine from an adjacent village had gone to Hiroshima City for rescue, but because of the strong fire, could not go beyond Yokogawa and returned. Thus, though I was small, I felt something unusual had happened. However, I didn't even imagine that the big city of Hiroshima had instantaneously become a sheet of fire.

Soon I heard that many people with severe burns had returned to the village. All of these people were from the village and were working in Hiroshima. Since then, there was no communication from the parents. After more than a week, a teacher told us that there had been an important announcement and that Japan had lost the war, but now I cannot remember sorrow or anxiety at that time. We might have been too young to have any direct emotion about the big change for the nation. Even though the war ended, we couldn't do anything. No one came to fetch us, and everyone lived anxiously from day to day.

Reception center for A-bomb survivors in Miyajima

At the beginning of September, I received a wrinkled-up postcard. Though my mother's name was mentioned, the handwriting with a pencil, some parts of which were blurred, was not my mothers. The card simply said, "I am in the reception center in Miyajima. Come here immediately." and a simple map of the place was shown. I wondered why my mother had not written it herself, but was glad to know where she was. However, the date on the card showed that many days had passed since it had been written. Next day, I, accompanied by Mr. Yamakawa, left for Miyajima. That was the 2 September.

I looked at the town of Hiroshima while I proceeded from Yokogawa to Koi. It was a field of charred ruins. The city streetcar which just began to run between Koami-cho and Koi had numerous flies on the ceiling. It was a strange sight. We took a boat from Miyajima-guchi. I saw the old big torii (Shinto shrine archway) and the beautiful Itsukushima Shrine, but they just looked a faded landscape painting to me. I wanted to go to the reception center and see the face of my mother as soon as possible. I was so eager to see her that I felt the boat was extremely slow. Soon we arrived at the center, which was a big building to the north of the shrine. When I stood at the entrance, I felt some kind of anxiety, which was an emotion difficult to express.

Many A-bomb survivors were taken to Miyajima.

Attending on Mother

I looked for Mother with my teacher. It was a big room with tens of tatami mats, and the spaces between A-bomb survivors lying on futon (bedclothes) produced a forlorn atmosphere. We took one round, but couldn't find her. While I took the second round, looking into the face of each person, I was astonished to find Mother, lying on her face and exhausted. She was a small person, but she looked even smaller. Suppressing the tremor of my voice, I called her quietly. There was no answer. I called her again. Then she noticed and slightly raised her head. She saw the teacher behind me, and took out some bills to give to him. He refused to receive them, and left there after a short while saying that he had business at the school.

When Mother told me about the death of Father, I was not so surprised. I might have been somewhat ready to hear the news. Deprived of a flush of hope, I imagined my father being burnt to death in agony. My heart was wrung. We didn't know if my elder brother, who have gone abroad to war was dead or alive. I naturally had a dark prospect about our future, but resolved firmly to continue to live with my mother no matter how poor we would be. Mother told me to take the cloth off her back. I found brown burns all over her back. Because of the burns, she couldn't lie on her back. Why does my mother, as innocent as a person could be, have to be tortured like this? I could not suppress the anger I felt. From that day, I took care of her for 2 nights and 3 days. However, the only medicine provided was mercurochrome. We were even short of cresol. When Mother arrived at the center, she was fine and even washed other people's clothes, but when I got there she couldn't even move her body.

She was engaged in building-demolition work near the Tsurumi Bridge when she was exposed to the flash. She couldn't do anything for Mrs. Takai, who was immediately burned to death in front of her, and climbed the Hijiyama Hill in a hurry with her back burned. From the hill, she looked at the city, which was a hell on earth. With other people, she was first accommodated in the reception center in Ninoshima, and moved to Miyajima. The terrible gas which entered to the depth of her body gradually damaged her bones and organs. She had completely lost her appetite.

Remorse

No one had disposed of my mother's urine, so her lower body gave out a stench. Her stool was not like that of a human being. Its color and smell were like those of internal organs that had been melted and had become a sticky liquid. I felt that the only way to give humaneness back to her was to clean the chamber pot often. Though I was eager to care for her, I became negligent once. On the second night at the center, I heard Mother's small voice calling me, but I was so sleepy that I pretended as though I didn't hear her. She called me twice, but didn't say anything more. Whenever I remember this, there is a sharp pain in my heart.

At the camp, simple food such as salty soup with one dumpling was served three times. No boiled rice was served. We were allowed to drink as many cups of soup as we liked, and I had three or four more cups of soup. My mother smiled wryly. At that time, she was too weak to speak. I saw the front of a big torii, gateway to a Shinto shrine, from the window of the lavatory. Looking at the B-29 bomber which sometimes came flying, I shouted to myself "Idiot!" It was all the resistance I, as a boy, could offer. And I sometimes cried secretly in the lavatory.

Death of Mother

At lunch-time on 4 September, the third day, Mother started to writhe in pain. Her unusual action completely upset me. All I could do was to absentmindedly look at my suffering Mother. After suffering for 30 minutes, she regained her calmness. However, it was the last calmness, the sign of the end of life. I continued calling her name, clinging to her body. Tears welled up in the eyes of my speechless mother and tears rolled down her cheek. I wondered if the tears were from the sorrow of eternal parting between mother and child or from an anxiety about my future. I shall never forget the tears of my Mother I saw on that day.

I continued crying even after a white cloth was placed over Mother's face. Some irritated people reproached me, saying "Be quiet!" Shouldn't I feel sorry for the death of my most precious mother? My tears seemed to have forgotten to stop until evening.

Return to Tsutsuga Village

There was a middle-aged man who happened to come to the camp as an attendant. He was kind enough to offer to take charge of me, probably in pity of me who had been left an orphan. I answered I would decide after consulting with my teacher at the Saihoji Temple where I had been evacuated. He decided to take me there. Wrapping my mother's personal belongings, I had rice ball made for lunch. The man and I left Miyajima Island, leaving what had to be done including the burial of my dead mother to the officials of the camp.

Arriving at the Miyajima-guchi streetcar station, I found a streetcar already there. The streetcar was about to leave the station. I had a return ticket but the man did not have one and bought his own ticket. He hurried to the platform after he had his ticket punched. I tried to follow him, but a man at the gate told me that the ticket I had was for a train, not for a streetcar and showed me the way to the railway station. I started walking toward the station at once, never thinking of anything. There is no way of knowing if the man left for Hiroshima by streetcar or returned to Miyajima. The fact that the one ticket I had served as the turning point of my fate still makes me think of the mysteriousness of fate.

The train I got on took me close to Tsutsuga Village; from Miyajima-guchi to Yokogawa and from Yokogawa to Kabe to Aki-imuro. I felt relieved when I was picked up by a truck driver at Aki-imuro who took me to Kake. An old man who shared the ride had a water bottle and gave me some water. The water tasted so good and I felt the water coursing down through my bowels. The old man was returning to Tsutsuga Village and I asked him to take me there.

It was very far from Kake to Tsutsuga. The road along a river seemed to be endless. I tottered after several persons while half sleeping late at night. When I reached Tsutsuga Village, I noticed there were no other people except the old man who had given me water. We walked for another 40 minutes and finally reached the front of the Saihoji Temple at dawn. At that time I felt undescribably happy. I expressed my thanks and said farewell to the old man. I entered the main hall of the temple. I thought I had to report to my teacher that I had returned, but I decided to do so later in the morning because I did not want to wake him up. I stole into a mosquito net, under which some children were sleeping, carrying my bedclothes and lay down. In the morning, my teacher was very surprised to learn that I had returned. I had never experienced such a long trip.

Left Alone

I resumed my life at the temple. An increasing number of children were leaving the temple together with their parent or sibling or relative who came there to take them home. However, traffic was completely paralyzed due to a heavy flood caused by an unprecedented typhoon which hit the prefecture. So, there was no choice but to walk all the way to Hiroshima.

Children who had homes to return to were happy. Most of the children had lost either a parent or other family members. It was only I that had lost both parents and had no relatives. I had nowhere to go except an orphanage where I was taken care of. In spite of sheer unhappiness, I, as a child, did not think so seriously of it.

In the end, only three children including myself stayed behind at the temple. The temple was too big for the three of us. I heard that the relatives of Yoshihiro Inoue and Yoko Minematsu would come to the temple later for some reason. Then, it was decided that children including those living in neighboring villages who had no home to return would be accommodated in a temple at Togouchi adjacent to Tsutsuga. I was hurriedly crossing a mountain pass when it began to get dark on 3 October. There was no one to be seen and everything was ominously still and silent.

I, an 11-year-old boy, only thought of running out of the weird trees, not being afraid of my future life which would bring me loneliness and starvation. Frequently frightened at the sound of my footsteps, I kept running, only wishing I could reach the village as soon as possible.

Lapse of 21 Years

It is impossible to find scars left by the war on the faces of A-bomb survivors after the lapse of 21 years. However, I believe that they secretly have unforgettable memories of those dark days.

I was on my way home from Tsutsuga Village where I visited for the first time in 21 years. The Saihoji Temple stood silently. Its splendid copper roof had weathered, showing the lapse of 21 years. The school which had boasted a shining corridor was no longer there and a modern 3-storied school building of reinforced concrete stood in its place. The precincts of the Tsutsuga Shrine, where I had looked up at the atomic cloud, and the landscape of the village spreading to the south reminded me of how it had been when I saw it 21 years ago. I am over 30 years old now, but I can never forget my experiences in this village as a memory of stamped wheat plants. Is this nothing but my sentimentality?

The picture was taken in August 1975, when the author visited Saihoji Temple with the others who also lived there 30 years before. Mr. Kuribayashi is at the right end in the front row. The photographs show the late head priest and his wife, who looked after the children as if they were of their own. (They happened to be grandparents of Mr. Yutaka Ogasawara of the Publication & Documentation Center.)


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