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A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story
By Caren B. Stelson
Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Caren Stelson
All rights reserved.
HOME IN NAGASAKI
Six-year-old Sachiko sat on a worn, woven tatami mat and stared at the boiled egg in the middle of the low table.
So did her fourteen-year-old brother Aki, her twelve-year-old brother Ichiro, and her four-year-old sister Misa.
The hen had finally laid an egg.
Sachiko's stomach growled.
Mother bounced two-year-old Toshi on her lap and moved the egg closer to him. Toshi clapped his hands. The egg was his. The egg, when there was one, was always his. Toshi was the youngest.
Sachiko glanced at the egg and then smiled at her little brother. She could wait until dinnertime for her own reward. In the evening, Father would finally come home from a long day building battleships at the Koyagi shipyard. The family would be all together spending as many happy hours with Father as they could.
Steam curled out of Grandmother's bowl in the middle of the low table. Shaped as a large leaf with ruffled edges, the green ceramic bowl was Mother's treasure. Once filled with meals of squid, eel, and octopus, these days Grandmother's bowl had little to offer. Mother ladled small portions of boiled water with wheat balls into cups.
"Eat everything, children. Every drop is precious."
Sachiko sipped her boiled water. No air-raid sirens wailed. No American B-29 bombers flew overhead. Only the cicadas trilled their summer song outside the paper window.
With her last sip of boiled water, Mother hurried out to meet with the tonarigumi, the neighborhood association. Participation in the group was mandatory. Neighborhood leaders organized patriotic events, fire drills in case of bombings, and military training for civilians. They also distributed smaller and smaller amounts of food.
By 1945 no one in Japan had enough to eat. Families added sweet potatoes and soybeans to their near-starvation rations of rice — only two cups per month for each person. A radio broadcast suggested adding silkworm cocoons, grasshoppers, mice, snails, or the dried blood of farm animals to meals for extra protein. The government offered a recipe for flour made from powdered acorns, sweet potato vines, and mulberry leaves. The flour was barely edible.
After Mother left, Ichiro reached for his bamboo net and slipped out of the house to hunt for cicadas. Sachiko's eldest brother, Aki, took charge of the household. He watched over Misa while Sachiko played with Toshi. Sachiko tickled her little brother to make him laugh and gave him pony rides on her shoulders. Toshi was Sachiko's favorite and her responsibility.
Aki switched on the radio. Over the airwaves, a military band struck up the patriotic song "Umi Yukaba." "If I die for the Emperor, it will not be a regret," Aki sang out. He picked up his wooden kamikaze toy glider, circled it above his head, then plunged the plane straight into the tatami mat. "Umi Yukaba," he shouted. "We will win the war."
WORLD WAR II
World War II began in the late 1930s, but the roots of the conflict went back further than that. In Germany, a weak economy and a humiliating defeat in World War I (1914–1918) had created an atmosphere ripe for political extremism. Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in the 1930s as the leader of the Nazi Party. As Germany's dictator, he was determined to create a racially purified German empire that he called the Third Reich.
On September 1, 1939, the German army overran Poland. In response, France and Britain declared war on Germany. In June 1940, Italy's dictator Benito Mussolini sided with Hitler. War engulfed Europe. Reluctant to get involved in a European war, the United States remained neutral. But by early 1941, the United States was supporting countries fighting against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy — and Japan.
In Asia, Japan was a growing industrial power with ambitions to build an empire of its own. An island nation with limited land and natural resources, Japan looked to other Asian countries for oil, rubber, and raw materials to keep its industries and military growing. After wars with China (1894–1895) and Russia (1904–1905), Japan gained territory in Taiwan, Manchuria, and Korea.
In 1926, Emperor Hirohito came to the throne. According to national Japanese mythology, Hirohito was a sacred descendent of the gods. As emperor, Hirohito also was supreme commander of the imperial forces and head of state, although he had no official political power. The prime minister, a close circle of advisers, and the parliament governed the country. Yet as subjects of the emperor, the Japanese people were to give their complete allegiance to Hirohito. As their emperor, Hirohito was above all and held complete authority.
As Japan's military power increased, the nation began building its Asian empire in earnest. In 1937 the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria, attacked Shanghai, then swept into the ancient city of Nanjing. The army brutally tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese people in those cities.
Needing more oil and rubber for its warships and planes, Japan looked to colonies in Southeast Asia held by the Americans, the British, the French, and the Dutch. To limit Japan's aggression, the United States led an international ban on trade, cutting off three-quarters of Japan's imports and 90 percent of its oil supply. The ban pushed Japan into making a choice: abandon plans for an empire or risk war with the West.
Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo, a former army general, favored war. The only force that could stop Japan's push for a larger empire was the US Pacific Fleet moored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, then a territory of the United States. Gambling that Americans would have little interest in a war in Asia, Tojo made a calculated decision to attack.
The morning of December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese fighter planes, bombers, and torpedo planes bombed the fleet at Pearl Harbor. Within two hours, 2,335 American servicemen were dead, 350 planes were destroyed, and eight battleships demolished or badly damaged. With the Pacific Fleet crippled, Japan expected the strike would weaken Americans' will to fight. Instead, Pearl Harbor became a rallying cry for revenge.
The day after the attack, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan. December 7, 1941, he said, was "a date which will live in infamy." Within three days, Allied powers led by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union joined together to fight the Axis powers. World War II had become a deadly global war.
The world was at war for four long years. Italy surrendered in October 1943. Germany surrendered in May 1945. Only Japan kept fighting. By the summer of 1945, as the Allies planned a massive sea invasion of Japan, US B-29 bombers were firebombing Japanese cities, one after another, with no plans to stop until Japan surrendered.
RACISM AND WAR
World War II was a conflict over power, politics, people, territory, and resources. But it was also a struggle about race, culture, and ethnicity. Under Hitler's leadership, anti-Semitism, hatred of Jewish people, fueled Germany's genocide of six million European Jews. Millions of Slavs, Roma, political prisoners, homosexuals, and others whom Hitler considered "undesirable" were killed as well. In Japan and the United States, racism also played a divisive role during the war.
Long before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment existed in the United States, particularly along the Pacific Coast where many Japanese American families lived. In the late 1800s, Asian immigrants, mostly from China and Japan, arrived in the United States, providing cheap labor for agriculture, mining, and industry. As Asian immigration increased, white American prejudice toward Asians intensified. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively ended immigration from Japan and East Asia and created an atmosphere of systematic discrimination toward Asian people.
In 1941 an estimated 127,000 people of Japanese descent lived along the Pacific coast of the United States. Many of them worked on small farms or ran their own businesses. The bombing of Pearl Harbor added fuel to the existing anti-Japanese sentiments. Fearing that Japanese families in the United States would side with Japan in the war, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order called for the immediate imprisonment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry in ten designated US camps. More than half of the incarcerated Japanese — 62 percent — were nisei, or second-generation Japanese people, born in the United States, and therefore American citizens. With Roosevelt's executive order, discrimination against Japanese Americans became official government policy.
As the war raged on, news of brutal battles in the Pacific, torture of US soldiers in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, and the Bataan Death March shocked many Americans. They felt that the Japanese were a less-than-human race with an appetite for cruelty and killing. Racist American political cartoons depicted Japanese people as monkeys or rats wearing glasses and smiling with visibly large buckteeth. During World War II, most Americans viewed Germany's Hitler and his Nazis as the enemy, but hatred for Japan ran deeper. All "Japs" — emperor, soldier, or civilian, were the enemy.
In Japan, racism generated its own brand of prejudice and hate. Taking advantage of anger throughout Asia toward Western colonists, Japan called on all Asians to join together to create an Asian brotherhood. Yet in reality, Japanese military leaders intended Japan to rule over the other Asian nations. The Japanese government encouraged its people to believe in the myths of the Yamato race, the pure Japanese people. Those not of the Japanese race were viewed as inferior. Such beliefs emboldened Japanese soldiers to kill millions of Asians in the name of the empire.
As for white Westerners, the Japanese thought they were cowards, beasts, and monsters. "Kill the American devil," read school posters. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill were depicted as the biggest devils of all.
Father must have known the end of the war was near.
By June 1944, when Sachiko was five, the United States had begun bombing Japanese cities with growing regularity. Nagasaki was one of the first cities bombed, although the damage was limited. In February 1945, the United States began firebombing raids over Japan's major cities, including the capital, Tokyo. After the Tokyo raid in March, one hundred thousand people had been killed, one million wounded, and one million left homeless. Then, in April 1945, Nagasaki was attacked again. Three other bombings followed, destroying shipbuilding plants along the Nagasaki harbor. Tension escalated. Japanese combat troops began moving into Kyushu, Nagasaki's home island, preparing for the US invasion that seemed sure to come.
Father made a plan to evacuate his family to a safer place. They would pack up their belongings and take the train to Shimabara, a castle town in the mountains near Nagasaki, where Father had grown up. Sachiko did not want to go. She would miss her home and her friends. Father reassured his daughter. "Sachiko, in Shimabara a house waits for you in the mountains, encircled by pines, with a lake that whispers, 'swim in me.'" Mother filled suitcases with their worn-out clothes and family photos — of Aki and Ichiro as little boys, Mother with friends and relatives surrounded by Father's chrysanthemums from his garden, and five-year-old Sachiko wearing her red-flowered kimono. Before they left, Uncle, Mother's brother — the uncle who loved Sachiko as his own daughter — came to say good-bye. He wrapped his arms around Sachiko's narrow shoulders.
When would she see Uncle again? Sachiko asked. No one could give her an answer.
* * *
The family returned home sooner than anyone expected.
In Shimabara, Father received his red paper, a draft notice from the government, requiring subjects of the emperor to serve in the military. With the coming US invasion, the Japanese government was drafting everyone who could fight, from boys of fifteen to men of sixty. Even unmarried women between the ages of seventeen and forty were called to serve. Father and all other soldiers would be expected to give their lives for the emperor.
Eldest brother Aki spoke first. Father should not return to Nagasaki alone. The family must leave Shimabara and go back together to make as many happy hours with Father as possible. Mother agreed. They would stay together for as long as they could until Father left for war.
* * *
Back home in Nagasaki in August 1945, Sachiko watched the sun dip below the horizon. The sky darkened. The moon rose. Sachiko, Mother, Aki, Ichiro, Misa, and Toshi stepped out onto the front porch and stared into the night, waiting for Father to come home from the shipyard. Aki held a flashlight in his hand.
In the distance, Sachiko pointed to a blink of light — Father's flashlight.
Blink. Blink — Aki's flashlight. Like fireflies longing for each other, light beams flickered and disappeared. Sachiko waited as Father trudged up the hill from the Urakami Station toward home.
* * *
Steam rose from Grandmother's bowl on the low table.
Mother ladled boiled water and wheat balls into cups.
Father, Mother, Aki, Ichiro, Misa, Toshi, and Sachiko pressed their hands together and bowed their heads.
Everyone knew that each day, each night together was precious.
"PROMPT AND UTTER DESTRUCTION"
In the summer of 1945, as Sachiko's father prepared to join the Imperial Japanese Army, Hirohito listened to his advisers and generals argue.
The situation was dire. Japan had lost the air and sea wars to the Allies. Its military forces throughout its Asian empire had been defeated. Sixty-four cities on the home islands had been destroyed. More than two million Japanese soldiers and civilians had already died. How many more would perish if the Allies invaded? The options were starkly clear. Surrender unconditionally to the Americans, as they had demanded, and risk giving up the emperor's throne. Reach out to the Soviet Union, a country still neutral with Japan, and try to negotiate a conditional surrender that would keep the emperor on the throne. Or fight to the end and risk the nation's utter defeat. The emperor, the person who would decide his people's fate, remained silent.
By that summer, Roosevelt had died after suffering a massive stroke. In Washington, DC, Harry Truman was the new president. He listened as his advisers and generals debated strategies to defeat Japan. Operation Downfall, the Allied invasion of Japan, was still in the planning stage. If the invasion went ahead, it would be the largest seaborne invasion in history. Truman wanted to know how many American casualties could be expected. Perhaps thirty-one thousand dead, wounded, or missing? Probably more. No one could accurately predict the number. Would the invasion be worth the cost of so many American lives? With Japan on the verge of collapse, advisers wavered. Support for Operation Downfall began to fade.
Could the United States soften its demand for an unconditional surrender and let the emperor stay on his throne? Would that end the war? Truman's advisers argued these questions. But Truman knew the American public wanted a total and unconditional defeat of Japan.
And what of the Soviet Union? The Soviet Union had fought with the Allies against Germany but had remained neutral toward Japan. However, the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, had promised to go to war with Japan after Germany surrendered. Would a Soviet invasion hasten the end of the war? No doubt. But Truman didn't trust Stalin. He worried Stalin would want to control Japan and other territories in Asia after the war.
Lastly, Truman and his advisers discussed using the atomic bomb to help end the war. The bomb had recently been developed, but it had not yet been tested. Truman and his advisers hoped the upcoming test would succeed, but no one thought the atomic bomb could be an all-powerful weapon to end the war by itself.
As Truman's advisers debated, a committee formed to identify Japanese cities as potential atomic bomb targets. To demonstrate the bomb's destructive power and to terrify Japanese citizens, the target city could not have been firebombed. Yet most of Japan's cities had, indeed, been firebombed. All the same, the military identified seventeen cities as possible targets. The final list named four: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki, and Niigata.
Excerpted from Sachiko by Caren B. Stelson. Copyright © 2016 Caren Stelson. Excerpted by permission of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
August 1945 Home in Nagasaki 9
May-August 1945 Evacuation 16
August 6, 1945 An Ordinary Day 22
August 9, 1945 Unspeakable Seconds 28
August 9-11, 1945 Mizu 39
August 12-15, 1945 "Enduring the Unendurable" 43
August 15-Mid-September 1945 Two Brothers 46
Mid-September 1945-Late March 1946 Miracle 50
Spring 1946 A New Beginning 54
April-December 1946 School 60
December 1947 Searching for Hope 64
February 1, 1948 A Seed for the Future 68
April 1948 Standing Up to the Bullies 70
October 1948 Another Seed for the Future 74
1949-1954 Misa and the Orphans of War 78
1955-1961 Father 84
1961-1962 Sachiko 88
1962 A Path to Peace 94
1963-1968 "The World House" 98
1968-1992 Cicada Years 104
August 1995 Sachiko's Fiftieth Anniversary 110
Author's Note 114
Family Tree 117
Glossary of Japanese Words 118