Our Fading Memory of Nuclear Destruction

Amidst the historical debate over the reasons the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, we are losing something precious: the stories of the survivors, who are starting to disappear

Michiko Yamaoka in 1993 (photo © Trevor Corson)

On a summer morning in early August of 1945, a fourteen-year-old girl named Michiko Yamaoka woke up after a fitful sleep. The air-raid warnings that had kept her up during the night sounded again after daybreak, but the warning was cancelled around quarter to eight. After breakfast Michiko was reluctant to leave the house she shared with her mother — she never knew her father — in downtown Hiroshima, but she forced herself to begin the short walk to her new government-assigned job as a telephone operator in the center of the city. Her mother called out after her to be careful. The American planes might still be hiding in the clouds, she said. Michiko turned back and waved.

The house was less than a mile from the city center. As Michiko walked downtown, she marveled at the beauty of the sunny morning and felt relief that there weren’t any clouds. The river, which fanned out into seven fingers separating the broad islands that gave the city its name, sparkled in the sunshine. As she turned onto a wide boulevard near the city center, she heard the lazy buzz of an airplane overhead. She was surprised, since the air-raid alert had been cancelled. Raising her right hand to shield her eyes from the sun, she cocked her head up and gazed into the sky. For an instant she saw the glint of a shiny silver plane, flying very high. Then she saw nothing but a bright, blue-yellow flash. For a fraction of a second she admired the strange color, then the blast threw her through the air and seared her exposed flesh with unearthly heat.

After she regained consciousness, she witnessed a literal hell on earth: children carrying their own intestines, rivers of charred bodies, all engulfed in orange flames and black smoke. The heat of the blast had fused Michiko’s face to her neck and melted her hands into claws. That’s how her mother found her.

And that’s how Michiko told me the story, when I had just arrived in the city of Hiroshima, Japan, on my seventeenth birthday. It was 1986, the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, and I’d grown up in Washington D.C. I knew that Hiroshima had been destroyed by an American atomic bomb, the world’s first nuclear weapon used in combat. But that was about the extent of my knowledge. Even though four decades had passed since the bombing, somehow I’d still expected to find a wasteland. I was surprised when Hiroshima looked like a completely normal city. One of the few hints of the city’s past was the A-Bomb Dome, the skeleton of a building that had been left untouched since the nuclear explosion.

When Michiko spoke with us, a small school group of students on a travel scholarship — four American teenagers and a teacher — she was still badly scarred, but she was no longer deformed. In 1955 she had been selected to be part of an American effort to bring young Japanese women disfigured by the atomic bombings to New York for reconstructive surgery at Mt. Sinai Hospital. They became known as the “Hiroshima Maidens.” Over the course of a year and a half Michiko underwent more than twenty operations to rebuild her face, neck, and hands.

When she returned to Japan after the surgeries, she used her new hands to work as a seamstress, but otherwise remained sequestered at home, now caring for her ailing mother. Only after another twenty years, when her mother finally passed away, did Michiko consider speaking out. The healing she’d received at the hands of her American doctors and caregivers finally inspired her, she said, to share her story. She began meeting with Japanese students from Tokyo, then with our group from Washington D.C. Regardless of her audience, though, she made it clear she that wasn’t blaming America. She made a point of describing how Japan had been an aggressive, militaristic, and fascist nation that had committed atrocities across Asia and brought tragedy on its own people.

It was obviously hard for Michiko to relive and describe the horror she had been through, but she went on describing it at length, sparing us no detail. Although reliving her trauma each time she told her story was painful, she became energized and emboldened by her new mission. By the 1990s, she was speaking to thousands of students and other visitors to Hiroshima every year. She tempered her language and descriptions when talking to young children, but when she talked to teenagers she didn’t hold back. Describing what an actual, living hell on earth had looked like, and what had happened to her, was her way of respecting her audiences, and giving the one gift she had to offer them out of her destroyed life: fear. It was a productive, realistic, and inspiring kind of fear that she felt was warranted by the threat of nuclear weapons — a threat that had only become thousands of times worse since Hiroshima.

I often think about my meeting with Michiko when I listen to current debates about shielding young people from stories or images that might disturb them. Sure enough, after she had told us her story, I couldn’t sleep. I slipped out and wandered the nighttime streets of Hiroshima through a light drizzle. I found the A-Bomb Dome, and in the shadows of the ruin I could picture the scenes Michiko had described. Knowing that the person I’d just met had actually been there, and seen those things, made it real. What she told us brought an end to my innocence. Was that a bad thing? No. I will be forever grateful to her, because her story changed my life. In the years afterward I became one of many volunteers who helped Michiko with her work in peace education. Eventually I learned Japanese, and lived in Japan for a few years. On several occasions I served as Michiko’s translator when she spoke to English-speaking audiences. To me, passing on first-hand knowledge of real horrors was part of the mission that humans have always had: to tell stories from one generation to the next, to ensure that we remember, and learn.

Now, about one human lifetime has passed — seventy years this week — since the only people on earth to personally experience the effects of a nuclear bomb were subjected to those blinding flashes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Michiko kept on speaking as long as she could. On August 6, 2006 — the 61st anniversary to the day of the nuclear explosion in Hiroshima — she suffered a debilitating stroke. After strenuous rehabilitative therapy she managed to deliver one final speech, telling her story to one last audience. In early 2013 she died, in bed, at the age of 82.

For now, other survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still sharing their experiences with audiences, as Michiko did. In the years ahead, though, these survivor’s voices, too, will one by one go silent. A future without these stories being told and retold, without the human connection to the events, will be a future that is still full of nuclear weapons, and full of complicated international politics and news about tricky negotiations and hidden agendas, but it is a future more devoid of actual human understanding what the use of a nuclear weapon means.

Back on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings in 1995, Michiko came to Washington D.C. to speak at several local schools, and I served as her translator. The Smithsonian had refurbished the plane that had dropped the Hiroshima bomb — the Enola Gay — and had been planning to pair the plane with an exhibit about the effects of the atomic bombings. But the part of the exhibit showing the effects of the bombs had been cancelled. In the end, Michiko’s talks to students were one of the few events in Washington D.C. that related what had actually happened on the ground in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During part of her visit to D.C. Michiko stayed with my family, and she suggested we go to the Smithsonian to see the plane that had dropped the atomic bomb on her. At the museum she looked silently up at the shiny silver fuselage that she had seen once before, when she peered high into the sky on that bright August morning in 1945.

My mother had joined us, and watching Michiko confront the plane, my mother started crying. At this, Michiko turned away from the Enola Gay — the plane had been named after the mother of the pilot, Paul Tibbets — and though Michiko might be expected to be the one in need of comfort, it was she who put her arm around my mother and comforted her. Her arm draped around my mother’s shoulders, Michiko looked around the rest of the exhibit. There was little else, no stories about the people who’d experienced the bomb. Michiko turned back to the plane.

“It’s well restored,” she said, and led us back out into the daylight.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.