Nagasaki a-bomb survivors did not know they were hit by a nuclear weapon at time of attack

70 years ago, there was no visual technology to broadcast the aftermath of the a-bomb dropped just 3 days before in Hiroshima. On August 9th 1945 at 11.02am, survivors like Shigemi Fukahori — aged 14 at the time — had no idea that they were also victims of a nuclear weapon dropped by a US B-29 plane.

“When I heard the explosion, I had no idea it was an atomic bomb,” Fukahori tells me as we meet in a back room in Urakawa Cathedral, where he is now a parishioner aged 84. “But it was so loud, the ground shook incredibly hard. The moment my body felt the ripples of the explosion, I knew that this was an attack on a scale none of us had ever experienced before.”

Fukuhori, like many others who survived the attack, did not turn to media in the immediate aftermath for information. “Back in those days, there was no TV or the internet so it was impossible to see what the damage looked like unless you were physically present where it happened,” he says. “Either way, we didn’t know the exact weapon dropped in Hiroshima just three days before; all we heard was that it fell victim to ‘a new kind of bomb’. The same phrase had been used on the radio with this attack on Nagasaki. But none of us had the time to process the science behind the attack; we were just shocked with what we saw on the ground.”

The attack on Nagasaki was an outcome of a plan overturned at the last minute by the US forces. Despite setting their sights onto Kokura, another city also in Kyushu prefecture, they switched their target to Nagasaki at the last minute. The sunny weather there was a better opportunity to maximise the nuclear technology; more exposure to heat meant the more damage was going to be done.

Fukuhori was inside a factory 3.4 km away from the epicentre, where he had taken a day off from a Christian summer school when the atomic bomb had dropped. “I survived the attack scarless precisely because I was inside a building in the shade, away from the sun,” he said. “The same applies to my father, who survived because he was working at a weapons factory, which could withstand any kind of attack. But I never found the bodies of my mother, my two brothers and two sisters who were within less than 1km of epicentre; the war had forced them to study at home, which like all homes were made out of wood.”

A few years after the attack, Fukahori left for Tokyo to pursue his studies in theology at university. It was only upon his return after completing his studies that he had learnt of the weapon and saw first hand how it had affected his community; Christians who were regular attendees of the Urakami Cathedral and lived in the area.

“As the men were away fighting when the attack happened, it was the women and children who lived in these who suffered most in the years to come,” he recalls. “Many of the women I know had developed Keloid scars as a result of the radiation from the bomb. Most of these women are now dead; when they were alive, they would not come out of the house as they felt judged for their appearance. Many also chose to remain single, as they were also afraid they would give birth to disabled children.”

70 years later, Urakawa cathedral projected a video on its newly reconstructed building to take audiences on a journey to retrace the series of events. “Because I am alive, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue living the message of peace,” he says. “As the head of a Virgin Mary statue survived the radiation with black scorched eyes, it’s become a symbol of those who endured the pain in years to come, piecing together what had happened to them. Nagasaki must be the last to go through this ordeal.”