Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Make a gift to NHPR and have a Valentine's message to a loved one read on air!

Hiroshima Survivor Recalls Bombing In Fight To Achieve Nuclear Disarmament


Tomorrow, President Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, while in office. The U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, and killed an estimated 140,000 people. Obama has said, he will honor the dead during his visit, but he has made it clear this visit is not an apology.

Earlier today, I talked to Setsuko Thurlow. She survived the Hiroshima bombing, and she is now an activist for nuclear disarmament. She lives in Toronto, Canada. On the day of the bombing, she was 13-years-old, an eighth-grader. I asked her what she remembers from that day. And just a warning here - some of her descriptions are graphic.

SETSUKO THURLOW: I was one mile away from Ground Zero. I was at the army headquarter. And a group of us - about 30 girls - had been recruited by the army, got training in decoding messages. And we were to start the very first day as a full-fledged decoding assistant for the army.

MCEVERS: So you were called out of school to do this work.

THURLOW: That's right. All the students were mobilized to do all kinds of work like that. And imagine 13-year-old girl dealing with very important, top-secret information.


THURLOW: That shows how desperate Japan was in the war. Anyway, that was Monday morning. We started having the morning assembly. And Major Yanai spoke to us and gave us a pep talk, and we said, yes, Sir; we'll do our best for emperor's sake. In that moment, I saw the bluish-white flash in the windows.


THURLOW: And the next thing I felt was floating in the air - obviously the blast of the bomb flattening all the buildings in the city. And the building I was in was falling, and my body was falling together with it. So when I regained my consciousness, I found myself in the total darkness and silence. I tried to move my body, but I couldn't, so I knew I was faced with death.

MCEVERS: How long do you think you laid there? You don't remember how long you laid there before...

THURLOW: I have no time of sense - no sense of time, I should say.

MCEVERS: So what's the next thing that happened?

THURLOW: Well, gradually I started hearing faint voices of my classmates who were with me in the same room in the dark. They were whispering, mother, help me. God help me. I am here. I can still hear the voices.

Then all of a sudden, a strong male voice said, don't give up; I'm trying to free you. And somebody was shaking my left shoulder from behind. And he said, you see some sunray is coming through that opening; get to that direction as quickly as possible. Crawl.

So I crawled in the total darkness, and I got to the opening. And by the time I got there, the building was on fire. That meant most of the girls were burnt to death. Although that happened in the morning, it was already very dark, like twilight. And the two other girls managed to come out, and three of us looked around. And in the darkness, I could see some dark moving object approaching to me. They happened to be human beings shuffling from the center part of the city to where I was.

They just didn't look like human beings. I called them ghosts, ghost-like people because their hair was standing up. They were covered with blood and burned and bludgeoned and swollen, and the flesh was hanging from the bones. Parts of their bodies were missing, and some were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands. And as they collapsed, their stomach burst open, intestines stretching out. Everybody was slowly shuffling. Nobody was running. And the shouting for help. Nobody had that kind of physical and psychological strength left.

Well, we three girls were reluctantly in good shape. We could walk. We could carry. So we went to the nearby stream and washed off the blood in the dirt from the bodies. And when the darkness fell, we just sat on the hill, and all night we watched the entire city burn.

MCEVERS: When you heard that for the first time in seven decades - a U.S. president was going to visit Hiroshima - what crossed your mind? What did you think?

THURLOW: Well, I thought it was interesting, but I wasn't going to believe until last minute when he finally make the decision because I could anticipate all kinds of political problems he would have at home. That's why I thought he was very courageous. Finally, in spite of all odds he decided to go. So I appreciate that courage.

But Mister Obama has committed one trillion dollars to modernize the nuclear weapons system - huge money. And once this happened, the Russians and Chinese would be right behind the United States. And there would be another nuclear arms race.

We have waited 70 years. Enough is enough. We can't wait forever. We have to be getting on with the job of nuclear disarmament before anything happens by accident, by design or even by the terrorists. I just tremble with fear when I examine the reality.

MCEVERS: You know, you have been telling this story for more than 70 years...


MCEVERS: ...As a way, in your mind, to spur some action. Do you think there's ever going to come a day when you stop telling this story?

THURLOW: I won't feel the need to keep talking about painful past experience when we achieve nuclear disarmament. And it's going to happen. People will wake up, and it has to happen.


MCEVERS: That was Setsuko Thurlow. She's an activist for nuclear disarmament and a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.