Stories of people & places, festivities & traditions from my travels around the world
Kiyoko Komeyoshi: Hibakusha A-bomb survivor
by Lucy Hornberger
The first nuclear bomb to be used in warfare was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, at 8:15am on Monday 6th August 1945. Kiyoko Komeyoshi, 83, is a hibakusha
(literally explosion affected person
) - a survivor of that terrible event. During our stay in Hiroshima, we were privileged to meet her and hear her story.
In the summer of 1945 Komeyoshi-san was 13 years old. "There was no summer holiday for us", she explained, as all students 13 and older had been mobilised into Student Brigades to help the war effort. On 6th August, a Monday, she left home at about 7:30am to join her work party. The 150 or so students were divided into two groups and a quick game of jan ken pon
(paper, scissors, stone) was employed to decide which group was to go a couple of kilometres out of the city to the East Military Field to weed a potato patch and which was to work nearer the centre of the city making a firebreak. As a result of winning the game Komeyoshi-san's group chose to be sent to the potato field.
The potato weeders hadn't been at work long when classmates called out 'Bombers! B-29 bombers! At that moment Komeyoshi-san was crouched facing away from the city, and again this saved her. "I saw the strong flash of light and felt the thermal heat like hot water on the back of my body", she recalls. "Then there was darkness and everything was broken".
As the darkness lifted slightly there was terribly confusion. Komeyoshi-san remembers torn clothes and peeled-off skin. Those who had faced the nuclear flash were injured beyond recognition, their faces swollen and eyes blinded. In the midst of this horror, Komeyoshi remembers feeling distressed that she was unable to find her school bag.
"Your back is burning', someone called to her. She pulled off her top and found that it was on fire. "I felt hot enough to burn, I wanted only water, water," she remembers. "Don't drink water, or you will surely die," a man shouted - a crucial warning as burns victims may quickly die of shock if they drink deeply.
The teacher who had been directing Komeyoshi-san's work party took those who were able to walk to a shrine at the top of a nearby hill. "The top of the hill looked like hell", she recalls. Many burns victims were crying for help. Some were already dead.
She stayed on the hill for hours until the teacher eventually instructed them to walk home, judging that the fires in the city were starting to burn themselves out. "We walked on scorched land without shoes," she recalls, remembering a hot road and a hot wind. The mangled iron railway bridge that she had to cross was also hot.
On the way back to her neighbourhood she witnessed terrible things: a tram car packed with dead bodies, more bodies gathered around a water tank, a dead child on the street that looked like a 'black mannequin'.
Eventually she found her father and neighbours. She was fortunate in that her mother and younger siblings had been evacuated to the countryside, 20 kilometres away. A makeshift relief centre had been set up at a nearby primary school. She remembers cries, moaning and screaming, and bodies being cremated everywhere there was space. But what stays with her most of all is the odour of death, "a sad smell that I could not endure".
Komeyoshi-san's burns were serious - she still bears thick scars from her neck down her whole back and across her upper arms - but fortunately not life threatening. She remembers the excruciating pain of having the dressings replaced as the burns slowly healed, and the discomfort of having to sleep on her stomach across a pile of folded futon mattresses.
Later it became clear that winning the game of jan ken pon
that August morning had saved Komeyoshi-san's life. The student work group that had been sent to make a firebreak in the city had all perished instantly. All that was found was a handful of bones. Many of the classmates in the potato field also perished. Of the two classmates with whom Komeyoshi-san ran up the hill to the shrine, one she never saw again (despite searching for many years), the other she finally traced only to discover that the girl had lost her entire family in the blast.
As she finished speaking, Komeyoshi seemed to briefly wipe away tears and we felt what it must cost her to relive these events and tell her story again and again.
Komeyoshi's story does not, however, have a sad ending. When the war ended she was able to go to high school. She later married and had two children, and now has three grandchildren. She decided to give talks about her experience as a hibakusha
so that "children will inherit the peace message". She points out that during the war militarisation and education were closely connected. Therefore, she reasons, it is important that peace and education are closely connected. Her message to us and to the world is simple and clear: "No more war, no more nuclear weapons, no more bombs in any place, ever."
Our meeting with Komeyoshi-san was arranged and facilitated by the World Friendship Center
Article & photos posted April 4th, 2016
Text and photos copyright © 2016 Lucy Hornberger. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.