I had left my new Japanese student friends (It’s hard to remember that the standard dress was still skirts!) in Kyoto
and boarded an overnight train to Hiroshima. I was not able to sleep as the train zipped along. Every half hour or so, an announcement of the next stop would come through the speaker – all sounding unintelligible.
“Will I be able to recognize the announcement for Hiroshima?” I worried.
As dawn approached, I could see the buildings from out of the window as the train passed. All of a sudden, the buildings were not grey and weathered appearing, but were newer construction. The realization that even some distance from Hiroshima everything was devastated and had been re-built settled over me like a shroud.
It was the summer of 1962 and I had just turned 20 – eighteen years after the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. I was traveling through East Asia on my way home from spending my junior year of college in Hong Kong. What would I encounter? Thinking back over my summer itinerary planning, visiting Hiroshima was probably my father’s suggestion, just as visiting Okinawa had been. The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima the day before his Seabees battalion shipped out for Okinawa. He helped Okinawa rebuild.
I also knew that the Presbyterian Junior Year Abroad Program that sponsored my year’s study in Hong Kong was started in 1953 as a result of Hiroshima. Margaret Flory, the program’s founder and ‘mother’ for the rest of her career, met students in Japan in 1952 with “despair and guilt in a burdened memory and the recollection of how the Geiger counters clicked at Hiroshima. The students were poor, sometimes hungry and often without hope (Gittings, J.A., JYA 10, United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1964).
Growing up during the cold war, including doing duck-and-cover drills in elementary school, I had lots of reminders of the potential for nuclear destruction, but was not prepared for the lasting impact the city would have on me.
It is amazing the feelings and details that I can still remember after 53 years. The train pulled into the station around 6:30 in the morning and I, along with a handful of people, disembarked. Someone in the station was able to understand English and told me that I could take a bus tour in a couple of hours.
When I boarded the bus I panicked. Most of the others were Japanese. The few that were not, were speaking in a variety of European languages. How could I look at the sights of the city and listen to what had happened in the midst of a group of people from Japan? Would they judge me or be disdainful of what might appear to them to be gawking.
In fact, none of this happened. The others on the tour were very gracious as the bus wound through the modern city – one that could be any city in the early 1960’s were it not for the Japanese characters and signs on the buildings.
The first stop was the Peace Memorial Park where the tour guide recited the facts of the bombing and devastation in both Japanese and English. The memorial includes a cenotaph where the names of all of those who perished are inscribed. As I looked through my scrapbook for my Junior Year Abroad, I was amazed that I did not have any photographs from Hiroshima. (I must have shipped home my Dad’s camera, which I used to take slides in Hong Kong, in the steamer trunk along with my typewriter and other items I would not need that summer. I did have some post cards and was able to find photos on creative commons.)
The guide showed us the remains of a building that had been directly under where the bomb had been detonated. It had been left both as a reminder and as a symbol of peace. In researching this story, I discovered that it was not until four years after my visit that the city decided to preserve the skeletal remains indefinitely, and in 1996 it was declared a World Heritage site.
It left a lasting impression on me.
Nearby is the Children’s, or Sadako Memorial, erected in 1958. Perhaps it was the guide’s broken English or my continued feelings of intimidation, but I did not grasp at the time the history or significance of this memorial at the time.
Sadako Sasaki, were she alive today, would be a year younger than I am. She was two years old when the atom bomb was dropped on her city. When she was 11, she was diagnosed with Leukemia, known by those in the area as the “atom bomb disease.” Her best friend told her about an old Japanese legend that promised that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes would be granted a wish. She started folding cranes out of any piece of paper she could find and had completed over 1000 before dying on October 25, 1955 at age 12. Inspired by the fact that she never gave up, her friends and classmates put together a book of her letters and published it, using the proceeds to build a monument to Sadako and all of the children killed by the atom bomb. Today, Sadako’s cranes can be seen in peace museums and memorials around the world.
As the tour concluded, the guide told us that the people of Hiroshima were committed to reminding the rest of the world about the impact of atomic weapons and were committed to peace.
That afternoon as I boarded the train and headed towards Fukuoka to take the ferry to Pusan, South Korea, the skeleton of the ‘A Bomb Building’ continued to haunt me.
As I was returning from my year in east Asia, things were heating up in Indo China. When the U.S. entered into the Vietnam War, I worried about the futility of war and worried about the potential of nuclear weapons.
As I looked back on my life at each of the decade anniversaries of the bomb, I realized that my own life events crowded out the haunting image of remembering Hiroshima. In 1965 I had recently married, in 1975 I was busy with an 8-year-old son and a troubled marriage. In 1985, I had remarried and adopted two children with special needs. In 1995, that marriage had failed and I was remaking my life with two teenagers in Albuquerque.
In 2005 when journalists wrote about the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb, the following picture jumped out at me from the newspaper
and I was able to reflect on my visit during college.
As I began to write about that experience, I scoured the Internet for information and learned about the Peace Clock Tower, completed in 1967 and dedicated by the Hiroshima Lions Club. Part of the Epitaph reads “…The chime of the clock tower resounding every day at 08.15, the time when mankind received its baptism of the atomic bomb for the first time, calls out to the world for “No more Hiroshima” and we pray that the day for lasting peace may soon come to mankind.”
And in the lobby of the museum is another clock, installed on August 6, 2001, that counts the days since the bomb was dropped, as well as the number of days since the last known nuclear test. The last reset, the 19th in 12 years, was August 21, 2013 after learning that the United States conducted a new type of nuclear test on May 15 to examine the effectiveness of its nuclear arsenal.
When I retired from the Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico in 2006, some of my co-workers remembered my writing about Sadako the previous year and thought that it would be a fitting to tie my past with my future retirement filled with birds. Everyone joined in folding paper cranes that adorned the retirement party room.
Like their counterparts in real life, the strands of cranes ‘migrated’ to the Children’s Peace Statue, which at the time was at Ghost Ranch Santa Fe. The statue was designed in 1989 by Albuquerque school children at Arroyo del Oso Elementary School who were inspired by Sadako’s story. It was intended for Los Alamos, but has yet to be approved by that city. It has had a variety of homes – Explora Science Center and Children’s Museum in Albuquerque, Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe (where it was housed in 2006) and is currently at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum.
Starting in January 2015, there has been a groundswell among peace organizations from many countries to have 70,000 cranes folded and sent to Santa Fe for the pilgrimage to Los Alamos’s Ashley Pond on August 6, the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima’s decimation.
The inscription engraved at the base of the Children’s Peace Memorial in Hiroshima is a plea: “This is our cry. This is our prayer: Peace in the world.” In my bedroom hangs a crane mobile made by my dear friend Valerie Ford – my daily reminder of my visit to Hiroshima and my commitment to peace.