This is the second of three blog posts that are an excerpt from a notebook my father carried as a young man.
Note: This blog post contains graphic descriptions of human injuries.
By Michio Taniwaki
Just outside of gate of the army camp and across the street was a city park, Hiji-yama-koen (map 2 #2), named after the hill. Part of the hill was to become air raid shelters. The air raid shelters looked like coal mines or tunnels. They were long, narrow and had an L- or T-shaped end. For the building materials such as post and boards for the tunnels, we went to the site of demolished homes.
[Throughout the summer, several army companies, including mine, were assigned to tear down houses in an attempt to] create fire lines in case of fire caused by Allied incendiary bombing. We ran to these sites, picked up the demolition debris, carried them over our shoulders, and placed them near the entrance of the shelters. This was done before breakfast.
We called the task of digging air raid shelters “Hijiyama work,” and during the month of July we did Hijiyama work once or twice a week. Members of other companies were also doing this work and they were working more often than us. These shelters were to protect radio equipment and were being built near the barracks. Some companies were working almost every day, but our company had many with poor physique so our work was ineffective.
A noncom always led us to one of the shelters. There usually was another noncom from a company responsible for telephone and telegraph communications, we called them Wired communication. They set dynamite, installed supporting posts, and did other work that required some knowledge and skill. Meanwhile, we carried dirt and gravel using a cart on a rail or more commonly using baskets on poles, two men working together.
Hiroshima had been built on the Ōta-gawa (Ōta River) delta [the delta rivers are now called the Hon-gawa or Hon Rivers] which is compacted sand of eroded granite and so easy to dig except deep inside the tunnel where we reach bedrock and dynamite had to be used. We preferred night shift, because after night shift we were allowed to sleep 6 hours during the day, time when others were in the training room.
The first two pages of the notebook my father carried during the war. The first page lists the serial numbers of all the paper money in his possession. He was ordered to record them by the army. Photo by George Taniwaki
Toward the critical time
I found two good friends, Usami of Tokyo and Ushijima from Fukuoka-ken. Ushijima was like Shiota, and we criticized the military and discussed the outcome of the war. We did this during the breaks, we had to keep some distance from others. I don’t remember if I talked about the war with Usami. We did not meet very often, but we made a good company to carry dirt with basket and pail. When the going got tough he hummed away the Grand March and I liked that, it was far better than Japanese marching songs that are mostly primitive.
Corporal Koike was assistant to squad leader, Sergeant Sakamoto. One day, he was giving us a lecture, but against his expectation we could not memorize what was taught. “Can’t you do better than that?” he asked. “No. It must be my fault. Even if you worked hard, if the instruction isn’t right, you can’t do well. So I’ll punish myself.” As soon as he finished his words he began to hit his cheek with his fist. That made us hold our breath.
Private Baba shouted, “Corporal Koike, please stop. If you have to hit, hit me instead.”
We made a resolution to obey his orders. The next day I overheard an older private scolding a new private like us. “What’s the matter with you? Yesterday you guys acted like a cheap play.” I felt an anger. We worked harder after this incident, but it didn’t last more than two weeks or so. Most of the time we were training to transmit and receive signals.
Toward the end of July we began to hear a rumor, that we were to have maneuvers and so-and-so would be sent to such-and-such location. One day I had to go to the company commander’s room for housekeeping duty. There I saw the itinerary and found out that I was with the group whose destination was Kurashiki-shi, about 80 miles east (map 1 #6), this would be a fun.
About this time we did house demolition every day to cut fire lines, but the demolished houses were left sitting on the ground. Would they work when the bombing started?
Whenever we heard the air raid sirens, we put on armor-like garments, steel helmets and rifles if you had one. Each time, the 4th Company had to move all the communication equipment from storage to the air raid shelters at Hijiyama. When all was done, usually the air raid warning was cancelled and everything was moved back. Eventually, we left the equipment in the shelter and brought them back out only when needed. We also performed fire drills, which was the same as the civilian way, using buckets of water and bamboo sticks with mops attached. (One dips the mop into water and beat the burning objects, including incendiary bombs, to put the flames out.) The effect was doubtful, fire extinguishers seemed more useful, but we never learnt to operate them.
On the evening of August 5th, the air raid sirens went on again. As usual bombs didn’t fall as far as we could tell, but we had to perform the standard routine. When all was done we went back to sleep. We expected to get permission to sleep a half day or so because of the extra work during the night. But Communication Class 2 which I was a member of was ordered to perform Hijiyama work between 06:00 and 12:00. “Rotten deal,” I thought.
Sergeant Sakamoto led us to the Number 4 Shelter. We placed our jackets, canteens, and other things in a shack near the air raid shelter entrance. I tried to remove my watch from the pocket of my jacket and dropped it. The watch stopped and it stayed stopped for 3 or 4 months. The supervisor of the day was a hard-working man who made us work hard too. Soon we were exhausted, but work had to continue without a break. I and a few others used shovels to fill an ore cart and Usami was almost ready to push it out.
Suddenly lights went out. Due to poor makeshift wiring it would break down quite often. This would provide us a much-needed break, but we did not want to reveal our joy. Instead, we said, “Too bad” in presence of the sergeant and supervisor. Usami pushed the cart on the track in complete darkness, but nobody else made any move for fear of running into someone or something.
While in the dark, we heard a “BOOM.” It was not very loud, yet the pressure pushed the eardrums inward. “What’s that?”
“Dynamiting in a nearby shelter.”
“The air compressor exploded.”
“No it’s a bomb, I’m sure of it.”
Sergeant Sakamoto said, “I’ll get out and take a look.” Soon he came back and with excited voice said, “All of you come out quick, our barracks are wiped out.”
"What does he mean wiped out?" To find out we moved through the darkness and got out.
The first thing I saw was two injured men being carried down the hill. I went to the shack where I left my jacket just to see the shack was no longer standing there, my jacket was blown out and canteen was at the corner of the blown shack. The barracks were obscured by the cloud of dust, but I could see the nearest structure, a garage with the door blown and roof lying on the ground. The rear end of the building was still standing but leaning toward the front end. Our training hall had its pillars broken. The roof looked as if a giant’s hand pushed it down and left an imprint of a wavy pattern (like skin over ribs), so you could see where the rafters were. Windows were broken or blown in. Shingles were scattered on the ground and also inside. Some walls were blown down and some others were leaning. (As the dust settled,) I could see our living quarters looked no better. I thought there must be a huge crater where the bomb hit, but there was no crater anywhere near the barracks.
I moved my eye sight to out of barracks, as far as I could see, the city suffered the same or even heavier damage. This has to have been a new kind of bomb, a dreadful one. I was terrified at first. Then a happy thought welled up in my mind, after a big event like this military discipline would become loose.
It is hard to describe how strict the discipline was. For example, each soldier was ordered to keep a cash book (in order to record the serial numbers of all currency he held). The book was inspected so they would know that we were not hiding extra cash. And they didn’t stop there. They checked our pockets, clothing, personal belongings, and inside of book covers without telling us. Finally, they checked the gaps in floor and wall boards several times.
Letters to home were censored which was expected. But Corporal Uto picked one recruit, and read out loud part of the letter he wrote to his older sister. He commanded, “Rewrite the letter, it’s too sissy.”
Now with this bomb, the barracks were destroyed, men were injured, discipline could not be maintained. In the midst of disaster I felt private happiness.
At a short distance away, the remaining 4th Company had gathered. 80% of 4th Company had been injured and 50% required some treatment. I found Usami, who had been injured. He said, "As I pushed the cart to the exit, I saw a blinding flash, then I was blown backward about 2 meters. I tried to get up, but I was blown down again.” [The atomic bomb created a blast wave which consisted of a high pressure shock followed by a low pressure one.]
Someone pointed upward and said, “Look.” In the sky there was a huge cloud that looked like a cumulonimbus except it was moving in all directions at high speed. [Actually tons of dirt and ash being swept up by the blast. For location of ground zero, see map 2 #3.] Days later we heard that a strange kuroi ame (black rain) [the now highly radioactive dirt and ash dropping back down to earth] fell in some parts of the city. A tree branch over our heads was burning. “How odd, we ought to put out that fire,” someone said. But nobody moved.
At about noon, civilians walking toward Hijiyama Park began arriving. The tree shade probably attracted them. The sirens wailed again. Civilians and soldiers got into the shelters. I was in a shelter with young noncom candidates that looked about 16 or 17 years old. They screamed when something touched their backs with severe burns. One of them stopped next to me with burned skin and obviously in a great deal of pain. I offered water, which he drank.
The air raid warning was cancelled so we got out. Then I saw more people arrive with burns over their bodies, which was a horrible scene. Some appeared to have skull caps on their heads. A closer look told us that the caps were actually their hair. Probably they had hats on, so the tops of their heads were protected while the hair and skin on the lower parts of their heads had burnt away. Some people were burnt on their front, some burnt on their backs, and most had burns on their arms. Their skin was peeling from their arms and dangling. Their steps were staggered. There were children, old men, and women. Some young women were wearing chemise with hems burnt (their dresses had burnt away) and they were staggering toward the shade.
The thought that “war is terrible” came to my mind and receded. “War will continue,” I was sure. Wounded men were rescued from the barracks and sent to the hospital. Some men from 4th Company were among those sent to the hospital, but the Company miraculously had no fatalities. Most wounds were caused by falling objects, some lost much blood.
The kitchen had been damaged, and a regular meal couldn’t be prepared, but we received emergency rations made up of rock hard biscuits at about 13:00. The army didn’t provide any food or care for civilians. For the first time we felt that we were lucky to be in the army. Hundreds of wounded and sick civilians were arriving in Hijiyama Park and sat down under the trees. Most of them were so weak they didn’t move from where they sat nor raise their voice.
The most important job of our company was head count. Until nightfall roll calls were ordered several times. We spread blankets in the open space and spent a restless night watching the red sky through the tree branches. Night sentries were posted, but it was very lax.
The next morning we went back to the barracks to retrieve some supplies, our personal effects, and building material such as boards. Our living quarters were on the second floor. The main stairway was damaged so we used the emergency stairway on the outside wall. Inside looked worse than we thought with broken pillars, fallen beams, blown in windows, fallen shelves and other debris filled the space. We had to negotiate obstacles to move about. Somehow we got in and finally I was at our room. Large bunk beds were the prominent objects and they were like extra floors, as many as eight beds were on each floor. I saw the upper floor lost its supports and landed on the lower one where my bed was situated. Next to my pillow was a crushed steel helmet. Too close for comfort.
I picked out my personal items and those of my buddy, Higuchi. I found his glasses and put them in my pocket. Then I made two bundles and threw them out of the window to be picked up later. Higuchi was injured and sent to a temporary hospital set up at Niho Elementary School (map 2 #4). A few days later he was discharged, so I handed him the glasses. He was so happy to be able to see again. He said before the bomb he had two pairs of glasses, but at the hospital he had neither of them. To show his appreciation he offered me part of his meal. This was not a small favor. Everybody was hungry for lack of food.
That night sentries stood guard as usual, but a new special order was issued, “Watch for runaway soldiers.”
[Update: I created two maps of locations mentioned in this memoir and added links. For details, see Jan 27 blog post.]