This is the last 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
Two days after the bombing, I was among a group of the soldiers ordered to go to the East Training Ground (map 2 #6) which was located in north central Hiroshima. We could not go straight there. Though the fires were mostly burnt out in the city, under the ashes embers were still smoldering. We made a detour first toward the north near the Hiroshima-eki (train station, map 2 #5) that was destroyed but not burnt down, then to the west. As we walked, we passed three elderly people talking. “What will become of us?” they asked each other.
Hiroshima Train Station a few months after the bombing shows a makeshift terminal in front. The concrete façade appears in good condition but the building is actually unusable and was later demolished. Photo from Gateway to Peace project
As we approached the entrance to the training ground, a private first class and I were assigned to stand sentry at the intersection. Nothing unusual happened. Fires were still burning at some distance away. Once in a while people walked in front of us, but the private first class didn’t move or say anything except when asked for directions or other questions.
There was a satsuma imo (sweet potato) patch behind us. Since we were hungry I checked the size of the potatoes by digging. But they were much too small to eat, about the size of fingers. In the morning we returned to the assembly area and slept in the grass.
In and around the training ground were many tents set up for emergency kitchens and first aid. They were mostly set up by navy. There were some trucks among them that belonged to the navy too. “What is the army doing,” we wondered.
While we were resting, somebody came to tell us that there was a noncom lying at the railroad crossing. He was wearing the mark for the Army vessel unit. “You are the same group aren’t you? Why don’t you go and take care of him?” Four of us went to the railroad crossing. A noncom was lying next to the track. His breath was rapid and shallow. He was unconscious. We fashioned a stretcher from a door we found, placed him on it, and carried him to our station, then to the navy’s first aid station situated in front of a Buddhist temple.
The medic said his skull was fractured and there was no hope for him. The medic dressed the noncom’s wound anyway. Many soldiers were on the floor, and we tried to place him there. A corporal or sergeant stopped us saying, “This place is taken by our unit, no others except civilians are allowed to be in here.”
We thought he couldn’t have such authority, but we left and placed the patient under a tree out of the sun. Presently, we were sitting next to three wounded older privates. One of them asked for a cigarette, so I gave some. Another man wanted to drink water, so I went to a neighboring house to get some water.
Soon our noncom died. We reported this to Corporal Koike who inspected the noncom’s jacket for his identification. The corporal found his name, Kobayashi, but his unit was only written as “Re.” Corporal Koike said, “I don’t know what ‘Re’ is. I have to go to the headquarters to find out.” He left the station, and two of us were now watching over the corpse. The medic saw this and said, “You army-san are so inconvenient. Don’t you know that naval jackets have the name of the unit clearly written on them so you can identify instantly?”
This was not our first time to be at this location (training camp). We came here once before to practice radio communication. We had set up a station and exchanged messages with the home base. The infantry would have to run and crawl on the ground, but we sat under a shade tree.
Nearby, a couple of girls were playing ball. One girl would bounce the ball while singing a song. If the ball bounced off the other girl, she would take over and sing and bounce. The song went like this, “Second mama is stepmother, and Mama is angry because you are too late with a big bucketful of water. Stamping, kicking and beating. ‘Mama, Mama forgive me.’”
At some distance, a barely audible whistle and sound of machinery were heard, a faint smoke column was rising slowly into the clear blue sky. That was far and away. Here and now, the main hall of the temple was full of the wounded and more were coming. Everything, houses and fields were destroyed and the area around us looked like a battleground or hell.
The replacements for corpse watching came so we returned to the barracks. That afternoon we built a hut to sleep in. We used material salvaged from the barracks. The hut had a roof and floor but no walls, good enough for the season.
[The following are notes my father wrote in 2010 for a 65th anniversary remembrance speech he gave on the steps of the Colorado state capitol building.]
We were ordered to go to Niho Elementary School about a mile to the east (map 2 #4) where one of many temporary hospitals that had been set up, and helpers were needed. There were hundreds of patients, women, old people, and children mostly of elementary school age. They didn’t talk loudly or cry.
There were no beds, tatami (rice straw mats about 1 m by 2 m, as hard as door mats) were spread on the wooden floor. There were no doctors or trained nurses, only a few medics and some untrained helpers like us. What we could do was limited to serving water, feeding them some onigiri (rice balls), although many patients didn’t have an appetite and vomited, and assisting them to the restroom. Help was needed day and night. We didn’t have oil or ointment to treat the burns nor bandages nor any pain killers or other medications. We didn’t have the slightest notion that these patients were suffering from radiation sickness.
We moved dead bodies and brought in new patients. Without medication patients didn’t fare well. A boy who was quietly lying had maggots in his eyes, I picked them out and cleaned his eyes with water. A middle-aged man who said he was a watchmaker and his wife both frequently asked me for my help. After 3 days of work without a break to sleep, our replacements appeared. The couple begged me to stay but I could not continue.
The next day we were ordered to stand sentry at the west end of the city (map 2 #7). There were no more fires and no more embers under the ash so we walked straight across the city. Wide areas were completely burnt, only the skeleton of concrete buildings and charred trees were left standing. But as we approached our destination, houses reappeared and there were houses with little damage. I suppose some were vacant, but every 4th or 5th house had a sign for bereavement posted meaning people were living there.
Sentry work was uneventful. We were ordered to go back to the barracks without having done anything meaningful.
The next day we were assigned to transport corpses to one of many makeshift crematoria in the city (map 2 #8). We started from near our camp. Many bodies were children. It took two men to pick up a body, one man lifts the legs while another lifts the arms and together they put the corpse into a stretcher. Grabbing arms was a nightmarish experience, skin peels off the arms and you lose your grip, the body falls down, but the skin remains in your hands. Everybody hated this job. I did more than a fair share, and I was thanked for that, a rare event in the army. Railroad ties were used for fuel, and corpses were placed on the stack. In most cases corpses were not identified. The air was filled with a strong stench and it filled our lungs. When we came back I overheard someone saying, “Then there was a man who had a bunch of watches. He offered me one for getting some medication, but I couldn’t do anything. He died soon. We cremated his body and all the watches too.”
On August 15, we were told to gather at the center of camp to hear an important announcement and warned not to misbehave no matter what was said. It was the Emperor’s voice on the radio, the first time ever we heard it, announcing the end of war, and concluding we should prepare to, “bear the unbearable and suffer the insufferable.” My feeling was “Thank god it’s over.” I tried hard not to look happy, I am still in the imperial army, but I think I am not alone. The commander of our regiment, who was hospitalized, said according to a noncom who was also in the hospital, “I’ll go home in the countryside and be the mayor or something.” (In Japan, a mayor in those days was hired by the city or township, not elected.) The noncom added, “These words are unbecoming of a commander.” I thought “Why don’t you wake up.”
I imagined that surrendering meant soon the army will be dissolved, and we will be discharged from the army. “How nice,” but before that we had to surrender all weapons and equipment to the Allied forces. Sorting and moving kept us busy. We were working without adequate food.
One day a request for volunteers was made, “Headquarter needs kitchen helpers.” I raised my hand and accepted along with few others. We went to the headquarters in Ujina, a seaport for Hiroshima (map 2 #9). The area seemed to have escaped the blast.
The headquarters was made up from a few poorly constructed buildings arranged in a square that surrounded a courtyard. A civilian employee directed us to the kitchen and told us to do the daily routine, cooking gohan (boiled white rice) enough for all personnel whose number varies day-to-day. The rice must be measured and rinsed then placed in a large pot that looked like a huge upside down steel helmet. We then added the correct amount of water. For fuel, we were to use boards piled up in the backyard, which were wet from the rain. We had to dry them by placing them around the fire. Okazu (side dishes for gohan) would be cooked by civilian workers. Our hunger disappeared quickly.
The commander was diabetic and ate fresh chicken every day. (Nobody else had access to such luxury.) Someone had to kill the bird and remove the feathers, that became my job. Cleaning and cooking the bird was a civilian cook’s job. There was no heavy manual work here, and food was plentiful. Often there was surplus resulting from unreported personnel reductions and we threw the extra food away. Somebody, possibly a former employee found this and started to collect it saying it was animal feed, but he complained of the unsanitary condition in which the food was found. It was clear he wasn’t using it for animals.
One day we received kazunoko (dried herring roe, a delicacy usually reserved for New Year’s Day) in a shitodaru (a barrel that holds about 40 liters or 10 gallons). We placed it out front so anyone who came to the kitchen could scoop some out. For a while it moved fast but, then eventually we heard, “No thanks, no more.” They refused to eat it.
We were ordered to burn the military maps. So we used the once valuable navigational charts being stored in the map cabinet as kindling to cook with.
As the days passed, the headquarters’ food requirements declined. Within a few weeks we were dismissed from kitchen duty and returned to our original unit. We borrowed a cart from one of the civilian workers. We put our belongings on it, but when we finish unloading nobody was willing to return the cart, not me either. So we kept it. I don’t think it belonged to him personally.
By now, many of the men had been discharged. The remaining men were housed in tents. We were still moving materials. One day, old-fashioned uniforms appeared and they were distributed among us. There were indications that some senior noncoms were taking goods home. More men were discharged and they went home.
New orders arrived. We were to move to Mihara-shi, a small city about 60 km to the east (map 1 #7). We hired a small ship to move everything we had including radio equipment. We occupied a dormitory for the workers of a rayon factory. We were assigned to watch goods we stored at a storage shed which was a flimsy building. We were armed with mock rifles. Nothing happened for many nights, but one evening, suspicious men appeared. The guards responded with the weapons and yelling. The would-be burglars ran off. Those of us who were not there heard this story with amazement.
One day I was ordered to dig some earthworms from the vegetable garden. The soil was dry and sandy. There were no worms. “You don’t even know how to dig worms,” I was told.
Another day I was told to go to town to pick up an urn previously ordered, which was for Yamamoto who was in the 4th Company and moved to the 5th Company. Poor soul. Someone was trying to pour the ash from the bag into the army style urn, an unpainted cedar box about 15 cm on each side. Staff Sergeant said, “You don’t have to put all the ash in the box, pour out some onto the garden,” the same garden I was ordered to find worms.
It had been more than two month since the end of the war and we were getting tired. Our companies were mostly gone. Officers and some noncoms were working with books and records. By this time the signs of rank were removed so it was hard to know who was who.
One day a private took out a sword and said, “Let us go, or I’ll commit hara-kiri (ritual suicide).” Usually such an outburst would bring some punishment. Instead, we privates were all discharged. Before leaving we received some surplus goods including several hoods for rain coats, some okome (uncooked white rice), and miso (soup paste) in a pail. I gave my miso to a radio shop owner I had become acquainted with. My okome was exchanged for some unsweetened biscuits. We also received severance pay of 1,000 yen, about ten months worth of civilian’s pay but because of hyperinflation worth only about 10 dollars [about $200 in 2010 dollars]. Much later I found that our status was actually civilian employees, but I didn’t know it at the time. Whoever released us was at least honest enough to give us our severance pay.
I tried to buy a ticket for home, but was told that all trains were full and no more tickets could be issued. The radio shop owner intervened and I was able to get as far as Takamatsu-shi (map 1 #2), the entrance to Shikoku. I had to wait a day, but was able to get a ticket to Susaki-shi (map 1 #1), my hometown. As in all other stations, the place was so crowded that there was no place to sleep. An out-of-order telephone booth became my overnight shelter. The next day I was finally on the way to unite with my anxious family.
An interview of my father and other Hiroshima survivors appeared in the Rocky Mountain News in Aug 2005.
For more information on the bombing of Hiroshima, visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
[Update: I created two maps of locations mentioned in this memoir and added links. For details, see Jan 27 blog post.]