Editor's note: This is an important story, but not an easy one. Here, Michiko Osawa talks in detail about the horrors that resulted from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on herself, her family, and her city. It may be best suited for mature readers.
In 2017, I met tour guide Yumi Abe on a trip to Japan. She led me to a story that I couldn’t forget even if I wanted to.
“My mother is one of the last survivors of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima,” said Abe of Michiko Osawa, who turns 91 later this month.
After remaining silent for 72 years about her experience that day in 1945 and the suffering that followed, she told her daughter a story that Abe transcribed and passed on to me. I was so moved and horrified that it took me several hours to read it. Two years later, I was honored to meet Osawa at her home. I didn’t ask her about the bombing that nearly took her life. Instead, she told me.
“Once she started to tell her tragic story, she repeatedly tells it to her family, Abe said. “So I understood that she’d like to convey her story generation to generation.”
They are sharing her experience, Abe said, because “we are afraid that people will forget, and it may happen again.”
Now, on the 75th anniversary of America’s bombing of Hiroshima with a weapon born in New Mexico, Pasatiempo shares the then 15-year-old’s story of pain, survival, and even triumph in her own words with some editing for length or clarity. — Judith Fein/For The New Mexican
“I wish my legs could get better so I could walk again. I have been working very hard, and I sometimes wonder why. I’m better off dead," my Mother often said. She had brought up seven children, but didn’t want to be taken into care by her children. Understanding her feelings, I was touched with pity. She had started a business of selling cotton and futons as well as sewing kimonos and had built up credibility. It wasn’t fair that after such hard work that she bear the burden of atomic bomb diseases.
In March 1945, our house was located in Hiratsuka-cho, and one day the municipal government ordered us to move out of the house by noon the next day. All we could do was to rent a room in the house opposite ours and carry our household goods into it in a hurry. But we were evicted from this house as well, and finally settled into a house at the foot of Misasa Bridge on July 20. It was a big house, with 24 tatami mat room upstairs, and a garden in the west that faced the river. This environment made us feel refreshed and gave us a sense of peace.
On the morning of Aug. 6, my mother and I had just finished breakfast, along with my sister and her husband, who were expecting their first baby, and who had recently returned to Hiroshima from Tokyo. As we were chatting over a cup of tea, and listening to a funny story told by my brother-in-law that made all four of us burst into laughter, a flash and explosion occurred in the backyard. Ah….help! Instantly, we were blown separate ways and the house collapsed at the same time. Suddenly, I found myself lying on my back, with big pillars, walls, and stairs all collapsed and pressing down hard on me. One big pillar was on my stomach and a wall was on my face. Pillars, boards, and roof tiles were overlapped on top of me. I felt that the weight of the entire house was on top of me and that my body would split apart.
We called for each other but heard no sound from my brother-in-law. My sister called his name again and again, with no reply. The three of us who managed to stammer — my mother, sister, and I — were barely able to breathe. Both my mother and sister were face down and felt as if their bones were being crushed by the weight of the house. My sister was crying because the baby has stopped moving inside her. All my mother could say was “poor you,” becoming weaker in a similar situation.
I smelled smoke and heard the crackling sound of flames. I was uncomfortable and almost out of breath. I was completely helpless against the wall clays falling into my eyes, mouth, and ears because I couldn’t turn my head to the side. Finally, due to lack of blood, I began not to feel anything below the waist, and it became less painful.
I sometimes felt someone walking on the roof tiles, with cracking sounds. I heard shouts from the high-pitched voices of women and children, the voice of a groaner nearby, and voices like death agonies crying out for water. I couldn’t see outside and thought our house had taken a direct hit from a bomb. But no one came to rescue us, and we were left alone for hours. It was a difficult and terrible time, and it felt like it lasted forever. Apprehension, along with agony, brought me the fear of death at the end of the day. I wondered if I would die here, or if I could survive until tomorrow. I wished that any of my relatives would come and rescue us. Facing the fear of death, that any 16-year-old girl would never imagine, I knew that I didn’t want to die just yet. I cried out “Mother, Mother,” but she was only able to reply on every fifth call. My mother and sister were a step ahead of me in death.
Over 17 hours had passed since we were buried under a collapsed building, and just as we were about to fall unconscious, we heard a foreigner's voice saying in Japanese, “Kokodesuka? Kokodesuka (Anyone here)?” I was startled awake by the voice, but I didn’t feel happy or sad. I heard the clattering noises as someone removed the pillars, but it echoed hollowly. After trying for a long time, someone said despairingly that they could not rescue us from wreckage such as this. My mother and sister told them that they didn’t care what happened to them, but to please save the young girl, Michiko. The foreigner was a German priest from a nearby church. With help from a rescue group from the countryside, at long last he was able to drag the three of us outside together. They laid us down at the river bank. The German priest said, “Join your hands in prayer because you survived, thanks to God. There were great amounts of people who could not be saved. We couldn’t help it." I could see nothing but the windows of the 6th and 7th floors of the Fukuya department store still breathing flame. It was an extraordinary spectacle. Not long after that, the sun came up. We then found that the area around us, with the exception of some houses, was completely burned-out ruins.
Lying side-by-side with my mother and sister, I saw many soldiers of second column, whose faces were burned and whose ballooned lips had become gaped and swollen. All of the faces looked the same. The skin from their backs and chests were stripped off, detached, and hanging off. Even the skin of each finger was hanging from their hands, and they stood with the five fingers open and groaned. They pulled blankets over their heads because sunshine was painful. People who passed before our eyes walked in silence, some badly burned, and some with split mouths.
The Red Cross rescue corps was busy burying dead bodies and did nothing to help carry the injured who were alive. Then, in early afternoon, one of our relatives came, and took us to a barn-like building, and laid us flat there. Without a drop of fruit juice or medicine, our wounds were quickly infected, and driven up by the damp heat, had a discharge of pus. We suffered from persistent diarrhea, accompanied by a high fever, and we couldn’t even crawl.
Two days later, without the help of a doctor or midwife, my sister delivered an unborn baby. My sister looked at the life-like plump baby, and dissolved into tears, as she reminisced about her late husband.
Because she couldn't deliver the placenta and several of her parts went rotten, she struggled with pain for hours. How pitiful she was! Tears overflew from our bloody and stained face.
Two to three days after then, our sisters from Tochigi prefecture and Yokohama rushed to Hiroshima by freight vehicle with no roof even in the hot sun. Having hardly recognized us, they cried outright. Then their desperate nursing care for us started. But we couldn't stop forming pus in our wounds due to the lack of medicine. Half of the flesh in my mother's forehead was stripped off to expose the head bone, her thighs became like the decaying fleshes, the inner side of her right arm exposed its bone, and two holes of wounds in both sides of her knee were fully penetrable. The condition of my sister was worse than ours.
Two weeks later, we were housed in the elementary school where seriously wounded persons could receive medical treatment. But there was only an army surgeon who was rough and operated on us with no use of anesthetic as if he scooped out the black flesh of sweet potatoes. He cut off my mother's right arm. I fainted from the pain during my operation to cut off the flesh of wounds in my hip. Even so, I was the fastest recovery of the three.
There were over 10 patients in our room. A woman, whose burnt face didn't look like a human appearance suffered from great pain of wounds crawling with maggots and died in madness, kept screaming at the corner of the room. A girl who lay down beside me was a first grade in junior high school. She peeled on from head to toe and was like a body of lean tissue. She moaned in her pain, opened her mouth slightly to eat a liquid diet, but turned out to be a dead body shortly. Severe patients were brought here one after another like nothing happened and people around me died in quick succession. We were to move to the next school around the time when more than half of the patients here died and vanished in front of us. We were brought to the school in Yaga with other patients in the hot summer sun in September. Serious patients like one whose burnt-out upper lip stuck to the under lip were here too in a shambles. And half of them died within no more than a month as well. We were bothered by fear of death that our turn was next.
In the meantime, September has passed and, in October, the bleak autumn has come. My mother and sister had persistent diarrhea. Though the leg of my sister was cut surgically, its flesh decayed and dripped with pus. What's more, her bedsores became serious and her pain got worse and worse. As soon as a surgical specialist came for the first time and examined her in mid-October, he said she needed another operation. So she lied on an operating table again despite her exhausted body condition. But she induced sepsis soon after the surgery and suffered from high fever nightly. Under the candlelight, she died 10 days after the surgery, saying in tears that she lost her husband and baby. [It was not] being worth living with no hope.
My mother's wounds had not been healed. Her leg and arm were out of control because their nerves were damaged badly, and she had persistent diarrhea. So, seeing her pale face, I dreaded the idea of losing her.
We spent November and December still in the hospital room in the school freezing and on New Year's Day there. Though she regained enough strength to lean against a window with my help; at last, I felt pity for her single-handed and single-legged. When I came to be able to walk and the medical care for my mother was not necessary anymore, we decided to rent a room of a relative's house in Hakushima and live with a sister. But it was a dark room of bricks remained unburnt with no window glasses, so we survived winter shivering in the cold.
In April, we moved to the barracks in the former army hospital in Eba. My mother came to be able to walk along with a dragging foot to the restroom by herself by that time. But her white blood cells were decreasing, and she wasted away to skin and bone due to malnutrition.
In July, as my brother was demobilized and sent home, and my sister went back to her husband's hometown, we started our lives together with a brother.
Before the atomic bombing, my mother had worked without getting sick. But now she looked thin and blue, and her leg remained swollen. The swelling and persistent diarrhea made her life hell. Even a very patient mother couldn't help but moan in her pain. I'd like to do something for her, but my brother and I had to work to earn money because we lost everything owing to an Atomic Bomb. ... Doctors told no identified cause of my mother's symptoms. They just diagnosed that she was in a weakened condition and suffered from white cell breakdown having heart disease. Her condition grew worse and worse. Though the doctor said she was going to die, we asked him to give her injections of Ringer's solution. We knew that she was destined to die anyway, and the injections did nothing but made us feel better. But we struggled to buy the Ringer's solution for her. And then a miracle happened! She could escape death somehow. The doctor who gave up on her was surprised. Though doctors unidentified her disease, it was certain that the white cell breakdown had the most influence on her bad condition. She felt dizzy even if she lay on the bed.
She was very sorry to trouble us with her who could nothing but be in bed for a long time. So, she was eagerly waiting for her death to come. Being confined to bed and groaning in pain every day, it was difficult for her to live itself.
Even so, she kept saying that she wanted to see the youngest daughters, my happy wedding, and this hope seemed to make her stay alive.
She lived having a bunch of sufferings through many crises of death. She was always a hair's breadth from death. Despite being gradually at peace, she died 11 years after the bombing. After she suffered the slings and arrows of living with fatiguing on the body and mentally as well, she came easy.
I only hope that no one suffers the same fate as us in the future.