Bridge to Forgiveness

Chapter Three: Judgment Day

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Outside the main gate of the school, Kazu, a rambunctious second grade classmate, asked me why I was so late to join them on the way to school. Sumiko inquired, “What’s the matter with you anyway? Where is your good old spunkiness?” They were mad at me for taking so long to join them.

“Come on. Let’s play quickly!” Taro shouted at me. “We don’t have much time, hurry!”

Suddenly, I returned to my “old” self, the rambunctious boy. We always played Kakurenbo, hide and seek, in the morning, and my friends had all waited for me to play our favorite game. I was excited, for it was my turn to be “it” this morning!

We all bowed deeply before the shrine of the Emperor at the school entrance and then ran past several hundred soldiers who were marching in unison and drilling with bayonets inside the school grounds. I couldn’t shake off the memory of my Mother’s sadness, as I gazed out the classroom’s front windows at the soldiers while my classmates hid from me.
Being “it” while my classmates hid granted me a few calm seconds to overlook the schoolyard. I started to count ichi, nii, san ... the school clock moved towards 8:15 a.m. ... on August 6, shi, go, roku ... 1945 ... in my home town of Hiroshima! Through my covered eyes I saw my Mother crying. I counted, shichi, hachi, ku, juu. The chase was on. Nine. Ten. Ready or not, here I …

The schoolroom clocked snapped to 8:15 and time stopped.

“ON THIS MORNING, THIS JUDGMENT DAY” the belly of the Enola Gay opened 24,500 feet above “ground zero,” as though the mouth of a giant were yawning wide, and out came “Little Boy”—three meters long and weighing four tons. Though its uranium weighed only one kilogram, the bomb’s destructive power was the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT.

Two minutes earlier, air raid sirens had again shrieked and a warning had been broadcast from military headquarters. Mr. Furuta had read a news flash at exactly 8:13 a.m. This second warning had caught the people of Hiroshima by surprise, and I had not even heard it.

“Forty-Three Seconds Over Hiroshima” an atomic bomb detonated several hundred feet above Fuku-ya’s Department Store where I used to trawl for goldfish. “… Oh, My God ... Hiroshima Strike!”

Without warning! BLINDING, BURNING, SHOCKING, WHITE LIGHT! I covered my closed eyes. I saw pure white light through my covered eyes.

A gigantic super sun blinded all creation. Thousands of suns all at once burst through a hole in the universe, consuming all colors within its whiteness. Even the blackness of a blind man’s world would have been eradicated by its power. It consumed all, fused heaven and earth, ate every color, every shadow, every breath.

The Pika-don!—the flash bomb! Heaven and Earth were fused, One. The moment was captured in an eerie, dead silence. The silence was deafening. I saw nothing. I felt nothing! The ether froze in dead stillness. God’s heart stopped beating. That was my last memory for an unknown length of time …

In an instant my school and all Hiroshima had evaporated. When I regained consciousness, I awoke in Hell! The three-story wooden frame school had collapsed into a heap of matchsticks. My first floor classroom lay shattered and flattened on the ground. Beneath the heap, I lay buried on my back, unable to move. I couldn’t see anything. An immense pressure shoved me down and choked me so hard I could only manage a weak, silent scream of sheer terror. I could smell intense heat, and I sensed a molten fire moving toward me like an unrelenting river of lava.

I gasped for air like a fish out of water, as a super-heated torch seared my lungs and all the scorched air was sucked from the atmosphere. I lay gasping in an oven, choking for the breath of life. The weight of the inflamed air forced me down, far away. I was disappearing. I gasped the merciless air for breath. Except for a red glow, all was pitch black.

Though I couldn’t see anything, I heard the screaming of my closest friends, Taro and Sumiko and others in the darkness. They were desperately crying out for mizu—water, water!

“Shinuru hodo atsui, atsui. I am dying.”

We called out to each other, “Kazu, Sumiko, Taro, Masa ...”

We cried, too, for our parents. We all were screaming at the top of our lungs, but had little power to reach through this devil’s wall of fire coming to consume us like a voracious, rampaging lion. Twisted black and yellow tongues of fire flickered through the red, blinding darkness, leaping at us like thousands of heartless vipers. We were all trapped with no escape, helpless as the caterpillars we used to burn just for fun, watching them writhe and be consumed in the blink of an eye among flaming leaves. We were doomed. Toshi’s plea for life was the last agonized cry I heard.

“Atsui! Atsui! Mizu o kudasai! Water! Water!” One by one, the flames engulfed my classmates. Their cries for help were unanswered!

“Toshi, Gomen ne!” Please forgive me, Toshi. I begged him to forgive me because I couldn’t help him. He sounded so far away. My second grade classmates were crying out for their mommies and daddies as, one by one, flames engulfed their small bodies. Now all my classmates were silent.

Trapped by debris, I couldn’t move. Something hot and dripping burned my face. It must have been my own boiling blood which I felt dripping down my face, left arm and back. The fire was about to consume me.

“Oto-sa—a—n; Oto-saaan!” I screamed for my Father in total panic and desperation. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth like a weathered leaf. The roaring fire leapt to consume me. I was frozen in this fire! I knew I was a goner.

Time elapsed … I don’t remember anything more until I heard the faint voices of men. Mustering all my strength I screamed “Ta—suke-e-e-teeeeee! Help! Save me!” I was surprised to hear my own voice! I was still alive! I screamed again. Then, I saw something or somebody:

“I am here!” A voice responded. “Ooi Kocchida! Hayaku. Kocchi dazo! Come this way quickly, come! Dareka go kokoni iruzo! I think there is someone right here underneath the rubble!”
The soldier moved the burning debris and grabbed hold of me, pulling me into his arms.
And so began my long journey …

Many other soldiers were looking for other children. I saw one soldier carrying a child who was charred, blackened beyond any recognition, lifeless arms and legs dangling. It could have been me. This was the first scene of continuous days of horror I would witness. These images, branded in my mind, would haunt me for the rest of my life. Later I discovered I was 1164 meters from the hypocenter of the blast—about 7/10ths of a mile.
The soldier carrying me weaved in and out of throngs of people who were screaming in agony, charred, dead or just barely alive. People were creeping, stumbling, dragging their feet, crawling on knees and elbows, looking for any escape from the blazing inferno closing in on all sides. Parents were searching for their children, their vain cries and the shrieking of children incessant over the raging roar of the fire.

Writhing like worms, shrieking humans mangled under flaming debris were consumed in seconds. Their extinction made strange puffing sounds, like that of exploding fuzzy caterpillars. All the while I was being carried in the arms of my soldier, as he stepped over the dead, disfigured bodies.

Practically everyone was scorched, their clothes burnt and shredded. Some were naked and blistered, their hair singed. Many were unrecognizable, charred so black it was impossible to know whether they were male or female. Many children and grownups were groping at my rescuer, begging him to put them out of their misery. Others were pleading, “Mizu, Mizu! Water, Water!”

Smoke blackened the entire heaven and the sun refused to show its face. The stench of burning human flesh continued to ascend. I still didn’t know what had happened. The voracious, roaring sound of fire was only broken by the piercing cries of children in search of rescue by their parents. Unrecognizably disfigured and mangled bodies fused with charred debris everywhere. Everything I saw was a filthy pitch black.

Those who could still move were moving en masse to the banks of the Tenma Gawa River. The disabled became helpless fuel for the irate fire. I witnessed the unforgettable horror of a mother, a headless infant in a sling on her back, screaming out the names of her lost children—looking vainly everywhere. She was unaware that the force of the blast had blown her baby’s head off. What horror must have consumed her when she finally discovered the headless beloved bundle! My imagined semblance of her experience has brought me a realm of unspeakable grief ever since.

At the Tenma Gawa, throngs of people ran and pushed each other to claim some space on the sandy banks of the once clean and tranquil river. Grotesque dead bodies were floating like blowfish in the blackened sewage-like water, yet people rushed into it, voraciously drinking all they could swallow. The poisoned river claimed their lives and they disappeared into the current. Finally, the soldier carrying me reached the sandy beach of the river. He managed to find a place for us between the raging inferno behind and the angry river in front, as a throng of people claimed their “territory.”

Then a miracle happened. My Father spotted me and called out my name. How on earth my Father found me I will never know, but there he was, clamoring over bodies to claim his son! In the midst of all this horror I experienced a moment of joy and gratitude. I knew I would be safe. I’m in my Father’s arms now! My Father bowed many times to the soldier, profusely thanking him. I never saw a happier face on my Father.

“I am glad that your son is rescued, sir,” said the soldier. “I must return to my company. I have a duty to perform. Ogenki de ganbatte Ikite itte kudasai! I trust you will be strong to live a long life!”

“Anata wa Onjin desu. Arigoto gozai mashita. You are a savior. Thank you, thank you for saving my son.”

The soldier saluted my Father and disappeared back into the inferno. Long after the soldier had vanished into the smoke and crowds, my Father bowed after him with ultimate gratitude.

Father brought me to where Grandfather and Grandmother Tanemori, Masuyo, and my little brother Sadayoshi were gathered by the river’s edge. I was in shock and didn’t realize that Mother and little Sayoko weren’t standing with them. The only thing I knew at this point was that my Father was holding me in his strong arms.

The flow of thousands of survivors flooded the river’s narrow shore. All the bridges had fallen. This thin line of sand was the only oasis. A sea of faces grew. Those nearest the river’s edge were nudged into the murky currents and swept away.

Those who had survived the raging firestorm, who had suffered burns of the worst degree and horrific wounds, complained most of an unquenchable thirst, pleading to heaven “Mizu, Mizu, Mizu o Kudasai! Water, water, give me water!”

Oddly enough, inky clouds from the northwest blew towards us. Swollen, black clouds blotted out the last few shafts of daylight. As the swirling darkness descended, anxiety spread like a rumor throughout the bleeding, cowering mass. What new horror was coming?
Jagged lightning tore the sky apart and a black, sticky rain fell. It smelled like the city’s smoke.

Raindrops the size of golf balls dropped, pounding our scarred and scorched flesh. Every drop that struck me felt like someone hitting me with a hammer on open blisters. Through our pain, we were hoping the rain would extinguish the inferno. Everyone became wrapped in a black, sticky film. The downpour lasted for three hours, yet the city kept right on burning.

The rain angered the river. It foamed and rose quickly, eating at the hem of our refuge. Many were sucked into the flume. The huddling mass squeezed painfully closer, shrinking to preserve precious space. Some people pushed others away in order to save themselves from being sucked into the angry, black, oily river. Parents followed their screaming loved ones as they were swept into the current.

© 2008 Takashi Tanemori with John Crump

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