Why you should care
What easily crawls into your head sometimes takes up an uneasy residence there, like the human toll of Hiroshima.
For the past two decades, I’ve been recording Japanese war stories. The question I often get asked, at least by friends in the West curious about my day job: “What’s it like talking to an atomic bomb survivor?”
Looking at a typical fieldwork session, I think it can safely be said, like nothing I’ve ever done before.
It’s the morning of my meeting with a retired 91-year-old professor I will call “Dr. Kato.” I check out of my hotel and head out on the Chuo Line train to the doctor’s home in the western suburbs of Tokyo.
The bespectacled Japanese Robert Mueller who meets me at the door is taller than I expected, and his natty Mister Rogers cardigan belies a voice that is surprisingly deep and powerful, occasionally hitting a timbre that rattles something in my chest cavity.
We spend the first 30 minutes or so talking about our backgrounds and common interests, and I explain my research. As per my bomb survivor interview standard operating procedure, I hold off bringing up the subject of that day until the interviewee gives the first hint that he’s prepared to broach it.
The doctor’s large eyes flit from point to point on the map and he provides commentary as we survey the record of a community that no longer exists.
I notice Kato admiring the 1945 United States Strategic Bombing Survey map of Greater Hiroshima I have spread out in front of us on the dining room table. I take this as my cue to start nudging the conversation toward that day. Has he ever seen this map before? No, but he is impressed by its detail.
“The Americans were flying high over Hiroshima that summer, taking reconnaissance photos before the bombing,” Kato recalls. “All of the other cities were getting firebombed. Everyone except us. There were all sorts of wild rumors to explain that.” He chuckles slightly, briefly. “I even heard one about it being because President Truman’s sister was secretly living in the city.”
The doctor’s large eyes flit from point to point on the map, and he provides commentary as we survey the record of a community that no longer exists — Hiroshima captured in its final days with all its mid-1945 institutions, infrastructures and neighborhoods still intact.
On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, 17-year-old Kato and his classmates were working at a chemical plant approximately 15 miles southwest of central Hiroshima — far enough away for the factory machinery to drown out the sound of the nuclear explosion. No one realized anything was out of the ordinary until hours later, when the first staggering lines of shattered, burned survivors appeared, heading west on foot along the railway that ran past the factory.
Word began spreading that something terrible had happened. Kato and the rest of his classmates from Hiroshima were released from their duties to go home and check on their loved ones. But before they could do that, they had to wait for the city to stop burning, which took the better part of the night.
The next day, Kato finally managed to reach his neighborhood in downtown Hiroshima, which was barely a kilometer from the hypocenter of the explosion. Twenty-four hours after the explosion and the ensuing firestorm that consumed Hiroshima, everything was still smoldering, and there was so much rubble and stinking, blackened lumps of organic matter strewn about that at first Kato couldn’t even find his street, let alone what was left of his house and its sole occupant: his mother.
Eventually, he located something he thought might have been his house, and a blackened lump of organic matter, barely identifiable as the remains of a human being, stretched out in front of what had been the entrance to the house.
Kato left the body as it lay and headed to his mother’s family in the mountains behind the city to deliver the bad news. His uncle offered him a place to stay, but first Kato had to fulfill his duty to the family by giving his mother a proper cremation as per Buddhist funeral customs. Fair enough, but how was he supposed to give his mother a funeral when he didn’t know whether the body in front of the ruins of their house was hers?
Easy, his uncle said. Kato’s mother wore a set of expensive gold dentures, right? Kato would recognize them, right? Well then, the solution was to go back to the house, open the charred corpse’s mouth and look inside. If the dentures were there, then he could give his mother a proper funeral. If not, he could leave the body for someone else to claim.
“I went back the next day,” Kato says, pausing briefly to pantomime the dreaded prying action. “But the corpse had natural teeth. It wasn’t my mother.”
Kato and his relatives spent the next few days searching aid stations, piles of corpses on the city’s riverbanks and the records of the numerous Army-run field crematories that had sprung up around the area. Then, on Aug. 12, six days after the bombing, they received word from an aid station on the outskirts of the city.
Kato’s mother was alive.
She had been gravely injured but had miraculously crawled out from under the wreckage of the house and made it to safety. A few weeks later, acute radiation poisoning set in and Kato almost lost her again, but he nursed her back to health over the long, hard winter of 1945-46 after doctors had given up any hope of saving her. His mother ended up living to 90, just shy of seeing the turn of the millennium.
After another hour or so, our interview ends on what is, for me, a rare upbeat note. But I still feel like I’ve just experienced the emotional equivalent of being hit by a truck. I am exhausted, and I let my host know that it’s time for me to go. I take my leave of Kato and head home with a new set of someone’s bomb memories, another story for the book I’ve been researching and writing for three years, and a freshly topped-off tank of the high-octane nightmare fuel that both torments me and keeps me doing what I do.
So, to answer the question: That is what it’s like to talk to an atomic bomb survivor.
On a good day.