Reviewed by Thomas Jackson
Why I Survived the A-Bomb is a moving memoir of Akira Kohchi's boyhood in war-time Hiroshima, and of the city's devastation on August 6, 1945. The heart of the book is Mr. Kohchi's keen-eyed account of his astonishing traverse of the entire city immediately after the bombing. It is a tale of suffering and bafflement that is all the more haunting for the flat, almost child-like language in which he describes a 16-year-old's encounter with the most destructive power ever unleashed by man.
The book is further useful in presenting an apologia for the course which led Japan from the Manchurian Incident of 1931 to war with China.in 1937, then to the development of an East Asian empire (euphemistically styled the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” and war against the English, French, Dutch, and American empires in the Pacific. Despite its partisanship, Kohchi's survey serves to introduce an historical perspective, and many forgotten facts, that few Americans will have encountered elsewhere.
Less impressive are Kohchi's attempts to understand what he calls the how and why of the bombing. He supplies a potted history of the Manhattan project, and arguably exaggerates (though not by much) the malice aforethought in the operation itself (Kohchi claims that instruments dropped by parachute just before the bombing were intended to draw the attention of Hiroshimans on the ground, blinding them by the thousands when the blast followed seconds later). Fortunately, these sometimes tendentious summaries make up less than a fifth of the book, and do not detract from the power of Kohchi's first hand accounts.
The author's boyhood in the 1930s is an ironic commentary on the world of a half-century later. His well-appointed home was filled with American appliances: Emerson radio, Kodak camera, General Electric record player, Westinghouse fan and iron. His father, the grandson of a samurai, worked as an auto mechanic, but virtually every vehicle that came into the shop was American. Kohchi's childhood friends would gather to admire the plush seats, chrome radiators, and luxurious paint jobs of Packards, Nashs and Fords.
Japan's arms industry, however, was first rate, and the young Kohchi hardly knew a time when Japanese troops were not engaged in some far corner of the empire. When, as a sixth-grader, he learned that Japan was suddenly at war with Britain, the Netherlands, Australia and the United States, it seemed hardly different from war with China. His school principal understood the difference, and in a harangue to the assembled students, proudly proclaimed that this was real war, that Japan was the first Asian nation to threaten the white man with his own weapons.
It was, indeed, real war, and it brought great hardship. Rationing, which had already started in 1940 because of the American embargo, got worse. Stores closed because they had nothing to sell. Children scavenged for tin cans, bottles, old tires, newspapers and rusty nails. Women donated their jewelry to the war effort, and gasoline was so precious that even military officers rode bicycles.
Although the government encouraged hatred for all things American, old habits lingered. Shirley Temple movies had been enormously popular, and many young women still curled their hair. The radio started denouncing this “American” look, and children learned to jeer at waved hair, calling it “birds' nests.” Women soon shook out their curls.
After the Battle of Midway, just six months into the war, schools dropped English from the curriculum, and replaced it with military training. Kohchi and his puny classmates could barely lift the antique, oversized rifles they trained with, and he sometimes collapsed from heat exhaustion. Before the year was out, the school day was often cut short so that students could help with the harvest. By early 1944, all pretense of schooling ended, and Kohchi's class went to work in a munitions factory that had been emptied by the draft.
Late that year, American B-29s began regular bombing raids. Although Hiroshima was Japan's seventh largest city, it had little military value and was not fire-bombed, but the nearby naval base at Kure was attacked several times. Kohchi writes of watching in mortified silence as American bombers poured destruction upon his homeland, and of wishing for some kind of supernatural power so that he could stop them.
The people of Hiroshima prepared for air raids by sewing cloth dog-tags into their coats, and made thick cloth helmets. They cut fire breaks through the town, and Kohchi's house was torn down by a work crew of school children. The fire breaks would mean nothing when a single bomb fell less than a month later.
On the morning of August 6, Kohchi was 15 miles outside the city, riding a trolley to the munitions factory. The bomb blast blew the trolley off its tracks and stunned the passengers but they were unhurt. No one knew what had happened. A huge, multi-colored cloud was rising over Hiroshima, and some thought that a volcano had erupted. Others thought there had been an earthquake. Kohchi spent the rest of the day in baffled ignorance.
Rather than go to work, Kohchi decided to go back to town to look for his father. Since the trolleys weren't running, he started on foot, guided by the towering mushroom cloud that hung over the city. At first he walked though countryside that was untouched by the blast, but before long he came across evidence of destruction. Streams of people were staggering out of the city with horrible burns all over their bodies. People dropped in agony by the roadside. He tried to help a woman to her feet, but the skin from her shoulder came off in his hand in great sheets. People who had been looking up at the silvery bomber were blinded by the flash; their eyes were milky white. Others had been burned nearly naked, and blood oozed through their blackened skin. As he drew closer to the city, the road was caked with blood.
In his ignorance of the extent of the destruction, Kohchi could not understand why buildings were left to burn out of control. He marveled at the incompetence of fire fighters who were clearly not doing their jobs. Through fire, rubble, and charred corpses, he made his way to the civil defense headquarters in the hope of learning what had happened. It was only as he stood before the deserted, flaming hulk of the building that he understood that not only was there no rescue effort but there was no one to rescue. He was practically alone in the ravaged city.
He went on to look for his father, but all the landmarks in his neighborhood had disappeared. He finally realized that even if he were standing in the ruins of his own house it would be impossible to find his father in the rubble. He walked north of the city, and slept under the stars in a vegetable field. It was only the next morning — 24 hours after the bombing — that he first saw other normal, unhurt people, and learned that Americans had wrought the destruction.
Kohchi does not explain how a 16-year-old boy endured the sight of the horrors he saw that day, nor what drove him to enter the blazing city. He had a fierce, Japanese devotion to his elders, and his father had often told him of the duties of a samurai, but everyone else was fleeing the inferno. Kohchi entered the city alone; he even swam a river rather than cross a bridge, for fear that a sentry might turn him back. He covered nearly 20 miles that day, including at least three miles through the trackless hell that had been Hiroshima. His trek must surely be one of the most extraordinary efforts of that extraordinary day.
Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and six days later Japan surrendered. The surrender caught Hiroshima by surprise; even as thousands of apparently unhurt men and women were dying of radiation poisoning, what was left of the city was comically girding itself to fight off an American invasion.
Peace brought no immediate relief. There were virtually no doctors, medicines, or food, and the wounded continued to die. On September 17, a typhoon smashed the frail shelters the townspeople had thrown up. American occupation forces eventually arrived and brought supplies.
The atomic bombing, as the final agony of a war fought to exhaustion, has had a lasting effect on Japan. Japan is certainly the least militarist of all industrial nations, and revulsion at the prospect of war has been seared into the national character. As personal griefs fade into the past, a hatred of war and the tools of war is the most durable legacy of Hiroshima. At the same time, Japan's treatment of the survivors of the bombing — the hibakusha - has been ambiguous. There is a streak of Buddhist fatalism that justifies travails in this life as punishment for sins in previous lives. Japan has long tried to push the hibakusha into marginal lives and to forget about them. It is only recently, and especially outside of Japan, that hibakusha are trotted out at “peace” rallies, where they are fawned over for their sufferings.
An American professor of Japanese literature once observed that the atomic bombings are for Japanese what the “Holocaust” is for Jews: it is the thing they are proudest of. This is, however, only half true, for the Japanese are also painfully ashamed of the bombings. Although it has become fashionable among daring Japanese to explain their nation's decision to go to war as a pis-aller to which they were forced by American intransigence, few can bring themselves to see the bombings as anything but the terrible fruit whose seed was sown at Pearl Harbor.
Even so, when Japanese are feeling sorry for themselves, they like to describe the atomic bombing of civilians as a cruelty that America reserved only for Asians. This is Kohchi's view, though even if America had them in time, there is little reason to doubt that it would have used atomic weapons against Germans. James Bacque's recent revelations about General Eisenhower's deliberate starving of German POWs suggests that racial ties would have been no obstacle.
Whatever the morality of exterminating 130,000 civilians with a single bomb, it remains a unique and sobering event. Akira Kohchi's first-hand account brings it to life in all its horror.
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 81-85.