What follows are expanded excerpts from my journal entry on my visit to Hiroshima.
…Finally in, we started getting glimpses of the Hiroshima Dome: the remains of the building that was under the hypocenter of the first atomic bomb dropped in wartime. We parked, and then walked a moderate distance in cloudy, drizzly weather until we arrived at the International Peace Museum. Tickets were purchased and we picked up audio guides in English. Up several flights of stairs and across a long enclosed skybridge, the tour began.
It will be difficult to describe what I saw and how I felt. The first rooms showed photographs of the mushroom cloud taken from distances of one to five kilometers from the hypocenter. We saw remnant items including pieces of clothing, a lunch box, a pocket watch (hands frozen at the moment of the detonation), a helmet, etc., from people who experienced the blast, some who died instantly, some who survived the initial blast but died soon after.
There was a 1:1000 scale model of Hiroshima showing the location of the hypocenter suspended hovering above a city laid waste by the initial blast and the subsequent firestorm and winds. It is estimated that 69% of Hiroshima’s buildings were destroyed, and more than 90% of doctors and nurses in Hiroshima killed or injured.
Although the bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” contained 64 kg (141 lbs.) of uranium-235, it was a judged to be a very inefficient detonation. Only 1.7% of its material underwent nuclear fission. I cannot imagine multiplying the magnitude of the horrors of Hiroshima, had the weapon been “efficient” (as I can only imagine modern weapons to be).
It was difficult to read the poems and quotes of people who experienced the blast, but much worse were the quotes of parents whose children were lost, or who survived only to suffer terribly and die soon after. The anguish and pain expressed in the words of parents who had sent their children off to school, packed a special lunch, etc., never to see their children again, was nearly unbearable. But I could not turn away. I could not ignore and brush past this ghastly testament to the extremes of human-wrought destruction.
There were roof tiles pocked and rough from the intense heat of the A-bomb side by side with smooth tile that had been shielded from the heat. There was a reconstructed stone entryway that showed the ghostly shadow of someone who had been sitting there at the moment of the explosion. No remains were found because that person was probably incinerated instantly.
There was a replica of the bomb and description of how it worked, the unfathomable temperatures achieved, and the intense winds generated first outwardly, then inwardly. All the narration on the portable audio guide was dictated by a native-English speaker spoken in neutral, unmodulated tones, which gave it a frank, unsensational tone … and only gave all the more impact to the horrific facts and figures as well as the heart-rending accounts.
There was a section devoted to the effects of radiation on the human body as well. It showed how various parts of the body are affected by exposure to nuclear radiation initially, as well the long-term impacts.
At the end of the tour were pictures of world leaders visiting Hiroshima and proclamations and resolutions to support the end of nuclear weapons. When was the last time a U.S. president visited Hiroshima? No sitting U.S. president has ever visited either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Carter visited after leaving office, but I believe he was the last.
[Update: John Kerry became the first US Secretary of State to visit in April, 2016, and President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit the following month in May, 2016]
I was pretty devastated by the museum and didn’t want to talk. Inside the museum, despite a fairly steady crowd of people passing though, there was no noise, and no speaking save for the recorded voices narrating the exhibited items and newsreel clips. Faces, multi-lingual brochures, and the occasional dialog in a foreign tongue overheard whispering from a portable audio guide nearby indicated the broad spectrum of international visitors to this museum. Some cheeks were wet with tears, and handkerchiefs and facial tissues were held in sometimes clenched fists.
We went outside and walked the grounds of the park between the museum and the Dome. We walked along the Ōta River, peaceful and smooth, and I could not but help imagine the hundreds who jumped in the river for relief, only to drown, adding their bodies to those that already filled the river. We walked to a children’s peace memorial where thousand-crane offerings from around the country and the world hung. Some were arranged into elaborate mosaics, to render their prayers for world peace and the complete banning of nuclear weapons.
I have seen pictures and movies about the bombing of Hiroshima and have read the novel Hiroshima. Some of the items I viewed in the museum I had seen before in books and movies. But to actually be there, to be within inches of items crushed, burned, and irradiated by the atomic bomb carries a palpable, visceral wallop. A voice in my head wondered if any of the displayed items still were “hot” with radiation, until I saw a sign indicating that all the displayed items were safe. Then I kicked myself internally for having such a petty worry in comparison to the people who experienced it, those who died, those who survived, and those who live here today. It is not an easy visit to make, but it is a pilgrimage all of us as humans should make so long as nuclear weapons exist.