Memoir of Flames
This is a personal account of my mother, Nobuko Yamamoto, who wrote this in English two years after the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.
Nobuko was born in 1906 as a 2nd-generation Japanese immigrant in Honolulu, Hawaii in the US. She had US citizenship and received her education in English by attending a local school. When she was 13 years old, she returned to Japan and lived in Hiroshima and studied hard to become an English teacher. Then she met Nobuo Yamamoto who also aimed to be an English teacher, and they got married. Nobuo worked at Hiroshima Second Junior High School (Hiroshima Nichu), and Nobuko taught at Hiroshima City Women’s School (Shijo). Both were English teachers. They had two daughters: Yoko, my elder sister and Eiko, me.
On August 6th, 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Nobuo, who was engaged in the pulling down of the buildings along with 321 students in his school near the epicenter of the explosion, was burned over his entire body and died on that day. Yoko was at the school grounds of Kannon Primary School when the explosion occurred, and died two days after on the morning of August 8th at the first-aid center in a suburban area.
Why did Nobuko write this story just 2 years after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, when her heart was still heavy with pain? That’s because she had a strong desire to convey the cruelties of the atomic bomb to the people across the world. Her story was sent to TIME magazine in the US, but it was confiscated under GHQ’s censorship, dashing her hopes of having her story reach the rest of the world.
Nobuko died of thyroid cancer when she was 70 years old. I found this note among her belongings, and with a desire to fulfill her wishes, I made leaflets in English, Esperanto and Japanese. The leaflets were delivered in United Nations Special Session on Disarmament, etc. in 1982, so Nobuko’s wishes were partly fulfilled.
72 years have passed since the atomic bombing. Once again, on this opportunity I would like to convey Nobuko’s wish to you. Thank you for reading my mother’s story.
People seem to have forgotten it. Even I, who suffered greatly, may appear to have dismissed that day from my memory. I wish I could.
Every morning I lie in bed and wish that we, my daughter and I, were dead. If it had not been for her, I would have long ago killed myself to relieve the ache and pain in my heart.
But sometimes I think that I must have been spared to tell the people in the world of the horrors of the Bomb. I hope my efforts will spark some notice of the sufferings of one human being.
I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, as an American citizen. It is ironic that I was born near where hostilities broke out, and barely escaped with my life at the place where the war ended.
I came back to Japan at the age of 13, and began my second life in Hiroshima as a sad and lonesome child with no one to play with, no one to love. I yearned to return to Honolulu to meet my classmates, and to see again the places where I had spent such pleasurable time, especially, my school.
In Hiroshima I had nothing; nothing to read, and no one to talk to. I had to speak Japanese or was teased and ostracized by my classmates. Further my inadequate Japanese made people laugh, which hurt me terribly.
A quarter of a century had passed slowly since I left Hawaii, though my memories of Hawaii lingered. Then the war broke out and everyone around was exulting over the early Japanese victories, but I could never share their feelings against the country of my birth. By then, I had two lovely daughters and a beloved husband. We were all bound up in love, and were staying together in Hiroshima, waiting for the day of destruction!
Why was it destined to be that America, whom I loved, should kill my husband and daughter? Why wasn’t I also killed by the same bomb? Life until the day was pleasant. But why this terrible ending?
Hatred arose within me. Hatred for the atomic bomb which caused my eight-year-old daughter to suffer horribly for two or three days before she mercifully passed away.
The morning of the 6th of August, 1945, broke clear and bright. I woke up at about half past five, made breakfast, and called my husband and daughters to come down. My husband came down saying how tired he was, as he had been up several times the night before because of air-raid alarms.
We four had our breakfast, but little did we know that it was to be our last breakfast together. We ate rice cakes given to us that morning by the man who lived next door.
One was left after we all had one. I said we had better put it away for tea, and Yoko, my elder daughter, said to me,
“I’d better have it now, Mommy. There may be an air-raid and we won't be able to eat it.”
She divided it with her sister, Eiko. The air-raid alarm had stopped, and I said,
“Oh, here's a little girl who isn't glad the alarm stopped!”
Yoko did not say anything, but had a worried look on her face, for she knew that she had to go to school.
Several days before, my husband had admonished me for being too lenient with her, saying I let her stay at home when she should be in school.
“I never missed a day in all my six years of primary school, but you are saying, ‘Don't go, Yoko’ for a mere trifle.”
I did not answer. I thought, “It’s wartime now. It’s different from when you went to school.” But, I remained silent. How I wish now that I had argued against him!
After breakfast, the two girls went to bathe and play in the water. It was the middle of summer, and one of their greatest pleasures was to play in the water.
My husband got ready to go to the center of the city, where the girls and boys of all the high schools in Hiroshima were to be gathered to help with community projects. He called to Yoko in the bathroom.
“Yoko, the air-raid alarm is over. Go to school.”
Those were his last words. If he had not cared for his students, if he had not been an honest，law-abiding and diligent man, if he had been only a little lazier and more selfish, he might be living now as a proficient teacher of English with promises of a happy future in this peaceful land!
I cleared the breakfast table and started roasting soybeans over a charcoal stove, I sat down there and began to read a book which my husband had been reading the day before; an account of a noted Japanese woman's stay in London.
I had not read much before Yoko asked from the bathroom,
“Mommy, what time is it now?”
I raised my eyes and saw her face smiling and looking at me from in the bathtub. She was a pretty girl. My husband had large eyes, a high well-formed nose, a small mouth and a fair complexion, and was thought by everyone to be very handsome. Yoko favored him.
“It's eight o'clock now,” I answered.
“Oh, it's still very early for school, Mommy,” she said.
Coming out of the bath, she went into the dining room, and put on the dress I had made for her a few days before. Putting on her hat, she came into the kitchen where I was, and picking up a postcard from the shelf, said to me,
“I'm going, Mommy, I'll mail this card for you.”
Those were the last words she said. I can never forget these words. She had tried to help me in her last moments!
Several minutes passed. It was very quiet, and nothing could be heard but the sound of the beans I roasted over the fire. Eiko still remained playing in the bathroom, when I heard the low, dull sound of the B29 passing right over my head.
“Mommy!” Eiko cried, “The enemy plane is coming!”
“Run out and put on your dress!”
Just when I cried out, the sky suddenly grew dark as night, there was a bright flash, like lightning, brighter than the summer morning sunshine, and a sound like lightning striking the ground. I unconsciously put my hands over my face and fell prostrate on the floor mat. The ceiling came tumbling down over my head. For a minute I lay there.
“Eiko，Where are you?”
I cried out as soon as I got up. Though blood was trickling down over my right eye, I did not feel any pain.
Eiko was in the next room, naked, covered with dust, enclosed in a nest of broken timbers. I pulled her out and looked around us in horror. A chest of drawers was overturned and a big log nearly a foot in diameter was lying within a yard of Eiko. It was a miracle that Eiko was not hurt. She had only a few scratches on her back, but was so frightened that she held me tightly.
Holding her, I went out of our house and looked around. “How far I can see!” I thought first. The roof of the house next door lay at my feet. Everywhere were tiles of houses. I heard later that in the house just across the road, a family of four taking their breakfast were crushed beneath the roof and perished in the fire. Though some of the more strongly built houses were still standing, I remember seeing the tiles more than anything else.
From among the ruins, a young woman came staggering toward us like a ghost. Her face was white as a sheet, and her arms were outstretched in the air. A woman with only her petticoat on came out of a broken house. She, seeing me, screamed and cried,
“Madam, I was putting on my dress when it fell!”
That was the only scream I heard that morning, Even Eiko, a child of six, did not say a word although she hugged me tightly. Then I saw the woman’s husband coming out. He was naked except for his shorts and came out slowly looking blankly into the air. His body was covered from head to foot with blood.
“Where is the first-aid station?” A man holding his head by his hands as if to keep it from bursting asked me.
“Somewhere in South Kannon, I was told,” I answered. I was thinking of my other daughter, of how to find her, but did not know what to do.
Then I saw the head of our community carrying a wounded man on his shoulders. Although an old man of seventy, he took the lead in all the activities of our town. I said to him dazedly,
“My Yoko has gone to school in Kannon-machi. I must go and save her.”
“Oh, it's all right at that part of the town.”
Hearing this answer I ran into the house to get something to put on Eiko, and fortunately found a bag which we used to put our important papers in. The fire had already started. The house next door to us began to burn fiercely. But there was no one to extinguish it. Everyone was intent on running away.
In the street a man was lying down dead. Many men, women and children were walking about. Most of them were terribly hurt. They made an awful sight, especially the women, whose hair tumbled down over their shoulders, with blood streaming over them. All walked toward the same direction, southwards to the suburbs, almost silently as if in a trance.
I tried to go to Yoko's school. To get there we had to go through the burning houses, but Eiko cried that she was afraid, and pulled me back. I did not know what to do and just stood there...
But now I wonder why I didn't let her stay in a safe place, or give her to one of our neighbors, and go to rescue Yoko. Why didn't I go through the flames to the school? I could have found a way to go through the fire. Yoko might have been waiting for me. Was it only Eiko that stopped me, or was I afraid of the fire?
Then a girl whom I had taught in school ran to me and said crying,
“My grandmother was pinned down by the timbers in the house, but I could not get her out. I went to find my little sister at school, and nobody was there. They must have fled.”
Not knowing what to do, I walked back to my house. It was burning and I could not approach it. I stayed for a while, and then gave up, took Eiko by the hand, and ran to the suburbs.
Soon it began to rain, though not heavily. We saw the city now all in flames. The sound of the houses collapsing was like thunder and the whole sky was black with smoke. People were looking at the scene in silence.
The river between the city and the suburbs was shallow, being low tide. I carried Eiko across and went to Takasu, a suburb of Hiroshima. One of our friends lived there. Eiko and I stopped there to wait for my daughter and husband because we had planned that if we were separated, we would meet at that house. But as they did not come, I started back toward the city.
At the bridge, there were crowds of people walking about. Among them were a number of young boys. Their heads were swollen to about twice their ordinary size, their eyes small, eyelids thick, and their lips swollen and thick. Their clothes were torn, their faces black as if covered with soot. The skin of some of them had peeled off as from boiled potatoes.
Considering their ages, they should be the students that met the holocaust while working in the center of the city. They might have been the boys my husband had taught. They had run away from the city, but the following day they all died, some on the road, some in the schools and town halls, some of the more fortunate, in their homes.
Crossing the bridge, I went into Hiroshima. Many more people were there. Many burned red lying in the street, some pulling carts on which the wounded were lying. All of them had their clothes shredded off. In a small stone-house, a man was lying down on his back, writhing and pumping his arms and feet up and down, crying, “It burns, it burns!”
I cannot forget his voice. On the same night, my Yoko might have been crying, “Mommy, it burns!”
I eventually came back to where we had lived. Nothing remained. I next went to Yoko’s school, but there was nothing but the remains of burning timbers. It was becoming dark, and being afraid, I started to return.
On the main road, a man came pulling a little cart. On it, there seemed to be someone. There was a man lying on the road. He called to him crying, “Take me with you, oh, please take me with you!”
The man with the cart stopped, but he said in a low voice, “I’m sorry, but I cannot take you,” and hurried on his way.
I went back to Takasu and slept worrying and wondering what had become of Yoko.
The next morning as I heard that the pupils of Kannon Primary School were gathered in South Kannon, I started to go there. But on the way I heard again that they were in Itsukaichi or Hatsukaichi, so I turned back toward those towns.
When I arrived at the town of Arate, I looked into all the rooms of the primary school. What a horrible sight it was! The rooms were filled with men, women and children. Most of them were dead, some burned black, some red, some lying on their backs, some prostrate, some with their arms and legs up in the air, crammed up to the wall. The floor was strewn with blood.
I looked into the faces of small children most fearfully, thinking each might be my daughter. Near the entrance door, a man in a doctor’s gown and a nurse were carrying out dead bodies in silence. They both looked very angry and frustrated.
I came to the town of Kusatsu, but since I was hurrying to Itsukaichi or Hatsukaichi, I passed the town. Oh, why did I omit this town! My daughter was there, as I found out later!
At Itsukaichi Town Hall there was another big crowd gathered. I walked among them, calling, “Yoko, Yoko!” but she was not there.
There, I met one of my former students. Her face was so swollen that I did not recognize her, but she spoke to me, and said,
“Teacher, my arms are beginning to fester. Will they ever get well?”
I said something to cheer her up, but until I found Yoko, I could not do anything for her. I went to all the places where people were gathered, but could not find my daughter.
At last I came to Jigozen, still looking for her. As we had told her to go to Jigozen if there was an air-raid, I thought that Yoko, being a smart girl, might be there. I met some of the pupils of Kannon School. They were sitting on the stairs, calling to anyone who passed.
“When will father and mother come to take me home?”
I asked them if they knew Yoko Yamamoto. Nobody answered. It was some hours past noon then, and I walked back not knowing what to do. On my way back, I went into the town of Kusatsu, this being the only town I did not look into that morning.
I went into the primary school and looked into all the rooms. Not finding her, I went into the teachers’ staff room, where the names of the refugees were registered. There I found the name Yoko Yamamoto written plainly on a sheet of paper!
My heart racing, I asked the man in the room if she was there. He said,
“The names on this sheet were written yesterday when they came from the city. But when we called the roll this morning, they were not here. They may be already dead and carried away, or they may have left. Many who were not seriously wounded left. Look for her again.”
I rushed to the rooms again to look. Many people badly hurt and burned were calling for water, but I could not bring water to them, not until I could find my daughter.
After the search in vain, thinking she might have gone to that house in Takasu. I hurried home, but I could not find Yoko there. I again spent another miserable night, waiting for dawn.
The next morning, the eighth of August, I started out again for Kusatsu. I had not had any word about my husband and did not know whether he was dead or alive. My mind was so filled with Yoko that I could not think about him. He, being a grown-up man, could take care of himself. None of us knew even then that Hiroshima had been completely destroyed in a moment, and I still had hopes of his coming back.
At Kusatsu Primary School, I searched again, but in vain. I heard there that a little girl of eight had died that morning, and still, I did not think that it might be her. It is strange that we always hope for the best even when we have lost all hope. Perhaps the girl was Yoko, but then I thought that it probably was not.
I was about to give up, but I thought I might have one last look at the small house where the dead were collected. It was at a corner of the school ground and all around the house there were mats strewn with bodies laid out on them. I went through them, turning over the bodies, looking into faces.
I went into the house. And there, between the bodies of two big men, lay Yoko!
She was bound up in a straw mat lying on her side as if asleep. She was wearing a dress made of kimono material with a design of green and purple flowers. I myself had made it for her. It was unmistakably my Yoko!
Her eyes were closed, her lips a little swollen, but she was the same Yoko that I loved so, and who loved me. She used to say,
“Mommy, I love you better than anyone in the whole world. Even if you scold me, I love you.”
Her whole body was white, not black as others, but her cheeks which used to be so pretty, were burned, as were her arms and legs. Her stomach was flat as if she had not eaten for some days.
I do not know why I did not go crazy at the sight. I cried aloud. I walked up and down, and asked someone to take her home for me.
No one took any notice of me. There were so many dead that the death of one little child mattered little. They told me to calm down, because I was not the only woman who had lost her child, and to wait until they could have her body cremated. Considering that I had no house to take her, I thought it better to wait and to have her cremated there.
A woman told me that her child had died that morning, and that there was another little girl who was crying, “Water, water,” to her dying moment.
It must have been Yoko. She must have suffered for two whole days crying for her father and mother, crying for water and food. I am sure that no one took care of her, or even gave her a cup of water. Everybody was too busy searching for their own people to stop to listen to others. I, too, must confess that I did not help others because I had to find my daughter.
I went into the school. When I passed by the rooms full of the wounded, someone called me from one of the rooms.
“Please, give me some water.”
I saw a young girl lying down, with half her body burned. I got a bucket, went out to one of the houses in front of the school, and asked a young woman for water. She told me that they were given orders not to give water to the wounded, because if they drink water, they would die very soon.
I then went to a house at the back of the school. There a woman graciously told me to help myself from the well.
Filling my bucket, I went back and started pouring water into the lips of the young girl.
“Oh, thank you! It’s so nice.”
She said over and over again and drank all I gave her. Then all the people in the room began asking for water. I poured water into all their mouths, and soon the bucket was empty. I went out again and refilled it.
While I was repeating this, I thought of my husband. He too might be lying down somewhere, calling for water. I had to go to him, even if only to give him a cup of water. After all the people had had enough water, I went to Yoko to say good-bye.
I cried again and told her that I would soon follow her, as it was all my fault that she was killed miserably like that! If I had told her to stay at home that morning, when she had wanted so much to do so, she would not have died! If I had gone to save her soon, even if she had died, she would have had me by her side.
I went back to Takasu, and with Eiko, went to the school where my husband had taught. Everything had been burned, and a temporary office was set up to accept the relatives of the students and teachers. There I learned that my husband was killed along with 300 of his students near the center of the city. His fountain pen, notebook, several letters, and the lock of his bicycle were found at the spot.
“You can perhaps find his ashes there. The army burned all the bodies, and bigger ones may be his…”
I had no desire to go and search for his ashes. If he was still there, dead or alive, I would have gone at once.
The atomic bomb had fallen over the center of Hiroshima. There the disaster was worst. Everywhere was filled with dead bodies, and people had to walk over them. On the stone steps to the river, many bodies of little boys and girls from twelve to fourteen were piled up one on top of the other. All of them were burned from head to foot and looked like timbers.
They were the students of the high schools in Hiroshima and had been ordered by the prefectural government to help pull down houses to minimize the spread of fire.
It was a hot August day, and under ordinary circumstances these children would have been enjoying their summer holidays in the river or at the beach. But as it was, they were compelled to go to work. Their teachers also had to follow the commands of the government.
A woman, who lost her 13-year-old daughter, told me with tears streaming from her eyes, “That morning my daughter was very tired and did not want to go to the school. I told her that it was her duty to go, that it was not right to stay home, while all her other classmates went to work. I cannot forget her figure as she went slowly and reluctantly away. Oh, why did I send her there, when she had wished so much to stay at home!”
I heard many such similar regrets from mothers and fathers of students. It was a thought prevalent then that it was wicked to play while the country was at war. We adults were so cruel as not to know that children were physically weaker than we, and the children were so innocent that they obeyed their parents and teachers without complaint!
The next day I went with Eiko to Miyajima. I had made up my mind to drown myself and Eiko there. I bought everything Eiko wanted, and went into the sea. Because it was low tide, we had to go out very far to sink beneath the water. I tried to push her head into the water, but could not. She looked so happy and pleased to play in the water. She did not feel the loss of her father and sister. As long as I was with her, she did not seem to feel lonesome.
She, the little angel, was splashing and running in the water as if nothing had happened. I felt she had as much right to live as any other child. I could not tear myself away from her; yet I could not take her with me to death.
Ever since, I have lived between the dead and living, wishing to go to my husband and Yoko. And yet, looking at Eiko’s innocent face, I did not have the heart to kill her, or to leave her alone at the mercy of this cruel, cold world. And yet when I think of Yoko’s death, I could not but feel guilty.
What must the Almighty have been thinking of to have allowed such hell to be inflicted? I firmly believe now that heaven and hell exist only here and now. I have seen Hell at its worst. Had Dante been alive and walked through the path of destruction of the Bomb, he would have written about a more miserable Hell than that depicted in the “Divine Comedy”.
And I have known, too, what heaven is like. Heaven is not materialistic riches. To me, and I’m sure to most women, it is the feeling of peace and well-being that results from a happy family life; the mutual love between husband, wife and children.
Only the memory of those happy moments sustains me through these dark days. I also believe that families in the United States share these feelings and emotions.
I can’t help but think of the mothers and wives in America who also sacrificed husbands and sons and perhaps can to some extent rationalize the use of the Bomb. But, oh, if they could only have seen the savagery and cruelty of the nuclear weapon! If only they could have understood the trauma and the lasting misery the atomic bomb left behind, nobody would think to use atomic bombs again in this world!
Will this senseless butchery of war never end?
Nobuko Yamamoto died in Hiroshima in 1978 at the age of 70.
As stated in the prologue, the innocent victims of war are many. The specifics of the suffering inflicted on individuals are lost in impersonal statistical accounts. Hopefully, readers of her legacy of war will be able, not only to feel empathy for her human reactions to her experiences but also to ask why such horrors as the atomic bomb should continue to appear in history books.
Hopefully, with the continued efforts of many, the day or true peace will be reached.