Hiroshima, 1945

6 Aug

It’s my birthday. I’m thirty one years old, and although I’m still not sure whether I feel like a grownup or not, I’m now far enough in to this new decade to be able to say with confidence that I’m in my thirties.

It’s also the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, a fact that gives this day a complicated patina of heartache, remembrance and a funny thankfulness that, in spite if everything, this dear old planet and I have managed to complete yet another whirl around the sun. I’ve always felt a little haunted by the hundreds of thousands of people who died thirty seven years and half a world away from my birth. I’ve always felt a sort of funny debt to them, as if I owe something to them, though I’m not quite sure what. You would think that as the Hiroshima dead fade further and further into the past that their weight would begin to feel lighter, less real, but instead, the reverse is true – the more distant this event becomes, the more the bombing of Hiroshima colours and shapes this day for me.

Where do you even begin to try to figure out what happened in Hiroshima? You could start by bring the camera in as close as possible, fiddling with the settings and watch as shapes dissolve into other, smaller shapes, the image adjusting and readjusting until finally the atoms themselves are in focus.

The physics of nuclear fission sound more like poetry than science – a single neutron is fired at an atom, in this case an atom of uranium-235, and splits the nucleus apart. Out of each split nucleus will fly several more neutrons, which will smash into other atoms, which will, in turn, split and release their own neutrons. The fracturing of each and every atom releases another tiny bit of heat and radiation; when a chain reaction like this occurs in the millions of atoms that make up a pound of uranium-235, the resulting explosion is enough to lay waste to entire cities.

All of this can be much more simply and elegantly expressed in one neat equation:


Now pull the camera back, watch the atoms coalesce into more recognizable shapes, objects and buildings and people, until your view is that of the Japanese sky a few hours after sunrise.

At 8:15 am on August 6th, 1945, the Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima, releasing Little Boy, a gun-type fission bomb. Little Boy missed its intended target of the Aioi Bridge, and instead detonated directly over the Shima Hospital. The hospital was destroyed, the staff and patients reduced to a pile of bleached bones by the heat of the blast. The centre of the city was destroyed, an estimated five square miles turned to scorched rubble. 80,000 people died that day, and another 80,000 more died over the course of the next few months either from the effect of burns, radiation sickness or other injuries.


One hundred and sixty thousand people.

Because of one bomb.

I’m not sure how old I was when my parents told me that the anniversary of my birth is also the anniversary of this annihilating atomic flash that was responsible for so many deaths; it feels like something that’s always been a part of my personal mythology. I remember poring over the entry for Hiroshima in our battered green family encyclopedia, nauseated by the descriptions of peeling flesh and charred bones but somehow unable to stop reading. I checked books out of the library about atomic bombs, books from the adult section with mostly incomprehensible text and lurid, technicolor photographs of fiery mushroom clouds. Someone gave me a book when I was seven or eight called Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, about a little girl whose blood cells, irradiated and mutated by the bomb, developed a form of leukemia.  Remembering an old Japanese legend that said that the gods would grant any wish to a person who managed to fold a thousand cranes, Sadako began frantically making cranes out of every scrap of paper she could find. She died in October of 1955, after folding only 644 cranes.

After that, I learned how to make paper cranes.

It seemed like the right thing to do.

Because I felt like I had to do something; I felt like I had some kind of responsibility to the history of this day that gave me my first breath, my first sunrise, my first wailing cry. I still feel that way. And though I’ve all but given up on origami, I try to find other ways to honour the dead.

So I spend an hour or so every birthday looking at pictures from Hiroshima – the survivors with their twisted limbs and thick, ropy scars, the cityscape smashed flat and littered with debris, the shadows burned into walls and sidewalks, marking the places where people stood looking up at the sky during their last moments on earth.

I look at these pictures and take the time to consider that these are the things that we do to each other. These are, in fact, the cold, calculated atrocities that humans perpetrate against other humans. These people are the people who died because of us, because of the endless machinations of our stupidly cunning species. The wards full of children lying helpless as the atomic leukemia slowly, agonizingly leaches the life from their bodies? That was us. The old man bloated and swollen from radiation sickness, the raw skin peeling off his face and hands? That was us. The people vaporized in an instant who left nothing behind, not one single thing to be treasured by those who loved them? Still us. The groaning, bleeding, charred mass of people who lingered on for months and months, each day a living hell? Us.

As if being alive isn’t difficult enough, as if there aren’t enough tricks and traps ready to ensnare our brittle bodies, we have to go and do these things to each other.

I want to remember how easy it is for us to live side by side with these atrocities. I want to recognize that when I go to sleep in my clean, comfortable bed in my safe, comfortable city, somewhere out there are people whose lives are little more than grinding daily pain. I want to know the names of all the Iraqis who have died, all the children in Afghanistan who have become collateral damage in this war, all of the people everywhere out their whose agony is directly attributable to other humans. I need to know and remember these things, because the not knowing and not remembering are so much more dangerous.

I’ll leave you with a poem written by Sadako Kurihara, a survivor of the Hiroshima blast. I’ll leave with the thought, the question, really, of how each of us can be midwives in our own lives. I’ll leave you to, hopefully, take a few moments of your own to remember.


Night in the basement of a concrete structure now in ruins.

Victims of the atomic bomb jammed the room;

it was dark – not even a single candle.

The smell of fresh blood, the stench of death,

the closeness of sweaty people, the moans.

From out of all that, lo and behold, a voice:

“The baby’s coming!”

In that hellish basement,

at that very moment, a young woman had gone into labor.

In the dark, without a single match, what to do?

People forgot their own pains, worried about her.

And then: “I’m a midwife. I’ll help with the birth.”

The speaker, seriouly injured herself, had been moaning only moments before.

And so new life was born in the dark of that pit of hell.

And so the midwife died before dawn, still bathed in blood.

Let us be midwives!

Let us be midwives!

Even if we lay down our own lives to do so.


My birthday last year, making lanterns and paper cranes with my sisters at the Rally for Peace:






25 Responses to “Hiroshima, 1945”

  1. mfennvt August 6, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    Beautiful post. Happy birthday! Do you know Ani DiFranco’s album, Reprieve? The cover is of a tree in Nagasaki that survived that’s city’s bomb.

  2. Alison Clifford (@quincebrandy) August 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    happy birthday! thank you for another beautiful post. i look forward to everything you write.

    today is also my father’s birthday, who was born 5 years after hiroshima, and died almost 2 months ago of cancer. this will never be a day without particular significance to me, and i thank you for also capturing the intense emotion of humanity.

  3. Jen Donohue August 6, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    Happy birthday! This was a fantastic post to read, and while my birthday shares no dates with nuclear bombs or accidents, I’ve felt drawn to them informationally. So, for you to say “it feels like something that’s always been a part of my personal mythology” makes me feel as though we share a bit. I’m also 31, but was born in July.

  4. Kayla August 6, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    It’s too bad you weren’t born on August 9, as Nagasaki is a much nicer city to visit. That way when doing the white girl pity tour you could at least take in some decent vistas and cuisine. Moreover there is a reasonable case to be made that the Nagasaki bombing was unnecessary to ending the war because Hiroshima itself may have been a sufficient catalyst.

    But lets focus on Aug 6th instead, because, you know, narcissism.

    • Jesse August 7, 2013 at 2:15 am #

      I thought this was a great post that had nothing to do with self-pity but rather the desire to see past the narcissism. Any sane person with an ounce of humanity tries to rationalize the why some are born into safety and others into a living hell. And, by the way, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki had anything to do with ending the war. Russia declaring war on Japan caused them to surrender.

      • Kayla August 7, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

        “Russia declaring war on Japan caused them to surrender”

        Sounds like a line out of a 6th grade history book. Is it fun being so simple and ignorant?

      • Jesse August 8, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

        Kayla, actually, it is simple and ignorant to think the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had anything to do with ending the war. People who don’t know anything about history keep saying it over and over, but it is not true. What do you call someone who is dead wrong but acts like they are right? Japan would have kept fighting, they were hoping that the Russians who were neutral toward them, would not enter the war in the pacific, but they did. So Japan surrendered. And where else do we get our information about history that in books? Or were you there?

      • Kayla August 8, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

        You’re saying that the first nuclear weapon used in wartime which destroyed a major city had zero influence on Japan’s military decisions, despite its explicit reference in Hirohito’s surrender announcement. This is stupidity.

        This is further compounded by your suggestion that Japan was not interested in surrender, when in fact it had been leveraging for a surrender since the battle of Okinawa. Your statements are pure ignorance.

      • Jesse August 8, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

        Well, we can go back and forth arguing semantics, and you can call me ignorant, or whatever you need to, but your initial statement was that Hiroshima was probably sufficient catalyst to ending the war. You can go back to Wikipedia to try and make yourself sound educated, but the fact is only a faction of the Japanese government was contemplating surrender, and it was NOT because of the bomb. The fire bombing of Tokyo killed more people and caused nearly as much devastation and that was NOT done with a nuke. The reasons to surrender were manifold and whether the US had a bomb or not did not change the fact that a land invasion of Japan was imminent and would have succeeded. It is the people without imagination, who can not imagine a world without Nukes or the internet or even television, that continue to suggest it was the bomb that ended the war. It is one of those incorrect facts that people like yourself keep repeating. The Americans keep saying it because it JUSTIFIES their action. But blowing those cities was a global statement because at the time every Allied country was thinking past the war to the inevitable confrontation of the real superpowers. But if you want to keep telling yourself it was the bomb that ended the war, go ahead, but if there was a list of reasons, the bomb would be far down on it. People did not really understand what it was at the time, a bigger bomb I war with big bombs. It was the 50’s and 60’s that the public began to become concerned about global annihilation.

      • Jesse August 8, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

        By the way Hirohito was a giving a surrender speech, innately political in nature, hardly the kind of reference you should bring up when looking for the truth behind historical events. It’s like going to Bush’s speeches to understand the war on terror.

      • rob August 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

        The surrender of the Empire of Japan on September 2, 1945, brought the hostilities of World War II to a close. By the end of July 1945, the Imperial Japanese Navy was incapable of conducting operations and an Allied invasion of Japan was imminent. While publicly stating their intent to fight on to the bitter end, Japan’s leaders, (the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War, also known as the “Big Six”), were privately making entreaties to the neutral Soviet Union to mediate peace on terms favorable to the Japanese. Meanwhile, the Soviets were preparing to attack the Japanese, in fulfillment of their promises to the United States and the United Kingdom made at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences.

        On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Late in the evening of August 8, 1945, in accordance with the Yalta agreements, but in violation of the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and soon after midnight on August 9, 1945, the Soviet Union invaded the Imperial Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. Later that same day, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. The combined shock of these events caused Emperor Hirohito to intervene and order the Big Six to accept the terms for ending the war that the Allies had set down in the Potsdam Declaration. After several more days of behind-the-scenes negotiations and a failed coup d’état, Emperor Hirohito gave a recorded radio address across the Empire on August 15. In the radio address, called the Gyokuon-hōsō (“Jewel Voice Broadcast”), he announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies.

        On August 28, the occupation of Japan by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers began. The surrender ceremony was held on September 2, aboard the United States Navy battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), at which officials from the Japanese government signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, thereby ending the hostilities in World War II. Allied civilians and military personnel alike celebrated V-J Day, the end of the war; however, some isolated soldiers and personnel from Imperial Japan’s far-flung forces throughout Asia and the Pacific islands refused to surrender for months and years afterwards, some even refusing into the 1970s. The role of the atomic bombings in Japan’s surrender, and the ethics of the two attacks, is still debated. The state of war between Japan and the Allies formally ended when the Treaty of San Francisco came into force on April 28, 1952. Four more years passed before Japan and the Soviet Union signed the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which formally brought an end to their state of war

      • Kayla August 9, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

        The more you say the less you do yourself credit. You actually are citing facts that weaken your supposition re the bomb. Woweee Tokyo firebombing killed more people. Spoken like somebody who has no idea how awful and laborious a fire bombing campaign is, especially in contrast to 1 plane with 1 bomb at high altitude.

        A political figure gives political speeches, astounding! In fact the atomic bomb allowed the emperor to save face and displace surrender as ‘saving the world’. This is a point that supports Hiroshima as a war ending catalyst.

        I think a nexus if your ignorance stems from the fact that is you who are making the bomb into a political statement, not I. It’s you who thinks that recognizing the role it played in ending WWII somehow validates nuclear weapons, or rationalizes cruelty. You’ve taken a ridiculous posture because you have an anti-nuclear agenda. And I can make this statement based on the evidence in your inane post, rather than your baseless claim that I am justifying nuclear action.

      • Jesse August 9, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

        None of your arguments solves the historical debate about the bomb and the end of the war, except in your own mind. Your initial post was a meandering sarcastic insult suggesting the author should mourn Nagasaki because the sightseeing is better. Every argument you’ve made since is a flimsy defense disguised in authoritative rhetoric. Your arguments are inconclusive because history is inconclusive, but one thing’s for sure, most people think it was the bomb that ended the war. Including you I guess, but it was one of many factors, and not the most important. I am happy with my argument, your rebuttals are weak and attack the fringes not the center of it. I have nothing more to say about this.

      • Kayla August 9, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

        You said neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki had anything to do with the end if the war. I demonstrated how idiotic that was and you proceeded to trot out random facts which were mostly contrary to your statement. You then slowly watered down your position to ‘not the most important factor’ and declared victory.

        You, like Annabelle are extremely naive and under informed about this aspect of history. You notice she says people were ‘vaporized’ which really wasn’t the case in Hiroshima. The bomb wasn’t that powerful, it mostly burned its victims who proceeded to migrate to the river out of thirst and later died there. This is why the memorial is at the river, not beacuse it makes for a great photo op.

        Ill let you crawl back into your echo chamber now, since clearly this exchange has taken its toll on you.

    • Jesse August 9, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

      I see the difficult place you’ve put yourself in. If you admit there is debate about whether the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war, then you also admit your original statement that the bombing of Hiroshima was enough to end the war was wrong. If you claim that there is no debate, then you are an idiot, because people have been debating this since it happened. So you are either wrong, or you are an idiot. Tough choice, but I know which one I’d pick.

      • Kayla August 9, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

        “there is a reasonable case to be made that the Nagasaki bombing was unnecessary to ending the war because Hiroshima itself may have been a sufficient catalyst”

        Read. My. Words.
        Now read them again.
        Unlike you, my statements and position are clear and consistent.

        I have made no comment refuting “a debate” nor attributed direct cause effect relationships to complex histories. You have done both. I’m not sure you are literate enough to have this conversation.

      • Jesse August 10, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

        You’re right Kayla, you have made no definitive statements. The sentence you are so proud of that you wanted me to read and re-read is a non-statement written in the passive voice which upon further investigation, means nothing “reasonable case to be made”, “Hiroshima may have been sufficient catalyst”. I assumed you had convictions and that you understood what that reasonable case was. But your own statement that you have not “attributed any direct cause effect relationship to complex histories” refutes your own original post. You implied Nagasaki was superfluous, but you are also saying you don’t are not making cause effect relationships. So what the hell are you saying? I do not think you have the logic skills to continue this argument. And it is a waste of my time to continue discourse with someone who has no point of view.

  5. lexikatscan August 7, 2013 at 4:13 am #

    Happy Birthday!!

  6. Aardra August 7, 2013 at 6:08 am #

    Happy Birthday!!

  7. Melissa August 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Another great post, Anne.

    I imagine you have, but in case this has managed to escape you, have you read Hiroshima by John Hersey? It was originally published in the New Yorker and it’s probably my favourite piece of non-fiction ever written. He does such a phenomenal job of capturing that day, it almost reads like fiction.


    p.s. Happy belated birthday. 🙂

  8. nesseva August 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Happy belated birthday, sweet girl ! xo

  9. Terry Bequette August 13, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    This is a powerful blog entry and I appreciate your writing it. As a fellow human being I take heart in knowing there is someone like you who can feel and consider such an atrocity and find the fortitude to write about it. So in the best sense of the greeting I wish you a happy and blessed birthday.

  10. bookmole August 20, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    How did Kayla read narcissim in this post? Or see anything that smacked of White Girl Pity?

    Wonderful writing – I read the 1,000 Cranes when I was very young, and it moved me immensely.

  11. gerald September 30, 2013 at 1:51 am #

    Just wanted to point out as the son of a man who maybe would have participated in an invasion of Japan and might have been killed and I would not be here I say, I remember December 7th,1941.The day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Using planes and people were killed.


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