Japan is still (as of press time on this issue) the only country in the world that has been a victim of the atomic bomb. Since the demons dropped onto the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 63 years ago this past August, the country has continued to quietly suffer from the repercussions. One 91-year-old hibakusha [that’s Japanese for “A-bomb survivor”] doctor continues to call out the dangers and brutality of the A-bomb to the rest of the world. His name is Shuntaro Hida. On August 1, 1944, a year before the bomb dropped on the city, Dr. Hida was posted to Hiroshima’s army hospital as a military doctor. He experienced the bomb blast at just 3.5 miles away from its epicenter, and he has since seen everything there is to see as a doctor specializing in the treatment of A-bomb victims. Dr. Hida knows the effects of the bomb not only from the perspective of someone who was actually there but also from the specialized viewpoint of an army medic. It’s no wonder then that almost 6,000 radiation-sickness sufferers in Japan and around the world have sought his expertise. So what exactly happened on that fateful day in Hiroshima? Vice spoke to Dr. Hida, who remembers every single detail about the experience.
Vice: How did you manage to avoid being hit by the bomb directly, despite being in Hiroshima at the time?
Dr. Hida: I was dozing off on my futon the night before the bombing on August 6, when somebody suddenly shook me awake. It was an old man who came from Hesaka village, which is a couple of miles away from Hiroshima. His granddaughter had cardiac valvular disease and often had seizures, so I regularly went to the village to check up on her. That night she suffered another one, so I got on the back of the old man’s bicycle and he rode me to their place. This meant that I got out of Hiroshima just in time to be saved from being directly hit. I was exposed to the radiation, but from a distance of just over three miles from the epicenter.
Did you actually see the moment when the A-bomb was dropped?
Yes, I did. I think I’m the only person who actually saw it with his own eyes and then wrote about the experience later, because most people in Hiroshima were killed the instant they saw that bright flash of light.
Let me explain how I actually saw the bombing. I spent the night at the old man’s place after looking at the child. The next morning, I decided to give her a sedative before going back to the hospital, because if she woke up and started crying she might have another seizure. I took out a small syringe from my pocket, tilted it upward, and pushed out some liquid to let any air out. Suddenly I saw a plane flying above Hiroshima in front of me.
That must have been the Enola Gay. Tell us what you saw when the bomb hit Hiroshima.
The first thing I saw was the light. It was so bright that I was momentarily blinded. Simultaneously, I was surrounded by an intense heat. The bomb released a 4,000-degree heat wave in the instant that it hit the ground. I panicked, covered my eyes, and lay low on the floor. I couldn’t hear any noise and the trees weren’t rustling. I thought something was up, so I cautiously looked through the window toward where I’d seen the flash of light. The skies were blue with no cloud in sight, but there was this bright red ring of fire high up in the skies above the city! In the middle of the ring was a big white ball that kept growing like a thundercloud—this really round thing. It kept getting bigger and bigger until it finally hit the outer fire ring, and then the whole thing blew up into a huge red fireball. It was like I was witnessing the birth of a new sun. It was so perfectly round! When I was a child, I saw Asama Mountain erupt from really close up, but this was much more full-on. The clouds were white, but shining in rainbow colors as they rose up. It was really beautiful. People call it the “mushroom cloud” but it’s actually a pillar of fire: The bottom part is a column of flames and the top part is a fireball, which metamorphoses into clouds as it keeps rising up.
Then, below the pillar of fire, pitch-black clouds started spreading horizontally above the mountains surrounding Hiroshima. They consisted of sand and dust that were being pushed up from the ground due to the pressure generated from the blast. They were coming toward me like a tidal wave. We were on a hill and there was a cliff next to us, but the next moment the dust clouds had crept right up. Before I knew it, the old man’s house was swallowed up and crushed by the wave. Luckily the thatched roof acted as a cushion, saving the child and myself. It was then that I realized that something terrible must have happened, and rushed back to the hospital in Hiroshima on the old man’s bike.
What was the first example of a human casualty from the A-bomb that you saw?
I encountered the first victim halfway back to Hiroshima. This black thing suddenly popped out from the side of the road, swaying unsteadily. I had no idea what it was. I slowed down my bicycle and gradually moved closer and realized that it was a person.
I tried to look at its face, but it didn’t have one. There were these two big swollen balls where the eyes should be, a gaping hole for their nose, and the lips had puffed up so big that they were covering half the face. It was hideous. And it had a black thing that looked like a sleeve draped off its arm, so I initially thought that it was wearing rags. I was wondering what all this meant when suddenly the person started moving toward me. My first reaction was to move back. But then it tripped over my bike and fell down. Being a doctor, I immediately rushed forward and tried to take its pulse. But the skin from the entire arm had slipped off and there was nowhere for me to touch.
I realized then that the person was not wearing rags but was entirely naked. What I had thought were sleeves was actually raw skin that had peeled off from the body and was dangling down. The skin on its back had also burned and peeled off completely, and there were dozens of small shards of glass piercing the surface. The person suddenly twitched a couple of times, and then lay completely still. It was dead.
Dr. Hida in 1942, three years before the bomb hit.That’s a really shocking image. Did you encounter any other traumatic scenes?
Yes. I was somehow able to get to the hospital, but there was a huge blaze and I couldn’t go inside. I thought about the situation and decided that since I was a doctor and was still alive, the best thing to do was to go back to the village. Hesaka is the nearest village to Hiroshima so all of the evacuees would surely flee there, and I could probably treat the injured. I spent another three hours riding upstream along the river until I finally arrived at the village’s elementary school. I glanced around the schoolyard. It was peppered with charred black people lying on the ground, as if someone had scattered seeds across it. There must have been around 1,000 people there. Three other army doctors had gathered at the school, so we discussed taking a course of action. But the victims were all severely burned and in critical condition. There wasn’t much we could do. What we did that night though was pick out the dead from the living among the 1,000 or so people lying on the ground, and start clearing away their bodies.
While I did this, the hibakusha all stared at me. I tried my best to avoid eye contact. But then I accidentally locked eyes with someone, and felt like I had to go over and pretend to treat them. As I moved closer, he glared at me with his two eyeballs, a horrendous stare. The dying people there had absolutely no clue what had happened to them, so they all had these beastly eyes. Have you ever seen the eyes of a pig being slaughtered? Frightening, right? This person glared at me with those same eyes. They still haunt me in my dreams to this day. Each year around August 6, I dream about those eyes every night. I never want to see them again, but they keep haunting me. That’s how deep of an impression they left.
When did you start treating the surviving hibakusha?
On the third morning after the bomb, we were finally able to begin treating those who looked like they might pull through. That’s when we first discovered the acute symptoms of radiation. First, the victims get a high fever of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. It was so high that I thought the thermometers were broken. Also, when you tried to get close to their faces, you noticed that they had unbelievably bad breath. It was almost impossible to go near them. I guess in medical terms you would describe the smell as a combination of necrosis and decomposition. When you peered into their mouths, they were completely black. Because the white blood cells in their bodies were completely dead, the bacteria in their mouths had multiplied profusely. And since there was nothing to protect the inside of the mouths anymore, they started to rot very quickly without even going through the usual stages of inflammation or pus formation. This rot was what we were smelling. It’s a smell that only the medics who experienced the aftermath know about.
Next, purple blotches started appearing on any unburned skin. In medical terms we call this purpura, and they usually form just before a patient who has a blood disease like leukemia dies. I was extremely surprised when I found these on the victims, because I had no idea why they were appearing. After that, their hairs would all fall out, as if their heads had been swept with a broom. Radiation usually targets healthy cells, so hair roots are the first to go. The final symptoms are vomiting blood, as well as hemorrhaging from the eyes, nose, anus, and reproductive organs. The victims only last a few hours after this before they die. At the time we were all extremely scared, because obviously nobody knew what was causing all this.
You said that you were exposed to radiation yourself. Have you suffered any symptoms?
The predominant symptom that I experienced was that my bones aged very fast. Right now my backbone is in a pitiful state. I had lower-back problems after being exposed to the radiation, and underwent surgery many times. At the worst of times I was crawling on the ground because of the pain. However, the aging finally stopped when I was 80 years old, when I began a treatment which consisted of walking up and down a swimming pool. Just this past Atomic Bomb Day, I walked around Hiroshima and Nagasaki without my walking stick. But the biggest fear that we hibakusha have to live with is the anxiety that we might one day develop cancer. We can’t plan our lives like everyone else. When we enroll in school, when we marry, when we have children, we constantly have to confront this anxiety. We have been robbed of our human rights. And not only have our rights to live as human beings been violated, we are forced to live with the knowledge that we will one day inevitably develop some sort of disease as a direct result of being exposed to the bomb. But we don’t know exactly when that will happen, so until then, we must live in fear. Even if we sued our country in court and were paid money, it wouldn’t solve a thing. Money can’t buy back the 63 years that I have lived in suffering.