‘I Thought My Last Hour Had Come...’

An eyewitness account of the atom bomb explosion at Hiroshima

Monday, August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima. A few seconds after 8:15 A.M., a flash of light, brighter than a thousand suns, shredded the space over the city's center. A gigantic sphere of fire, a prodigious blast, a formidable pillar of smoke and debris rose into the sky: an entire city annihilated as it was going to work, almost vaporized at the blast's point zero, irradiated to death, crushed and swept away. Its thousands of wooden houses were splintered and soon ablaze, its few stone and brick buildings smashed, its ancient temples destroyed, its schools and barracks incinerated just as classes and drills were beginning, its crowded streetcars upended, their passengers buried under the wreckage of streets and alleys crowded with people going about their daily business. A city of 300,000 inhabitants—more, if its large military population was counted, for Hiroshima was headquarters for the southern Japan command. In a flash, much of its population, especially in the center, was reduced to a mash of burned and bleeding bodies, crawling, writhing on the ground in their death agonies, expiring under the ruins of their houses or, soon, roasted in the fire that was spreading throughout the city—or fleeing, half-mad, with the sudden torrent of nightmare-haunted humanity staggering toward the hills, bodies naked and blackened, flayed alive, with charcoal faces and blind eyes.

Is there any way to describe the horror and the pity of that hell? Let a victim tell of it. Among the thousand accounts was this one by a Hiroshima housewife, Mrs. Futaba Kitayama, then aged thirty-three, who was struck down 1900 yards—just over a mile—from the point of impact. We should bear in mind that the horrors she described could be multiplied a hundredfold in the future.

"It was in Hiroshima, that morning of August 6. I had joined a team of women who, like me, worked as volunteers in cutting firepaths against incendiary raids by demolishing whole rows of houses. My husband, because of a raid alert the previous night, had stayed at the Chunichi (Central Japan Journal), where he worked.

"Our group had passed the Tsurumi bridge, Indianfile, when there was an alert; an enemy plane appeared all alone, very high over our heads. Its silver wings shone brightly in the sun. A woman exclaimed, 'Oh, look—a parachute!' I turned toward where she was pointing, and just at that moment a shattering blast filled the whole sky.

"Was it the flash that came first, or the sound of the explosion, tearing up my insides? I don't remember. I was thrown to the ground, pinned to the earth, and immediately the world began to collapse around me, on my head, my shoulders. I couldn't see anything. It was completely dark. I thought my last hour had come. I thought of my three children, who had been evacuated to the country to be safe from the raids. I couldn't move; debris kept falling, beams and tiles piled up on top of me.

"Finally I did manage to crawl free. There was a terrible smell in the air. Thinking the bomb that hit us might have been a yellow phosphorus incendiary like those that had fallen on so many other cities, I rubbed my nose and mouth hard with a tenugui (a kind of towel) I had at my waist. To my horror, I found that the skin of my face had come off in the towel. Oh! The skin on my hands, on my arms, came off too. From elbow to fingertips, all the skin on my right arm had come loose and was hanging grotesquely. The skin of my left hand fell off too, the five fingers, like a glove.

"I found myself sitting on the ground, prostrate. Gradually I registered that all my companions had disappeared. What had happened to them? A frantic panic gripped me, I wanted to run, but where? Around me was just debris, wooden framing, beams and roofing tiles; there wasn't a single landmark left.

"And what had happened to the sky, so blue a moment ago? Now it was as black as night. Everything seemed vague and fuzzy. It was as though a cloud covered my eyes and I wondered if I had lost my senses. I finally saw the Tsurumi bridge and I ran headlong toward it, jumping over the piles of rubble. What I saw under the bridge then horrified me.

"People by the hundreds were flailing in the river. I couldn't tell if they were men or women; they were all in the same state: their faces were puffy and ashen, their hair tangled, they held their hands raised and, groaning with pain, threw themselves into the water. I had a violent impulse to do so myself, because of the pain burning through my whole body. But I can't swim and I held back.

"Past the bridge, I looked back to see that the whole Hachobori district had suddenly caught fire, to my surprise, because I thought only the district I was in had been bombed. As I ran, I shouted my children's names. Where was I going? I have no idea, but I can still see the scenes of horror I glimpsed here and there on my way.

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