Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, received the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Distinguished Peace Leadership Award on October 25, 2015.

Setsuko Thurlow

Setsuko Thurlow at the 2015 NAPF Evening for Peace.

I am delighted to be here tonight, and meet all of you, working hard for a peaceful and just world free of nuclear weapons. I am honored and humbled to receive your Award tonight. I am truly grateful. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Tonight I would like to share with you my personal testimony of surviving the atomic bombing as a child victim, and then living in North America advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons. For the 70th anniversary of the bombings, it is appropriate to reflect upon and ponder the meaning of living in the nuclear age.

For most of my adult life, I have devoted my energy to disarmament education through sharing my experience of Hiroshima. It is always difficult for me to remember my painful childhood memories, and repeat that story over the years. However, I believe that it is important for me to provide a human face and voice in the complex and abstract discourse on nuclear weapons and help people to increase their awareness of the issue with empathy, sensitivity, and moral and ethical consideration.

That fateful day, August 6, 1945, as a 13-year-old school girl and a member of the Student Mobilization Program, I was at Army headquarters, 1.8 kilometers from ground zero. About 30 of us students were assigned to work as decoding assistants of secret messages. At 8:15 a.m., as Major Yanai was giving us a pep talk at the assembly, suddenly I saw in the window a blinding bluish-white flash and I remember having the sensation of floating in the air. As I regained consciousness in the silence and darkness, I found myself pinned by the collapsed building. I could not move. I knew I faced death. I began to hear my classmates’ faint cries, “Mother, help me,” “God, help me.” Then, suddenly I felt hands touching my left shoulder, and heard a man saying, “Don’t give up! Keep moving! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening. Crawl towards it. Get out as quickly as possible.” As I crawled out, the ruins were on fire. Most of my classmates in that same room were burned alive.

Outside, I looked around. Although it was morning, it was as dark as twilight because of the dust and smoke rising in the air. A soldier ordered me and two other surviving girls to escape to the nearby hills.

I saw streams of ghostly figures, slowly shuffling from the center of the city towards the nearby hills. They did not look like human beings; their hair stood straight up and they were naked and tattered, bleeding, burned, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones, some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands, and some with their stomachs burst open, with intestines hanging out. We students joined the ghostly procession, carefully stepping over the dead and injured. There was a deathly silence broken only by the moans of the injured and their pleas for water. The foul stench of burned skin filled the air.

We managed to escape to the foot of the hill where there was an army training ground, about the size of two football fields. It was covered with the dead and injured, who were desperately begging, often in faint whispers, “Water, water, please give me water.” But we had no containers to carry water. We went to a nearby stream to wash off the blood and dirt from our bodies. Then we tore off our blouses, soaked them with water and hurried back to hold them to the mouths of the injured, who desperately sucked in the moisture. We did not see any doctors or nurses all day. When darkness fell, we sat on the hillside and all night watched the entire city burn, numbed by the massive, grotesque scale of death and suffering we witnessed.

My father left town early that morning. When he saw the mushroom cloud rising above the city he hurried back to the devastated city. My mother was rescued from under our collapsed home, and was able to escape to her brother’s house outside the city. My sister and her four-year-old son were burned beyond recognition while crossing a bridge going to the doctor’s office in the center of the city. Several days later they both died in agony. An aunt and two cousins were found as skeletons. My sister-in-law is still missing.

We rejoiced in the survival of my uncle and aunt in the outskirts of the city, but several days later they began to have purple spots all over their bodies, which was a sign of radiation poisoning. According to my parents, who cared for them until their deaths, their internal organs seemed to be rotting and coming out as a thick, black liquid. Radiation, the unique characteristic of the atomic bombing, affected people in mysterious and random ways, with some dying instantly, and others weeks, months or years later by the delayed effects, and radiation is still killing survivors today, 70 years later.

While my own group was at the army headquarters, the majority of my school friends along with several thousand grade 7 and 8 students from all the city’s high schools were engaged in the task of clearing fire lanes in the center of Hiroshima. Most of them were killed instantly by the heat of 4,000 degrees Celsius. Many were simply carbonized or vaporized. My sister-in-law was there, supervising students, and never came back to her young children.

Thus, my beloved city of Hiroshima suddenly became desolation, with heaps of ash and rubble, skeletons and blackened corpses. Out of a population of 360,000, most were non-combatant women, children and elderly who became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. By the end of 1945 some 140,000 had perished. As of now, 260,000 have perished in Hiroshima alone from the effects of the blast, heat, and radiation. As I use the numbers of the dead, it pains me deeply. Reducing the dead to numbers trivializes their precious lives and negates their human dignity.

In the aftermath of the bombing, not only did people have to endure the physical devastation of near-starvation, homelessness, lack of medical care, rapidly spreading social discrimination against survivors as “contaminated ones by nuclear poison,” total lack of support by the Japanese government, the collapse of the authoritarian social system, and the sudden introduction to a democratic way of life, but also they suffered from psycho-social oppression by the Allied Forces Occupation Authority following Japan’s surrender.

Setsuko Thurlow's family in 1937.

Setsuko Thurlow’s family in 1937.

The Occupation Authorities, headed by General MacArthur, established the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose sole purpose was to study the effects of radiation of the bombs on human bodies, and not to provide treatment to the injured. Needless to say, the survivors felt treated as guinea pigs, first as the targets of the indiscriminate atomic bombing, then as the subjects of the medical research. The Occupation Authorities also censored media coverage of survivors’ suffering and confiscated their diaries, correspondence, poems, films, slides, photographs, medical records, etc.– 32,000 items in all, which were shipped to the U.S.

The triumphant scientific and technological achievement in making the atomic bomb could freely be published, but the human suffering inflicted by the atomic bomb was not to be heard by the world. Following the massive trauma of the bombing, survivors had to repress themselves in silence and isolation, and were thus deprived of the normal process of grieving and mourning.

With the return of full sovereignty to Japan in 1952, a flood of medical, scientific, historical and political and legal information became available enabling scholars, researchers, and journalists to analyze survivors’ experiences in historical perspective and global context. They became aware that the main motive for the atomic bombings was political rather than military. They rejected the American myth that the use of the bombs was necessary to avoid a costly invasion of Japan to save lives. This argument was refuted for the following reasons:

  1. President Truman and several of his advisors knew that the Japanese military organization had practically ceased to function;
  2. The Japanese government had made initial overtures for a negotiated surrender;
  3. The unclarified status of the Emperor in an unconditional surrender was the main stumbling block for the Japanese;
  4. The U.S. desire to position itself as the dominant power in East Asia in the post-war period;
  5. The planned invasion of Japan (Operation Olympic) was not scheduled until November 1st, almost three months after the actual bombings. Why the rush?
  6. The U.S. attempt to use the bombs before the U.S.S.R.’s promised entry into the war against the Japanese Army in Manchuria three months after the German surrender, and to claim the territorial rewards.

Also, the U.S. interest in testing two different nuclear weapons, uranium and plutonium, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, was further reason Hiroshima had been purposely left intact so that the impact of the detonation could be measured more accurately. With the understanding of the historical perspective, the survivors saw themselves as pawns in the opening moves of the Cold War rather than as sacrifices on the altar of peace.

On the cenotaph in the Peace Park in Hiroshima is an inscription that reads, “Rest in peace; the error will not be repeated.” What error and whose error were purposely left ambiguous. Although some wanted to point an accusing finger at the U.S., people came to see the issue on a higher philosophical plane as a universal need for nothing less than a cultural transformation away from our obsession with violence and war. This enlightened view did not ignore, however, the fact that the use of weapons of mass destruction against non-combatants was a crime against humanity, and a violation of international law.

Through months and years of struggle for survival, rebuilding lives out of the ashes, we Hibakusha survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became convinced that no human being should ever have to repeat our experience of the inhumanity, illegality, immorality, and cruelty of atomic bombing, and that our mission was to warn the world about the threat of this ultimate evil. We believe that, “Humanity and nuclear weapons cannot coexist indefinitely,” and it is our moral imperative to abolish nuclear weapons in order to secure a safe, clean, and just world for future generations. With this conviction we have been speaking out around the world for the past several decades for the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

In the summer of 1954, after my graduation from university, I travelled to the U.S. to attend college on a scholarship. At a press interview I was asked to elaborate on and give my opinion regarding the unprecedented birth of a massive anti-nuclear movement in Japan. The interviewer was referring to the U.S. testing of the largest hydrogen bomb, up to that time, at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 1, which caused the Islanders severe public health problems and environmental damage. In addition, all members of the crew of a nearby Japanese fishing boat were covered by radiation fallout, “ash of death,” and became seriously ill. One fisherman died. Suddenly, Japanese realized that the U.S. had no regret or remorse about the massive consequential suffering of nuclear weapon victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now of the Marshall Islands, for the purpose of testing, production, and the potential future use of nuclear weapons. Almost overnight this anti-nuclear movement became nationwide, with citizens’ groups collecting 20 million signatures, and pushing for the passage of a resolution for the abolition of nuclear weapons at all levels of government. My response to the interviewer was frank and critical. I strongly called for the ending of the U.S. nuclear testing. As a result of my remarks I began to receive unsigned hate letters. This was my introduction to the United States.

I was deeply disturbed by the way many Americans uncritically and blindly followed the government line justifying the atomic bombings. It was a chilling reminder for me of the wartime behavior of Japanese in unthinkingly swallowing government propaganda and brainwashing. The hostile reaction I received forced me to do some soul-searching. It was a temptation to quit and remain silent, but I came out of this traumatic experience with a stronger commitment to keep speaking out against the indiscriminate massacre of civilians with new types of mass killing devices.

During this lonely time, I discovered the writings of some U.S. scholars with profound analyses of the issue. Such work inspired and supported me. One of these thinkers was Richard Falk, Professor of International Law at Princeton University, who I understand is now working with you in this organization, who said to this effect:

The bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were viewed as contributions to the ending of a popular and just war. Therefore they have never been appraised in the necessary way as atrocities. They have never been understood as they certainly would have been understood had Hiroshima and Nagasaki been located [in an Allied country]. Somehow we have got to create that awareness, so that Hiroshima is understood to have been on the same level of depravity, and in many ways far more dangerous to us as a species and as a civilization than was even Auschwitz.

The failure to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as atrocities, the regarding of those two bombs as “good bombs” that contributed to winning and ending a just war, helped the American consciousness to accept the subsequent development of nuclear weapons, thus linking the justification of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the disastrous nuclear arms race and Cold War.

Living in North America as a Hiroshima survivor advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons has given me many challenges as well as rewarding opportunities. In the 1950s and even in the 1970s, I often felt like a lone voice in the wilderness facing peoples’ indifference, denial, justification, and even open hostility. An example of this hostility was a bomb scare at the Hiroshima–Nagasaki photographic exhibition, which was organized at the National Gallery of Art, causing the evacuation of the entire building. But there were also times when I felt euphoric, for example in 1982 when one million people from all over the world marched in downtown New York to Central Park demanding nuclear disarmament! After the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, people went back to sleepwalking with the dream that the nuclear arms race was no longer threatening the world.

Unfortunately, nuclear weapons are more dangerous today than at any time during the brief history of the nuclear age, due to a wide variety of risks including: proliferation (with some 16,000 nuclear bombs possessed by 9 nations) and modernization (with $1 trillion planned by the U.S. alone over the next three decades); human error; computer failure; complex systems failure; radioactive contamination already in the environment and its toll on public and environmental health; as well as the global famine and climate chaos that would ensue should a limited use of nuclear weapons occur by accident or design. There is also the danger of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons.

On top of the increasing risks of nuclear weapons use, it is profoundly disturbing to see the lack of tangible progress in diplomatic negotiations in spite of the fact that it has been 45 years since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was introduced. The nuclear weapon states are not genuinely committed to the treaty as demonstrated by their not having complied with their legal obligation under Article VI to work toward nuclear disarmament in good faith. They are acting as if it is their right to keep their nuclear weapons indefinitely, and are manipulating the negotiation process to suit their perceived national interests. This unacceptable nuclear status quo has been driving many impatient non-nuclear weapons states and NGOs to negotiate a legally binding tool to achieve the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

Setsuko Thurlow at ICAN Civil Society Forum.

Setsuko Thurlow speaking at the ICAN Civil Society Forum in December 2014.

Tonight I am delighted and most hopeful to witness the mounting momentum from a rapidly growing global movement, the Humanitarian Initiative, involving 121 non-nuclear weapon states and the NGOs working together to outlaw nuclear weapons. In the past two years, Norway, Mexico, and Austria have hosted International Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons and, together with UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), have been reframing the narrative away from the abstract military doctrine of security and deterrence toward the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, with the result being a strong push for a Ban Treaty. The Humanitarian Pledge, introduced by Austria, “to identify and pursue effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” is now supported by 121 countries. These developments are breathtakingly exciting and empowering for all of us campaigners around the world.

At this point I would like to take a few minutes to show you a yellow banner which my alma mater in Hiroshima made for me. This is a list of 351 names of my schoolmates and teachers who perished in the Hell on Earth that day. When I use large numbers to describe the massive scale of death and casualties of Hiroshima, peoples’ minds are numbed and they have difficulty relating to such abstract numbers meaningfully. As I show this to you I want you to feel and imagine that each name here represents an individual human being, a real person who was loved by someone and who was engaged in his or her life until 8:15 that morning.

Setsuko Thurlow

I’m showing this especially to the many young people here tonight. Unlike me, who had a gift of an extra 70 years, your lives are just blossoming to embrace life’s gifts such as careers, marriages, families, and so forth. I want you to live your God-given lives as fully and happily as you can. But, to do so, we all must ensure that our common home, planet Earth, is here intact for you to enjoy. It is a shared responsibility to protect it and nurture it, not only for ourselves, but for future generations.

Before closing, I have one more thought I would like to share with you: President Obama, in his famous speech in Prague on April 5, 2009, said, “…As the only nuclear power to have used nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead… So, today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The world was overjoyed by his integrity, and the Nobel Peace Prize was presented to encourage him to do more for peace as the new president of the most powerful nation of the world.

He rightfully acknowledged the U.S. moral responsibility to lead the world’s most urgent task of abolishing nuclear weapons. As disappointed as we may be in his lack of accomplishment in this field, President Obama is the only U.S. President, while in office, who publicly acknowledged America’s responsibility of using the first nuclear weapons in history. If he has the political will and enormous courage, he can still achieve more towards a nuclear weapons-free world during his remaining year at the White House. But not without public pressure. Study the issue, do critical thinking, and urgently communicate your thoughts and feelings with your families, friends, neighbors, political representatives, and President Obama. That’s the citizen’s responsibility in a democratic nation.

To learn more about the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Evening for Peace, click here.