“Peace Begins with You”- Just one of the many insightful and inspiring quotes that Mr. Ito, an Atomic Bomb survivor shared with us on our last night in Hiroshima. As I mentioned in an earlier post, our time in Hiroshima was undoubtedly a highlight of the trip. The Peace Memorial Park is a surprisingly beautiful commemoration of the tragic event that occurred on August 6th, 1945, and the Hiroshima Peace Museum is an eye-opening referendum on the use of nuclear weapons and their human effects. It was through the testimony of Mr. Ito and Mr. Lee however, that I truly grasped the full human experience and moral implications of such a devastating event. While both men share the experience of being A-bomb survivors, Mr. Lee and Mr. Ito both came from extremely different circumstances and offered us very different perspectives of the unfolding of the events on August 6th, as well as in the months and years that followed. Though their experiences were vastly different, they both shared a passionate conviction to tell their stories to us, with the hopes that we would re-tell those stories in an effort to make sure that others did not experience the same fate as those who suffered and perished on August 6th. It is for this reason that I share this post.
DISCLAIMER: What I write below is based on the words and testimonies of Mr. Lee and Mr Ito respectively, and are closely aligned with their exact words, as given to us through translation.
WARNING: Both men’s stories are very personal and at times, graphic and disturbing, but I wanted to share what they had said in order for people to fully and truly understand the outcomes of such decisions.
Mr. Lee Jongkeun
Born in 1928, Mr. Lee is a Korean national who was born in Japan, lived in Japan during the war, and still lives there today. He was just 16 years old, on his way home from work in a munitions factory, and about 1.8 cm away from the hypocenter when the bomb hit.
He described seeing a bright flash of light and covering his eyes as he fell to the floor. This flash of light continued for 3 to 4 seconds, during which, most of his body and skin was burned. When he took his fingers off his eyes, all he could see was black everywhere. Mr. Lee described staying down for about 5 minutes until he was able to get up and evacuate the area over the bridge where he recognized 4 or 5 adults who also evacuated and had recognized that it was an atomic bomb and told him that his face was all burnt. At this point, Mr. Lee recognized that his face, neck, and hands had all been burnt.
He began to run towards his work place, where he witnessed people on both sides of the bridge who had been crushed and were trapped, and were calling out for help underneath the collapsed houses and roofs. He says; “I was 16yrs old, I was a child, even though they were calling out for help, I didn’t feel like helping them at all unfortunately.”
After arriving at the workplace, Mr. Lee remembers seeing that most of the people there were not hurt, and coming across steam oil, which he quickly used to wipe on his burns. Once he realized how painful it was, he jumped into a bomb shelter where he stayed for about 4 hours, trying very hard not to cry.
That afternoon, Mr. Lee left his workplace and tried to make his way home, while houses continued burning, past hundreds of people who had been killed, and many horses with their eyes bulging outside of their heads. Those people had been closest to the hypocenter had disintegrated immediately, while those further away had their skin burned and peeled off, dangling off parts of their bodies and exposing flesh. This was at 5pm, many hours after the bomb hit.
In those days, each city had special water barrels in case of being fire bombed, so people frantically made their way to drink from these barrels, although they were filled with dead bodies of people who had jumped in for some relief.
In the days that followed, Mr. Lee sought medical treatment for the boils that had developed on his skin, but in those days, there was not much available so he wound up using bromamine oil. As the days went on, more and more blisters would develop on his skin, and he would peel them off, then put more oil on them. He described that he was able to use a mirror for his face, but needed his mom to do the back of his neck. While lying on his back, the oil would often come off, preventing the skin from healing quickly; eventually he developed puss and maggots in the boils on his skin, and his mother sitting behind him with chopsticks, crying as she pulled them out.
One of his most vivid and hardest memories, even 69 years later, is of his mom looking at the burns on his face and the maggots on his skin, with her warm tears falling onto his face saying, “I wish you would die quickly, I wish you would die quickly”.
His condition went on for about four months, with puss and maggots all over his skin. Then, at around 4 months after the attack, Mr. Lee’s hair began to fall out, which many people believed was a sign that you were going to die. So every morning, Mr. Lee would wake up and check his hair, to see if he had one more day to live.
Eventually, some agricultural villages developed vegetable oil for people to use on their burns, and eventually, Mr. Lee’s wounds healed and he went back to work.
In the years following the blast, Mr. Lee became involved in North Korean politics until he was about 30 years old, then switched and aligned himself with South Korea, all while living in Japan.
Today, Mr. Lee is an avid activist for peace, traveling around the world on a peace boat sharing his story and courage with others, with the hope of spreading the message that this type of large-scale tragedy can never happen again. Towards the end of his testimony, Mr. Lee posed a fundamental question: “How could any human being be capable of creating a situation like this for other human beings?”
He then stated that he realized “mankind is able to do such atrocities and kill people in this way, but nobody has the right to kill another. When I think of that, I consider the types of peace education I’m involved in and I think of peace as a beautiful thing.
After listening to Mr. Lee’s testimony, we were fortunate enough to have him join us for dinner, where we were given some more opportunities to get his opinions on issues of war, peace, and nuclear energy. To be able to sit across from, and share a meal with this remarkable man will forever be a cherished memory of visiting Hiroshima.
On our second night in Hiroshima, we met with and listened to Mr. Ito, another atomic bomb survivor of Hiroshima. Unlike the previous night, when we walked into the conference room at the Peace studies center, we were told to look around at the articles and pictures the Ito family had put on display around the room. Mr. Ito formally began his testimony by stating that while he was going to talk about the two ground zeros in his life, he wanted to focus on peace and the preciousness of life along the way.
Born in 1935, Mr. Ito is currently 79 years and was only 10 years old when the bomb hit. Rather than give the events of that day from his own perspective however, he started off his testimony by telling it from his brother’s viewpoint.
His brother, a few years older than him, was in school that day because of the war. During the war, students were sent to school to work on building weapons, houses, and munitions. When the bomb hit, the school tumbled to the ground and Mr. Ito’s brother was stuck under the rubble. He eventually managed to crawl his way out, but as he scrambled to escape he heard the voices of his friends and classmates yelling out for help. He worked very hard to pull them out of the rubble, but as the fire chased him, he had to escape. As his brother made his way home, he described seeing dead bodies who had no facial recognition and bodies just drooping, he said it looked like hell, and although it looked like hell, it was all he could to but to save himself.
When his brother got home, they called for a doctor, which took some time, but he eventually came and the medical report found nothing. In the following months, his brother’s condition improved and they began to play together again. It was summer, so the Japanese often wore straw hats like the one pictured below to protect them from the heat.
However, one day, Mr. Ito’s brother noticed a great amount of hair falling off in his hat, which again, was what many people believed was a sign you were about to die. Over the next few months, his brother’s condition got worse and worse, as he developed welts on his skins and suffered from continual nosebleeds. Eventually it got to the point where all he could do was lie down and ask for water, but because there was a rumor circulating at that time that those who suffered from radiation shouldn’t get water, his mother took ice cubes and rubbed them on his lips. Finally, one day, his brother pulled Mr. Ito aside and told him to take care of their mother and father, seemingly knowing that this would be his last wish. He died shortly thereafter on September 1st, and every day after that, Mr. Ito could find his parents praying at the family altar for his brother. Mr. Ito went on to explain that his brother died from receiving radiation on that one day, and that this is exactly the kind of act that him and his entire family are working towards preventing from ever happening again.
Mr. Ito then told the events of August 6th from his own perspective. Only in 5th grade, he was in school that day, getting ready to do exercises outside when the blast hit. He too, had to make his way home past trucks filled with dead bodies, skin dangling off of them and with no facial recognition. The school, because it did not crumble, quickly became a place of refuge, and Mr. Ito was directed to go there and help with the recovery effort. There were many people suffering from rot and maggots in their skin, as mentioned by Mr. Lee. Because they were children and had small hands, Mr. Ito and the other kids would “peel them off and squish them, peel them off and squish them.”
Because it was summer, there was more death, and in the few months that the school served as a refuge and recovery camp, Mr. Ito was expected to help with carrying dead bodies, among other things. Between the death of his own brother, and having to see all the destruction and horror of the after effects of the bomb, Mr. Ito adamantly talks about the effects of nuclear weapons; death and destruction.
Mr. Ito’s Son:
Mr. Ito’s second ground zero took place on 9/11, when his oldest son was killed in the terrorist attack on New York. His son recently moved to New York with his wife to work for Misaho bank which was located on the 82nd floor of the South tower of the World Trade Center. When the buildings crumbled that day, Mr. Ito and his wife experienced complete and utter panic as they watched the events unfold on live T.V. They were told to get on a plane to New York as soon as possible, but were unable to fly out of Tokyo right away. Eventually, when they did make it to New York, like so many others, they were frantically trying to get any information about their son, holding on to the smallest hope that he somehow survived. Eventually, in January of 2002, his wife and him received a death certificate for their son. But because there was/is no way of finding the remains of their son, the Ito family had to hold a memorial service for their son without his body.
Mr. Ito stated. “I cant even explain how terrible my heart feels, or express to you in words having gone through 2 ground zeros in my life. At this point there is nothing for us to hope but to find some traces of DNA. My wife and I pray everyday in front of the altar for closure to this. Just like the picture that I hope I painted for you, my wife and I too gather in the same way at the family altar and pray for resolution to this for my son. If my son is not found, then we will continue to hold the urn that we received from New York.”
The urn was given to the family with the rubble and debris of steel from the South tower on behalf of his son’s body.
He stated; “If his body is not found this is all I have to remember him by, this rubble of buildings is all I have left to remember him by. Is that acceptable? Is that enough?”
Just like his parents prayed at the altar everyday for his brother over 60 years ago, Mr. Ito and his wife pray at their altar for their son everyday.
After his testimony, Mr. Ito and his family joined us for dinner. I had the good fortune (thanks to some of my colleagues on the trip) to sit across from Mr. Ito at the table, enjoying Okinomayaki (Japanese Pancake), while listening to his insight and graceful wisdom. I felt honored to just be sitting with this incredible man, a living memorial to his brother and to his son.
How a man who has suffered through two terrible tragedies such as these can go on and live his life, sharing and spreading a message of peace, is a testament to what the human spirit is capable of, and for Mr. Ito, it is a testament to his oldest son and brother.
“It doesn’t matter the nationality, religion or ethnicity that you are, what is important is communicating the importance and value of life.”- Mr. Ito