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'Nagasaki' by Susan Southard: Life after the atom bomb

A man pushes a loaded bicycle down a

A man pushes a loaded bicycle down a cleared path in a flattened area of Nagasaki, on Sept. 13, 1945, following the dropping of an atomic bomb on Aug. 9. Photo Credit: AP / Stanley Troutman

NAGASAKI: Life After Nuclear War,by Susan Southard. Viking, 389 pp., $28.95.

Just before a five-ton plutonium bomb detonated one-third of a mile above the city, unleashing a fireball exceeding 540,000 degrees and propelling a blast that pulverized buildings and carbonized flesh over three square miles, Wada, 18, was at a streetcar terminal, taking a lunch break after a driving shift. Taniguchi, 16, was riding his bicycle while delivering mail. Nagano, also 16, was back working in an airplane parts factory after an air-raid alarm had sent her scurrying home. Do-oh, 15, was inspecting torpedoes in a weapons facility. And Yoshida, 13, was lowering a bucket into a well when he noticed two parachutes piercing the clouds. "Hey look!" he called out to his friends. "Something's falling!"

Many Japanese cities had been firebombed during the war, and Hiroshima had just suffered the first atomic-bomb attack in history days earlier. But Nagasaki, one of Japan's most religiously and culturally diverse cities, had been spared. Until 11:02 a.m. local time, Aug. 9, 1945.

Wada Koichi, Nagano Etsuko, Taniguchi Sumiteru, Do-oh Mineko and Yoshida Katsuji tell their stories of survival in Susan Southard's riveting "Nagasaki." They represent "the only people in history who have lived through a nuclear attack and its aftermath," Southard writes.

John Hersey's "Hiroshima" (1946) will remain the classic English-language account, from the first flash of the bomb through the year that followed. The power of Southard's book is in the long arc of the survivors' stories. The hibakusha (the "atomic-bomb-affected people") fought a nuclear war for their entire lives; the only victory is in living long enough to share the experience.

It took Taniguchi 17 months to sit up and nearly four years before he was discharged from the hospital. The skin on his back and arms had melted away. "He cried every time he heard the instrument cart approaching," Southard writes, "and when the nurses removed the gauze from his back, he screamed in pain and begged the nurses to let him die."

Nagano's greatest pain was the torment over losing her younger brother and sister in the attack. Feeling lonely, she had recently brought them back to Nagasaki, against her mother's instructions, from their grandmother's house. She long blamed herself for their deaths. "I still think I should have died instead of them," she tells Southard.

Yoshida suffered severe facial injuries and was released from the hospital 16 months after the bomb. He eventually married, but his wife confessed that sometimes she feared looking at his face at night. And he knew that kids teased his children, until one day he heard his son reply to another boy: "My daddy was hurt by the atomic bomb. It's nothing scary!" "I was saved by my son's words," Yoshida said.

Wada, trapped under a beam at the streetcar terminal following the bomb, avoided significant injuries and began carrying others to safety. In 1987 he retired after 43 years with the Nagasaki Streetcar Company and spent a decade gathering information about the 110 drivers and conductors who died in the bombing.

The left side of Do-oh's body was burned in the bombing, hundreds of glass fragments were embedded in her back. She stayed hidden in her home for eight years, ashamed to show her disfigured features, and contemplated suicide. "What had God given me this life for?" she asked herself. Finally, she began working as the Nagasaki representative of a cosmetics company, hoping to help young hibakusha whose faces were scarred or burned.

It took five years for Nagasaki to count the lives lost. The official estimate was 73,884 killed, 74,909 injured. The deaths from radiation exposure were drawn-out and brutal. If you survived the early onslaught, radiation contamination continued for decades in various forms of cancer and other afflictions. For a long time the survivors' status was a source of shame, so they hid it. Both Wada and Nagano married other hibakusha. Wada rarely spoke about his experience to his children; Nagano and her husband rarely spoke of it even to each other.

But the silence did not last forever. To varying degrees, all five chose to share their experience with schoolchildren, activists, historical societies and international bodies. "Their willingness to reveal themselves allows us to understand what it took to survive after surviving," Southard writes.

Their story is as timely as ever. American politicians debating the nuclear deal with Iran would do well to spend some time with Southard's "Nagasaki." It does not tell us what to do. It only reminds us of the stakes.

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