On this anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, it’s a pair of eyes I remember. Aged, greyish white eyes without pupils, unnerving to view. From their side, they had seen nothing since the old woman who possessed them was a 12-year-old schoolgirl.
She was walking in a field just outside Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, when the bomb fell. The blast was the last vision she saw on this earth.
She was my landlady in the mid-1970s in Japan, where I was stationed with the U.S. Navy in Yokosuka and assigned to the public affairs office to write press releases for the base newspaper, Pacific Stars and Stripes, the Far East Network broadcast services and All Hands magazine.
She asked me to call her “Mama-san,” as she thought that would be easier for me, since her real name was unpronounceable to Americans she met.
She rented to me and to Americans before me a home in Zushi with a thatched roof, tatami mat floors and rice-paper walls that overlooked the Sea of Japan. It has always remained my favorite of all the houses and apartments I have called home.
I asked her why, given her blindness from the bomb, she didn’t resent Americans and why she liked to rent to us.. She said we were friendly and laughed a lot.
She also liked the fact that we supplied the arms umbrella agreement to defend Japan in the event of its attack, the Status of Armed Forces Agreement.
Mama-san was a very practical lady.
She clearly remembered that blast, the screams of the dying, the smells of decay from too many corpses and animals for the small remaining workforce to burn quickly enough. She didn’t talk about the days afterward, a newly blind orphan finding her way among the bodies and flattened buildings.
She believed, like the pilot of the Enola Gay that dropped the bomb, Floyd Tibbets, and his bombadier that day, that the atomic bomb that had also helped to end the war.
Japan’s major fleets and its airforce had been defeated, its military down to sending small children to pilot kamakaze flights, their feet strapped to books to enable them to reach the aircraft’s pedals, but I’ll take Mama-san’s word..
It seems a moot point when visiting the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, which catalogs the bombing second by second, minute by minute, then the hideous horror in the day-by-day aftermath.
Samples of radiated skin from the days that followed are under glasss, day 1, day 2, day 3, etc., are carefully preserved, alongside curled school books still bound with the belt of a child who was toting them.
Then there’s the ouline of a family literally burned onto a wall, a husband and wife apparently trying to shield a baby when they were incinerated on the spot. The outline, like chalk that surrounds a corpse at a murder scene, was the only trace left of them.
Mama-san’s entire family — her parents and siblings — all died in the blast.
In the 1970s when I knew her, just more than 30 years since the mushroom cloud rose over her childhood home, she told me she was glad the U.S. picked up the tab for Japan’s defense. Her taxes, she said, included only a few dollars for defense compared with what U.S. citizens paid to keep Japan a less-than-desirable target again.
She was glad that Japan, under the terms of the treaty, would not build more than a token military.
I would gladly pay, if I could, to keep such a horror from happening, as would anyone who has ever visited Hiroshima, where all the businesses, streets and infrastructure — everything — are less than 70 years old.
Except for the burned-out shell of the building in the blast’s epicenter and a few old-timers of Hiroshima’s civilian population, people who still have sores that have never healed and never will, and radiated ground that left succeeding generations in ill health, everything is relatively and uncomfortably new.
War is hell, somebody said.
Despite her practicality and her smiles as she sightlessly served me tea in flowing robes that hid her burned body, Mama-san knows that to be a true assessment.