Remembering the Atomic Bomb…

By Paul Zolbrod
After thinking it over, I thought I’d share this item on the seventieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb dropping, an event secured tightly in my memory bank, inasmuch as I was an impressionable thirteen years old then. I had not yet begun to grasp its magnitude, however, until I served a memorable military service year in Tokyo following the Korean war.

While there I was befriended by a Japanese veteran who himself had seen action in Manchuria during World War II with his share of bitter suffering–not only his but that of his comrades and his Chinese “enemies.” With that, he took me all over the main island of Honshu during week-end passes and for a lengthy furlough of hiking and mountain climbing, with plenty of time to talk about war and peace on an adult level, drawing me more closely into Japanese culture than I otherwise would have ventured, so that I developed a fondness for the Japanese people I still maintain.

Among my experiences while there I found a Japanese dancing partner during routine Sunday evening social gatherings in the post service club where women were bused in to join us to dance and chat. A remarkable dancer but otherwise shy and withdrawn, she was not attractive; she had a badly scarred face and a neck disfigured with ruddy tissue that evidently extended below her neckline to her lower body–a survivor of Hiroshima, I was told by one of her companions.

But she danced magnificently, enough so that when we took to the floor others left it and watched us. I did not consider myself a good dancer but I certainly danced with her enjoyably well. She moved so lithely that together we became part of the music, my feet and hers belonging in perfect syncopation to songs like “Night and Day,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” and “String of Pearls.” I also remember how the vividness of her scarred face and neck vanished as we danced, reappearing only when we stopped, and she removed herself to wallflower’s quiet solitude astride the dance floor as I flirted and cavorted with prettier girls, while she sat alone.

As a rule, I did not ask her to dance. Rather, she would approach me with extended arms and a shy, winsome smile saying nothing, simply wanting to dance. I confess to an initial hesitation because of her disfigured face and deeply scarred neck, but with a twang of compassion and the pleasure in the magic of how we moved together, her unsightly face and neck vanished with the music. My dancing days now over, I still think of her now and then, wishing we could dance together one last time. Which is why I mention her today, seventy years after what must have been her ordeal.

In the climax of “Battle Songs,” my more recent Korean War Novel, the American protagonist Sam has a dreadful confrontation with a Japanese climbing partner, Neko, a tormented Hiroshima bomb survivor, A growing antagonism between them erupts when he verbally assaults Sam with a recount of his experience. Here is the passage, which I drew almost verbatim from a book of translated first hand accounts of that terrible event. Neko utters his feverish declaration in Japanese, while their Japanese climbing companion interprets in English with what seems to Sam cruel indifference:

“There were needles in my eyes, and I felt the skin of my back burning. Glass flew at me, driven by the wind, and I could feel it in my flesh everywhere. I called my mother, but she was pinned down under a pile of lumber and did not speak. I went to her. Mother, i called to her, but she was dead. . . .

“Then I heard my father calling me and I ran to him. I could see the skin falling away from his body, all black, and underneath were his muscles and his bones. We ran out into the street, my father and I. Help me! help me! father cried. He was crying like a helpless child, and I had to lead him because he could not see. The sky was a funny color. Buildings were burning everywhere. Green balls of fire floated this way and that and in the odd-colored light plants looked like the color of dried leaves–like dry brown ashes. Steel beams were on fire and even the trolley tracks were red with heat. I could not see anyone in the streets and I thought that father and I were the only two people alive in Hiroshima.”

On and on Neko chants, describing how he takes his father into a nearby river where people are begging for water as a warden declares, “You mustn’t drink…! You mustn’t drink…!” and they are surrounded by dead bodies. On and on Neko continues, until he finally turns away from Sam, raises his shirt, and displays a back charred and scarred with “tender tissue that had melted into little ridges like pink scraps of a fish’s guts.” Himself a battle-tormented survivor of combat in Korea, Sam breaks down as he listens, begging their companion to stop translating until he loses consciousness.

When I first read it, I knew at once I wanted that scene for the story and I thought again of that now nameless partner, the rawness of her neck and facial tissue, how she used her eyes and outstretched arms to ask me to dance with her, and once again the sublime pleasure of our moving across the floor together. And just then I found myself wishing I could put my arms around her so many years later and hug her with an understanding I suddenly felt. Ever since, I have identified myself as a pacifist and I reaffirm that declaration on this anniversary day.


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