Hideko Tamura, Hiroshima Survivor: ‘That’s When I Lost My Childhood’

Dr. Hideko Tamura was all of 10 years old when she witnessed firsthand the devastation that a nuclear bomb can wreak. She was at home in her family’s estate in Hiroshima, Japan, at 8:16 a.m. on August 6, 1945. Suddenly an incredibly bright flash of light enveloped her, then the world around her collapsed. She was just a mile from ground zero of the blast, which was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.

Dr. Tamura’s life was never the same, of course, as were none of the other survivors of Hiroshima. More than 100,000 eventually died from the immediate blast, or from the effects of radiation later. Dr. Tamura’s mother sadly was at ground zero, likely incinerated instantly – mercifully.

In the new joint NBC News/Creative Mammals documentary, “To End All War: Robert Oppenheimer & The Atomic Bomb’’ (link below) streaming now on Peacock, Dr. Tamura tells a small part of her courageous story. The mother of two – a daughter and a son – she lives in Medford, Oregon, promoting world peace through social work. She is Peace Ambassador for the city of Hiroshima, and Chair of One Sunny Day Initiatives. Her Peace Tree Project was mentioned recently in the New York Times.

Dr. Tamura has been diagnosed with nodule growths in her lungs and thyroid, but miraculously none has morphed into cancer. That’s remarkable considering the amount of radiation she absorbed during, and in the immediate weeks following, the blast.

This past week, Dr. Tamura and I conducted a video zoom interview, during which we discussed her life and all things nuclear. She is remarkably optimistic, given what’s happened to her. For 89, she looks remarkably young, too. At tense points during our conversation, she sometimes broke into short bursts of laughter, not tears. The laughter, she says, is a coping mechanism.

I was born near Tokyo, and lived in Japan until I was four when my family moved to Maryland. Since, I have gone back to Japan to visit Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, the second Japanese city upon which the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb. I have visited the Trinity Site in the deserts of New Mexico, where the first plutonium weapon was tested as the culmination of the Manhattan Project. I’ve also interviewed Dr. Edward Teller, who worked at Los Alamos on the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and Hiroyasu Tagawa, a Nagasaki bomb survivor. So I know a little about this subject.

That said, I was nervous before Dr. Tamura and I chatted. As an American, I can’t help but feel some guilt at what my country had done in 1945, even though I wasn’t alive, whether or not the acts were warranted by war. I told Dr. Tamura as much, and she quickly put me at ease with her charm and infectious smile. The Japanese tend to be exceedingly polite. I think she was genuine.

We zoomed for more than two hours, during which time I learned a lot about her, and something about the thinking of the Japanese people during and after the war. Below are edited excerpts from our interview, with the focus on the immediate aftermath at the time of the explosion. Other subjects will be covered in subsequent parts of this interview.

Jim Clash: I know this is difficult, but take me back to August 6, 1945.

Dr. Hideko Tamura: It started with a flash, so instantly blinding that even with my back against it, my peripheral vision was affected. I jumped up quickly and saw like a waterfall, followed by a humongous sound. My ears had never heard such sound. The whole house started to shake. And it went on for quite a while.

Your immediate reaction is to protect yourself. I bent down and crawled until I could find a safe spot between sturdy furniture. The whole time the house was still moving and breaking up. Later, I heard that people went flying into the air. But I was between the furniture. My head was getting hit by debris. There was also no more light by then, pitch dark.

I was only a kid. I wasn’t a soldier. I had never been through such a horrific experience. My immediate thought was, ‘Oh my God, this is how you die in war.’ The only sanity I could keep was that my mother had left instructions on how to protect myself if there were a direct hit by a bomb.

I was sure a bomb had dropped in my backyard. But all of us in the area couldn’t understand why we only heard one explosion. After what seemed like forever, it became absolutely still, unbelievable. I was covered in debris. Then, at the corner of the room I was in, I saw light and crawled toward it.

I then found out I was cut with shards of glass. Now I’m a 10-year-old, not given to taking care of myself. In the past, a tiny little scratch would send me running to my mother. Here was a huge cut, bleeding, glass stuck in me and I’m totally helpless.

The Tamura family lived in the same household, on an estate, so I tried to tell one of my aunts, “Please, please, help.’’ She looked at me and said, “You’ll have to help yourself, we’ve got our own troubles.’’ That’s when I lost my childhood.

It hit me that I’m the only one that can help me, so I started to take the glass out. I heard the voice of my uncle, my father’s older brother, in the back entrance. He was covered with tiles sitting with his arms open. In the middle of his throat a great big piece of glass was stuck. He said, “This is the end.’’ Now he is the head of the household. He’s supposed to get us together and do this or do that. But nothing.

I was a very spunky, stubborn kid who wouldn’t give up easily [laughs]. I had to go outside and find out where the bomb dropped, what others were saying and doing. Everybody’s house was collapsed. There were two Korean women on the ground reaching up to me, calling, “Help!’’ I didn’t know what to do. I told them I was terribly sorry, that I couldn’t help them. There were people inside of my house that needed help. It was just impossible.

Of course, we had no idea what had really happened. Then the fires started, everywhere. Finally, I said, “We’ve got to get out of here, we’re going to burn to death.’’ I screamed it many times, but none of the adults moved. So I decided to flee on foot all by myself. Later, I found out that a guy called Joe, who had waited on my uncle, forced the rest of them to go with him after I left.

Soon, surrounding villages saw our burns and what miserable shape we were in, and started to send help. I think my father was part of that effort as he was in charge of the rescue mission by the sea. There was a naval station there, where supplies were coming and going.

When I read the report later, my father thought a nearby gas tank had exploded, but it hadn’t. In the station’s parking lot were about 10 trucks. He convinced the military police to send them out to take the injured to a safer place where they could be treated. But some couldn’t even be removed from their houses. They were wedged into the debris too tightly. It was horrible.

During all of this, my mother was not with me. I found out later that she was near ground zero, at the registry. If I had known, I’d have gone into the flames and said, “Mom, I love you, I love you, and want to be with you,” and died right there with her.

[Editor’s Note: In future parts of this interview with Dr. Tamura, we will discuss how she thinks the world can best deal with the threat of nuclear war, her attitude towards Americans, survivor guilt, her family in America, the thinking of the Japanese during and after the war, and more. Stay tuned to the Forbes Lifestyle Channel.]

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