Traces of War: Hiroshima Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum


 

Ghostly Shell of an A-Bombed School

Ghostly Shell of an A-Bombed School

It seemed that the space was haunted. The sounds of laughing children lost so long ago wafting down through the still blown out windows. Searching through the gloom of the dark basement, we could almost see the ghosts of happy children – young souls innocent of the war mongering of the age, taking their seats for class or running and playing. None of them knew what fate had in store for them.

Before and After Views; Honkawa Elementary can be seen just across the River

Before and After Views; Honkawa Elementary is Labeled in Blue just across the River

The atomic bomb exploded in a blinding flash of light and heat. Virtually all buildings within 1.2 miles of the blast were destroyed, and the city as a whole, completely burnt down since most flammable objects within 0.6 miles burst into flame. At 8:15 in the morning of August 6, 1945, about 400 students and more than 10 teachers were killed instantly at the Honkawa Elementary School, and while the building took great amounts of damage, it remained standing. Students and teachers who were outdoors were completely scorched by the radiated heat of the fireball, and along with all those outside within one kilometer of the blast suffered almost 100% lethality. More than 70,000 people were killed within a few days; by December 1945, over 140,000 people would be dead from this one attack.

Honkawa can be seen over the Devastation in the Center Background

Honkawa can be seen over the Devastation in the Center Background

But the sounds we heard were not of phantom students, but living students arriving for school during our early morning visit on Monday morning. The school has been rebuilt, restored, and repopulated. Elementary-aged children, all wearing the same brightly colored yellow school cap and wearing the unique leather backups so ubiquitous throughout Japan, were running about, laughing and chatting as they maneuvered through their friends to find their classrooms. Pointing my camera in their direction, I lowered it just as quickly without pressing the shutter release, wanting to respect the happy moment for these children, so fortunate to be born in a different time.

Urban Preservation

Urban Preservation

The Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum (本川小学校平和資料館 Honkawa Shogakkou Heiwa Shiryokan) is a peace memorial and museum located on the grounds of a still-active elementary school in Hiroshima, Japan. In 1945, it was the school which was closest to the hypocenter of the first atomic bomb used in wartime.

Scorched Basemen Switchboard

Scorched Basemen Switchboard

Against all odds, two students who were in the basement – the site of the present day museum, miraculously managed to survive. A memorial service for those killed here is held each year at the school on August 5, a day before the larger, more overwhelming services which occur in the nearby Peace Memorial Park (see my blog Atomics Footprints in the Sands of Time for more about that feature of the country’s atomic past).

Basement Diorama of Post-Bombed Hiroshima

Basement Diorama of Post-Bombed Hiroshima

Artifacts still being Recovered on School Grounds

Artifacts still being Recovered on School Grounds

The Peace Museum, which opened to the public in 1988, is housed in a very small part of the ground floor and basement of the original reinforced concrete structure, preserved with much of the damage suffered in 1945 still intact. It serves a dual purpose of helping to inform the students who study there, and as a memorial so that all who visit can learn about the importance of peace. The exhibition rooms are primarily found in the basement and include pre- and post-bombing photos, a large collection of school-related items affected by the bombing, and a massive diorama of the city after the attack.

Original Stairs leading to the School's Basement

Original Stairs leading to the School’s Basement

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, original stairwell WM

Charred Doorframe

Charred Doorframe

The L-shaped building was constructed in 1928 as the first three-story reinforced concrete public elementary school in Hiroshima. In the days leading up to August 1945, as the food supplies gradually decreased and the threat of allied bombing loomed more lethal, an evacuation of children throughout Hiroshima began. The students that left generally traveled without their parents, attending ad hoc schools set up in countryside temples, segregated by sex. Meals were supplemented with plucked wild grasses, but consisted mainly of leaves with a bit of rice, sometimes mixed with soybeans. A favorite ploy among the youngsters: those who got sick were often given sweetened rice porridge, so stomach aches were faked on more than a few occasions! Some students became so homesick in their unfamiliar surroundings that they ran away from their temporary lodgings and attempted to return to Hiroshima, often blindly following railways. Searches in most cases resulted in their safe return to exile. The real tragedy however occurred after the bombing. As an example, of the 40 students evacuated to Saifuku-ji temple, there was only a single child which still had both parents alive. Seven were reduced to a single parent, with the rest having become instant orphans, having lost not only their parents, but often their entire families.

Memorials at the Museum's Entrance

Memorials at the Museum’s Entrance

Energy ReleasedHiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, bombing artifacts from the schoolyard WMThe atomic bomb blast occurred less than ¼ mile to the school’s southeast, and at about 2,000 feet overhead. The air blast is a not-so-known feature of nuclear weapons which allow the weapon’s fireball to expand to its full potential, thereby maximizing the bomb’s destructive power. The school’s proximity to the fireball subjected those students and staff present at school to lethal bursts of gamma rays, incinerating temperatures and a severe over pressure, followed by strong winds driving firestorms, and finally radioactive fallout. While the building’s frame survived due to its modern sturdy construction, the inside of the building was completely gutted, leaving only a skeleton in place. It was one of only a few standing buildings left after the A-bombing of Hiroshima.

Crematory on School Grounds

Crematory on School Grounds

Atomic DamageHiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, atomic pipe WMWith only the iron frame of the school remaining, all the people, furniture and implements in the school were lost. Those in the schoolyard all were killed instantly, burning to carbonized black, with some people turning to nothing but charred bones. Those inside the school fared no better, most dying instantly. Those surviving incurred serious mortal injury from glass fragments piercing into their bodies, third degree burns and blast-related wounds, crying as they headed towards and into the nearby river – the only place not on fire. But the waters were already full of corpses and injured people, floating by one after another….

Devastation near Ground Zero

Devastation near Ground Zero; The school is Labeled in Japanese

The day after the bombing the school became a temporary first-aid station, still having walls and a partial roof to provide some semblance of shelter. The school quickly filled with the dead and dying.

Classes Resume in the Ruins

Classes Resume in the Ruins

In February of the following year, however, classes resumed at the school. Four teachers and 45 students, most of who had been evacuated prior to the bombing, were all that was left to make up the entirety of the combined faculty and student body when the doors reopened. The staff, in attempting to restart the school, was deeply affected by the almost impossible task they faced. In their words:

Upon entering the school building, we were at a loss for words. The walls had burned and fallen, the floor had burned to the earth, having the appearance of an accumulation of volcanic ash. Among this, 14-15 children’s desks and chairs that seemed to have been brought in from an evacuation area were lined up. In the front, a blackboard composed of a board painted with black ink was resting on the desks, leaning diagonally. Outside, nothing could be seen. On the window, a bent frame of iron remained. Of the glass, however, not even broken fragments were left. Old straw mats were hung up to block the cold north wind, and its waving back and forth pierced the heart. Children were studying earnestly, trembling in the cold. None of the children had a normal complexion. The teachers were wearing either a soldier uniform for the males, or women’s work pants for the females. Everyone’s face looked to be the color of dry grass. In particular, a male teacher’s face color was completely lacking in vitality, looking as if he were supporting himself purely through willpower. One of the female teachers was holding a cane, and had a strong limp. This was the condition of Honkawa Elementary School at the time.

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, atomic bombed classroom

One student described the miserable conditions in 1947: “When it rained, we would study under umbrellas. Even during the cold winters when snow would blow into the room through the open window, we sat in the broken glass on top of burnt bricks. Nevertheless, we had a fun time at school. We hope that the school will be restored to how it was before.”

Jody across from the Diorama

Jody across from the Diorama

Fire Damage

Fire Damage

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, artifact displays 2 WMA large diorama of the destroyed city, even larger than the one found at the nearby Peace Memorial Museum, with a red ball showing the burst point of the atomic bomb is housed in the museum’s basement. The bare concrete slab walls and blown-out windows still open to the sky above combine with the facility’s gloomy spot-lighting to make a visit here, in many ways, more moving than to other A-bomb sites in the city. While the masses shuffle through more popular sites in Hiroshima, the solitude one can find here makes any stopover so much more…personal. But what makes this place so eerily dark is the chance to actually stand in a building that suffered the full brunt of the atomic energy and its associated death and destruction unleashed in the closing days of World War II.

Cutaway Showing Original Fire Damage

Cutaway Showing Original Fire Damage

080707Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, artifact displays WMA visit to the museum is self-guided. After checking in with the school’s main office, you are left on your own to transit the lively school grounds, part of the intimate experience of visiting. Inside the museum’s entrance is a small desk where leaflets in English can be found, alongside a large collection of donated colorful memorial origami cranes so common at war memorials in Japan. They are a constant and visual reminder that underscores the significance of the place and peoples’ wishes for peace. During our visit as students were arriving and being greeted by school staff at the main entrance, several pupils bowed to welcome me and Jody, and took the opportunity to practice their English “hello.” Remember, there is no “L” sound in Japanese, making our standard greeting very hard to pronounce for most Japanese!

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, memorial origami WM

 

This school, along with its sister museum housed at the Fukuro-machi Elementary School, are well worth visiting in conjunction with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and in many ways, more moving and respective. The promise of youthful life here more than balances the scales against the weight of such dark death and demise.

Youthful Hope Restored

Youthful Hope Restored

 

Helpful Information

Address: 〒730-0802 1-5-39 Honkawa-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima City

Phone: 082-232-3431

Open: School days 0900-1700, except for national holidays and during school vacations. Please check in at the school’s office just inside and to the right of the front gate before entering the museum. The museum is also open to the public during summer recess from August 1 to 10.

Fee: Free of charge

Phone: +81-(0)82-232-3431

Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Honkawa-Elementary-School-Peace-Museum/105650649468063

Map

Sources: Quotes, stories, facts and figures are all transcribed from on-site museum displays and pamphlets.

Atomic Footprints on the Sands of Time: A Visit to Hiroshima


“When the rich wage war it’s the poor die.” ~Linkin Park, Hands Held High

“Holy cow, there it is,” I said to Jody as I caught sight through our airliner’s window of the distinct “T-bridge” which served as the aiming point for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima is 1945. “What an incredibly easy feature to spot,” I thought to myself rather coldly in a manner reminiscent of my bombardier/navigator background flying nuclear-armed attack aircraft with the US Navy. I hadn’t expected to spot this little-known aspect of that fateful bombing on our flight into Hiroshima, but what better way to start our Far East Fling in this iconic Japanese city.

The T-Bridge Aiming Point, just Northeast of the Actual Hypcenter  shown by the Rings

The T-Bridge Aiming Point, just Northeast of the Actual Hypcenter shown by the Rings

13This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a single weapon dropped from a single aircraft that effectively destroyed the city and killed an estimated 140,000 human beings. All politics and revisionist history aside, August 6th should serve as a time for everyone to reflect on the very nature of these devastatingly inhuman weapons. And our visits to the city’s ground- zero park and monuments provided another uniquely Japanese perspective. If you are interested in the scale of destruction visited upon Hiroshima during WWII, check out what would happen to your own hometown if attacked by the same sized weapon, see Hometown Atomic Bombing. Keep in mind that modern air-delivered nuclear weapons are many orders of magnitude more powerful than those of WWII; their use on densely populated urban centers would result in casualties numbering a million or more.

The Hiroshima Bomb if Dropped on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan

The Hiroshima Bomb if Dropped on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan

Before I continue, and regardless of your perspective on the use of nuclear weapons, there exists an inextricably truism about war, one that has remained unchanged as long as there has been armed conflict:

When the rich wage war, it is (primarily) the poor (and innocent) that die.

Sure, there is a cadre of well-educated and financially secure people who chose the military as a profession or answer a patriotic call. And yes, generals do from time to time die in conflict. Politicians? Almost never, unless executed afterwards. But such losses of the more elite sectors of society pale in comparison to the suffering of the masses. The vast number of casualties grieved in war has always been that of bystander civilians…either through direct action – like the intentional bombing of civilian populations, or through secondary effects of war – such as disease, famine, and the hazards of unexploded ordnance.

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The City, Before and After the Atomic Bombing

I’ve blogged about the atomic bombings of Japan before (see They Deserved It for more). We dropped the bombs at the time in order to avoid what would have been a bloody ground assault on the Japanese mainland, which would have cost millions of lives at a minimum. Putting aside the still-raging debate of whether or not Japan would have surrendered the fall of 1945 or winter of ’46 without the atomic attacks, the bombs worked in avoiding countless deaths…on both sides of the Pacific.

First View of the A-Bomb Dome

First View of the A-Bomb Dome

But there’s nothing like visiting Hiroshima to underscore the stark reality of nuclear warfare. Taking a small ferry into the city from nearby Miyajima Island, our first eyewitness views of the iconic “A-Bomb Dome” came into view as we rounded Hiroshima’s peace memorial park. The memorial, still standing tall under bright blue skies, is eerily silent in its nearly demolished state.

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08The A-Bomb Dome is an iconic structure, left nearly as it was in 1945 (see Ie Island’s Municipal Pawn Shop for another example of leaving only a single unaltered structure as a war memorial). Internationally recognized as a symbol of war, it immediately exudes the inexplicably suffering that the modern atomic age can bring. But our day and night-time visits there were only the beginning of our growing awareness of the multi-dimensional anguish experienced there during the closing days of WWII.

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14The Peace Memorial Park – of which the A-Bomb Dome is part, is a huge greenspace near the city center of Hiroshima. Surrounded by rivers and canals, the park exhibits various memorials, sculptures, and testimonies, along with the remains of tens of thousands of victims hastily cremated in the days following the attack. The combined ashes of over 70,000 people are still kept in within a burial mound found in a quiet corner of the park; there are still over 800 individual containers of ashes of known (named) people still unclaimed.

Burial Mound in Peace Memorial Park

Burial Mound in Peace Memorial Park

17The Children’s Peace Monument in the park is one of the more popular and most visited. Here under the “Atomic Bomb Children Statue” is told the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia caused by bomb-produced radiation. She is immortalized at the top of the statue found there, holding a wire crane above her head. In the days prior to her death, Sadako attempted to create a thousand folded paper cranes in hopes of helping to rid the world of nuclear weapons; tradition in Japan holds that if one folds such a number of origami cranes, they are granted on wish. Sadako achieved her goal and continued to fold even more cranes in the last months of her life. But ultimately she passed away in October 1955, her one wish left not granted…. Her story is presented in more detail and accompanied by many photos in the nearby Peace Memorial Museum.

Children's Peace Monument

Children’s Peace Monument

Today the Children’s Peace Monument serves to commemorate both Sadako and the thousands of other child victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. People from all over the world offer thousands of brightly colored origami cranes, both in honor of those children, and in the hopes of a safe, more peaceful world.

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Atomic bombing survivors, referred to as hibakusha in Japan, today number only about 183,000. Their average age is 80, very close to Japan’s average life expectancy. And many are still fighting illnesses and injuries traced to the bombings seven decades ago. We encountered a few of these hibakusha during our walks through the Peace Memorial Park, where they set up small ad hoc displays and tell their stories. Some even sell books, or offer internet sites dedicated to their story and/or cause.

Visiting One of the Many Memorials

Visiting One of the Many Memorials

One survivor we met was only a small child at the time of the attack, while another was yet to be born, still inside her mother’s womb. These witnesses, both of which spoke very good English, provided a unique, live first-hand account of the bombing that cannot be experienced in any other way. Hiroshima is doing all they can to record these personal accounts; it is important these stories do not disappear, lost to time and circumstance.

The Now-Dated Peace Memorial Museum

The Now-Dated Peace Memorial Museum

31But it was visiting the Peace Memorial Museum located in the park that the horrors of Hiroshima are presented on a personal, human level. Perhaps the most moving – in a long line of terribly tragic stories, mostly involving children and teenagers, is that concerning a lone tricycle, mangled and rusted, displayed in a Plexiglas case under subdued lighting. This child’s bike remains in silent tribute to the demise of just one 3-year-old boy, but is analogous to the misery felt throughout the city so long ago in August of 1945. The boy’s name was Shinichi Tetsutani, and was nicknamed “Shin” by his family (see Shin’s Tricycle for an illustrated account by Shin’s father).

Shin's Tragic Trike on Display

Shin’s Tragic Trike on Display

29“The air was filled with the sandpapery sounds of cicadas rubbing their legs together in the nearby trees,” states Shin’s father, Nobuo Tetsunani, describing the calm and sunny morning of the bombing. Shin and his best friend, a little neighbor girl named Kimi, were outside playing with his favorite toy, a tricycle with red handlebars, no different from one might find in the hands of an American child deep in the heart of the United States. At 8:15 that morning, though, the first atomic bomb used in anger detonated high over the city. In a bright flash, everything changed for everyone. Forever.

Horrors of the Atomic Age

Horrors of the Atomic Age

The massive over-pressure created by the blast and expanding fireball created an “explosion so terrible, a flash so blindingly bright, I thought the world had ended,” the boy’s father said. “Then, just a quickly, everything went black.” Shin’s home collapsed in on the entire family.

Finding Shin

Finding Shin

In the chaos following the attack Shin could not be located. His family frantically searched among the wreckage of their destroyed home, where they found the small boy pinned under a heavy and fractured beam of the house. He was badly hurt. “His face was bleeding and swollen,” his father solemnly recalls. “He was too weak to talk but his hand still held just the red handlebar grip from his tricycle. Kimi was gone too, lost somewhere under the house.” Shin would not survive the night.

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Shin needed to be buried, but Nobuo could not bear the thought of his son being left so alone in a faraway grave. Instead, he decided to bury Shin in a grave in the backyard of their flattened home. He was placed to rest with Kimi, both lying beside his beloved tricycle.

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22Decades later, in 1985, Shin‘s father decided to move his son’s remains and entomb them more properly in the family grave. He and Kimi‘s mother unearthed the backyard grave, where they found “the little white bones of Kimi and Shin, hand in hand as we had placed them.” But Shin‘s father had all but forgotten about the tricycle. The very next day he donated the trike to the Peace Memorial Museum in the hopes of making the world a safe place for all children to play. And today, the legacy of this 3-year-old boy continues to remind us all of the horrors of war and of the atomic age.

The Fireball to Scale over Hiroshima

The Fireball to Scale over Hiroshima

27Yes, the stories featured in the museum primarily focus on children and teenagers, which of course maximizes the emotional impact on visitors and makes it appear, on the surface, that every victim of the bombing was wholly innocent of wrongdoing in WWII. The museum focuses little on Japan’s significant military presence in Hiroshima, nor on their culpability in causing the War in the Pacific or the long history of crimes against humanity committed by their forces in the region starting in Manchuria in 1931. But, as the opening quote states, those most responsible remained unaffected. It was, by and large, innocent civilian bystanders, those trying to live their lives as best they could under extreme circumstance beyond their control or influence, who suffered the most.

Fused Sake Cups

Fused Sake Cups

Interesting, an oral survey was offered us by Japanese volunteers upon exiting the museum. Only a couple of questions was asked, one of which was, “Did today’s visit change your opinion of nuclear weapons?” I answered truthfully and said, “No,” but quickly qualified my answer that I was already anti-nuclear weapons before visiting. I wonder if most Japanese think America and most Americans as pro-nuclear.

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Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to ridding ourselves of the atomic plague. The world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and countries in possession all seem reluctant to break their collective addiction to the notion of nuclear deterrence or strength and security through the atom (see Fortress of Peace for a future than can be quite different). Worse, other nations who wish to be recognized actors on the global stage take every effort in obtaining such destructive technologies. A visit to Hiroshima can help to change both perspectives, even if it is one person at a time.

And maybe, in a not-to-distant future, the rich will stop waging wars so that we all can live.

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