Losing their Hearts in San Francisco:  The San Francisco Maru of Truk Lagoon


“Come back.  Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”  ~Euripides, Greek classical tragedian playwright

Built in Japan in 1919 by the Kawasaki Dockyard, The SS (Steam Ship) San Francisco Maru was a medium-sized freighter of the time specifically designed for the Japanese Yamashista Kisen Line.   She was a 385ft, 27ft beam, 5,800+ ton passenger-cargo ship that served as part of Japan’s wider commercial fleet involved in world-wide trade.  The word “Maru,” meaning “circle” in Japanese, has been used to designate a Japanese merchant vessel since the 16th century.  Although the exact reasoning of this particular ship-naming convention is lost to time, the idea of a safe circular journey for ships and their crews is probably not far from the mark.  As to the city-name?  The Japanese at the time often named ships to reflect their primary destinations.

The San Francisco Maru

The San Francisco Maru

During World War II the Japanese were in desperate need to meet the logistical needs of their new Pacific empire, suddenly stretched far, wide, and thin.  Many commercial vessels were thus taken into service of the Emperor, a fate no different for the San Francisco.  Following her requisition by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the ship was detailed to transport military cargoes between the Japanese homeland and far-flung Pacific destinations.  Like most of the other Japanese merchants during WWII, the San Francisco was armed, in this case with a single 75mm/3” deck gun forward to both defend against surface submarine attack, and to provide an opportunity to attack and capture other unsuspecting merchants she happened to meet along the way.

Although damaged by aerial bombing in 1943 while delivering supplies in New Guinea, the San Francisco suffered her fatal blows after arriving at Truk Lagoon (current day Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia) in February 1944.  Packed with war materials, including cargo holds full of bombs, mines and torpedoes, she arrived just days before a massive American attack on this Japanese stronghold.  During Operation “Hailstone” (ラック島空襲 Torakku-tō Kūshū, lit. “the airstrike on Truk Island”) between 17-18 February 1944, waves upon waves of US Navy carrier-based planes were launched against shipping found at Truk, as well as the significant military presence Japan had built up there since the end of World War I.  After the first day’s attacks, the San Francisco was observed and reported by US forces as being on fire with smoke belching amidships.  The next day, she was reportedly hit by at least six 500-lb bombs, and was left burning furiously and sinking stern first.  At least five crew members were killed.  Operation Hailstone is often referred to as the “Japanese Pearl Harbor” due to the massive damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet.

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

It’s position lost to the fog of war made even more obscure by the passage of time, the wreck was “discovered” in 1969 by Cousteau (no doubt with the help of locals who all but knew her location), but was not dived again until 1973 when the ship’s bell was recovered and her identity confirmed.

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

The San Francisco lies very deep, and rests on an even keel with the superstructure beginning at ~140fsw, weather deck at ~165fsw, and the sea bottom around 210fsw.  Upon descent, her wreck remains invisible, and only passing about 50’fsw do her twin masts first come into view, themselves reaching up only to 105’fsw.  Heading from the forward mast to the bow, you cross over the open access to cargo hold 1 and finally reach the vessel’s most impressive and picturesque deck gun at ~150fsw.  Most deck guns of the wrecks in Truk are covered with an immense amount of growth, but due to the depths of the San Francisco, this is not that case of her wreck.

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

After touring the gun – a must on this shipwreck in Truk – one should immediately descend down into hold 1 forward, where you will find a cargo space packed with hemispherical landmines, at one time destined to help defend the beaches and shallow waters of Truk Lagoon against potential Allied invasion.  Watch the depth here though; the hold descends down to almost 200fsw!  Exiting up and aft out of hold , immediately proceed aft and around the forward mast to hold 2, where divers will find a plethora of scattered aerial bombs, complete with tail fins and the remains of their original wooden packing crates, along with the remains of Japanese trucks in the hold’s ‘tween decks.  Still deeper, drums of fuel can be seen.

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Perhaps the highlight of visiting the San Francisco, however, are the three iconic Japanese tanks still found resting on the ship’s main deck.  These tanks, built by Mitsubishi, are Japanese Light Type 95 HA-Go tanks covered in with ½” armor.  They appear toyishly small in appearance, but would have been manned by a crew of three and could make up to 30mph on a six-cylinder, air-cooled 120hp diesel engine.  Weighing ~7.5 tons, the tanks were armed with three weapons:  a 37mm main battery turreted gun, and two 7.7mm machine guns, one forward (non-coaxial) and one rear-facing.  The tank was only mildly effective against infantry and was never designed for armored battles, and with an extremely cramped interior, only the lightest armor, and a hand-operated turret, the tank suffered enormously in battle as more modern battlefield weapons came into play.  Two tanks are found on the starboard side of the ship, with one to port.  This is perhaps the most photogenic part of the wreck, and if your bottom time is already limited (as it is on this wreck), make sure to reserve at least a few minutes for these infamous tanks.

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From here, our planned dive run time required us to start our long ascent to the surface, where we completed our accelerated decompression profiles as we went.  It’s hard to leave the wreck, especially seeing the cratered remains of the superstructure (severely damaged from bombing), and knowing that the rear cargo holds contain a mixture of trucks, crates of ammunition, more mines, some depth charges, and scattered torpedoes….  How this wreck failed to detonate under such intense bombing is hard to imagine.  Equally as befuddling is the lack of other visible damage from the other reported bomb hits of the 2nd day’s attacks.

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But exploring the 2nd half of this ship, where those five unfortunate souls who lost their hearts in San Francisco can be remembered as a shadowy dream, will have to wait for my return to Truk Lagoon.  Until then, stayed tuned for more “Traces of War” from this year’s adventures exploring this iconic battle site.

Traces of War: The Voices of Fukuro-machi Elementary School


“This peace museum is located in a preserved section of Fukuro-machi Elementary School’s west building, an A-Bombed building. Its precious exhibits – notably messages scrawled on walls communicating the whereabouts of survivors – starkly convey the situation at the school when it served as a relief station immediately following the bombing.”  ~ Museum Placard

The preserved section of the original school, surrounded by the new.

The Preserved Section of the Original, Surrounded by the New.

August 6, 1945 began with a beautiful sunrise for Hiroshima’s many sleepy residents. Air raid alarms, warning of enemy planes and potential attack, had sounded on and off throughout the previous night, forcing much of the city to hide in shelters again and again. There was little time for sleep.

The threat of bombing subsided as the bright morning sun rose in the east, and the “all-clear” signal was finally given at 7:31 A.M. Those in air raid shelters and evacuation areas started to make their way home, some even going directly to work or their mobilization sites.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum, exploring the preserved messages from the past WM

Hiroshima was in the process of preparing itself against the massive fire-bombing that her sister cities had suffered. In the city center, various large-scale building demolition projects were underway, designed to create firebreaks and provide escape routes. Work for most started at about 8:00 A.M., and this day was no different.

Except for the blast that leveled the city which occurred just 15 minutes later….

The Gutted School as a Aid and Rescue Station

The Gutted School as a Aid and Rescue Station

The Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum (袋町小学校平和資料館) is located in Hiroshima, just across the river from the city’s more famed Peace Memorial Park. At the time of the bombing, it was one of the closest schools to the bomb’s hypocenter – only the Honkawa was closer (see Honkawa Peace Museum for more on that school). Exposed to the massive effects of the blast, heat rays, and radiation only 460 meters from ground zero, about 160 students and teachers at the school were killed while the school was heavily damaged. Three students miraculously survived, having been by chance in a sheltered part of the basement at the time of the bombing. Luckily for the community, most of the school’s pupils had previously been evacuated to the surrounding countryside.

Message in a Bottle

Message in a Bottle

The western wing, the one where the present-day museum is housed, was completed in 1937, and its three stories were made of reinforced concrete and included a completed basement and flush toilets, all quite modern for the time in Japan. Most of the school had collapsed and burned to ashes, being mostly made of wood. But because the newer, reinforced concrete western wing of the school survived the blast, the day after, August 7, 1945, the gutted hulk of the school became a first aid station.

Dr. Ota, a Female Eye Doctor, does what she can....

Dr. Ota, a Female Eye Doctor, does what she can….

“For a treatment table, we put desks together. When we peeled the long bandages from the patients’ wounds, their pain was excruciating. We got those who were relatively healthy to slowly pull their own bandages off, but we had to do it for the more seriously wounded. The procedure was so difficult and painful it make many scream and cry. We applied ointment to their faces and cut the gauze to the size of their heads. Then we cut holes with scissors for their eyes, nose and mouth. Where there were signs of festering, we applied mercurochrome.” ~ Masayuki Okita

Museum Displays

Museum Displays

There were, however, only two nurses and doctors available to treat the wounded and dying, and almost no medicines. Finally, on August 20, 1945, a regional medical team moved in, and by this time, the school had become a key base of operations for relief activities throughout the city. The school’s role in rescuing and treating survivors was significant.

Voices from the Past Echo across the Generations

Voices from the Past Echo across the Generations

“Our examination rooms was a tiny space under the stairs. The classrooms had all become hospital “wards.” On the second floor were the hygiene section and general affairs. I don’t have accurate numbers for patients treated, but it was probably around 350. Most of those were badly burned over their entire bodies. We could hardly stand to look at them. The wounded were everywhere, completely filling the classroom floors. They had other wounds as well. ~ Dr. Hagi Ota

A Plaster Cut-Out showing the Negative of the Original

A Plaster Cut-Out showing the Negative of the Original

But what really makes this place uniquely sobering is that the schools soot-covered walls and charred blackboards had, at the time, became message boards for those in desperate search of their loved ones. In this regard, not only is the building a direct surviving relic of the atomic explosion, its walls today still carry the loud and tragic voices of the past. As a place of refuge, people began to leave messages on the burned walls using pieces of chalk which were scattered on the floor.  Contemplating the undecipherable characters as the lone visitors to the museum on a late weekday afternoon, I swear I could hear the cries and pleas of their authors….

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings and rememberance WM

“Patients had survived 12 days since the bombing and had received what treatment was available. They had regained some emotional composure. Very few were crying or screaming, but they were suffering quietly with terrible pain and anxiety. Many were on the brink of death. This much had not changed.” ~ Masayuki Okita

The Walls in 1945 and Today

The Walls in 1945 and Today

With each passing day after Hiroshima was leveled, more and more people frantically searched for missing children, spouses, siblings, coworkers and friends. Most were hoping to find someone alive, but all were hoping at least to recover remains to bring home, which in most cases was simply no possible since people were reduced to ash, swept downriver, burnt beyond recognition, or otherwise disposed of by rescue teams. But still those left behind held out hope. And they continued to scrawl messages on the walls of the school in the hopes of reuniting with the missing, be they alive or dead.

Messages Recovered from Time

Messages Recovered from Time

“One of the strangest by common sights was patients with maggots in their facial burns. The maggots crawled from their eyelids onto their eyeballs. There were tragic scenes of childbirth. Every day, many patients died. The playground became a crematory. The ashes were placed into wooden boxes. If their names were known, they were written on pieces of paper and posted on the wall above the box. When people would come looking for relatives and found their names, we would give them some of the ashes from the box with that name on it….” ~ Atomic Bomb Survivor

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum, stairwell message from the past 2 WM

Those messages, however, were lost to time when the building was repaired, having been plastered or painted over. In March 1999, when plans were being explored for preserving a section of the original building as an atomic bombing peace memorial, messages beneath plaster and paint were discovered. It seems that although plaster absorbed both chalk and soot alone, when chalk is placed on top of soot, only the chalk is absorbed, leaving behind in effect a “negative” of the original message. This find launched a full-scale investigation of the entire west building, which recovered many more messages. These desperate and often sad messages from the past became the central element of the now-altered plans for a moving peace museum.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings and rememberance 2 WM

Some of those original messages left by survivors who scribbled in chalk on the soot-blackened walls of the school can still be seen today in the museum which opened in a preserved section of the school in 2002 (the rest of the building has been replaced with modern construction). The photo overlays of the messages seen today on the walls of the museum were taken in October 1945, about two months after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Cutouts in the existing wall’s plaster reveal portions of the messages still preserved underneath. In the basement are doors and windows on display that were damaged in the blast of August 6th.

Origami Peace Offerings

Origami Peace Offerings

The museum provides very good English translations of Japanese placards. There are numerous survivor testimonials, many focused on the role of the school as an aid station in the days and weeks following the bombing. The museum here is modern and well-appointed offering multi-media presentations, much more so than that found at Honkawa.

Preserved Portions

Preserved Portions

But while this peace museum is informative and moving, the museum structure itself well isolated from the school still active on the site. What is missing here is hope in the form of life always finds a way, the most precious facet of our shared human existence that is so readily apparent at Honkawa museum with the sights and sounds its happy school children hurrying about.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings WM

Still, this site offers a much more personal focus on the tragedy and human suffering resulting from the city’s atomic bombing. Rather than talk in generic numbers that are almost unimaginable, many first-hand accounts are offered to help those visiting contemplate and understand such horrors. Much like a visit to Honkawa, a brief stop here is really every bit as important as visiting the crowded park and museum just a few blocks away.

Always Choose Peace

Always Choose Peace

For More Information:

Address: 〒730-0036 6-36 Fukuro-machi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima City

Phone: 082-541-5345 Hours: 09:00 – 17:00, closed Dec. 28 – Jan. 4

Admission: FREE!

Web: http://www.fukuromachi-e.edu.city.hiroshima.jp/shiryoukan-index.htm

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fukuromachi-Elementary-School-Peace-Museum/111874765496586

V-J Day, Victory over Japan


“Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink.” ~An exchange between TSgt Donald Larson and His Girl Dolores

Young Don and Dolores during WWII

Young Don and Dolores during WWII

Jody, in reorganizing what we affectionately refer to as our “crap room,” just yesterday found a packet of letters from her Grandfather to his future bride Dolores during his service as part of the Army Air Forces in WWII. Jody and her Mother, Bonnie, thought these letters missing. Searches on both ends occurred without success. In these particular letters we were able to hear of the end of the war through Jody’s Grandfather’s eyewitness words. And oddly enough, these words turned up this particular week.

The Ending of the War, almost an Afterthought!

The Ending of the War, almost an Afterthought!

A strange coincidence? Yes. This week marks the passing of an indelible date to people on both sides of the Pacific: the anniversary of the surrender of Imperial Japan. On August 15th, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito formally announced his government’s surrender, and in the process, effectively ended World War II.

Donald Larson is standing all the way to the right. He was already an old man being already in his 30s.

B-17 Flying Fortress crew of 10.  Donald Larson is standing all the way to the right. He was already an old man being already in his 30s.

Fighting through Flak

Fighting through Flak

At the time, Jody’s Grandfather, TSgt Donald Edgar Larson, was stationed in Wisconsin, having previously survived 35 bombing missions as a B-17 Flying Fortress mechanic and aerial gunner. From the summer of 1944 through early winter of 1945, Don fought the war in Europe as part of the Eight Air Force in the skies over Germany and France. In a somewhat less glamorous yet infinitely safer role, at the time of the Japanese surrender, he found himself driving trucks at the Army Air Force’s Truax Field, just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. His love, Dolores, was in Iowa.

Manning a Fortress Waist Gun

Manning a Fortress Waist Gun

Truax Field was activated as an Army Air Forces airfield in June 1942, and served as the headquarters for the Army Air Forces Eastern Technical Training Center, tasked with training B-17 mechanics and radio operators, and in later times, radar operators for the “new” B-29 Superfortress. Today, it is an Air National Guard Base, co-located with Dane County Regional Airport, home of the Wisconsin ANG 115th Fighter Wing, equipped with the F-16 Fighting Falcon. In another odd connection and “what are the odds” turn of events (see Long Odds and Unlikely Connections for more), this past spring I ended up befriending and training in scuba a number of reservists from this very base and unit while they were deployed to Kadena Air Base here on Okinawa, Japan.

Donald as an Army Air Force E4

Donald as an Army Air Force E4

At noon on August 6th, 1945, Gyokuon-hōsō (玉音放送 “Jewel Voice Broadcast”) was heard in a radio broadcast in which Japanese Emperor Hirohito read out the “Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War” (大東亜戦争終結ノ詔書 Daitōa-sensō-shūketsu-no-shōsho). It was translated into English and simulcast throughout the Pacific and in America. In what was probably the first time that an Emperor of Japan had spoken to the common people, he announced that the Japanese Government had accepted the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Japanese military. The bloody Battle of Okinawa, the twin devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held territories all conspired to bring the War in the Pacific to a quick and somewhat unexpected end.

No Zip Codes!

No Zip Codes!

TSgt Larson got the news on August 14th, as most of America did due to the time-traveling dimension of the international dateline and the many time zones separating the West from the Far East. In a letter dated August 15th, 1945, he writes:

“Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink. I suppose you celebrated last night or today, right? Boy, Darling its to (sic) good to be true to think this was is finaly (sic) over at last. That’s going to be one happy day when I get of this thing which I think will be soon. You should have heard some of the guys around here they almost went wild you can imagine what a noise there was.”

The date was known to the allies of the time as “Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day),” and remains so for the United Kingdom. However, official commemorations in the United States honoring the ending of World War II occur on September 2nd, when the formal signing of the surrender document on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay actually transpired.

TSgt Larson WWII, army air forces honorable discharge

Honorable Discharge

In Japan, August 15 usually is known as the “Memorial Day for the End of the War” (終戦記念日 Shūsen-kinenbi). The official name for the day, however, is the “Day for Mourning of War Dead and Praying for Peace” (戦没者を追悼し平和を祈念する日 Senbotsusha o tsuitōshi heiwa o kinensuru hi), nomenclature fairly recently adopted by the Japanese government in 1982.

Postage was only 3 cents, but look at military pay of the time!

Postage was only 3 cents, but look at military pay of the time!

The end of the war, a momentous occasion by any standard, is oddly almost an afterthought in Don’s letters to his girlfriend. Perhaps he knew that his combat days were over in that war, having survived the Luftwaffe and the 8th Army Air Force.  Equally as interesting, the envelopes used to send his letters were addressed merely to just “Miss Dolores Arens, Le Mars, Iowa,” while the postage was free (but 3 cents for the general public). The postmarks are all from Madison, WI, and dated 1945. Such a simpler time on most fronts. Except for that horrible, global war….

4-Engine Bombers of Every Boy's Dreams

4-Engine Bombers of Every Boy’s Dreams

What I find quite humorous and enlightening, though, is a letter concerning the “new stationery” which Don was trying out in a letter sent July 26th, 1945, somewhat timidly, on his sweetheart: “Here is some of that new stationery I was telling you about. I still don’t know if I should send it or not but here goes,” Don hints. His later comments below (in bold), which also are found in the letter which is quoted in part above, confirm that boys will be boys, through time and even at the crossroads of history when a world war happens to be ending:

August 15, 1945

My Dearest Dolores,

Hello my Darling how are you any way (sic)? I had begin (sic) to wonder if you was still living or not as it had been so long since I had heard from you from the 1st until the 15th that’s a long time between letters.

I planned on waiting until I got an answer but same as usual I didn’t. I should wait as long as you did before I write but some thing (sic) won’t let me.

Darling I just got your letter yesterday saying that you got the watch O.K. it went to Chanute and they was how about sending it on to me.

Oh! Yes how’s the sun burn you mentioned in that letter? Hope its O.K.

Yes, Darling I am still driving trucks not such a bad job at that but I can think of other things I’d rather be doing.

Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink. I suppose you celebrated last night or today, right? Boy, Darling its to (sic) good to be true to think this was is finaly (sic) over at last. That’s going to be one happy day when I get of this thing which I think will be soon. You should have heard some of the guys around here they almost went wild you can imagine what a noise there was.

Darling, you know I would come and see you if I could but you can imagine how things are here in the army. Its to (sic) late in the game to screw up the works now.

So you liked that stationery did you? That was some four engine bomber wasn’t it? I couldn’t say if it was a B-29 or what it was, Ha! It was a new model of some kind.

I got Romies (sic) address too I’ll write to him not saying that it will do any good, but if he isn’t getting your letters it seems as tho (sic), you would get them back.

Well My Darling think I have wrote (sic) enough for this time and guess I’ll wait until I get an answer before I write again. Should I?

Good night My Darling see you in my Dreams.

All My Love, Don

TSgt Larson WWII, young Don and Dolores

Thankfully, Don and Dolores’ relationship survived both that world war and some rather risqué stationery (for the time). The emergence of this correspondence during this week of historical significance provides a beautifully clocked look back through time, and into the roots of our families. And one that offers an overlay of everyday humanity that sometimes we forget always permeates even the most auspicious of occasions.

As an E7 at Separation in September 1945

As an E7 at Separation in September 1945

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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Traces of War: Ryukyu Islands Surrender Site


Japanese Delegation on the USS Missouri

Japanese Delegation on the USS Missouri

The Japanese in WWII surrendered on September 2nd, 1945, or so most people think. The surrenders of some of Japanese forces scattered across the Pacific occurred later, as it day here on Okinawa. Five days after the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo harbor, the last remnants of their Okinawa garrison officially capitulated on September 7th, 1945.

Japanese Surrender on Okinawa

Japanese Surrender on Okinawa

With General Doolittle in attendance, General Joseph Stilwell and commanding representatives of the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy signed a surrender document in a ceremony held at what is now the Stearley Heights area of Kadena Air Force Base.

Japanese Representative Flag Officers Arriving on Okinawa

Japanese Representative Flag Officers Arriving on Okinawa

f3eec8bc2bf66e672bb5bf2a482254f3General Toshiro Nomi, flown in since all Japanese Flag officers in the Ryukyus – including Ryukyu Commanding General Mitsuru Ushijima and his Chief of Staff Isamu Chō – had been killed or committed suicide, signed on behalf of the Imperial Japanese General Headquarters and the Japanese Government.

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Signatures and Signatories

Signatures and Signatories

g344921g344919The ceremony was held at the then 10th Army Headquarters at what was known as Camp Kuwae. While victory on what was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater was declared much earlier on June 22nd by General Geiger, mopping up operations continued for many weeks. The capitulation was formal and befitting the end of hostilities on the Island, and remained marked by a flag pole and historical marker flanked by captured Japanese artillery pieces.

Surrender Site ~1946

Surrender Site ~1946

Surrender Site ~1960

Surrender Site ~1960

But through the years, some way and somehow, this site lost its place of importance, becoming overgrown and unkempt with each passing year.

Surrender Site ~1967

Surrender Site ~1967

Then, the area was repurposed as military housing to support the growing footprint of the American military presence on the island as the growing cold war turned hot in both Korea and Vietnam. Still, the site remained marked with a small granite stone in the center of a residential cul-de-sac, a marker less than befitting the site’s actual historical importance.

Surrender Site 2015

Surrender Site 2015

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, HQ Tenth Army Surrender of the RyukyusFinally, and only recently in 1997, the site was re-recognized for the pivotal point in history that it tangibly represents. A construction project was undertaken to transform the cul-de-sac into a “Peace Memorial Garden,” and more appropriate markers and plaques better tell the story of what transpired there.

Peace Memorial Park 2015

Peace Memorial Park 2015

Still, it’s odd that the location is flanked on three sides by nondescript cinderblock single family homes, where the garden doubles as a children’s playground for the immediate neighborhood.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender 2 September 1945 WM

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender placards WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, HQ Tenth Army Surrender of the RyukyusBut given the blood, sweat and tears shed over Okinawa by all sides civil and military, perhaps there is no more fitting use of this sacred ground than that which can produce laughter and happiness. I was only too happy to see a couple of children giggle and scream as they give chase through the monuments. For it is peace that the site represents, and the innocence of those children are exactly what help to consecrate the grounds to just such ends.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, war monument and peace garden WM

See more modern photographs of Okinawa Battlesites here on my Flickr photostream.