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

Honeymoon’s Atomic Fireworks Saves Kyoto


Devastation at Nagasaki

Devastation at Nagasaki

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  ~ Margaret Mead

“Too fucking busy, and vice versa. [Reply to her editor who was bugging her for her belated work while she was on her honeymoon]”  ~ Dorothy Parker, Writer

“I told him [General Groves] there was one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto.”  ~ Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War, 1945

The Stimsons meeting with Mrs. Tao Ming Wei, wife of Chinese Ambassador to the US during WWII

The Stimsons meeting with Mrs. Tao Ming Wei, wife of Chinese Ambassador to the US during WWII

A honeymoon saving a city?  A romantic notion, certainly, but like most romances, one seen through rose-colored glasses…the kind that distort the fuller and less sexy truth.

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Visiting the Golden Pavilion on a Perfect Honeymoon Day!

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014,_4190My wife and I just spent our 3rd Honeymoon and my 48th Birthday (we try to have one of each, every year) in the Imperial City (Emeritus) of Kyoto.  As a result of being saved from conventional and atomic bombing in World War II, it is one of the few Japanese cities that still have an abundance of prewar buildings, such as the traditional machiya townhouses and entire old-fashioned neighborhoods where we stayed, as well as a plethora of original temples and shrines, along with the imperial residence and Shogun castle prior to 1868.  Because of this, Kyoto has always been on my top-ten list of places to see in the world, and after visiting, should be the first place anyone visits when coming to Japan.

Nothing says Honeymoon like an authentic machiya deep-soak tub, this one set about 24 inches into concrete.

Nothing says Honeymoon like an authentic machiya deep-soak tub, this one set about 24 inches into concrete.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014,_4244And almost as romantic as my and my wife’s 3rd honeymoon (less the fireworks!), Kyoto was indeed spared by the emotional reactions of just one man.  Because that one man traveled and honeymooned abroad, and like all those who hanker to see and experience the world hold dear and true, traveling changes your life…and others’…sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014,_4457

909The Targeting Committee for use of the atomic bombs in World War II listed Kyoto, Japan, as their number one choice in 1945:

“(1) Kyoto – This target is an urban industrial area with a population of 1,000,000. It is the former capital of Japan and many people and industries are now being moved there as other areas are being destroyed.  From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.”

Since the city was being “groomed” for an atomic attack, it was largely spared from the devastating conventional fire-bombing that was widespread throughout wider Japan in 1945.  This so the effects of such a new “gadget” could be more accurately measured on a relatively undamaged city.

Enjoying the 1,000 Tori

Enjoying the 1,000 Tori

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014,_4172However, Henry L. Stimson, the then United States Secretary of War during WWII, vehemently opposed the strong and repeated Kyoto target nomination by General Groves.  Even though Stimson personally was at great odds with Japan and it’s militaristic culture and unabashed aggression of the time, he, like most who travel, had formed an emotional connection with Kyoto (Japan) from his visits there as a statesman, and quite possibly more so from more personal visits to the city’s cultural centers with his wife, exactly akin to my wife and I characterizing our recent visit as “honeymoons.”  Kyoto is a magical place, and it is not hard to fathom how Mr. Stimson could find himself enchanted with the long and mysterious traditions of the Far East.

Silver Pavilion

Silver Pavilion

Henry_Stimson,_Harris_&_Ewing_bw_photo_portrait,_1929Henry Lewis Stimson (1867 – 1950) was an American statesman, lawyer and spokesman on foreign policy.  He served as Secretary of War (1911–1913) and as Governor-General of the Philippines (1927–1929).  As Secretary of State (1929–1933) he gained further exposure to the Pacific, in particular to Japan during three official visits there.  He again served as Secretary of War (1940–1945) during World War II under Roosevelt, where he took charge of raising and training 13 million soldiers and airmen, supervised the spending of a third of the nation’s GDP annually on the country’s armed forces, helped formulate military strategy, and took personal control of building and using the atomic bomb.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014,_4449In official documents, Secretary Stimson cited a number of “official” reasons why Kyoto should be taken off the A-bomb list, but most certainly one of the primary reasons he was so moved to fight the nomination committee’s flag officers and scientists at the time was that he had actually been to Kyoto.  Stimson did not refer to his emotional ties to Kyoto in formal texts, but a review of his dairies and those who were close to the events suggest his emotional decision to remove Kyoto was immediate and the “official” rationale came much later.  As Secretary of War, Stimson had no compunction with using such an awesomely destructive device on a Japanese city, but as a world traveler, informed leader, and educated statesman, certainly Secretary Stimson was swayed away from even entertaining the idea of utterly destroying a city he – and the rest of the world – enjoyed so much.  In this way, the emotions of time and place often outweigh the cold logic of calculation, and thankfully so.

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Tori across town from atop the Kyoto Tower

However, in breaking with the romantic notions of the story and the man, Stimson’s diary and papers also contain reference to a much more official rationale – and one no less valid – noted during a discussion with then President Truman (my own editorial notes in brackets):

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014,_4404“We had a few words more about the S-1 program, and I again gave him my reasons for eliminating one of the proposed targets [Kyoto].  He again reiterated with the utmost emphasis his own concurring belief on that subject, and he was particularly emphatic in agreeing with my suggestion that if elimination was not done, the bitterness which would be caused by such a wanton act [the destruction of Japan’s cultural center] might make it impossible during the long post-war period to reconcile the Japanese to us in that area rather than to the Russians.  It might thus, I pointed out, be the means of preventing what our policy demanded, namely a sympathetic Japan to the United States in case there should be any aggression by Russia in Manchuria [which Russia was about to invade as part of the Yalta Conference agreement with the U.S. and Great Britain].”

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Gate at Nijo Castle

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014,_4259It’s hard to say what can become of one’s Flirtations and Flings in the Far East.  But romance and love are certainly much kinder and more altruistic motivations than such talk of war and capitulation.  And believe me, Kyoto is full of life, vitality, and love.  With such notions afoot, it’s certainly interesting to think about the ramifications of Stimson and his wife deciding to honeymoon somewhere closer to home…or of having had terrible lodgings and room service in Kyoto…or having had problems in the bedroom while abroad in Japan!  Sometimes the fates of great cities and nations rest in what seems to be trivial yet tragic circumstances….

Devastation at Nagasaki

Devastation at Nagasaki

Like that of Nagasaki, Japan.  The city of Kokura was the primary target for the 2nd atomic bombing, and only because the cloud cover over that city prevented visual dropping of the weapon was Nagasaki bombed, as the secondary target that day…and as the replacement city for Kyoto.

We must always remember that we all have impact; when thoughtfully acted and committed with focus, each of us can each change the world.  Thank you Mr. Stimson for saving Kyoto.  It is, after all, an enchanted place to honeymoon!

Zen Buddhism:  even a Small Thing can have Great Impact

Zen Buddhism: even a Small Thing can have Great Impact