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Hibakusha: Former medical student recalls feeling of helplessness after atomic bomb

Some years ago, former president of Nagasaki University Hideo Tsuchiyama, 89, received a black-and-white photograph. It was a picture of himself, taken not long after the Nagasaki atomic bomb, in October 1945.

    The photo had been found by coincidence by the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace's picture resource investigation section at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Apparently, the photo had been donated to the museum in the 1990s by a nonfiction writer, who acquired it in the United States.

    In the photo, Tsuchiyama stands in front of a stone statue together with a classmate. At that time, Tsuchiyama was a third year student at a Nagasaki medical university, and he was helping with a joint Japan-U.S. medical survey. The photo appears to be from a time when Tsuchiyama was guiding U.S. surveyors to a location called Anakobo, an area around a small hill that is the location of a Buddhist Shingon-sect temple near the bomb hypocenter. According to the Nagasaki Municipal Government, there were over 500 stone statues in Anakobo, and almost all were damaged by the atomic bomb.

    On Aug. 9, the day the bomb was dropped, Tsuchiyama had been planning to leave on a train at around 11 a.m. to see his mother in Saga Prefecture, after he received a telegram that she was deathly ill two days before. By coincidence, however, he ended up with a ticket for a train around 7 a.m. The bomb would be dropped at 11:02 a.m.

    "If I had left on the 11 a.m. train, I probably wouldn't be here anymore," Tsuchiyama says.

    The morning after the blast, Tsuchiyama returned to Nagasaki to help with rescue efforts. His efforts were centered around Anakobo, situated along a road that connected the hypocenter at Urakami and the downtown area, and was full of bomb victims.

    In farm fields sitting at the foot of mountains, dead bodies lay scattered. Wounded people who were nearly naked groaned out "Water, water." Medical supplies had run out, and there was also no medical equipment. All Tsuchiyama could do was take the pulse of those dying and give them words of encouragement. When he gave water to them, they would briefly show expressions of satisfaction, before passing away.

    Amid a break from rescue work, Tsuchiyama visited the area where his older brother lived. He found his body, his face burned black, trapped under a beam. He knew it was his brother from the name "Tsuchiyama" written on his suit. Another body, which he assumed to be his brother's wife, was nearby. The couple had two children, a 3-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, but Tsuchiyama only found the body of one child.

    Around four or five days after the bomb, people who were not wounded started having nosebleeds that wouldn't stop, and people with bloody diarrhea began to surface. Each day, many people, no longer having the will to do anything, passed away.

    "I had never felt the impotence of medical science so strongly as I did then," says Tsuchiyama.

    After some time, the joint Japan-U.S. survey team arrived, and on request from the U.S. side, a Japanese professor ordered around 50 doctors and medical students including Tsuchiyama to conduct a survey of the bomb survivors as soon as possible. They visited survivors house-to-house, asking them where they were when the bomb fell, and what kind of radiation sickness symptoms they had experienced. Over the course of around two weeks starting in late October, they visited over 5,500 people.

    Some of the survivors broke down in tears while talking about things like their families. "I lost members of my own family, so it pained me. But I considered it my mission and continued the questioning," Tsuchiyama says.

    In that black-and-white photo, taken during that time of hardship, Tsuchiyama looks as if he is struggling to overcome something.

    Tsuchiyama was long a member of the draft committee for the Nagasaki peace declarations. Currently, he is an adviser for the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition at Nagasaki University.

    (This is Part 1 of a new Hibakusha series)

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