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Former nursing student gives first testimony on Hiroshima A-bomb victims' autopsies

Michiko Kajikawa talks about pathological autopsies on atomic bomb victims, which she helped with as a nursing student, in the city of Tottori, Tottori Prefecture, on Aug. 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Tetsuya Hirakawa)

TOTTORI -- Despite being told on Aug. 15, 1945, that the Pacific War was over, the end was still a long way away for a then 16-year-old nursing student who was in Hiroshima to assist with autopsies on atomic bomb victims.

    Michiko Kajikawa, now 92 and residing in the city of Tottori in west Japan, assisted in some of the more than 100 pathological autopsies on those victims performed within four months after the Aug. 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima by the U.S. military, but there are few documents that tell of the cooperation of nursing students.

    Seventy-six years after the end of the war, Kajikawa shared the details of her experience for the first time, saying, "If I don't talk about it, it will be forgotten."

    Kajikawa was an aspiring nurse studying at a training school attached to the Japanese Red Cross Tottori Hospital in the city of Tottori when the radio announcement of Japan's surrender by Emperor Hirohito was broadcast on Aug. 15, 1945.

    A little more than a year after leaving her home village of Kachibe (now part of the city of Tottori) inspired by her father's words, "Work for your country and for others," the nursing student learned of the end of the war in the hallway of the hospital. She then received a request to be sent to Hiroshima. Her sense of mission to "work for the people" was rekindled.

    On the morning of Aug. 20, 1945, Kajikawa left Tottori by train and arrived in Hiroshima that night. The next morning, she got on the back of a truck and drove along a road that ran through the burnt-out fields.

    U.S. military doctors were seen visiting the Ujina branch of the Hiroshima First Army Hospital for research. The photo was taken around Sept. 10, 1945. (Mainichi)

    Kajikawa remembers the destination as the Army's boys' marine corps, but according to a report by the Tottori branch of the Japanese Red Cross Society, which is included in "the Hiroshima atomic bomb damage records" published by the Hiroshima Municipal Government in 1971, the nursing students were dispatched to the Ujina branch of the Hiroshima First Army Hospital, which was located in the Army ship training department in Ujina-cho in the city of Hiroshima (now part of the city's Minami Ward).

    The branch hospital was established after the bombing because of the rush of more than 6,000 injured people. There, students worked day and night to care for the injured until Sept. 16. In the meantime, Kajikawa was given another assignment for the daytime to assist with pathological autopsies.

    "It was only at the beginning that I felt scared, because I thought the autopsies were to be of use in treatments," Kajikawa recalled.

    According to the book "atomic bomb disaster in Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (edited by the atomic bomb disaster journal editorial committee of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) published in 1979, from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6, 1945, an investigation team from Tokyo Imperial University, headed by Dr. Masao Tsuzuki, a medical scientist, conducted pathological autopsies on 26 cases at the Ujina branch hospital.

    Kajikawa vividly remembered a one-story room on the premises. The room was as large as more than 10 tatami mats (about 16 square meters) with light shining through the windows, and there was an operating table and a sink. Three or four men in white coats, including an assistant, performed the autopsies, and she was in charge of carrying the bodies and other tasks.

    On the busiest days, three autopsies were performed. "Their purpose must have been to check for symptoms of radiation damage. All the bodies had no external injuries," recalled Kajikawa. The doctor took a scalpel to the body and transferred the removed organs to a container. The organs were blackened.

    After the autopsy, the body was stitched up and Kajikawa washed it in a sink. The man, who had stitches left in his neck, seemed as if he were asleep. She washed him with water as she rubbed him with her hands, and wrapped his whole body in a sheet. Kajikawa and a medic carried him on a stretcher to a nearby cremation site. The stench of death always clung to her nose.

    Michiko Kajikawa is seen around the time she boarded a hospital ship transporting internees from Siberia. (Photo courtesy of Michiko Kajikawa)

    However, the knowledge gained from the autopsies was not immediately put to use in the medical treatment of atomic bomb survivors. Until the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into effect in 1952, Japan was under occupation by the U.S. and other Allied forces, and was restricted from publishing research and its results on the damage caused by the atomic bombings.

    Kajikawa said angrily, "The U.S. military probably didn't want people to know that the atomic bomb was a weapon that could destroy people from within."

    Soon after returning to Tottori, Kajikawa, along with other colleagues, promised to keep quiet about the experience in Hiroshima. Some of her colleagues became ill and she also heard that some were unable to have children. After graduating from the training school, she worked at the Japanese Red Cross Tottori Hospital as a nurse.

    Later, at the age of 28, Kajikawa got married, and the first girl she gave birth to died at the age of 8 months due to a heart disease. She suspected that it was from the effect of her exposure to radiation when she entered the city of Hiroshima, where she was dispatched.

    After retiring at the age of 57, Kajikawa obtained an Atomic Bomb Survivor's Certificate. However, she refused to testify, even when asked to do so. She was afraid of prejudice and believed that because she had no knowledge of the devastation immediately after the bombing, she should not speak out.

    Meanwhile, the former nurse has lost touch with the 20 people in the same group who were dispatched to Hiroshima. Only a few references to the nursing students' cooperation with the autopsies at the Ujina branch hospital remain in the records, and she feared that the memory would fade. Her sense of frustration grew, and she agreed to be interviewed this time.

    Kajikawa also served as a nurse on a hospital ship that transported Japanese people who were imprisoned in Siberia after World War II. Seventy-six years after the end of the war, she still holds in her heart the desire to "work for other people."

    "I'm still willing to go anywhere if I'm told to. However, the world should not remain a place where nurses are again dispatched immediately after a nuclear attack. There must be no nuclear weapons," said 92-year-old Kajikawa.

    (Japanese original by Tetsuya Hirakawa, Tottori Bureau)

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