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'War must never be waged': A-bomb survivor who cremated victims' bodies speaks out (Pt. 2)

Minoru Sawano, looking through an album of family photos and other items, says, "War must never be waged," in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture, on July 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

KANAZAWA -- It has been 76 years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As atomic bomb survivors in central Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture continue to age, the prefecture's A-bomb survivors' organization has decided to close after this fiscal year.

    What have some of these A-bomb survivors, or hibakusha, who left the devastated cities and now live in Ishikawa Prefecture, been thinking about? A Mainichi Shimbun reporter, a third-generation survivor of the atomic bombing in Nagasaki, interviewed them.

    Deep in a mountain area in the city of Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture, Minoru Sawano, 94, continues to pray for peace. Sawano, who was exposed to radiation when he entered the city of Hiroshima soon after the atomic bombing, repeated over and over, "War must never be waged."

    In February 1945, when he was a second-year student at Ishikawa prefectural Nanao agricultural school (the predecessor of present-day Nanao Shinonome High School), Sawano applied to become a special cadet for army ships. "If I'm going to do this, it's better to do it early," he thought. Reflecting on his feelings at the time, he said, "I wasn't thinking about dying yet."

    On Shodoshima Island, Kagawa Prefecture, where Sawano was assigned, he learned about hand flag training and the structure of the ship's engine while being told by his superiors, "You are a sacrificial pawn for your country!"

    In June that year, Sawano was assigned to a suicide mission and began training on Etajima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture as a crew member of the "Maru-re," plywood suicide attack boats loaded with explosives designed to ram enemy ships. When it was decided he would join the suicide squadron, he thought of the faces of his family and resolved, "This will be the end."

    Minoru Sawano is photographed at the time of his enlistment in the Japanese Imperial Army. (Photo courtesy of Minoru Sawano)

    On Aug. 6, when Sawano was resting in his barracks after training and breakfast, he felt a flash of light dozens of times greater than burning magnesium and reflexively faced down on the floor. He also heard a loud "boom" that almost ruptured his eardrums. Looking toward the city of Hiroshima, the young soldier saw a white mushroom cloud rising in the sky. An order was given to go to the A-bombed city for relief, and when he arrived there by boat, he saw a scene that could not be described in words.

    "It was like hell," he recalled. There were people with missing limbs, people walking around with burnt skin hanging off their bodies. While rescuing the wounded, "the worst part" was dealing with the dead.

    When Sawano grabbed a victim's hand to pull them out of an air raid shelter, their skin peeled off. The river was full of swollen bodies floating in the water. In a fire cistern, a young woman lay dead with a baby in her arms as she probably tried to escape the heat. He wondered, "What kind of heat could have killed them?" The young man piled up two or three of the bodies he had collected and continued to cremate them. He had no idea how many people he cremated.

    "Water, water, soldier, water," many people cried out to Sawano. His superiors forbade him from giving them water, saying it would kill them, but he was compelled to offer water from his canteen to two or three of them in response to their pleas. Yet after taking a sip, they smiled and quietly passed away. He just stood there feeling helpless.

    This was the hellish world Sawano saw when he was a teenager. "I had a job that scared me. I didn't want to do it, I was made to do it," he said. He spent the first few days of the mission feeling terrified, but before he knew it, he found himself getting used to it.

    Soon after returning to Etajima, the war came to an end, and in late September 1945, Sawano returned to his hometown Nanao, only to find a harsh reality waiting for him there.

    Minoru Sawano is interviewed in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture, on July 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

    It was not long before Sawano heard rumors that A-bomb survivors "pass on diseases." There were also rumors that marrying an A-bomb survivor would result in disabled children. It was a time when the details of the damage caused by the atomic bombing were still unknown. Sawano, who entered the city after the atomic bombing, also feared prejudice and made up his mind: "I'm not going to talk about Hiroshima."

    In 1950, Sawano married a woman he had known since elementary school. However, when his wife became pregnant, he wondered if she would be able to give birth to a healthy baby, and he felt uneasy until he saw the baby in good health and full of energy. Among his fellows who entered Hiroshima immediately after the atomic bombing, several chose to remain single instead of getting married.

    Sawano had decided not to talk about Hiroshima, but as the experiences of hibakusha were reported in the press and exhibitions themed on the atomic bombing were held, people gradually became aware of the attack and hibakusha, and he became determined to reveal his own experience without fear of prejudice. He agreed to be interviewed by the media and also gave talks at temples and schools in Nanao.

    But Sawano also felt conflicted. He had to think back to those hellish days in order to recount his experiences. There were times when wounded people begging for water appeared in his dreams. "It's a hair-raising experience that I must not forget, but it's also hard to think about it again," he said.

    Regardless, Sawano wanted to tell people about the unimaginable suffering. "I have to tell people about the horror of the atomic bombing. Only those who have seen it can understand it. If I don't talk about it, it will become a story of the past."

    Yet, Sawano did not actively share the details of his experiences with his own children and grandchildren. He laughed it off, saying, "They don't want to hear about it, and they don't want to know about it," but in fact, he wrote a memoir consisting of a couple of pages describing the situation to them.

    What Sawano wants to convey to the generations that have never experienced war is that "war must never be waged. We owe peace today to the victims. We must not forget the feelings of those who perished."

    As a third-generation A-bomb survivor in Ishikawa Prefecture, far from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this reporter felt compelled to keep recording survivors' lives.

    (Japanese original by Chinatsu Ide, Hokuriku General Bureau)

    (This is part two of a two-part series)

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