Hiroshima’s atomic bomb changed Koko Kondo’s life, but so did meeting the man who dropped it : Internacional de Australia
Eight-month-old Koko was in her mother’s arms the day the world’s first nuclear weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, bringing their family home crashing down on them on this day 75 years ago.
- Between 90,000 and 166,000 victims died within months of the Hiroshima bombing
- Koko Kondo met pilot Robert Lewis on the set of This is Your Life
- More than 150 denshosha volunteers are carrying on the memories of survivors
She was almost 40 years old before her mother finally sat her down and told her the full story of how she had inched through the rubble in darkness, with little Koko wrapped in her arms, towards a small pocket of dusty sunlight.
“She first pushed me out [through the opening], then next, she was able to get out … but the fire was all over the place according to my mother,” said Koko Kondo, who is now 75.
WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions which may disturb some readers.
Ms Kondo’s father — Methodist minister Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who was visiting a parishioner across town — said in a US television interview “the whole city was on fire” as he ran through the streets to find his family.
He described people running in silence with skin hanging from their bodies “like a procession of ghosts”.
In the sky above, pilot Robert Lewis was part of the United States Air Force crew who dropped the atomic bomb known as Little Boy that day, unleashing around 13 kilotons of force on the city below, where Ms Kondo’s family and about 290,000 other civilians lived, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.
Estimates on how many people died from the bomb either instantly or in the following months range between 90,000 and 166,000, but the Little Boy would go on to claim the lives of thousands more as the effects of radiation took their toll.
After looking back to see the once-flourishing city “disappear”, Captain Lewis wrote in his log book “My God, what have we done?”
The US says it took the drastic step of dropping atomic bombs on Japan to put an early end to World War II, but this official narrative is now being challenged.
Three days later, a second nuclear weapon was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, claiming another estimated 70,000 lives.
By August 15, imperial Japan had surrendered, bringing an end to World War II.
While Ms Kondo said most people avoided speaking of the bombing in the decades that followed, her father made it his mission to help the injured, rebuild the city and ensure the world never forgot.
Her family had suffered from radiation sickness and Ms Kondo was subjected to years of tests and examinations to study the effects of radiation exposure.
One of Ms Kondo’s earliest memories — at around two or three years old — was of a group of teenage girls attending a sermon at her father’s church.
While her manners did not permit her to ask questions, she would listen to her parents’ conversations and learned that the destruction and pain that surrounded her was caused by a single US B-29 bomber.
Ms Kondo said her childhood became consumed by hatred and thoughts of revenge.
“Someday when I grow up, I am definitely going to find the people who were on that B-29 bomber to do the revenge,” she said.
“That was my plan, that was my thinking. But life is interesting.”
‘I thought he was a monster, but monsters don’t have tears’
When Koko was 10, her mother and siblings received a phone call from the then popular US television program This is Your Life.
They were immediately flown to the United States for an episode featuring the work of her father, who had taken a group of young survivors to the US for plastic surgery.
They were told to contact no one as all guests on the show were to be kept a well-guarded secret before their live introduction.
As Hiroshima mission pilot Robert Lewis was introduced, Koko glared at him with all the hatred a 10-year-old could muster.
“I was so shocked!” she recalled.
“What could I do? I wanted to run to the middle of the stage and give him a punch, a bite or a kick.”
But as he recalled his memories of that day, she saw tears begin to well in his eyes.
“I thought he was a monster, but monsters don’t have tears.”
Ms Kondo said she realised she had lived her short life full of hate for a man she knew nothing about.
“While the adults were still talking, I looked inside of my heart,” she said.
Ms Kondo said it was because of him that “little Koko changed”.
As she realised people on both sides of war suffer, her hate shifted to war itself, and she felt ashamed for ever having hated this man.
The death of Lewis fills Ms Kondo with regret
After meeting on the show, Ms Kondo’s father and Lewis began exchanging letters.
“In one letter my father showed me he wrote, ‘Reverend Tanimoto, if you need anything please let me know. I’ll be standing next to you,’” she told the ABC.
But the life of this man was not easy, she said, and he “suffered greatly” not only with the weight of his involvement in the bombing, but he was also “harassed” for speaking about it publicly.
She tried to reach out to him through her father years later while studying in the US, but she was told he had been hospitalised and was suffering from mental anguish.
She emotionally recalled the day she read of his death in a newspaper article.
“If I never ever had a chance to meet this guy, probably even today I might still feel that the other side is evil and I am the good one.”
Ms Kondo said one of her biggest regrets was that, despite her efforts, she was never able to thank Lewis.
A new generation of memory keepers
A nuclear weapon has not been used again in combat since, but nations across the globe have spent billions of dollars perfecting and testing various forms of nuclear warfare, poisoning the earth and sea in remote areas of the Pacific and the deserts of the US, Africa and even Australia.
But at 75, she is among the youngest of a dwindling number of survivors who can tell the world first hand of the horrors these weapons unleashed.
If these stories were lost, “probably our planet would be gone”, she said.
Doctoral candidate Tomoko Kubota is one of more than 150 denshosha — a designated keeper of the memories of a Hiroshima or Nagasaki survivor.
As a denshosha volunteer, she spent three years training and learning from survivor Sadae Kasaoka, so in the future she can “give testimony” on her behalf by sharing her “experiences, the reality of the atomic bombing, and desires for peace”.
That story includes how, at 12 years of age, Ms Kasaoka lost her mother and watched her father die — within days of the blast — in agony from horrific burns and wounds that became infested with maggots.
For other survivors, the memories were too painful to talk about, Ms Kasaoka said, while discrimination against those who did speak out had silenced many over the years.
“However, we also understand Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only places impacted by the atomic bombings, and our memory is also a memory of the world, and we are responsible to keep inheriting it and circulating it to the world,” said Ms Kubota, who also studied oral history at Columbia University.
Ms Kubota said “to learn the reality of the event” required digging deeper into “the context of their stories, such as the background of that time, which is totally different from the present context”.
“As denshosha, I would like to introduce the context of 1945 along with the survivors’ stories and become almost like a translator to fill the gap and bridge between the generations.”