”I Couldn’t Press the Shutter in Hell”

by Yoshito Matsushige, former photographer of the Chugoku Shimbun

An air-raid warning siren awakened me not long after midnight, in the early morning of August 6. American B-29 bombers were flying over us day and night then, keeping me at such a pitch of fatigue that I often felt I'd rather die where I was than have to get up again at night. And yet, the eerie scream of that siren never failed to rouse me in fear for my life.

At the time, I was a photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun (Hiroshima's local newspaper), but whenever the sirens sounded I was assigned to the news department of the Hiroshima Imperial Headquarters. As usual, after the siren went off that night, I quickly rode to headquarters without using the light on my bicycle. The all clear sounded at 2:00 a.m., and I lay down on the wooden bench at the office and drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, a perfectly clear morning greeted my eyes. The sun was shining so brilliantly it shocked me to remember we were still at war. The morning feigned peace; no one had any idea that a mere hour later an atomic bomb would be dropped and reduce the entire city to ashes, stealing away tens of thousands of lives.

It was too early to go straight to the newspaper office, so I returned to my home in Midorimachi (South Hiroshima), about four kilometers from the Imperial Headquarters and 2.7 kilometers from the hypocenter. That decision saved my life, for both the headquarters and the newspaper building stood about one kilometer from the hypocenter.

I had just finished breakfast. My underwear was out on the clothesline where I had hung them because I had gotten them rather sweaty. I was standing up to get them when, suddenly, there was a tremendous sizzling noise like a sparkler. At the same time, a bluish-white light filled the room, as if someone had ignited a huge amount of magnesium right before my eyes. I couldn't see a thing. The next instant a powerful blast that felt like hundreds of needles piercing my naked torso threw me violently against the wall.

Within moments my wife, who had been in our barbershop preparing to open for the day, came screaming into the living room, “We've been bombed!” Feeling as if she had just said we were about to die, I grabbed her hand and yanked her outside. The blast was even then knocking the house down around us, and I have no idea how we made it out in time. The next thing I realized, we were across the streetcar avenue crawling in a garden of potatoes.

As headquarters photographer, I had frequently gone to see the destruction wrought by the air raids in nearby Kure, Iwakuni, and Otake. Still, I was completely overwhelmed when it happened in Hiroshima. My heart raced wildly with fear. Dust was blasted into the air where it mixed with the ashes of death from the explosion itself to block the sun and then come raining down. It became so utterly dark I couldn't even see my wife's face as she lay right next to me. I squeezed her hand tightly. Her warmth pulsed through me in the darkness, and I felt the joy of being alive.

Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. Beginning at the ground, the darkness lifted around us, and we could see. Afraid that more bombs would follow, we carefully made our way from the garden to the streetcar avenue. We didn't know that an atomic bomb had been dropped. All the houses visible in that dim, smoky light were damaged and tilting over. Roof tiles had fallen. Windows were blown away, and debris filled the street. Ragged and torn electrical lines dangled eerily in the wreckage. It was a scene of pure misery, and I still assumed the bomb had fallen very close by. I realized I had to hurry to my post at the Imperial Headquarters, so I returned to my house to get my things. I found the windows all blown away, and the wall facing the blast was now a gaping hole. Piles of mud plaster filled the living room. There was nothing I could do. I still had to go to work, so I pulled some clothes and my camera from the debris. This was now some thirty to forty minutes after the bombing.

I walked straight along the streetcar avenue from Miyuki Bridge toward Takanobashi. The closer I got to town the more total was the destruction of the buildings. The numbers of burned and otherwise injured people also increased. Where could the bomb have fallen? Puzzled and irritated by this confusion, I finally made it to Takanobashi. It was now about one hour and a half after the bombing.

By the time the fires that had sprung up here and there downtown had spread through the city. The neighborhood across from Takanobashi was already a sea of flames. City Hall and the West Fire Station were blazing uncontrollably. I decided it would be impossible to pass through this conflagration and on into town, so I retreated to the west end of Miyuki Bridge. From there I circled around south of the Hiroshima University campus (then Hiroshima University of Literature and Science) and toward Hiranomachi, but again I was forced to stop. Here too, huge flames roared. Blocked by flaming whirlwinds like bright-red drum cans rolling toward me down a hill, I went back toward the west end of Miyuki Bridge. By now, several hundred people were seeking refuge in that area.

Slightly more than two and a half hours had passed since the bombing and the first round of fires. The people around me seemed barely alive. The majority had grotesquely singed hair as well as gruesome burns on their faces, limbs, and backs ? the work of the thermal rays. Their blisters had broken. Their skin hung in shreds. Barefoot children had lost their shoes in melted asphalt.

Those who gathered at Miyuki Bridge were almost all volunteers who had been demolishing houses to make firebreaks. Many were first-or second-year junior high school students; some were housewives who had brought their small children along. In front of the police office near the west end of the bridge, two officers (I couldn't tell from behind whether they were policemen or soldiers) were treating burn victims with cooking oil. With no other medicines available, that cooking oil was all the first aid they could offer. Despite this, they were besieged by crowds of sufferers seeking help. This area in front of this police station had become a temporary relief station.

“I'll get a quick picture of this,” I told myself. But as I lifted the camera hanging around my neck, I found it impossible to snap the shutter. The scene before my was so gruesome that I merely stood there, paralyzed by the reality of this hell.

The surroundings were gloomy due to the flames and black smoke, but the eyes of all the victims who had thrown their peeling bodies down on the still-hot August pavement seemed to be focused on me. I saw a tiny baby clinging tightly to the breast of a woman no longer able to move. Another woman was cradling her infant, crying and screaming its name, begging, “Open your eyes! Just open your eyes!” In the midst of all this horror I was unable to take even a single photograph.

But this would not do. I realized I had to break this paralysis and perform my duty, which was to document this horror on film. Despite whatever the sufferers might be thinking, I must take pictures. Then, as though a dam inside me had broken, I raised the camera to my eye and, without taking time to focus, clicked the shutter. After that I relaxed somewhat. Walking slowly five or six meters closer, I raised the camera for a second shot. When I compared my slight injuries to those of so many victims lingering on the border between life and death or passing through their final agony, the scene through my view finder clouded with tears. Those scenes are burned into my retina even to this day. I still feel apologetic to those suffering people, but I was glad I managed to get two photos of that misery. Fulfilling my responsibility gave me a certain calm. To those people lying before me in pain, staring at me and begging for water, I tried to offer consolation and encouragement. “The army relief corps is coming. Just hang on,” I told them. Soon I fled from Miyuki Bridge, the sufferers behind me clinging tightly to my heart.

By 2:00 that afternoon, the fires in much of the city had died down. “Looks like I can get downtown. I think I'll go to the newspaper office or the Imperial Headquarters.” Thinking, “There'll probably be someone there,” I crossed the Miyuki Bridge again, and headed into town past the campus of Hiroshima University toward Hiranomachi. There was a swimming pool just inside the grounds at the south corner. Riding to work the previous day, August 5, I had passed this pool on my bicycle and noticed that it was filled with water for use against fires. But the tremendous flames that swept through the city had evaporated nearly all the water, and on the white cement bottom lay seven or eight corpses. It was a hideous sight I couldn't bear to examine.

Rubble left by the fires filled and thoroughly blocked the streets. I picked my way gingerly through the smoldering ruins, finally arriving at Nagarekawa, where our newspaper office was located. The scenes that met my eyes on the way were a scorched hell, a city of death. From Fujimicho and Tanakamachi to Nagarekawa, bodies were strewn everywhere. Many were pinned under collapsed buildings where they were evidently burned alive. I was slowly becoming numb to all this. I lost the sense that these bodies before me were actually human corpses.

We reached the office, but no one was there. All that was left of the structure was an empty, smoldering skeleton. East of the old Fukuya building I saw a streetcar blown halfway up onto the sidewalk by the force of the bomb blast. The trees along this wide road were toppled and charred by the blast and the fires. Steel building frames were twisted like taffy. Fallen electrical poles and tangled wires littered the streets. When I saw a scattered collection of military helmets and swords burned reddish-brown, I realized with a jolt that Japan had lost the war.

Walking on to Kamiyacho through white smoke, I noticed the extreme damage done to the buildings: those made of concrete had been transformed into vast, empty shells, while wooden structures were razed completely to the ground. A lonely, burned-out streetcar stood motionless at Hiroshima's largest intersection (the Kamiyacho streetcar stop). From a distance it appeared that people were still inside, so I walked closer to see what had happened. As I stepped up to the entrance, my body went rigid with horror. Ten or more bodies lay piled on top of one another, and I knew then that the intense thermal rays and blast (Kamiyacho was only 200 meters from the hypocenter) had taken their lives instantly. They had been riding along in that streetcar and then were suddenly burned to death. And the horrible expressions on their faces made them look like the terrible Fudo Myoo (Acala)* that I had seen in pictures.

Then, as now, Kamiyacho was lined with the branch offices of Tokyo-based banks and insurance companies.

At the entrance to each one of those buildings were piled two or three corpses. The famed human shadow imprinted on the steps of the Sumitomo Bank was caused by the intense heat rays. Hardly any survived in this area; it was too close to the hypocenter. I walked through the center of town seeing no one walking, only corpses strewn everywhere. Then, in Fukuromachi and Kokutaijicho, along the streetcar track, I met several people who had come looking for members of their family. They walked around in utter silence, dumbstruck by this cruelly transformed city of death.

In Shirakami Shrine was a huge camphor tree, 300 years old and so big around that three adults could barely encircle it. Its giant branches had almost engulfed the Hiroshima Branch of the Bank of Japan. The tree had been a favorite refuge from the sun's heat, the perfect place to take a break in the shade. The atomic bomb had uprooted and toppled it, but even after its long bout with the flames, the dark, charred trunk retained its shape. Several corpses lay nearby. City Hall was a shell, and the West Fire Station was rubble fallen around the burned-out carcasses of fire engines. They had not even been able to put up a fight against the conflagration.

It was about 5:00 p.m., when I walked back through Takanobashi past the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital and returned to Miyuki Bridge, still strewn with bodies. At the west end, an Akatsuki Shipping Transport Unit* rescue truck approached, and four or five soldiers began carrying the most seriously injured off to a safer place. By this time the peeling, blistered wounds of the burned survivors had already become infested with maggots. The Akatsuki Unit soldiers were taking these wounded to the Ujina National Hospital as well as to their own barracks, but there was a limit to the number they could carry. Many survivors were dragging themselves forward painfully, aimlessly following the lines of people moving toward Ujina.

That evening, about 150 meters southeast of Miyuki Bridge, where the streetcar turns the corner, Chief Suzawa of the Ujina Police Department and several of his officers began issuing victim certificates. The officer who was writing these certificates, Mr. Tokuo Fujita, himself wounded, continued writing until it became too dark. Those who received these certificates presented them to another officer, who, in turn, gave out bags of hardtack. This was how I obtained my sustenance for that night.

For hours as I wandered in that boiling hell, in fact, until I returned home, I had not thought of my wife or home at all. I had completely forgotten about them. On returning home, I saw my wife's healthy face. I hadn't noticed it in the morning when I had left home, but the four-story wood frame fire station directly in front of our house had been utterly destroyed by the blast. The man who had been up in the watchtower at the time had incurred a terrible burn over half his face. Several others had been trapped with the fire trucks under the collapsed building. Also, my wife's niece, Michie Nakayama, a second-year student at Hiroshima Girls' School of Commerce, was horribly injured. She had been helping to demolish buildings with her classmates at the time of the atomic bombing but had managed somehow to escape to our house. Not only were her face, back, and legs covered with burns, the soles of her feet were, too. She had lost both her shoes while escaping from the flames. While I was wandering through the city, my wife had been caring for her niece and the injured man from the fire station. In the dimness of our air-raid shelter, in response to painful cries of, “It hurts! I'm burning!” all she could do was to offer them cool air with a broken paper fan.

It had been a long, bloodcurdling day. As the twilight darkened, the fires that still raged downtown seemed to leap up toward the sky like heat haze. My wife and I found a place to rest our weary bodies in the remains of the fire station, and there we told each other of cry and screams of the Muken-Jigoku (Avici Hell)* we had experienced that day. My wife told me then that, at the time of the explosion, she had seen in one of the mirrors in our barbershop an intense, red fireball. As the curtains of night came down, the flames across the city flared up bright, but then immediately died away, as if somehow touched by the scenes of carnage which their own light revealed. It seemed as though a sacred bonfire was burning for the many, many souls of the dead.

I had walked for two and a half hours downtown through blood-red rubble strewn with corpses, and I never snapped my shutter once. The only pictures I took were the two on the west end of Miyuki Bridge about three hours after the bombing, two more of my house that afternoon before going into town, and one more that evening of the policeman issuing survivor's certificates in Minamimachi : a total of five. I still felt I had done well to get even a few pictures under such extreme circumstances.

I do have a few other photographs of different evils the bomb left in its wake. In March 1945, when the Japanese defeat was approaching, the Cabinet decided the Schoolchildren Evacuation Reinforcement Guidelines. I attended the departure of the first group on April 3, 47 students and 3 teachers from Ote-machi National School to cover the story. This group went off to live in a temple, though some eventually ran back home. From all of Hiroshima approximately 9,000 children were evacuated. These children returned to Hiroshima after the war was over. When they met their parents after over three months of painful separation, they seemed to burst with joy, running over to them and holding them tightly. But too many of those children had to just stand by, watching the reunions tearfully. They were waiting for parents who had been killed by the bomb, parents they would never see again.

I wonder how their teachers explained this to them. “All of you whose parents haven't come, gather over here,” they said. As I filmed those extremes of joy and sadness, the heat of pure rage welled up in my heart. If not for the war, these children's parents would be alive, this tragedy would not have occurred. I took those photographs in sorrow and resentment, in full appreciation that war is a heinous evil. This event and the pictures of hell I photographed at Miyuki Bridge on the day of the sixth are permanently etched in my mind.

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” We must never forget this statement from the UNESCO Charter, and we must never again repeat the tragedy of war nor the use of a nuclear weapon. The cruel scars of the atomic bombing remain with us even now, in the loss of the hundreds of thousands who died on that day, in the pain of those who have continued to suffer and die ever since. I was there and I lived, and I have devoted the rest of my life to praying for the souls of the victims and conveying the horrors of the atomic bomb to the next generation.

*Fudo Myoo (Acala)
This Buddhist figure symbolizing anger at the wicked is depicted in pictures and statues with a sword in the right hand and flames rising behind the head.

*Akatsuki Shipping Transport Unit
After the atomic bombing, this army shipping unit engaged in survivor relief activities.

*Muken-jigoku (Avici Hell)
Jigoku is hell, where bad people go after death to suffer, and muken-jigoku is the worst level of hell. The people in muken-jigoku cry and scream for relief from their extreme suffering.

Source: Eyewitness Testimonies: Appeals From The A-Bomb Survivors. Third Edition, ed. & pub. by the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, 2003, pp.71-80.

Yoshito Matsushige (1913-2005)
Yoshito Matsushige was a photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun and a member of the news department of the Chugoku District Military Headquarters. A member of the Association of Photographers of the Atomic Bomb Destruction of Hiroshima, he published several books of photographs, including “The Moment of Hiroshima's Destruction.”