Survivors' Stories

Sadao Yamamoto, 84, Higashi Ward, Hiroshima

Incorporating grief for the dead into music and account of A-bomb experience

by Mitsuhiro Hamamura, Staff Writer

On the morning of August 6, Sadao Yamamoto should have been walking his normal path to school through the city center. Or he might have been helping to tear down homes to create a fire lane near the area that became the hypocenter of the atomic bombing. That day, 70 years ago, Mr. Yamamoto was a second-year student at Hiroshima Second Middle School (now Kanon High School). The fact that he chanced to survive the atomic bombing was inextricably linked to the tragic fate of younger students who lost their lives. “War must never be waged again,” he said. As someone who managed to survive the atomic bombing, he feels it is his mission to convey this message to people in Japan and abroad.

Back then, the first- and second-year students at Hiroshima Second Middle School were compelled to help with the war effort, in daily turns, by tearing down homes to create a fire lane. On August 6, 1945, the second-year students were supposed to go to school as they had been working the previous day. But toward the end of the war, there was no time for studying. They were instead ordered to weed in a sweet potato field at the Higashi Drill Ground (located in today’s Higashi Ward).

Mr. Yamamoto looked up to see a U.S. military plane flying in the sky. “Air raids usually take place at night,” he thought. “Maybe today it’s just making a reconnaissance flight.” But shortly after the plane suddenly veered above, there came a deafening noise and searing heat.

He was about 2.5 kilometers from the hypocenter. The roughly 200 students there were blown off their feet and Mr. Yamamoto suffered burns to the left side of his face. Enormous flames were rising into the sky in the direction of Hiroshima Station. He was afraid that another bomb would be dropped. Terrified, he headed toward the nearby mountain with his schoolmates.

It was evening when Mr. Yamamoto made his way back home to the Onaga district after hiding at the Onaga Tenmangu Shrine. His home was left in a shambles by the bomb’s massive blast, but his parents, grandmother, and two sisters were all safe. His father had miraculously survived the bombing in a sturdy building located only about 680 meters from the hypocenter.

Meanwhile, 321 first-year students and four teachers who were helping tear down homes that day were on the bank of the Honkawa River, about 500 meters from the hypocenter. All of them lost their lives. Mr. Yamamoto assumed they were killed instantly and they had no idea what had happened, which troubled him.

But in 1969, Mr. Yamamoto was shocked when he saw “Ishibumi” (“Monument”), a program by Hiroshima Television on the conditions faced in the atomic bombing by first-students of Hiroshima Second Middle School.

One student who suffered terrible burns managed to drag himself back to his home. Boys who fled into the river tried to keep their spirits up by forming a circle and singing war songs. Many of the first-year students died from their injuries, unable to see the parents they longed to meet. Mr. Yamamoto was shaken deeply as he imagined the fate of each one.

Mr. Yamamoto incorporated his grief over the students’ deaths into the chorus he sang with while working as a company employee. He asked a graduate of Hiroshima Second Middle School to create the requiem “Ishibumi” for a male chorus, composed of nine parts, and it was presented in October 1970 with Mr. Yamamoto himself conducting. The venue for the performance was the Municipal Auditorium (today’s International Conference Center Hiroshima), located by the bank of the Honkawa River. He prayed toward the memorial monument for the victims, which stands on the bank of the river.

“I didn’t feel qualified to talk about my experience,” Mr. Yamamoto said. But the turning point came when he was interviewed for a TV program five years ago. A high school teacher living in Aichi prefecture, who saw the TV program, contacted him about sharing his A-bomb experience. Seeing the earnest eyes of the students, he began to think that offering his experience could be helpful. He started telling his story three years ago.

Mr. Yamamoto talks about his experience not only to students who visit Hiroshima on school trips but also to visitors from abroad. He explains how numerous boys and girls lost their lives, showing figures and maps. “We have to realize the abolition of nuclear weapons so that this tragedy will never be repeated,” he said, “We must not let the voices of the victims fade away.” Thinking about their anguish, he plans to persist in speaking about the preciousness of life.

Teenagers’ Impressions

Moved by the lives lost that day

The first-year students at Hiroshima Second Middle School who were forced to help tear down homes to create a fire break in the event of air raids were engulfed in huge flames after the atomic bomb was dropped. I was moved as I thought of these lives that were suddenly lost. I want to express my appreciation to Mr. Yamamoto, who shared his experience with us after feeling so troubled about his role as an A-bomb survivor. (Primus Anna, 13)

Shocked to imagine the students’ suffering

Mr. Yamamoto thought that all the first-year students had been killed instantly. Later, he was shocked to learn that a student who was badly burned made his way home and other students tried to keep each other’s spirits up. My heart breaks when I think about the people who died in agony. Nuclear weapons can instantly change the fate of children, too. (Aoi Nakagawa, 14)

Encouraged by words of A-bomb survivor

“We must not let the call for nuclear abolition fade away,” Mr. Yamamoto told us. He began talking about his experience three years ago and has also spoken to people from the United States, Russia, and Egypt. He said that he plans to convey his account as long as he can, and I felt encouraged by his words. I want to pass on the efforts to spread the thoughts and feelings of the A-bomb survivors beyond generations and national borders. (Kantaro Matsuo, 17)

(Originally published on November 23, 2015)