Yoshie Nordling is a survivor of one of only two nuclear bombs used in warfare. She was 12 years old when Americans dropped a 9,000-pound atomic weapon on Hiroshima.
For a long time, she didn’t talk about her childhood. “I just upset myself,” she says. But she’s 84 years old, and now it’s time to tell her story. In part because of her age. And in part because, given current events, she would rather that there be no more nuclear bombs added to the list.
She is not an activist. She is a survivor. She doesn’t cast blame. Japan was at war and what did they think would happen, she says. “I’m not saying your fault or my fault, I am just saying what happened.”
But what she saw altered everything about her life. After the bomb, there was never anything left to be scared of.
“I’ve seen the worst. What else is there?”
(Except snakes; she is afraid of snakes, she amends.) But as far as living or dying — no. Not that. Not after what she survived.
Nordling’s baby sister, Kyoko Tanaka, was 7 months old when the bomb was dropped, and her “normal” was the aftermath of the devastation.
“Teenagers have a lot of burns,” says Tanaka. “I was used to seeing them. ... Can you imagine? Face half-torn, half-melted?”
She remembers older girls going to church with her, praying beside her — and then noticing that they gradually stopped coming. “Later on,” she says, “I realized they had died.”
But people never discussed the bomb — or the wounds or the illnesses or the disappearing friends. “We don’t talk about it,” says Tanaka. “Try to be polite, I think.”
Her sister says, “I don’t want to remember. That’s probably part of it.”
And that’s troubling. As contemporary world events unfold, it would seem wise to talk. And remember.
Tanaka took her daughter back to Japan a few years ago, to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “It felt just terrible,” she says. The household items in particular —the nuclear fusions of porcelain and glass melted into heaps — reminded her of the playthings she found in her backyard as a girl. The artifacts now felt ugly and sad. “It’s almost like you don’t want to see it anymore, because it’s too much.”
In the museum, there’s the image of a kimono design imprinted on a woman’s body from the nuclear flash. A child-size bicycle burned and forlorn. Ragged clothing. A watch with its hands permanently frozen at 8:15 a.m.; a clump of melted coins. Nearly 200,000 people dead, instantly and in the aftermath.
Their mother’s auntie, whose face was burned by radiation, told Tanaka that every time she went to the museum, she re-lived her fear and the memories would haunt her dreams. She won’t go any more.
• • •
But on the other hand, since Tanaka has no memories of the bomb itself, she has to go to the museum to remember. The skeleton of the Atomic Bomb Dome (the only building surviving at the hypocenter of the bomb’s blast) brings it home: “Wow. This really happened. … Did this really happen?” she says.
Nordling knows it happened — she saw it. But she is not so sure that the two nuclear bombs were the end of nuclear warfare. “My feeling is everybody should have a peaceful life. Not killing, not war. But,” she says, “Fighting. That’s human nature. So it’s always war.”
Perhaps it’s not fair to expect the survivors of such horrific devastation to become fierce advocates for changing what sometimes does seem so inevitable. They survived; they did their work. But is inevitable true? Does it have to be true?
Tanaka remembers, as a little girl, going to a bus stop where once, on a pretty August morning, someone waited. The ferocity of the blast created permanent, eerie shadows of someone incinerated — human beings, once living their lives, imprinted on the sidewalk. “His shadow is still there waiting for the bus,” she says.
Shadows waiting for humanity to remember. Tanaka pauses.
“Bitterness and sad and suffering — too long, don’t you think?”
• • •
In 1945, Nordling lived with her parents and four siblings on the outskirts of Hiroshima. Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor four years earlier.
“Schools teach a lot of things, telling us that life was going to be hard,” says Nordling. “It was very difficult to get anything.” Sneakers, she remembers, in the way that odd facts stick in childhood memories. “No sneakers.’’
She was also aware that the Japanese military had commandeered her father’s factory. “Nothing to say,” she says. “Just the army say ‘Do this’ and (my father) have to do it.”
Fear was for her parents and they didn’t share it with their children. “I was a person who not worry about things. I never did,” she says. “What’s going to happen, going to happen. So what? I’m going to face it. That type of person.”
But, one spring day, Nordling’s father moved his family to the safety of the countryside, leaving most of their possessions behind. The distance, she thinks, was about about as far as Bogus Basin is from Boise.
“Turned out to be nothing is safe,” she says.
• • •
It was August, early morning. Nordling was at school and, as one remembers the mundane facts of momentous events, she was — ironically — cleaning the school’s bomb shelter.
“All of a sudden green yellowish light, green rain. Color flashed. I said to myself, ‘What’s that from?’”
A few seconds later, she heard an immense blast of wind. A light fell from the ceiling, shattering into a million pieces on her clean floor. “Then on the way home, start rain. Black rain. ... My white uniform, ashes all over.”
Someone told her she could see the city from the top of the mountain, so she detoured. “Like a fool,” she says. “We didn’t know anything about what radiation will do. We don’t know anything.” But from the top, she could see the city.
“The whole city burning. Smoke. And flame.”
As for what she felt: “Lucky that we were not there.”
• • •
Immediately, Nordling’s father made plans to check on his factory and the thousands of employees who worked for him. “Rice balls, fish cooked up, anything we could find around the house, nearby neighbor’s place,” Nordling says. “They put together, my father put so much in box. Put in back of bicycle and he went to town.”
He couldn’t get there. “He really didn’t believe me, the whole thing cannot happen that way. He told me you were right, the whole city is burning.” He was stopped by the heat and smoke and fire, and by the flood of people fleeing the city, injured and burned. “He gave all the food he had, he give to them; water too.”
Nordling returned to school, where a doctor was working with patients. “I see the people who had the burn and the skin came off, hanging,” she says; she stood there, stunned.
“(The doctor) shouted, ‘Don’t stand there like a fool, come over and help.’ So I did. I don’t know what I actually did; I know I did what the doctor told me to do.” Hundreds of people found their way to the clinic.
“That time I said, well, this is hell.”
Much later, Nordling was sent to check on a relative in a neighboring town; the path took her into the corner of the city. “We walk all day. Came to the still smoking — and then dogs were dead and bodies were around; horses and dogs and bodies — human bodies were still there.”
She can’t remember how long she stayed or how she came back.
“Problem was smell. Horse smell different from the human body smell. Cat and dog are different, which I didn’t know until then. Burning things different smells.
“And then I got sick. …I actually numb. Then all of a sudden, I vomiting. You don’t feel much of anything then, you know?”
• • •
Nordling married an American attorney and came to the United States in 1958, to a life that she made into happiness. She didn’t not talk about her childhood, but she wasn’t outspoken about it either.
Her sister understands. “I think I feel like I don’t want to talk about it,” Tanaka says. “We lost a lot of friends. It killed friends.
“What good is it to talk about it? I don’t think it gains anything.”
Nordling is pragmatic. “Some countries, some people desperate with something — that causes war,” she says, and that lands her in a less-than-optimistic spot. “Nothing we can do about it.”
Is that true, too? It is hard to comprehend the devastation the sisters saw and survived, and easy enough to understand their reluctance to revisit their pain.
But on the other hand — if other people don’t ask questions and we don’t listen to their stories — are we in danger of forgetting, too? Forgetting that underneath the threats of political leaders are real, live people? Who do pay the price — for any war, nuclear or not?
“(The memory) — it doesn’t go away,” says Tanaka.