Learning to fear the bomb: Atomic survivors teach Brooklyn students the horrors of war

Learning to fear the bomb: Atomic survivors teach Brooklyn students the horrors of war
Setsuko Thurlow, who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima when she was 13, said it breaks her heart every time she talks about her experiences, but she has to so that it doesn’t happen again.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Two survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic attacks — and the grandson of the man who ordered the bombings — moved a classroom of high school students to tears with an impassioned plea to bring an end to the nuclear age.

Setsuko Thurlow and Yasuaki Yamashita visited Downtown’s Brooklyn Friends School along with Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of President Harry S. Truman, on Oct. 18 to share their stories of the catastrophic bombings, which changed their lives — and the course of human history — forever.

In a small, tightly-packed conference room, many students’ eyes filled with tears as the now-elderly Thurlow and Yamashita recounted in graphic, visceral detail, what happened after they saw a “flash like a thousand bolts of lightning.”

Thurlow was 13 years old when the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, collapsing her school and leaving her trapped in the rubble beneath. She managed to escape, but the rubble caught fire before most of her schoolmates could get out.

Setsuko Thurlow and Yasuaki Yamashita are anti-nuclear war activists who share their experiences in hopes that it will never happen again.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

“We had no appropriate emotional response to what we were experiencing,” said Thurlow, who now lives in Toronto and tours as an anti-nuclear weapons activist. “I have to tell this story over and over again so that human beings will not repeat these horrible things.”

Yamashita was six and playing close to his mother when his family saw planes overhead and ran into their house just outside Nagasaki moments before the flash. The blast blew the windows and roof from there home, leaving his sister bleeding from the head.

In the next few days, he watched his friends die and walked miles over rotting corpses with his mother in search of food.

Years later after completing high school, Yamashita found work at the Nagasaki Hospital, where many people his age were dying of cancer — even one to whom he donated his blood through transfusions.

President Harry S. Truman, who ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
Associated Press

“I realized this could happen to me,” said Yamashita, who moved to Mexico shortly thereafter. “I quit my job. I wanted to run away and forget my suffering.”

Truman Daniel said he became an activist against nuclear war after his young son brought home a book about a girl who died of cancer following the attacks, and the author and former journalist had to tell his child it was his great-grandfather who dropped the bomb.

“I’ve taken responsibility for other parts of my grandfather’s legacy,” said Truman Daniel, who runs the Truman Presidential Library in Missouri. “I think it’s important to take responsibility for this part, too.”

After Thurlow and Yamashita finished speaking, volunteer Robert Croonquist — who helped organize the Hibakusha Stories presentation — asked the students if they had any questions, but none raised their hands. Instead, they all just sat looking stunned.

A giant column of dark smoke rises more than 20,000 feet into the air after the second atomic bomb ever used in warfare explodes over Nagasaki, Japan on Aug. 9, 1945.
Associated Press / U.S. Air Force

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