Waking before dawn, I headed for the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, mysteriously drawn to this sacred place. I saw a group of elderly Japanese men and women in the park doing yoga and wondered, “Were any of them survivors of the bomb?” It was October of 2004.
I remembered reading John Hersey’s book Hiroshima as a teenager. War correspondent Hersey was among the first journalists to reach Hiroshima after the bomb went off on August 6, 1945. He interviewed six survivors before and after the bomb went off, and his report was published in the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. Within months Hiroshima came out as a book. Three million copies were sold at the same time as it was censored in American-occupied Japan.
The scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico said they would be ready by August of 1945. Three years before, the Manhattan project was launched to develop an atomic bomb. 120,000 people were employed to build the first nuclear weapon in history, and speed and secrecy were the name of the game.
It looked as if the war in the Pacific would be longer and bloodier than anyone ever imagined. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill had hoped that the bomb might be used after “mature consideration” against Japan with the understanding that it would continue to be used until Japan surrendered.
Seventy years ago, on August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay became the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb. In an instant, our world changed forever. David Crumm writes in his August 3 blog, “At least 80,000 people were killed in the Hiroshima blast and another 70,000 were injured and many of those died later, historians agree. Nagasaki casualty estimates range from 30,000 to 80,000 people in the initial blast. The vast majority of the people killed were not serving in the military. That includes nearly 8,000 children who were clearing fire breaks in the center of Hiroshima when the bomb hit; they were vaporized without a trace.” The numbers approach 250,000 when victims who died later are added.
As the sun rose in Hiroshima that day, I also remembered a story that I read to my children when they were young. In l954 Sadako Sasaki was eleven years old, and she loved to run. Her mother said that Sadako had learned to run before she could walk. It was August 6, Peace Day in Japan. Every year on the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, people all over Japan gathered to remember those who died on that terrible day.
Sadako’s family prepared to walk over to the Peace Park in Hiroshima where they would join thousands of others in remembering the dead. Sadako’s own grandmother had died on August 6, l945. Sadako ran to the home of her best friend since kindergarten, Chizuko, and together they ran ahead of their families to the Peace Park. At the entrance to the park people filed through the memorial building in silence. On the walls were photographs of the dead and dying in a ruined city. The atom bomb, which the Japanese called the Thunderbolt, had turned the big city of Hiroshima into a desert.
“I remember the Thunderbolt,” Sadako whispered to her friend. “There was the flash of a million suns. Then the heat prickled my eyes like needles.” “How could you possibly remember anything?” Chizuko exclaimed. “You were only two years old!” “Well, I do!” Sadako insisted stubbornly. After speeches by Buddhist priests and the mayor, hundreds of white doves were freed from their cages. Sadako thought the doves looked like spirits of the dead flying into the freedom of the sky. At sundown the huge crowd carried paper lanterns down to the banks of the Ohta River where Sadako’s father lit candles inside six lanterns. There was one lantern for each member of Sadako’s family, and each lantern carried the name of one of their relatives killed by the Thunderbolt.
The next month Sadako rushed home from school one day to tell her mother that she had been chosen from her class to run on the relay team on Field Day. Sadako loved to run, and she wanted more than anything else to be on the track team the next year in middle school. When the big day came, Sadako’s stomach was filled with butterflies. When it was her turn, Sadako ran with all the strength she had. Her heart was still thumping painfully against her ribs when the race was over. It was then that she felt strange and dizzy. She scarcely heard someone cry, “You won! You won!” Sadako shook her head a few times, and the dizziness went away.
All winter Sadako worked to improve her running so she could make the team next year. Sometimes the dizziness returned after she was done, but Sadako decided not to tell her family about it. When the New Year came, Sadako actually felt stronger, but it all ended one crisp day in February when Sadako collapsed while running in the school yard. She said she would be all right, but Sadako could not stand up by herself. When her father took her over to the Red Cross hospital, Sadako became afraid because part of the hospital was especially for those with the atom bomb sickness called leukemia.
After many tests and X-rays, Sadako’s father and mother told her that she had to stay in the hospital for a little while. “Do I really have the atom bomb disease?’ asked Sadako, her eyes wide with fear. Her father answered, “They want to take some tests, honey. It might take a few weeks.” Sadako tried to be brave, but when her parents left, she buried her face in her pillow and cried.
The next morning her best friend Chizuko came to visit. “Shut your eyes,” she said. While Sadako squinted her eyes tightly shut, Chizuko put some pieces of paper and a scissors on the bed. “Now you can look,” she said. “What is it?” Sadako asked. “I’ve figured out a way for you to get well,” she said proudly. “Watch,” she said. She cut a piece of gold paper into a large square. In a short time she had folded it over and over into a beautiful crane. Sadako was puzzled. “But how can that paper bird make me well?”
“Don’t you remember the old story about the crane?” “It’s supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again.” She handed the crane to Sadako. “Here’s your first one.” “I’ll never part with it,” she whispered in a small voice.
When Sadako began working with the paper, she discovered it wasn’t as easy folding a paper crane as it looked. With Chizuko’s help, she learned how to make the difficult parts. After making ten paper cranes, Sadako lined them up on the table and said, “Now I have only 990 left to make.” Why, within a few weeks she would have a thousand made, then she would be strong enough to go home. That evening Sadako’s brother hung the cranes from the ceiling in her room. After visiting hours were over, Sadako was feeling very lonely, so she began folding more paper cranes. “Eleven: I wish I’d get better. Twelve: I wish I’d get better.”
As the days went by, everyone began saving paper for Sadako. Some cranes were big, some were small, some were white, but many were colored. During the next few months there were times when Sadako felt almost well, but her doctor told her it was best to stay in the hospital. On good days Sadako was busy folding cranes, writing letters and visiting with friends. Her flock of cranes grew to over three hundred. But the atom bomb disease gradually took away Sadako’s energy. She had throbbing headaches. Her bones seemed to be on fire. She often got dizzy. One day one of the friends she had made in the hospital died. He was only nine. He wasn’t even born when the bomb was dropped, but the radiation was in his mother’s body and she had passed it on to him.
Sadako told her nurse that night, “I’m going to die next.” “Of course not,” the nurse said. “Come, let me see you fold another paper crane before you go to bed. After you fold a thousand birds, you will live to be an old, old woman.” She carefully folded cranes and made the same wish. 463, 464 …
Near the end of July Sadako was feeling better and was over halfway toward her goal. That day her doctor told her she could go home for her first visit. That night Sadako excitedly folded more cranes 621, 622 … It was wonderful to be home with her family and friends for O Bon, the biggest holiday of the year. But soon Sadako was pale and tired and ready to go back to the hospital.
Now Sadako had to have blood transfusions or shots almost every day. She never complained about the pain because a bigger pain was growing inside of her, the fear of dying. But the paper cranes gave her hope. Before she went to sleep, Sadako managed to fold only one paper crane. 644. It was the last one she ever made.
Toward the middle of October Sadako’s life was slipping away. Her family kept vigil, and the golden crane next to her made Sadako feel stronger inside. In the light autumn breeze the cranes seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window. How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed, closed her eyes and never woke up. It was October 25, l955.
Sadako’s classmates folded 356 cranes so that one thousand were buried with her. After the funeral Sadako’s class collected her letters and published them in a book that was sent around Japan so that everyone knew about her paper cranes. Sadako’s friends dreamed of building a monument to her and all children who were killed by the atom bomb. In l958 the statue was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Park. There is Sadako, standing on top of a granite mountain of paradise. She is holding a golden crane in outstretched arms. Every August 6, Peace Day in Japan, thousands of origami paper cranes are placed beneath Sadako’s statue. They make a wish, too. Their wish is engraved on the base of the statue: “This is our cry; this is our prayer; peace in the world.”
I thank God that no nuclear weapons have been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time, I ask God and my Japanese brothers and sisters for forgiveness for the unimaginable horror of two obliterated cities and the taking of innocent lives, even though it may have shortened the war. I am grateful for nations that choose never to use atomic energy in ways that destroy life. I yearn for a world where forgiveness and reconciliation are real and can transform nations as well as individuals. And I dream of the time when every child in our world will know Sadako’s story, learn how to fold a peace crane and become a peacemaker.
What is your cry and your prayer seventy years later?