Reliving the Flashing Bang
An atomic bomb survivor urges the destruction of nuclear weapons.

On the evening before the world changed, before unthinkable attacks killed thousands and propelled the United States into a new type of war with a new breed of enemy, a courageous and graceful japanese woman--herself the survivor of a wartime attack 57 years ago--bowed her head before an auditorium teeming with oberlin students and beseeched them to join together in the pursuit of peace.

"Everyone in this room, please, help us to be the last victims of the atomic bombs," urged Etsuko Nagano, a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, near the end of World War II. Her passion was so searing that few in the audience needed the English translator to interpret her message. "I don't want anyone in this world to suffer the agony that we have been experiencing. In a loud voice, I would like to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons and pray that this world will be one without war. Only peace.''

The following morning, as hijacked airliners collided into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, peace never seemed so far away. Soon, U.S. missiles would be pounding the Afghanistan countryside. The odds suddenly increased that any of the thousands of nuclear weapons stockpiled throughout the world--each more powerful than those dropped nearly six decades ago--could be used again.

The Hiroshima-Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Exhibition, on display in Oberlin at the time of the attacks, abruptly took on added poignancy. Nagano's testimony illustrated the devastation of weapons of mass destruction: "It was a living hell that I won't be able to forget for all of my life."

She spoke courageously of her desperate search for family after the blast in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. At just 16 and working in a college gymnasium-turned-war materiel factory, she had been two miles from the bomb's impact. She remembers still the sound of shattering windows and choking on dust.

Making her way home, Nagano encountered her 9-year-old brother in an air-raid shelter. He had been outside catching dragonflies when the bomb fell. He was unrecognizable.

"His face was swollen like a balloon, and he couldn't open his eyes or his mouth. I asked if he was my brother, and this little child nodded. I asked, 'Are you really Seiji, my brother?' And he nodded again. I still didn't want to believe it," she said.

The boy died within a day. Nagano's younger sister died of radiation sickness within a month. Their house had been destroyed.

She recounted the other scenes of horror that stay with her to this day. "I saw a horse standing, dead; it looked like it was just burned instantly. It was charred and still standing on a bridge. And we saw what looked like two people together who had turned into a black lump, a mound; it looked like a mother and a baby who were leaning on a kitchen sink, but the house was gone,'' she said. "I saw bodies scattered all over the ground. Some were blackened. I saw skeletons, beheaded skeletons. Humans and animals were dead all over.''

By means of 48 photo panels, clothing, and other items, the traveling exhibition depicts in horrid detail much of the carnage Nagano described. On view for two weeks last September at the FAVA Gallery downtown, the collection was on loan from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan. It came to Oberlin through the efforts of Diana Roose, assistant to President Nancy Dye, who had spent years studying the use of the A-bomb in World War II and interviewing its survivors.

After September 11, said Roose, the explicit photos and information panels were viewed with a new perspective. "A lot of people said the exhibition made them more sensitive to the horrors of war, even a terrorist war." Perhaps just as important, she added, it opened the eyes of grade school children who have grown up in peacetime, and whose only knowledge of combat comes from video games and simulated blood.

"We had many, many children go through the exhibit. One kid asked, 'Is this real?'" Roose said. "These kids have to be taught that these things exist. Real bombs. Real people getting killed."

President Dye, in comments during the exhibit's opening, expressed similar sentiments. "As an educator, I know that even recent events in history such as World War II may seem very remote to young people today in both Japan and the United States, but this exhibition poignantly reminds us that every person in the world continues to be affected by the United States' bombing of these two Japanese cities," she said.

"Never before had human beings realized the power to annihilate completely human society and culture. This exhibition also makes us realize our responsibility to teach ourselves and our young people about the horrors of war and the terrifying potential of nuclear weapons...and that we must work together as a world society to find ways to prevent another nuclear holocaust."

by Michael K. McIntyre
Photos by Martin Fong


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