How Sachi Survived the Hiroshima Bombing

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By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Sept 13, 2015

THE rashes and the scars are gone but Sachi Rummel’s right hand travels reflexively across the length of her left arm as she talks about the physical scares the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left on her. For a few years, she too was covered in rashes on her arms but time — and her mother’s soft mittens and special treats — helped dissolve them.
It’s been 70 years since the nuclear bombs made a wasteland of whatever they touched in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing quarter of a million people, melting friends, families and dreams in 4,000 Celsius heat. Those like Sachi who survived the bombings have seen the ominous mushroom clouds billow through their lives, changing them immutably. Sachi survived but the bombings claimed her parents and friends and neighbours. The author of “Hiroshima: Memoirs of a Survivor’ narrates her story in her downtown condo on a sleepy sunny Squamish afternoon.  The adopted daughter of Kazuo and Yoshiko, Sachi grew up in a middle-class suburb of Hiroshima called Takasu. Her mother passed away when she was five years old and her father remarried Misao, a stepmother who loved Sachi like she was her own. Sachi soon had a brother, Yuta, and a few years later her cousin too came to live with them. Sachi remembers an innocent idyllic childhood where fun was catching fish from the creek outside the home without using a net with her brother and cousins. Sachi was eight at that time but those days of innocence were about to come to an abrupt painful end. She calls August 6, 1945 the Day the Earth Stood Still, even though it started like any other hot summer day. She remembers a beautiful clear, cloudless sky as she walked to the Furuta National Elementary School, a few hundred metres from her home. Unknown to her and millions of other Japanese, the American B29 bomber, Enola Gay, was carrying Little Boy, the world’s first atomic bomb, towards Hiroshima. Sachi was in the school yard playing with her classmates and she remembers the instant the bomb dropped.
“The playground was located on top of a small rise. In the school grounds there was a large tree. I am sure that the reason I was not injured was because I was in the shade of that tree. Suddenly, there was a flash of light instantly followed by a blast that created a sand storm. At first I couldn’t see anything. We were terrified. What had happened? We started running toward the classrooms that were on the ground level.
“Our teacher told us to sit down in our own chairs and to be quiet. It took a while to calm down and stop crying. The teacher divided us into small groups to go home following the senior grade group leader. We went home down the mountain by holding hands in pairs.”
As they walked back to school, Sachi noticed black rain started to fall even though the sky was perfectly clear. Sachi and her friend Fujita somehow got separated from the group headed towards homes and took shelter from the rain in an air raid shelter as the black rain continued. The shock of the event has enabled Sachi to recall it in vivid detail, even 70 years after the event.
It continued for about one hour with the thunder and sometimes large drops of black rain or drizzle. We decided to carry on and descended the mountain anxiously. I don’t know how I made it home. On my way, I stepped into a bucket of fertilizer at the corner of a farmer’s house. My foot was a smelly mess. Sobbing nonstop, I washed it in a stream before continuing to make my way home. I met a farmer. He said to me, “Don’t cry! You are Japanese. Be strong!”

“The other children had already returned home by this time, but Fujita and my whereabouts were still unknown and it seemed that the whole community was searching for us. The black rain had dirtied the white blouse I wore that day. The stain never came out even after washing it several times. I really liked that white blouse.”
Fortunately, their house in Takasu wasn’t burned but the blast had caused the straw tatami mats to buckle, which seemed to have tilted the home and shattered the glass doors. Later in the evening, as her grandma filled the washbasin to wash little Sachi, she could see downtown Hirsohima burning, the eastern sky a mad red. “That’s the town of Hiroshima burning, hey? It’s terrible. It looks like a big bomb has fallen. Scary!” This was the explanation that she received. Sachi survived the bomb but her father wasn’t as lucky.
The bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, was dropped at 8:15 am above central Hiroshima from 31,060 feet. The 9,000-pound bomb took 43 seconds to fall from the aircraft.
One minute after the A-bomb was released from the plane, it exploded 2,000 feet above the ground in a blast equal to 12-15,000 tons of TNT, destroying five square miles of the city.
Meanwhile, three kilometres away in the Hiroshima suburb of Takasu, Sachi’s mother heard a knock on their door. Sachi’s mother ran towards the door as she heard her father’s voice and found him collapsed in the doorway. Sachi remembers her mother to be as small as a ‘ten-year old Canadian’ kid but that day she found the brute strength in herself to drag her husband to the bed.
“Over the next few days my father, bed-ridden, continued to moan and suffer from diarrhea, nausea, and the pain from his injuries. Burned by radiation from outside his internal organs were affected as well. He couldn’t consume solid food. He only survived on water and thinned rice congee. My mother borrowed a wagon from a farmer and spread a straw mat on it and placed Dad on the wagon and went to find a doctor.”
Misao was unable to find a doctor that day as the medical system collapsed under the weight of thousands of patients who made their way to the hospitals and make-shift hospitals that were set up in local elementary school. It’s been reported that over 90 per cent of the doctors and 93 per cent of the nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured, as most of them were in the downtown area. The hospitals were destroyed or heavily damaged, hindering aid to the injured.
Sachi was asked by her mother to stay at home and comfort her father with a bamboo fan as he lay on his cot. He didn’t say anything butSachi remembers that hurt and painful look on his face. He had been poisoned by the radiation and he felt so enervated he could hardly step out of his bed. A week later, the Japanese emperor announced that Japan would surrender. Sachi remembers her father’s words: “When Dad heard the Emperor’s announce-ment, he said, ‘What a good day. How wonderful! From now on we will have a peaceful future. Go to the backyard where you’ll see a little mound, and dig the soil.’
“There we found a plentiful supply of foods like rice, wheat, sugar, salt, miso, soy sauce and beans. Also there was a safety box. In the safety box, there was enough money, stocks and bonds to support the family,” she remembers.
The next day her father passed away, leaving behind a widow and two children with no source of income. The bomb left no life untouched in their neighbourhood. Sachi remembers being strictly prohibited from venturing out of the house for fear of exposure to radiation but also because her mother wanted to shield her childhood from haunting scenes of a dystopian wasteland their beloved city had become.

Sachi describes the horrific scenes in the streets: “As the day was coming to an end, the victims of the burned city were being evacuated towards the unburned west side of the city which was supposed to be safe and had lots of clean water with space for resting those wounded victims. Their burnt clothes were raggedly hanging from their bodies. Their peeled skin was hanging from their hands. Their hair was sticking up in the air or messed up. No one could recognize who was who. They were swaying left and right, weeping, crying, mourning. The ghost-like figures trudged along with burnt rags as clothing, their bodies swollen with burns. Suddenly one person who was walking slowly fell down dead.”
Even though she wasn’t allowed to go outside, Sachi remembers the clear terrifying view from her garden. The east side of the city burned, turning the sky above it a blood red. Her grandmother prayed Namuamidabutsu, a Buddhist prayer, while Sachi and her cousin played in the home late into the night, unable to sleep and unaware of what had been unleashed on their city to bring such devastation.
While Sachi had survived the blast, those in the city centre of Hiroshima were not so lucky. Miyoko Matsubara has described the frightening scene after having survived the nuclear bombing as her friend standing next to her simply disappeared. Matsubara was one of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’, a group of 25 Japanese women who were school girls when they were seriously disfigured as a result of the thermal flash of the fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945. They subsequently went on a highly publicized journey to get reconstructive surgery in the US in 1955.
“I rose to my feet, confused. I saw my hands badly burnt and swollen three times bigger. My baggy working trousers were gone, leaving only the waistband and a few patches of cloth.
The only clothes left on me were dirty white underwear. The white color protected me from death. I realized that my face, hands, and legs had been burned and were swollen with the skin peeled off and hanging down in shreds. I was bleeding and some areas had turned yellow. Terror struck me, and I felt that I had to go home. I frantically started running away from the scene, forgetting all about the heat and pain,” Matsubra wrote. 
Death rained from the skies for hundreds of thousands of people but death of Sachi’s father wasn’t the only tragedy to befall the family. In fact, it started with his death and would ultimately claim her aunt’s life as well. As the family soon discovered, Sachi’s aunt Chieko, her father’s sister, was also missing, one among the victims of the bombing. As the war reached its height, women from different neighbourhoods were ordered to work at downtown factories as men were enlisted to fight the war. The day Hiroshima was bombed, Sachi’s mother was supposed to be in downtown but Chieko urged Sachi’s mother to stay at home with her children.  Chieko had been living with the family since her husband had been called to fight the war. That fateful day, she urged Sachi’s mother to stay with her five-month old son and instead took the volunteer duty. Her  death was an unbearable shock to her, Sachi remembers.
“For days afterwards mother was in a crazed state. She would ask my grandmother to look after the infant and my sick father, and she would spend hours on end combing the city, looking for any clues of Aunt Chieko. The city was covered in ashes, still smoldering with pockets of fire. The blazing-hot summer sun baked the human and animal carcasses that lay everywhere. There were maggots all over them. The odour of rotting corpses was suffocating. Flies swarmed around as the crows and ravens were picking away at any remains of unburnt flesh.”
She finally received some information and chased the lead, frantically searching for Chieko while clinging on to hope that she may still be alive. She combed through a burning city looking for Chieko but her search yielded no results: Hiroshima had claimed another family member. She is commemorated in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, a monument to shelter the souls of the victims of the atomic bomb.

Sachi and her husband Chris Rommel have raised their family in Toronto and Vancouver and have lived in Squamish for the last two years. The idea for a book that would tell her story came to Sachi a few years ago when she visited Hiroshima with her husband. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum she noticed several vendors selling books about the bombings, some of them personal accounts of survivors. Yet, a majority of these books she noticed were in Japanese.  There is no dearth of non-fiction books about Hiroshima, the most famous being John Hershey’s book, Hiroshima, but Sachi found an experiential and accessible account missing. As she reflected on her childhood and how the bombing veered it towards uncertainty and anguish, she realized her story needed telling. Ever since her marriage to a Canadian and her migration to Canada, the story had recessed deeper into her mind. Perhaps a part of it was a deliberate effort to put the past behind; Sachihad avoided the topic in parties in Canada and it wasn’t till her children reached their 30s that they were told about the distant but close connection they had to a horrific chapter of world history. There are few survivors of the bomb and most of them are in the twilight years of their life. Mindful of her age, Sachi wanted to share her life story so it’s recorded for history to serve as a reminder of how badly war and nuclear weapons can damage a nation, a society, a community.  What gave this project certain urgency was the tsunami that hit Japan in 2012 and the damage it inflicted on the nuclear facilities in Fukushima. Watching the newscasts about possible nuclear radiation and evacuations from Fukushima brought back the memories that the passing of time had stifled. 
“I was sitting in front of the mountains in Squamish but in my mind, I was seeing the images from my childhood and the Hiroshima bombing. I knew I wanted to trace my life and tell people what had happened and I wanted to use my own voice to narrate that experience,” she says.
Her husband and her brother Jiyo, a nuclear physicist and a peace activist in Japan, also encouraged her to share her story with the world. She first wrote a book in Japanese in 2012 and printed 2,000 copies. This year, overcoming the challenge of language, she translated the book in English.
Despite the widespread destruction, life inevitably persisted and one of its perverse paradoxes was the strong sense of community it created in the neighborhoods of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The bomb had flattened the cities but it had also broken traditional boundaries.Sachi recalls how freely the neighbours and community members helped one another, providing whatever help they could for food and medicine. After a few days of intense misery, everyone seemed intent on forgetting the past and building a new life in a Japan that had taken a hit to its psyche but was determined to stand again on its own feet. And yet, the first few years’ life seemed hopeless as social and political institutions succumbed, in many cases, literally, to the bombing. Downtown Hiroshima was a city of ashes but fortunately houses in the suburbs were able to survive the blast. Sachi’s house wasn’t completely destroyed although it was tilted but still livable enough to have shelter from the rain and wind. Food, however, was in short supply.
“At that time almost all commodities were rationed. We would line up at the Agricultural Cooperative Association to receive goods. The rations weren’t enough for three meals a day. People constantly felt hungry. Mother went around asking the farmers up on the hillsides for anything they could spare: misshapen, gnarled and deformed pumpkins, wilted vegetable greens, and potatoes that would not normally be considered edible or had been nibbled at by mice,” she remembers.

The backyard, which once had been a lawn, was transformed into a vegetable patch producing a blessing of seasonal vegetables. One among them was sweet potatoes, and Sachi’s task was to thin the leaves and separate the leaves and shoots which her mother could cook to eat as greens. Nothing was ever wasted and the family would eat all parts of the plant even though Sachi doesn’t remember how they tasted. The food shortages continued and Sachi would also go on food foraging expeditions in the mountains and the beach, looking for clams that could supplement the family’s food supply. In the late summer, Sachi would go around looking for grasshoppers in the wheat fields and weeds. It was hard work as they hopped quietly from one plant to another hoping to cup the grasshoppers that would later be used for snacks after they were simmered in soy sauce and sugar. It was a crunchy and delicious treat, she recalls. While Sachi and her family tried to rebuild a life, the memory of the bombing was kept alive by the steady streams of refugees that kept pouring into the western suburbs. Destitute and hungry, they depended on the generosity of those who lived on the west side where the bomb had a much smaller impact. Even though food was always in short supply, she remembers giving the kids she saw in the street cookies that her mother had saved for the family. She dreamt of a world where she would be able to build a mansion for all those people she saw in the street.
But as Sachi was soon to discover, life was far from being a dream.  The bombing and the death of the father had thrown the family’s life in turmoil. She would have little money to pursue higher studies as the family struggled with financial hardship. Her mother, Misao, became a widow when she was only 30 years old and was left to support for the whole family even though she had no experience of work outside the household. She had never earned money in her life but luckily, they had a big house and they were able to rent it to four Hiroshima University students. Sachi was in Grade 8 and it fell upon her to cook for the students and wash their clothes. Later, when her mother fell sick, she also had to look after her five-month-old brother. More misfortunes were in store: As Misao fell sick, she asked her own mother to come to live with them but even she had a stroke and became paralyzed. Meanwhile, all the students left their home and the family finally decided to rent the house and move to her mother’s home town, Hagi City, hoping to leave the past behind and start a new life in a new city.
It was 10 years later that Sachi returned to Hiroshima when she found work in a bank. People were moving on with their life. Government offices and stores were being rebuilt but the city still bore the scars of the bombing.
“In the burned city, there were scattered shacks, barracks, and temporary shelters. Some huts were just scrap wood, covered with tinplate sheets to avoid rain. When the rain started the tinplate roofs rattled noisily and water started leaking into the shelters. In winter-time the snow fell down around the shacks. People had to stuff the door and window crevices with some papers and rags to keep out cold drafts.”
Sachi recalls haunting scenes of homeless families and orphans trying to pick up the threads of life. Yet also on abundant display was the compassion of community volunteers who were helping to bring a city back on its feet. There were other life-affirming signs. There were reports that Hiroshima would never see trees or flowers grow again. But to everyone’s pleasant surprise, a tree with red flowers started to grow in Hiroshima, the first tree growing in the ruined city. A few years later, one of the burnt-out Paulownia trees started to grow fresh shoot and it grew into a large tree, located now in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. Sachi spent the next few years working at the bank but it would take decades for individual and collective emotional healing.

In fact, it was in 1956 that the long-term effects suffered by atomic bomb survivors began to become apparent with the first cancer cases reported in that year. Leukaemia was another effect and it appeared about two years after the attacks and peaked four to six years later. Around 1,900 cancer deaths can be attributed to the after-effects of the bombs and an epidemiology study by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation states that from 1950 to 2000, 46 per cent of leukaemia deaths and 11 per cent of solid cancer deaths among the bomb survivors were due to radiation from the bombs, according to a recent article in the International Business Times.
On the street and on TV, there were daily reminders of the impact— physical and psychological — that the bombing had on society. Sachiwas lucky to have escaped with only rashes but there were other young women of her age who were not as lucky. They were to be called the Hiroshima Maidens.  These were girls who were in the prime of their youth but whose bodies were disfigured by the fires that followed the blast. “One had an eye burned out. . . . The nose on another girl was all but burned off and the mouths of many were like twisted and distorted . . . gashes,” the New York Herald Tribune reported at that time.
As many as 25 of these women, aged 17 to 31, were brought to the United States by Norman Cousins, then editor of The Saturday Review. Moved by the plight of these women, Cousins started to support them along with Pastor Taniguchi of Hiroshima Nagaekawa Church.
Through an organization called, The Spirit Adoption Movement, Cousins collected $50,000 in donations from American citizens and helped these 25 women to come to New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital to undergo plastic surgery operations. Some of the maidens returned to Japan but some married and stayed in America. Sachi was also to marry a Gaijin, a foreigner, but from Canada. She first met Charles Rummel at an English conversation circle in Tokyo where he had enrolled at a local university as an exchange student. As they dated for three years, Sachi mentioned to Charles about rashes that she got from the radiation but he wasn’t troubled by that, much to her relief.
They married in 1965 and later visited the Hiroshima Memorial Park to pay their respects to those whose lives were claimed by the bomb. The memory of the atomic bomb and its horrific aftermath flashed before Sachi’s eyes and they left after a few minutes. Even though she has had a good health, the psychological fear of radiation has remained with her. She still remembers the first question she asked the doctor after he had delivered her first daughter.
“Has my baby got all five fingers and five toes?”
“Does she have all her limbs?” she asked again.
For Sachi, the birth of a child was nothing short of a miracle as a doctor in Japan had told her once she would never be able to give birth because of possible radiation effect. “Miracles do happen. For only through God’s Mercy and His Grace, was I given the birth of a girl, Lisa Ann, and two years later another girl, Tami Sophia Rummel, was given to us. These girls are truly miracles of almighty God.”
When one of her daughter developed a rash, Sachi wondered if this was something that she had passed on to her. Doctors could not confirm whether or not radiation could be a factor but even now the rash remains on her daughter’s hands. Even though the Japanese government has declared that second-generation atomic bomb victim children are not at all affected by radiation, she hopes more research would find a definitive answer.

As for Sachi herself, she is living a healthy and happy life in Squamish and the only memento she carries from her past is the Atomic Bomb Survivor’s Certificate, a small pink notebook that identifies her status as a survivor in Hiroshima. The holders of this certificate can seek free treatment and medicine in any government or private hospital in Japan.
“We are also able to apply to travel periodically to Japan and get a battery of medical exams for health problems, all without cost. In 2014, I hospitalized myself at Hiroshima Red Cross Atomic Bomb Hospital for several days for a health checkup that included a blood test, neck ultrasonography, colonoscopy, neurological examination, brain MRI and so on. I’ve gained confidence now and live a healthy life  despite small problems like high blood pressure, arthritis and pre-diabetes.”
Once every two years, the survivors’ group is invited to visit Seattle to meet with medical specialists from Japan for medical check-ups. The specialists include doctors from Hiroshima and the Ministry of Health and Welfare and usually about eight to ten survivors from Vancouver travel to Seattle. With every trip, the number of survivors dwindle as some pass away and others get too old to make the trip to Seattle but this small junket creates a sense of bonding among the survivors. Her memory is also rekindled by the City of Hiroshima, which send her $300 dollars every month.
Sachi has always seen her survival in the bombing as a miracle, a proof of the existence and the help of God. The bombing, however, in her mind is a transgression of the spirit of humanity and a stunning display of human arrogance.
“We overstepped God’s boundaries, and I believe we will have to think more on an individual level on how we can be less materialistic and more caring of the environment and this earth,” she says.
She hopes that her life and her story will enable people to reflect on terror that war and nuclear weapons pose to the present and future generations.

Sachi’s memoir is available at the Hotspot Community Centre.