On The 76th Anniversary Of The Bombing, We Remember The ‘Ant-Walking Alligator People’ Of Hiroshima

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Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Survivors

While the 2021 Tokyo Olympics winds down, Japan is marking the 76th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. At the tail end of World War II, the U.S. dropped two bombs on the Axis power, codenamed “Fat Man,” and “Little Boy” from a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay.

At 8:15 on August 6th, 1945, “Little Boy” destroyed two-thirds of the city of Hiroshima in an instant. Upwards of 140,000 people died as a result of the explosion — men, women, children, civilians. City dwellers with zero culpability and no involvement in the war.

But not all of them died right away. Some are still alive today.

On the 76th anniversary of Hiroshima Day, we remember survivors of the U.S. atomic bombing in 1945.

When the smoke cleared and the rubble steadied and air grew eerily silent, the survivors emerged. Many of them were blind, their eyes having burned from their sockets. Their faces were melted and cracked, some were missing limbs or were seriously deformed.

In Charles R. Pellegrino's 'The Last Train from Hiroshima,' solidier's accounts of the aftermath describe survivors with cracked, scaly skin, these “alligator people” lined up behind one another on a plodding march through the city streets, in a slow-motion parade in a desperate search for a kind of help they could never receive.

It was said that they appeared as a line of ants walking single-file through a picnic.

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The sounds they made were not screams, because their mouths and throats were destroyed. Something much more horrifying escaped into the artificial ash-filled twilight of the morning air. They wandered past the few scattered walls that remained standing, unable to see the shadows of former friends and family burned into the rock from the heat of the blast.

Radiation death can be slow. Some of these people would wander for up to two weeks, aimlessly searching, until the horrific symptoms of acute exposure would finally kill them.

What happened to the survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb?

While the initial waves of survivors died, others who had been farther away from ground zero carried on. Called “hibakusha,” these were people who suffered from wide-ranging effects of radiation poisoning — not to mention the deep psychological trauma.

Depending on how far away someone was from the center of the blast, they could suffer from conditions spanning from intense radiation burns, blood diseases, nervous system disorders, respiratory problems, sterility, and increased cancer risk. Some hibakusha would go through life with the patterns from the clothes they were wearing burned into their skin.

In the midst of such suffering, infectious diseases ran rampant through the population due to crippled infrastructure and raw sewage exposure. Dysentery, cholera, polio, pneumonia, typhoid, and more.

Hibakusha were outcasts.

During the U.S. occupation of Japan following the war, intel on the effects of the atomic bombs on a human population was highly valued, and as such, highly classified. In the pursuit of tactical information, the survivors were studied but given little access to desperately needed medical care.

In Japan, a hibakusha had no prospects. Fears of contamination and misguided beliefs about the possibility of the effects being contagious relegated hibakusha to the fringe of society. They would be ostracized, unable to find jobs or pursue relationships.

39% of the population of Hiroshima perished within a year of the bombing, but there’s simply no way of knowing how many survivors lived on in horrible pain and suffering from both physical and societal ailments.

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Hibakusha inspired their own genre of art and media.

Fear of the bomb, of technology run rampant, of the very citizens of their own nation who had fallen victim to it, was a catalyst for a new movement in art and media. A subgenre of film was born, called hibakusha cinema.

The most famous hibakusha film, Godzilla, was viewed as a cheesy monster movie by many Americans, and it went on to become a hit Hollywood franchise spawning numerous sequels and reboots.

In 1954, the U.S. tested a thermonuclear bomb on an island in the Bikini Atoll. A Japanese fishing boat was caught in the blast radius. All survived except the captain, but the effect on Japanese society as a whole created a catastrophic panic. It was the tearing off of a scab that many had worked so hard to ignore.

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Godzilla was inspired by the event and came out in the same year. The title creature was seen as an innocent bystander, corrupted and mutated into a rageful monstrosity by the effects of a nuclear bomb blast on an isolated island.

Hibakusha media was a way for artists and society to talk about the bombings and their aftermath in a closed-off, high-tension environment where the motivating principle was to ignore and forget. Though a silly monster movie to many, Godzilla was a bittersweet moment of catharsis for many in Japan.

Justice for survivors of the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima is still being sought.

In 1956, Japan passed a bill granting free medical care to survivors of the atomic bombings as part of a slow transition to acceptance and advocacy for hibakusha who have experienced the worst side of the cataclysmic power in human hands. In 2020, around 136,000 hibakusha were still alive.

In a ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Park on Friday, Mayor Kazumi Matsui pushed for global nuclear disarmament. He cited the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which finally took effect in January of 2021.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga did not mention the treaty in his own speech at the park and has since refused to sign it, arguing that it lacks support from any major global nuclear power.

Suga and Masui seemingly hold opposing views about the necessity of securing humanity’s future from the effects of an unspeakable threat. It shows that, even within Japan, the pressures of international politics are too much for simple solutions.

The pair spoke while standing close to the Hiroshima Peace Clock, a monument equipped with two clocks. The first counts the days from the first nuclear attack at Hiroshima, and the second displays the time since the last nuclear test by any country.

When the ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the bombing ended, hordes of gloomy faces, civilians and tourists, filed out from the park. Retraumatized, lost in thought, some marched in single file, like ants on their way through a picnic.

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Kevin Lankes, MFA, is the senior editor of expert content at YourTango. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.