HIROSHIMA – Setting foot in Hiroshima in early August for the first time, Robert Croonquist expected to feel sorrow for the massive number of lives lost in the U.S. atomic bombing of the city 70 years ago.
Instead, the 67-year-old American could not help rejoicing at seeing the familiar faces of atomic bomb survivors he has worked with in a project that began in 2008 to get them to share their dreadful experiences and hardships with high school students in New York.
Nevertheless, the project led by his nongovernmental group, dubbed Hibakusha Stories, is ending large-scale visits to schools this year. That means there will be fewer chances for American schoolchildren to hear survivors’ stories firsthand.
Croonquist said that from the beginning, a seven-year time-frame through the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was set so volunteers would not “burn out.” The group also wanted to “honor” the advanced age of survivors who have had to travel from Japan, Canada and elsewhere to join the program, he said.
In a recent interview, the retired New York City schoolteacher summed up the project as accomplishing “much more” than he had initially expected.
Among the achievements, Croonquist said, was that some 30,000 students learned about the 1945 atomic bombings directly from survivors, who visited well over 100 high schools and around a dozen universities in New York and other areas.
Noting how his own life changed when he read in his high school days “Hiroshima,” an account by Pulitzer-winning author John Hersey of the horrors inflicted by the nuclear bombing, Croonquist said he could “only imagine what the effect will be on these young people for having personally met atomic bomb survivors.”
During a typical program for high school students, a few survivors recount their personal stories, followed by a question-and-answer session. Around 10 survivors took part in the last large-scale tour in April and May.
In a country where many are taught that the atomic bombs hastened the end of World War II and details of their human toll remain a sensitive topic, the program offers valuable insight into what happened under the mushroom clouds and how the survivors coped with ill health and prejudices in society against them.
The program’s introductory presentation by Croonquist and other group members also plays a key role in encouraging students to see nuclear disarmament and the threat of nuclear weapons as “personal” issues, not abstract concepts that are difficult to grasp.
On Aug. 6 in Hiroshima, Japanese high school students had a taste of the project when Croonquist and Kathleen Sullivan, another key member and a former education consultant to the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs, conducted a 90-minute workshop in the same way they do in schools back in New York.
The participants seemed impressed by the different approach the American pair took to peace education.
Riria Kyomoto of Hiroshima Jogakuin Senior High School said she was interested by a “sound demonstration” that used round metallic pellets to get the audience to sense the chilling destructive power of all the world’s nuclear arsenals.
In the demonstration, one pellet is dropped into a tin can — the ping sound representing all the firepower used during World War II, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Then, the audience is asked to close their eyes and listen to the roaring sound of over 2,500 pellets poured into the can, which represents the amount of firepower that would be unleashed by using all the nuclear weapons that exist today.
Kyomoto said the demo helped her “feel” what it means to have around 16,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. “I felt goose bumps when comparing the sound of one pellet and a lot of pellets, which was as different as a raindrop and a hailstorm.”
Chinobu Takami, an English teacher at the same school, called the workshop “an eye-opener” because the session began by encouraging students to use their imagination to see the importance of nuclear disarmament, rather than by giving handouts to students to memorize, which she said is the norm in Japan.
Croonquist said his group does not have the resources to conduct long-term follow-up studies on how its program has affected students, but that he can see its value because teachers keep asking the group to “come back.”
The involvement of Clifton Truman Daniel may have added significance to the program, too. Daniel, grandson of former U.S. President Harry Truman, who authorized the atomic bombings of Japan, has been part of the project since 2012.
Daniel has spoken at program sessions together with survivors whom he calls “friends” and has stressed the importance of listening to the hibakusha to understand the threat of nuclear weapons.
“One of our original intentions was that we wanted to show . . . nations who were enemies could become friends. So there’s no more perfect example of that than Mr. Daniel,” Croonquist said.
Although the large-scale school visits are ending, the project will go on in other forms, including bringing individual survivors to New York on special occasions, he said.
Shigeko Sasamori, an 83-year-old survivor who lives in the United States and has been working with the group, said recently in Tokyo that she believes the school visits have succeeded in “planting the seeds” for nuclear disarmament.
The fact that schoolchildren will have fewer opportunities to hear survivors’ accounts firsthand should not be just a cause for regret, Sasamori said.
“Hoping that flowers will bloom from the seeds, we should go on planting seeds again” through other efforts, she said.