Words of regret run repeatedly through the mind of Yoshinori Kato: “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”
On Aug. 6, 1945, when the city of Hiroshima was hit by a U.S. atomic bomb, Kato, now 90 but who was 17 at the time, said he desperately tried to rescue children who were trapped under the collapsed building of Danbara National School (now Danbara Elementary School). However, he had no choice but to leave the children behind as raging fires closed in.
Before then, Kato was a first-year student at the Hiroshima Technical Institute (now Hiroshima University). But classes were suspended because of the war; instead, he was mobilized to work at the Kure Naval Arsenal, an assignment that lasted until July 1945.
Because of the air raids on the city of Kure, he was ordered to return home to Hiroshima. His father had died of illness two years before and, seeking a safer location, his mother and three brothers had moved to his grandparents’ house in the village of Tabusa (now Shobara) in the northern part of the prefecture. Kato lived in Hiroshima with his aunt and uncle.
The first class since his enrollment at the institute had been planned for Aug. 6., and Kato, along with his classmates, went to the Ozu factory of Chugoku Hayden (now the Chugoku Electric Power Co.), which was located about 3.4 kilometers from the center of the blast.
“I was excited about finally getting down to academic work,” Kato said. But when his physics class began, there was an intense flash, immediately followed by the ceiling collapsing. Then there was darkness.
“After we made sure that everyone was all right, we went out of the building. We were just shocked by what we saw,” he said, recalling a huge mushroom cloud rising in the blue sky.
Kato and his friends began walking toward his house. Along the way, they came across many survivors who were nearly naked and had bloated faces. “No one really knew what happened,” he said.
Fire was blazing so fiercely around his house that he could not approach it. Suddenly, a man — a teacher from Danbara National School — grasped him by the hand. When Kato reached the school, he saw seven or eight children trapped under the collapsed school building. There were flames right above them.
Kato and his friends tried to pull them out, but they cried out in pain because their bodies were wedged inside the wreckage. He told them to hold on. “We didn’t want to give up, but the fire was merciless. In the end, I gave some water to a girl then had to leave her.”
Kato and his friends were able to save only one child. “When we arrived at the (school’s) East Drill Ground, we were in a complete daze,” he said.
Before dusk fell, he began walking toward his house through a garden called Sentei (now known as Shukkeien Garden). It was hell. “There were countless bodies, their heads in the pond,” he said. He followed the river, which had little water in it, until the Kyobashi Bridge, and there he came across his aunt.
The next day, he went to the Hiroshima post office, where his uncle worked, but was unable to find any trace of him among the charred ruins of the building. His aunt wanted to continue searching for him, but Kato persuaded her that they should go to where his mother was. They walked to Kumura Station, on the Geibi Line, and were finally able to board a train on Aug. 8.
Toward the end of September, his hair fell out in clumps. “I thought I would die soon,” he said. He was prepared to accept his fate, but his hair began to grow back at the beginning of the following year and he regained the strength to go on living.
After the war, Kato got a job at Chugoku Electric Power. At the age of 27, he came down with tuberculosis and was admitted to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital.
Thinking that he should tell people what happened to the students at Danbara National School, Kato drew pictures of them based on his memories. Around 30 years after the atomic bombing, he began offering prayers at the elementary school on Aug. 6, though he did not tell anyone about it.
Half a century after the bombing, he sent a letter to the school, describing his experience, then started sharing his account with the students there. To remember the victims, he donated a statue of Jizo, the guardian of children, and had it placed at the site where he could not save their lives.
Due to his advancing age, this year he had to stop speaking to students about his experience. “But if children pass on my account to the generations that follow, I think the victims will be pleased,” he said, placing his hands together in prayer for a world where no more lives will be lost in such a way.
This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published Oct. 1.