On July 14 and Aug. 9, 1945, the Allied forces launched naval bombardments on a city in Iwate Prefecture in the final stages of the Pacific War, wiping it out in attacks that killed at least 773 people.
Seventy-five years on, memories of the most devastating attacks on the Tohoku region are fading as the number of survivors dwindle. But the city of Kamaishi hopes to keep their stories and the lessons learned alive through its annual exhibition on the attacks.
“Naval bombardments on Kamaishi,” an exhibition held at a city-run museum through Aug. 31, features about 60 exhibits including photographs, short descriptions of historic events and illustrated storyboards to visualize the experiences of war victims.
This year, organizers displayed for the first time a set of wooden sliding doors that were pierced by shrapnel from one of the bombs dropped on the city for the first time. They were donated to the museum after being removed from a house that was located in Kamaishi during its demolition in March this year. The wooden doors are displayed alongside a heavy, sharp bomb fragment retrieved from another location.
The first attack was carried out by the U.S. Navy, while the second attack was conducted by a joint force of the U.S. and British navies.
Much of the bombardment targeted a local iron mill run by Japan Iron & Steel Co., now Nippon Steel Corp. But the entire city burned to the ground.
The Kamaishi Municipal Government has so far recognized 773 victims while a separate survey conducted locally has shown that around 1,050 people had lost their lives in the naval bombardments.
The scale of the damage from the bombardments of Kamaishi is on a par with the aftermath of the bombings on Sendai and Aomori in July 1945 that claimed 1,399 and 1,018 lives, respectively.
But local civic groups have claimed the city’s efforts to share the war stories and tales of victims of the bombardments are not sufficient, worrying that those memories will eventually fade away.
On July 14 this year, 14 groups including a local peace committee urged the Kamaishi Municipal Government to invest in refurbishing the Kamaishi Municipal War Museum and the local history museum, and build a cenotaph in honor of the bombardments’ victims.
Minako Iwabana, chairwoman of Kamaishi’s peace committee, laments that the city has failed to introduce measures to bring to light war memories of the 1945 naval bombardment victims.
“The city hasn’t taken measures to describe and let people visualize the severity of the damages the city experienced,” Iwabana said. “And there’s no progress in either the collection of materials (related to the bombardments) or the preservation of remnants.”
The local history museum has three staff workers but none is qualified to be a curator. The museum’s permanent display has not seen major changes over the years and the annual special exhibitions are the only effort to attract visitors.
“Kamaishi was devastated by the Sanriku earthquake in 1896, another major earthquake on the Sanriku coast in 1933 and the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011 as well as the two naval bombardments (in 1945),” stressed Keiichi Maekawa, 82, former chairman of the city’s peace committee. “The Kamaishi that stands today rose from the ashes as it has been rebuilt in the wake of the previous disasters. But Kamaishi’s suffering was not only caused by natural disasters but also by the man-made disaster of war, and we need to pass down this history to the next generation.”
For Kenji Sano, 89, who owns a liquor store in Kamaishi, memories of the naval bombardments that occurred when he was a 14-year-old boy are still vivid.
Sano still lives in Omachi, the same area within Kamaishi where his home and the family-owned store stood when the U.S. Navy attacked the city.
When the sirens went off on July 14, 1945, Sano ran into a shelter in the garden with his mother and three workers at the store. He recalls the frightening sounds of aircraft dropping bombs and anti-aircraft guns hitting back.
“At first I felt relief that the (Japanese) anti-aircraft artillery forces stationed at the port were shooting down the U.S. B-29 bombers, that they were doing their best,” Sano recalled.
“But soon we began to hear the crackling sound more vividly. I thought it was the rain but when I peeped outside there were no ripples in the pond in our garden. When I looked back, our house was engulfed in flames. We jumped out from the shelter.”
Sano, then a second-grader at a local junior high school, was worried that he would be killed like a fly by the bombers if he went outside. He covered his head with a metal washbasin and a cushion and ran through numerous homes in the neighborhood toward a shelter built inside a big rock on the hill behind their house.
When that shelter caught fire, Sano climbed over the hill to escape.
After the bombardments were over, Sano went back only to find that his house had burnt down. To his dismay, the rare stock of valuable sugar, which his family possessed since they distributed it to neighbors during the war, had turned black in the fire.
He then went on to find his father, who had fled to a pine shed 7 or 8 kilometers away after he fell ill, by foot. But it was a living hell with burning buildings and bodies piling on the streets.
“My father and I both had thought we were both dead so when we were reunited, we burst into tears,” Sano said. “Even now, my eyes well up when I remember that time.”
Sano stressed that unlike in air raids when bombs stop flying once a bomber passes by, “you never know when attacks from naval artillery will cease.”
It was also frightening that the bombardments could come from anywhere, he added.
Just before Sano became 2 years old, his home was swept away by a massive tsunami in 1933. He vaguely remembers his body trembling out of fear while sucking on his mother’s breast.
Sano also lost his home to the massive tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake that hit the region on March 11, 2011.
“My life has been full of disasters. But the war is a man-made disaster. And mankind is able to prevent it. We should never wage war, never again,” he said.
This section features topics and issues from the Tohoku region covered by the Kahoku Shimpo, the largest newspaper in Tohoku. The original article was published July 20.