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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Moving Pictures from Hiroshima

Chiyo Migita

Dec. 9, 2015

This year, we have aired several special reports in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. Today, we'll share our final installment in the series.

70 years ago, a single bomb devastated Hiroshima. Inside the entrance of the city’s Peace Memorial Museum today is a large photograph taken three hours after the atomic bomb was dropped. It is one of only two images that captured people immediately after the blast. Until now, no one has analyzed them in detail. With the help of modern technology, we have brought them to life to shine a new light on the stories of the survivors.

Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu were joined by Chiyo Migita, the senior producer for this story.

Shibuya: Chiyo, those two photographs document the terrible reality immediately after the atomic bombing. What inspired you to try and bring them to life, 70 years after they were taken?

Migita: The hibakusha, or atom-bomb survivors, witnessed horrors unknown to anyone else on earth. Many of them are now over 80 years old, so gathering their stories and passing them on is more important than ever before. The two photographs are the only ones that show what conditions were like shortly after the bombing. We thought it was particularly valuable to collect testimonies from people who were actually there when the pictures were taken, and share what they saw with younger generations.

Beppu: What kind of methods did you use to achieve this?

Migita: We used the latest imaging technologies to animate the photographs. The survivors' testimonies made it possible to create an even more realistic video. Our goal was for viewers to feel as if they themselves are at the scene to re-live history. We also want younger people to look at Hiroshima as more than just a historical event with no direct connection to their lives.

The United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in the final days of World War Two. By the end of 1945, it had caused the deaths of at least 140,000 people.

The bomb detonated about 600 meters above the ground, releasing fatal doses of radiation. Energy in the form of thermal radiation sent temperatures at the hypocenter soaring above 3,000 degrees Celsius.

Then came blast winds with a maximum speed of 440 meters per second. Fires burned the city to ashes. The area within two kilometers of the hypocenter became a “zone of devastation.”

The photographs were taken on the Miyuki Bridge, just outside of the most devastated area. We discovered that a girl pictured in her school uniform survived, and still lives in Hiroshima. Named Mitsuko Kochi, she is now 84 years old.

She was inside a building 1.6 kilometers from the blast. She fled the fires, and finally made it to the bridge. Mitsuko says there’s a particular person in the photos that she’s never been able to forget. It’s a girl, standing on one foot, with something cradled in her arms. "She was holding a baby that was charred black," Mitsuko recalls. "I didn’t know if it was alive or dead. It didn’t cry." The girl appeared to be the baby’s older sister.

When we asked Mitsuko for more details, vivid memories came flooding back. "She slapped the baby and shook it. She screamed frantically, 'Wake up!'," she recalls.

We used computer animation to simulate the scene that Mitsuko saw. Then we asked her to check its accuracy. "It was just so, so sad. But there was nothing we could do for her," she says. "I can’t forget it. I’ll take it to my grave."

In both photographs taken on the bridge, people are clustered in the middle. A short distance away was a man watching them. That man, Sunao Tsuboi, is still alive at 90 years of age.

He was outside, 1.2 kilometers from the hypocenter, when the bomb fell. His face and back were badly burned, and he went to the bridge to find help.

He says the people grouped together were applying oil to their burns. As he was waiting for his turn, people who were too weak to apply oil lay down on the ground, and died before his eyes. "There was nothing to be done," he says. "Those who were going to die just died. We were all on the verge of death."

He scratched on the pavement, “Sunao Tsuboi also died here.” He recalls, “thinking my life would end at 20 filled me with a desolate feeling, that no one could save me. So I wrote that I’d die there just like the people in front of me. It made me feel so…how can I put it? Lonely, or miserable.”

We interviewed 31 people who passed by Miyuki Bridge that day. They saw other people like one pictured in the distance, with burned skin hanging from their arms and hands. "It was as if ghosts had appeared," an eyewitness says. "They looked so pitiful."

A woman recalled "they were in tatters. Their skin hung from their arms, dirty brown, like soiled rags hanging down. Children, adults, they were all walking around like that."

Many who suffered from burns headed to the river, where they met their end. “Maybe because it burned so badly, people jumped. One after another, they jumped in," Seigo Nishioka recalls.

Nishioka has been tortured by memories from the bridge for 70 years. Now 84, he was at the time in the first year of middle school. On the bridge, an older student from Seigo’s school called out. He said, “Bring me water.” The photo was snapped at that very moment.

Seigo was in a dilemma. He had heard that people who’d been burned died if they drank water. "I first thought I must bring water. I had a sense of duty," he recalls. "But after walking a bit, I thought if I give him water, he’ll probably die. I began to worry that I would wind up killing him. I sensed that I’d be doing something terrible." Seigo agonized over what to do and in the end, he left.

Seventy years later, he still wonders what became of the student. He’s contacted the alumni association and other places, searching for information. "Even now, the way he looked, that image has stayed with me," he says. "I wonder if is better to forget that memory, or to keep it? Would I be better off growing old and demented? It sounds strange."

A careful examination revealed that many of the people in the photographs are children. 83-year-old Mitsuo Kodama was one of them. He was 12 when the photographer took the pictures. "I don’t know who was sitting next to me, but they were my age or a year older," he says. "Middle school students, that was my impression."

Some 8,000 middle school students had been mobilized to work in Hiroshima’s factories and offices, replacing adults who’d gone off to battle. When the bomb hit at 8:15 am, most of them were already at work.

Mitsuo and 300 classmates were at school, 800 meters from the hypocenter, waiting to begin the day’s work. Most of his classmates died on the spot. He left them, trapped under school buildings, and fled to the bridge, where he sat alone, crying and silently apologizing to his friends. "They all died, never sampling sake or tobacco, let alone a kiss," he says. "I couldn’t help feeling that I heard their voices. ‘You survived to tell the world what happened to us. If you don’t, we won’t rest in peace!’ I could hear my friends yelling that."

Researchers at Hiroshima University studied fatalities on the day of the bombing. This year, they determined for the first time that the greatest number of deaths was among middle school students.

Mitsuo has been preserving his memories in paintings, with the help of high school students. One of his paintings shows people with severe burns making their way to Miyuki Bridge.

Mitsuo regularly meets with young people to tell them about the many lives taken by the atomic bomb. "Every single one of them had a fine name, lineage, family, and a personal history," he relates. "These pictures show how all of that was ignored and they were scorched to death. You’d never believe such foolish cruelty could exist."

A moment in time, caught in photographs, showing children filled with anguish, unable to help their friends. The images capture desperate people, overcome with despair. More than 70 years on, they still speak to us about the horrors of nuclear weapons.

Shibuya: Chiyo, Japan is the only country ever attacked with atomic bombs. What is the most important thing for Japanese survivors to pass on to current and future generations?

Migita: Atomic bombs and nuclear weapons are even more inhumane than conventional weapons. Even if a person survives, they face a lifelong struggle with illness caused by radiation. At the time of the atomic bombings in Japan, there was little understanding of radiation sickness. So the survivors also faced discrimination concerning their careers and marriage. This caused lasting psychological anguish.

Beppu: You have been covering the issue for over 20 years. What has pushed you to do this?

Migita: It's important to understand that the same thing should never happen again. It's an issue that affects us all. Numerous survivors have been burdened by feelings of guilt, because they lived while so many others died. Some survivors have actively campaigned to abolish nuclear weapons, so that the victims will not have died in vain. The survivors are the only ones who can truly speak about the horrors caused by nuclear weapons. We must listen to what the survivors have to say and share their words with as many people around the world as we can.