By AME KOBAYASHI
In this excerpt from her memoir, Ame had traveled to Japan in 1940 to study Japanese language and culture and was living with her aunt and uncle in Hiroshima. She was shocked to learn that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and triggered a war with the United States. As the war dragged on, food became increasingly scarce and she had to stop her studies to find work in a local factory.
One of the most frightening things about the war was the cutting down of all the trees in the mountains. When it rained, there was nothing to hold back the water and that caused landslides that swept away so many homes and families into the rivers and out into the ocean. We lost my cousin Hiroko, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. They were washed out to sea and were never found.
Hiroshima is a city of seven rivers and when it rained hard, the floods were frightening, more so than the bombings because there was no place to run. We were almost washed away several times in the typhoons. Our windows were blown out and the water reached up to our floors. It was very scary.
As the war progressed, I went to work in a factory in their accounting department. It was across town and I took a streetcar to get there. I enjoyed my job and when we put in overtime, we were fed a bowl of rice, so most of us worked extra hours. When rice became scarce, they served us horrible-tasting dumplings.
Later in the war, other areas of Japan were being bombed constantly, but Hiroshima was bombed only once while I was there. It was in the morning and I was on the streetcar going to work. The air raid siren sounded and we all had to leave the streetcar and find shelter. A bomb landed in front of the city hall on top of my doctor’s home and killed him, his wife and his daughter.
The B-29s flew over constantly and in the beginning the Japanese shot at them but the planes were too high and the shells couldn’t reach them so they stopped shooting. Some of the shells fell back and injured Japanese civilians.
The police kept tabs on all of us Nisei. One day in late spring the military police came to see me at work. They said they had an important job for me in Tokyo that required an English-speaking person. I had to quit my job at the factory and pack for Tokyo. Since Tokyo was being bombed constantly, it was like being sent to the front lines.
My bosses at work treated me like a soldier who was recruited and threw a farewell party at a bar owned by the Yamadas, the family of one of the workers. They sent me off with “banzais” just as if I were going to the battlefront. (My boss died later in the atom bomb and Yamada was also killed. He was always late in getting to work and they found him on the bridge a few blocks from the factory.)
When I left for Tokyo, it was a rainy night but the whole neighborhood came to see me off. I never saw any of them again.
I was in a group of about eight girls that went to Tsurumi (another group went to Hakone). We were put into a communications office doing translating. We were fed real rice mixed with soybeans to eat, such a treat for us. I was only there about two months. Our facility was machine-gunned once when a plane zoomed over us and the wife of one of the officers was hit.
One day we heard from a group of soldiers who came through about the big bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later on Nagasaki. After that, the Emperor gave his famous surrender speech over the radio.
At our quarters they made a big bonfire and told us to burn all of our personal items, our address books, diaries, letters, anything that might identify us as Nisei, because the American soldiers were going to come and if they caught us, we would be shot as spies. That really scared us and we panicked.
We were released from work and they gave us a rail pass as far as Osaka and some uncooked rice. We carried what we could in our backpacks. They sent us out two at a time. There was a long, long line of people at the railway station trying to leave the city. We were able to get on the platform with our pass, but the train was packed with soldiers and we couldn’t get into the train.
It was August and hot, so the windows were all open. We went to the windows and begged to be pulled in. Some soldiers helped us get in but once inside, we had to stand in the aisle and we couldn’t move, not even to sit down. We went to Osaka (about 12 hours) without even moving an inch.
The train went only as far as Osaka, so we all had to get off. We didn’t have a ticket to Hiroshima so we stayed on the platform until the next train for Hiroshima came through. It was too full and we couldn’t get on, so we climbed onto the connection between two cars and sat there. It was another 12 hours to Hiroshima.
We thought we would be in trouble for not having a ticket, but when we arrived in Hiroshima, there was not a soul around to collect tickets. The place was empty and desolate, and only the skeleton of the station was left. There were a few sick people lying here and there and at one far end in a small shack, a man was selling train tickets.
I headed to the area where I used to live. The bridges were all down, so the only way to get across the river was to use the streetcar trestles. Everything was just mounds of bricks and ashes and I remember all the dripping faucets. Narrow paths were cleared to walk through, and there were messages for family members on sticks in the rubble.
The bomb fell just two weeks before and people from all the surrounding areas had come in and helped burn all the bodies.
When I arrived at my relative’s house (about seven miles from Hiroshima), I found my uncle in good spirits but my aunt was in bed, unable to move. She had been pinned down by the beams of the house when it collapsed in the blast and uncle couldn’t free her. He called to some of the neighbors who were running by and they all dragged her out by force but pulled her leg out of its socket.
It was too late for any of them to leave the city because they were surrounded by fire, so they ran across the street to the temple. The temple area had three large public bomb shelters and they went into the middle one. There were 12 people and a dog in the center section. The fire came and swept through from one side and out the other. They covered themselves with mud from the bottom of the shelter so they wouldn’t be burned, but one man and the dog died.
After the fires died down and it cooled off, everyone except my aunt and uncle crawled outside and found that the other two shelters had collapsed and there were no survivors. As they waited for help, they drank water from a well and ate yams that had been cooked in the well by the fire. Of all those in the bomb shelter, my aunt and uncle were the only two who survived. The others were uninjured by the blast, but within a month they all died from the radiation effects.
When I arrived back, I tried to care for my other uncle but there was nothing I could do for him except put cold towels on his forehead. It started with infection in his gums, so he went to a dentist and had it treated. When he returned home, he noticed all the red dots on his arms. This was the first sign of radiation sickness and after that he developed a real high fever and just melted away.
Most people died within three days after the fever, but Uncle lingered for a week. He didn’t seem to be in pain, his mind was alert, but he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t eat anything because his tongue and his insides just melted away and the room was filled with a horrible odor.
The country doctor didn’t know how to treat any of them. All he could do was to give them aspirin. When Uncle died, he was carried up into the mountains and cremated. Every day there were spirals of smoke in the mountains because so many people died.
About a month later, there was a request from the prefectural office for English-speaking persons, so I went to Kure. I was sent to the Japanese Liaison Office, where I worked for the Japanese doing typing, secretarial work and some interpreting. I had worked there about a year when I received notice that my papers were cleared and I would be able to return to the United States.
I was on the second ship to bring American civilians back. We docked in Seattle and my brother and sister were there to meet me and finally take me home. That was in October of 1946. My two-year study trip had lasted almost seven years.
Ame, 98, now lives in a retirement community in Los Angeles. Her husband Sam passed away in 2005. She has three children, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
Photos courtesy AME KOBAYASHI