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Seeing the Horror of Hiroshima

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Sixty years ago the nature of warfare changed. On August 6th, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The blast, fire, radiation and disease killed at least 70,000 people. A second bomb fell on the city of Nagasaki a few days later. Soon the Japanese surrendered and the Second World War was finally over. The US saw the bombing as shortening the war and saving lives, but to many people, especially in Japan, it was hard to see the destruction of that moment as a humanitarian alternative to conventional fighting.

Shortly after the war a US government committee known as the United States Strategic Bombing Survey conducted interviews in Japan about the atomic bombs. Of the eyewitness accounts they gathered, only one was conducted in English. It was with a 23-year-old woman whose parents emigrated to Japan from Russia in 1921. On the day of the bombing she was living just outside Hiroshima. On the recording the young woman is identified simply as Ms. Palchikoff.

(Soundbite of 1945 interview)

Ms. KALERIA PALCHIKOFF DRAGO (Hiroshima Survivor): People started coming out, some bruised, some wounded, some burned. We started up the road towards the mountains and we saw Negroes--they weren't Japanese, they were Negroes. And I asked them `What happened to you? What's the matter with you?' And they said, `We saw the flash and this is the color we turned.' Anyway, finally we reached the hospital, a military hospital. I stayed there for two days and there were people wounded--very badly wounded.

Unidentified Man: Could you describe the nature of those burns? I think the doctor here would be very much interested.

Ms. DRAGO: Yes, all right. The skin just peel off. Some of them you could see the bone. Their eyes were closed. The nose bled. Lips swelled and the whole head started swelling. And as soon as they gave water to them, they'd vomit it all out and they'd keep on vomiting until they die, blood rushed out and that was the end of them. On the second day, the wounds became yellow in color and they'd go deeper and deeper. No matter how much you try to take off the yellow, rotten flesh would just go deeper and deeper. And I don't think it pained them very much. So we spent two days there and then we proceeded until the 15th when the emperor gave his decision about surrendering, and then we were taken to a little countryside in the mountains from where I've come now.

Oh, yes, that's me. My name is Kaleria Palchikoff Drago. I'm 84 years old. I lived in Japan for 23 years and I was living in Ushita. It's a suburb of Hiroshima. The bomb dropped the 6th and everything went down.

(Soundbite of 1945 interview)

Unidentified Man: Did you feel anything at all when the light struck you?

Ms. DRAGO: Yes, I felt it was very hot.

There was a city and then there was no city. You could see the ocean. And right after that, then black rain and wind, and that's when the fires started.

(Soundbite of 1945 Interview)

Unidentified Reporter: How did they bury the people?

Ms. DRAGO: They just dug a big, big hole in front of...

When that interview was done it was very fresh in my mind. My dad told us, he said, `Now you've got to forget all of this. It's going to make you very sad, and the experience must be extinguished from your mind.' I very rarely ever tell anybody that I went through the atomic bomb, ever. I don't tell--my friends, they don't know. And maybe, maybe it's the fact that I don't want to remember it. You accept it and you go on.

BLOCK: Kaleria Palchikoff Drago is now 84 years old. After the war she married an American soldier, moved to the US and raised three children. Her eyewitness account of the Hiroshima bombing was aired once before in Japan, but according to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, it has never before been broadcast in the US.

Our story comes to us from Sound Portraits in New York. Photos and other remembrances of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.