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'Last Train From Hiroshima' Tells Survivors' Stories

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'Last Train From Hiroshima' Tells Survivors' Stories


'Last Train From Hiroshima' Tells Survivors' Stories

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in New York City.

The second and so far, the last atom bomb to be used in war, incinerated the university and the hospital where Dr. Paul Nagai worked near Nagasaki. It killed his wife and his students and strangely, it cured his cancer. A few days afterwards, Dr. Nagai told an embittered fellow survivor: do you not understand that the power of the atom was a gift, planted in the universe at the very beginning? If the gift is handled properly, he explained, each man is given the key to the universe, a key that may one day throw open the doors to the planets and the stars beyond. Then he added that the same key could also unlock the gates of hell.

You can find the stories of Dr. Nagai and many others who survived nuclear warfare in a new book that vividly recounts the incalculable horror of the bombs that ended the Second World War. "Last train from Hiroshima" includes the most unlikely stories of the double survivors. People like Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who died just a couple of weeks ago, that were in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If you have questions about what happened to them and the cities that were bombed, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik on the end of Air America. But first, Charles Pellegrino's book is called, "The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back," and he joins us here in NPR's New York bureau. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. CHARLES PELLEGRINO (Author, "The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back"): Thank you.

CONAN: And I have to ask whether those who survived both bombs considered that considered themselves incredibly lucky or incredibly unlucky?

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Mixture of both. Mr. Yamaguchi - finally he came to feel that he had survived it for a reason. He had, for many years, come out of it adopting this kind of viral philosophy of going a bit further, then do unto others as you would do one to you, but he felt that random acts of human kindness could spread outward and outward and outward and he did this somewhat like the pay-it-forward principle

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: what we call it in America. And hoping that it would reach some way into some place where some child who might do something horrible in the future, like become part of a terrorist group to detonate a weapon somewhere and that it might reach that person and stop something horrible in ways that were unpredictable and would never be known. And he tried to do this as an anonymous figure and didn't speak out much. There was a lot of prejudice against people that survived one atomic bomb, never mind having survived two.

And then one when his son came down with cancer and when he realized that other people - that they were very few children who are witnesses of the bombs who could be spoken to because most of the children had developed cancer by about age 60 and died. And then he realized where he had worked so hard to maintain an anonymous position in life. He realized that maybe sometimes on the road you try moving to escape your fate - that's where you meet your fate. And that's when he came out and started talking about the bomb.

CONAN: There is this haunting story that he tells of almost being pursued by this almost living thing that he saw first in Hiroshima and then again in Nagasaki.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Yeah, that's something that's interesting to me, in that the Japanese often they give they see these things, a phenomena, almost as living things - demonic figures that seem to follow some people and personally - these strange fire worms; five and six, even 10 storey Tornadoes of fire that would come in groups, almost stop at the river. And one child said it was as if they paused and were looking across the river, determining what to do next before they advanced and became water spirits, and then went landward and drew up fire again.

CONAN: These are incredible stories that you tell in this book. Obviously, the situation that you describe, we hope it never happens again, nevertheless, there are some lessons. Again, who was it? It is the warnings of Dean Tsung(ph). This was another double survivor.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Right, right. He was well, actually there are about up to 300 people that we know of who got on the trains, these two trains from Hiroshima, went to Nagasaki and experienced the bomb a second time. And like the dean of the medical college, about 90 percent of those people appeared to have been killed by the second bomb, which most people don't know was three times more powerful than the first bomb

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: but before the second bomb arrived, he had been going around the hospital and to the medical students, warning them of what he had seen, warning that, you know, if you're wearing white, even if you're behind a white sheet, it protects you from the flash. The things that we look at in the 1950s, the duck and over films, and we see people ducking behind sheets, all of that was true. If you are near enough to be seared by the flash that would actually protect you by reflecting the heat ray and he gave out information that saved a lot of lives.

Oddly, he was shock-cocooned a second time. He was in the middle of a building, near the hypocenter that completely disappeared. People at the outer side of the building apart like sacks of burned leaves and they found him alive inside, but he had been deeply penetrated by the prompt radiation, the gamma rays, the heavy ions and such, and he had a lethal dose of radiation. So, he lasted only about a day after they found him in the center of the building.

CONAN: Yet he also felt terribly guilty that he hadn't been able to tell his story more widely. The people who left Hiroshima well, the government story was a small bombing had occurred, a few people had been killed, what President Truman had said was completely nonsense.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Right. The government - in fact, some of the people who began talking, the pre-facto arrived in Nagasaki, Dr. Sunno(ph) the even Mr. Yamaguchi they were told, you can be hit with charges of treason if you keep spreading these bad rumors that Hiroshima has disappeared. In fact, Mr. Yamaguchi was in the - often one of the largest office buildings of the Mitsubishi Company. When the second bomb struck, he was in a room behind a steel reinforced stairwell that appears to have diverted the shock wave in much the same way that the prow of a boat will shunt water to either side. The entire building and the building next door disappeared, over 300 people were killed except for the 30 people who were shock-cocooned in that office with Mr. Yamaguchi at the moment that his boss was calling him a liar. And he probably had history's single most rescinding

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PELLEGRINO: employee to boss: do you believe me now?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: And the people in that room had taken his instructions. As soon as they saw the flash, they ducked down and he had - what he was saying then something to someone because he had said the glass in those windows will be deadly if the flash comes here and he had people open the windows all the way.

CONAN: I did not know that the aluminum cylinders that were dropped by another plane, there were three over Hiroshima, included letter to Japanese physicists saying, please explain to your government what has happened, that there is no defense against this, that the time has come to surrender.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Right. And two of their physicists went right down to Hiroshima, came back. They had a Geiger counter. One of them, he realized that the teeth are not normally radioactive when you find a pile of teeth at an intersection in a road. And a soldier asked him, so that's it. This is the atomic bomb? And he said, that's it, it's over.

CONAN: Mm-hmm, it's over. Yet, the defense minister said, no, no, no, I don't think it's over.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: We had you know, there were factions, you had the foreign minister, Togo, who said, there is no defense against this kind of power. In addition to this new weapon that has been dropped, we have fire-bombings every night that, in part of Tokyo, 200,000 people were killed in a single night by the fire-bombings, and that the fire-bombings alone with destroy us all.

And yet there were people who would not surrender, people who were literally suicidal about the idea of surrender. And for a couple of days, the emperor, when he recorded on two records his surrender and had them hidden, he was a prisoner in his own castle, and a couple of the people who defended him were hacked to pieces.

CONAN: Yeah. They were - at the same time, they were expecting to try to mount some defense against atomic weapons, they were carving mahogany bullets and sharpening spears.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: In Hiroshima, they had the children, at that time, before the bombing, carving - putting together guns in their schools that would fire two bullets. They figured that was as long as they would live when the Americans came ashore. And the children were all told that they and their families would be raped and murdered by the Americans. So they were very afraid and were brainwashed into this final defense, a suicidal defense of Japan.

CONAN: We're talking with Charles Pellegrino about his new book, "The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back." 800-989-8255. Email us: Let's go to the phones, and Jim's on the line with us from Minneapolis.

JIM (Caller): Hi, thank you for having my call. My father walked through Nagasaki with his entire Navy ship two weeks after the explosion, has never talked to us about what was there, but my five siblings and I are all riddled with birth defects up and down the line, from (unintelligible).

And I'm just curious. You know, two weeks after the bomb, what was the situation there, perhaps, and are there any other instances of, you know, military people or other people taking these - the situation, the bomb and birth defects further down the line as far as where the symptoms come out? I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, Joe. Thank you.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: It might have been more than two weeks after the bomb, because most of the Americans didn't arrive at the hypocenter until a typhoon had come through in early September, and most of the present radiation at ground level was actually washed away.

So the radiation that people would have been exposed to in Nagasaki itself, unless they got there before the typhoon, would have been fairly low-level radiation, and unless they stayed there for a long time in the hypocenter.

But the worst of the radiation was actually during that first week or two. It was pretty tremendous when it was just drifting around and rising higher up the hills as dust. Had that same bomb been detonated in a dry part of, say, America, the radiation effects would have lingered for years.

CONAN: Now, we mentioned Dr.�Paul Nagai earlier. You said some of his work was misused, in fact, to develop hypotheses about how survivable these kinds of bombings could be.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Right. When MacArthur got in, because the...

CONAN: It's my mistake. We're going to have to bring that up after a short break. But Charles Pellegrino, stay with us if you would. And if you'd like to continue the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, The book is called "The Last Train from Hiroshima." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, from New York City today. Our guest is Charles Pellegrino. His book is called "The Last Train from Hiroshima," where he tells the sometimes unimaginable stories of the survivors of the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And we're taking your calls. If you have questions about what happened to them and what happened to the cities that were bombed, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Charles Pellegrino, just before the break, we were talking about a Dr.�Nagai, who - began the program talking about him. He moved back in, right to the center of the hypocenter. And then after that typhoon that you mentioned washed much of the radiation away from Nagasaki, he started to see insects and then animals and plants come back in the city. But his work was distorted by people who did not understand what had happened there.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Right. He kept a record of wildlife coming back, and when MacArthur came in, what - as I - what most people don't know is that the Nagasaki bomb was three times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. In fact...

CONAN: They say, in fact, the Hiroshima bomb was a dud.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Yes, it had some problems before it was actually put on the Enola Gay. The core of the bomb had been compromised by an accident. Had the Nagasaki bomb been detonated over, say, California during a dry season or right over New York City during a very dry autumn, the flash effects alone - because we know that the Nagasaki bomb flash-desiccated leaves 50 miles away - we would have had a hurricane of fire 100 miles across, possibly with a hypercane in the middle, reaching all the way up into the stratosphere. And that's not even getting to the radiation effects.

Dr.�Nagai, at the time, was inside the hospital at probably just the right distance where the dose of radiation he received put him into remission from cancer, where his friend, Dr.�Akazuki(ph), was predicting he only had two or three more months.

He ended up living for another six years. He went down into the radiation zone, saying, look, I've already been through all this. What worse can happen to me? And he started recording the return of the wildlife. And it was information that was misused to kind of say, see? The atomic bomb isn't that bad. It's just another tactical weapon. And this guy was living in there. In fact, it even cured his cancer, and everything is all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: And so...

CONAN: Now, there were other cases of people who had to wear glasses before the bomb they were - the bomb was dropped and didn't have to afterwards, yet they said they would not necessarily recommend being in a nuclear explosion as a means of vision correction.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Right. There are two cases, one of a doctor who was in Hiroshima, and he had a way of really understating things. I met him about 30 years ago, and he's the one who his glasses were knocked off his face, and most of the hospital disappeared around him. He found his glasses, put them on and then realized that he could not see with his glasses on. And he made the statement to me that, yes, exactly as you said, well, I would not recommend nuclear detonations for corrective eye surgery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's an email from Sara in San Francisco. My best friend's aunt was in Hiroshima and told me she was standing in front of a window when the bomb went off, and for the rest of her life was pulling glass shards out of her skin when her condition flared. True?

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Yeah. In fact, to have survived that, she was very lucky. There was where - Kenshi Hirata(ph) was another one of the double survivors whose wife was essentially directly under the bomb almost, two miles away.

He was - he saw people - after the flash and no explosion came, he saw people standing up next to the window and described people who took as much as three or four pounds of glass in their faces and their chest. And at that distance, and at that point, about five, six second later, the glass would have been flying into the room at about one-third the speed of sound.

CONAN: You also describe people who were peppered by blades of grass that were fired into them like arrows.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Yes, Mr.�Yamaguchi was one of the people in that zone. He had petals in his skin, bits of glass from a building that was almost a quarter of a mile away that he had been walking toward at that time. Glass had been picked up and fired like darts into the bodies of these children who were walking around near him stunned.

He's, by the way, the only person we know of who survived being exposed to the full forces of ground zero both times.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Hsiao(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - from Huntersville in North Carolina

HSIAO (Caller): Yes, you did.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

HSIAO: Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Go ahead.

HSIAO: Yeah, my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, she went through Hiroshima within a day or two after the atomic bomb had dropped, looking for her husband. The train went as far as it went, and she walked from there for miles and miles, and she couldn't find her husband. So she decided to turn over the dead bodies one after another.

At the time, Japanese were wearing, you know, the name tag and address on the clothes. And she came home without her husband. After maybe about 30 years after the atomic bomb dropped, I think the government finally admitted that he must have died in there, but we never got the body.

But she suffered from the radiation effect for the rest of her life. Her lungs were destroyed. Her, I think, kidney was not functioning well. So the people who weren't directly affected still got effects of the atomic bomb.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Yes. Mr.�Yamaguchi had described that. He had no family who were living in the hypocenter, but people who survived near him who, over those next very first days, when the ground was really radioactive, who went into the hypocenter, they picked up what they - in their lungs what they call the death sand, which was the fallout. And they had effects that just went on and plagued them for the rest of their lives.

CONAN: You know, in fact, you've described many stories of people who had this tremendous thirst after the water had been evaporated out of their bodies by the heat and the explosion, and found themselves opening their mouths to the black rain that fell from the sky.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Right. And the thirst would've been caused also by the rays passing through them and causing damage. Some people were actually, literally burned on the inside. And then, of course, there was the fire all around, which raised the heat and was bringing on thirst and...

CONAN: It was also August. It was hot.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Yes. And one case was the Sasaki Children(ph) in what became the lifeboat between these two bridges where the children were, and then the black rain started coming down and they were thirsty, and they started drinking the black rain. And that is probably how Sadako of the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes, it was probably more the black rain than anything else because this was all the irradiated material that went right up behind the fireball and then rained down as dense fallout.

CONAN: Well, thanks very...

HSIAO: What about the river that people started drinking water out of?

CONAN: Indeed, people started drinking water...

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Right - the rain falling into the river, the fallout falling into the river. It would've been very deadly during those first three hours, especially.

HSIAO: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Thank you, Hsiao. Here's an email we have from William in Forest Grover, Oregon. Reminders of these cataclysmic events are with us here in the Northwest, and will be for centuries.

Near the Columbia River in Washington is the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. It's the source of the fuel for the Nagasaki blast. The cleanup alone will take decades. Waste decay is measured in centuries.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And let's go next to -this is Joe, Joe with us from Zanesville, Ohio.

JOE (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JOE: I was wondering: Wasn't Nagasaki a secondary target? Wasn't there a first, primary target?

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Yes, the primary target was Kokura. And, in fact, the pilot, Charles Sweeney, received a lot of yelling at because he had flown over that target, which was smoked over from a fire-bombing the night before. His first pass was through flak. His second pass was through flak. The third time, it was flak and fighters beginning to come up.

And the bomb had these two fuses that could have been detonated by the front of the bomb hitting anything. There was the possibility that with flak and everything, the bomb could've exploded in the plane itself, 30,000 feet above the ground. And Sweeney did all of this because Kokura was really a purely military target.

It did not have this huge civilian population around it, as Nagasaki did, and Orikami(ph) and the Mitsubishi plants near Nagasaki. And Sweeney, with running low on fuel and everything else, he did everything he could not to hit a largely civilian target.

JOE: Gentlemen, I just want to comment real quickly, and I'll let you go. That gives a little bit of credence, then, to the two survivors and how they thought maybe this thing had followed them, then.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr.�PELLEGRINO: Right. It was utterly by chance that Yamaguchi was followed and that he ended up being in both places, that he even survived Hiroshima. Had the bomb not been compromised by an accident, the one that dropped on Hiroshima ground, he would not have survived in ground zero. The zone of absolute death would have extended another half mile, at least, beyond where he was. And had the accidents with - had the smoke over Kokura, and then, not only that, but the clad cover over Nagasaki and then, Sweeney having an idea that if I drop it two miles over of - upriver, I can take out all the military targets and I wouldn't have to use the rebound effect, the famous(ph) shotgun through part of Nagasaki and leave much of the civilian population there.

Had the bomb not been dropped right two-and-a half miles upriver, well, the hypocenter would have been right over the Mitsubishi offices where Mr. Yamaguchi was telling his boss what happened in Hiroshima. He should not have survived, in either case.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much.

JOE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Scott, Scott with us from Ann Harbor.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just had a simple question. I hear this over and over again how, as the years go by, you hear more and more how unethical some people believe it was for the United States military to even drop these bombs on, you know, the Japanese civilians. And my question, you know - well, I also hear, you know, stories about estimated fatalities, you know, had there not been a bomb, you know, how many millions of Japanese soldiers and American soldiers would have died versus how many hundreds of thousands, I believe it was, from the bombs.

And so, my question is, is that correct, that there would have been many, many more times estimated fatalities total between both sides have we not dropped the bomb, or is that an inaccurate statement?

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Well, part of the evidence comes from the number of purple hearts that Truman ordered to be printed up by the United States Mint, what they were expecting under the MacArthur plan if we went in without these fire bombings. And, remember, the atomic...

CONAN: That's atomic bombing.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: ...bombs were just considered two more firebombs, two more types of firebombs in the arsenal. We - it wasn't just Japan at their clear blue skies in the day and we dropped these two bombs. We were firebombing the whole country for weeks and weeks, running out of targets by the time we'd hit Hiroshima. And Truman had ordered for the land invasion, 400,000 purple hearts to be minted, and - in expectation of our losses invading Japan. And we're still using those purple huts today, through the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Gulf War I, Gulf War II into Afghanistan, we haven't used up all those purple hearts yet.

The other is Joe Fuoco, who was the flight engineer on one of the planes, these pilots, these crew members, they were not really in a place they wanted to be in any case, for the fire bombings or anything. One of the scientists, Luis Alvarez, had feared that the atomic bomb made war more impersonal, and nuclear weapon use would be more likely because you didn't really see what was happening to the people.

And Fuoco said something to me that I was not expecting. He said, when I was on Bad Penny(ph), hitting Osaka or hitting Tokyo, they were over 300 other planes with me, and I knew I hit those gas tanks I was aiming at. When there were only a - so that when he heard 200,000 people died, he said there were plenty of other planes to spread that around. When it was only us, he said, and when we heard 70,000 estimated deaths in Hiroshima and he got tears in his eyes and he said, every one of those souls came back to us and to our three planes.

CONAN: Thanks very much. We're talking with Charles Pellegrino about his most recent book, "Last Train from Hiroshima." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And there are couple of things I wanted to follow up with you about, one of which was the guilt felt by so many of the survivors. There is a searing story in your book about a man who believed he could've saved the grandmother of his neighbor.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Oh, Sadako. Yeah.

CONAN: And, boy, this guilt - his entire life, could never even ask his neighbor about it. He, of course, was completely disoriented to become one of those people that you describe as the ant walkers who were so disoriented, you just followed people, whoever was walking anywhere and never asked his neighbor about it and never found out that, in fact, the grandmother he thought he might have been able to save was not even home at the time of the bombing.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Right. And who was down at the river, and she was - she had escaped down to the river with the family, put the children off on life boats and was more than 400 meters away when Dr. Haychiya walked out of the ruins of his house, following these people in a complete daze, who were described as just walking like ants in row, over rubble and over ruins while nearby, there was an intact sidewalk or a street. And even after the story of Sadako and thousand paper cranes and the plants to build a peace statute to Sadako in Hiroshima's park came in, Haychiya was still alive, but he never contacted them. And Dr. Nagai had described these things, that these cracks between friends and neighbors and family member were worse, far worse, than the cracks that had been made in concrete and steel.

And unlike the city of around him, which was growing out of the ashes and growing new wildlife, he said, these cracks are not healing with the time. In fact, they are getting worse.

CONAN: The spiritual wounds of the atomic bombs. Finally, some people have also asked questions to follow up. You mentioned discrimination against survivors of the bombings and the double survivors.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Right. They - one of them, the man who wrote the "Barefoot Gen" books, he was only a child at the time, and he got involved in the - this artistic movement that led through the "Astro Boy" comics and the "Astro Boy" cartoons to his "Barefoot Gen" books. And he experienced a lot of the guilt. There's this whole story about Ryuta, a child that was adopted into the family that they - he ends the story at least three different ways.

All we know is that before they could resolve these issues, the radiation effects intervened and the other child died. And he had said, we were denied jobs, we were denied marriage. Even though we had survived, we were not allowed, really, to live.

CONAN: We started this conversation with a quote from Dr. Paul Nagai, who survived Nagasaki. We'll end it the same way. He wrote a small piece of prose: Nuclear war ended in Nagasaki. Nagasaki is the period. Peace starts in Nagasaki. Charles Pellegrino, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. PELLEGRINO: Thank you.

CONAN: His stories of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki are in the book, "The Last Train from Hiroshima." He joined us here in our bureau in New York.

Coming up: We'll talk about the demise of Air America. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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