Our first day in Hiroshima was eye opening, heart warming, and heart breaking. We checked in at our Airbnb home and then immediately went out to visit Peace Memorial Park. We wanted to start our visit to Hiroshima by paying our respects to the victims of the atomic bomb.
We are incredibly grateful that our first walk through Peace Memorial Park was on May 4 in the middle of the Flower Festival at the end of Golden Week. Peace Memorial Park was very crowded with families and the mood was joyful and celebratory. People were so friendly and made us feel very welcome, which helped us process all of the emotions we were feeling. We probably saw more than 100 people make the peace sign in the first hour we were there.
Because we are Americans, and human beings, we became overwhelmed with grief during our visit. We actually only made it as far as the Flower Tower before we were overwhelmed with emotion, which is actually the symbol of the Flower Festival rather than a permanent memorial element at the park. The giant Flower Tower was right at the southern entrance of Peace Memorial Park. It was decorated with tons of little flower pots (we read that there were more than 8,000 flowers in the tower) and it was topped with a flame that was lit from the Flame of Peace. We felt like our emotions ran us over while we stood there. We spent some time circling the tower and watching families and couples take photos in front of it. When we were ready to continue our walk into Peace Memorial Park Ali was openly sobbing and Alison had a stomach ache from holding back her tears.
Thankfully, just when we were getting wound up and weighed down by grief, that’s when we had our first real interaction with local people. A group of women approached us, started talking and held out little pieces of colorful paper. We were so caught up in our heads that I think we just gawked at them for a moment. Then one started speaking in English and asked us if we would like to make paper cranes for the Children’s Memorial. We said yes!!! Probably with way too much enthusiasm, because that was exactly what we needed in that moment. One of the women spent a nice long time with us, chatting and laughing, and very patiently walked us through the process of making paper cranes step by step. Then she offered to take a photo with us and she even got us to smile, and then she asked if she could keep our paper cranes and include them in the Children’s Memorial for the celebration there the next day. Of course we said yes, and we did our best to communicate our gratitude to her for that experience.
Our First Hiroshima Moment Was Intense
So why was that first “Hiroshima moment” so intense for us? We are very emotional people for sure, but it wasn’t just about us being good cryers. The US detonated two nuclear weapons in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Those two bombings killed hundreds of thousands of people. Exact numbers will never be known, but it is known that most of the people killed were civilians, and too many of them were children. I found one estimate that the number of people who were 14 years old or younger was around 37%. We are American citizens, and the fact that the US was willing to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is horrifying to us.
Peace Memorial Park Monuments
Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims
We stood in line so we could bow and pay our respects at the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims. The Cenotaph is a site intended as a tomb for everyone who lost their lives because of the bomb. The official registry of names in the central stone vault has over 290,000 names on it. From the spot where you bow at the Cenotaph you can also see the Flame of Peace and the A-Bomb Dome. We felt very sad while we waited in line, and we also felt self-conscious about being Americans and worried that we might cause someone else to be uncomfortable. But it quickly became clear to us that everyone is welcome at this site, and that paying your respects here is appreciated by others. Everyone we met was generous, respectful, and very kind to us.
Flame of Peace
We spent some time looking at the Flame of Peace, which is intended to continuously burn until every nuclear weapon in the world has been destroyed. The massive pedestal was designed to look like two hands pressed together with the palms facing the sky.
Children’s Peace Monument
We also visited the Children’s Peace Monument, which is what our paper cranes were made for. Thousands of paper cranes are offered at this site throughout the year. The monument was designed after the death of a little girl named Sadako Sasaki who survived the bombing when she was 2 years old, but died 10 years later because of the radiation. Her death inspired her friends and classmates to start a children’s peace movement and fundraising campaign to build a new monument specifically for all of the children who died from the atomic bomb. Their project evolved into a peace movement that’s still ongoing today, symbolized by the origami crane which is now an international symbol of peace. The monument has a three-legged pedestal topped by a bronze figure of a girl holding up a golden origami crane. The pedestal also has figures of 2 other kids symbolizing hope and a bright future. Inside the pedestal there’s a gold crane wind chime people line up to ring. We stood in line at this monument mostly with cheerful little kids.
We also walked over to the A-Bomb Dome, the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which housed the staff that worked to promote Hiroshima’s industries before the war. It’s remarkable that this building is still standing, because it’s only 160 meters away from the hypocenter and everyone in this building and at this proximity to the hypocenter died instantly. The people of Hiroshima decided it was important to preserve this building as a reminder of the devastation caused by nuclear weapons.
This Visit is Personal
It’s hard to describe what it felt like to visit the Peace Memorial Park for the first time. We are very emotional people, and we are also very analytical people but it’s hard to put this experience in relative terms. The 9/11 memorial honoring the 2,996 people killed is very personal and devastating to visit, and while you’re there you are visiting a vibrant living city. We have also been to the Mauthausen concentration camp where more than 90,000 people were killed over 7 years, which we found to be gut wrenching and rendered us both speechless during our visit. Peace Memorial Park is a series of memorials but it’s also an incredibly beautiful park in the middle of a healthy and vibrant city full of warm and loving people.
While we visited Peace Memorial Park we were also thinking a lot about our grandfathers. We were both very close to our grandfathers, and both of them were in Japan in 1945, so they both fit into the timeline for us.
- August 6: The US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
- August 9: The US dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
- August 14: Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers, and the USS Richmond carrying Alison’s grandfather sailed to Japan.
- September 2: The Japanese signed the Instrument of Surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, with Alison’s grandfather on deck to witness the event. And Ali’s grandfather met US military personnel from the USS San Juan as a free man after surviving 40 months as a prisoner of Japan.
- September 10: Ali’s grandfather arrived at Oak Knoll Hospital in California.
- September 14: Alison’s grandfather departed Japan for Pearl Harbor, and then moved on to Philadelphia.
Ali’s Grandfather — John Douglas Bridges
My grandfather was an Aviation Machinist’s Mate in the US Navy stationed in the Philippines until his plane was shot down by the Japanese military. He was held in prison camps in the Philippines for 2 years before he was shipped to Japan. When the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima my grandfather was 29 years old and in his 40th month as a prisoner. He was in a prison camp in the city of Yokkaichi working at a copper smelter as a forced laborer for a private company named Ishihara Sangyo Kaisha (ISK) that still operates today. Within a couple of days after the atom bombs were dropped the Yokkaichi camp prisoners noticed their military and civilian prison guards were leaving so the POWs were free to walk away without resistance. They met US military personnel for the first time on September 2, and by September 6 my grandfather was on his way home He arrived at Oak Knoll Hospital in California on September 10, 1945.
I have spent the last few months obsessively researching my grandfather’s prisoner of war experiences and I have learned a lot in that process. Maybe I’ll write a book someday. My goal was to get permission from ISK to visit the prisoner memorial at the Yokkaichi camp site so I can pay my respects there. But all of my requests have been denied. We have been avoiding making plans for the second half of our month in Japan just in case ISK decided to allow us to visit Yokkaichi, which put us in a holding pattern, logistically and emotionally. When we walked through Peace Memorial Park for the first time I was thinking about Yokkaichi, wondering if I should keep trying to get permission to visit this old chemical manufacturing site where my grandfather spent the “end of his second life” and where he hoped to return himself someday to see how things have changed. While we were sitting in front of the A-Bomb Dome I decided I’d rather be paying my respects in Hiroshima than in Yokkaichi.
Alison’s Grandfather — Arthur Richards Rule Jr.
The day the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima my grandfather was on board the USS Richmond involved in the defense of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. That’s the location of the only two invasions of US territory during WWII. My grandfather had perviously left the US Navy long before the start of WWII. He was a husband and a father of 3 enjoying a civilian life, but with the attack on Pearl Harbor he decided to reenlist after his US Navel academy classmates who were active in the Navy called on him to join the fight. His decision was hard on the family.
During 1943 his ship was involved in various battles and blockades, including the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. With the surrender of Japan the USS Richmond departed the Aleutians and my grandfather arrived in Japan to cover the occupation of northern Japan. Amazingly, he was actually on board the USS Missouri during the Surrender Ceremony in Tokyo Bay, along with General MacArthur and representatives of the 9 Allied nations, as well as representatives from the Empire of Japan. My grandfather was a Lieutenant Commander and navigator on the USS Richmond, and a graduate of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was hand picked to stand on the deck for the Surrender Ceremony not just because he was an officer, but also because he was over 6 feet tall. The US designed the event on board the USS Missouri to be intimidating for the Japanese officials. That’s what I was thinking about, and why I was so uncomfortable as a 6’3” American, while I was walking through Peace Memorial Park for the first time.
Moving On — Now We Can Enjoy our Visit in Hiroshima
A friend told us that after the US dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima the survivors worried about how long it would take for trees to grow and flowers to bloom in this place. Some estimates said it would be 75 years before anything grew. We visited the park for the first time a little short of the 74 year anniversary of the day that the US dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Thankfully, this city and Peace Memorial Park are lush and green and incredibly beautiful today, both physically and metaphorically.
So on our first day here we did not try to see everything. We visited just these few monuments mentioned above, and then spent the rest of the day walking along the river, enjoying the sunshine and thinking about our grandfathers and the resilience of the people of Hiroshima. The next day when we returned to the park we were able to see it all again with less sadness and now we are able to really enjoy our visit in this amazing city.