Hiroshima, 75 Years Later: A Survivor’s Account, Now at the Library

The mushroom cloud begins to rise from the bombing of Hiroshima, Aug. 6, 1945. Photo: U.S. Army, A.A.F.

This guest blog was written by Cameron Penwell, a Japanese reference librarian in the Asian Division; and Margaret McAleer, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

Several weeks ago, the Library was given a small collection that includes a survivor’s remarkable account of the atomic blast that leveled Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. More remarkably, the account, written by a Japanese school-teacher and interpreter, was presented as a “gift of friendship” to an American paratrooper. More remarkably still, the Japanese author was a scholar of Walt Whitman, that most American of poets.

On the 75th anniversary of that bombing, we note that the Library’s collections are filled with stories such as this – documents born of a particular place and time that say lasting things about the ties of humanity, friendship and the power of a personal narrative to convey emotions over the chasms of generations.

This harrowing narrative was penned by Haruo Shimizu, a middle-school teacher who’d gone back to college to study Whitman’s poetry. He wrote it in 1946, as the first anniversary of the bombing approached. By then 43 years old and working as the interpreter for a hotel in Otaru, he presented it to a 19-year-old paratrooper named Willard “Bill” Claude Floyd of Bliss, Idaho. The hotel was used by the U.S. military as a formal or informal base of operations during the occupation of Japan and the pair apparently struck up a friendship. Floyd’s family recently gave the Willard C. Floyd Papers to the Library; they include the manuscript. (The collections has not yet been digitized.)

Shimizu titled his paper, “The Atomic Bomb – The Impression of the Doomed Day – Aug. 6th, at Hiroshima.” It covers 24 pages, written in flawless English on lined rice paper, as neatly done as a term paper.

It’s also horrifying.

The beginning of Shimizu’s manuscript.

Shimizu was a gifted writer. He was born in 1903 in Nemuro, a small town on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. According to research done by Hajime Saito, a professor at University of Tsukuba, Shimizu moved to Otaru, a city on the western side of the island, and settled into a job as a middle-school English teacher. But in his early 40s, with World War II raging, he left his job to study American poetry at the Hiroshima Higher Normal School, a premier teacher-training university. His area of emphasis was Whitman’s poetry.

On Aug. 6, 1945, Shimizu and his much younger university classmates were to report for work at a munitions factory. Shortly after 8 a.m. – with the U.S. bomber Enola Gay already airborne — Shimizu boarded a trolley, intending to visit a friend before reporting to the factory. It was his great fortune that he was headed west, away from the city center.

At about 8:15 a.m., the Enola Gay dropped its bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy.” Falling by parachute, it detonated about 2,000 feet above the central city. Shimizu saw it: “…I saw a silver-white flash, like that of magnesium powder used in taking a photograph, high up in the sky and immediately after it I heard a tremendous sound similar to the explosion of some big fireworks.”

The trolley careened, people bolted for the exit. His right arm was covered in someone else’s blood. People fell into ditches, rocked by explosions from burning buildings. Torrential rain began to fall. Shimizu grew disoriented:  “A tremendous clap of thunder went on and huge columns of brown clouds with dust and flame were making sheer screens all around.”

The dying begged for water. Skin began to peel off people. Shimizu and others rose from the ditches and staggered west. He described the people in the procession:

“All of them were injured or burned more or less. They had just a shirt and pants or a chemise on, smeared with blood and dust.  Some of them were carrying their wounded wives on their shoulders and some their dead children in their arms. They were all desperately shouting for help and calling aloud the names of their families….above all the sound of rumbling of the thunder in the sky was absolutely threatening, as it was not quite certain whether the source of the sound was enemy planes or not.”

Some three hours after the bombing, he made it to his friend’s house, on a hill far from the city center. The windows were blown out and part of the roof was gone, but the building was otherwise intact and its inhabitants alive.

He soon ventured back out to see what had become his boarding house, and went back into the city the next day to try to reach the munitions factory. His journeys read as if they were lifted from Dante’s “Inferno.” A young husband and wife share his umbrella briefly, the wife so sick with radiation poisoning that she was vomiting repeatedly, “shuddering without a stop.” Hundreds of dead bodies were burned black “except for their grinning white teeth.” He got within 300 yards of his old lodging house, but no closer: “Everything in that quarter was in flame.”

“I don’t believe that anybody could have escaped out of the city with a whole skin.”

Three days later, the U.S. bombed Nagasaki. On Aug. 15, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender.

The final passage of Shimizu’s account: “It was about five days later that I learned of the right name of that powerful and terrible bomb, which was supposed to have killed more than one hundred thousand people in an instant. The name was the “Atomic Bomb.” 

Suffering from radiation sickness, Shimizu made his way back to his hometown to convalesce. He soon returned to Otaru and found work as “official interpreter and assistant manager of the Etchuya Hotel.” By that time, the 11th Airborne Division was occupying the area, among them the young Bill Floyd.

Floyd had been called up for duty in December 1945, three months after Japan surrendered. Untested by combat, his family remembers him saying that he was assigned to guard a munitions depot near Otaru and then given broader duties in a nearby town.

At some point, Shimizu and Floyd became friends, perhaps because of Shimizu’s duties at the hotel. It is remarkable that Shimizu was able to grow past the natural feelings of bitterness toward the military force that had devastated his nation. Instead, he wrote out his memories of the bombing and inscribed the manuscript to his young American friend: “PFC Willard C. Floyd, with best wishes as a token of friendship.”

Like many war friendships, it was brief. Floyd was reassigned in November 1946 and lost contact with Shimizu, whom he presumed had soon died of radiation sickness. Floyd lived for a while in Alaska, then settled his family in Arizona, where he ran a barber shop. He died in 1985. Floyd’s family remembers that Shimizu was very much a presence in their household, both through Floyd’s stories of Japan and through Shimizu’s treasured manuscript.

Shimizu, though, did not die, but went on to become a professor of English language and literature, eventually teaching at Gifu Women’s University, from which he retired in 1986. He died in 1997.

During his post-war career, one of the key books he wrote was an academic treatise, “A Study of Whitman’s Imagery,” published in 1957. He summarized his key arguments in a short piece in the Walt Whitman Review.

He writes that if the poems in “Leaves of Grass” are arranged chronologically, they reveal the journey of the soul. Individually and collectively, the soul progresses from the youth, when “imagination soars on light wings,” to an adult soul rocked by hardship, eventually maturing into a soul that recovers its ability to dream and reattaches itself warmly to the world.

Shimizu perhaps saw himself in Whitman, whose poetry offered a path forward to healing and recovery. It is not difficult to see Shimizu’s manuscript and his friendship with a young American G.I. as part of his own journey to recovering the power to dream.

For further information about the Shimizu narrative, contact the Manuscript Reading Room. For inquiries pertaining to Japan or Japanese-language materials, contact the Asian Division.”

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