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Encore: Hiroshima Survivor Remembers


This Sunday in Oslo, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, will accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the organization. She will not be alone. Setsuko Thurlow will accept the prize with her. Thurlow has campaigned against nuclear weapons for seven decades, and she's one of ICAN's leading figures.


She's also a survivor. Thurlow was 13 years old when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on her city, Hiroshima. About 80,000 people were killed instantly. Another 80,000 would die later. That morning, August 6, 1945, Setsuko Thurlow had reported to work at a Japanese army base. I asked her to tell us her story when we talked last year. And just know that this story is graphic. It's disturbing. But it's important here again.


SETSUKO THURLOW: I was 1 mile away from ground zero. I was at the army headquarter. And a group of us - about 30 girls - had been recruited by the army, got training in decoding messages. And we were to start the very first day as a full-fledged decoding assistant for the army.

MCEVERS: So you were called out of school to do this work.

THURLOW: That's right. All the students were mobilized to do all kinds of work like that. And imagine 13-year-old girl dealing with very important, top-secret information.


THURLOW: That shows how desperate Japan was in the war. Anyway, that was Monday morning. We started having the morning assembly. And Major Yanai spoke to us and gave us a pep talk, and we said, yes, Sir; we'll do our best for emperor's sake. In that moment, I saw the bluish-white flash in the windows.


THURLOW: And the next thing I felt was floating in the air - obviously the blast of the bomb flattening all the buildings in the city. And the building I was in was falling, and my body was falling together with it. So when I regained my consciousness, I found myself in the total darkness and silence. I tried to move my body, but I couldn't, so I knew I was faced with death.

MCEVERS: How long do you think you laid there? You don't remember how long you laid there before...

THURLOW: I have no time of sense - no sense of time, I should say.

MCEVERS: So what's the next thing that happened?

THURLOW: Well, gradually I started hearing faint voices of my classmates who were with me in the same room in the dark. They were whispering, mother, help me. God, help me. I am here. Then all of a sudden, a strong male voice said, don't give up; I'm trying to free you. And somebody was shaking my left shoulder from behind. And he said, you see some sunray is coming through that opening; get to that direction as quickly as possible. Crawl.

So I crawled in the total darkness, and I got to the opening. And by the time I got there, the building was on fire. That meant most of the girls were burnt to death. Although that happened in the morning, it was already very dark, like twilight. And the two other girls managed to come out, and three of us looked around. And I could see some dark moving object approaching to me. They happened to be human beings. They just didn't look like human beings. I called them ghosts.

They were covered with blood and burned and bludgeoned and swollen, and the flesh was hanging from the bones. Parts of their bodies were missing, and some were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands. And as they collapsed, their stomach burst open. Everybody was slowly shuffling. Nobody was running and shouting for help. Nobody had that kind of physical and psychological strength left. Anyway, solider said, you girls join that procession and escape to the nearby hillside. So we step over the dead bodies on the ground, and we escaped.

At the foot of the hill, there was a huge military training ground about the size of two football fields. And by the time we got there, the place was packed with the dead bodies, dying people. Well, we three girls were relatively in good shape. We could walk. We could carry. So we went to the nearby stream and washed off the blood and the dirt from our bodies. We tore off our blouses, soaked them in the water. And we rushed back to the dying people with the wet pieces of cloth and put them over the mouth of dying people who desperately sucked in the moisture.

And when the darkness fell, we just sat on the hill. And all night, we watched the entire city burn, feeling numbed and stunned. That was my day on August 6, 1945.

MCEVERS: You've been telling this story for more than 70 years...


MCEVERS: ...As a way in your mind to spur some action. Do you think there's ever going to come a day when you stop telling this story?

THURLOW: I won't feel the need to keep talking about painful past experience when we achieving nuclear disarmament. And it's going to happen. People will wake up. And it has to happen.


MCEVERS: Setsuko Thurlow last year - she's 85 years old now, and she lives in Canada. On Sunday, she will accept the Nobel Peace Prize with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a group she has worked with since it launched in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.