As a survivor of the deadliest atomic bombing in history, Setsuko Thurlow has a powerful case to make against nuclear weapons.
On the morning of August 6, 1945, 13-year-old Thurlow showed up at a military office in Hiroshima, along with other girls recruited to help break Japan’s war code. As she listened to an officer speak, she saw a burst of light through the window and was hit by an explosion that catapulted her into the air. When she came to, she was trapped under parts of the building she was in.
Thurlow is one of the survivors of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II which killed an estimated 90,000 to 120,000 people, according to the newspaper. Science. The military office where she worked was less than two miles from where the bomb hit. Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 60,000 to 70,000 people.
Both attacks left hundreds of thousands of survivors with physical injuries, lasting health problems and severe trauma. Over the next few decades, some of these “hibakusha,” or people affected by the bomb, became vocal activists, traveling the world condemning the weapons that had so dramatically changed their lives. Together they helped introduce a major United Nations treaty, an effort that won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
WATCH: Hiroshima: 75 Years Later on HISTORY Vault.
Sharing their stories with the world
Thurlow began speaking publicly against nuclear weapons as early as 1954, when she came to the United States to attend college in Virginia. Local reporters asked for his reaction to US hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific that killed a Japanese fisherman by giving him radiation poisoning.
“I feel angry,” she said. When her response appeared in a newspaper, she began to receive hate mail telling her to return to Japan or claiming that Japan deserved the bombing.
Stunned by the backlash, Thurlow decided to speak out against the horrific effects of nuclear weapons and call for their elimination. “As a survivor of Hiroshima, it was my moral responsibility to continue telling the world about it so that the knowledge could prevent something similar from happening again,” she said.
Now 90, she has told her story in places around the world, recalling how when she escaped from the rubble of the building that day, she saw people with skin hanging off and falling organs. Several members of his family died, both from the initial explosion and from the radiation sickness it triggered.
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Sharing these details with the world can be incredibly painful for hibakusha. For one of the Nagasaki bombing survivors who became an anti-nuclear weapons activist, telling his story involved sharing graphic images of how the bomb maimed him.
Sumiteru Taniguchi was 16 on August 9, 1945, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. He was delivering mail on his bike around town when the bomb hit. The explosion knocked him to the ground and ripped the skin off his back. He remained in hospital for more than three and a half years, two of which he spent lying on his stomach as doctors tried to treat his injuries and resulting infections.
Over the following decades, Taniguchi, who died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 88, used his personal story to advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons. At a United Nations conference on nuclear weapons in 2010, he held up graphic images of what the atomic bomb had done behind his back to make his point.
READ MORE: The man who survived two atomic bombs
Call for an end to nuclear weapons
Thurlow, Taniguchi and other hibakusha played important roles in advocating for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The United Nations adopted the treaty a month before Taniguchi’s death in 2017. Later that year, Thurlow accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
As of June 2022, 66 sovereign states had signed and ratified the UN treaty or acceded to it after it entered into force in 2021. Prominent hibakusha criticized the United States and the eight other nuclear powers for refusing to sign the treaty. Thurlow also criticized Japan, which does not have nuclear weapons, for not signing the treaty to appease the United States.
As first-hand witnesses to the horrors of nuclear weapons, hibakusha have been powerful voices in the movement against nuclear weapons. As this population ages, many activists – including the hibakusha themselves – have expressed concern about the near future in which these survivors will no longer be around to remind the world why atomic weapons pose such a grave threat to the world. world.
In 2017, the anti-nuclear movement lost both Taniguchi and Shuntaro Hida, a century-old doctor who survived the Hiroshima attack, helped treat other victims and spoke internationally about the impact of weapons. nuclear. In 2021, activist Sunao Tsuboi, who was a student at Hiroshima University when the bomb hit, died aged 96.
“I worry about what will happen to the world,” Taniguchi said before his own death, “when there are no more atomic bomb survivors.”