A Westchester Boy Scout makes a human connection with history at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
“We didn’t even know about this,” a Boy Scout from Fresno said after touring Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.
“About the park?” I asked.
“About the bomb,” the high school freshman responded.
I looked around at the thousands of brown-clad teenagers lounging in every inch of shade during a break from their World Scout Jamboree. Every day during that first week of August, some 3,000 Scouts bussed from their campsite to the Peace Memorial Park to attend a special dramatic reading of stories and poems by atomic bomb survivors. In all, 26,000 teens visited the park during the week preceding the 70th commemoration of the bombing.
“I thought that was common knowledge,” countered Luke Calimlim, a 14-year-old El Segundo High School freshman who lives in Westchester.
Me, too. I don’t remember ever not knowing that the U.S. was the first country to drop atomic bombs on civilians. Then again, I grew up in the Cold War era when my school held “duck and cover” drills. At the sound of an alarm, we’d march into the halls and crouch on our knees facing the cinder-block walls. Those of us wearing sweaters were told to use them to cover our heads, as if that would protect us from nuclear fallout.
I wasn’t much older than Luke when I organized support for the Bilateral Nuclear Weapons Freeze initiative that faced California voters in 1982. Looking back, that highly controversial initiative now seems quaint: It was a non-binding resolution calling on Washington to negotiate a bilateral nuclear weapons agreement with the then-Soviet Union.
That initiative passed. Since then, a dozen nuclear arms treaties have been negotiated and the world’s nuclear arsenal has decreased, although Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement he’ll add 40 missiles to his arsenal is troubling.
During that campaign, I met hibakusha, survivors of the 1945 bombings. I was struck by their quiet courage and their willingness to share their stories and scars.
Those stories are preserved at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, often told through objects found in the bomb’s aftermath — objects that put a human face on the tragedy.
“[There was a] child who died in the bombing,” said Luke, describing one of the museum’s exhibits. “There was a bike that he was riding and the father buried it with his [son’s] remains. Then the father dug it up and donated it to the museum. Another [exhibit] had a cutout from concrete steps. You see a shadow on the steps where someone had been sitting. Someone had been sitting there one moment… and not the next.”
I, too, was moved by the rusted tricycle of the 3-year-old who perished in the blast. Other displays included eyeglasses, school lunchboxes, clothing remnants — items that brought to life the idea that ordinary people were just going about their ordinary day when the world’s first atomic bomb hit them.
“All the people there were people like us,” Luke said. “They were at school and at work and had nothing to do with [the war].”
The museum is located in a tranquil but well used multi-block inner city park dotted with contemplative statues and several groves of trees, a lovely reminder of nature’s resilience. At the far end of the park is the iconic Atomic Dome, the skeleton of what was once, ironically, an exhibition hall that promoted Hiroshima.
Luke also was struck by the story of Sadako Sasaki, who was exposed to the atomic bomb’s radiation when she was a toddler and died of leukemia (the “A-Bomb Disease,” as it was called) when she was 12. During Sadako’s hospitalization, she and her friends folded and hung hundreds of paper cranes, hoping to reach 1,000, when, as Japanese legend goes, she would be granted a special wish. They folded the intricate cranes from whatever paper they could scrounge in Sadako’s hospital room, such as needle wrappings and medicine labels.
“It took a lot of dedication to make all those cranes,” Luke said. Sadako’s death inspired a youth movement that built a memorial in the Peace Park to honor the children killed.
As I sat quietly in the park following the commemoration ceremony, several groups of three or four Japanese high school students approached me to solicit my thoughts about peace or to sign petitions calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. They giggled shyly as they practiced their English and handed me paper cranes.
Japanese students grow up learning about their atomic legacy. Every Aug. 6, Hiroshima’s children return to school for a special commemoration assembly, as do Nagasaki’s students on Aug. 9. From kindergarten upwards, students watch historical videos, sing songs of peace and paint images of a nuclear-free future.
“They don’t talk about it as much in our schools,” Luke said, “but I definitely think it would be important to educate people about peace and about negotiating with people before going to war. I know much more [now] about what went down that day.”
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica resident, blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com and can be reached at Kelly ArgonautColumn@aol.com.