In Hiroshima, 70 years after atomic bomb

The Atomic, originally the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall, was the only building in the main blast area to partly survive the atomic bomb explosion August 1945. It remains standing as a symbol and memorial. GAYLE DEBAUN / MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

HIROSHIMA, Japan - At 8:15 a.m. local time, on Thursday, Aug. 6, 1945, Little Boy exploded above that country's 10th-largest city, flattening it with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT. So dawned Day One of the Nuclear Age.

Coming up on the 70th anniversary, we stood as tourists in Hiroshima, my wife and I, just yards from ground zero for the first atomic bomb - one of two ever to be used in warfare, with the second dropped three days later on Nagasaki.

The morning fog and drizzle seemed so appropriate. This was our most anticipated stop on an 11-day cruise of the Sea of Japan aboard the Crystal Serenity.

Setting out from Yokohama, the ship took us to Kyoto, Kobe, Kagoshima, Shanghai, and Beijing. But of all, Hiroshima provided the most sobering and unforgettable experience.

Hiroshima today is a bustling seaport on Honshu, Japan's largest island, on the Seto Inland Sea. It has six rivers crossed by more than 100 bridges, large downtown shopping and entertainment areas, a half-dozen universities, and one of Japan's top soccer teams, Sanfrecce Hiroshima. It also has one million residents - three times the population when the bomb, code-named Little Boy, hit.

That day, more than 78,000 were killed outright. Many more died later, our Japanese guide explained, matter-of-factly acknowledging, "It shortened the war."

A gutted riverfront building with a skeletal dome, once an industrial exhibition hall, is maintained as a reminder of the devastation wrought by the explosion that destroyed every building within a mile. Across a river in the center of the city is Peace Memorial Park, a grassy area developed by Japanese philanthropies as a memorial and a plea for peace and eradication of nuclear weapons. Each year on the anniversary of the bombing, residents and visitors fill the park and float lanterns down the maze of interlocking rivers bearing prayers and messages.

Hiroshima is one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations, and this site alone draws an estimated 1.3 million visitors a year. More than 300,000 of them are from other countries - mostly Americans, followed by Australians and Chinese, according to the Japan Times.

Monuments and a memorial museum in the park document the event and aftermath. As clusters of tourists, along with Japanese students in uniforms, drifted among cenotaphs and sculptures, there were no smiles, just blank or studied expressions.

You couldn't help but feel sorrow, and wonder what the others were thinking, seeing Americans amid these painful reminders.

One of the most heartrending sights is a statue of a little girl on a tall, bomb-shaped platform. Her outstretched arms hold the wings of a metal bird. The bird is a crane, the Japanese symbol of happiness and longevity.

The statue pays homage to Sadako Sasaki, who was 2 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped and who subsequently suffered the effects of radiation. If she could fold 1,000 colorful paper cranes, she believed, she would get well. She managed to fold 1,300 before she died of leukemia in 1955. She was 12.

Sadako was among 122,000 who subsequently succumbed to radiation-induced cancers and other illnesses in the days, weeks, months, and years following the bombing.

Children all over Japan are familiar with this story, and each day, hundreds of colorful paper cranes are deposited by visitors on a railing near the statue.

Names of all believed to have perished as a result of the bomb are listed and memorialized by an inverted, flower-bedecked, U-shaped sculpture and pond. Ashes of about 70,000 unidentified victims are buried in a mound nearby.

West of the monuments in adjoining two-story buildings, the Peace Memorial Museum graphically shows the bomb's impact, with exhibits, videos, and explanations printed and recorded in English and Japanese.

In one recorded interview, Michiko Yamaoka says, "I saw a very strong light, a flash. I was a half-mile away from the center of the explosion. Almost instantly, I felt my face inflating. I thought I was directly hit by the bomb and was dying. . . . Shortly after, I felt my body flying in the air, and then I lost consciousness. When I came to, I was in the dark under a stack of broken bricks. . . . My hair was burned, my face inflated like a balloon. I wondered why my shirt had been burned and [was] hanging around my arms. I soon realized it wasn't my shirt but pieces of skin hanging from my arms. I saw people looking for water, and they died soon after they drank it."

Yamaoka was one of 25 severely burned and disfigured young women brought to the United States in the 1950s for treatment.

An exhibit called "Lessons of History" touches on Japan's culpability in bringing on the punishing World War II strike.

"We must never forget that nuclear weapons are the fruits of war," an inscription reads. "Japan, too, with colonization policies and wars of aggression, inflicted incalculable, irreversible harm on the peoples of many countries. We must reflect on war and the causes of war, not just nuclear weapons."

For all the pain enshrined in Hiroshima, we wound up leaving the city with a warm feeling, thanks to brief encounters with two residents. The first came in a large underground shopping mall. Aware we were lost while looking for a bank, a middle-aged woman graciously led us around a maze of shops and upstairs to a bank.

After we converted some traveler's checks into Japanese currency, a young assistant manager overheard me asking where we might find an Internet cafe. The man, who did not speak English, motioned toward an exit. We followed him outside, across the street, and for four blocks, dodging raindrops, before reaching a huge electronics appliance store. Downstairs was an Internet cafe.

A smiling nod and handshake was his gracious way of saying sayonara.