We were honoured today to welcome Setsuko Thurlow to The Mount. Setsuko was 13 years old when the US military dropped an atomic bomb on her home city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Setsuko is still working for peace and for a day when these terrible weapons will no longer exist.
Speaking to Years 10-13, she gave a harrowing account of the clear summer morning, when she saw a blu-ish flash through a window, then found herself flying through the air and came to in complete darkness, unsure if she was alive. The moans of fellow pupils – ‘mummy, help me’, ‘God, help me’ – made her aware she was alive, and she remains unsure how she was found by a man who urged her to crawl to safety. She was one of the three of her classmates who survived the burning building of the army headquarters, where they had been sent to report for civil defence duties. She unfurled a long yellow scarf of the 371 names of the pupils who died. ‘Remember’, she said, ‘they all had a name and were loved.’ She still looks at the names and recalls the people they were. 1000s of children were vaporised as the bomb dropped. Setsuko and her two classmates were told to head for the hills. It was still early morning, but as dark as twilight. She remembers the silence, as people shuffled from the city centre, with flesh hanging off them so that you could see their bones. Some people carried their eyeballs. Some people dropped dead in front of them. The girls tore their school blouses to soak the material in water to enable people to suck the moisture to reliev their thirst. This was the only first aid they could give. From the hillside they watched their city burn. They were frozen in shock and had no tears. Even when her sister and nephew died in agony a few days later, and their bloated bodies were burnt by soldiers concerned about public health, she could not feel. She now knows that this is the reaction that sets in with trauma, but it took her many years to stop feeling guilty about her lack of feeling at that time.
On Wednesday of this week, Setsuko spoke at the UN in Geneva, where 138 countries are committed to forcing the world to make the use of nuclear weapons unlawful, as is the case with other weapons of mass destruction. She appealed to us to ‘smarten up’ and to ‘wake up’ to the reality of the harm these weapons cause and the dangers that they could be used, even by accident. Students were very moved by this talk. Natalie from Singapore thanked Setsuko for opening her eyes. At home she had learnt about the 1945 bombs as events that saved Singapore. She now understands the cost. Setsuko said in reply that she felt the Japanese government has not apologised enough for atrocities that Japanese soldiers committed. It was moving for us all to hear this exchange. Also, thought-provoking that Setsuko remembers the American Quakers who arrived in Hiroshima and knelt in prayer at the site of the bomb, very soon afterwards. ‘They touched our hearts and made us realise not all Americans were the same.’ This was a survivor testimony that we will all reflect on for a considerable time. It was also brilliant that Ruth Lingard, Head of History at Millthorpe School, went into school on her day off to bring over Year 11 historians to join us.