Monday, March 23, 2020

Sachiko by Caren Stelson

In many ways, this a remarkable book. It certainly tells a remarkable story.

August 9, 1945, began like any other day for six-year-old Sachiko. Her country was at war, she didn’t have enough to eat. At 11:01 a.m., she was playing outdoors with four other children. Moments later, those children were all dead. An atomic bomb had exploded just half a mile away.

In the days and months that followed, Sachiko lost family members, her hair fell out, she woke screaming in the night. When she was finally well enough to start school, other children bullied her. Through it all, she sought to understand what had happened, finding strength in the writings of Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Based on extensive interviews with Sachiko Yasui, Caren Stelson shares the true story of a young girl who survived the atomic bomb and chronicles her long journey to find peace. Sachiko’s story offers readers a remarkable new perspective on the final moments of World War II -- and their aftermath.

That’s from the front flap of the book jacket. And it’s a faithful description of the book I read. One of the things I found remarkable was how prescient those last few words were. Sachiko’s story offers readers a remarkable new perspective on the final moments of World War II -- and their aftermath.

Let’s begin here.

Sachiko’s brother Ichiro, and eventually Sachiko, Misa [her baby sister], Mother, Father, and Uncle, suffered from radiation sickness, which few at the time understood. People who were exposed to the radiation often showed few or no signs of illness at first. The symptoms came in stages. Thirst, weakness, nausea, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting were the first signs of radiation sickness. Three to six weeks later, more symptoms appeared: hair loss; bleeding gums; listlessness; and a prolonged, elevated fever of 104℉. Purple spots dotted the skin, indicating internal bleeding. Painful sores in the mouth and throat were also common, making swallowing difficult. Infections often set in, further weakening a person’s condition and leading to delirium and death -- or to a long, painful recovery.

Awful. But here’s the remarkable part.

The scientists who had developed the atomic bomb were unaware of the effects of full-body radiation exposure. They had not conducted any tests on the potential impact of radiation on humans. Nor had the US military tried to develop medical treatment for radiation exposure before the bombs were dropped. Doctors offered what treatments they could. Radiation sickness would continue to perplex doctors in the months and years to come.

They were unaware of the effects of full-body radiation exposure.

One thing I enjoyed about Stelson’s writing was how sparse and economical it is. She is dealing with a very difficult and painful subject, and my sense is that she labored over each and every word of her often short and descriptive sentences. She not only wants to get it right, she wants every word she uses to count.

And in that context, the idea that the scientists -- not the bureaucrats or the elected officials, but the scientists -- were unaware of the effects the bomb would have on the population that survived its dropping is as jaw-dropping as it must be true.

But, of course, it wasn’t just the scientists who were ignorant.

Every day after school, Sachiko ran home, crying. She could not find the words to tell Mother about the teasing -- the bullying -- how much it hurt to be picked on for things that could not be helped. How could she explain her dizziness? Her inability to stand during the morning assemblies. Her lack of concentration. Her loneliness. Her envy of other children’s laughter. She had no words to describe her anguish.

Besides, Mother had her own struggles.

So did Father.

And Misa.

“Why can’t you understand anything?” Sachiko’s teacher tapped her fingers on her desk. “Tell me, why?” Even the teacher couldn’t make sense of Sachiko’s behavior.

In truth, how could the teacher understand what Sachiko had been through? Under US occupation, the government strictly enforced censorship. No word was to seep out about the sickening and often deadly effects of radiation on the human body. Censorship agents carefully reviewed newspapers, magazines, movies, books, and scientific studies. Any criticism of, information about, or photos of the use and impact of the atomic bomb were deleted or blackened out. Even the Japanese characters for genshi bakudan, “atomic bomb,” could not be printed.

And there was more than just a media blackout. Note Stelson’s use of the term “scientific studies” in her list of items that were subject to censorship. Prior to the dropping of the bomb, scientists were unaware of the effects of full-body radiation exposure. After the bomb was dropped, they stopped being unaware. Indeed, they seemed to make a careful study of it.

In 1946 President Truman ordered the establishment of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC). The goal of the commission was for American doctors to go to Japan to observe and track the lifelong effects of radiation on atomic bomb survivors. Along with Japanese physicians, the American doctors examined survivors, asked questions about their atomic bomb experiences, calculated the distance they were from the hypocenter, and charted medical observations.

Over the years, ABCC doctors documented the thick, itchy, and painful keloids that had healed over the thermal burns of the hibakusha [survivors of the bombing]. They observed cataracts in damaged eyes and noted birth defects in the children born in the months after the bombing. And they diagnosed cancers: skin cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, thyroid cancer, and leukemia.

But there’s of course one painful twist. None of this information was to be made public.

Under ABCC rules, American physicians were not permitted to share their growing database of clinical knowledge with Japanese physicians nor were ABCC doctors allowed to treat their patients’ illnesses. They were there simply to collect information. Hibakusha felt deep distrust of American ABCC doctors. With no offers of medical treatment, many hibakusha felt the ABCC had reduced them to numbers on a chart rather than people in need of help.

What I find remarkable about all this is not what some might construe as malice or arrogance. There may indeed be some malice or arrogance in the minds of those who pushed and approved the use of atomic weapons in World War II. But, if so, that is only one facet of a multifaceted phenomenon, and it should not be viewed in isolation of the other facets.

No, what I find remarkable is the fact that something of such phenomenal and inscrutable power was used at all. That something with such far-reaching effects, even though those effects were evidently unknown at the time of use, should have been used at all. Was the power of the bomb so far beyond human understanding that no words of caution could have been expressed that would have curtailed its use until it was better understood?

It makes me wonder how little we know about other forces we unleash on the world today, and how, like those scientists, bureaucrats, and elected officials in 1945, we may unwittingly be causing far-reaching effects because we can only view what we do today through the paradigm of the past. The atomic bomb was, after all, called a bomb, as if it had anything in common with the ordinance that had been dropped out of airplanes since those aerial vehicles had been invented.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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