SUNAO TSUBOI aged 96
THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE
Born in Ondo on Kurahashi Island, Japan, in 1925, he was the fourth out of five children. His father was an executive at ‘Fishing Net Company’ but died when Sunao was a teenager.
His mother moved the family to Ando but had relatives in Hiroshima.
Sunao was brilliant at mathematics in school, and it was his ambition to be an inventor.
He tried to enlist for the Japanese military but failed his medical for being too small and too frail.
In 1943, he enrolled on a mechanics course at Hiroshima Technical Institute.
But he was convinced by the Japanese war propaganda and offered his mathematical and technical skills to the government. “I wanted to make good planes and get at the enemy…While I was a student all I thought about was winning the war.”
On the 6th of August 1945, he had breakfast at the University’s dining hall. As he was leaving a group of friends came in and invited him to a second breakfast. He was afraid the serving girl (whom he was attracted to) would consider him a glutton, so he declined.
He was walking by himself to the lecture room at the university when the atomic bomb went off.
He saw a mushroom cloud and was then knocked unconscious after seeing a blinding light. He suffered severe burns.
When he regained consciousness, his ears were hanging off. “I saw tens of thousands of bodies everywhere, all burned and dead. I saw terrible things.”
He called fellow survivors ‘ghosts’ – all deathly pale and unable to walk.
He was ‘lucky’. All his friends in the university dining hall were killed.
He tried to walk to the university but saw it was in flames.
So, he staggered to the remnants of his aunt’s house nearby but realised he was so badly injured that he didn’t want to burden her – so he staggered off to Miyuki Bridge, where he had heard there was an aid post.
Sunao can be seen in one of the few photographs taken of Hiroshima just after the bomb. He is being treated at a first aid post at Miyuki Bridge. A policeman is rubbing olive oil on badly burned children, the only aid available.
He wrote on a wall, using a pebble, ‘Tsuboi died here’, believing he would die…but he didn’t.
He was taken by truck to Ujina (the port of Hiroshima) and from there, by barge to Ninoshima. The Japanese only took young men because they might be useful to the war effort. Everybody else was left to die.
He gave a woman a message to give to his family – he was still alive. Remarkably, it was delivered.
At Ninoshima, a former classmate recognised him, fed him and gave him some care (all that he was capable of).
His mother, aunt and uncle came to Ninoshima to search for him amongst the dead and dying. After three days his uncle suggested giving up and holding a funeral service for Sunao. His mother went into hysterics and started screaming his name. He heard her, put his hand up and weakly said, “Here I am!”
His aunt thought he was an ‘obake’ – a ghost.
The family took him back to Ando, where they gave him incredible care. Once he arrived at Ando he slipped into unconsciousness, which lasted 40 hours. When he woke up he was told the war was over.
Approximately 140,000 people were killed instantly at Hiroshima.
His recovery took months and on many occasions he thought he would die. Doctors told him he had a maximum of 5 years to live. But he swore that if he survived, he would put his bonus time to good use. “My life had been spared but I felt that just living was not good enough.” He even had to learn to walk again.
He was left with a deep hatred of Americans and all things American.
Sunao was unable to do much physical activity, so he had to abandon his dream of being an inventor, so he took to books.
He trained as a Mathematics teacher and got his first job teaching in a women’s college.
From there, he moved to Ondo Junior High, but suffered from anaemia and was hospitalised for six months.
When he returned to the school he was easily exhausted. One day he left the staff room and leaned against an outside wall. A student from a neighbouring school came to chat to him. She would become his future wife, Suzuko.
Her parents wouldn’t let them marry. They said as a survivor of Hiroshima, he would die soon of his injuries, leaving Suzuko as a widow.
So, the couple they had a suicide pact – and took sleeping pills (whilst sitting on a hill overlooking the city) to kill themselves. They both fell unconscious but woke up after a few hours.They didn’t take enough pills (or the dosage wasn’t strong enough) – and both of them survived.
Then, Suzuko’s father was killed in an accident. He had been the main opposition to the marriage.
The rest of her family relented. “They decided that although the A-bomb survivors may not live long, I was alive – and they dropped their opposition”. He later learned that they had investigated him and found he had a reputation as an outstanding teacher. In Japan this had much kudos.
She was seven years younger than him. He always said it was Suzuko that saved his life. “I was young and I was in love with her – and that is why I couldn’t give up.”
They were married and went on to have three children.
In 1955, a play entitled ‘Shima’ (Island) was extremely successful in Japan, written by a Mr. Hotta. His brother had been a teaching colleague of Sunao’s. The play was based on Sunao’s experiences and his later romance with Suzuko. It made him very proud.
Sunao worked in Japanese schools from 1946 to 1986, ultimately becoming Principal of two Junior High Schools.
He used to tell the students the story of Hiroshima each August – “I wanted the students to understand what it is to survive.”
As well as earning the respect of the students, he gained the nicknames ‘Mr Pikadon’ (Japanese for atomic bomb) and ‘Mr Flash Boom’.
In retirement, Sunao stepped up his anti-nuclear stance, becoming one of the most prominent ‘hidankyo’ (“the bomb-affected people”).
He was co-chairman of ‘Nihon Hidankyo’, a nationwide group of bomb survivors and he worked to ensure their voices were heard around the world. He dedicated his whole life to nuclear disarmament and the global condemnation of nuclear weapons.
He travelled the world giving over 70 talks a year. He was initially very reluctant to go to the USA.
He was persuaded to go to America because of a protest at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, who had decided to put ‘Enola Gay’ on display. This was the plane that had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
A petition signed by 25,000 people was turned down and the display went ahead. No reference was made to the number of people killed or wounded by the bomb.
He went and stood in silence by the Enola Gay. It was then he realised that the pilots, mechanics and all other American people were just the same as him – following instructions in wartime. It changed his viewpoint. “I no longer have hatred or ill-feeling towards American citizens.” But he retained deep anger towards President Truman who had ordered the dropping of the bomb, and the US military establishment.
He was to visit the USA five more times.
Sunao also fought for state support for the victims – and official recognition – as neither was forthcoming.
He suffered terrible health problems throughout his life due to the after-effects of the bomb. He had ‘aplastic anaemia’ and needed intravenous transfusions. He had cancer twice. He was hospitalised 11 times, being told at least three times that he would die.
But he retained his sense of humour. When told by a doctor that he had cancer and would need radiation treatment, he said, “I’ve already had lots of that.”
In an interview, he was asked how he had survived the bomb, a suicide attempt and countless illnesses and diseases. “I tried dying. It didn’t agree with me”.
Suzuko died in 1992, of a stroke. She was just 59 years old.
In 2006 Sunao met Barak Obama on his visit to Hiroshima. He was the first serving American President to visit the bomb sites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They shook hands. Obama said to him, “Let’s do our best work together.”
Sunao said of the meeting, “I was able to convey my thoughts.”
In 2011, Sunao was awarded the Kiyoshi Tanimoto Peace Prize for his efforts against nuclear warfare.
His message to others was “Never give up!”
“We have to oppose war, any kind of war, because war kills people.”
It is estimated that at the end of 2021, there were still 127,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, that are still alive.
RIP – Resisting Incendiary Power