7 Things You Learn Surviving an Atomic Blast
OK, so nuclear war is kinda on everyone's minds right now, what with our President threatening "fire and fury" and Kim Jong-un promising to murder Guam. We're not about to weigh into the politics of this situation. But we do know there's been renewed interest in the question 'What would it be like to survive a nuclear blast?' And the good news is that Cracked already sat down with someone who can answer that, back in 2014. Shigeko Sasamori was a 13-year-old resident of Hiroshima when she survived the first nuclear weapon ever dropped on a city. Here's what that was like:
There Was Absolutely No Warning
Flattening a city with bombs requires thousands and thousands of planes blanketing the sky. One does not generally miss the whole sky becoming roaring metal -- you figure you'll have some kind of warning before the whole world explodes around you. That's how it used to work, anyway. Shigeko's home in Hiroshima had been spared from bombing up until 1945, but she and her neighbors had been warned repeatedly that this might happen at any time:
"Today's forecast: cloudy, with a 40 percent chance of saturation bombing."
They were expecting air raids, but the Enola Gay came with only two other bombers. You never saw three planes coming in for an attack -- what would be the point?
"The day was very hot, beautiful blue sky. No clouds. I saw a silver airplane with a white long tail. It looked pretty. I said to my classmates, 'look look over there!' ... I was a 13-year-old girl, I'd never seen a bomb before. I looked up and pointed, and before my hand was down ... I saw the airplane dropping a white thing."
There were only two colors in the 1940s, so it was bound to be either white or black.
Then she described something like a "strong wind," but added that the word "wind" didn't properly describe the sheer force of the atomic blast. Nuclear detonations happen fast, and if you're anywhere near one, you'll be killed way before you have a chance to see that iconic mushroom cloud, much less cling to a chain link fence while a playground dissolves in fire. Most of the people who died in the blast had the blood in their brains evaporate before they could realize there'd been a detonation.
The Japanese government was as shocked as the victims on the ground. The EMP cut out all communications from Hiroshima, and since there'd been no visible massive force of bombers flying over the city, they assumed it was some kind of weird technical fluke. Sure, there were rumors of a horrific explosion, but they figured those were wild exaggerations. And in fairness to them, "one bomb leveling an entire city" was the sort of thing that sounded like sci-fi nonsense, right up until someone figured out how to make it happen.
Some things are better off staying science fiction.
The Victims Had No Idea What Had Just Happened
The world's first atomic attack occurred right as Shigeko was pointing at the Enola Gay.
"That's why my hand is still more burnt today."
Hiroshima, before and after. In case you weren't bummed enough.
This is one of the rare interviews Cracked has conducted in person, like the real journalists we pretend to be for the cat every morning before we leave for work. More than 60 years after the blast, you can still see the radiation burns on Shigeko's hand. It was like someone polished the bottom half of her arm. She recalled waking up:
"I could see people slowly moving. Most people are bleeding, clothes hanging down. Some are almost naked. They looked red and painful and very scary. Then came to my mind, 'oh, the fire bomb exploded nearby.' That's what I thought."
Above: "minor" radiation burns.
Nowadays, we'd have the luxury of knowing what just flash-fried our town; our first thought would be "nuclear blast." But as far as anyone outside of the White House and Los Alamos knew, there was no such thing as a functional nuclear bomb. Having it land on top of you is a hell of a way to find out.
Something As Trivial As Extra Clothing Could Mean the Difference Between Life and Death
On August 5th, the night before the blast, Shigeko woke up to air raid sirens. She dressed in her finest clothes to go to the shelter -- that way, she'd have her nicest things if the house burned down.
You'll probably never be bombed, but if you ARE, remember this tip.
"Many times airplanes come, but no bombing. So of course, I was 13, I went back to sleep and woke up with my good clothes still on."
Teenagers are teenagers, regardless of the time period, the nation, or whether or not the world's largest, bloodiest conflict happens to be raging at the time. Shigeko woke up late, and rather than change out of her outfit from the previous night, she opted to simply shove a new pair of trousers on over her other trousers:
"... that is the reason I survived. All of me didn't burn up. When my mother brought me home, my trouser area was perfectly not burned. But my top burned."
This safety tip brought to you by the International Pants Industry.
Shigeko's upper torso was terribly burned, and her secondary clothing had been blown off or seared to her skin by the heat of the explosion. But her second outfit, underneath, remained intact and protected her skin. Having 50 percent of your body covered in radiation burns isn't great -- nobody's recommending it for a fun Sunday family outing -- but it's a hell of a lot better than 100 percent.
In Case of Nuclear Blast, Beware Of ... Drowning?
Shigeko ran to the relative shelter of a nearby school's auditorium. She still thought her city had been hit by some sort of firebomb. The fact that there were dead people all around her with burnt skin "falling off" them didn't exactly challenge this conception. Other survivors of the blast described the wounded as "living pieces of charcoal."
Hold up a second, our photo research team is going to need a few dozen shots to finish this article.
Shigeko, like most Japanese kids, had been trained to follow the nearest adult in the wake of a bombing. She was too wounded, and likely still in shock, to do anything but shuffle slowly after the first tall person she saw. The victims followed each other, forming a mass of red, bleeding, burnt radiation zombies staggering half-blind towards any kind of shelter:
"I was wounded but I didn't know. I didn't feel, still -- no pain or nothing. I just saw and thought, 'wow everybody's hurt.' I couldn't move fast, nobody could move fast. And I'm shorter than an adult, I couldn't see around them ... people outside were much more burned. More skin hanging down. Because I felt that way ... I was pretty close by the river. So I followed those people, went to the riverside. All it had cleared, I could see sunshine, and oh, the many many people on the ground, sliding down to the river. I couldn't go in, because so many people were already in the water. Some were dead, some were alive, I couldn't tell. I couldn't see the water, there were so many people."
Try not to look too hard at those specks in the water.
People don't do their best independent thinking when 80 precent of their body's surface area is covered in radiation burns. They tend to follow the person in front of them, and for thousands of survivors, that meant going right into a river. Freshly bombed people don't excel at many sports, least of all competitive swimming. That's how many of the victims of the first atomic blast ended up drowning.
The Environment Went Insane
Nukes are hell on the climate. Way worse than your smoke-coughing 1994 Ford Festiva. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, Shigeko's sunny day was turned into an average morning in Seattle:
"Then I sit up, and it's pitch black. Cannot see anything, cannot hear anything. Cannot feel anything. Then pretty soon the heavy fogs begin to clear up. But it's still dark, gray."
If the radiation doesn't get you, the Seasonal Affective Disorder might.
She's describing a nuclear side effect called "black rain," where the force of the blast creates a short radioactive storm front 30-40 minutes later. The sudden influx of heat causes rainfall, which mixes with all the irradiated material that just got launched airborne, and comes down in sticky black water.
Weird how pop culture leaves that part out of depictions of nuclear blasts, isn't it? We guess explosions are box office gold, but buckets of poison falling from the sky isn't sexy enough.
The Dead Were Frozen in Place
A nuclear blast ends all life around it in an instant, freezing the dead in place like a bloody, eternally-buffering Netflix screen. Shigeko's dad was a fisherman, and he had the wherewithal to seek shelter in a freezer when he saw the plane. That's right: the stupidest scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was historically accurate.
Everybody apologize to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg now.
"He heard the airplane and as soon as he saw it, he said to the old men 'run bomb!' And at the same time, he ran into the huge nearby building ... everything came down on him, and he had a huge cement icebox he hid inside ... he wasn't too much hurt."
Those fishermen he'd tried to warn weren't quite as lucky.
Nor, we have to assume, were the fish.
"When he came out, those three or four men were sitting in the same position, skin peeling off of them, their whole bodies pink. When human skin comes off, the blood welling up ... it looks pink, not red."
Yeah, let's all take a moment to be grateful that last fun fact is something we learned while playing Internet at the office, and not from experience at the age of 13.
There Was No Medical Care
Things like hospitals tend to be clustered in or around downtown areas. Ninety percent of the medical professionals in Hiroshima were killed or severely injured in the instant that bomb went off in the center of town. Shigeko spent five days in an auditorium, without luxuries like "water," "food," or "treatment for her many, many horrific burns." She survived, because apparently she had the immune system of a Japanese teenage Wolverine (yep, we'd watch it). After five days, rumors spread to her mother that a kid from their neighborhood was alive and injured in the auditorium. Finally, Shigeko was rescued. But she didn't get to go to a hospital, because hospitals were naught but a beautiful memory. Thankfully, her house was one of the few buildings in the city that hadn't been destroyed:
What the hell was that bridge made of?
"Then I got home, I was in and out of consciousness. So I was under the mosquito net, and my mother and father took turns taking care of me. When I asked how I looked, my mother said, 'your father cut your hair.' My head didn't burn because my hair protected. Half my forehead didn't burn either.
"So he cut all the black hair off, and peeled off the blackness . And very thick yellow pus he saw. Infection. Five days of no treatment, five very hot days. Many people died that way. No water, no food. Five days."
Fortunately, our species makes more than fancy new ways to kill each other. We also make people like Norman Cousins, an editor for the New York Evening Post. Norman realized the children of Hiroshima had nothing to do with the slugfest between the U.S. and Imperial Japan. They were just poor, wounded kids. So he raised a bunch of money and flew Shigeko and several other victims to America for plastic surgery. Then he legally adopted Shigeko, making her an American citizen. Apparently, some people keep an inexhaustible well of kindness somewhere in their body. Probably the same place we store our Doritos.
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