Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Jen Woronow. Her research explores historic and contemporary conflicts with an emphasis on examining the human side of war. Today she joins us to discuss her research into the medical history of the island of Ninoshima.
It only takes an instant to alter the course of history for a person, entire nation, or even the world. War has a unique power to rapidly accelerate operational and cultural change. The woman identified as S. Ushio in the medical report containing this iconic image experienced this on August 6, 1945 when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima Japan. The intense heat of the bomb scarred her skin with the striped pattern of her clothing. Her body is etched with the memory of that awful day.
When I began my research on medical texts related to Hiroshima, it was this familiar figure whom I looked for first. Who treated those wounds which had marked her with history itself? Where had she and countless others found care amidst the chaos?
I found out where when I discovered a photograph of three grave posts standing solemnly between some brush and discarded sheet metal. Despite the markers, this is not a graveyard. These are but makeshift graves on Ninoshima, an island quarantine station and field hospital roughly nine kilometers from central Hiroshima. Over the course of three weeks, Ninoshima received about 10,000 people injured by the bomb.
Ninoshima has a long history dating back to the Sino-Japanese War as an administrative, military, and medical support location for the city of Hiroshima. Beginning as a quarantine station during a dysentery and cholera pandemic in Japan in 1894, the island has played a pivotal role in other conflicts such as the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and World War II. On August 6, 1945, Ninoshima became a temporary field hospital for seriously wounded bomb victims.
Of the 10,000 injured people brought to Ninoshima by ferry, it is estimated that only 30% survived. Caring for the many wounded required enormous effort and sacrifice. The crisis worsened as the death toll rose each day and the bodies of the deceased required cremation. Within only four days of the bombing, cremation became logistically impossible. The only alternative was burying thousands of unidentified bodies on the island. The meaning of those three grave posts I had seen in that photograph suddenly held more emotional weight. Ninoshima is as much for the living as for the dead.
In the present, Ninoshima is a peace museum and memorial to those who perished in the bombing. The communal spirit which characterized the various missions of the island lives on to this day. Kazuo Miyazaki, the head of the Ninoshima History Volunteer Guide Association urged his community to take part in this important work. The Ninoshima Peace Museum is home to 130 objects and documents collected over 20 years by residents committed to preserving the history of their ancestors and the island. Ninoshima is also an ongoing excavation project tasked with recovering human remains. Previous projects include the excavation of 4,000 people between 1947 and 1971. This continued in 2004 with the unearthing of about 90 remains with more found within the last several years. Like so much of the work done on Ninoshima, excavating and identifying remains is a labor-intensive endeavor. Age and radiation exposure has caused the remains to become brittle requiring meticulous, time consuming recovery and restoration. Thanks to this painstaking work, the many who did not return home on August 6, 1945 may finally be with loved ones.
Although none of it erases the suffering of war, giving their ancestors a final resting place can help ease some of the generational trauma incurred by so many families. The hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombs, are becoming fewer every year due to illness and old age. Many are activists imparting a dire warning. The stories from those who experienced a nuclear weapon remain the most compelling reminder of their consequences. Who will tell the story of the survivors once they are gone? It is the responsibility of younger generations to ensure that the hibakusha message lives on. This is already being accomplished through interviews, films, and firsthand accounts of the bomb passed down orally within families and communities.
It’s incredible how war necessitated so much change on just one island. Today, Ninoshima tells a story of how even during something as terrible as war, people seek to help one another. This is why the historical preservation being done on the island is so important, not just for residents but also for the world. Through this lens of history and memory, we owe it to ourselves and our world—indeed humanity—to remember the important lessons of Hiroshima for today and tomorrow.
Jen Woronow is a trained artist, International Security Studies scholar, and creator of The Jaunty Crow, an open access, digital humanities and social science blog promoting trans-disciplinary discussion. Her research areas include The Global War on Terror, radicalization and extremism, WWI cultural history, and the long-term impacts of the atomic bomb. Jen has worked as a Program Analyst in NHLBI’s Division of Extramural Research Activities since 2016.