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‘The explosion in the air was like the sun bursting’

A column of smoke rises more than 20,000 feet in the air over Nagasaki following the detonation of the atomic bomb on August 9 1945 (AP Photo/USAF)

This article is taken from the memoirs of Mother Bernardine Goulter, a Sacred Heart nun present when the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki. This account has never been published before and is reproduced with the kind permission of Dorothea Sibeth, her niece, and her order.

In recalling that dreadful day of August 9 1945 the words of Our Lord, “Watch, for you know not the day nor the hour”, came always before my mind. How many of the 350,000 inhabitants of Nagasaki rising that bright summer morning suspected that in one flash more than half the city’s population would be in eternity?

During the night there had been more than one raid and at about 6:30am the all-clear had been announced. The scanty breakfast was soon finished and everyone in the camp was hunting around trying to get some necessary duties done before the next raid. Our devoted Chinese cook and Komatsu san, our good Japanese woman, hurried off to get some provisions on the far side of the city. Those responsible for cutting grass for the cows set out up the mountain path, passing through the Grotto. It was a beautiful, bright summer morning, the water of the reservoir and the harbour blue and sparkling in the sunshine.

Now my narrative must become personal. Having climbed far and high to fill my basket, I had to return at a little before 11am as it was my duty on non-raid days to take the cow across the stream and mind her from 11am to 12. Passing down by the Grotto I turned aside and went up for a little visit to Our Lady, as was my custom. Just as I came away from the grotto I heard the unmistakable whirr of a B-29, a big four-propeller bomber capable of carrying 10 tons of equipment, as well as 50 me This day it carried a small, deadly weapon weighing only a few pounds and containing 300 grams of uranium. One man in that plane held the bomb packed in ice until the moment came to put it into the parachute and let it down to do its deadly work. These facts were told to us by the officers and men of the occupation army who entered Nagasaki soon after the peace.

No siren sounded. Probably it was put out of action by the raids of the previous night. A feeling of uneasiness came over me as not long before a similar incident had occurred. One American bomber had dashed over, showering bombs on the railway station. There were terrible explosions. A train just arriving was struck, also a large gathering at a temple. Like a flash it was gone, leaving death and destruction behind.

I had to pass through the seminary building in order to get down to the farmyard. Just as I was entering the doorway there was a terrific flash of light, a dazzling yellow light. I stood still, astonished. Then, after about the time it would take to count to seven, there was a dull roar and what followed was the loosing of a mighty force. The doors were torn off their hinges, the building was collapsing, plaster, stone, tiles falling, and all the windows torn in and smashed…

To give some idea of the power of the blast, after dropping the bomb in the parachute the B-29 sped away and was 10 miles away when the explosion took place. But even then it turned over and had difficulty to right itself again. The explosion in the air was “like the sun bursting”, as one of ours described it. There were terrible black, red and orange clouds lying like a pall of death over the poor, doomed city, and fires raged all the rest of that day and throughout the whole night…

The days which followed August 9 1945 to the proclamation of peace on August 15 were days of stress and strife. We just existed and lived it through. There were raids and raids, day and night, sometimes three in one night. Often we lay on the ground through sheer exhaustion and watched for the raiders. The nights were hot as it was midsummer. In the bamboo groves the fireflies lit their quaint little candles. Sometimes I fell asleep on the ground until the noise of another raid awoke me.

As our chapel was badly smashed by the atomic bomb Mother Atkinson told me to go the monastery and find the Father Superior and tell him that we were bringing the Blessed Sacrament over to him because it was too great a responsibility, the chapel and altar being broken. I searched in vain for the Franciscan Polish Superior and at last I found a Japanese brother. He told me in Japanese that they were all in the dugout as a raid had just begun, but said he would get the Father. We took Our Lord safely into his keeping, but our camp was very desolate without Him.

On August 10 I was up at the Grotto and was able to help some poor wounded people who came to pray to Our Lady and bathe their wounds in the spring. All I had were some clean bandages made by tearing strips from some articles of clothing; and ointment. One poor man was in such pain. He was trying to move around, his arms hanging, all burnt black, his poor hand one mess of burns and wounds. An artery in his arm was cut by glass and the bleeding could not be stopped.

By tying it tightly above with the bandages the bleeding stopped, and I was so grateful to our Dr Barker, who had given us a thorough course of first aid lessons in the camp at Kobe. The uranium burns: I did not know what to do with them. The poor Japanese people told me it was gas; as the bomb struck them it burnt at the same instant, making their flesh black as coal. I put ointment on, and bandages. The sad stories they told here were a few out of literally thousands, and I leave my readers to form their own conclusions.

A poor little gentle Japanese lady came up to the grotto to pray. This is what she told me. Her eight children were all killed – except one – her home, money, all she possessed, had been demolished by the atomic bomb. She was sad but so resigned in her sorrow, turning to God in prayer and comforted by the thought of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross.

A young girl came up to pray at Our Lady’s feet. Her dress was soaked with blood and her face across her eye, right down, was burnt black. She would not take any notice of her own wounds but begged for prayers for her friend, who was dying and whom she had carried with great difficulty from the scene of the disaster to a place of comparative safety. She told me then, with great joy, quite oblivious of her own serious condition, that she had found a little baby nearly dead by the roadside and had baptised it.

Several of our Japanese religious had their families living in Nagasaki district, many of whom were descended from the martyrs. The father of our first Japanese sister, Sr Fukabori, was awarded a badge of distinction by the pope for his outstanding Catholicity and his work as a catechist. Their home was in Urakami. On August 9, the two dear old people were last seen trying to make an air raid shelter, when the atomic bomb struck them. They, and their family home, were completely annihilated. Nothing was left, not even the consolation of giving an honourable burial to their shattered humans.

Two of our other sisters, Sister Yamada and Sister Tagawa, lost their parents, brothers, sisters, relations and homes. Of Sister Tagawa’s family, 75 members were killed in one moment by that deadly bomb. The way these dear Sisters accepted their great sorrow was admirable. That strength in suffering was borne of their deep Catholic faith.

One member of the Fukabori family, an old man, was alone in a little hut when the explosion took place. The picture of the Sacred Heart fell on his face. His hut was smashed but he was found unburned and uninjured. These are only a few examples among thousands of similar cases. Down at the foot of the hill on which our camp stood there was a florist’s shop, as on the slope leading to the seminary there was a large Japanese cemetery. We often obtained permission from the guards to buy some flowers there for our chapel. The little Japanese lady with a family of seven lovely little children used to welcome us joyfully when we came to the shop. After August 9 we met her looking so sad and she told us, showing us one little girl, that all her other children were killed. The very small ones were in the tram coming home from kindergarten and the tram and all its occupants were blown to pieces.

A little Japanese sister, belonging to the Order of the Infant Jesus Sisters, interned with us, came to our camp. She came from Kumomoto to see if she could find out what happened to her father and mother and family at Urakami. She found literally nothing left of her home or family and came to tell her sorrow to her religious Sisters. Three other Japanese Sisters of the same order were asked the morning of August 9 to go some distance down the harbour to help a priest to take the church furniture from a chapel of ease to a place of safety, if any place could be considered safe those days. Their convent was near the railway station and was completely demolished. At Urakami 24 of the Infant Jesus Sisters, with their pupils working in the factories or at home in their convent, were killed.

The saddest sight of all was to see whole groups of poor, bereft people, with a patient, sad look on their faces, wandering aimlessly out of the city of the dead, some carrying a few miserable belongings tied in ragged furushiki (a large handkerchief tied by the four corners used by Japanese to wrap up parcels) wandering with little hope for the future, lying exhausted on the roadside, homeless, and it was just awful not to have anything to give them, not even water.

All day and all throughout the night the gruesome work of burning the dead went on for some weeks. It was the only thing to do to check pestilence.

No matter what people say about the atomic bomb bringing the war to an end, of its preventing wars in the future, never can I be reconciled to the injustice inflicted on thousands of innocent people whose only part in the war was to suffer from it.

The pagans were saying after the atomic bomb: “The Catholics must be bad people as the bomb has killed so many of them.” The mayor of Nagasaki, who was himself a pagan, was very angry with this remark and silenced it, saying: “It is just the opposite. These good people have been chosen to give their lives for their country and their sacrifice will bring blessings upon Japan.” Certainly he spoke truly. Never has Japan opened its door so widely to the Faith as at the present.

During the days that passed from August 9 to August 15 there were constant raids. The police were very active hiding things in the monastery cellars. On August 2 all the Polish Fathers and Brothers had been taken away to the general camp for all foreigners: Italians, French, Poles, etc. The Father Superior, Rev Fr Mirahana, a naturalised Japanese, was permitted to remain at the monastery until August 15 for the profession ceremony, on that feast, of five Japanese Brothers in minor orders. We did not know what the guards were stowing in the monastery and the six gentleman of our camp were not allowed to go over there during these days. We thought it was an ammunition dump and one night an American plane came dashing, downflying over, just grazing the monastery building and our roof on a reconnaissance flight. Then we thought our hour had come to be a target.

To add to our misgivings, one of the young police guards began to sharpen his sword. It is a custom in Japan from the earliest centuries – one only has to read their history to verify it – that in times of enemy invasion it is thought merciful to put all prisoners to the sword. Our Manchurian fellow internees asked us what this guard was doing. We did not tell them this fact as it was useless to aggravate the already trying circumstances of this awful week. At last one of the British ladies could not stand it any longer. She went to the guard the next time he began to sharpen his sword and said: “What are you doing?” He desisted for a moment, looked up and smiled. Then he said: “I am cleaning off the rust.”

During this week of continuous raids we took the chapel furniture in some old trunks, bound up as well as we could, and left it, as well as what was of any value, hidden in the bamboos. We remained dressed day and night as the raids were incessant. I used to snatch some sleep on a bench in the seminarist’s dining room or on a board at the grotto. It was while I was in the latter place that a dear, kind little Japanese lady came with a bowl of rice and chopsticks, asking me to accept it. I knew that she had lost everything – family, home, all that she possessed – and that probably the Brother had given her this rice. It cost a struggle to accept and yet, knowing the Japanese as I did, to refuse would have caused real pain.

At last the feast of the Assumption dawned. How we prayed in union with the whole world, beseeching our Heavenly Queen to obtain from her Divine Son the peace so long desired. There was no Mass for us, but we united ourselves to the Mass being offered in the monastery church. Some spent most of the day at the grotto in prayer.

At noon there was the roar of bombs and naval guns out towards Sasebo, then silence. We were expecting the entry of the invasion army. That afternoon two strange things happened. The guards took their swords, bound them up with bands, and decorated this with a lacing of blue cord, then carried them on the palms of their outstretched hands. Again our Manchurian friends asked us what was the meaning of this gesture, but we did not know.

The other strange event was a large open-air gathering presided over by the mayor of Nagasaki, who was making a speech to the remnants of Nagasaki’s population and the people from the neighbouring countryside. There were loudspeakers, but we were just too far to hear his speech. At the end there were loud “Banyai! Banyai!” The cheering was unmistakable and we were puzzled. Were the Sixth Army entering Nagasaki from Okinawa within the next day or so? Were the crowd cheering the decision of the emperor to fight to the last man? Our guards had told us very emphatically that this was the intention of the Japanese: to fight to the bitter end, no matter what the cost would be.

We did know the climax was coming. We could hear the heavy bombing of Kagoshima, Kumomoto, Sasebo, Goto Islands, Omura airfields, Fukuoka, and now Nagasaki lay in ruins, blasted and burned. We knew also that the invasion army lay in readiness at Okinawa. Huge task forces lay poised off the coast of Ryushu. Thousands of planes waiting charged with bombs. A week of ominous silence preceded a terrible storm. We remembered that the last week of such silence had been followed by a great offensive, a thousand bombers from task forces, from China, from Okinawa, all day and night bombing Kyushu. We remembered also that trust in God and prayer were our surest refuge, no matter how black the horizon. Everyone was calm and quiet, waiting for what might be. The predominant thought of most of us was the expectation of the entry of the invasion army into Nagasaki. (The Americans told us after that such was their plan.)

August 16 passed in silence. In the evening there was a council meeting in the guards’ office. All the head police of the Kensho were there. That night, at 2am, we were suddenly aroused by the Shin Gakko bell ringing loudly. Knowing that was the signal to assemble as quickly as possible in the seminary refectory downstairs, we gathered the few belongings to be taken in air raids and went, each one wondering what our fate was to be. For my part, I was sure it was the announcement of the coming invasion army. As we arrived in the refectory we saw the whole police staff in full uniform standing along the wall at the head of the room. Everyone was quiet and serious. We numbered off.

There were a few moments of intense silence and then Mr Koyama, the head of the Foreign Office, stepped forward, bowed low and said: “Omedeto”, which means: “I offer you my congratulations.” Then he continued his speech in Japanese. “Japan has failed and you are free.” He next spoke very respectfully of Tenno Heika, the emperor, whose rescript, or broadcast, on August 15 had ordered an unconditional acceptance of all the peace treaty. He said there would be many Japanese soldiers in Nagasaki and in case of feeling running high against foreigners there would be an extra-strong police force to guard us until the Americans took us over. These soldiers were to hand over arms to the occupation army. He also said that the Japanese police would continue to provide for us until the Americans took us from the camp. Then he said very humbly that punishment was to be given by the Americans for any ill-treatment of prisoners, and if we had complaints we should bring it against him, not the other police, as he, being the head, was responsible, not they. Then he came to shake hands with each one and offer his congratulations. The other police did likewise.

Then each one was offered some saki-wine. In order to acknowledge the kindly meant gesture we accepted a little. Then we thanked them and retired, hardly able to realise the joy of knowing that hostilities had ceased. There was peace, no more air raids. We were free: free to go home to our dear Obayashi, to daily Mass, to our precious religious life. No one slept that night.