Nisei hibakusha reflects upon wartime experience during Topaz pilgrimage


To recognize the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Jack Dairiki, a Nisei hibakusha on the Topaz pilgrimage bus, shared his experiences.

When Dairiki was in the 5th grade, the Sacramento-born Nisei accompanied his father to Hiroshima in 1941 to visit his ailing grandfather. They boarded the Tatsuta Maru in July but did not ship out until August since federal agents held the ship to be searched. Since Dairiki spoke little Japanese, he initially got teased in Japan.

“You look different, you walk different, you act different — those were trying times,” said Dairiki. About a month later, Dairiki and his father prepared to return to the U.S. but were told there were no ships to the U.S. “My father was frantic because we had left mother by herself with three children and she was pregnant with a fourth,” said Dairiki.

But Dairiki and his father had no choice but to remain in Japan. His father registered him in a school, but due to Dairiki’s poor Japanese language skills, he was enrolled into the second grade, rather than the fifth. A month later, however, Dairiki’s math skills got him advanced to the third grade. He continued additional studies with a local teacher and his aunt.

With nationalism on the rise, schools in Japan became more militaristic. Every morning, Dairiki joined the students and the principal in the school yard. They all faced the direction of the Emperor’s palace and bowed. This was followed by calisthenics, paying respects to a campus shrine and then a march to the classrooms.

Dairiki was not used to Hiroshima’s snowy winters but since students were forbidden to wear gloves or socks, he developed frostbite that swelled up his hands. Dairiki still has scars from when his grandmother cut open the infections to release the pus.

“This was strict military training for children,” said Dairiki. “The boys were the future soldiers of the Emperor of Japan.”

Toward the end of the war, students were required to help in the factories. Dairiki’s class helped at an airplane parts and rifle factory where Dairiki worked in the rifles section.

On Aug. 6, 1945, Dairiki’s class was scheduled to work in Hiroshima City but a train delay saved Dairiki’s life. When a bombing raid siren went off, the train Dairiki was on took cover in a tunnel for about 10 minutes. As a result, although Dairiki’s class was supposed to have taken roll call and headed for Hiroshima City by 8 am, his class was still taking roll call at 8:15 am.

“That’s when we saw three aircrafts coming,” said Dairiki. “But there was no warning siren so people were outdoors. Then boom!”

Dairiki was standing in the factory courtyard, three miles from the hypocenter when the atomic bomb’s blast knocked him down. “The body felt like it was floating in air,” said Dairiki. “The wind was so strong. And all the windows in the factory were blown out. I got down on the ground and instinctively covered my eyes and ears with my forefingers and thumb like we’re trained to do. The reason for that is if a bomb falls near you, the explosion creates a vacuum and it could pop your eyes out and break your ear drums.

“There was smoke all over. You couldn’t see anything. Then I heard someone running towards the bomb shelter so I started running towards that blindly. But I briefly looked back towards the city and saw the now familiar mushroom cloud. It was very colorful. It had all the colors of the rainbow, which I understand was created by the heat. From the core, there were flares coming out like fireworks, and the entire city was covered with smoke and fire.”

Shortly after the explosion, Dairiki saw black rain. “When the mushroom cloud started to dissipate into a thundercloud, the rain started pouring,” said Dairiki. “The rain moved towards the southwest. We were on the opposite side because of the wind conditions. People with no injuries, who got doused by the black rain got radiation sickness. They started to bleed from the gums. Their hair started to fall out. And they died eventually.”

Around 10 a.m., some of the students peeked out from the bomb shelter. “We saw this one woman walking like a ghost,” said Dairiki. “She had rags hanging from her but it turned out to be her skin hanging. Her hair was burned off, and she just walked and stared straight ahead. Almost her whole body was burned.

“When we saw that, we had no idea what had happened. We thought maybe a bomb had hit a giant gasoline storage tank for this woman to sustain that kind of injury.”

Around noon, the teachers instructed those who lived away from the city to head home.

Dairiki hopped on a slow moving train. “One side of the train was blistered from the heat and all the windows were burned out and the seats were all blown around from the blast,” said Dairiki. “When the people inside saw me, they came over and said, ‘Help me. Help me. Give me water.’ When I saw that, I jumped off the train.”

Dairiki walked the five or six miles home. On the way, he saw numerous burned and injured people.

Meanwhile, Dairiki’s father, who usually worked in the city, had taken a day off to see a friend. But as soon as the father saw the blast, he hopped on his bicycle and headed for the city, thinking that Dairiki’s class was there.

When the father got to the city boundaries, the military police barred his entry, but the father waded into the river and snuck into the flame-engulfed city. Dairki’s father returned home around 9 p.m. that evening and described Hiroshima City as “like walking through hell.”

Dairiki’s aunt was one mile from the hypocenter. “My aunt had taken the earlier train into the city that day,” said Dairiki. “She was on top of a roof, taking tiles off, when she looked up and saw the aircraft. Then poof! She got blown off the roof and half her body got burned. Somehow she crawled some place, and we found her maybe three days later. She was injured and burned. Her arm was blistered. When she healed, her fingers were fused together and her arm was permanently bent. They cut the skin around the elbow to break the skin but the arm never straightened out. She developed a lot of keloids and went through a lot of plastic surgery.” For about the next two weeks, fire raged through the city. When the end of the war was announced, Dairiki felt relief.

Immediately after the war, Dairiki found a job as an interpreter, while he and his father tried to return to the U.S. “I’m an American. I wanted to go home,” said Dairiki. “I always thought about my mother here and my brothers.”

Dairiki’s mother and brothers had spent the war years at the Tule Lake, Jerome, Rohwer and Granada (Amache) concentration camps amongst other Japanese Americans. The only clue the family had of the camps was when the Red Cross contacted them.

“My father got a letter from the Red Cross,” said Dairiki. “It said a son died in Tule Lake at the age of eight. My father was saying, ‘What do you mean camp? They’re supposed to be in Sacramento.’ We had no idea of the camps, but we couldn’t write or communicate because all letter writing had stopped.”

It took Dairiki three years to return to the U.S. After the atomic bomb destroyed prefectural documents, Dairiki’s mother and maternal grandparents had to send photographs and other documents to prove that Dairiki had been born in the U.S.

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