I first visited Hiroshima in November 1972. I was a catering boy on the Westminster Bridge a British Merchant ship carrying iron ore that ran aground off the city of Okayama and due to considerable damage had to go into dry dock after its cargo of iron ore was offloaded. We sailed through the inland sea to Onomichi, a tiny village with a huge shipyard, where the ship would remain for three weeks. During this time I had the very rare opportunity to take an afternoon off, so I decided to go to Hiroshima. Of course, I knew about the atomic bomb, had seen what the rest of the world had seen, the mushroom cloud rising from the ashes of the city, knowing that there were thousands of dead and that along with the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki the Pacific War had been bought to an early close. And that was about it.
It turned out to be quite an adventure getting to Hiroshima. I had a take a ferry, find my way to a train station, buy a ticket and get on the right train, all without speaking a word of Japanese and with zero signs in English. No one I met spoke English, but miraculously and largely because of the very kind people I met I was guided to my destination. There were no tours or tourists at this time and it was an amazing journey through the beautiful Japanese countryside, greener than I have ever seen and so picturesque. When I arrived in the city. I was astonished by what I found.
I was expecting a flattened ruin straight out of a World War II movie. It was anything but that. A thriving metropolis with masses of people hurrying about their daily lives. Very soon I noticed that I was the only person not wearing a mask and to e honest I truly did not think anything of it at the time. For years after I wondered if it was a result of the radiation from the bomb. Now I realize it was most likely that seasonal flu was the reason for the masks and wonder what on earth the people of thought of me without mine. How naive I was. How innocent. I wandered around never even imagining that there could be a remnant of radiation left sine the bomb drop.
I walked through the city searching for remnants of the bomb, eventually finding the Atomic Bomb memorial, the ruined building at the epi-center of the bomb which somehow survived as a skeleton as the bomb exploded directly above, while everything in the immediate vicinity was flattened and burned to a crisp. After my walk around the sacred peace park, I made my way over to Hiroshima castle. What I found was a concrete replica of the original castle which was built of wood around 1600 AD, that had been blown to bits by the bomb. I was deeply disappointed as I expected to find at least one strong remainder of Japanese history.
The train taking me back to Onomichi was jam-packed, and I was not at all sure if I was on the right one. I asked a man close by if the train was going to Onomichi. Suddenly he grabbed hold of me and dragged me off the train. I thought he was going to rob me, beat me up and I struggled, but he held on dragging me along the platform to the next carriage and then forcefully pulling on, before he himself go off. I realised that only this part of the train was going to Onomichi and I felt so ashamed for having struggled with him and i marveled at hospitable the people were. This had such an impact on me that it was one of the first things I mentioned when I got home to tell my dad my experiences. I had been raised in Britain not long after the war and there was still a lingering resentment towards Japan and it's people. My trip to Hiroshima had opened my eyes in many ways, but it was the kindness and the similarities I found in humanity that I remembered and cherished the most. That afternoon off changed my life forever, but never did I imagine that three decades later I would walk to that city planting trees and spreading a message of peace.