Tetsutani Shinichi, called Shin by his family (pictured here with sister Michiko), was a little boy with a dream. He lived with his father, mother, grandmother, big sister Michiko, and new baby sister Yoko. Their home was also a local drugstore. Shin’s dream was the same as many three year old’s; a shiny red tricycle.
Shin spent his days playing with his best friend, Kimi, the little girl who lived next door. They loved to play house and look at picture books, especially the one with the tricycle they both wanted.
But in wartime Japan, luxury items were scarce, and toys were almost impossible to find.Shin cried and pleaded with his parents, and tried to understand why his dream could not be fulfilled.
But, on one bright sunny day in April, a miracle happened. Shin’s uncle came to visit before he put out to sea. Wrapped in paper was a very early birthday gift; a red tricycle his uncle had discovered in a closet in his home. Shin was overjoyed, and said, “Look, Papa, my dream did come true!”
Shin and Kimi treated the tricycle like a third friend, and they took turns pedaling it while the other one rode behind. They loved to ride around the streets of their quiet town.
One morning after breakfast, Shin and Kimi were riding the tricycle around the yard. A group of soldiers were repairing the road in front of Shin’s house. They laughed and waved to the children, who laughed and waved back.
On that bright sunny morning, there was suddenly a loud explosion, followed by a blinding flash of light. In an instant, everything changed.
It was August 6, 1945, and the Little Boy atomic bomb had just exploded over Hiroshima.
Upon entry into WWII, the United States had launched into a massive arms development program, including nuclear weapons. There is a myth that there was a nuclear arms race during the war, but the Axis powers lacked the resources. Germany essentially gave up trying to develop the bomb in 1942, and the Soviet Union did not start nuclear weapons research until after Stalin discovered through his spies that the Western Powers were frantically working on one.
Many reasons have been given for why the atomic bombs were used on Japan. Some are speculation, some are conjecture, and some are subjective.
One of the most common was that Japan would not surrender. However, Japan had been trying to negotiate a peace settlement through the agency of the the Soviet Union since February 1945. Japanese historians say that it was more the decision of the Soviet Union to declare war on them than the atomic blasts that led to the need to surrender.
Another was massive Allied casualties if Japan were to be invaded. This is conjecture, and can never be proved or disproved. The allies had overwhelming military superiority, and huge stockpiles of chemical weapons were readied to be used against Japanese human wave attacks. (Biological weapons were considered as well if they were needed). Japan had been planning for invasion, and had mobilized its last resources to resist.
Another was hatred of the Japanese people. Americans wanted revenge for Pearl Harbor. (The 68 civilians killed at Pearl Harbor were almost all killed by US shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire raining down on residential areas). Americans held a lot of erroneous ideas about the Japanese and their culture, and many saw them as an inferior race. A 1944 national survey determined that 1 in 8 Americans wanted all “Japanese men, women, and children exterminated.” My father, who actually fought the Japanese, did not hold this opinion. He saw them as a noble people, and brave warriors.
One of the major reasons was the extreme cost. The United States and its allies had spent $2 billion on the project (an unheard of amount at that time), and President Truman was determined to see if it worked. He was opposed in this by Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, the head of the Joint Chiefs, Albert Einstein, and the majority of those in the United States government who knew of the project. Most said to not use it, or at least drop it over an unoccupied area of Japan and allow the Japanese government to see its effects. Truman would hear none of that. It was a city or nothing.
Hiroshima had purposely not been bombed by conventional means to allow a greater assessment of the damage. This lack of attacks had been noted by those in the city, and various ideas had been been put forward, but none suspected the truth.
When the bomb exploded, a wall of fire and a massive shock wave spread out in all directions. The bomb had drifted during its descent, and detonated over a hospital, vaporizing everyone inside. Shin’s home was 1500 meters from the hydrocenter of the blast. The house fell down on everyone and they were badly burned.
Grandmother was the first to pull Shin from the rubble. He was badly bleeding and swollen. Kimi was already dead, crushed or killed by the blast. Their father Nobuo tried to rescue the girls, but Michiko and Yoko perished in the flames of their home. All of the soldiers in the road were dead.
With well over 90% of the city’s medical personnel dead (only one doctor survived in the Red Cross Hospital), the civilians were on their own, and most rushed down to the river to soothe the horrible burns, Shin’s family included. Shin begged for water, but his father saw that most of those who drank it died, and gave him none. (The water was highly contaminated with radiation, and those who drank it usually vomited violently before they died).
Shin was incoherent, and was asking over and over about his tricycle. His parents showed him that he was still holding one of the plastic handlebar grips in his hand. Shin smiled. That night he died, 10 days before his fourth birthday.
All of the children in Shin’s family were dead, and only the saddened adults survived. Overcome by grief, they decided to bury the children in their own yard, and not in some mass grave. The charred bones of Michiko and Yoko were buried together. Kimi’s mother brought her body and said, “They were such good friends. We should bury them together, Nabuo.” Shin and Kimi were laid to rest, hand in hand. Their cherished tricycle was buried with them as well.
In a twist of irony, the United States Army Air Force declared the atomic bombing of Hiroshima a failure, as only 1.7% of the fissionable material reacted. They had estimated far greater destruction.
On August 9th the Soviet Union declared war, and on the same day Nagaski received the second and last atomic bombing in human history. The Japanese government had had enough, and on August 15th, for the first time in their lives, the Japanese people heard their God-Emperor Hirohito on the radio, reading the capitulation announcement. The Empire of Japan had lost its first conflict in its ancient history.
Of the bombing, President Truman said, “I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb … It is an awful responsibility which has come to us … We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.”
Unfortunately, in 1949 God decided to even the playing field, and the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. A new era of fear and mutual assured destruction started. But by then Allies had become enemies, and the United States had joined forces with the former major Axis powers in a new game of world domination. That war lasted until 1989, but it still echoes today.
In 1985, Shin’s parents decided that it was time to give their children a proper burial. When they dug up the skeletons of Kimi and Shin, they were still hand in hand. The adults were astonished to discover the tricycle, since they had forgotten they had buried it.
The tricycle was donated to the Hiroshima Peace Museum, where it can still be viewed today (see picture).
“Shin’s Tricycle” is a children’s book written by another survivor of that day, with help from Shin’s father. As the author writes, “His battered tricycle serves as a reminder of all of the young victims of that tragic day – and as a symbol of the joyful and innocent time that childhood should be.”