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Hiroshima survivor looks back on nuclear bomb horrors ahead of Obama visit

'The sooner we get rid of them, the safer the humanity will be,' Setsuko Thurlow says of nuclear stockpiles

Setsuko Thurlow

Setsuko Thurlow tells CBC News' David Common about the horrors she witnessed when the U.S. dropped the world's first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima 70 years ago. (CBC)

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Setsuko Thurlow was just a schoolgirl in Japan when she bore witness to the devastating effects of the world's first nuclear bomb.

It was Aug. 6, 1945, when the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, killing 80,000 people instantly. By that year's end, 140,000 had died as a result of the nuclear detonation.

Thurlow, then 13 years old, was in school, a kilometre away from ground zero when the bomb hit and knocked her unconscious. 

"When I regained consciousness, I tried to move my body in total darkness, but I couldn't move, so I knew I was faced with death," Thurlow, 83, who now lives in Toronto, told CBC News' David Common. "Then, suddenly, I started hearing my classmates' voices."

She heard other children crying out: "Mother, help me," and "God, help me."

"So I knew I was surrounded by my friends," she said. 

'Everybody was covered with blood'

But then she saw the carnage around her. 

"Everybody was covered with blood and burned and blackened and swollen, and skin and flesh were hanging from their bones," she said, closing her eyes. "Parts of their bodies were missing. Some were carrying their own eyeballs."

Nagasaki, about 400 kilometres away from Hiroshima, was hit with a second bomb on Aug. 9 and Japan surrendered six days later, ending the Second World War.

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the Hiroshima bombing as a part of his Asian tour to boost trade and diplomatic relations.

Many have called on Obama to use the historic event to officially apologize for the U.S. attack on Japan, but the president has remained steadfast in his refusal.

He recently told the Japanese national broadcaster NHK that no apologies would be included in the brief remarks he is expected to make in the western Japanese city.

G7 JAPAN/OBAMA HIROSHIMA

U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrive for a joint news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, April 28, 2015. Despite the animosity of World War II and the devastation of Hiroshima, the two countries are close allies. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

"It's important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions, it's a job of historians to ask questions and examine them," Obama said.

"But I know, as somebody [who has] now sat in this position for the last seven and half years, that every leader makes very difficult decisions, particularly during wartime."

Despite the lack of apology, Japan and the U.S. remain close allies, and Obama is expected to choose his words carefully on Friday.

"I think the president will be very careful to honour both the dead at Hiroshima, and also those Americans who lost their lives in the Pacific theatre," Tom Nagorski, executive vice-president of the Asia Society, which promotes co-operation between Asia and the U.S., told CBC News.

Tom Nagorski

Tom Nagorski is the president of the Asia Society, an organization that works to build partnerships between the U.S. and Asia. He says Obama's historic visit to Hiroshima will be an opportunity to discuss nuclear non-proliferation. (CBC )

"It is a moment to reflect on something that he has talked a lot about in his two terms as president — nuclear non-proliferation and a world that can move towards peaceful security without the arsenals that exist now."

Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 partly for his stance on nuclear non-proliferation, but the U.S. still has 4,700 active nuclear warheads at its disposal.

While those numbers have declined significantly since the Cold War, the country still plans to spend billions over the coming decades to keep the weapons.

nukes

Both the U.S. and Russia still have enough nuclear weapons stockpiled to destroy the world several times over. (CBC Graphics)

That's something Thurlow finds deeply troubling. She now spends her time travelling the world to tell her story and advocate for nuclear non-proliferation. 

"We have waited 70 years ... and it's too long, too dangerous," she said. "The sooner we get rid of them, the safer the humanity will be."

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