When Larry Armstrong was 15, a Japanese exchange student traveled 6,500 miles to Oak Park to attend Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) for his final year of schooling. The student, Kanji Tsutsui, lived two houses away from Armstrong, who lived across the street from Greenfield Park in Oak Park.
Armstrong, now of Forest Park, became fast friends with the boy. He attended all of Tsutsui’s soccer practices and games, taught him bad words in English (learning the corresponding terms in Japanese, of course) and heard all about Tsutsui’s home city of Hiroshima, where his mother, grandmother and aunt had all survived the infamous bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, when America dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city during World War II.
This year marked the 74th anniversary of the bombing, which represented the first time an atomic bomb had ever been unleashed on the world. Now a semi-retired editor, Armstrong has spent his life learning about the bombing and its survivors, collecting mementos from the event and contributing to the historical conversation.
“I always get pretty sad on that day,” Armstrong said. “I just think about all my friends who are gone who were survivors, wonderful people. They gave me the chance to hear their stories, know them, be with them, be friends with them.
“They’re not mad at the Americans,” he said. “They’re mad because war caused it.”
At the end of Tsutsui’s year abroad, he returned to Hiroshima with Armstrong in tow.
During his month-long visit, Armstrong visited the Genbaku Dome, a burnt out exhibition hall near where the bomb dropped — 70,000 people were instantly killed when the bomb fell, and another 70,000 suffered fatal injuries from the radiation. He met survivors, like a woman who had her leg amputated the day after Hiroshima without anesthetic. He went through Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, admiring the thousands of origami cranes strung from the statues, which, according to local folklore, are said to cure health problems caused by radiation.
“People just don’t understand the severity of it. This was just a little bomb when you think about it, but it killed 100,000 people in each city [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] and stayed with them for years through their health problems,” Armstrong said. “Our weapons today are 10,000, 20,000 times more powerful. They unleash it on Illinois, Illinois is gone in one flash.”
Over the years, Armstrong remembers meeting a survivor whose arm and elbow were bent by radiation, and whose ear had melted down. The man also had a long, black nail that grew continuously. “Every time his nail fell off, they put it in the museum,” Armstrong said. He remembers meeting a few of the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of 25 women who were school age when the bomb’s radiation seriously disfigured them. They eventually travelled to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. “One of the women I met, she had no eyelids,” Armstrong said. He remembers meeting a young girl who was born with radiation sickness at Chernobyl, the site of the infamous nuclear meltdown, and was sent to a hospital in Hiroshima to be treated.
“These were just kids and old people in Hiroshima [not many] soldiers at the time,” Armstrong said. “It was the end of the war. The guys were off fighting everywhere, so a lot of kids took it, a lot of elderly took it.”
Many of those who survived the original incident died just days later of radiation sickness, Armstrong said.
Armstrong recorded stories and wrote articles about many of those who survived the initial incident and sickness. Three of his poems on the topic have appeared in the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, and a poem he wrote when he was 16 and visiting Hiroshima for the first time, titled “Hiroshima — City of Peace,” has now been translated into Russian, Polish and Spanish and is displayed in the Hiroshima Peace Museum and Library Foundation.
Armstrong is currently working on a memoir of his time in Japan, which he plans to call “Small Hands, Big Heart.”
He has spoken about his experience at OPRF High School, Percy Julian Middle School and Fenwick High School. Over the years, he’s also helped more Hiroshima locals travel to Oak Park for commemorative “Hiroshima Day” celebrations.
“Be afraid,” Armstrong said. “Learn what happened in the past because we’re allowing our governments to continue holding vast amounts of nuclear weapons.”