Nagasaki, Japan: Tateyama Air-raid Shelter

There is little fanfare or advertisement surrounding the simple entrance to one of the historically important yet largely forgotten sites, the Tateyama Air-raid Shelter in Nagasaki, Japan. The shelter protected Nagasaki prefecture Gov. Wakamatsu Nagano and other important officials as the atomic bomb devastated the city around them on Aug. 9, 1945.


By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 1, 2012

"If these walls could talk, what would they say?" I thought as I touched the cold, hard concrete on a brisk, gray December morning. "What horrors would they speak of?"

I pictured the panic and confusion they surely witnessed, the cries for help that must have reverberated against the walls.

In many ways, these walls are unchanged, forgotten by time. And that is what made visiting Tateyama Air-raid Shelter in Nagasaki, Japan, so riveting.

On the morning of Aug. 9, 1945, Nagasaki prefectural Gov. Wakamatsu Nagano convened a special meeting in the shelter to discuss a "new bomb" that had devastated Hiroshima. Testimony from those within would later indicate that Nagano had a feeling that Nagasaki would be next, despite knowing very little about this new weapon. Some even reported that he called the meeting to discuss the evacuation of civilians from the city. If that is true, he never got the chance.

Nagano finished his introduction, and at 11:02 a.m., the lights in the shelter went out.

Thinking it was a power outage, some of the government officials in the shelter went to get candles. Next, they heard a loud explosion outside, and a blast of light entered through a broken door to the shelter sending papers flying.

The second atomic bomb had indeed struck Nagasaki.

The Tateyama Air-raid Shelter was built in 1945, according to Nagasaki police archives. The chief of police at the time approached Nagano’s predecessor in January and stressed the need to strengthen their air-defense system. He suggested they build an underground defense headquarters and a communication office modeled after the defense headquarters of China’s Chiang Kai-shek.

Construction began immediately on the shelter, built to house about 80 high-ranking government officials and low-level workers.

Immediately after the bomb fell, officials who ran outside saw a towering cloud of black smoke rising in the sky from Urakami, a district in the center of Nagasaki. The sky turned gray.

Buildings around the shelter — some two miles from ground zero — were largely intact.

At first, officials thought the destruction was minimal, and there were few, if any, deaths.

According to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, a wireless transmission technician went outside the shelter and saw the first signs of trouble. He witnessed a member of air-defense surveillance sliding down a utility pole, his body burnt. He crawled to him for help. The technician helped him inside. No one knew where the bomb had struck. Contradictory reports from police began to trickle in.

"We gradually became aware of the situation," Nagano later testified, according to the Nagasaki Prefecture Police History.

They coordinated relief efforts from within the walls of the shelter, Nagasaki officials said.

The next morning, Nagano reportedly toured the devastation.

The war would soon be over.

Approximately 80,000 people were killed in the bomb’s aftermath in Nagasaki. Many more would die in the following months and years.

Today, the shelter sits alone in a small, serene park, three doors carved into an unassuming hill, behind the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, with only a small black sign and map to let people know the history within.

Inside, it is eerie, stark, dank, cold. It feels as if it were abandoned yesterday.

Several corridors and passageways are blocked off for fear of a collapse, yet their doors still hang on their rusted hinges. Some of the tunnels are filled with debris. Rusted outlet boxes and ventilation pipes are still attached to the walls.

According to Hitomi Shiraishi of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, the Tateyama shelter was abandoned after the war and due to its highly classified nature, few documents related to it still exist. Nagasaki city inspected the shelter on the 50th anniversary of the bombing, Shiraishi said, and designated it a surviving atomic bomb building.

Before it was opened in November, some of the walls had to be reinforced due to safety concerns. Nagasaki city officials hope it will serve as a reminder of the day the bomb fell, the devastation, and the importance of peace.

Despite these hopes for the site, word of the shelter has been slow to get out because of its sensitive nature, according to my Japanese friend and guide, Kizan Takahashi, a lifelong resident of Nagasaki. He said most residents of Nagasaki don’t know it exists.

As he said this, I looked around, inside and out, in disbelief: We were the only two people there.

It made the experience that much more enthralling. It was like taking a time machine back to that fateful day, a day the history of the world was changed forever and hidden in ash.

Stars and Stripes’ Elena Sugiyama contributed to this report.

On a slight incline, behind the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, sits a small unassuming sign that leads to the Tateyama Air-raid Shelter.