Ōkunoshima, off the coast of Hiroshima
August 6, 1945
Moments before the bomb detonated over Hiroshima I was escaping in a boat from the island of Ōkunoshima, home to a small poison gas factory under the control of Unit 731. The island was inhabited only by our engineers, who were busily dismantling and destroying all evidence of the program. The factory itself had been gutted, the equipment and instruments destroyed or dismantled, the useful pieces being sent off the island to local ports. All documents were burned, the ashes buried there on the island. The power plant still operated but would be shut down once the purging had been completed.
Masaru and I had flown in from China to supervise the final destruction of the facility and all the while I had been waiting for my chance to disappear from Masaru’s sight. To steal away on a boat or plane, to return to Nagasaki and gather my family. But ever since we took off in Masaru’s private plane he had kept me close and seemingly under constant watch. Even when he had rose from his seat on the plane to walk to the bar and refill his empty drink, six Soldiers of Black remained surrounding me in their seats, their solemn stares fixed on nothing, yet on me at the same time.
When we landed, Masaru rushed us both to a waiting truck that whisked us away to the factory. And throughout that entire day Masaru was at my side and I at his as we directed the disassembly of one of Unit 731’s last remaining facilities. Once we were finished in Ōkunoshima the plan was to return to Tokyo to debrief our superiors on our progress. I had been dreading this trip since Masaru first informed me we’d be going. On the flight from China Masaru told me, “In Tokyo we can expect accolades from the Imperial Army and the assignment of our choice. You will be writing your own future, Major.”
Indeed I will, but my future does not include a trip to Tokyo. I knew that if I was to desert Masaru and my duties in Japan, I needed to do it then, that day. From Ōkunoshima I could catch a boat to Hiroshima and then take a cargo ship or plane to Nagasaki or Kokura. Once I had collected Kimiko and San, I would need to find my way out of Japan but I would worry about that later. For now I needed to escape Ōkunoshima.
During a dinner break I made my way to the logistics and receiving office near the port. A small depot still operated and supervised the boats came and went from the island. Most were delivering our spare parts to nearby cities. I met the sailor on duty and asked to see the schedule.
Small cargo boats were departing throughout the night but one in particular caught my eye. “What’s this boat that leaves at 4:18 in the morning?”
The sailor pointed towards the water. “Bound for Hiroshima with personnel and technical parts.”
I checked my watch. Ten minutes after seven. I had plenty of time to prepare.
I spent the rest of the night supervising the dismantling of a vacant barracks. Once the pieces had been sorted and removed from the site, it was near midnight.
I considered taking a short rest in my quarters. If I were to fall asleep as soon as I arrived at my bed, I could grab three hours before I needed to be awake for the boat. There was nothing to pack – I would be traveling with no possessions. Except for that cyanide capsule in my jacket. I could not convince myself to remove it from my pocket. It might prove to be useful someday.
Masaru found me before I could reach my quarters. “Kiyoshi, join me for a drink in my apartment.”
I dreaded the suggestion. “Please, sir. It is time to rest.”
Masaru seemed to eye me suspiciously. “And there is much to discuss before tomorrow’s work.”
“We can discuss it tomorrow.” I excused myself and shut myself in my room. Nothing to pack, nothing to prepare. Just to rest lightly and awaken in time.
Sleep never came. My mind was cluttered with the noise of my own voice. Chastising myself for defecting, praising my own bravery, reminding myself to be careful. I saw across the yard where Masaru’s apartment was. The light was still on. I watch for nearly two hours before it finally went out. My watch showed it was almost 2:30. I went to the bathroom, drank some water, ate a small biscuit and piece of fruit that I had saved and set off.
I reported to the dock where just a single sailor was minding the depot. Different from the one I saw earlier, this one’s name was Matsui. There was no need to introduce myself, he knew who I was. He confirmed that a supply ship was to depart at 4:18 that morning, just a little more than an hour.
I waited outside and smoked cigarettes until after 4 o’clock, my eyes fixed in the direction on Masaru’s apartment. The ground remained dark and quiet. I walked to the docks to find my ship but saw only a couple of empty rowing boats and a half-sunken trawler that had been stripped and looted.
“The 4:18 has been delayed, Major.” Matsui came out of the depot to inform me.
“For how long?”
She shrugged his shoulders and walked back inside.
I tried not to panic. It could be delayed thirty minutes, even an hour and I’d still be able to escape before the sun rose. But if the delay was longer, several hours, I would have to return to work. Word that Major Kiyoshi, the second in command at Unit 731, had been scheduled to leave might spread to Masaru, who knew nothing of any 4:18 boat.
I thought of aborting my plan and going back. I thought of a story to tell Masaru. I thought of my family, stuck in Nagasaki while I ran all over east Asia tying up Masaru’s loose ends. I thought of what I might have to explain to Masaru but knew it was useless. If I were to disappear Masaru would know right away that I had defected. The Soldiers of Black would be after me in an instant.
Which was why I needed to get away now. No more of those irritating secret policemen that Masaru relied on for intimidation, for his dirty deeds. No more of his orders and ambitions.
I went to the depot and found Matsui. “I will need an update on this delay.”
“Yes, sir,” he went into action and picked up a telephone. He spoke to someone on the other end for a few moments and then hung up and looked at me. “Five o’clock.”
I checked my watch – it was already four. Masaru might be up by five. I smoked another cigarette and considered my options.
A few minutes later a pair of flatbed trucks pulled up to the port, both piled high with lumber and metal drums, wooden crates, metal boxes. The cargo that was to be shipped to Hiroshima. Each truck had a crew of two men but they were more concerned with unloading their rigs than the lone man standing outside the depot smoking a cigarette.
I thought again of bailing out and going back.
If this boat wasn’t to leave soon, I would need to wait and catch another. Or pick a different time to disappear. The sun began to rise in the east and as the base began to awaken with activity I looked towards Masaru’s apartment. Still no sign of the commanding officer, so I continued to wait.
I looked to the port: still no sign of a cargo ship and soon Masaru would be awake. He would order breakfast and if I did not join him, would dispatch two of the Soldiers to my quarters to retrieve me. They would find an empty bed and report back to Masaru that I was gone. The manhunt would begin.
It was too late. The boat was not going to leave. I was on the cusp of being caught so I abandoned my waiting place at the depot and hurried back towards my room. There was still time to make it back without my absence being known.
I could catch a different boat on a different day.
I halted, for half a moment, and then continued my stride as if I hadn’t heard Masaru’s voice calling to me from outside his apartment. I continued on as if I was meant to be hurrying back to my room.
“Kiyoshi!” His voice called louder and I turned to see him approaching with a pair of black uniformed soldiers flanking him. He held a clipboard over his head and motioned for me to join him.
It was after six o’clock and the rising sun broke the horizon behind Masaru.
I thought of all the times Masaru had summoned me with some kind of clipboard or blueprint or document in hand. In the past it had usually been some plan for a new experiment or a new facility that Masaru had drawn up and wanted to explain. Some plan that required my immediate cooperation.
And what did he have in store for me this time? What new assignment had he concocted?
“I’ll be right over!” I called to him.
“Meet us at the power plant!” He called back and then walked to a jeep with his two escorts, one of which climbed into the driver’s seat and whisked them all away.
I was alone with just one more chance to run.
I took it.
I was back at the port in minutes and checked with Matsui inside the office. He smiled when he saw me and pointed to the bay. I looked through the window and saw a small boat no larger than an average fishing boat pull into the port. Dark smoke puffed from its engine and a pair of sailors jumped to the dock and guided the boat in place.
“It that the 4:18?” I asked Matsui.
“Just two hours late,” he said. “But there should be room for one extra passenger.” He motioned toward me and smiled, satisfied that he had helped me find a ride, unaware of the significance of my motive.
“Thank you, sailor,” I said to him and walked outside to smoke another cigarette. Ten minutes later I was on board as the boat pulled away from the dock and began a slow, choppy journey to Hiroshima.
It was a twenty minute boat ride to Hiroshima. I sat at the stern with my back to my destination and my eyes on the island of Ōkunoshima. The smokestack of the power plant and a lone radio tower topped the landscape of the island but those quickly became smaller and smaller until they disappeared completely.
My boat was just minutes from Hiroshima when I observed a small plane taking off from Ōkunoshima. Masaru’s plane. By now he would have figured out I had left the island, with a certain tip from the dutiful Matsui.
It was just climbing into the sky but quickly heading my direction. As I reached Hiroshima and stepped onto the dock I knew I had precious minutes before Masaru and his men would land and likely canvass the city’s transportation centers. I was not free yet.
Before running into the city I turned for one last look at Masaru’s plane. It was now halfway across the bay and approaching quickly. Above that I spotted the dark shadow of a larger plane, inbound and high above.
Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.