Fr. Hubert Schiffer and the Jesuit Priests Who Survived Hiroshima

Fr. Hubert Schiffer and the Jesuit Priests Who Survived Hiroshima August 13, 2014

I wish I could tell you that I’m related to Jesuit Father Hubert Schiffer.  I’ve asked family members, hoping someone will be able to prove that he’s a second cousin twice removed….  But while we know of two priests among my husband’s ancestors, Father Schiffer’s name doesn’t come up. I like to imagine, though, that we have some kind of special link.  Two Schiffers with a common destination. Father Schiffer’s story has been on my mind lately for at least two reasons:

  • On July 29 Theodore “Dutch” VanKirk, the last survivor from the crew which flew the Enola Gay, died in  Georgia at the age of 93.  VanKirk–then 24 years old–was the navigator of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress aircraft which dropped a uranium-235 atomic bomb, code-named “Little Boy”, on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and three days later dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, ending World War II.
  • And August 6 marked the 69th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.

*     *     *     *     *

You may have heard about Father Hubert Schiffer and the other seven Jesuit missionaries who survived the atomic blast.  The priests lived less than a mile from the epicenter of the attack in Hiroshima; and for miles in all directions, every building was destroyed, completely flattened, and 140,000 living persons were killed instantly. Except for the eight priests.  Father Schiffer and his companions sustained no injuries, or only minor injuries.  They all lived years beyond that day, experiencing no radiation sickness, despite being exposed to high levels of radioactivity.  None suffered a loss of hearing from the explosion, or any other visible long-term defects or maladies. Father Schiffer, who was only 30 when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, told his story 31 years later, at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976.  At the time, all eight members of the Jesuit community who had lived through the bombing were still alive.  Before the gathered faithful, he reminisced about celebrating Mass in the early morning, then sitting down in the rectory kitchen for breakfast.   His memories were vivid:  He had just sliced and dug his spoon into a grapefruit when there was a bright flash of light.  Speaking before the Eucharistic Congress, he said that at first, he thought it might be an explosion in the nearby harbor.  Then he described the experience:

“Suddenly, a terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunder stroke.  An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me, whirled me ’round and round like a leaf in a gust of autumn wind.”

More details have been reported by a priest who once met Father Schiffer at the Tri-City Airport in Saginaw Michigan.  Father Schiffer visited the state to give a talk before the Blue Army, an organization of pious Catholics which promotes the apparitions at Fatima.  The priest recounted their conversation:

The next thing he remembered, he opened his eyes and he was lying on the ground.  He looked around and there was NOTHING in any direction:  the railroad station and buildings in all directions were leveled to the ground. The only physical harm to himself was that he could feel a few pieces of glass in the back of his neck.  As far as he could tell, there was nothing else physically wrong with himself.  Many thousands were killed or maimed by the explosion.  After the conquest of the Americans, their army doctors and scientists explained to him that his body would begin to deteriorate because of the radiation.  Many of the Japanese people had blisters and sores from the radiation.  To the doctors’ amazement, Fr.  Schiffer’s body contained no radiation or ill-effects from the bomb.  Fr.  Schiffer attributes this to devotion to the Blessed Mother, and his daily Fatima Rosary.  He feels that he received a protective shield from the Blessed Mother which protected him from all radiation and ill-effects.  (This coincides with the bombing of Nagasaki where St. Maximilian Kolbe had established a Franciscan Friary which was also unharmed because of special protection from the Blessed Mother, as the Brothers too prayed the daily Rosary and also had no effects from the bomb.)

Father Schiffer and the other Jesuits were examined and interviewed repeatedly by scientists and others who could not understand why they had escaped injury.  Father Schiffer reportedly said that he himself had been interviewed 200 times. Here is an aerial photo of Fr. Schiffer’s church (in the foreground) and surroundings, shortly after the bombing.  Standing in the street in front of the church are four of the Jesuits.
Asked why they believe they were spared, when so many others died either from the explosion or from the subsequent radiation, Father Schiffer spoke for himself and his companions:

“We believe that we survived because we were living the message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the rosary daily in that home.”

Father Schiffer believed that the Blessed Mother had protected them from all radiation and illness because of their devotion to her,, and because they were living the message of Fatima.  “In that house,” he said, “the Holy Rosary was recited together every day.” He died on March 27, 1982–thirty-seven years after that eventful day.

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  • Rob

    I still don’t understand why US dropped the bomb on civilian population instead of military targets. Anyone?

    Otherwise it’s a well known story and thanks for refreshing it, especially in our turbulent times. We still must fulfill Our Lady’s wish to have First Saturday Devotions to Her Name. It saddens me that many priests don’t, or pretend they don’t, know about it. In the Orlando area there is only one priest, Fr. Robert Brown of St. Joseph Church who carries out This Beautiful and Important devotion. Other churches are closed every saturday.

    • Norman

      Because we didn’t have the necessary aiming technology and prior to then it was perfectly acceptable to drop bombs wherever they fell on your enemy’s soil?… There was some thought put in to it, it wasn’t even considered to be used in Europe and it wasn’t as densely populated as Tokyo; still, in no way do I envy Truman for having to make the choice on whether or not to drop it at all, military target or not it was a monster that’d never been unleashed before…

      • Rob B.

        “it wasn’t even considered to be used in Europe” — The Trinity test was in July, 1945. Germany had surrendered in May.

    • douglas kraeger

      I heard many years ago that these two cities also happened to be the most Catholic in terms of population. Has anyone any supportive or dismissive evidence relating to this?
      Also, I wonder why no Catholic priests remind us about Mary’s promise in August and September that St. Joseph and the Child Jesus would come also in October to give peace to the world. I would think Mary mentioning it twice and then St. Joseph and the Child Jesus did appear and each made the sign of the Cross three times (Once each for The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost?) would be enough for people to wonder about St. Joseph’s role in bringing God’s peace, His blessings, to the world. Anyone know why the silence?

    • Wikipedia has an explanation of how they decided to bomb those two cities. Scroll down to “Choice of Targets.” It was apparently a process of elimination.

  • Norman

    Funny you bring this up Ms. Schiffer, I was wondering if there was any relation between you and Father Schiffer within this last week myself! I just finished ‘Silence’ by Shuzaku Endo a couple days ago (ordered immediately after reading your article about it and the upcoming film), so many references to Nagasaki in it that it was almost inevitable to think about what happened since!
    Thanks for answering my question about the relationship, and thanks for the book recommendation!!

  • Speaking of atomic bombs, I heard your area was hit with a bomb of a storm the other day. I hope you and your family survived it without any damage to helath and home.

    • kathyschiffer

      Yes, Manny–We got plenty of rain, but no flooding on our street. Some friends are not so fortunate; I heard today of one who is moving out of the home they’ve occupied for 30 years, because it’s now inhabitable.

      • Ah, I’m sorry to hear about your friends. My prayers for a better future.

  • fredx2

    FYI, you might want to alter your paragraph that begins “On July 29 Theodore “Dutch” VanKirk, the last survivor from the crew which flew the Enola Gay,..” It seems to say that both atomic bombs were dropped by the Enola Gay; however, the Nagasaki bomb was dropped by Bock’s Car, a different aircraft with a different crew. .

  • Dcn. Richard

    I remember reading the book Hiroshima by John Hersey when I was in high school (1967-71). Hersey tells of the Jesuit missionaries in the very first chapter, but doesn’t highlight the fact that they were unharmed by the blast. Several years later I remember reflecting that by the author’s description of their location, the priests seemed to be *awfully* close to ground zero, and yet by the author’s description of their activity after the blast, they seem to be relatively unharmed.

  • Guest_august

    Talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may the Blessed Mary preserve us from evil.

  • There’s an interview with Fr. John Siemes in this public domain film The Atom Strikes