Experiencing the Bomb
Published August 2010
I asked a bright and educated 33-year-old friend if she ever thought about the atomic bomb.
“No,” she replied.
“What would it take for you to read an article about the bomb?”
“Well, I guess I’d read it if it were a story about people.”
Shigeko Nimoto Sasamori
I met Shigeko over two years ago when she came to Taos [New Mexico] to introduce the screening of the documentary “White Light, Black Rain: the Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki” in which she appears. This month commemorates the 65th anniversary of the bombing and because her mission is to make people aware of what happened so that such suffering and destruction will never happen again, she agreed to talk with me by telephone for this article.
Shigeko is 78 years old and living in California. On August 6, 1945, when she was 13 years old and in the seventh grade, the U. S. dropped an atomic bomb on her city, Hiroshima.
Shigeko’s father owned two houses, their main house and a summer house. When the bomb dropped, the family house burned down. “Fortunately, my mother [had crawled] underneath the house,” Shigeko said of the summer house that stayed standing. “She just had scratches. My father had run inside a big building,” she said, explaining that her father made it to safety. “The city was destroyed—with everything gone for two miles all around the center.”
One hundred thousand people were killed outright in the explosion, and 160,000 died from radiation sickness in the aftermath. One bomb for one city.
On the outskirts of Hiroshima in the Sendamachi district, Shigeko’s parents were on the edge of the two-mile radius of destruction. With the city unrecognizable, her father helped orient survivors by putting a sign on their house to show they were in Sendamachi.
Even though August 6 was a school day, “I was out of school that day,” Shigeko said. She explained that in crowded neighborhoods, “We had to tear down houses to clear a fire lane in case we were bombed.” As John Hersey says in his book “Hiroshima,” everyone was expecting a sky full of American B29 planes to firebomb the city.
When the atomic bomb detonated, Shigeko thought a fire bomb had dropped near her. “I didn’t know it was the whole city.”
Only a mile from where the bomb dropped, “Most of my classmates died or were severely burned,” Shigeko said. A quarter of Shigeko’s body was badly burned too—her face and neck, both hands and arms. She describes her charred head “as a black ball.”
“It is a miracle that I survived,” she says.
At first Shigeko could not see, but when her vision gradually came back into focus, she saw that “people were not like normal people in normal clothes. Even hurt people were walking, their clothes peeled away [from the blast]. I have never seen so many people moving so slowly—silently—it was like hell. I couldn’t hear anything, I was in deep shock and numb.”
She fell in with a line of silent walkers. “I followed the people who were bleeding with ashes all over them. I walked about a mile and found the elementary school. I stayed in the elementary school auditorium. I sat down and lost consciousness.”
At the elementary school, where there was no food or medicine, Shigeko called out, “Please give me water. My name is Shigeko Nimoto,” adding her address as well. A man who could not catch her name because Shigeko’s voice was so weak recognized her neighborhood and purposively walked to that district. Because of the sign Shigeko’s father had made, it was at her parents’ house that the man inquired about a missing child.
“When my parents arrived at the elementary school,“ Shigeko said, “they called my name. My mother told me that they found me five days and four nights after the bomb dropped.” Other people--Shigeko does not remember who they were, but maybe neighbors, she thinks--improvised a stretcher from a door and laying Shigeko on it, helped her parents carry their daughter home.
Because most of Hiroshima’s 298 doctors worked in the center of the city, 90 percent of them were killed or injured in the explosion and fire. “My mother and father took care of me,” Shigeko said. Her father cut off her singed hair and with his scissors cut around her scalp line and jaw and peeled off her charred face. Her parents doctored her themselves with the soy bean oil they used for cooking.
In the six to 12 months that it took for Shigeko’s burns to heal, Shigeko loved to listen from her house to the beautiful music coming from a nearby church, whose structure had been badly damaged but not destroyed. The scar tissue from her burns had left Shigeko’s face badly disfigured; and her fingers had been bent into claws. In Japanese culture, people who were disfigured were shunned, especially those who had suffered from the atomic bomb. But Kiyoshi Tanimoto, the American-educated Japanese Methodist minister of the church from which the music had wafted into Shigeko’s room welcomed Shigeko into his congregation, where she eventually became baptized as a Christian.
Other survivors like Shigeko who had been young schoolgirls at the time of the atomic blast and had also been disfigured and crippled were attracted to the church as well. They found solace in each other’s company because of their common experience and alienation. They did not want to be seen in public. Their number in the church grew to 43.
Plastic surgery had not yet been developed into a medical specialty in Japan. In 1953, wanting to help these young, unmarried women or “maidens,” Reverend Tanimoto wrote to the editor of The Saturday Review of Literature magazine in New York, Norman Cousins, who had visited his church with his wife in 1949. Cousins and Tanimoto had first met during the time that Tanimoto was a student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Tanimoto invited the couple to return to Hiroshima, and when they arrived, brought them to his church to meet some of the girls and hear their stories.
Finally, after two years of preparation, Tanimoto’s hope for his “Hiroshima Maidens“--as the whole project became known--came to fruition. After careful medical examinations by a prominent American plastic surgeon, Dr. Arthur J. Barsky, sent to Japan by Cousins, the surgeon selected 25 of the young women, including Shigeko, to go to the U.S. for free plastic and reconstructive surgery.
Dr. Barsky took charge of the project, which was conducted at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital and provided free hospital care. The American Friends Service Committee arranged for the girls to be hosted in American homes in the metropolitan area when they were not in the hospital. Three Japanese doctors were also chosen to accompany the girls to the United States in hopes that when they returned to Hiroshima, they would be able to help the 18 left behind.
In writing an account of the “Hiroshima Maidens” project, Cousins said: “The girls were told at the start that plastic surgery could not give them new faces or make them beautiful. It could work wonders in restoring facial functions—replacing eyelids that were burned away; reconstructing portions of the face such as lips that do not move properly; facilitating jaw movements and thus improving speech and mastication; removing much of the pulpy mass left by burns or radiation; liberating neck muscles which prevent a head from turning. The girls knew the value of being able to use fingers that had been bent back on their wrists or twisted out of shape, or of being able to eat without being fed, to bend one’s head toward the plate, to turn it to take part in family table conversation, or to hold it erect, physically and symbolically.”
Like all the Hiroshima Maidens, Shigeko had numerous operations in the year and a half the young women spent in New York. Between the operations, she learned to become a nurse’s aide. When the project came to a close, she did not return to Japan with the other young women. As Cousins describes what happened, Shigeko was “swept off her feet by a suitor, was married and settled in California!” At the editor’s request, when she had a son, she named him Norman Cousins Sasamori.
Reconstructive surgery did not promise to solve all [the young women's] problems. Freud said the goal of psychoanalysis was to “transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness.” One of the maidens, Michiko Yamaoka, put it similarly when she said, “Before our problems were mostly special problems. They were the problems that came from being apart from other people. Now they are the problems that we share with most other people—how to make a living, how to meet ordinary responsibilities, how to care for other people.” How many of us can say as she did, “It is a blessing to have such problems”?
Around the age of 40, Shigeko was operated on for cancer of the stomach and intestines. Whether the cancer developed as a result of her exposure to radiation is unknown. But still she says of herself, “I am Miracle Person!”
Richard is 78 years old and lives in Taos, New Mexico, but he was born and raised in San Francisco, California. He was one of 10 children, “the eldest of the males.”
“My father was born in Mexico. He was in the Revolution [1910-1911 that overthrew Diaz, a dictator over Mexico for over 30 years] and didn’t want any part of it.”
Richard’s early life could be out of a John Steinbeck novel, for at age 16, he worked with his father in a sardine cannery. “There were three big sardine canneries on Pier 92 [in San Francisco],” he said. “So long as there was a boat coming in with sardines, you worked.”
One time after Richard had already labored a full day, a boat came in loaded with sardines, and he worked his record shift—24 hours and 22 minutes! On top of that, he said, “I had to walk home.” But he liked the work. “I made good money and I always gave half my salary to my mother.”
“My father wanted to see his mother in Mexico, and he asked me if I would go with him.
I was registered for the draft and found out that I could not leave the country without a permit.” When he went to the office to get the permit, he was denied one. Richard laughed. “The woman in the office said, ‘I can’t let you know that you are going to be drafted within the month.’”
With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, “I didn’t want to go into the Army,” Richard said, “and I didn’t want to fight.” He and his friends who were in the same predicament talked over what they were going to do. “What about the Navy?” he suggested. “If you go on a ship, you always have a bunk and a mess hall.”
Richard was 19 when he joined the Navy in 1951. “There were seven of us ‘good fellas’ who used to hang out together. Three of us went to boot camp together.” He and his friend Charlie were sent for two years to the Philippines, a country with which the U.S. had just signed a “mutual” defense treaty. Richard ended up in a two-man team with a man named Bowie in an LCM (landing craft mechanized) that ferried goods from island to island in Subic Bay.
Richard and Charlie were then shipped back to the U.S. to the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado-San Diego for training. “We got Queen Clearance,” Richard said, “the highest clearance you can get. They sent us to a survival school to teach us how to swim. We got T.A.D. (Temporary Assigned Duty), which was highly classified.”
“We were assigned to the USS Belle Grove LSD-2, a dock landing ship. It was like a floating dry dock,” Richard said. It had been used in World War II to ferry such things as combat Marines and a Sherman tank in each of the 18 landing crafts bound for beachheads that it was built to carry. Now the ship was headed to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean (about halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines) for “Operation Castle.” The Belle Grove functioned as the “mother” ship to a boat pool of small vessels that included 15 landing crafts, a 28-foot motor whaleboat, an Air Force crash boat used in air-sea rescue, and a covered barge.
Richard served with two other sailors, King and Williams, on a three-man recovery team. From the USS Belle Grove, they witnessed the atmospheric tests of four atomic bombs and two hydrogen bombs, detonated within weeks of each other.
After each explosion, the team manned their LCM to recover test equipment and rock samples from the atoll over which the atomic bomb had just been detonated. “They gave us no protective clothing,” Richard said. “The officers and scientists who might accompany us to retrieve the equipment wore special gloves and hoods. They would instruct us to pick up a rock or some irradiated equipment with our bare hands.”
On March 1, 1954, the first test Richard witnessed was shot Bravo. The 15-megaton bomb would be testing “new solid-fuel lithium deuteride thermonuclear technology.” It would be the biggest H-bomb ever detonated.
“They gave us a lot of pep talks and said we were making history,” Richard said.
“The ship’s crew was called topside and told to sit on the deck. The men were instructed to spread their legs and fit together in a kind of chain so that the sailor behind him could press his face against the next man’s back.” They were also faced away from the blast and instructed to close their eyes and cover them with their hands. The Bikini atoll over which the bomb would be detonated was within their eyesight. “We were scared plenty.”
“When the fireball came, we saw its red light with white stripes in it. Then we realized the white was the bones of our fingers covering our eyes,” as if his fingers had been X-rayed. When the sailors were told they could stand up and turn around to look, Richard said, the sight was awesome. “The colors were indescribable—red and purple—beautiful and horrific at the same time.”
Soon it was raining radioactive ash. Again, the crew was without protective clothing, “We were covered in it,” Richard said. He and the others stood in radioactive ash up to their ankles.
“After we cleaned the deck, as we were told to do, we were stripped naked. Our clothes were discarded into a steel drum.” It galled Richard that he had to throw his new shoes into the drum too, but they were setting off the Geiger counters. Richard himself set off Geiger counters for most of his stint on the Belle Grove.
“They messed up,” Richard said. “We were guinea pigs.”
In his book “100 Suns,” Michael Light shows a photograph of the thermonuclear explosion called test Bravo that Richard witnessed from the deck of the USS Belle Grove. Light says that shot Bravo exceeded estimates of its explosive power by 250 percent and became the largest nuclear weapon the U.S. ever detonated—1,000 times bigger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Not only Richard and his crewmates were exposed to the fallout on the deck of the USS Belle Grove, but the fallout had also “snowed”--as they described it—on the islanders, who had been evacuated to neighboring islands. To this day, the Bikinians, some of whom have received some compensation by the U.S. Government, cannot return to their island. While Bikini’s coconuts might look delicious when cut open, they are still radioactive.
“The Lucky Dragon,” a Japanese fishing trawler 80 miles away from the blast that same day, had also been irradiated, sickening the whole crew. According to the BBC, the 40-year-old radio operator died after several months. Eleven of the crewmembers of the “The Lucky Dragon” died in their 40s and 50s from cancer, liver disease or hepatitis. Radiation can also produce cancer decades after the exposure. The U.S. agreed to pay each crew member about $18,350 as “sympathy money.”
Light says that during the period from 1945 to 1962, the U.S. conducted 216 thermonuclear tests and the U.S.S.R., 217. When the Limited Test Ban Treaty forced testing underground, both countries continued testing right up to 1992 for a score of 1,149 thermonuclear explosions for the U.S. and 969 for the Soviet Union.
Up until recently Richard did not talk about his experience with the bomb. Perhaps his reticence stemmed out of coming from work that was so highly classified. His mail was censored, he was not allowed to have a camera or anything with a battery like a transistor radio; and he was warned not to appear on radio or TV for 10 years after he was discharged.
“We saw a doctor before we were discharged,” Richard said. But the doctor’s stethoscope hung around his neck like a prop, for he never examined them. “All he said to us was that we might be sterile.” But the doctor promised that “the Navy would look after us and keep in touch with us,” which, the veteran said, it never did.
“Once I got out, I was done,” Richard said. His experience made an anti-war man out of him.
Richard returned to San Francisco, married, had three daughters and worked for 35 years in a coconut oil refinery, a job with good benefits.
When his stomach started bothering him not long after his discharge, Richard went to the V.A. Hospital in San Francisco. He was told his records had been lost in a fire. He felt the doctors he met were indifferent and that he had gotten such a run-around, being sent from one floor to another, that he left the hospital. But his stomach continued to bother him for years.
The only way to the V.A. Hospital, Richard learned, was through the emergency room door, where in 2004 he was told he had an abdominal tumor. The surgeon took out part of Richard’s stomach, small intestine, colon and bladder.
While her father was still in the recovery room after his operation, Richard’s daughter asked the doctor how big the tumor that had been removed was. The doctor replied, “As big as a dog.”
Thinking she must have misunderstood him, his daughter asked, “You mean as big as a puppy?”
“No,” the doctor said, “as big as a dog.”
For some reason, after 50 years, Richard’s Navy records turned up. Could the tumor have developed because of radiation? It wouldn’t have mattered even if you could tell. On Richard’s honorable discharge paper, in a box to show where he spent his time in the Navy, his two years in the Philippines are typed in. But the next line to show where he spent the remaining one year and 10 months is blank.