Mitsuko Heidtke, graduate of Honkawa Elementary School, talks about her A-bomb experience at her alma mater

by Yumi Kanazaki, Staff Writer

Mitsuko Heidtke (née Okubo), 85, a resident of Oahu Island, Hawaii, visited Honkawa Elementary School in Naka Ward, the school from which she graduated before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and shared her experience of the bombing with the fifth and sixth grade students there. It was the first time that she talked about her A-bomb experience in front of a group of people and in Japan. “I am absolutely opposed to all wars and nuclear weapons,” she stressed in her heartfelt message at her alma mater, the school that stood closest to the bomb’s hypocenter.

Ms. Heidtke’s visit to the school came about as a result of being asked to contribute her A-bomb experience to a collection of A-bomb accounts, which will be published by residents of the Honkawa District, by a person involved in the project. She returned to Japan temporarily and visited her old elementary school. It was her first visit to the school since she graduated.

After graduating from Honkawa National School (as it was called in those days), Ms. Heidtke entered Hiroshima Jissen Girls’ High School (today, Suzugamine Girls’ Junior High School and High School). At the moment the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, she was in a street car that was heading for Miyajima en route to school from her home in Nishikanon-machi (now part of Nishi Ward).

Her mother was working for the war effort and never returned home, and their house burned to the ground. Furthermore, the shack in which she took shelter after the bombing was hit directly by the Makurazaki typhoon in September of the same year, and her grandmother died soon after that. “I collected as many wood chips as I could to be used to cremate her body, but her body was still only partially burned by the end of that day. I realized that I needed a lot more wood,” Ms. Heidtke said in front of the elementary school students as she recounted her painful memories.

She and her father eventually moved to the city of Yamaguchi, where a family friend lived, and she spent her days there doing the best she could to care for her two younger brothers. As a result, she was unable to attend junior high school. When she was 17 years old, she started working at a Post Exchange, PX, at the former Gan-nosu Airport in Fukuoka Prefecture, which had been taken over by the U.S. and later called Brady Airfield, and it was there that she met her husband-to-be, John Heidtke, now 97. But while she was working at the PX, her father died of leukemia. She married John in 1956, then moved to Hawaii.

Ms. Heidtke lost everything she had as a result of the atomic bomb, but says frankly, “I’m happy now.” She has acquired English and has spent most of her life working. She was blessed with three children and six grandchildren. On her trip back to Japan, she was accompanied by her eldest daughter’s 56-year-old husband, Brian.

In January of this year, a system to provide advanced warning of ballistic missile launches by North Korea malfunctioned in Hawaii. When she heard the news and the warning to evacuate, she felt furious because she knows that nothing could be done if nuclear weapons are really used. Thus, she has now made it her mission to convey the horror of the atomic bomb to as many people as possible.

As the students of the school sang their school song, Ms. Heidtke hummed along with mixed emotions on her face. Out of consideration for the kindness and warm-heartedness of the people of Hawaii, she said, “Even if some countries go to war, it is important that the citizens of those countries not hate one another. For if we can get to know each other, we’re sure to find them to be good people.”

(Originally published on November 13, 2018)