History of Hiroshima : 1945-1995

History of Hiroshima: 1945-1995 (Part 11, Article 2)

A-bomb survivors in the United States

by Tetsuya Okahata, Staff Writer

Note: This article was originally published in 1995.

Among those engulfed by the fiery hell that raged under the atomic bomb, many had come to Hiroshima from lands across the sea. There were Japanese-Americans who arrived here, with no experience of their ancestral home before that time, to be educated in Japan. And there were people from Okinawa who had fled the battle zone of their island.

Even while feeling forced to act more Japanese than the Japanese people themselves, their existence was long neglected following the end of the war and they were unable to access support from the Japanese government. Currently, it is estimated that there are 800 to 1,000 A-bomb survivors living in North America, and about 350 survivors in Okinawa. In addition, other survivors are scattered in places as far away as South America. While facing prejudice towards A-bomb diseases in these locations, what thoughts were on the minds of such people as they looked back at Hiroshima?

The Chugoku Shimbun traced the lives of young Japanese-American women who lived caught between two countries, and were unable to speak out about their suffering wrought by the atomic bombing after being forced to serve in a secret army unit. And a mother and daughter in Okinawa who lived under the thumb of the U.S. military, and under the shadow of nuclear weapons, for 27 years.

Young Japanese-Americans caught between two homelands

The girl in the photograph gazes at the Girl’s Festival decorations. “Before she died, she said, ‘Even if the war ends, I’m not going back to the United States. I’m going to a better place.’ Maybe she knew what would happen to her.”

Toyo Hata speaks in a quiet voice as sunlight shines through the shoji screen doors of the living room of a farmhouse in Aki Ward, Hiroshima. The girl in the photo is her eldest daughter Yoshiko. In the next photo she shares, her third daughter, Kiyoko, looks out calmly at the camera. “My great-grandchildren enjoy these decorations now,” she explains. “My children grew up in America, so I couldn’t do these kinds of things for them when they were small.”

Ms. Hata is 96 years old. A smile appears on her face, lined with the many hardships of her life. She dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief.

On the day of the atomic bombing, Yoshiko, 21, a sophomore at Hiroshima Jogakuin Specialty College, was killed while serving in a “special information unit” organized by the Japanese army. This unit, part of a division charged with intercepting shortwave radio communications, was made up of second-generation Japanese-Americans. They had gathered in secrecy at their site in present-day Shukkeien Garden when the bomb exploded. Yoshiko’s younger sister, Kiyoko, 15, a second-year student at the Hiroshima Girls’ Commercial School, also died in the blast. She was mobilized to help create fire lanes near Tsurumi Bridge. Born in the United States, the two Japanese-Americans were U.S. citizens who perished in the inferno made by their homeland.

It was 1937 when the Hata family moved back to the Hiroshima area from Toledo, Ohio, where they had been running a restaurant. Ms. Hata recalled, “My husband believed that ‘Japanese children must have a Japanese education,’ so we left the restaurant in a relative’s care and returned to Japan with our five children.” To Ms. Hata and her husband Hikoichi, who still held emotional ties to Japan, it was probably hard to watch their children become Americanized. Hikoichi’s feelings were not uncommon among Japanese immigrants to the United States when it came to their children.

When the family resettled in Japan, Yoshiko was 13. Although she had already graduated from elementary school in the United States, she was enrolled in Japanese elementary school from the first grade. Her little classmates would laugh when Yoshiko misread simple kanji characters. Still, she did her best to blend back into Japanese life. By skipping several years of school, she was able to graduate from elementary school in four years and enter the Hiroshima Girls’ Commercial School. From there, she went on to college. It was a cruel time, however. With the outbreak of the Pacific War, Yoshiko and Kiyoko had to face the grim reality that their two homelands had become enemies.

The family aroused suspicion, with rumors in the air that “people who returned from the United States are bound to be spies.” Ms. Hata and Hikoichi were detained by the police simply for having a short wave radio in their possession. “Everyone in the family was feeling tense,” recalled Teruko Morinaka, 63, the fourth Hata daughter and now a resident of Santa Monica, California. “If someone from the government told us to wear black kimonos, we enthusiastically obeyed.” Demonstrating loyalty toward Japan was the best way to preserve their personal security. Therefore, in the spring of 1945, when the army established the special information unit and called for Yoshiko to take part, it was impossible for her to decline.

Okinawa fell in June. In the face of likely defeat, the Japanese military focused on the movements of the U.S. Pacific fleet. The role of the special information unit, which deduced these movements based on communications between ships and planes, came to loom even larger. They were on duty with their radio receivers 24 hours a day, rotating between three teams, each with 15 or 16 members. One such member was Sumiyo Nakagawa, now 69, a resident of Gardena, California.

Ms. Nakagawa had returned to Hiroshima from Fresno, California in 1941, the year the war began. After graduating from Yasuda Girls’ High School, she went to work at the Hiroshima Railroad Bureau. It was then that the Hiroshima Military Police Corps mobilized her to serve in the special information unit. “They wouldn’t tell me what I was going to do,” she said. “I was scared, thinking they would force me to be a ‘comfort woman.’” Hoping to avoid the assignment, she wrote the alphabet poorly on purpose. When a police corps officer saw Ms. Nakagawa’s writing, he asked her, “Are you an unpatriotic citizen?” She swiftly responded “no” without a second thought.

The information coming through their receivers offered unmistakable signs that the land of their birth, the United States, would win the war. “After Yoshiko started working for the special information unit, she became less talkative,” recalled Teruko. “Even when she was home, she spent most of her time sleeping. She used to be such a kind sister who would tell us stories.”

One day, Yoshiko told her family: “The Americans are calling the Japanese ‘rats.’” She went on to explain that a crew member of a U.S. bomber had said this about the people on the ground below, scurrying into air raid shelters. The information they gleaned while at work was supposed to be strictly confidential, but Yoshiko was unable to suppress it from her family. Ms. Hata still remembers the expression of frustration on Yoshiko’s face.

On the morning of August 6, Teruko went with Kiyoko to take the train to school. “But I suddenly got a headache and so I went back home,” Teruko explained. “When my father told me that something was floating in the sky, I went for a telescope and I was about to go to him when the sky beyond the hills lit up with light.” At that same moment, Yoshiko was manning the equipment, along with seven colleagues, at their station in Shukkeien Garden. Their shift would have been over in 15 minutes. A heavy beam crashed down on top of her as a result of the A-bomb blast.

Ms. Hata, who entered the city on August 7, found Kiyoko’s body at an aid station in the Danbara district. She was told that her daughter had been crying out for her until the moment she passed away. Without pausing to wipe away her tears, she trudged on to the site of the special information unit. A soldier there told her, in words she heard faintly, “All those in the unit died in the flames. If only there had been more people available to help...” When Ms. Hata asked for her daughter’s remains, the soldier replied, “All the civilians employed by the army will be given a mass burial so we’re unable to release any remains to you at this time.”

Ms. Hata saw the radio receivers, now charred black. Then her eyes fell on a familiar lunch box. Some hair lay in front of it. “Yoshiko...” Ms. Hata thought. As she discreetly put the hair in the lunch box, her body shook with anger. A month passed before Yoshiko’s remains were returned to the family.

Meanwhile, news was heard over shortwave broadcasts that indicated the Soviet Union was entering the war and Japan was moving to accept the Potsdam Declaration. Alarmed at these developments, the army dug out still-functioning equipment that had been buried in the basement of the building, gathered about ten girls who had survived the bombing, and reformed the special information unit.

Ms. Nakagawa, who had finished her shift at 5:30 on the morning of the blast and arrived home as the bomb flashed in the sky, was also recalled. She began working at a site set up on a farm in present-day Higashihiroshima City.

But Japan soon surrendered. As they listened to the Emperor announcing the end of the war through a radio broadcast, the female students cried along with the soldiers. They had mixed feelings, Ms. Nakagawa said, recalling, “I thought Americans would hate us now, because, in their eyes, we had committed treason.”

Ms. Nakagawa returned to the United States in 1947 to sort out family possessions after her parents were held in an internment camp during the war and then returned to Japan. She hid the fact that she had experienced the atomic bombing and had been part of the special information unit.

Teruko also moved to the United States to marry in 1950. She suffered from anemia that she believed was an effect of her exposure to the A-bomb. However, she was unable to bring herself to reveal the truth of her past. At the time, people thought that “A-bomb disease” was contagious. About 20 years passed before she finally told a doctor that she had experienced the bombing. The doctor said, with a laugh, “How many years has it been since the bomb was dropped?”

The survivors felt they had no choice but to hide their memories of Hiroshima in their hearts.

A few days after Ms. Hata was interviewed at her home, she said she took out, for the first time in 30 years, the medals that were given to Yoshiko and Kiyoko by the Japanese government to honor her daughters’ wartime service. “There is no point in the dead receiving such medals,” she said. “But I thought it would be proof that the girls had lived as best they could...”

On one medal are inscribed the words: “His Imperial Majesty the Emperor confers upon Yoshiko Hata the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 8th class.”

Among the A-bomb’s victims were ten American POWs

The day after the atomic bomb was dropped, a chilling sight could be seen at Aioi Bridge, close to the hypocenter of the bombing. An American prisoner of war, who had a boyish appearance, was bound by the wrists with wire and an old man was crying and screaming and throwing rocks at him. Considering the number of eyewitness accounts describing such an incident, this tragic, widely-known story of the bombing is probably true.

At first, the U.S. military claimed that there were no American prisoners of war in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. However, a substantial number of eyewitnesses offered contrary accounts, including the incident on Aioi Bridge, and the existence of graves in the Ujina district resulted in the story of American A-bomb victims spreading among the public.

In 1971, declassified U.S. documents indicated that “20 prisoners of war were in Hiroshima at the time of the atomic bombing.” Later, Satoru Ubuki, an assistant professor at Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, discovered the names of the 20 soldiers who had died in the bombing from a register of POWs compiled by the Allied Forces and kept at the Foreign Ministry.

In 1978, however, it was discovered that six victims of vivisection experiments on American soldiers, performed at Kyushu University in 1945, along with three victims of other war crimes were included in the list of 20 dead. The Japanese military had added them to the list of Hiroshima victims in an attempt to conceal these deeds.

In 1983, in response to a probe by historian Barton Bernstein, the U.S. military officially stated that “Eight soldiers from the army and two soldiers from the navy were killed in the Hiroshima bombing.”

Of these, six were crew members of the B-24 bomber Lonesome Lady, which was shot down during an attack on the warship Haruna in Kure in July of 1945, and four others were crewmen on planes flying the same sortie. All ten men apparently met their deaths at the lockup for POWs inside the Chugoku Military District Headquarters, which was located on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle.

The fact that the new weapon claimed the lives of American soldiers was the focus of an article by Robert Manoff that appeared in The New York Times in December 1984. Mr. Manoff had been one of the American journalists invited to Hiroshima as a participant in the “Hibakusha Travel Grant,” a program organized by the Hiroshima International Cultural Foundation.

(Originally published on April 2, 1995)