MIDDLEBURY — On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, 13-year-old Shigeko Sasamori was within two miles of the epicenter of the atomic bomb’s blast in Hiroshima. She, along with her schoolmates and many other schoolchildren in the Japanese city, was clearing away the rubble of buildings demolished to create escape paths in case of firebombing in the city.
Sasamori is a diminutive woman, her face bearing scars from the year of reconstructive surgery she underwent a decade after the bomb’s blast burned over a quarter of her body. Now 78, she is one of few remaining Hiroshima Maidens — a group of 25 women seriously injured by the blast who were brought to the United States for medical help. Last week Sasamori traveled from her home in Marina del Rey, Calif., to tell her story to students in Middlebury College’s Japanese summer school.
Japanese School director Kazumi Hatasa explained that Sasamori is the fifth atomic bomb survivor he has brought to the campus over the past six years — each summer, he tries to find at least one survivor from Hiroshima or Nagasaki to speak to students.
“Usually American high schools teach up to the bombing and the end of the war, then of course they talk about whether the decision was correct or not,” said Hatasa. “My primary focus is what came after. Mainstream education doesn’t cover that far, so students do not know what these folks went through.”
Last Wednesday, the lively woman nearly disappeared into a large shirt emblazoned with Barack Obama’s logo, signed by students in the second year of their Japanese studies. With gnarled hands, she gestured across her arms, neck and face, to where she’d sustained serious burns that day.
On any normal morning, said Sasamori in her heavily accented English, students would have been in school. That day was the first day that the government had ordered students to go out and help with cleanup; adults who were not away fighting had been enlisted to demolish some of the tightly-packed buildings in the city center so that in an emergency, people would have easier escape routes. Students in the city were enlisted to clear away the rubble from demolished buildings.
“Most 13-, 14- and 12-year-olds, those kids are dead,” said Sasamori. “Very few survived, and the survivors were people like me, with very severe burns.”
After the bomb dropped, Sasamori was unconscious for a long time, and when she came to, she could see nothing. Slowly her sight came back, and she was able to see the ruin that the blast wave had caused.
“It was like a dead city,” she said.
The bombing drills that the whole city had gone through had trained Sasamori well — she did not know which direction to go, but she followed the crowd of people, which led her toward the river and away from the center of the city — and just in time, because the stoves and gas lines damaged by the blast helped to fuel a fire that engulfed the city.
“The entire city burned, like a fire ocean. The whole day it burned. That I heard later,” said Sasamori.
The river was little better. People were jumping in to cool their burns, and to get away from the heat of the August sun.
“So many people were floating away, running away,” she said. “Some were dead bodies.”
She walked a mile out of the city to a school where uninjured people were tending to the many burn victims who had walked that far.
“I thought, ‘This place is OK,’” she said. “Then I fell down under a tree, and after that I couldn’t open my eyes.”
For five days and four nights, Sasamori lay, blinded, inside of the school with other victims of the bombing.
”I was conscious, unconscious, back and forth,” she said.
During that time, a stranger heard her whispering her name and address, begging someone to tell her parents where she was, and went searching for her parents to tell them that she was alive.
Five days later, her mother reached the end of a frantic search, finding Sasamori badly burned, dehydrated and hungry, but alive.
“Life is a miracle,” she said. “If my parents were dead, I wouldn’t have survived. Everybody thought I’d die at any minute.”
Sasamori’s brother and sister had been out of the city at the time, and her parents had been inside their home in the center of the city, sustaining only minor burns.
But Sasamori’s burns were severe, and she went to Tokyo for several surgeries before 1955, when a group of people from the United States chose her and 24 other women severely disfigured by the bomb’s blast — a mere fraction of the people with lasting burns and injuries from that day, but all that they had money for.
Sasamori and the other women went to Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and over the next year, doctors and nurses donated their time to a series of lengthy reconstructive surgeries for each woman. To this day, she is endlessly grateful to those who hosted her in their homes and those who gave her medical attention.
“Their goodness, kindness … how could I complain?” said Sasamori.
A year later, Sasamori returned to the United States to train as a nurse’s aide, intending to return to Japan. Instead she stayed, living in Boston, Connecticut and now California. One of the reasons she stayed was that she liked the people she met in the United States.
“No matter what the country, Japan, America, it doesn’t matter. There are good people all over,” she said.
Now she travels to schools and events, talking about her experience, spreading her story and the awareness of what nuclear proliferation does.
Hatasa said that the stories of Sasamori and others lend a human face to the debate over nuclear arms.
“This is the area that I would like to focus on, the reduction of nuclear arms and elimination of them,” said Hatasa. “Not necessarily to politicize the issue. I would like to show (them) the folks who were actually there.”
And these efforts are starting to pay off.
“In 2008, one student heard the story of another survivor,” he said. “He’s now in Japan engaged in a peace project. So that’s the fruit of this.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]