Guest columnist Cynthia Loring MacBain: Through the eyes of a survivor

  • The Atomic Bomb Dome is seen in dusk in Hiroshima, western Japan in August of 2020. The building was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 to call for a non-nuclear world and world peace. AP File photo

Published: 8/4/2022 2:47:56 PM
Modified: 8/4/2022 2:44:49 PM

Fifty-seven years ago, my son was a 4-year-old boy enrolled in a cooperative nursery school in New Canaan, Connecticut. Mothers and fathers were required to help as teacher’s aides or in maintaining the playground, so we all knew one another.

That summer, news spread that a boy named Norman Sasamori was joining the 4-year-old group. His mother Shigeko was one of the 25 “Hiroshima Maidens” that journalist/peace advocate Norman Cousins had brought to the United States to undergo corrective surgery on their disfigured bodies.

We had wondered if the effects in her body had transferred to her child. But Norman was a normal, active boy, and Shigeko became just one of the mother helpers, reading stories, passing out snacks and chatting about the children. What she never talked about, and what none of us ever asked, was what it was like that Aug. 6.

Since that time, Shigeko began to tell her story publicly in an effort to make people understand the horrors of nuclear war and the need to work to see that it never happens again.

She was just 13 years old in 1945, and in junior high. Because there had been fire bombs in other cities, all those not in the military were engaged in clearing the rubble from the streets of Hiroshima in case they should have to flee.

Aug. 6 was their first day of work.

Shigeko describes it as a beautiful day, and she enjoyed watching the clouds, when she saw an airplane overhead and remarked to her friend how beautiful it looked. Something white dropped from the plane (the parachute carrying the bomb), and there was a huge boom, and that was all she remembered until she finally woke up in darkness and silence. The dark gradually disappeared, and people began to emerge, streaming toward the river. All the people were badly burned, some with large pieces of skin peeled off. A baby tried to nurse at his mother’s breast, but both baby and mother were so badly burned it couldn’t, and it cried in hunger and pain. Shigeko knew her own face was so badly burned it was unrecognizable, and she kept repeating her name so that her father could find her.

Shigeko’s story was told in a movie, and in interviews recorded on the web. She had her first operation in Japan, to separate her fingers which were stuck together. Once in America, she had over 30 more.

Since that day, there have been many people and organizations in America and Japan dedicated to educating Americans about the reality of a nuclear war, to try to move Americans out of their complacency and work to end the nuclear arms race

Finally in the 1980s, a woman named Randall Forsberg caught the imagination of peace activists all over the United States with a simple goal: A call for a US/USSR nuclear weapons freeze. Peace groups throughout our country organized to collect signatures to present to our senators.

Helen Caldicott, an Australian doctor specializing in childhood cancers, suspended her practice for three years and came to the U.S. to revitalize the Physicians for Social Responsibility, who joined with doctors in the Soviet Union to convince government leaders that nuclear war was a health crisis.

Dr. Caldicott spoke of her personal experience in speeches she gave: “When I first realized what a nuclear war would mean, I felt overwhelming grief. And then my grief turned to anger at the ‘them’ who were responsible for building these nuclear arsenals. And then I converted my anger into energy — I would not allow this to continue. I began to act.”

Major treaties occurred as a result of the freeze, but today, the United States continues to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal, and Putin has hinted at using nuclear weapons in his frenzy to restore his Soviet Union. In commemoration of this Hiroshima Day, we need to educate America out of our complacency. And guided by a vision of the world’s needs in a changing climate, we must restore our determination to act, and inspire and energize our country to convert our huge military economy to one that meets the world’s needs.

Cynthia Loring MacBain, of Southampton, was president of the Freeze Campaign in Connecticut and is a lifetime member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
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