Hiroshima bombing survivor Shigeko Sasamori was 13 years old and less than a mile away when a nuclear weapon exploded over her city on August 6, 1945. One of the few remaining Hiroshima Maidens, a group of 25 women injured by the blast and brought to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery, Sasamori has campaigned for nuclear disarmament and world peace for more than 30 years.
This Sunday, October 9, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation will honor her with its 2011 World Citizenship Award during the organization’s 28th Annual Evening for Peace. Former Hiroshima mayor Tadatoshi Akiba will also be recognized for his anti-nuke campaign efforts.
Sasamori said she’ll accept her award on behalf of all the bombing survivors, or hibakusha, and talked to The Independent by phone from her Los Angeles home.
Tell me about the day the bomb dropped. Hiroshima at that time, unlike other big Japanese cities during the war, hadn’t been firebombed, but officials thought it would sooner or later. So they mobilized women and students — all the men were at war — to make escape routes by clearing gutters and abandoned buildings.
I was a first-year junior high school student, and it was our first day of work outside. We were just getting started when I heard an airplane. It was a beautiful hot summer day — the sky was very blue and there were no clouds. The silver plane with its white tail against the blue sky was so pretty to me. I pointed and told my classmate to look up. As I did that, I saw something come out of the plane and start to fall, and right after that, I felt a very strong force, a pressure that knocked me back.
I don’t know how long I was unconscious. When I woke up and started to stand, I couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black. I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t feel anything. It was a dead city. It’s hard to explain. I just stood there for a while, and eventually the blackness went away like a fog. I saw people moving very slowly away from ground zero. They were bleeding, and their skin was coming off. It was horrible, just horrible. I followed them, but didn’t see any of my classmates.
I didn’t know at the time that I was badly burned on my face, neck, hands, arms, shoulders, and chest. I was mostly burned on my face and neck because I was looking up at the sky when the bomb went off, and one of my hands, because I was pointing.
How did your family fare? My mother and father were the same distance away from ground zero — 1.4 kilometers — but in a different direction. My mother was in our house which collapsed, but she only suffered bruises. My father had gone to the fish market and was standing outside when he saw the plane. He yelled to the men sitting outside, “Run! Run!” He hid in a huge cement refrigerator in the warehouse, so he wasn’t hurt too badly. When he emerged, the men were sitting where he left them, but they were all pink because their skin had burned off.
My mother and father soon got sick for a while. I didn’t get any radiation illness until seven or eight years ago. I had intestinal cancer, but had an operation. Now I have thyroid cancer, which is more common for people exposed to radiation.
What was your recovery like? In 1955, Norman Cousins and many good-hearted people started the Hiroshima Project. They raised money to fly 25 women hurt in the blast to the U.S. for surgery. Before everyone went home, Mr. Cousins asked us what we were going to do back in Japan. I said I wanted to be a nurse, and he suggested I study in America.
Maybe I was naive or stupid, because I had no education in America, didn’t speak English, and didn’t have any relatives in the United States, just friends. But I liked the people who took care of us — they are very warm and nice people. So I stayed in America — often traveling back to Hiroshima — and was eventually adopted into the Cousins family.
I worked as a nurse and got married. I have a wonderful son, who’s an attorney, and two grandchildren, a girl and boy. I’m very happy about that.
Were you angry with America? If I was angry at the American people, I wouldn’t have come back. Like you — you’re American, but I’m not angry with you. You didn’t do that. You didn’t know about that. People donated a lot of money to help me and others. They gave $5 or $10 [to the Hiroshima Project], which back in 1955 was a lot of money. Kids even sent their piggy banks. The host families treated the girls like their own daughters. People gave their love. How could I be angry with those people?
What do you do now? I go to different places around the country to speak, including many universities and high schools. I learned through my experience that giving love and caring for others is very important in life. It’s why I give the message that I am against all nuclear things — bombs, energy, everything. I ask people to realize how important life is. Not just your own, but everyone’s. Open your eyes and ears to what is going on. Help stop harmful things. I tell students: “You have a young, strong energy! Do something with it!”
Many people lose their lives in natural disasters, but far more people are killed in war. When it starts, so many people die. No more war. No more nuclear weapons. Also, this is the most important thing I’ve learned: Giving love, care, and smiles helps people. That’s why I survived. That’s the most important thing. If people realized that, there’d be no more war.
For more info on the Evening for Peace, call (805) 965-3443 or visit the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Web site at wagingpeace.org.