Survivors Recall Dawn of Atomic War

Times Staff Writer

Hiroshima, Japan, Aug. 6, 1945: A sticky black rain falls but it is not a kind rain; it does not soothe the searing pain of flesh that hangs in strips from naked bodies. This is a poisonous rain, exposing those who survived the blast only an hour earlier to high-level radiation. In the weeks and months to come, their sickness will make itself known as victims' hair falls out, their gums bleed and purple blood spots dot their bodies. The city of Hiroshima, once a major rail center, is a wilderness of broken concrete and twisted steel. Here and there, families search for flammable debris with which to build makeshift funeral pyres for their dead. The atomic age has dawned.

Kaz Suyeishi remembers that morning well--"It was a beautiful blue sky day." Running a slight fever, she had stayed home from the military factory where she worked and, after breakfast, was tending the family's front yard. Overhead, the low hum of the B-29 was a familiar, almost reassuring sound to 18-year-old Kaz.

Each day for many days one of the big American bombers had flown over Hiroshima, flown over and left. Later she would realize, "They must have been taking pictures." But the morning of Aug. 6 she smiled as the bomber appeared. "It was a silver-colored angel to me," she remembers. "I looked at the sky and said to myself, 'Good morning, angel.' "

But as this B-29 flew on, Kaz saw a tiny white spot in that blue sky, and slowly it was coming to earth. She pointed it out to a neighbor girl and together they watched the descent of this fireball that was 100 times brighter than the sun. "All of a sudden," said Kaz, "there was a powerful flash."

She shielded her eyes with her hands, as she had been taught in civil defense classes, and fell to the ground. That was the last thing she remembered; when she came to she was buried under what remained of the house across the street. "I tried to move my body and I couldn't," she said. "I couldn't see clear. It was very dark, very, very silent and grayish, foggy."

Making her way out from under the debris, Kaz heard cries of "Help me, help me!" and then she saw the ghastly army that was collecting. "No one was normal looking," she said. "My mother, her hair was sticking out at 360-degree angles, like today's hair styles. And she was gray, everything, her skin, too. (from the sticky dust)."

'Bleeding All Over'

Her father, who had been working in the backyard, was "bleeding all over." The blood is what she noticed then, not the third-degree burns from head to foot. "The next day he was chocolate color," she said, "and then it started peeling."

Perhaps because the building had collapsed on her, Kaz was not burned, although her hair was singed. Today, she shows no outward signs of physical damage. There have been hours of agonizing about the possibility of genetic damage, there have been nightmares. But today, she is able to say "I was lucky." As vice president of the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors in the United States of America (700 of these hibakusha have been identified) she has dedicated herself to helping those whose luck may be running out.

It was weeks before the residents of Hiroshima knew what had hit them. "There was no newspaper, no radio. Everybody thought it was individual bombs, in their own yards," Suyeishi said.

Nor did Suyeishi and the others know that, as they searched for friends among "the hundreds of dead bodies" in what had been their neighborhood--an area two kilometers from the epicenter of the blast--in the days that followed that they were exposing themselves to secondary radiation. Later, she would develop a high fever, bleeding gums and be plagued by "a lump here, a lump there."

With her father and her younger brother, who had been trapped in a collapsed school building, both critically injured, her mother less severely, it fell to Suyeishi to do the cooking and much of the caring for the others. "The doctors were gone, the nurses were gone," she said, "and there was no hospital."

People from the country brought those in the city food and clothing and blankets to spread on the ground where houses had stood. "People helped each other," Suyeishi said, "with love."

Her father owned some income property, which he sold to buy black market food, which the family supplemented with green peppers and pumpkins from their garden.

By the end of October, with cold weather approaching, her family had managed to build a makeshift shelter--"Our little grass shack. It was patch, patch, with any leftover wood, cardboard." And, for their crude houses, each family had just been allotted a single light bulb.

Meanwhile, the people of Hiroshima struggled to survive. About two weeks after the bombing, Suyeishi recalls, there had been a first, and symbolic, sign of real hope: "My father was lying on the ground and he looked at the earth and said, 'There's some tiny green grass growing. It's not dead yet."'

Paul Enseki is also a Hiroshima survivor, but at the time he was only 2 years old. In 1943, the year he was born at the Manzanar relocation camp, his mother and father had decided to go to Japan, an option available to them through an exchange plan that returned Americans caught there by war to this country.

His father, born in the United States but educated in Japan, was embittered by the wartime treatment of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. Enseki said, "He thought, why should I stay if I'm going to stay in an internment camp?"

His mother, Judy, a second generation Japanese-American born in the Central Valley, knew nothing of Japan, spoke only a little Japanese, and had no desire to go there. She was, Enseki said, "a typical American teen-ager of the time."

But her husband's brother, who had been a diplomat in Washington and still had connections, persuaded the family, including another brother, to come to Japan. His father made the choice, Paul said--"His father and mother were there. He decided to go."

"My father and his brother were immediately drafted (into the Japanese Army)," Enseki said. "They were never heard from for the duration of the war." Assigned to China, both ended up in POW camps in Siberia and were not to return home until 1947.

At the small family farm in Hiroshima, Judy Enseki was left with her son. "When she got to Japan and discovered she didn't like it there, there wasn't anything she could do about it," said Enseki.

The morning of Aug. 6, 1945, toddler Paul was with his mother in their backyard collecting vegetables. When the blast came, she grabbed the child and covered his body with hers as she fell to the ground. She was severely burned.

In time, because of her English skills, she was able to get a job with the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Through colleagues there, she learned that, because she had never relinquished her U.S. citizenship, she was eligible to come home to America. "Not knowing what had happened to her husband," Enseki said, "she came back."

By 1947, when she learned he was alive, he said, "He wasn't about to come back to the United States. She wasn't about to return to Japan." They divorced, and doing secretarial and accounting work, she educated her son, who is now an architect in Hollywood.

(Paul Enseki returned to Hiroshima in 1970 for the first time and was reunited with his father but, he said, it was "two strangers talking. As far as I'm concerned, my life started in the United States.")

For years Judy Enseki was ill with severe anemia but, her son said, "My mother was the kind of person who accepted whatever happened in life. Her philosophy was not to waste emotions on what could have been, should have been. She never really attributed any of her illnesses to the bomb"--until the final illness. In 1980, At the age of 53, she died of colon cancer.

Paul Enseki does not dwell on his legacy as the child of an atomic bomb survivor. He knows there are probable risks; he and his wife, a Chinese-American talked with doctors about those risks and, he said, "There wasn't a definitive answer. But we decided not to have children."

Kaz Suyeishi put it this way: "Think about this. The mother and the son were at the same place. Then the mother is gone."

In 1949 Kaz Suyeishi came to America to study fashion design. She was an American citizen by birthright, born in Pasadena in 1927 when her father was here on business. In traditional Japanese fashion--arranged by matchmakers--she met Mas Suyeishi, a second-generation Japanese-American, and after three chaperoned dates he proposed.

A primary concern was that he understood implications of her being a hibakusha , that "it is possible I may not have a child," she said. (They were to have one child, a daughter, now 26, who is normal and healthy.)

A homemaker, Suyeishi has since 1971 devoted much of her time to the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors of the United States, of which she is vice president. About 700 American survivors have been identified, most of them in California and Hawaii, and she estimates there may be a thousand. Some are reluctant to identify themselves for fear of the social stigma, of losing jobs, of losing health insurance.

The committee provides psychological support and pushes for government-paid medical benefits for those with probable bomb-related illnesses such as cancer, leukemia and pernicious anemia. "If I'm Japanese I get $100 a month, maybe more, until I die," she said. "If I'm dying, the government pays for the funeral."

Suyeishi and Enseki point out that, although the U.S. government helps fund medical research in Hiroshima studying effects of radiation on Japanese survivors, it gives no medical assistance to American survivors.

Since 1972, the committee has seen 11 bills that would provide for compensation beyond that provided by health insurance introduced in Congress, including one in January of this year, but has not been able to garner the necessary support.

Suyeishi and Enseki are among the luckier ones. "When you look at us," she said, "we look like other people." Neither has had a life-threatening illness (despite radiation exposure, Suyeishi's parents both lived to old age). But, she said, "It is like carrying a bomb. You don't know when it will go off."

Enseki calls the bombings "the holocaust in Japan" and, he says, victims suffer many of the psychological scars common to Holocaust survivors, including nightmares, fear of loud noises, fear of fire.

"The atomic bomb and its killing of women and children was not unique," he said, perhaps more horrible in degree than bombings of England and of Germany. "What is unique is the lasting effects."

They describe CABS as a nonpolitical organization; neither the committee nor Suyeishi nor Enseki is involved in the anti-nuclear movement.

Do they feel the bombing was justified?

"They must have another way," Suyeishi said. "I saw with my eyes innocent little children suffering. They must have had some other way to stop it. Japan had nothing (left), believe me. It was over."

Enseki said: "I wish a demonstration of national power could have been made in another way. But war itself is terrible."

"We must educate each other, forgive each other," Suyeishi said. "Otherwise, there will never be peace."

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