They were known as the Hiroshima Maidens, a name that belied their fused, claw-like fingers, the mouths twisted with scar tissue, the skin left coarse and stiff as Manila hemp.
On May 10, 1955, two dozen young Japanese women disfigured in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima came to the United States for a potentially life-changing treatment then largely unknown in their own country--plastic surgery.
They brought conflicting emotions along with the terrible scars from an explosion that killed an estimated 140,000 people in their hometown.
Over the course of months, doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital would perform more than 125 operations on the women, rebuilding lips, noses, hands and eyelids and opening the way for more promising lives.
Michiko Yamaoka, now 65, returned to Mount Sinai on a recent Saturday, becoming the first of the Hiroshima Maidens to visit the hospital since the group returned to Japan four decades ago.
The buildings where they were treated were razed years ago. Of the surgeons who operated on the women, only one is still alive, Dr. Bernard E. Simon.
“I feel great gratitude for the people of Mount Sinai Hospital,” Yamaoka said through a translator. She was pleased Simon “hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still the loving and caring man that operated on (me) years ago.”
Yamaoka’s return visit was paid for by the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, where she spoke to students. She has visited the United States several times but had never returned to New York.
With traces of scar tissue still visible on her neck and chin, she showed with outstretched fingers how the operations had restored the use of her hands, which had once been locked in claw-like angles by scar tissue.
Doctors also were able to free her neck from her left shoulder, which had been fused as a result of injuries she suffered in the Aug. 6, 1945, bombing. Her lip still droops slightly, a result of the injury.
Yamaoka, who became a sewing instructor in Japan after the operations, gave Simon a delicate, floral-patterned pouch she made. The two also met a decade ago in Japan during memorial ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of the bombing.
Simon said the pouch embodied the importance of the surgery he performed decades ago. “This became her livelihood, her means of support,” he said.
The 25 women, ages 17 to 31, were brought to the United States 40 years ago largely through the efforts of Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review. The medical care was donated by the hospital; other expenses were covered by the Quakers and other donors.
Press accounts at the time offer a glimpse at the extent of their disfigurement on their arrival in New York. “One had an eye burned out. . . . The nose on another girl was all but burned off and the mouths of many were like twisted and distorted . . . gashes,” the New York Herald Tribune said.
Yamaoka recalled the unsettled feelings she had coming to this country after the war. Now, however, she is “very much full of love and joy.”