A survivor recounts her experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, as she tours the city’s Peace Memorial Museum. At 80, she carries on the mission of her Seattle-born husband, keeping alive the memory of that terrible day 72 years ago.
HIROSHIMA, Japan — In 1930, the parents of three Japanese-American brothers born in the Pacific Northwest moved the family back to their homeland to give the children a Japanese education. Fatefully, they moved to Hiroshima.
On this day 72 years ago, the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima the first atomic bomb used in war. Nine days later, after a second devastating atomic bombing in Nagasaki, Japan surrendered.
The end of World War II found Seattle-born Kaoru Ogura serving as a Japanese soldier stationed in Indonesia. He used his English-language skills to navigate the U.S. postwar occupation of Japan and to reach out to overseas visitors. He became the face of Hiroshima to the world as the director of the city’s Peace Memorial Museum.
Until his death in 1979, he compiled and preserved a record of the suffering wrought by the bombing.
Kaoru’s wife, Keiko Ogura — 17 years younger, she turned 80 Friday — met her husband when he was acting as an interpreter for a German author and documentary filmmaker who interviewed her as a bomb survivor.
Today, she carries on her husband’s mission, acting as a guide and interpreter for overseas visitors to the Peace Memorial Museum. She has a particular fondness for those from Seattle.
In March, she led a Seattle Times reporter on a tour. Small in stature but still vigorous and fervently outspoken, she talked tirelessly for hours in accented but precise English about her experience on the day of the bombing and the months and years that followed.
Survivor and witness
On Aug. 6, 1945, Ogura – she had turned 8 years old just two days earlier – was playing outside when the U.S. Army Air Forces plane Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb.
Sirens had sounded the night before, but no air raid followed. That Monday morning, her father kept her home from school, which was close to the city center.
When some people in the city looked up to see the B-29 flying through the clear blue sky, it seemed too high to be a threat. No air-raid warning came.
At 8:15 a.m., the bomb exploded 2,000 feet above the ground in a great flash that ignited a firestorm.
The blast of the initial explosion knocked Ogura out momentarily and she opened her eyes to temporary darkness.
Yet, 1.5 miles out in a suburb across the river from the center of the blast, she was almost unhurt. Her fate was to be not a victim, but a survivor and a witness.
As a black, sooty rain fell from the mushroom cloud rising heavenward, people caught more directly by the heat of the bomb and the terrifying fire that immediately engulfed the city’s wooden houses fled from the city center. Many, Ogura recalled, came across the bridge and up the hillside into her neighborhood, where a Shinto shrine had been designated a first-aid station.
Green Lake ceremony
From Hiroshima to Hope
What: Annual lantern-floating ceremony honoring the victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all victims of violence
Where: Northeast end of Green Lake, near the Bathhouse Theater
6 p.m.: Calligraphy, music, sculpture
7 p.m.: Family program
8:30 p.m.: Lantern-floating ceremony
“Their skin was peeling off and their clothes burned. They stretched their arms out, the skin hanging down from the tips of their fingers,” she said. “They were like ghosts.”
Bodies floated in the river. In the heat of the ensuing August days, Keiko’s father cremated hundreds of victims in pits he dug in a park near their home.
“Knowing what happened here is very important. People need to know evil,” Ogura said. “In the museum is evidence of evil.”
On display inside are poignant remnants of the instantaneous destruction — a schoolgirl’s lunchbox, a toddler’s mangled tricycle — and details about individuals, many of them children.
Photos show scarred victims being treated. One evocative photo shows the shadow of a human, etched on a stone step by the blast.
About 350,000 people lived in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. Beyond the 80,000 killed directly by the explosion and fire, by the end of 1945 an additional 60,000 had died from acute radiation sickness, including people who raced into the city center the day after the bombing to look for loved ones.
“We didn’t know anything about the radiation,” Ogura said.
Keiko Ogura maintains a perhaps surprising affection for the nation that dropped the atomic bomb, and specifically for Seattle, buoyed by more than the fact that it was her husband’s birthplace.
She recalls that after the war, canned food arrived from America, sent by individuals, many from Seattle.
“We were so hungry and could find nothing to eat,” Ogura said. “Rice was like diamonds.”
She recalled opening her first can of relief food. “I remember it vividly. We wanted meat or vegetables, but it was cherries,” she said.
Her father’s inability to read the label on that can is part of what spurred her to study English afterward.
The aid transformed for her the image of Americans that had been promoted in Japan’s wartime propaganda.
“Children were afraid of the U.S. Army. They’d been told they’d be killed and that girls would be raped. We were told Americans were cruel and that they had long noses,” she laughed. “When I first saw an American soldier, he was so handsome!”
And she relates how one Seattleite made a particular impression on the city.
Floyd Schmoe — a Quaker, pacifist and author who became a professor of forestry at the University of Washington and was the first park naturalist at Mount Rainier National Park — led a four-person delegation to Hiroshima in 1949 to build houses with money donated in the U.S. for atom-bomb survivors.
The divergent lives of her husband’s two brothers, now both dead, provided Ogura with continuing links to America.
Tsutomu Ogura, the eldest brother, also Seattle-born, always considered himself primarily American, according to his son Glenn, and returned to the U.S. when he finished high school after just four years in Japan.
When war broke out some seven years later, he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army, but was turned down — and instead was interned in Arizona.
After the war, he lived near Los Angeles, where he worked for a paper company.
Hiroshi Ogura, the youngest brother, born in 1925 in Portland, was a kamikaze pilot at the end of World War II.
According to Keiko Ogura, he was in the air on a suicide mission against U.S. forces when the order came to turn his plane around — the war was over.
Postwar, Hiroshi worked for a dairy company supplying the U.S. Army, and in the 1960s lived in the U.S. for a couple of years.
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His son Don later went to college in America and settled there. And when Hiroshi’s wife died in 2001, Hiroshi joined his son in California, where he died a year later.
Invited to speak at Pomona College last year about her wartime experiences, Keiko Ogura took the opportunity to visit her U.S. nephews and niece and their children.
Amid vivid reminders of the terrible impact of an atomic bomb, the museum and surrounding Peace Memorial Park also offer a calmness born of Hiroshima’s response to the tragedy: a decades-long promotion of peace.
The central arch-shape cenotaph is inscribed with the words, “Let all the souls here rest in peace; For we shall not repeat the evil.”
In one corner of the peace park is a memorial to Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who folded thousands of paper cranes as she lay dying, 10 years after the bombing, from leukemia believed to have been induced by the fallout.
Sadako became an icon of the impact of nuclear war on the innocent and the paper cranes an enduring symbol of the yearning for peace.
More than seven decades after nuclear bombs were used, Ogura worries of renewed danger today.
A growing number of governments around the globe possess nuclear weapons.
She finds frightening both the comments of President Donald Trump and the threats of North Korean President Kim Jong Un.
Trump during the election campaign suggested that if Japan didn’t pay the U.S. more for its defense, it would have to defend itself, perhaps with its own nuclear weapons. The idea that Japan might turn to nuclear weapons even for its defense is anathema to Ogura.
“Kim Jong Un is crazy. On the other hand is President Trump,” she said. “Right now we are living in a crisis period.”
As Ogura spoke, across the river behind her the empty dome of the city’s ruined and preserved exhibition center testified to the weight of history that she carries.