FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD KIYOKO opens her eyes and finds herself lying on the floor, gazing up where the ceiling used to be. Sunlight weaves through broken boards and twisted metal, and she has no idea how long she has been unconscious. Her dark blue uniform is torn, and her feet are bare. A heavy beam lies across her body. She is trapped.

Around her, voices cry out — for mothers, fathers, someone to help. Kiyoko has cuts on her forehead and her left elbow, but nothing is broken. She pushes away as much debris as she can. Then, twisting her body back and forth, Kiyoko tries to work her way free of the massive weight on top of her. She wants to help the people who are screaming. 

The Backstory: My dad, my neighbor (a 90-year-old Hiroshima survivor) and the atomic bomb

Aug. 6, 1945, had begun as a typical day for Kiyoko and her classmates, who had been pressed into service making combat boots for the war effort in Japan, rather than attending school. As Kiyoko left home that morning, she told her mother she’d had a bad dream and wanted her to stay home that day, to stay safe.

Then Kiyoko crossed the wooden bridge over one of Hiroshima’s many rivers, arrived at work and started her machine. She saw a flash of light and heard a deafening noise. The last thing she remembers is turning off her machine. Then the factory where Kiyoko worked collapsed over her.

At 8:15 that morning, a nuclear bomb detonated less than a mile from the factory. Shock waves, moving faster than the speed of sound, destroyed all structures within a mile of Ground Zero, leaving behind the skeleton of the Hiroshima dome that remains to this day, as the Atomic Bomb Dome. A fireball, hot as the sun, swept across the city.

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KIYOKO MANAGES TO drag herself out from under the beam and is finally able to stand. She sees two injured girls, her classmates, and helps them escape the factory with her. 

“I told my friends, ‘We have to get to the river and cross the bridge before we are surrounded by fire,’ ” Kiyoko says.

During World War II, Kiyoko Neumiller was required to work in this factory making war supplies. She is fifth from the left, in the top row. (Courtesy Kiyoko Neumiller)
During World War II, Kiyoko Neumiller was required to work in this factory making war supplies. She is fifth from the left, in the top row. (Courtesy Kiyoko Neumiller)

Today, we are sipping green tea at her dining-room table on Whidbey Island, where she has lived since she moved from Japan in 1962 with her husband, a mechanic in the U.S. Navy named Jake Neumiller. Jake died in 2018, but I see his face among the family pictures on the shelves.

Kiyoko is now 90 years old. Her table is stacked with photo albums, reference books and a red laptop glowing with a map of her hometown. She lowers her eyes as she remembers the dead and dying people along the way that day. “I saw so many people that are burned black, their skin peeling and hanging off their fingers. They were saying something was on their skin, like hot oil, so we thought it was an incendiary bomb.”

When they got to the riverbank, Kiyoko supporting an injured girl on each side, the black, radioactive rain began, pouring down for hours. Seeing that the wooden bridge was in ruins, some people tried to swim across. But the water was rising so fast — the heaviest rain Kiyoko had ever seen — that very few could make it. Kiyoko remembers a mother and her two children being swept away. “People on the other side tried to catch them, but could not make it. We just watched helplessly.”

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KIYOKO IS A hibakusha, a survivor of a nuclear bomb. She says all hibakusha were monitored for radiation, beginning with a checkup every month for the first two years. Kiyoko had no signs of lasting physical effects. She had kidney problems in 1987 and was given extensive tests for any signs of radiation damage. “I was found to be clear of any radiation effect,” she says. “I feel very lucky. I am happy to have survived. I have a beautiful, wonderful family.”

Her three children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren appreciate her survival even more after visiting Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with her. Upon leaving the museum, all three of her granddaughters hugged her, Kiyoko remembers, saying, “We are glad you survived! We are so happy to have our grandmother.”

Ninety-year-old Hiroshima survivor Kiyoko Neumiller prays for peace at the butsudan (Buddhist altar) in her Whidbey Island home, as she does every day. (Chieko Miller)
Ninety-year-old Hiroshima survivor Kiyoko Neumiller prays for peace at the butsudan (Buddhist altar) in her Whidbey Island home, as she does every day. (Chieko Miller)

Having experienced the horrors of war, Kiyoko lives by a philosophy of peace, dedicating herself to family and to anyone in need of encouragement. She shares her war experience at schools, saying, “I will keep telling my story. I am so sad for so many people that lost their lives because of war. I don’t want to ever see it happen again.”

Quoting her mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, a 92-year-old Japanese Buddhist philosopher, she says, “Nothing is more barbarous than war; nothing more miserable and more cruel than war.”

“I have faith we can have peace.”

FROM ONE OF her folders, Kiyoko pulls a diagram marked with concentric circles, starting at Ground Zero and marking Hiroshima’s destruction by degrees. The first-mile radius is marked as an area of total destruction, flattened by both force and fire. Beyond that is an area of “blast damage only.” Kiyoko points out the location of the factory where she worked — less than a mile from the epicenter and well within the first zone.

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After the girls found help that terrible morning, Kiyoko started searching for her house and family. By bridge, her home was less than 2 miles from the factory. But now she had to find another place to cross the river. She knew her younger brother was staying with relatives outside the city, to be safe from the strife of World War II. Her father had been at work; her mother at home, taking care of a neighbor’s child. Where were they?

“While I was walking back toward my home, I prayed that I would find my parents,” Kiyoko says. “I walked several miles in my bare feet, until they were sore. By that time, the water started to calm down, and I was able to cross the river at a shallow spot.”

Soon she saw her father, Seichi Tanoura, who was looking for her. “Up to now, I thought I had to be strong and help others when I can. But when I saw my father, I broke down and cried,” she says. “My father was not hurt and was happy to find me and that I was OK.”

Seichi already had found Kiyoko’s mother, Taeko, and together they hurried to her side. Taeko immediately asked Kiyoko whether she was OK. When Kiyoko said she was, her injured mother went back to sleep. Kiyoko’s mother had a deep cut on her face and was burned over 80% of her body.

Kiyoko’s father had heard rumors about a medical aid center with doctors, so he made a stretcher to carry Taeko there. When they found the makeshift center, the stench of burned flesh was overwhelming. Kiyoko and her father hoped Taeko would be treated, but the doctor could not help her.

“He just wiped at the burns covering her body,” Kiyoko remembers. “He did not even have anything to clean them.” The doctor sent them away with medicine to ease Taeko’s pain. She died Aug. 14, just as Emperor Hirohito was preparing his announcement of Japan’s surrender.

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KNOWING HOW KIYOKO lost her mother and how close Kiyoko came to dying, I’m stunned by her story. “Honto?” I ask. “Really?” I look at my friend as if I’m seeing a ghost, amazed that she is still here. There’s a question I have to ask: How did you survive?

Kiyoko tells me her mother had stashed emergency supplies in two clay hibachis, and buried them in the family’s backyard. Kiyoko and her father ate the emergency food, which included preserved sweet potatoes, bread and dried fish, rather than the contaminated fish from the river. They also had access to a neighbor’s water faucet that still functioned. Seichi made a shelter from the wreckage of their neighborhood, which was located just outside the burn zone. A few days later, Kiyoko’s uncle arrived from 100 miles away and brought them more food and clothing.

In this photo from Sept. 8, 1945, an Allied correspondent stands in the rubble in front of the shell of a building that once was a movie theater in Hiroshima, Japan, a month after the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare was dropped by the United States on Aug. 6, 1945. The damaged building in the background is the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, currently preserved as the Atomic Bomb Dome. (The Associated Press)
In this photo from Sept. 8, 1945, an Allied correspondent stands in the rubble in front of the shell of a building that once was a movie theater in Hiroshima, Japan, a month after the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare was dropped by the United States on Aug. 6, 1945. The damaged building in the background is the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, currently preserved as the Atomic Bomb Dome. (The Associated Press)

Being inside the factory when the bomb dropped, and not outdoors, also contributed to Kiyoko’s survival. Though she received minor injuries, she was not burned, and could move to safer ground. Also, at the river, one of the managers from the factory saw the three girls and gave them a futon for shelter from the rain. The futon protected them from radioactive fallout, though they didn’t know it at the time.  

When the black rain stopped, the two girls from the factory found a soldier who took them for medical care. Kiyoko doesn’t know whether they survived.

Few in that first zone survived the blast, and even fewer escaped the flames. Citizens farthest from the epicenter were more likely to survive, but still suffered from the effects of neutron and gamma rays from the fireball. Tens of thousands of people died from immediate effects of the bomb. Over time, radiation poisoning killed thousands more. The chances of Kiyoko’s survival were incredibly slim.

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IS SHE ANGRY toward the United States for what happened? I am wondering whether such resentment might include the thousands of people who played a part in creating the bomb, not to mention U.S. President Harry Truman, who ordered its deployment. 

Kiyoko says no, because it was war, and Japan and the United States were attacking each other. Every day, she says, she prays for peace, knowing that we are all human beings, subject to what Buddhism calls the three poisons of greed, anger and foolishness. Kiyoko stresses the importance of people listening to each other, saying, “I have an open mind. You have to talk with people to understand.”

Hiroshima survivor Kiyoko Neumiller shows one of her favorite photos, of a cherry tree that survived the nuclear bomb. The picture was taken during a 2008 visit she made to her hometown of Hiroshima, Japan. The cherry tree is 1.31 miles from the epicenter of the blast. (Barbara Terao / Special to The Seattle Times)
Hiroshima survivor Kiyoko Neumiller shows one of her favorite photos, of a cherry tree that survived the nuclear bomb. The picture was taken during a 2008 visit she made to her hometown of Hiroshima, Japan. The cherry tree is 1.31 miles from the epicenter of the blast. (Barbara Terao / Special to The Seattle Times)

Kiyoko returned to her hometown in 2008 and has a favorite photograph from that visit. It shows a cherry tree bursting with pink blossoms. A plaque by the tree indicates its location at the time of the blast as 2,110 meters (1.31 miles) from the epicenter. As Kiyoko shows me the picture, I can only think, with gratitude, that this woman is like the cherry tree: Not only are they both still standing; they thrive and bloom, as if to give hope to the rest of us.