Eyewitnesses to history talk about Hiroshima from both sides

MIDDLEBURY — The end of World War II was a relief for both Kazue Edamatsu Campbell and David Winer but they saw the event from opposite sides. In the summer of 1945, Campbell was a Japanese schoolgirl living about 25 miles from the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Winer was a radar engineer in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in the Pacific theater and preparing for an invasion of the Japanese homeland.
On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and three days later dropped another on Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 people and prompting Japan to surrender on Aug. 15.
Campbell, now 75, and Winer, 82, last Thursday spoke with more than 50 Middlebury Union High School students about the war and the years leading up to it, providing a view of history they don’t normally get.
As a teen living in Japan during the war, Campbell said that grossly distorted images of Americans were all the Japanese saw. She read at that time, for instance, that President Roosevelt kept the skulls of Japanese soldiers on his desk.
“We got brainwashed,” she said. “There was tremendous (propaganda) going on.”
On the American side, in addition to racist propaganda, soldiers and the public believed Japan was so militaristic that civilians, even women and children, would fiercely resist any ground invasion, perhaps resorting to spears or improvised weapons. The truth was simpler.
“As a little girl, I didn’t want war to happen,” Campbell said.
She had an aunt who had emigrated to Oregon before the war. As wartime rationing began and it became impossible to get many foods in Japan, her aunt sent Campbell’s family a large bag of sugar, just before she was taken to an internment camp like more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent. Campbell’s family made the sugar last through the war.
Winer was a few years older, and what he remembers most about the years leading up to World War II was indifference. Things were getting bad in Europe during the 1930s, but no one paid attention.
“No one seemed to care about it. The attitude in the United States was total isolation,” Winer said.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps when he turned 18 in 1944, as the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were fighting from island to island. After several months of rough training, he became a radar technician.
Much of what Winer saw left him deeply skeptical about the effectiveness of war. Winer was sent to the island of Peleliu shortly after a battle that had lasted more than two months and cost the lives of 2,336 Americans and about 11,000 Japanese — a battle that Winer said was thought to be pointless even before it happened. The island was seized for an airfield that probably would not have been used even if an invasion of Japan had gone forward.
“There’s got to be some better way of solving our international problems,” Winer told the students packed into the MUHS band room.
After the atomic bomb attacks, Japan surrendered more quickly than expected and the invasion Winer was preparing for never materialized.
Campbell was a seventh-grader when the first atomic bomb was dropped. She and everyone else in her hometown 25 miles from Hiroshima saw the effects of the bomb immediately, when the sky lit up in the distance. In the days and weeks after the bombing, Campbell and her neighbors tried to help people who survived the initial blast but had been injured.
There was little they could do, both because medical supplies were in short supply and because no one had ever been burned like that before. Campbell said that when some people went to Hiroshima to try to help, they came back days later with their hair falling out, victims of radiation sickness. She found herself simply bringing water to the injured and dying who had come to her hometown, and trying to shoo away the flies from their injuries in the August heat.
Japan officially surrendered on Aug. 15. Campbell said that her family was relieved that the war was over. She finally knew life was returning to normal when they could take down the heavy curtains from the windows that they had used to keep their house from being visible to bombers flying overhead.
For the high school students at the talk last week, the visit from Winer and Campbell was an authentic voice from the past they rarely get to hear. “They don’t study World War II through the eyes of students and teenagers, and that’s what we heard today,” said MUHS history teacher Michele Forman afterwards.
Tenth-grader Sara Alexopoulos agreed. “It was really great,” she said of the presentation. “It told me a lot of stuff, like the inside perspective.”
The visit was coordinated by Forman and by Peter Lynch, executive director of Shoreham-based Green Across the Pacific, an environmental and cultural exchange program that brought together Campbell, who lives in the Boston area, and Winer, a Shelburne resident, to also speak at Champlain College. Lynch is also a parent of an MUHS student.
For Winer, telling the story was important partly to correct misconceptions about the atomic bomb. He had first given a talk like this at the Gailer School in Middlebury about eight years ago after he had heard that the students had been studying the war and disagreed with the decision to use the bomb. “Atomic energy is not itself bad, it’s what we do with it,” Winer said.
Winer pointed out that while more than 200,000 people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the atomic bombs fell, an estimated 260,000 people had died throughout Japan in the hail of conventional bombs and firebombs in the months before the atomic bombs were dropped.
Although the war was fought bitterly, Winer and Campbell pointed out that it did finally end. They first met through Green Across the Pacific and are friends now, despite the roles of their respective countries during the war. “Here we are today, two of us sitting and standing here, and we were enemies,” Winer said.
He also hoped that the students in the audience could learn from his experience when facing similar problems today.
“The world is depending on your generation to pull us out of some of the most ghastly situations in human history,” Winer told them.

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