Hiroshima survivor and Truman heir share stage at Mead Chapel

MIDDLEBURY — Shigeko Sasamori remembers looking up at the blue sky over Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, and watching an airplane soaring overhead.
“It looked so beautiful,” Sasamori told a crowd of over 400 gathered at Middlebury College’s Mead Chapel on Monday evening. “I saw the airplane drop something white … and when the white thing dropped it pushed me down.”
The “white thing” was the parachute carrying the 9.7-ton “Big Boy”: the first atomic weapon used in warfare. The beautiful airplane soaring overhead was, of course, the Enola Gay — named after the pilot’s red-haired mother. The bomb was dropped at 8:15 a.m.
The blast — equivalent to the explosive force of 15,000 tons of TNT — killed 80,000 people instantly. The total death toll as people sickened and died in the aftermath of the explosion is now tallied at close to 200,000.
Dressed in a white kimono, Sasamori, now 84, told her story to the assembled students, faculty, staff and community members. Sharing the stage with Sasamori for the conversation, promoted under the title “Responsibility, Reconciliation and the Dropping of the Atomic Bombs,” was Clifton Truman Daniel, who described himself as the grandson of “the man who authorized the only use of nuclear weapons against human beings in history” — President Harry S Truman.
Each talked about their own history in relation to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. And each described their work together and separately as spokespersons for nuclear disarmament and for world peace.
Born in 1932, Sasamori was just 13 when the atomic bomb exploded. That morning, Sasamori told the Middlebury audience, she had been out with a school group clearing rubble off the streets.
Sasamori said she doesn’t know how long she lay unconscious after the explosion, but when she awoke she began moving with a crowd toward the nearby river.
There she saw a river full of the dead and dying.
“Everyone was bleeding all over … I came to the edge of the water. I just couldn’t believe, I don’t want to believe — so many people already in the water and everybody dead or something … People lying down or sitting down. Just looking at everybody hurt.”
Deafened by the blast, when Sasamori suddenly regained her hearing, one of the first sounds she caught was of a baby screaming.
She lost consciousness again, she said, and some unknown person took her to a school auditorium, where she lay alongside other victims for five days.
Finally her parents came, looking for her, calling “Shigeko? Shigeko?”
“People lay on the floor just like dead fish at the fish market,” Sasamori described. “Then finally my mother heard me saying, ‘Here I am. Here I am.’ She said, ‘Shigeko?’ ‘Here I am,’ that’s all I said. They couldn’t recognize me because my face was completely burned up.”
Sasamori had been less than a mile away when the bomb exploded. As she has described in other interviews “one third of my body was burned. All my face, neck, back, half of my chest, arms and hands.” Her “chin, neck and chest were stuck together.”
Her mother hid all the mirrors in their home, Sasamori said. But the teenager found a shard to look into and felt so shocked when she finally saw herself that it was as if someone in the dead of winter had poured ice cold water down her back.
“When I saw myself in a little broken mirror … I couldn’t believe it. That’s me? I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it because that was not a human face.”
After she had recovered enough to leave the house, Sasamori’s mother made her a mask to wear outside to hide her disfigurement. But she didn’t like it, so she decided to face the world with the face the war had given her.
“I said to myself, ‘No. No more mask.’ If I hide … people will be every time shocked and I don’t like that. Then I said to myself, ‘I wasn’t born like this. This is the war did this.’”
After having several operations in Tokyo, Sasamori became one of 25 “Hiroshima Maidens” brought to the United States by peace activist and Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins for reconstructive surgery in 1955. When it was time to return to Japan, Cousins asked each of the young women about their plans for the future. Sasamori wanted to become a nurse and Cousins encouraged her to return to the United States.
“I like America,” said told her parents. “I’d like to go.”
Sasamori looked at the Middlebury crowd and spoke with a gentle humor that set the crowd laughing despite the seriousness of the subject matter. “I was so happy to come back, but I didn’t think I’d stay this long.”
Sasamori remained in the United States, became a nurse, married and had a son, who she named Norman Cousins Sasamori.
The evening’s moderator, professor of Japanese studies Steven Snyder, described Sasamori as a kataribe, or “memory keeper,” likening her to the traditional oral historians who safeguard village history.
For decades now, Sasamori has been a Hiroshima kataribe, telling the story of her native city and asking world leaders to lay down their arms.
Speaking of the atom bomb and by association all weapons of mass destruction, Sasamori said, “People made it. People can undo it.”
Sasamori continued, looking especially keenly toward the audience full of young people:
“We are working hard together to undo nuclear weapons and also not just the nuclear weapons. Many people suffered when the war started — shooting guns and bombs and people hurt. No more war. When I see young people I just wish nothing happen to them. I don’t want you people to go through Hiroshima and Nagasaki …
“All the countries together must work hard to make a peaceful world. Together. That’s important.”
Fully as eloquent as Sasamori’s words was her very presence. A diminutive woman with short gray hair, Sasamori spoke calmly and fairly beamed, looking at an audience packed so tightly with young people, and often brought the crowd to laughter with her wry humor.
For Clifton Daniel, born in 1957 and growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, atomic war was something more related to favorite movie monsters like Godzilla than to the reality that Sasamori experienced, he told the Middlebury audience.
“My grandfather never spoke to me about his decision to use atomic weapons against Japan in 1945,” Daniel told the audience. “My grandfather died when I was 15 years old … So I learned about it the same way as anyone. I learned about it from the history books.”
Daniel said that for most of his life, he accepted the mainstream narrative that dropping the atomic bomb was necessary to end the war. That changed, he told the crowd, when he traveled to Japan for the 67th anniversary of the bombings in August 2012 and became the first member of the Truman family to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Listening to survivors, Daniel said, changed his outlook.
“I grew up with the traditional narrative but when I met Shigeko and met other survivors I threw that out for the time being because I thought that it was important just to sit and listen and to understand what it had been like for them.”
Daniel continued, “The history surrounding the atomic bomb is very complicated, very nuanced. There are lots of points of view. They’re all shaded a little bit differently depending on who you are, what side you were on, what your experience of war was. What Shigeko and the other survivors opened up for me was a much broader, much deeper much more open-minded way of thinking not only about the atomic bomb and Hiroshima and Nagasaki but about human relations, about politics, about history.”
Speaking to the power of listening to the survivors’ stories, Daniel said, “Shigeko and other survivors … came to me only with open minds and open hearts. Nobody came to me in recrimination. No one was angry. None of them were asking for apology. None of them made me responsible. They just wanted me to listen, to understand what it was like to live through a nuclear explosion so that hopefully we don’t do this again.”
Sasamori’s son Norman Cousins Sasamori and his two children, along with Daniel’s son Wesley Daniel, who had gone with him on his first visit to Japan, joined Sasamori and Daniel on stage. Both Sasamori and Daniel emphasized the importance of passing on the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the next generation, so that humanity might begin to think differently about war.
Toward the evening’s conclusion, Sasamori and Daniel took questions from the audience. Students asked about how Sasamori decided to take off her mask, why she’s not angry with America, how it is that after all that happened to her she smiles so much. They also asked how one wrestles with the guilt or responsibility of a past generation’s transgressions and how societies might make meaningful change so that something like Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happens again.
On his historic visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial just weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry — the highest-ranking U.S. official to ever visit the site — inscribed in the museum’s guest book, “Everyone in the world should see and feel the power of this memorial. It is a stark, harsh compelling reminder not only of our obligation to end the threat of nuclear weapons but to rededicate all of our effort to avoid war itself. War must be the last resort — never the first choice.”
Monday night’s presentation took those attending on their own partial journey to Hiroshima.
“I think we each have to do what we think we can,” Daniel said. “We each have to work with what we’re given, and it starts with taking responsibility and caring about it.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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