Michiko’s Story

An Unforgettable Interview

by Dave Swanson

My wife, Ann, and I were unable to visit Hiroshima when we lived in Tokyo fourteen years ago, so when we went back for a visit this year, we decided to go to see the Peace Park Memorial in that city that was totally destroyed with one bomb in World War II. A friend in Tokyo said, “Oh, I have a colleague in Hiroshima, maybe she can find someone to act as a guide for you in the Peace Park.” She made a phone call and we were given the name and phone number of a lady who is part of a volunteer organization dedicated to spreading the word about the devastation caused by the atomic bomb. When I called her, she asked if it would be OK if she brought along a survivor of the bombing and we quickly agreed. That set the stage for an unforgettable three hours when Michiko told us her story.

Michiko Yamaoka was fifteen years old in 1945 and a student in Hiroshima Middle School when all middle school and high school students had been required by the government to work in the war effort. Michiko’s job was in the telephone office in the center of the city. Hiroshima had not been bombed as Tokyo had, in spite of the fact that it was the headquarters of that part of Japan’s army that would have to defend Japan when the inevitable American invasion would occur. They did however, hear many air raid sirens due to the B-29s flying to military targets beyond Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945 there had been one warning just after midnight, cleared in a couple hours, and another about 7:00 AM, cleared about a half hour later. It was a beautiful clear day, and when that “all clear was sounded, Michiko’s mother said, “It’s apparently safe now, you might as well go to work.” So Michiko left her home which was about 1300 meters from the hypocenter, and by 8: 15 she was at a point about 800 meters (a half mile) from the hypocenter. She did not see the airplane, it was alone and flying very much higher than the normal flights, but when she saw the flash, the first thought that came to her mind was, “My, isn’t that a beautiful orange color!” Then by reflex, she covered her eyes and woke up some time later, burned, bruised and buried in debris.

Michiko could not extricate herself, and lay there calling for help that seemed to bypass her. Finally, her mother, who was relatively unhurt in spite of the fact that her house had been blown away, went to find her daughter. By a miracle she did find her, removed the debris, realized how badly burned she was, and told her, “You’d better go across the river to that hill where there are military people, they will be able to treat those burns.” At this point Michiko did not realize how severely she had been burned, but there were no broken bones or other physical damage. She started out for the river and on the way met one of her classmates, similarly burned and with the same destination in mind. After the relatively short walk to the river, they found the bridge on the right completely destroyed and the wooden bridge on the left on fire. Her classmate said, “The only way we can get there is to go through the river,” and plunged in to wade or swim across, She never came up. So Michiko decided she would go and help those who were using buckets to put out the fire on the wooden bridge. In time, they succeeded, and she proceeded to the military base but when she arrived she found so many burned and maimed people waiting for help that it was obvious not all could be cared for. Her mother found her again, and later they went to find temporary shelter so that her mother could do something for those burns. She did the best she could using cooking oil, the only thing available.

They went to some relatives in the country to see if they could stay with them until the crisis was over. The aunt said, “You can’t stay here, your cousins were in the city and will be back. There is not room for all of us.” (You know how small most Japanese homes are.) So they had to find another place to live. As it turned out, the cousins never did return, apparently having died in the blast. They did find a temporary place to live, Mom continued the cooking oil treatment, and Michiko now realized just how disfigured she was and refused to go out in public.

After some time, the government made a decision that the most severely burned victims should be sent to Tokyo to receive treatment and plastic surgery, and Michiko was included. While in Tokyo, she had ten surgeries, began attending the Methodist Church, became a Christian, and was baptized a Methodist. After returning to Hiroshima and a few years had passed, an American Quaker, Norman Cousins, came to Hiroshima with news that he had succeeded in getting a group of plastic surgeons in New York to agree to treat some Hiroshima bomb victims. The plan was that twenty five girls would be selected who would be most likely to benefit from treatment, they would live with Quaker families while in New York, and their expenses would be paid from funds raised by Cousins. The project became known as “The Hiroshima Maidens” and was widely publicized in both Japan and America. A book by that name has been written by Rodney Barker who was a young boy in one of the host households at the time.

After a year-and-a-half in New York and twenty-seven more surgical procedures, Michiko returned to Hiroshima to make the best of a tragically interrupted life. She took a course in sewing and was able to support herself and her mother by sewing and teaching sewing. She never married, and this was true of most of the Hiroshima Maidens. After all, they did not make very attractive mates, and there was the continual fear that any children might be severely handicapped by the residual radiation damage done in the mother’s body. This fear turned out to be unfounded, but only time showed that to be true.

Now, in retirement, Michiko spends her time volunteering at the Peace Park, telling her story and convincing people that nuclear war is evil. We admired her ability to tell this emotional story with an almost third person detachment, even injecting some humor into parts of the tragic account. She concluded by saying, “At first I was extremely angry with the Americans for having done such a destructive thing, but then I realized that it was war, and that the Japanese had started it. Now I no longer hate the Americans, I have directed my anger toward war itself. I used to be a Methodist, now I am a Quaker.”

This day spent with Michiko was undoubtedly one of the most moving experiences of our lives, and Ann and I regretted that Michiko’s audience was so small that day and was made up of people who are unable to do much about it except retell her story.

Other facts about the Hiroshima Bomb. Approximately 70,000 people, for the most part civilians, died on that day. Approximately 70,000 more died by the end of 1945 from burns and radiation illness. This included perhaps as many as 30,000 Koreans who had been forced laborers. Eight American prisoners of war were included in the casualties. Virtually everything within 2,000 meters of the hypocenter was destroyed.