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Hibakushas-- survivors of World War II atomic bomb attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki--offer their scarred bodies and shattered lives in testimony against the horrors of a nuclear holocaust. : Intent on Grim Mission, They Sometimes Envy the Dead : Victims Embody Terrifying Tale of Two Cities

May 01, 1986|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Senji Yamaguchi was digging an air-raid shelter one warm August morning when hell descended on Nagasaki.

A blinding light flashed across his eyes. Intense heat consumed his body. The right side of the 14-year-old boy's chest and head melted away.

Across town, Sakue Shimohira waited nervously in an air-raid shelter, while boys from her neighborhood still played in the streets. The all-clear signal had sounded, so the shelter was only about one-third full when the bright light flashed.

A thunderous blast hurled the 10-year-old girl to the ground, knocking her unconscious. When she awoke, most of the boys lay dead or maimed. Her brother was vomiting a yellow substance. Her home had collapsed into a pile of rubble.

"Looking out of the shelter, I saw people walking this way and that, mostly indistinguishable whether they were male or female, with their eyeballs pushed out, their viscera hanging out, and their hair gone," Shimohira recalled.

"Among them were a boy crying aloud, his body swollen with burns like a big pumpkin, and a mother, herself burned black, but still holding firm in her arms a charred baby and struggling to be alive."

It was about 11 o'clock, Aug. 9, 1945. The United States had launched its second nuclear attack on Japan in three days. The end of World War II was less than a week away.

Last Saturday, weary from a whirlwind tour of the United States, Yamaguchi, now 55, and Shimohira, 51, took refuge in the South Bay, delighting in a taste of sushi at a restaurant in Hermosa Beach and enjoying intimate conversation in a beachfront home several blocks away.

The two Nagasaki victims are hibakushas-- a Japanese word used to describe survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were innocent children turned foreboding adults. They are anti-nuclear activists in the purest--and most horrific--sense.

About 120,000 people perished in the attacks on the two Japanese cities, with several hundred thousand others dying later from their injuries. About 350,000 survived.

Yamaguchi and Shimohira were joined in the South Bay last weekend by two other hibakushas-- Yasuko Ohta, 56, who also survived the Nagasaki blast, and Sumiko Umehara, 62, who had been in Hiroshima three days earlier when an atomic bomb was dropped on that seaport city.

The group held about 100 sessions across the United States during a two-week tour aimed at persuading President Reagan to accept a recent offer from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for a mutual moratorium on nuclear testing. A testing ban, they said, would be a crucial first step toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

"There is no way but to learn from the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," the four survivors said in a written statement. "That is, there is no way out of this nightmare unless people all over the world realize through the testimonies of us victims that nuclear weapons cannot exist side by side with humanity, that they are by nature inhumane, and there is nothing of any value which can be defended by such inhumane weapons."

The group failed in its immediate goal, with Reagan giving the go-ahead for two underground nuclear tests in Nevada while they were in the United States. Yamaguchi was in Las Vegas when the second underground test was conducted at the Nevada Test Site last week.

"It is very, very frustrating," he said through an interpreter in Hermosa Beach. "I got angry very much. The United States has provoked the Soviet Union by having this series of tests."

Still undeterred, the hibakushas, who had broken into three separate touring groups, continued their appeal for the abolition of nuclear weapons. They directed their message to the American people.

The four talked to high school students, farm activists, church groups, civic organizations and Japanese-Americans from North Carolina to Texas. They visited hibakushas who had married American sailors and moved their shattered lives to San Diego. They showed films and passed out pictures. Yamaguchi attended a Passover seder with Jews in Santa Monica.

"I feel it is my obligation to do this," said Yamaguchi, who leads Nihon Hidankyo, a nationwide Japanese organization of atomic bomb survivors that has affiliated groups in all 47 Japanese prefectures.

When Yamaguchi speaks, the corner of his reconstructed mouth twists down,

and the crumpled skin of his right cheek stretches awkwardly from his eye. He has skin cancer, leukemia and keloids. He is unable to father children.

Yamaguchi's body is a reminder of that hellish August morning 41 years ago. Beneath his deformities, though, thrives a hopeful soul that eclipses the ugly ailments and serves as vibrant testimony to his faith in mankind and its future.

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