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THE SAVVY TRAVELER

A War of Remembrance in Nagasaki

August 06, 1989|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

NAGASAKI, Japan — Every few days, as a luxury foreign cruise ship emerges from the Inland Sea of Japan and enters the harbor, the old woman watches.

The ship takes the same route the Portuguese did hundreds of years ago, rounding a natural anchorage and heading for a berth at one of Nagasaki's piers.

Tugboats greet the ship with toots of their horns. And, as it approaches the main ship terminal, its passengers--most of them American--are suddenly treated to the tinny sounds of American standards blaring from four loudspeakers: bad recordings of "Whistle While You Work," "Davy Crockett," "Zip a Dee Doo Dah" and "When You Wish Upon a Star."

The old woman watches the passengers disembark and head for their assigned tour buses. They will only be in port for a few hours. Some will go to Glover Garden or the Madame Butterfly House. Others will go to the Confucius Shrine.

But the old woman sits and wonders how many will go to the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park. She leaves her house and goes to the museum to greet any visitors that might arrive. She wants to tell her story.

Forty-four years ago this week, on Aug. 9 at 11:02 a.m., an atomic bomb was dropped above the northern part of the city that turned Nagasaki into a valley of desolation. It killed 73,884 people and injured 76,796 others. Another 120,820 were left homeless.

Hideko Yoshiyama knows these figures precisely because she was there. And she survived.

I found her standing outside the museum. The building is a moving monument of apocalypse. It was crowded with children, many only 4 and 5 years old.

"Every schoolchild in Nagasaki comes here," she said. "We consider it an essential part of their education."

The children watch a film about Aug. 9, made in 1952 by the U.S. Army. The grainy black-and-white documentary shows the destruction, the devastation, the death.

"The A-bomb is terrible," says the announcer. "It hurts us. Please, no more wars. These children will never return. They are resting in some unknown place dreaming of a peaceful Nagasaki."

For Hideko Yoshiyama it is a recurring dream and a recurring nightmare.

"It was a hot summer day, just like today," she said. She was 22 years old at the time. "I was in the office of the Mitsubishi Steel Works (about three-quarters of a mile from the center of the explosion).

"Each morning I commuted by tramcar to work. In the early morning hours of Aug. 9 the air-raid sirens sounded. We escaped to the mountains. But no attack came. Then later we returned to work."

Shortly before 11 a.m. she was back at her desk when it happened. When she touched the doorknob it was very hot.

"I smelled magnesium, then the windows blew in," Yoshiyama said. "I started to bleed. I fainted, lost consciousness. I have no idea how much time I lost. When I woke up I was covered with glass, and many slivers of glass were imbedded in my body.

"I got up and went into the office. Most of my fellow workers were dead, covered by the rubble. The whole building had been destroyed, and I was standing in the middle of a deformed steel skeleton. I fainted again."

She ran from the building. "Along the way I saw nothing but dying people. It was as if we had all stopped breathing. Everything was reduced to shapelessness. There was no time to contemplate the unthinkable. But I remember thinking that I could not see a single blade of green grass.

"When I got to the air-raid shelter it was already full. People were crawling to the river to drink the water, and they were dying from the water, but they didn't know it."

In the underground center she heard a co-worker calling her name. "She asked me what happened. I did not know what to say. She asked me for water. I got her some. I said, 'You look very beautiful.' She smiled and sipped the water. And then she died."

Three days later Hideko's mother found her. "She took me to her house in a small two-wheel cart. There was no food to eat, nothing to drink. The vegetables were half-cooked by the heat. But we didn't know anything about radiation. We ate them."

Ten days later, when she went to comb her hair, it fell out. Her gums were bleeding, she had a severe fever and diarrhea, and she began to urinate blood. "My mother took me to the doctor, but he said nothing could be done. He told my mother to take me back."

Hideko began to hallucinate. "I felt I was dreaming. I was in Paradise. And someone was calling my name. It was my father."

One of her sisters died a year after the blast. Her second sister died in 1987 from leukemia.

Miraculously, Yoshiyama survived.

She has been hospitalized 16 times. She's had lung operations, and one of her breasts has been removed. Glass slivers from the blast are permanently imbedded in her other breast.

But Hideko Yoshiyama firmly holds onto her life. For her, Aug. 9 is every day, her permanent mission and a continuing struggle to pray for peace, to educate, to remember.

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