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Memories Too Indelible to Forget : Tragedy: Fifty years later, survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still struggle with the effects of the A-bomb. Visits by Japanese radiation specialists help alleviate the problems.

June 12, 1995|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you can't get too worked up over nuclear materials being smuggled out of Russia and into terrorist hands, consider that today's nuclear weapons are 10 times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 50 years ago this August. And that most of the people who were in those places on that day, and who lived through it, still find it almost impossible to discuss.

Once you have witnessed the vaporization of bodies, the incineration of flesh, have seen family, friends and your entire physical surroundings go ka-boom in a blinding flash of heat and light, what is left to say? And who would comprehend?

That sense of isolation has apparently been the least of the problems of the approximately 3,000 U.S. citizens and residents who were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on those two sunny summer days, when atomic bombs nicknamed "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" changed everything.

Kaz Tanaka, then 18, was in the front garden of her family's Hiroshima home, sent by her mother to close the front gate. She'd been feverish that day and had stayed out of class. Her father was tending the vegetable garden out back. Her sister and brother were at school.

The Tanakas loved America. Kaz was born in Pasadena's Huntington Hospital during her parents' four-year California stay. Her father, a man of prominence in Japan, had come here for adventure, opened what became a successful produce business, and returned to Hiroshima when Kaz was 8 months old because--as the only son--it was expected that he carry on his family's name in their ancestral place.

But they kept the American dream alive. Their Hiroshima home boasted one living room furnished in spare Japanese style, and a second in upholstered-American. They ate dinner Japanese style, sitting on the floor, but enjoyed bacon-and-egg breakfasts at the kitchen table. They regaled their children with tales of America's spectacular beauty, and of the generosity of its people.

So when the lone American plane appeared overhead that day, Kaz recalls, she looked up and mentally said hello.

Hiroshima had not been much of a target in the war, and she felt no fear. When something fell from the plane, she assumed it was a parachutist or perhaps a bundle of propaganda leaflets.

But it was Little Boy.

*

The bomb exploded at 8:15 a.m., at an altitude of 580 meters directly above Shima hospital, with a force equivalent to about 15 kilotons of TNT. The fireball it created reached a temperature of several million degrees.

Kaz, of course, knew none of this. She never saw the glowing orange-and-white mushroom cloud that became the atomic era's logo. She was deep inside it. When she awoke, in pain from her injuries and with some teeth gone, it was impossible to see through the dense oily fog of what she later learned was radioactive dust.

Eventually she found her mother pinned beneath rubble; her father stumbling around with blood oozing from his face, the skin of his body resembling that of a boiled tomato. Their house, one of the neighborhood's finest, had collapsed as if made of matches.

The Tanakas were lucky, of course. They lived.

The explosion caused 114,000 deaths and left 30,000 seriously injured, 48,000 less severely so.

The horrors Kaz saw and heard in the next few days--babies waiting for dead parents to awaken; friends, relatives and strangers maimed beyond description and certainly beyond help; body parts "baked" into concrete and roof tiles and pieces of wood; the voices of pain and anguish, and the searches for those who would never be found--all are stenciled on her mind, too appalling to remember and too indelible to forget.

And of course, the physical infirmities caused by radiation exposure are also constant reminders.

*

This week, Kaz Tanaka Suyeishi, now widowed, and a few hundred other survivors who live in Southern California are being examined by a team of Japanese radiation specialists working to help alleviate the problems and pains of those living far from what was Ground Zero.

The Japanese doctors, who have come here every other year since 1975, set up shop at St. Vincent's Hospital as guests of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. All are members of the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Casualty Council Health Management Center, which studies radiation's effect on the body and provides free health care to those with physical and emotional ailments from exposure to radiation.

Dr. Hideo Sasaki, chief of medicine for the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Casualty Council, said survivors began experiencing severe blood problems, such as leukemia and destruction of the immune system. Those cases increased in number until 1950, when they started to level off.

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