A survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima will be speaking about reconciliation and responsibility Monday at Middlebury College. And she's be joined by the grandson of President Harry Truman, who has also been working to bring attention to the stories of survivors.
Shigeko Sasamori was 13 years old on Aug. 6, 1945, when she saw a beautiful airplane flying over her city, Hiroshima. She got her friend's attention.
“I point up at the sky, almost same time, I saw the white things coming down from the airplane, that much I was very clear, then very strong force, something very strong knocked me back,” she said.
She lost consciousness. When she came to, she saw injured, bleeding people, some were in the river. Eventually she made it to the school, and that's where her mother found her five days later. Over a quarter of her body was burned, including her chest and face. She holds up her hands, which are missing joints. “The joint tissues melted straight up," she says.
It was impossible to get medical care, so her family treated the burns with cooking oil. Ten years after the war, she was one of 25 women who were sent the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. They were called the Hiroshima Maidens.
Sasamori has lived here ever since, working as a nurse, to the extent that her injuries would allow. She shared her experiences with a non-profit that was bringing the stories of atomic bomb survivors to school groups. That's how she met Clifton Daniel, the grandson of Harry Truman, who was president when the bomb dropped.
“Years ago my son, Wesley, brought home a book from school, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” he said.
It told a story of a young girl who survived the bombing, but later died of leukemia.
“That was the first personal story of Hiroshima or Nagasaki I’d ever heard. If you look at our history books even, even today at the grade school and high school level, it’s a page with facts and figures, nothing on the people on the ground and what they went through,” he said.
“I had a phone call from Masahiro Sasaki, himself a survivor of Hiroshima, and he said, 'I heard you read my sister’s book, can we get together someday?'” he said.
It took five years, but in 2010, they met in New York at the World Trade Center memorial, and Daniel was invited to Japan to attend the memorial ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he did two years later. In the meantime, he connected with Sasamori and other survivors in the U.S., many of whom are now his friends.
In Japan, he met with one hostile reporter who wanted to know if he was there to apologize for his grandfather's decision.
The experience rattled him.
“I thought, 'What have I done, what have I started here, if everybody wants an apology? Where is this going to go?' And when we got to the peace park, Masahiro came out of the pack of journalists and put his arm around me and the two of us walked into the peace park arm and arm,” he said.
Daniel says the survivors have all come to him in kindness, and he took the cue from his grandfather.
“I went looking for how he felt about this. He had regrets, he would never back off of the idea that it was the right thing to do, but he hated the damaged it caused, the death, the destruction, the women and children,” he said.
He said he believes in reconciliation, honoring the dead, and teaching the personal history. He has since taken his son to Japan again to gather more survivor stories that will be housed at the Truman library.
And he continues to speak with survivors to share the message of reconciliation.
It's a message that Sasamori has shared throughout her life. “When my son was born, I said to him, 'You are never going to war. I don’t let you to go to war,'” she said.
Now 83, she promises to tell her story as long as she's able.
Sasamori and Daniel will be speaking Monday, May 2, at Middlebury College's Mead Chapel at 7:30 p.m.