July 30, 1999

Hiroshima's Lessons Recalled By American Survivors

EDITOR'S NOTE: This August 6 marks the 54th anniversary of the atom bombing of Hiroshima.

By Sanford Gottlieb

How many of us know that Americans were among those atom-bombed at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945? Several thousand U.S. citizens were exposed to the blast, heat and radiation of that first A-bomb.

Some 3,200 U.S. citizens were in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped, according to estimates by Japanese historian Rinjiro Sodei, author of "Were We the Enemy? American Survivors of Hiroshima" (Westview Press, 1998), an exhaustive study of the Japanese-American experience with the A-bomb.

Many of these victims were Nisei — Japanese-Americans born in the United States who often visited grandparents before World War II began or were going to school and ended up being trapped there after Pearl Harbor.

Other American victims included 23 POW's killed by the bomb.

Kaz Suyeishi was one of the survivors. Born in Pasadena, California, she was brought to Hiroshima as a young child. At age 19, she was at home in the doomed city that August morning. Her injuries kept her bedridden for half a year. Later on, at various intervals, she suffered high fever, weight loss, nightmares and a nervous breakdown. "Three days out of five," Suyeishi said, "I had to rest."

Later she moved to Hawaii, where an American pointed an accusing finger at her and yelled, "You bombed Pearl Harbor and killed our boys!"

After returning to the mainland, she, like many of her fellow survivors, was part of a minority within a minority. Troubled about the effects of the bombing but unwilling to talk about it, often with poor command of English, the survivors felt isolated and alienated.

But that did not prevent Suyeishi from becoming a leader of the Committee of Atomic Bomb Survivors in the U.S., based in Los Angeles where she finally settled.

During the early 1970's the group won support from California and national medical associations, the Los Angeles County Supervisors and the L.A. Times. But legislation in 1975 to help the American survivors failed in both the California Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Insurance companies refused to cover any condition that might arise from the atom-bombing, survivors faced big bills for sicknesses few American doctors understood.

That was not their only problem. At a public hearing on the California bill in 1975, someone shouted, "These people were our enemies!" According to Sodei's account, Kanji Kuramoto, head of the northern California survivors group, began to shiver. He wondered, "Were we the enemy? No, we couldn't have been. We were citizens born in America, and we only happened to be in Japan when the war broke out."

In August 1975, 30 years after Hiroshima, Suyeishi and Kuramoto came to Washington to urge passage of a bill by Rep. Edward Roybal providing medical aid to U.S. A-bomb survivors. The debate made clear that some members of Congress didn't distinguish between Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans.

More importantly, the Roybal bill died because the Pentagon — fearing it would open the door to claims from others hurt in past wars — opposed it.

But if the U.S. government turned its back on the survivors, Japan did not. Teams of Japanese doctors visited survivors in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Hawaii, and found the psychological scars of the bombing more important than the effects of radiation.

It is now 54 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, but the consequences of nuclear weapons development are still with us.

Sanford Gottlieb worked with the survivor committee in 1975, is author of "Defense Addiction: Can America Kick the Habit?" published by Westview Press, and has worked for over 30 years for private organizations in the field of international arms control.

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