UCLA Professor James Yamazaki speaks with Shigeko Sasamori, one of the so-called Hiroshima Maidens, who survived the atomic bombing and were brought to the US for reconstructive surgery in 1955 by Norman Cousins and the readers of Saturday Review.
Interview with Shigeko Sasamori
Interviewed by James N. Yamazaki, M.D.
Transcription by James N. Yamazaki, M.D. and Carl Wakamoto
Videography and editing by Carl Wakamoto
Pediatrician James Yamazaki served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946 and subsequently headed up the U.S. Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission's lab in Nagasaki. He has continued to carry out research on the effects of radiation and to work to inform the general public of the risks posed by nuclear weapons. His book Children of the Atomic Bomb was published in 1995. Dr. Yamazaki is currently developing a documentary which draws on this book. He interviewed Shigeko Sasamori in December 2004. Ms. Sasamori was thirteen when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945).
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James N. Yamazaki, M.D.: 18 years ago I first heard about the Hiroshima Maidens and your name. Could you please tell me about the Hiroshima Maidens and your name?
Shigeko Sasamori: My name is Shigeko Sasamori. I came to America in 1955 together with 25 girls.
JY: Where did you come from?
SS: Hiroshima. I came to America in 1955 with 25 other girls.
JY: Why did you come to this country?
SS: Well, we are coming for plastic surgery operation, reconstruction of, arms and hands and face to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City.
JY: To repair some problems you had?
JY: I first heard about you from Norman Cousins. He was responsible in a very prominent way to arrange your visit here. Could you tell me how this happened?
SS: Yes, that was in 1953, I think…Mr. Cousins and Rev. Tanimoto, Hiroshi Tanimoto, they had already started a sort of peace center to help Japanese orphaned children. One day Norman Cousins came over to Mr. Tanimoto’s church.
JY: When was that?
SS: That was 1953. I think. They said it took two years to establish the Hiroshima Project. So he came over in 1953. Before, he came to Hiroshima often. But anyway I met him at Tanimoto’s church and that night all the girls got together talking with Mr. and Mrs. Cousins at the church. And that is how we met. Then Mr. Cousins felt we he have to do something about it. He went back to America, then raised money, and people donated money, and arranged the proceeds for the project. Then two years later the girls, 25 girls, came to his country. That’s what happened.
JY: This is an amazing story and you continued your relationship with the Norman Cousins. That alone is a very interesting story. Could you tell us a little more about that?
SS: Yes. After all the girls finished the operations and before going back to Japan, he interviewed the girls, asking, “When you return to Japan,” “What you wanted to do?” “What are you going to do?” So those questions he asked the girls individually. I said to him I was already established to go to nursing school in Hiroshima. I was going to study to be a nurse. So he said, would I like to come back to America to study nursing. I came back later about 1958, I think, I came back and stayed with Cousins Family and became one of the members of Cousins’ family ever since then.
JY: Yes, I think it was about that time I heard about you studying for nursing at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Many people have been interested in your story, among them Burt Lancaster and I was told that he became interested in what happened to you and then became interested in the peace movement and what happened in Hiroshima. Could you say a little more about him?
SS: At first when I met him I didn’t know he was a famous movie star. I thought he was another interviewer, interviewing me…Later on, I found out that he was a big star. He was a very kind and very warm person. Unfortunately I only met him twice. Later on, at a showing of his film when I saw him again, he was very kind to me that day.
JY: One of my favorite actors is Jack Lemmon. And you said that he became very interested in your story. I understand you became acquainted with him.
SS: Oh yes. Jack Lemmon…No one introduced him to me. It just happened at a party. He introduced himself to me, and ever since has been very kind and good friend. I asked him, as a favor to me, to go to Japan and Hiroshima, needing a celebrity to speak to a peace group. He very kindly said, yes, and he came to Hiroshima. And ever since he a became a good friend.
I have met some very very wonderful people all this time.
JY: Your story is very remarkable. And I was wondering, if you could tell us, where you were on August 6, 1945? And tell me what happened that day to you?
SS: Well, I was in Hiroshima City. I was junior high, first year. That was the time most of most of the people are working for the government. Men, of course, went to the war. The older people helping the city, breaking down houses, makes big street in case bomb dropped so people could run away. At that time we did not know anything about atomic bombs. But we knew about the fire bombs that happened all the time in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka – big cities having big fire bombs. But Hiroshima never had (fire) bombs dropped. But the city people thought they needed wide streets in case bomb dropped. So people could run away. So they’re breaking houses. So young students like us were mobilized. Students cleared the rubble to make nice streets. On August 6 for the first time we went to work.
JY: You were working outside?
SS: Yes. First time, outside. I heard one airplane and I looked up and saw the plane “going.” Such a beautiful blue sky. Looks like such a beautiful scenes I said to my girl friend next to me, schoolmate, told her, “Look up. The sky so beautiful” “The airplane flying such a nice way.” So we just looked at it.
Then I saw something drop, a white thing…Later I heard that it was a parachute. Soon as I saw the white thing coming down then…boom…and knocked me down. I don’t know how long I was unconscious or I have no idea. But when I myself came up I couldn’t see anything or couldn’t hear anything…right - just pitch black. And no noise. Then for awhile just sitting, then stood up. Looked around then pretty soon – like a heavy fog go away and you can see things coming up what I had seen before. Something coming back up. Right? Like that. Blackness going away. Just like a heavy fog going away.
Then, I saw a completely different scene from before…People coming out from center. Hurt people…But no noise. Still I just couldn’t hear anything. I just followed the people nearby going down to riverside. I went by the river and followed them down to the river’s edge…The people, so many people burnt and naked. No skin, some skin coming off. I can’t explain. How horrible it was. Then in my mind – so white. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t think. What happened?
Then later I first heard a baby cry. Then I looked aside…hurt burned baby. Mother was also burned too; mother tried to nurse the baby but baby was crying and crying. But that opened my ear and mind. And everything came back to myself.
And I said, oh the bomb dropped on top of us. Just like a regular fire bomb.
Then I tried to go home or go back to school. But I couldn’t go back that way. Many people coming out pushing out very slowly. Pushing. People so horrible looking.
Then one of the men said go to the other side of the river and run away in case another bomb drops. So I followed the people. Very slowly, maybe a little over mile or so away. Finally got to a place where the damage was not so great and some of the houses were barely standing.
JY: Because I was assigned by the United States Government to go to Japan to study the survivors of the Bomb. I had some understanding about how people survived the Bomb. You’re one of them. And a…Please tell me just about what distance from the explosion you were at?
SS: I was within a circle about 1.5 kilometers from the explosion.
JY: That’s about a little over a mile.
SS: I was inside the 1.5 kilometer circle. So probably 1 kilometer (.62 mile) away.
JY: That’s very intriguing to me because the people who survived that I interviewed when I was in Japan after the bombing were all beyond that distance.
And the only reason…I thought they were the closest to the Bomb. And the only reason they survived was because they were in a concrete building.
But you told us you were outside. So you were one of the few who survived outside without any protection from the Bomb?
SS: That’s right.
JY: So tell me what happened to you afterwards?
SS: Well, you see, you know my friend who was at my side that I told you who was next to me when we looked into the sky? She died. We couldn’t find her. And many classmates who there died. Some of course survived, like me. One third of my body was burned. All my face, neck, back, half of my chest, shoulders, arms and both hands. It’s a miracle to me. That I walked and run away, over a mile…amazing.
JY: So…When you became a Hiroshima Maiden that’s 10 years later. Can you tell me what happened? How the doctors treated you since that time?
SS: Well before I came to America I had some operations…quite a few operations. In Tokyo. Rev. Tanimoto also helped us to go to Tokyo for the operations. My hands were opened. Before all stick together. My fingers stick together. So they were opened in Tokyo.
JY: That was your first surgery.
SS: Yes. Then I came to America. My skin, chin, neck and chest were stuck together. So they opened…my lips and things operated around here…skin grafts…in stages.
JY: So how many surgeries have you had since then?
SS: All together, I’m sure over thirty times. In the operating room.
SS: Skin grafts…is the first stage…many operations.
See transfer of skin grafts…moving normal skin tubes to repair sites-so many times I went to the operating room.
JY: As you know the big Pika-Don, the big flash, was this intense heat from the Bomb of electronic radiation, infra red rays just like the sunlight – like a heat lamp coming right to you. So you survived all that and all those operations.
One of the earliest things that we noticed in Japan, was what happened to the children was that they developed leukemia early. And then later, the older you are, you develop…cancer…later on, so the children were the most sensitive. Can you tell me if you encountered any of those problems?
SS: Fortunately, I have not been sick for a long time. But last year I developed cancer of my intestine. And I had an operations.
JY: The intestine?
SS: Intestine cancer. They found three tumors. They burned up two tumors. Then they removed twenty inches of my intestines. Then they also found a lesion in my CT Scan of thyroid. They have elected to just watch the lesion.
JY: The thyroid is a very sensitive structure to radiation. And both in Japan and in the Marshall Islands from the big Bomb.
SS: Many survivors have this this thyroid problem. In Japan.
To hear your story is a very unique story to see someone still alive today, and been so close to the Bomb.
I think is a story that other people should hear.
SS: I feel it is important for people to know. So many people do not know what happened at that time. And I feel it is everybody’s responsibility to make a good world. So I therefore, not using nuclear weapons and not making war. Therefore, we need to stop making nuclear weapons.
JY: I certainly will want to join in effort. But…I’m also very impressed by the fact that you went into nursing.
SS: Because when I’m in the hospital, to the patient how important is a good kind nurse and kind doctors. That is very important to the patient that I learned. So I like to help people, especially to the patient, what kind of people that suffer if I can help a little bit it would make me very happy.
JY: To be able to have someone who experienced the Atomic Bomb, and still caring for people, and wanting to help others so they won’t have this experience again. Thank you Sasamori-san.
SS: Thank you.