Hiroshima survivor who now lives in Chicago recalls nuclear attack 75 years later
Sachiko Masuoka can still envision waves of people running toward her, fleeing the epicenter of a massive nuclear explosion that devastated her Japanese hometown of Hiroshima.
Civilians burned and injured from the blast were lying on the ground. Groans and cries of agony rang in her ears. Some people wore clothing that had been scorched or torn; some were wearing nothing at all.
At 18 years old, Masuoka had been at school the morning of Aug. 6, 1945 -- 2 miles from the spot where the U.S. dropped the world's first deployed atomic bomb, known as "Little Boy."
She had no idea the magnitude of the damage at the time, no concept of the severity of the nuclear attack from which an initial death toll of 70,000 would soon climb by the thousands due to lingering effects of the radiation.
But looking out at the thick, black cloud of smoke that rose above her city, she knew tragedy had stuck. She sensed that her world had been altered. And she feared that if World War II didn't end soon, her entire country would be decimated.
It's been 75 years, but the memories of that day remain seared in Masuoka's mind. Now 93 and living in Chicago, her emotions rise to the surface as she recounts the details of her experience, translated by her daughter, Linda.
For decades, Masuoka didn't speak of the scenes she witnessed in the aftermath of the explosion, the first of two atomic bombings in Japan that led to the country's surrender, ending the war.
Her children were unaware of her survival story until 10 to 15 years ago, when she started speaking to Japanese classes at various universities, her daughter said. Her account has since been translated and published in "Voices of Chicago," a collection of first-person narratives compiled by the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society.
"She has a message to get out," Linda said. "Her one request is to have peace around the world and for everybody to try hard to attain that without any war."
Masuoka is all too familiar with the repercussions of violence.
The moment the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Masuoka can recall a bright light, followed by a wave of heat. The blast blew out the windows of her school, sending shards of glass flying through the air, she recounts in her "Voices of Chicago" journal entry.
Masuoka and her classmates were ordered to go home right away, she told the Daily Herald. But her house was between where she stood at the school's entrance and the epicenter of the explosion. She knew it had been destroyed.
American fighter planes swarmed overhead, instilling fear that more attacks were forthcoming, Masuoka recalled, but they never came. So she began a long trek to her grandmother's house just outside the city, where she arrived before dark and was greeted by a handful of relatives.
The next morning, Masuoka and her father set out to search for the rest of the family with little success. Death was everywhere she looked: the river, the streets, among piles of debris. People lying on the side of the road, barely hanging onto life, were dead by the time she and her father returned that night.
Despite the horror she witnessed, Masuoka doesn't remember an overwhelming feeling of fear or sadness. She just kept thinking, "This has to end."
She soon learned that her mother had survived, despite being near the epicenter. But the blast killed her 14-year-old sister and 6-year-old brother.
For days, she said, the city seemed uncertain how to move forward, unsure of whether they'd be bombed again. So many people were grieving, suffering, fighting for their lives.
Masuoka will never forget the relief she felt when Japan's surrender was announced Aug. 15, effectively ending the war.
Slowly, Hiroshima began to rebuild, first with barracks and huts, followed by more permanent housing and structures. Jobs were created, peace was restored, and the city worked hard to get back on its feet, said Masuoka, who lived there until she got married and moved to Chicago in 1962.
But many survivors still suffer from long-term injuries and health effects linked to the blast. Masuoka was recently diagnosed with leukopenia, a reduction in the number of white blood cells, likely caused by radiation exposure, she said.
Masuoka has returned several times to Hiroshima, where some of her relatives still reside. Sometimes she'd travel with her husband or children; other times, she would go alone.
Each visit, Masuoka would silently reflect on that day 75 years ago when tragedy struck her family, her community, her country as a whole.
And with an aching heart, she would long for universal peace.