It would have been a beautiful day. At 8:14 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, the blue sky was cloudless and the sun shone brightly on Himoshima, a port city on the southern end of Japan's main island.
Mary Honda, 16, was sifting through paperwork at her desk on the first floor of a three-story office building. She was sitting 500 yards from ground zero, the point at which the atomic bomb would explode at 8:15 a.m.
Kuniko Kodama Jenkins, 19, was sewing a button onto her nurse's uniform in a sitting room on the first floor of Hiroshima's three-story hospital. She was 765 yards from ground zero.
Sally Kobayashi, 22, was washing dishes in the home of her sewing teacher. She was standing nine-tenths of a mile from ground zero.
Florence Yamada Garnett, 13, was mingling in a schoolyard with two dozen classmates. She was standing a little more than a mile from ground zero.
And Shigeko Sasamori, 13, was walking with a classmate to a demolished house that had to be cleared away by schoolchildren. As she stood almost one mile from ground zero, she told her classmate, "Look at the white thing falling from that airplane."
These five women survived the first wartime explosion of an atomic bomb, a bomb that released the destructive force of 20,000 tons of TNT. They are all Americans, citizens of the country that bombed them. Two were naturalized after the war and three were U.S.-born citizens visiting relatives or attending school. When war broke out, thousands of American citizens were stranded in an enemy country. Perhaps 2,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were living temporarily in the Hiroshima area when the bomb fell.
After the blast and later, in America, these survivors' psychic odysseys would vary widely. Florence Garnett, the sole survivor of her household, would wish that she had died with all the others. "For the people who died, it was okay," she would say, "but the people who lived had to go through hell." And Shigeko Sasamori, who lay four days burned, infected and unattended, would live to call her recovery a "miracle" and to feel "very, very lucky" to be alive.
Mary Honda was sitting at her desk one minute, then crouching beneath it the next. When she opened her eyes, she saw dirt rising from the floor. When the dust settled, she stood and saw that a shower of broken glass had left her cut and bleeding.
Honda spoke to a woman seated at a nearby desk. Her eyes were wide open and she had a startled look on her face. Honda wondered why the woman did not respond. Then she realized the woman was dead.
After wrapping her head wounds in an overblouse, Honda ran from the building past burning rubble to a hill on the outskirts of town. She ran past corpses and people leaping frantically into one of the city's several rivers.
"People were all swollen up and puffy like big balloons -- twice their normal size," said Honda, explaining that a finger puffs up when it's burned on the stove. "Everybody was naked because their clothes had been burnt off, but you couldn't tell the men from the women. They were screaming 'Help me!' and 'I want to die!'"
Unlike Honda, Kuniko Jenkins remembers the exact moment when the bomb hit. She heard the sound of an airplane and wondered why the air raid sirens weren't blaring. The room became so bright "I could see under the table and behind the drapes where there used to be shadow."
Buried beneath rubble, a nail piercing her back, Jenkins thought she was going to die. "I gave up," she said. "Then I heard the sound of fire on the roof, so I climbed up."
Her back torn and her face shredded by glass, Jenkins worked frantically amid flames to rescue other survivors who were screaming for help. Each person who was freed helped to free others. Although her foot had been badly burned, Jenkins helped rescue 70 people before everyone fled the blaze and ran to a nearby river.
Jenkins left her friends at the river and searched for help. After telling medics of her injured friends, she fainted. She awoke in a hospital that soon had to be moved to another location in the countryside. After being transported there by train, many patients needed assistance to get off the train and enter the hospital.
But Jenkins, the last person to exit, walked unaided, her right hip swollen, her left foot burned and one hand holding up an eyelid of her puffy face. A woman at the station was so impressed by the courageous walk that she wept, embraced Jenkins and then visited her regularly at the hospital.
Sally Kobayashi, a house guest in the home of her sewing teacher, also remembers the bright flash, which scared her so much she screamed in horror as she ran toward a door. Trapped beneath lumber and tile, she cried, then swelled with anger and thought, "How could you do this to me." s
When she heard the sewing teacher's husband calling her name, she managed to free herself and climb out onto the roof. "The whole area was flattened and the air was dark," she said. "The black rain started to fall -- it was like lumps of mud, and I had to scrape the mud off my head."
Kobayashi saw some tile moving, then began digging. After she freed the husband, the two of them rescued his wife. The three ran to a river, where they hid under a tree. "We thought planes were coming to bomb over what already happened," she said. "We could hear so many exposions in the city as it was burning."
As her classmates and instructor walked to an outlying town, Garnett ran back toward the burning city to search for her grandparents and brother. Everybody else was trying to flee the flames and running in the opposite direction.
"My family lived 530 yards from the hypocenter," Garnett said. "I couldn't get near the place."
As she struggled through town, Garnett saw "a body frozen dead on a bicycle, people dead standing up, and a big pine tree getting caught on fire, the flames shooting upwards like a tornado, then falling on people."
Garnett made her way to her uncle's home in the country. She slept overnight in the vacant house, then set out again at 5 a.m. to look for her grandparents and brother.
Everyday for three weeks Garnett looked for her relatives, even though she suffered from radiation sickness characerized by nausea, vomiting, loss of hearing and fever.
After turning over many corpses strewn throughout the city, Garnett finally found the bodies of her grandparents and two aunts buried far beneath rubble of her demolished home. She put the remains together and burned them.
Shigeko Sasamori fell to the ground when the bomb exploded, then looked up. "It was like being thrown into the center of a fire," she said. "All around me was red, dark red and smoke." But she doesn't remember feeling burned.
As she walked toward the nearest river, Sasamori felt her face and neck swelling and her hands aching whenevery they dangled downward. So she walked with her hands held upward.
"Everybody had torn faces, and their skin was hanging down," she said.
After walking across a bridge, she sat down in a schoolyard and passed out. Somebody moved her into an auditorium, where she lay for four days. She would periodically drift into consciousness and plead for water.
"Once in a while I would feel a few drops of water and then I would dream of an ocean, lake or fountain," Sasamori said. "But they didn't give me much water because they said I would die soon."
On the fourth day, her parents came to the auditorium and yelled her name. Jolted into consciousness, she responded.
"My mother said my whole head was black, you could not tell the front from the back," Sasamori said. "First my father cut my hair, then he cut the skin on my face and peeled away the hard, black, dust-covered skin. Underneath was yellow pus -- the front of my head looked like a cream pie."
Sasamori recuperated at home, her mother applying soybean oil to her burns. "When my face healed, it was a bright red with no eyebrow or eyelash," she said. "My face looked skinny, the nosebone stuck out and my lips were tight so I couldn't open my mouth wide."
But she never wallowed in depression, she said, because "everything changed so fast -- soon the American soldiers came and people came to build houses."
On Aug. 7, 1945, the smoke had cleared, allowing photo-reconnaissance. The pictures showed that 60 percent of the city was destroyed. Almost one-fifth of the city's population died from the blast -- an estimated 71,000 people. By December 1945, about 140,000 people were dead from the blast.
Some of the dead and wounded were Americans who had been visiting Japan when ship passage was suddenly suspended in August 1941. According to Japanese immigration records, 20,000 Japanese Americans were in Japan in 1940 and half that number were in the country after the war. The precise number of Japanese Americans in Hiroshima during the bombing is unknown. But according to records of 15 years earlier, there were 3,200 Japanese Americans temporarily residing in Hiroshima.
Issei, first-generation Japanese immigrants, often sent their children to school in Japan because they wanted them to speak the mother tongue, improve their job prospects by being bilingual, learn the niceties of traditional culture and escape anti-Japanese prejudice on the West Coast, said Kanji Kuramoto, president of the National Committee for Atomic Bomb Survivors in the United States.
"Some Issei feared the Americanization process," said Sheridan Tatsuno, spokesman for the committee. "They saw the Nisei (second generation) as namaiki, meaning smug, impudent, disobedient. "They wanted their children to have discipline, character and respect for elders, so they often sent them to Japan for education."
But pre-war Japan was a militaristic society. Sally Kobayashi went to Japan in 1933 when her widowed, ailing mother sought care from relatives. "Japan was already preparing for war," Kobayashi recalled. "The atmosphere was full of propaganda, children had to march, and little boys got their heads hit if they cried," which was considered unsoldier-like.
The dropping of the atomic bomb, advocates have argued, laid to rest Japan's feudalisti code of the bushido , an ethic honoring death in battle.
Explaining his decision to drop the bomb, President Harry Truman told congressmen at a buffet dinner in April 1949: "I made that decision because I though 200,000 of our young men would be saved, and some 300,000 or 400,000 of the enemy would be saved."
But the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey after the war made some calculations and concluded that the atomic bomb hastened defeat by only a few days or weeks, or at the most, a few months.
Still, these five women who survived Hiroshima say they feel no bitterness toward the United States, the country that bombed them, the country of their citizenship.
Shigeko Sasamori recalled meeting a GI after the occupation forces arrived. "One stormy night when the rain had washed away the bridge, a GI asked my father to take him across the river. My father and brother took him in a small boat. The next day, he and several soldier friends walked across a big pipe and came to our house with a package of goodies -- chocolates and chewing gum. They acted very sorry about my burns. I could never hate these people. They didn't drop the bomb."
Ship passage to America resumed in early 1947, and Florence Garnett came on the second boat to leave Japan to America. Kuniko Jenkins came here in 1955 after marrying an American medical technician in 1953. Mary Honda returned with her brother in 1948. Sally Kobayashi came in 1950 after working as an interpreter-typist for the occupation forces and marrying a Japanese-American GI. And Shigeko Sasamori came in 1955 when Norman Cousins and the Saturday Review magazine brought two dozen "Hiroshima Maidens" -- disfigured young women considered unmarriageable in Japan -- to America for plastic surgery.
When the five women came to America, they brought with them aftereffects of radiation exposure. Most of them have had psychological as well as physical problems. Kobayashi, a Santa Monica housewife, has periodic fits of depression. Jenkins, a San Francisco housewife, suffers from severe bronchial asthma, requiring her to use a portable oxygen unit about eight times a day. Sasamori, a Los Angeles nurse, has had plastic surgery 37 times. Garnett, a Los Angeles area dietician, suffers from anemia, has had 14 nonmalignant tumors removed from her body and for years suffered psychological problems.
"I went through a guilt trip because I lived," Garnett said. "And I really felt guilty about my brother, whose body I never found. My brother and I were only 15 months apart so we fought a lot. I dreamt constantly that he came back with amnesia and I wasn't able to recognize him."
Finally, Garnett had "a big beautiful funeral" for her brother after seeing a psychiatrist who treated her brother.
Many American survivors of Hiroshima dred recognition. They hate remembering the horrors of the bombing, they fear losing their health insurance and they expect bigtoed responses from people bitter about Pearl Harbor, says Kanji Kuramoto of the atomic bomb survivors group.
Of the estimated 500 to 700 survivors living in America, only 400 have been located, he says. Survivors mainly fear loss of medical insurance because many policies have clauses excluding coverage for "any illness caused by an act of war or by atomic explosion or other releae of nuclear energy."
Robert E. Leverton, director of legislative compliance for Pacific Mutual Life Insurance, explained: "Traditional group insurance is not designed to cover this type of possible catastrophic expense. This is standard in the industry."
Since 1971, the Committee for Atomic Bomb Survivors has urged passage of a congressional bill to defray medical expenses of survivors. Ten bills have failed to pass and two bills -- one by Rep. George E. Danielson (D-Calif.) and the other by Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Calif.) -- have been introduced into the 97th Congress.
Besides insurance problems, some survivors fear prejudice not only from those embittered by Pearl Harbor but also from Japanese Americans retaining the traditional concern for good family lineage. Some tradition-minded Japanese Americans "still don't want to marry someone with the Hiroshima bombing in their background" because of genetic defects that may be passed on to posterity and because "of a certain amount of shame," says Steven Okazaki, a Berkeley filmmaker now producing an educational film on the American survivors.
The film will humanize the survivors so the audience will want to know them, Okazaki said. Florence Garnett, who was interviewed for the film, agreed that the American public should know more about the only human beings to survive a nuclear attack.
For years "I didn't talk about the bombing, even to my son," she said. "But then I realized if I don't speak up now and if I die, nobody will ever know."