We dropped the bomb on Hiroshima 40 years ago, killing 130,000 people, grievously wounding countless thousands more, and leveling the core of the city; it's not a happy anniversary. Yet there's at least one happy story about Hiroshima, and it is told by Rodney Barker in "The Hiroshima Maidens." It is about two dozen Japanese girls who were terribly disfigured by the bomb, were brought to the United States a decade later for extensive plastic surgery, and went back home to lead considerably more productive and satisfying lives than they otherwise could have expected.
The girls were the victims of thermal "flash burns," sustained as they followed their natural instincts and turned toward the sound of the plane that dropped the bomb. Their injuries "were identical to those that might have been inflicted on someone sitting in a gun turret when there was an explosion of a powder magazine," and the results were ghastly. One girl's "neat snub nose could have been smudged by a heavy thumb: two tiny holes peeked out of mashed cartilage." Another looked in a mirror and saw "a hideous red-faced beast without hair, brows or lashes whose eyes stared dully from sunken, drooping circles."
From their fellow Japanese they received less sympathy than ridicule and neglect: "A society that placed such great emphasis upon aesthetic presentation and losing face in every sense offered no place for their kind." The notable exception was the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a convert to Christianity and born publicist who created the Hiroshima Peace Center Foundation. Tanimoto developed an intense interest in young female victims of the bomb, whom he and others saw as the "image of horror defiling innocence." He became an outspoken advocate of their interests, befriended many of them, and eventually conceived the idea of taking a group of them to America for treatment.
A group of American supporters was organized by Norman Cousins, no slouch at publicity himself, and after a great deal of complicated maneuvering 25 girls were flown to the United States in May 1955. They were to stay for a year -- in the end some stayed a year and a half -- and be treated at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York by a team of surgeons, all of whom donated their services, under the direction of Dr. Arthur Barsky. When not in the hospital they were to stay in American households in the New York metropolitan area, Quaker families that had volunteered for the project.
By the end of the 18 months the medical results were mixed. A total of 138 operations were performed, and "from a strictly surgical point of view, the results were moderate." There were a number of "spectacular successes in liberating hands and fingers from their clawlike contractions, making it possible for the girls to use their limbs normally for the first time in many years," and facial appearances "were markedly improved, though far from perfect." No girl was restored to her original appearance; one girl died as a result of an error in anesthesia.
Psychologically, though, the program was a huge success. The girls quickly adapted to American life and enjoyed it hugely -- so much so that many did not want to leave. The affection and interest with which they were almost universally greeted wore away the defenses they had erected against an uncaring world, and they felt restored to humanity. Before an operation one girl sent this message to Barsky: "Tell him not to be worried because he cannot give me a new face. I know my scars are very, very bad and I know he is worried because he thinks I may expect that I will be as I once was. I know this is impossible; but it does not matter because something has already healed here inside."
Back in Japan the girls met various fates. A number married and of those many had children, all of them healthy; one married an American, a persistent cab driver from Baltimore who had begun courting her while she was being treated. Many years later some developed ailments that seemed to be the delayed results of exposure to radiation. Virtually all eventually tired of publicity and retreated as best they could into anonymity; they agreed to cooperate with Rodney Barker for this book only after he was able to convince them that he had no intention of exploiting them. It is fortunate they did so, for he has written a careful, thorough book that tells their story sympathetically but without sentimentality -- which is exactly what these courageous women deserve.