Mitsukaidō High School students were making parts for Zero fighter planes when the bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Courtesy of Kathryn Tolbert)

On May 27, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima, where tens of thousands of Japanese people lost their lives when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945.

In a city 40 miles northeast of Tokyo, my mother was a young patriotic teenager on the verge of a life-altering experience at the end of the war. Her home town became flooded with very young American soldiers who were extremely persistent and resourceful.

I wanted to know more about the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the aftermath. “We lost the war…we [had] been told, we been winning. We been advancing.” Here’s our conversation:

Kathryn: On those August days in 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the girls at Mizukaido High School were making parts for Zero fighter planes.

The gymnasium of their all-girls school about 30 miles north of Tokyo had been converted into a small factory as Japan became increasingly desperate for war materiel.

My mother, Hiroko Furukawa, was 14 years old then. She was a budding writer and athlete whose life was put on hold.

Hiroko: I learned how to make holes with an electric drill so the rivet will fit in the hole. This is part of the wing of Zero fighter plane.

Kathryn: Despite food shortages and nightly air raids, the students believed what they were told, that Japan was winning the war with every advance through the Pacific and victory was inevitable.

But then:

Hiroko: And one day, we were told, it’s going to be very important announcement. We all have to gather together and listen to announcement from the emperor. We’re all wondering. We sit down. And the emperor comes on the radio and starts talking.

We didn’t understand what he’s saying because he spoke special language. He used very stylized old Japanese. And the teacher explained to us, the emperor said we are giving up the war. We lost the war. The war is lost. Stop working. You don’t have to work anymore. Everybody go home.

Kathryn: The news couldn’t have been more shocking. Not only to have heard for the first time in their lives the voice of Emperor Hirohito, but then to have that voice convey the news of defeat.

Hiroko: We all look at each other and start crying. No. No that’s not true. We’re not going to believe it. We been told, we been winning. We been advancing. We not going to believe it. But it was true. The atmosphere of the whole town, like we just walk around like half dead person. No hope, nothing to do. Things are just real quiet.

Kathryn: But the students and townspeople quickly rallied to a new chore. They would hide the fighter plane parts before American forces reached Mizukaido, so that someday, somehow, they could continue the fight. It was a huge undertaking for the malnourished civilians.

Hiroko: They told us we have to dig hole before we go home. We not going to do any more work and all the equipment have to be buried. So all of us, townspeople came and they help too. We dig ditches every day from morning to night. We dig holes all over school ground and we buried most of the war good we been working on. We buried it and then we went home.

Kathryn: But what happened next a few weeks later was a total surprise, and in some ways an omen.

Hiroko: American Occupation force come in. They come in Jeep one after another. And guess where they went. They went directly to the high school, to the area where we buried everything. They know exactly where things are buried. Must be a spy among us! We must have somebody told them what we have done! They dig them all up.

Kathryn: She was stung by the seeming betrayal. But at that moment, my mother also had a small glimpse of the future — of the willingness of many Japanese to accept the new order, defined by Americans. Of course, she could not have imagined how much her personal fate would be decided a few years down the road by a chance encounter with a handsome and persistent young American GI.

***

Who marries the former enemy? And why? That’s what I wanted to know.

The Japanese girls were risk-takers, too young to be afraid. What became of them?

As part of an ongoing project, I spoke with the Japanese women who immigrated to America with their new GI husbands after World War II. It was the largest migration of Asian women in U.S. history.

With a grant from my alma mater, Vassar College, I spent the past year traveling around the country to find out. The stories are as varied as any American story. Building an oral history archive, I recorded their voices, and those of their children and husbands, hoping to tell a slice of immigrant history that is not widely known, even by the children of these couples.

This is part of an upcoming project which explores the journeys and assimilation of the Japanese war brides.