Hiroshima survivor tells her tale to promote peace

August 14, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

On the ashes of destruction, Miyoko Matsubara is building a foundation of peace.

In appearance, manner and speech, the Hiroshima resident and survivor of the world's first atomic bomb blast doggedly reminds the world of the tragedies of war.

Ms. Matsubara, 61, arrived in New Windsor last week, the first stop on a speaking tour of nine states sponsored by On Earth Peace Assembly, an education organization based in the northwestern Carroll town.

"Everyone should see and hear the Hiroshima story," she said. "There are many survivors, like me, willing to tell it. It is we who must first oppose war. If we stop talking, we may have another tragedy."

Despite many operations and plastic surgery, the petite woman still bears the scars of the atomic explosion that killed most of her family 50 years ago.

XTC Although the telling is difficult, often marked by tears, and the memories painful, she repeats her story to all who will listen.

"Looking back is very hard and sometimes you want to escape," she said. "But I must share so everyone can understand. This is peace education.

"I am very thankful that I survived, but there were many my age who did not. I tell my story for them. They died so young, and they all wanted to live a long life. I must speak for them."

Her listeners often point to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as the event that propelled the United States into World War II.

"I was only a child then," she tells them. "I didn't know. We can make a better future and not commit the same errors."

While she has found most Americans "very sympathetic," she said most -- "even the young who have not experienced war" -- think that dropping the bomb saved lives by ending the conflict.

She hopes her story of the horrors of war will deter nations from further conflicts. She does not dwell on her personal afflictions, but focuses on the dangers of nuclear arms development to all mankind.

She struggles occasionally, searching for the correct English expression. But once started, the story, steeped in the sadness of a lost childhood and a life as an outcast in her own country, flows freely.

Deafening roar

Although she has given her account of Aug. 6, 1945, hundreds of times, her repetition of the often gruesome details comes with a softly spoken resolution that draws listeners into her story.

Shortly before 8:15 a.m., on that summer day 49 years ago, an all-clear alarm had sounded, and no one was in the bomb shelters that were scattered throughout the city. Ms. Matsubara, then a 12-year-old schoolgirl, remembers laughing in the sunshine with her friends.

"I saw the plane and I heard someone yell 'B-29,' " she said. "Then, there was a deafening roar and a fireball coming to me. The sunny day turned into night.

"I couldn't see, and the woman next to me simply disappeared. My skin peeled off."

To escape the searing heat, she jumped into a nearby river. She later learned that she was less than a mile from the epicenter of the explosion.

"Many came into the city looking for survivors and later died," she said.

Her father, a firefighter, battled the fires from the explosion for three days and died shortly afterward from cancer.

As a result of radiation exposure, Ms. Matsubara suffered serious burns to her face and limbs and has undergone countless operations.

"The old wounds still hurt all the time," she said, stroking her scarred arms. "I developed cancer six years ago and must take a lot of medicine."

The emotional scars were equally painful, she said, as she sat rigidly with her arms held tightly to her sides.

"I was an outcast," she said with lowered eyes. "No one would sit next to me. They were afraid they would catch the radiation sickness from me. No one asked me to marry. They were afraid of deformed babies. I had no hope, no future.

"My face kept me from finding a job. People were always staring at me."

She finally found employment in an orphanage for young war victims. Her first encounter with Americans was with the U.S. Army soldiers, who often brought food to the orphaned children.

Peace from Americans

She also found solace with American missionaries and attended their church in Hiroshima.

"I finally received peace from those Americans," she said. "They didn't fit the image I had in my mind. They were extremely kind, and I finally trusted them.

"I realized America was not the enemy. It is war. If we had possessed the bomb, we would have used it."

In 1962, she and several other Hiroshima survivors spoke at the United Nations disarmament conference in Geneva. She also participated in a 1982 disarmament demonstration in New York.

"How foolish war is -- we must not repeat its evil," she said. "We as nations have to make good relationships based on culture, sports and economic assistance."

She recently retired from the International Peace Culture Center in Hiroshima, where she worked for 25 years, documenting historical and peace material.

She will never retire from the peace movement, she said, and is now helping to organize the 50th anniversary commemoration of the bomb being dropped on her city. She plans to write a book on her experiences as a survivor and a peace activist.

"Nuclear weapons don't deter war," she said. "Education on the preciousness of life will."

Ms. Matsubara will return to New Windsor this fall and will be available for speaking engagements.

Information: 635-8706.

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