From Hiroshima to Baltimore

A strange fate seemed to connect two local families with intimate ties to a momentous day 65 years ago

August 05, 2010|By Ari Beser

BOULDER, Colo. — "We have to find a way to get along, because we now have the wherewithal to destroy everything." — Jacob Beser, 1985.

"If you asked individual people about the bombing, I don't think anybody would want it. It's war that's bad, not the people." — Hiroko Tasaka-Harris, 1985.

—Sixty-five years ago today, an atomic bomb was used in warfare for the first time. Eleven crewmen aboard the Enola Gay deployed the weapon known as "Little Boy," devastating the city of Hiroshima. An estimated 140,000 people died in a matter of seconds, while hundreds of thousands more suffered from the bomb's radioactive effects.

The men who dropped the bomb fervently defended their involvement on the grounds that doing so avoided the impending land invasion of Japan. But they knew that nuclear war should never be waged again. To quote Jacob Beser — my grandfather, and only man to fly on both atomic bombing missions, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki — they were "the most bizarre and spectacular two events in the history of man's inhumanity to man."

The birth of the atom bomb showcased humanity's ability to harness one of the greatest forces in nature. Hiroshima and Nagasaki forever tied together the lives of the men who dropped the bomb and the people who survived it.

There is however, an untold story from Hiroshima that shows the power of fate, suggesting that there is a plan for all of us. This story leads back to the streets of Baltimore.

Hiroko Tasaka-Harris, a survivor of the first bomb, often described how fate brought her to Hiroshima. When her father was killed during World War II, she and her family moved to her grandparent's house in the outskirts of the city.

On Aug. 6, 1945, Hiroko Tasaka was working outside. She was a 13-year-old girl who hoped to become a teacher but was forced to put her education aside and instead work to help support her family. At 8:15 a.m., she looked up at the passing B-29 bomber, and was instantly knocked out by the flash of the bomb. When she came to, she was severely burned except for her eyes, which were shaded by her hat. She made her way out of the city, and 10 years later was chosen to be among 25 female survivors who were brought to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York to receive reconstructive surgery. They were called "The Hiroshima Maidens."

When Harry "Toby" Harris of Baltimore heard about the maidens in the news he was deeply moved by their plight and drove up to New York to meet with them. He met Hiroko, the girl who had gone through the most surgeries. That's when he fell in love. ''I've seen life in the streets,'' said Mr. Harris. ''I've been a military man and a seaman, a gambler and a drinker. I'm not like that anymore, but I've been around enough to know where the beauty in life is, and in Hiroko there is something beautiful.''

He proposed to her three times, and after her last refusal she returned to Japan. After 10 years of design school and shopkeeping, and countless letters from Toby, she decided to come back to America and marry him. Hiroko, a very independent woman, opted out of the normal 1960s housewife routine. Instead, she got a job as a seamstress at The Hecht Co., where the head of her department was a man named Aaron Cohen.

Hiroko and my grandfather Jacob, both Baltimoreans, had been in the same article in 1970 when The Baltimore Sun attempted to get them photographed together. She refused, wanting nothing to do with him. A year later, Mr. Cohen came into work with special news: His daughter (my mother, Kay) had become engaged to Jacob Beser's son (my father, Eric).

Hiroko was disturbed by how fate kept bringing up her past. She avoided the wedding because she could not face Jacob Beser. But by 1983, when my grandpa Aaron passed away, Hiroko attended his funeral to honor him, despite the fact that Jacob did as well.

In 1985, my grandfather returned to Japan for the first time since the war with ABC's "Good Morning America," and Hiroko was interviewed for the same segment in New York. Today, they are no longer here to convey their message; Jacob Beser passed away in June 1992. Hiroko moved back to Japan in 1989 after her husband's death but came back to visit in 1996, when I met her. I was only 6, and she made a lasting impression on me — her warmth and kindness made me overlook the jarring appearance of her burned face; I will never forget her loving presence. She died the next year.

The anniversary of Hiroshima should be a day where we realize the messages that the ones involved strived to send out. From both sides of the bomb, although their journeys were opposite, the point was the same.

Ari Beser grew up in Baltimore and is a senior majoring in political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He and a friend are translating Hiroko Tasaka-Harris' book, "Living Love," from Japanese into English. His e-mail is ari.beser@colorado.edu.

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