Sunday, August 6, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hiroshima Memories -- In A Flash, Their World Was Lost, And The War In The Pacific Was Won

It was a beautiful summer morning, and people were beginning to stir.

Fred Hasegawa was waiting for a train to take him downtown to work, widening the streets of Hiroshima for fire lanes. Not far away, Mary Fujita was catching a streetcar for an early dental appointment. Ken Nakano and other middle-school students were gathering at the sweet potato patch they had been assigned to work.

To the north, in a prisoner of war camp near Toyama, Bryce Lilly was hauling molten slag from the furnaces at a steel mill. At another camp, even farther north, in the mountains near Hanawa, Roger Lawhead had climbed the snowy path to begin another long day mining copper.

Three thousand miles away, in an army camp in the recently liberated Philippines, Pfc. Bill Endicott was learning to shoot a Thompson machine gun, preparing to invade Japan.

Hours earlier at Tinian in the South Pacific, one of the staging areas for that planned invasion, Richard Wilson wondered what was up with the mysterious airmen who had landed their B-29s on the north field, had the planes serviced in secrecy and then taken off in the night.

One of those B-29s from Tinian, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima that morning. It was an attempt, American military leaders said, to shorten the war and circumvent an invasion of Japan. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan's leaders announced their surrender within days, on Aug. 14.

That one searing atomic moment over Hiroshima 50 years ago today changed the lives of everyone involved in the war. Civilians like Hasegawa, Fujita and Nakano were devastated by the bomb. They are among the few to survive it into old age. Prisoners of war like Lilly and Lawhead were freed by it. And soldiers like Endicott and Wilson were spared an invasion.

Here are their stories:

Young survivor: `You couldn't tell men from women'

Fred Hasegawa was 15. His parents had immigrated to Hawaii, where he was born. His father had worked in the cane fields and owned a general store on Maui before retiring in 1933 and moving the family back home to Japan.

There were 250 students in Hasegawa's high school class. School had been closed, but every morning the students took a train from the outskirts of Hiroshima, where they lived, into the city to work for civil defense - half in a weapons factory, assembling parts, and half tearing down houses to cut a fire lane through the city in case of a B-29 attack.

On Aug. 6, Hasegawa found the weapons factory closed because some necessary parts hadn't arrived. He and the other factory students were told to take the train and join their classmates on the fire lanes.

The bomb hit suddenly. One moment they were standing on the train platform. The next a blinding light shattered the morning sun and a cloud of dust seemed to put it out. Hasegawa was knocked to the ground by the concussion.

"I didn't know what had happened. We had natural gas tanks, and I thought maybe they had blown up. I crawled behind a building. I couldn't hear anything. My hearing was gone in the explosion. There was dust everywhere, and I couldn't see anything. I only wanted to go home."

By the time Hasegawa gathered himself to start walking toward home, what little was left of the city was in flames. Survivors were beginning to stagger through the streets, looking for help or home.

Hasegawa skirted the inner city and walked around the bay. People were dragging themselves into the water to soothe their burns. He saw a schoolmate, a boy so badly burned he was almost unrecognizable. The boy's skin seemed to be dripping from his arms.

"When I got closer to the city, everybody's faces were so swollen they didn't look like people. I thought they were dead. You couldn't tell men from women. They were all asking for water. There were too many of them."

Hasegawa was lucky. The train station was three miles from ground zero. He wasn't badly injured, and no one in his family was killed.

Hasegawa, a dentist who returned to the United States to graduate from the University of Washington, is among about two dozen atom-bomb survivors in the Seattle area. Every other year, a group of doctors from a joint Japanese-U.S. research foundation comes from Japan to study them and others from Oregon and British Columbia.

They've lived through the greatest danger of cancers and other sicknesses that can be traced to the bomb's radiation, and the doctors say their progeny don't seem to be suffering the genetic damage that was feared in the early years.

Ken Nakano remembers light

Ken Nakano was born in Portland in 1931, and his family had moved back to Hiroshima when he was about 6.

He remembers seeing the shiny B-29 flying overhead and two white parachutes drifting down over the city. He remembers the light and a huge explosion. He was about a mile from the blast site.

The first thing he noticed was the hood on his jacket had caught fire and burned the left side of his face. He burned his hand trying to put the fire out. He reached home about 1 in the afternoon.

Nakano's mother had been about 1,500 feet from ground zero. She came out of the blast without a scratch. But she died four days later of radiation poisoning. She was among the 40,000 Hiroshima residents who survived the bomb but died before the end of the year.

After the war, Nakano joined the American army. He served four years in the military and graduated from the University of Washington. This summer he retired from Boeing.

Nakano says he can understand why the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima - it was a prime military target and the Americans wanted to put an end to the war. Like many U.S. war veterans, he believes the Japanese leaders could have saved the city if they'd heeded the U.S. ultimatum to surrender or be destroyed.

"I'm trying to be honest," he says to those who criticize his position, often bitterly. "Who started the war? The Japanese did. They attacked Pearl Harbor."

Mary Fujita still wore her hat

The bomb exploded a half-mile away from Mary Fujita's streetcar stop. She was thrown out and under it by the explosion. When she crawled out her clothing was gray with dust but her straw hat was still miraculously on her head.

Five years earlier, Fujita, her husband, Kango, and son, Gene, had left their adopted home in the southwestern Washington town of South Bend to return to Japan for an extended family visit. When war shut down transportation between Japan and the U.S., they, like many American residents, were trapped in Japan.

Mary and Gene stayed in the city, in her uncle's home, so Gene, who was 16, could go to school; Kango lived 78 miles away on his family farm, where he grew their food.

On Aug. 6, Mary, who was 37, woke Gene early so he could beat rush-hour traffic to work packing military rations. Kango, who happened to be in town visiting, drove off on his motorcycle to do an errand in the government offices downtown.

Mary saw the flash as she stepped into the streetcar. She and the driver were blown out the door together, and they stood up at the same time. All around them was devastation, silence and an unnatural darkness. The driver had a huge piece of glass protruding from where her nose should have been. They talked about finding a hospital and realized there probably were no hospitals. Nothing was as it had been.

"I looked down at myself and I wasn't burned," she says. "I had my straw hat, my clothes, my shoes. The driver was taller than I was. I think she made a shadow for me and kept me from being burned."

Mary ran the three miles home. The people she saw on the way "didn't look like Japanese people, their hair all kinked up and gray with ashes, no clothes, their skin burned. I thought I must be in a different country."

Gene came home that evening, carrying a schoolmate who was so badly injured Mary scarcely recognized him. They took him to his relatives, and the next day began the search for Kango. Mary found his motorcycle three days later, outside where the government offices had been. But she never found her husband.

Mary and Gene suffered some radiation sickness beginning soon after the bomb fell. She was weak and nauseated and lost most of her hair. He had diarrhea and his gums bled. Whatever problems she has now, though, she blames on old age.

The Fujitas returned to Washington in 1950. Mary never remarried. She continues to work for peace and an end to warfare.

"They say they had to drop the bomb, but it was a great sacrifice. I hope they never use the atomic bomb again. Other bombs, you get hurt or killed. But this one hurts into the future. I hate war, but it looks like we can't avoid it."

Roger Lawhead was 25

Roger Lawhead was 25 and an Army tank mechanic when the Japanese captured him in the Philippines. He survived the Bataan Death March, prison camp in the Philippines and a ride on a "hell ship" to Japan.

Life in the camps was horrendous. The Americans had set up an embargo on Japanese ports and there wasn't enough food for the Japanese, much less their prisoners. The guards were cruel, beatings commonplace. Once Lawhead was put into a cage so small he couldn't stand.

Hanawa was much too far from Hiroshima and Nagasaki for Lawhead to see the mushroom clouds that marked the atomic bombs. But one day the prisoners were called together and told the mine would close that day because it was a Japanese holiday. The following day they were told the same thing.

"On the third day our camp commander told us he thought the war was probably over. We politely applauded, but we didn't celebrate. Our feelings were kind of numb. We'd been prisoners 41 months. Then we went back to our cabins and talked about our future."

Lawhead, a retired mechanic who lives in Ridgefield near Vancouver, had tuberculosis and didn't get home until October 1945. But as far as he's concerned, the Americans couldn't do enough fast enough to get him out of Japan, and that includes dropping the atomic bomb. He still has nightmares about being a prisoner.

"It's rough," he says. "For example, a couple of years ago I was at a golf course and a whole bunch of Japanese men were there having a golf tournament. They were standing around laughing, and I couldn't stand it. I had to get out of there. I try hard to forgive. I know the Japanese here had nothing to do with it, but I just get roiled up inside. Whenever I see news items where the Japanese refuse to apologize for what they did . . . well, it's been rough."

Bryce Lilly worked in a steel mill

Bryce Lilly was 21 when he was captured on Bataan and 25 when the war ended. He had been with the Army Air Corps and had no infantry training. The first time he used his rifle on Bataan, "I was shooting at a man to kill him."

As a prisoner of war, Lilly worked at a steel mill near Toyama. "We did everything the hard way. We carried slag out by bucket. We'd have to go right up to the door of the furnace to take the ingots out. When we did that, our clothes would catch fire and we'd have to roll in the dirt to put it out."

Lilly had been a football player and boxer when he was a teen - healthy and fit with a fighting weight of 185. As a malnourished prison laborer he was down to 80 pounds.

On Aug. 2, hundreds of American B-29s bombarded Toyama with napalm, destroying 99 percent of its buildings. "The sky lit up like daylight. The bombs set a fire so huge it created a hurricane. They herded us into a rice paddy. That's what kept us alive, the water. Everything around us was on fire. We were glad to see the bombers come, but we wished they'd hurry up and go."

When the Japanese surrendered, the camp commander called the American platoon leaders over and said, "Soon you'll be able to go home. You have a bomb that's the size of a basketball and it can blow up a whole city."

By Aug. 27, the prisoners received word from the Navy: "We'll be looking for you. Mark some sign on the ground."

So they took lime and drew huge letters in the middle of the compound - "P-W."

By Sept. 1, C-47s were landing to take them home.

"They had to drop the bombs," says Lilly, a retired property manager who lives in Kenmore. "The Japanese had 10,000 kamikazes waiting. They weren't going to give up. MacArthur estimated our first-day losses in an invasion would be 50,000. And they'd have lost people too, in an invasion."

Richard Wilson drove a water truck

By the time Richard Wilson, 78, of Kent, got to Tinian as part of the Army Air Force, the island was secure.

He had charge of the power plant at the bomber base and drove a water truck, hosing off the B-29s when they returned to Tinian from bombing raids over Japan.

The Enola Gay was just another bomber to Wilson, except for the secrecy surrounding the runway it sat on.

He learned what had happened at Hiroshima within hours of the mission, Wilson says. "We'd heard they were testing a big new bomb, and when they came back they had these pictures of the big mushroom cloud. The pilots said that cloud made it hard to fly the plane."

Like most veterans, Wilson believes the bomb helped hasten the end of the war.

"A lot of my friends were in the Marine Corps," he says. "They'll tell you about being in Okinawa getting ready for the invasion of Japan. My feeling is, the bomb saved many lives."

Bill Endicott was 18

Bill Endicott was 18 and in the Philippines with the 33rd Infantry Division, training for the invasion.

He remembers a Filipino laundryman insisting on being paid before taking his laundry one day. "You guys are shipping out," he was told, and it was news to him.

"But we were training hard. We knew we were going into some pretty fierce action. I figured we'd be some of the first ones to land because we were training with machine guns instead of M-1 rifles."

A few years ago Endicott wrote the government asking for a list of buddies for a possible reunion. Among the things the government sent back was a sheaf of declassified papers that had once been marked top secret. They outlined Strategic Plan "Downfall" - the plans to land on Japanese soil Nov. 1, 1945.

The documents indicated up to 1.3 million servicemen and 1,000 landing craft would take part. They'd land first on the beaches of Kyushu. Then, in March 1946, they'd attack the major industrial targets to the north, on Honshu.

The plans became a footnote to history when President Truman approved dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Endicott was among the troops to occupy Japan after the surrender. A retired public relations executive and broadcaster, he lives in Hansville now and ponders the possibilities.

"Look at the time frame," he says. "If they were going to attack Nov. 1, they'd have been staging the invasion off Okinawa. On Oct. 8, a massive typhoon hit Okinawa, one of the worst ever recorded. If the bombs had not been dropped, and if we had been poised there, the Navy would have been devastated. We might not have won the war."

He hopes to visit the unused invasion beaches some day.

"Can you imagine walking the beach you might have walked 50 years ago and contemplating what might have happened there?"

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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