Barker, Rodney

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Rodney Barker

Excerpt from The Hiroshima Maidens: A Story of Courage, Compassion, and Survival

Published in 1985

In May 1945 the war in Europe came to a close, thus freeing up American, British, and Soviet forces, collectively known as the Allies, for the battle against Japan. At that time, naval blockades were already strangling Japanese ports. In addition, the United States had captured key islands in the Pacific and established air bases on them. (See Eugene B. Sledge entry in chapter four for more information about the war in the Pacific.) Air assaults were launched from these bases throughout the spring of 1945, crushing the Japanese military and crippling key cities on the home islands (the chain of four islands making up the heart of Japan). An invasion of the main island—first of Kyushu (pronounced "key-OO-shoe"), then northward to the capital city of Tokyo on Honshu—was tentatively scheduled for late 1945 and early 1946, but the Allies knew that the steadfast Japanese would fight harder than ever to defend the home islands.

According to military estimates, about five hundred thousand American soldiers would be lost in the invasion. U.S. president Harry S. Truman had repeatedly called for the "unconditional surrender" of Japan, but the Japanese simply would not agree to surrender on such terms. Their devotion to their emperor and their commitment to the honor of the Japanese nation would not allow them to unconditionally surrender.

The Potsdam Declaration, a statement released by the leaders of the Allied nations on July 26, 1945, demanded the "unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces." According to the declaration, failure to surrender would result in the "the prompt and utter destruction" of Japan. The Japanese did not know that a new weapon—an atomic weapon—would be used against them to hasten that surrender.

Hiroshima (pronounced "hih-ROH-shih-muh" or "HEAR-oh-SHEE-muh"), located on the main Japanese island of Honshu, and Nagasaki (pronounced "nah-guh-SAH-key"), on the island of Kyushu, were the targets of the first atomic bombs. Early on the morning of August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay took off from the U.S. air base on the tiny South Pacific island of Tinian, nearly 1,500 miles southeast of Japan. Inside the bomber was a ten-foot long, eight-thousand—pound atomic bomb nicknamed "Little Boy."

It was a five-hour trip by air to the B-29's destination-the city of Hiroshima. Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Tibbets piloted the Enola Gay. Two bombers flew behind him.

The people of Hiroshima were not alarmed by the sight of B-29 bombers flying over the city's business district. Since U.S. forces had established air bases on conquered islands in the Pacific, fly-overs had become a routine occurrence. But no one expected the horror that was about to be unleashed. The atomic bomb was dropped from the Enola Gay a little after 8:15 A.M.and exploded less than a minute later about 1,850 feet over Hiroshima.

The bomber crew wore special glasses to protect their eyes from the burst of light that came with the explosion of the bomb. Witnesses in the air reported seeing a flash, hearing a rumble from the blast, and feeling a strong jolt. A huge fire-ball enveloped Hiroshima, followed by a rising mushroom cloud of smoke. Later, black rain fell on the city from heavy dark clouds.

On the ground, unimaginable heat and flames melted everything in sight. Thousands of buildings collapsed into heaps of rubble. Uncovered flesh was immediately charred and blistered by the high temperatures.

The tragedy at Hiroshima killed between seventy thousand and eighty thousand people instantly. Over the next five years, thousands more people (about half the city's population) would die from the aftereffects of the bombing. The Japanese use the term hibakusha (pronounced "hih-buh-KOO-shuh") to refer to survivors of the atomic bombs dropped at the end of World War II.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Hiroshima Maidens:

  • The United States was the first country to develop and use a nuclear weapon. The bombing of Hiroshima, therefore, marked the beginning of the Nuclear Age.
  • The Hiroshima Maidens were twenty-five young women who were injured in the Hiroshima bombing. They were bonded by their common experiences.
  • In the spring of 1955, as part of a massive humanitarian effort, the Maidens were flown to the United States for plastic surgery at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital.
  • While in the United States, the Hiroshima Maidens stayed at the homes of American host families. Rodney Barker, author of The Hiroshima Maidens: A Story of Courage, Compassion, and Survival and a member of one of the host families, was nine years old when two of the Maidens came to stay at his house.
  • In 1979 Barker received a travel grant to research and write about postwar Hiroshima. His reports were published in the Denver Post. Background material from his visit to Japan, along with recorded interviews conducted in the United States and Japan between 1979 and 1984, provided the foundation for his book, The Hiroshima Maidens.
  • The following excerpt recounts the experiences of two girls—Hiroko Tasaka and Shigeko Niimoto—on the morning of August 6, 1945.

Excerpt from The Hiroshima Maidens

The sky was blue that Monday morning, but as Hiroko Tasaka dashed out the door of her grandparents' home in the suburban outskirts of Hiroshima, she could feel the humidity like a fever… It was early, but already the streets wereteeming with soldiers, laborers, students.…

This was the first day the students from the all-girls Hiroshima Commercial High School had been summoned to assistdemolition crews with the house-clearing program… Today they were to clear the debris of dismantled houses, moving stones to one spot along the street, boards to another, where they would be picked up later and carted to a dump site somewhere outside the city. Donning a white hiking cap to shade her face and white gloves to protect her hands, Hiroko began the day's work.

Perhaps fifteen minutes passed and she was struggling with a rock from the house foundation when a classmate beside her called out, "Hiroko, look. B-chan." In those days that was how they referred to B-29s, as though they were little pets.

Hiroko stopped working and looked up. She thought it made a lovely site, gleaming in the sunlight.…

"Where?" another girl asked. "I can't see it."

Hiroko raised her arm and pointed, and at that very instant the air seemed to catch fire. There was asearing white dazzle that prickled hotly and she had time only to think she had been shot before she blacked out.

When her senses returned, she was lying on her back in the middle of an unfamiliar darkness. Not a single star shone and no light could be seen. She rose shakily to her feet… It was impossible to seemore than a few feet in any direction… In just a few steps shethought she could see more clearly, and a short distance further she broke out into the daylight. In front of her the Kyobashi River shimmered, and without hesitating she slid down the embankment and plunged into the cool current.

… Hiroko looked around and saw that scores of other people had sought shelter in the river. The tattered remains of their uniforms identified practically all of them as schoolmates, but it was impossible to distinguish individuals because every face was swollen toa piteous likeness . That led her to examine herself and she was startled to discover that her half-sleeved blouse was scorched and, even though she felt no pain, the skin on her bare arms had split open, exposing the pink tissue underneath.

No one knew what had happened. After an excited exchange, however, it was decided a bomb must have exploded directly on the work site. Just then a woman whose hair was singed, wearing rags that smoked as if they were about to burst into flames, rushed up to the riverbank crying, "The city is no longer safe. We must try to get back to school." …

As a group they scrambled out of the water, trotted across Hijiyama Bridge, and proceeded down the road that wound around the base of Hijiyama… When the path ahead was obstructed by flames and further progress was impossible, the group abandoned the pavement and charged the slopes of Hijiyama… There was no path to follow and thescrub oak bushes dotting the hillside were igniting with a whoosh, so everyone went in different directions. In her quest for the safety of higher ground, Hiroko took a route that went straight up, though more than once the loose rock underfoot gave way, carrying her backward on a clattering landslide.

It took her almost an hour before she reached a clearing near the summit… In a daze she sat down on a rock and watched others come up from below. As she saw that every single face was puffy and bloodsmeared, her hand went automatically to her own face and she wondered if hers might be the same. It was getting hard for her to keep her eyes open. In front of her a woman was working her way up anoutcropping, and when she made it over the top Hiroko called to her, "Excuse me, but would you tell me what my face looks like?"

With hardly a glance the woman responded, "We all look the same," and passed on.

… An authoritative voice call[ed] all who could still walk to proceed to the station where a rescue train was due. [Hiroko] was rapidlylosing her vision and knew soon she would be blinded by the swelling. As it was, she found thedepot by clutching the clothes of those walk ing in front of her.

As the hours passed, direct exposure to the sun turned up the heat of her burns, and just when Hiroko was beginning to give up hope that the trains were still running, someone shouted, "Here it comes." As no one wanted to be left behind, people swarmed over the engine and climbed through the windows before the wheels rolled toa stop. Hiroko tried to stand up, but to hermortification her legs gave out each time and she was unable to crawl the last part of the way across the platform before the train pulled slowly away.

Shigeko Niimoto was bent over trying to untie theair-raid hood she had left on after an earlier alarm when she heard her Middle School classmate say, "Look, Niimotosan . Something's dropped from that plane." She stopped what she was doing and tilted her head back. Using her hands as a visor to shade the sun, she looked up just in time to witness an explosion of light, white and blinding. Screaming, she covered her face with both hands and dropped to her knees. The last thing she remembered was a violent blast of wind slamming her sideways.

… Her mind was fuzzy and every thing around her blurred. As she got to her feet she peered into a thick, shifting mist through which she saw flickering fires and forms… She was unable to make out any thing distinctly until the floating mists parted to reveal a frightening procession of figures that looked to her likecadavers making anexodus from their graves. They moved slowly, almost dreamily, without making a sound. They held their hands out in front of their chests like sleepwalkers. At first she thought they were wrapped in wisps of smoke, but as her vision increased she saw it was their skin peeling from their bodies. She drew a deep breath, holding it in. Something terrible had gone wrong and she wanted no part of it.

"Niimoto-san. Niimoto-san."

At the sound of her name being called, she turned. One of the nightmarish figures was moving toward her. Instinctively sherecoiled . "Who are you?"

"Araki. Sachiko Araki."

To Shigeko's astonishment, it was her best friend. "Oh, Sachiko, what happened?"

Having seen the way she was looked at, her friend asked, "Do I look that bad?"

"No," Shigeko lied, "it's just slight." Then, noticing how Arakisan's eyes were fixed on her, she asked, "How about me?"

"Just slight too."

Without any discussion of what might have happened, Shigeko found herself pulled by the arm to a street not far away where her friend's mother was trapped under the wreckage of their completely collapsed home. The roof had come down on top of the woman and only her head stuck out. Shigeko stooddumbfounded for a moment, wondering what she was supposed to do, before joining Araki-san, who was frantically pushing splintered timbers and shattered tiles aside.

But there was a mound of debris to move and not much time. The house next door had erupted in fire and the heat grew more intenseby the minute. Araki-san's mother was the first to admit it was useless. "There's nothing that can be done for mother, dear," she said in a surprisingly calm voice. "Go and find father."

When Araki-san [said that] she could not bear to desert her mother, [that] they would die together, she was ordered away. "Do as I say. Hurry. Right now."

As they backed away the house became a ragingfuneral pyre . "Good-bye," [Shigeko's] friend cried. "Good-bye, mother." The last they saw of Araki-san's mother [was] her face float[ing] in flames but she was still smiling. (Barker, pp. 18-25)

What happened next …

Three days after "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima, a B-29 bomber named Bock's Car dropped a plutonium-powered "Fat Man" bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing forty thousand more Japanese. Thousands were injured. Ironically, the bomb fell directly over a Roman Catholic cathedral. On August 15, 1945—V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day)—the Japanese surrendered to the Allies and World War II came to a close.

"It always bothered [Hiroko]," noted Barker, "that in the American version [of the bomb story] the bomb was dropped, the war was over, and that was it, while for her and so many others that was just the beginning." People affected by the bomb— hibakusha—had to deal with tremendous physical and psychological stresses. Their injuries made them outcasts. They endured discrimination in the workplace and were not considered "marriageable" in Japan. The bottom half of Hiroko's face was badly burned, and her arms were frozen at an angle—bent by scar tissue. Shigeko suffered severe burns to her face.

Even after their surgeries, the girls faced rejection in Japan. Results varied, but overall the Maidens' faces did not— and never would—look the same as they had before the bombing. "They looked much better," explained Barker, "but in a number of cases the disfiguring marks were still bad enough to attract attention."

Hiroko underwent twenty-seven operations—fourteen in Japan and thirteen in the States—became a dressmaker, and opened her own shop in Hiroshima. Later, she gave up her career to accept the marriage proposal of an American man who had long been captivated by her bravery and inner beauty. The adjustment to her new life in the United States was difficult for Hiroko, and her marriage was, at times, quite rocky. Language proved to be the main barrier in the couple's path—she knew very little English, and he did not speak Japanese. After his retirement, though, Hiroko's husband agreed to go to Japan with her.

Shigeko spent six months in Japan after her surgeries, then returned to the United States. She was taken in by Saturday Review editor and humanitarian Norman Cousins and his family. (Cousins had organized the Hiroshima Maidens project.) Shigeko had a son in 1962 and later worked with the physically disabled as a home-care therapist.

Did you know …

  • The United States became involved in nuclear weapons research because of fears that Hitler's Germany would develop and use the bomb during World War II.
  • Final assembly of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima took place after the Enola Gay (the B-29 that carried it) had taken flight. This safety precaution eliminated the possibility of the bomb exploding on or over the U.S. base at Tinian.
  • When Truman, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met for the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, spies for the Soviet Union had already handed over the secret plans for the atomic bomb to the Soviet government. The postwar years were marked by a feverish arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • The Hiroshima Peace Memorial was erected around the remains of the city's Museum of Science and Industry, a huge concrete structure left gutted but still standing after the atomic blast. The peace monument is inscribed with the words, "Repose ye in peace, for the error shall never be repeated." Each year a commemorative service is held at the site.
  • The Federation of American Scientists and the Atomic Energy Commission were both organized in the postwar years to promote the regulation of nuclear weaponry worldwide.

Further Reading


Sekimori, Gaynor. Hibakusha: Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Boston:Charles E. Tuttle, 1986.


Hiroshima Witness. Produced by the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center and NHK (the public broadcasting company of Japan), 1986.

Web Sites

Voice of Hibakusha. [Online] (accessed on September 6, 1999).


Barker, Rodney. The Hiroshima Maidens: A Story of Courage, Compassion, and Survival. New York: Viking, 1985.

"Birth of an Atomic 'Little Boy.'" Newsweek, March 8, 1999, p. 50.

Dolan, Edward F. America in World War II: 1945. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.

Feinberg, Barbara Silberdick. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Cornerstones of Freedom Series." Chicago: Children's Press, 1995.

Feis, Herbert. The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. Princeton, NJ:Princeton University Press, 1966. Originally published as Japan Subdued, 1961.

Maruki, Toshi. Hiroshima No Pika. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard,1982.

Morimoto, Junko. My Hiroshima. New York: Viking, 1990.

Seddon, Tom. Atom Bomb. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1995.

"Text of Statement by Truman on Development of Atomic Bomb." New York Times, August 7, 1945, p. 4.

Physical Effects of the Bomb on Its Victims

The splitting of uranium atoms causes an enormous release of energy. Accompanying this burst of energy are invisible waves or rays that cause deadly radiation sickness. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, radiation poisoning affected people as far as a mile and a half away from the explosions.

The heat and fire from the exploding bombs caused deep, painful burns on the faces and bodies of thousands of people. As their wounds healed, many victims were left severely disfigured by the formation of scar tissue. In most cases, however, the effects of radiation did not become apparent until months later. Symptoms of radiation sickness among hibakusha included weakness, hair loss, purplish bruiselike spots on the skin, sores in and on the mouth, bleeding gums, vomiting, diarrhea, and little resistance to infection (a low white blood cell count). A higher than expected incidence of various cancers has also been reported in atomic bomb survivors.

Debate Over Use of the Bomb

More than a half-century after atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, intense debate still rages over their use.

Opponents of the use of nuclear weapons on Japan maintain that the Allies' demand for unconditional surrender was too harsh. (See Harry S. Truman entries in chapters three and four.) Some historians feel that the Japanese would have surrendered prior to the bombings if they had been assured that their emperor would be retained in a postwar world. At the very least, say critics, a detailed warning should have been issued to Japan—a warning that the bomb would be dropped if full surrender had not been made by a certain date. Others suggest that a display or demonstration of the power of the bomb in an unpopulated area might have convinced the Japanese to surrender.

Defenders of the bomb point to Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, their cruel treatment of Allied prisoners of war throughout World War II, and their alarming use of fanatical suicide bombers (kamikazes) against Allied ships as justification for bombing without warning.

In the final analysis, most observers agree on one thing: that the primary reason the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima was to end the war as quickly as possible. In his official announcement of the bombing, U.S. president Harry S. Truman stated: "It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth." The bombing of Nagasaki took place three days later.