Atomic bomb survivor recalls Hiroshima

Hisako Otani Brown of Klamath Falls, survivor of the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima, Japan, pauses from reflecting on the past during a recent visit with her daughter, Jackie Sario of John Day.

The dropping of the atomic bomb on the military base of Hiroshima was observed last week on Aug. 6, an action that effectively ended World War II, destroyed more than four square miles and killed or injured 160,000 people. It happened 57 years ago, in 1945, but a recent Japanese visitor to Grant County, Hisako Otani Brown of Klamath Falls, was there and recalls events as if it were yesterday.

During a mid-July visit at the home of her daughter, Jackie Sario of John Day, the petite woman sat down to enjoy traditional Japanese food - soba complete with chopsticks, iced barley tea, and yokan for dessert. Conversation between them was gently spoken in Japanese, although both understand and are fluent in English.

The niceties of the present were jogged to the past as the recollection of Hisako's youth unfolded. As if looking back in time through a young woman's eyes, Hisako quietly described life at home with her family, the atomic bomb explosion and the aftermath.

Hisako's youth

Hisako was a strong-willed youth, the fifth of eight children, from a prosperous Tokyo family who owned a rubber company. During the disastrous 1923 earthquake, her father lost his right arm and the family lost everything. Destitute, they moved back to the family's hometown, Mitaka, on Nomishima Island in the bay near Hiroshima, where they raised/sold produce through their little grocery store.

As "least favorite daughter," from age 9 Hisako was given a heavy responsibility of cooking for her family of 10. She was educated through the eighth grade, but was expected to marry a farmer - to be "worked hard and die young." Discontented with duties at home, Hisako ran away at age 15 and found work at a factory in Hiroshima during World War II. She lied about her age, worked diligently and was promoted to a managerial position. But her parents located her and brought her home, which ultimately saved her life, Sario noted.

Her father managed the grocery store and she tended to accounting, using an abacus to tally figures. There, she gained a sound basis for recordkeeping which was helpful later while working as a cashier at the Western military bases.

A continuous military presence had been in Japan through wars with Russia, then China. In 1942 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. World War II continued.

Being at war was threaded through Japan's history, and people just persevered through the many challenges. In retrospect, Sario realizes that the government was controlling information - the workforce and common folk didn't know what was happening and thought they were winning the war. Anything contrary to that was heavily censored to keep morale up.

The fateful day  Hisako worked at a naval officers training academy in Etajima on Nomishima Island 13 air miles across the bay from Hiroshimo. She lived at a dormitory, but spent her day off at Mitaka. After taking an early-day ferry back to Nomishima, she passed time at the dormitory before her shift began.  During the early morning, around 8 a.m., she rested her head on her hands and gazed out the window toward Hiroshima. Her daydreaming was suddenly disrupted with an enormous dome-shaped metallic blue flash. ...Then came the encompassing sound, shock waves, that shattered all the windows. By the time she ran outdoors there was "no place to go," the bomb shelters were closed. She found solace with a small group of officers. As the growing mushroom formed, some speculated that a gas tank had exploded. She understood the conversation among high-ranking military personnel who were overseeing activities as they talked of an ammunition stockpile that the enemy may have blown up. All normal activity came to a stand-still, including the ferry system.

The family was concerned for two of Hisako's sisters - one near the city center and another a distance from the catastrophe. Her parents, just one hour after the explosion, were able to convince police to take them by ferry from Etajima to Hiroshima to find their two daughters. The ferry was unable to dock because the docks were in flames. But they were able to dock the next morning. Sario explained that good deeds are not forgotten and that her grandparents had "cashed in with the right people" to secure this "special treatment."

Once at Hiroshima, they walked the streets calling their daughter's name, Fumiko. With landmarks gone the search was difficult, but determination paid off as they followed a lead from one of Fumiko's neighbors. She and her husband survived, but her baby, Masue, had been trapped in the family's home and burned to death. Fumiko and her husband were taken to the family home to be nursed.

Hisako passionately poured out her grief at the loss of niece Masue, with whom she had been very close. She tempered the agony with reason that the baby had a "very mature soul, close to perfect, and didn't need to live long."

The elder Otanis, Juhei and Yukino, had thought another daughter to be safe, as she lived out of the city limits at Hakushima. After two weeks of searching, they discovered an even more horrific situation. Shizuko had been standing by a window holding her child when shock waves from the atomic explosion hit, an impact that literally blew off people's clothes. The baby was gone, disintegrated in its mother's arms. Shizuko had crawled out from the rubble and was rescued by a fireman who took her to a temple. Shards of glass were embedded in her flesh; for two weeks there had been no medical attention to the injuries and severe radiation burns. Shizuko also was taken to the family home, where they tended to her needs. There was no room at the hospital for another three days.

The typhoon

In mid-September, Hisako and a younger sister, Masako, were at the hospital caring for Shizuko. It was early evening at the hospital, a quiet residential area among rice patties, when they heard the typhoon warning.

With the water rising quickly, discussion turned to their inability to swim. Lanterns were held high as people formed human chains and headed to higher ground. The hospital patients were trapped. Hisako carried her injured sister on her back to the top floor of the building amid groans of agony. Aftereffects of the typhoon and mud slides claimed at least 60 more lives that night. Again they had survived.

A time of healing followed, but not without more challenges. The country was devastated and food was scarce.

It was three years before the family found out the truth about Hisako's older brother, Shigenobu, who had been in the military. Communication from him had been scarce, then ceased completely. A fortune teller had told Hisako that her brother was "wandering" because they hadn't had a proper service. Diligent, persistent questioning brought the news: He had been a radio operator with the Secret Service ... and was dead.

Sario noted that war had been a part of their life, and the people "focused on surviving hard times and prayed for the lost brothers and fathers."

Hisako considers herself, "lucky, real lucky." She found employment at an electric company who provided employees with a dormitory and raised rice for their own food. Through a newly organized labor office, she also worked as a maid, head waitress and cashier at Australian YWCA and American military camps, but preferred the American camps because there was "much more freedom."

Several years passed as Hisako worked at various naval bases. In 1957, she met an American, Marine Corps Master Sergeant Hugh Brown. He was a musician who had played trumpet with Tommy Dorsey's band in Los Angeles and the San Diego Marine Corps band. When they married in 1961, he was not accepted in her culture. Their two children, Rob and Jackie, were born in Japan, but in 1971 the family headed for America to avoid further racial discrimination. After docking in Los Angeles, they headed north and settled at Klamath Falls.

Sario admires her mother's ability to reach beyond the barriers of Japanese culture, tradition and this experience, and eventually to marry an American. She noted that her mother was so independent that she was still single at age 30 and, with a smile, said it took an American to accept and marry her.

Since those days, there have been sacrifices, challenges for all. Mother and daughter returned to Japan in 1985 and Hisako traveled again in 1992. She notes that "everything changed to American style" after the war. English is taught to all the school children at a very young age.

Jackie lives west of John Day with her husband, attorney Markku Sario, and they operate a law practice in Canyon City. She cherishes the balance of her mother's Japanese heritage along with American father's influence. She and her mother occasionally make public appearances to tell their stories.  

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