By Mary Granfield
August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

On the sunny morning of Aug. 6, 1945, an 8-year-old American girl named Kay Yoshioka was 25 miles outside of Hiroshima. Four years before, Kay and her family had left Eatonville, Wash., where Kay was born, and moved to Japan. Now the country was at war, and Kay, along with 50 other children, had been sent to the countryside, away from the threat of U.S. bombers. Not far from the Buddhist temple where the children lived, recalls Kay, “I was at a stream, rinsing out cleaning rags, when I heard the loudest noise of my life. I watched that mushroom cloud rise over the mountains. We thought it was some factories exploding. We went on with our day, attending classes. After lunch, a truck drove up. We ran up to it. Inside were a dozen people covered in blood, tangled hair and seared clothing.” She had been an eyewitness to a moment in history at which the world has never stopped looking back—the first atomic bomb dropped in war.

Forty-five years ago next week, the bombs named Little Boy and Fat Man were released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing nearly 200,000 people and wounding 150,000 more. Among them, ironically, were thousands of American citizens. In the summer of 1945, there were 30,000 Japanese-Americans in Japan. Many were kibei, American-born children whose immigrant parents had sent them back to Japan before the war to receive a traditional education. Others had come to visit relatives. After the war broke out in 1941, they were unable to return to the U.S.; 110,000 of their American relatives, most of them on the West Coast, were confined in internment camps.

Today, among the hibakusha, or explosion-affected persons, there are an estimated 1000 Japanese-American atomic bomb survivors. They suffer from high rates of cancer and other ailments, but the U.S. government has consistently refused them any financial or medical assistance. Many won’t admit to being victims for fear of losing their health insurance, since most companies won’t pay for illnesses related to radiation exposure. Moreover, hibakusha who do speak up receive little sympathy. Many Japanese viewed them as traitors; some Americans still blame them for Pearl Harbor.

Also affected by the bomb’s aftermath were the 23.000 U.S. servicemen who entered Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the blasts. None were warned about the massive doses of radiation they might encounter. Since then, hundreds of these “atomic veterans” have died prematurely; others live on, plagued by cancers and organ, skin and blood disorders. Though there has long been overwhelming evidence that these men were suffering the effects of atomic radiation, the Veterans Administration denied them compensation, insisting they were not exposed to sufficient radiation to harm them. Not until 1988 did Congress pass legislation extending benefits for 13 radiation-linked cancers to vets who can prove they served in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Says Anthony Principi, deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs: “For many years there was just so much uncertainty about the effects of radiation. It was difficult to reconstruct the dosages these men were exposed to.”

Kaz Tanaka had always thought the American B-29 bombers were beautiful machines. In the weeks that she had watched them fly over her home in Hiroshima, they had never dropped a bomb. So on Aug. 6,1945, when she saw the metallic glint in the sky, she was delighted. “It was showing off. flying, dancing,” she recalls.

Kaz, who had been born in Pasadena. Calif., 18 years earlier, was standing in the road in front of her family’s elegant home. She had come outside to fetch water for the breakfast dishes. Her mother was in the kitchen, and her father was in the backyard, watering the vegetable garden. Kaz remembers a tiny white speck fluttering toward the earth. Seconds later, there was a searing flash of light and she crumpled to the ground, pinned beneath the timbers and glass of a shattered house.

For years afterward, the girl who is today Kaz Tanaka Suyeishi, 63, spent much of her time trying to forget that morning. In the 1920s her father had moved to California and run a produce market in Pasadena, where she was born. Before the war he took his family back to Hiroshima. Kaz suffered cuts and bruises when the bomb fell, but her father and brother nearly died of burns. After helping nurse them back to health, she persuaded her parents to let her return to the U.S. in 1949 to study English and fashion. She took a job at a Pasadena clothing factory. Her boss introduced her to a dapper Japanese-American named Mas Suyeishi, who had spent the war in a Wyoming internment camp. He asked her out and proposed on their second date. In 1959 they had a healthy baby daughter, Christiane.

Over the years, Kaz gradually became involved in the small but passionate network of American hibakusha. Now, as technical adviser for the NBC movie Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes (see review page 9), she has helped bring her wartime experiences to life. The movie, which will air Aug. 6, tells the story of a handful of people who struggled to survive the awful days after the blast. Max von Sydow plays a German priest, Judd Nelson an American POW and Pat Morita a Japanese postman. Kaz, who left for the set at 5 A.M. every day and did not return home until midnight, advised director Peter Werner on such fine points as how traditional Japanese families pray in front of their household Buddhist altars. “It’s my dream come true,” Suyeishi says of the film. “Every single day I cried, but at the same time, I was happy and proud.” For Werner, her weeping became a kind of emotional litmus test. “It was almost as if I knew a scene was working if there were tears running down her cheeks,” he says.

Like most kibei, Hatsuko Sumida was caught in the middle after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Born in Honolulu, she and her younger brother, Minoru, had been sent back to Japan for schooling. Soon after the U.S. became involved in the war, her parents and two brothers were arrested in Honolulu. Since her father was a gardener for the Japanese consulate, the Sumidas were deported as part of an exchange for U.S. diplomats. They joined Hatsuko in Japan.

On that last normal morning in Hiroshima, Sumida, 16, was working in a clothing factory. “I was sharpening my knife to cut leather tent corners when I sensed a flash behind me,” she says. “I looked up and saw the roof slowly coming down.” Fortunately she fell between two worktables and managed to climb out of the wreckage. Her only injury was a small cut on her back. A black rain of radioactive waste began to fall; the night watchman drifted past her like a ghost. “All his clothes were burned away,” she says, “all except his white underwear.” The explosion had melted his flesh. “His skin hung down in strips—he looked like a peeled potato.”

Hours later, when Sumida made her way home across the burning city, she found her brother Minoru, 11. He had huge blisters across his elbow and knee joints. Her mother had died years before, and with the hospitals in ruins, there was only Sumida to treat her brother’s festering burns. “A neighbor lady asked if we had my mother’s ashes,” she recalls. “She said, ‘Take the bones, grind them to a powder, put some cooking oil in, and put it on.’ ” Sumida had never heard of using sacred ashes as a poultice, but she was ready to try anything. “Oh, Ma,” she remembers saying to herself as she followed her neighbor’s instructions, “you gotta help your little boy.”

Today, Sumida, 61, a small, slightly stooped woman with dark hair, works as a cook at a restaurant in Kailua, Hawaii. In 1962 after a failed marriage in Hiroshima, Sumida’s two brothers, who had already returned to their native U.S., helped pay her airfare from Japan. She shares an apartment with Minoru, now 56. The burns he received during the blast have long since healed, leaving only faint scars on his arms and neck. Says Sumida: “If I’m asked if I have a souvenir of the bomb, I say, ‘Yes, my kid brother.’ ”

Ernie Arai, 55, sits in his Fountain Valley, Calif., home across the dining room table from his 87-year-old father, Fumio. His left arm is scarred and his left cheek is taut, giving his face an asymmetrical cast. He remembers visiting Japan to seek a bride in 1960 and being asked by a young woman’s father, “You have nothing wrong with you from the bomb, do you?” Says Arai: “I knew then it would never work out.”

Like his father, Arai was born in Honolulu, but he returned to Japan before the war when he was 3. He was 10 years old, gathering firewood outside with his grandmother in Hiroshima, when he heard a plane overhead. Then the pikadon, or flash-boom, blew him five yards from where he stood. “I woke up in the dark—in all the dust,” Arai says. At first he felt no pain, but that was deceptive. “My mother was more scared than me when she saw me,” he recalls. By the time she had carried him and his little brother, Yoji, to a nearby bomb shelter, the burns on Arai’s face and arm had him in agony. He and his grandmother, who was also burned, were bedridden for three months.

After the war, Fumio returned to the U.S. to seek a better living as a gardener in Pasadena. Ernie arrived in 1956, at age 21, and entered Pasadena City College. He worked for 15 years as a gardener before opening Arai’s Auto Service in Stanton, Calif. Yoji, now 48, operates a service station in Pasadena. Meanwhile, Ernie married Hiroko Oki, another hibakusha, with whom he has two healthy grown children. Arai’s mother died in 1974 of heart failure after suffering an array of radiation-linked illnesses. So far he and his father have remained free of cancer and other symptoms. “The only thing I can say is that God has helped us,” he says.

In the yard next to Bill Griffin’s small one-story house near the farm-country hamlet of Morning Sun, Iowa, sits a huge silver TV satellite dish and a garden of wilted geraniums. For 20 years Griffin worked in and around Morning Sun, repairing broken farm equipment with his portable welding outfit. A hand-lettered sign hangs by the front door: DANGER, ATOMIC RADIATION VETERAN. Inside, Griffin, a 67-year-old ex-Marine, sits chatting with his friend Doyle Moore. “Well, nobody said a dang word to me about radiation,” he says, recalling his guard duty in Nagasaki, which began only 46 days after the bomb leveled the city. Griffin was sent in with the 5th Marine Division and spent five months there. “I don’t know what the thunder I was supposed to be guardin’!” he exclaims. “It was several square miles of nothin’ but rubble about that high,” he says, raising a hand three feet from the floor. “There wasn’t no people, they was all in the countryside or dead.” He remembers a river full of bloated bodies. “They’d pop like balloons,” he said, “and stink. That smell of burnt humans, you never forget it.”

After he returned home in 1946, Griffin took a job riveting steel bridges for the Rock Island Railroad in Illinois. Before long, he began to notice the classic symptoms of radiation sickness: His gums bled, and his hair and teeth began falling out. In 1969 Griffin’s 8-year-old son, Patrick, died of leukemia. While experts disagree on whether radiation exposure may cause second-generation leukemia, Griffin has no doubts. “The United States government was well aware of what they were sending us into—we were used as radioactive guinea pigs,” he says. “I feel they should repay me in some way. But what do you charge for a little boy?”

Yet Griffin isn’t bitter. He is thankful for his two surviving children, John, 39, a senior chief petty officer in the Navy, and Tamara Lee, 31, a child-care worker. He is also glad that his severe emphysema-due to 35 years of heavy smoking—doesn’t keep him from enjoying his hobby. This evening he’ll drive to a pond in a lush cornfield nearby and throw handfuls of alfalfa pellets to the catfish he stocks there. Tomorrow he may go back and catch a few. Says Griffin: “My doctor said, ‘Bill, I don’t know what you’re doin,’ but keep on doin’ it—I wrote you off four years ago.’ ”

Doyle Moore, 67, who lives a two-hour drive from Griffin in Vinton, Iowa, can’t remember the war, though he wears a blue baseball cap with the name of his Navy ship in red letters: U.S.S. Montpelier. The retired John Deere maintenance man says he spent nearly six weeks in Hiroshima on guard duty in 1945; a shipmate, Jim Fahey, kept a diary. (Fahey’s Pacific War Diary was published in 1963.) Moore was discharged in 1946, at age 23, and before long he started forgetting things. Eventually, he developed a severe nervous condition, skin cancer and thyroid trouble. His neurological problems have progressed to the point that he can’t spell or remember his children’s birthdays. He says, “I used to be in the top of my class, spelling and arithmetic. My wife, Norma, does all my communications for me now.” When Moore goes into downtown Vinton, which has a population of 5,000, he doesn’t even recognize people he has known for 30 years. “I couldn’t figure out what to do about it,” he says, “so I wave at just about everybody.”

When Mitsuo Inouye heard on Aug. 7 that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, he was relieved. As a young private in the American Military Intelligence Service, he was attending a class at Fort Snelling, Minn., to prepare for an invasion of Japan. The students erupted in cheers: They knew the bomb would make an invasion unnecessary.

Thirty-two years later, Inouye, 65, now a doctor in Culver City, Calif., helped organize the first Japanese-sponsored clinic for American hibakusha. “This is my way of paying back and honoring the dead,” he says. “Because I might be with them if [the bomb] didn’t happen.” Inouye has also helped arrange for the visit every two years of a Japanese-funded medical team from Hiroshima, which has examined hibakusha in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Honolulu. Japanese aid was needed because of the U.S. government’s refusal to help. Also, says Inouye, “the social culture [of the hibakusha] was more Japanese than American, and it was difficult for them to express themselves to American doctors.” According to Inouye, examinations of American hibakusha generally reflect the patterns found in larger Japanese studies of atom bomb victims, including increased rates of cancer, especially of the breast, lung, stomach, bone and skin, as well as thyroid disorders.

In addition to their physical problems, says Inouye, hibakusha experienced a sense of isolation, of being deserted. After having their health destroyed and their lives thrown into disarray by the bomb, they found that they faced discrimination in the U.S. Most Americans, says Inouye, felt the hibakusha deserved whatever befell them. “They can’t accept Japanese-Americans as being Americans,” he says. “There were really quite a few of these [hibakusha] just wandering, lost in the woods.” Thanks to Inouye, more are beginning to find their way to help. In 1977, only 109 American hibakusha were examined by Japanese doctors at the biennial clinics; last year, 406 came forward.

Today, Kay Yoshioka, 53, is an interior designer, living near San Francisco with her accountant husband, Kunio, 55, who spent four years in a California internment camp during the war. Her family’s fateful odyssey began when her grandfather left Hiroshima just after the turn of the century to run a strawberry farm in Washington State. Her father eventually joined him, and Kay and her older sister, Mai, were born there. In 1941, after her grandfather’s death, the family returned to Hiroshima, where they could care for their relatives and educate the two girls. Kay’s father looked forward to a peaceful retirement.

Then the bomb fell. “We came from the United States, and people eyed us like the enemy,” says Kay. “They thought we were spies.” For six months afterward, the Yoshioka family, none of whom had been visibly injured by the blast, lived in a tiny shack that Kay’s father had built from the debris of their home, which was two miles from ground zero. “The soil we touched, the air we breathed, the water we drank, everything was contaminated,” Kay says. “The only thing left in the streets were human bones and skulls.”

Eight years later, one of Mai’s teachers urged her to leave Japan, which had only begun to recover from the war. Soon, the Yoshiokas did return to Washington, where both daughters attended the University of Washington. Life seemed to be going well. Then in 1970, Kay’s father died at 77 of heart and lung disorders; 13 years later her mother succumbed to liver cancer at 80. Later. Mai was stricken with uterine cancer, and Kay endured 18 months of chemotherapy for intestinal cancer. “It was strange to see my family develop cancer when we had no history of it,” says Kay. Both sisters have since recovered. “Even though I suffered dramatically 10 years ago, I had very strong willpower to be optimistic,” says Kay. “I cannot worry about what might happen to me, even though I still feel like I have a shadow following me.”

Looking pensively out of a window at the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, in a gentle voice Kay says, “I’m sure that for all survivors, the thousands of Japanese and American people caught in the war, there will be a bomb ticking in our minds forever. But what happened 45 years ago is not our responsibility. What is our responsibility is the present and the future—all I wish for is peace in the world.”

Reporting by Nancy Matsumoto in Los Angeles, Liza Uhlmann and Liz McNeil in San Francisco and Rich Somerville on Oahu