Surviving Hiroshima

Hiroko Nakamura Thomson and her family withstood the atomic bomb.

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Hiroko Nakamura (Thomson) was just a baby when the atomic bomb Little Boy was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. –Gabrielle Mannino

On August 6, 1945, World War II was still being fought in the Pacific, where grisly island fighting had brought U.S. armed forces to the verge of mainland Japan. Just under two months prior, victory had been declared in Europe. That August day a sole B-29 Superfortress flew over the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima and released Little Boy, the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare. 

Hiroko Nakamura Thomson was just a baby at the time, she said in an interview with The Times at Polly Hill Arboretum, where her son Joshua Thomson and daughter-in-law Rebekah Thomson, who are Vineyarders, joined her. Hiroko said she and her siblings Hisako, Shizue, Fumiko, Yutaka, and her baby twin sister, Aiko, were in their family home two kilometers from the center of the explosion — a blast estimated to be equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. It leveled the Nakamuras’ wood and paper home, and buried Hiroko and her family in debris. After the older children and their mother, Taeko Wada, freed and collected themselves, they found babies Hiroko and Aiko were missing. Taeko Wada feared they had not survived. Taeko Wada herself was blood-soaked from glass shards. The family dug and found each of the babies, dusty and unconscious. Taeko Wada wet a sleeve of her kimono and wiped the babies’ faces, whereupon they blinked up at her. 

Tens of thousands of people were killed instantly in Hiroshima. Tens of thousands more perished from burns and radiation sickness later on. By miraculous fortune, not only did Hiroko and her family survive at their home, but their father, Yaichi, who was one kilometer away from the hypocenter, did too. Buried under a collapsed building, he broke free and reunited with his family three days later. Radiation made his gums bleed, his hair fall out, and deeply sickened him. Hiroko’s brother, Tamotsu, was inside the hull of a ship in the Mitsubishi shipyard, several kilometers from the hypocenter, and lived. Hiroko’s sister was outside an elementary school about two and a half kilometers from the epicenter. She suffered burns on her arms and face as she attempted to shield her eyes from the explosion. Her arm would later become riddled with maggots, but she did not lose it. As fires erupted in the remains of the city, the family trudged to the countryside, beset by bloody gums and diarrhea. 

The family eventually returned to their property, and used wooden wreckage to build a shack. 

“We built a one-bedroom shack, and we lived in that house, 10 of us for 10 years, and bathroom outside,” Hiroko said. In the ravaged city, finding food for the big Nakamura family was difficult. Rice and sugar rations didn’t suffice. “It was very, very hard,” she said.

Later American soldiers would sometimes dole out chocolate and toothpaste, she said. Her brother Yutaka, who was ever-hungry, was so elated he would eat the toothpaste. 

“Somebody was selling on the street, white powder,” she said. ‘Without knowing my father bought it and brought it home.” It was sweet. Yutaka ate it and got sick. It turned out to be 

dynamite. 

The family endured. Eventually Hiroko became a flight attendant for Pan Am. She met James (“Marsh”) Thomson, an American foreign service worker, and they married. They lived in the U.S. and the Philippines. Hiroko now lives in Connecticut ,where she is a painter of flowers, among other subjects.

While she gets yearly checkups, she hasn’t succumbed to sicknesses associated with atomic fallout. However, her twin sister developed thyroid cancer. Both parents died of cancer, though she said her father was a smoker and he had lung cancer, so she finds it hard to say conclusively Little Boy was behind it, and her mother had other ailments besides cancer. 

Hiroko does not take a position on whether the U.S. was justified in dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, or the one it dropped on Nagasaki three days later, Fat Man. The U.S. position was that it was meant to shorten the war and save lives that would be lost in a ground invasion of Japan. Some historians have argued Stalin’s declaration of war against Japan and the subsequent invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria was more of an incentive for surrender than the bombs. 

Hiroko’s son Joshua lives in West Tisbury. As a tribute to his family’s atomic bomb experience, he made a short film called “Surviving the Atomic Bomb: The Nakamura Family Story.”

Hiroko visits her siblings in Japan every year, and on Tuesday she was there visiting them.

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