BRIGHTON — For years, Koko Tanimoto Kondo imagined herself hurting the Enola Gay’s pilots to pay back some of the pain they inflicted when they dropped an atomic bomb on her hometown of Hiroshima.
Her opportunity for revenge came in 1955. Her father, Methodist minister Kiyoshi Tanimoto, was on the television show “This is Your Life,” and he was being introduced to the people who played a significant role in his life.
As Enola Gay copilot Capt. Robert Lewis stood there, in the flesh, Tanimoto Kondo sized him up in stony silence.
“I was not so stupid as to run across the stage and punch him,” Tanimoto Kondo said.
But then, the interviewer asked Lewis how he felt after dropping the atomic bomb Aug. 6, 1945, which killed tens of thousand and ended World War II in days, alleviating the need for an Allied and American invasion of Japan. He said the plane had to turn away from the blast immediately after dropping the bomb, but the crew also had to look out to witness the result.
“My God,” the pilot recalled thinking at the time. “The City of Hiroshima had disappeared. ‘My God, what have I done?’”
His voice was full of fresh anguish, despite the decade that had passed since the bombing.
As she recounted the man’s sobs, Tanimoto Kondo told a silent audience May 9 at Our Lady of Mercy High School that she learned her lesson: If she should hate, then she should hate war itself.
She said she found herself walking over to the pilot and taking his hand.
“I held his hand,” Tanimoto Kondo said. “It was a big, warm hand. I will never forget it.”
Tanimoto Kondo’s visit was arranged by social-studies teacher Gary Ward and his neighbor, Pat Hirokawa of Scottsville. Hirokawa’s husband, Theodore, befriended Tanimoto Kondo during her 1955 U.S. visit through their mutual friend, famed author Pearl Buck. When planning a visit to the Hirokawas in May, Tanimoto Kondo offered to speak to Mercy students.
Tanimoto Kondo described for students what happened the day of the bombing. Her father had left early to help a relative move furniture on the city’s outskirts. Sheltered by a rock at the time of the blast, he ran to a hill over the city to see what had happened, and found the city was on fire, she said. He started running for his home to meet up with his daughter and wife, passing by the cries of many who needed help.
Meanwhile, her mother was holding Tanimoto Kondo in their parsonage home about a mile from ground zero. As the bomb exploded, mother fell on top of daughter, protecting her from the blast. Soon, Tanimoto Kondo’s cries roused her unconscious mother.
After calling for help and finding none, her mother pulled herself and her baby out of the rubble and soon found their neighborhood was in flames. Eventually, she and her husband reunited, and then he began long hours of helping other survivors, many burned, mangled and deformed.
Her father’s story of helping in the bomb’s aftermath would later be told worldwide by journalist John Hersey in a New Yorker magazine article and subsequent book titled Hiroshima. The notoriety and several U.S. connections helped her father bring 25 young “Hiroshima maidens,” who had been severely disfigured by the blast, to the United States in 1955 for plastic surgery. During this trip, the Tanimoto family appeared on “This is Your Life.”
Tanimoto Kondo said the bomb’s health effects were long-lasting. Many survivors young and old died years afterwards due to radiation poisoning.
“I always had a fear that someday I might be the next one,” Tanimoto Kondo said.
For years, she didn’t speak about her experience as a Hiroshima survivor. That’s because as a child, as part of medical research on the effects of radiation, Tanimoto was told to disrobe in front of an auditorium of doctors. The experience left her unwilling to identify herself as a survivor when she went to a Tokyo high school and to college in the United States.
“I was in Hiroshima, but I didn’t start the war,” Tanimoto Kondo said.
She said she longed to meet Lewis again to thank him for meeting with her family. She said she learned too late that he had died, leaving behind a sculpture he created of a mushroom cloud and a single tear, she said.
“You can understand how he felt,” Tanimoto Kondo said.
In addition to Capt. Lewis, Buck played a big role in forming Tanimoto Kondo’s peace-oriented outlook, she said. In telling the little girl that every person matters, Buck told her how she had to start writing to provide for her developmentally disabled daughter. Buck used this as an example of how every person, including every child, has a meaning and a purpose.
That’s why Tanimoto Kondo challenged the Mercy students to work for a better world.
“Many people today still worry about their future or their health,” said Tanimoto Kondo, now a resident of Miki, Japan, which is near Kobe. “I am not going to worry, because you are the next generation, and I am depending on you. I know you can make a better world. I am depending on you.”
Students said they took away from Tanimoto Kondo’s talk a message of peace.
“The story of her life is such a huge inspiration,” said senior Melissa Howe.
“I would like to have her spirit,” said senior Vanalin Kong. “I think we need more people like her to give speeches throughout all the schools.”
“This was definitely the right message,” said math teacher Susan Luedde. “We need that more and more these days.”