Sur­vivor tells of Hiroshima, watch in rub­ble

Cape Times - - INSIGHT - Joe Lau­ria In­de­pen­dent For­eign Ser­vice

NEW YORK: Shinji Mikamo was work­ing on his fa­ther’s roof in Hiroshima at 8.15am on Au­gust 6, 1945, when the flash ap­peared 579m above ground and just 1 371m away. His skin partly melted, a gash in his leg and un­able to fully open his eyes, Mikamo and his wounded fa­ther roamed the pul­verised city, stum­bling over corpses and some still writhing bod­ies to seek re­lief in the Ky­obashi River. They were two of the few sur­vivors from so near Ground Zero.

Af­ter they wan­dered to an in­tact Bud­dhist shrine where Ja­panese sol­diers threat­ened them, his fa­ther, will­ing them both to sur­vive, in­ex­pli­ca­bly inched them back to their house to find only rub­ble, ac­cord­ing to Mikamo’s ac­count in a book writ­ten by his daugh­ter, Akiko Mikamo.

The 19-year old Mikamo was then sent to a makeshift mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in the Hiroshima delta, sep­a­rat­ing him from his wounded fa­ther.

Three months later, Mikamo could walk again. He went back to where his house stood. Dig­ging through the de­bris he saw another flash. It was the sun re­flect­ing on an ob­ject: his fa­ther’s sil­ver pocket watch.

“At that mo­ment, my fa­ther knew his fa­ther was dead,” said Akiko. “Some­thing about the watch told him that. He burst into tears on the site with the watch in his hand. Now, he was re­ally on his own.”

The watch had been given to Mikamo’s grand­fa­ther for his work as a pho­tog­ra­pher who took por­traits of the Em­peror.

The watch’s hands had been blown off. But the heat of the blast em­bossed the hands’ im­age on the face in the per­ma­nent po­si­tion of 8.15. There are many watches and clocks from Hiroshima with their hands frozen to mark the mo­ment the first nu­clear weapon was used. But Mikamo’s is likely the only one that lost its hands, but can still be read.

In 1965 Mikamo do­nated the watch to the 10-year-old Hiroshima Peace Me­mo­rial Mu­seum. It was the sin­gle me­mento of his fam­ily from the days be­fore the atomic bomb de­stroyed his city. His step­mother died just be­fore the bomb­ing and his brother was killed in ac­tion in the Philip­pines. He had no one left.

“I’d held the watch close, think­ing of my fa­ther and his brav­ery,” Mikamo says in his daugh­ter’s ac­count. “I was ready to let go of this only keep­sake I had of my fa­ther… as a re­minder of both the de­struc­tion and the hero­ism that were dis­played that fate­ful day.”

De­spite its deep mean­ing for him, 20 years later Shinji al­lowed the mu­seum to loan the watch with other items for a per­ma­nent Hiroshima-Na­gasaki ex­hibit in­side the UN Head­quar­ters in New York. He wanted peo­ple from around the world to see what a nu­clear weapon could do.

With the watch were fused coins; shreds of a child’s school uni­form; tin cans melted to­gether and a pock­marked statue from a Na­gasaki church. They were dis­played in a glass case out­side the Gen­eral Assem­bly hall.

When Mikamo’s daugh­ter Akiko, in May 1989, moved to the US for grad­u­ate work in psy­chol­ogy, her first stop was the UN head­quar­ters.

She had only seen the watch once at the Hiroshima mu­seum many years ear­lier. So Akiko joined the paid tour and went through the build­ing wait­ing to get to the ex­hibit. She told the tour guide she’d come to see her fa­ther’s watch.

“Al­most pulling my hand, he said, ‘Oh, that is the most fa­mous item. Many peo­ple are deeply moved by it and ask me a lot of ques­tions’,” Akiko said. “‘Here, I’ll show you where it is.’” When she ar­rived at the dis­play case she saw a la­bel de­scrib­ing the watch. But the watch was gone.

The tour guide was as as­ton­ished as she was. “I just saw it!” he told Akiko. “It was here!” UN author­i­ties in short or­der told them the watch had been stolen.

Dis­traught, she im­me­di­ately called her fa­ther in Hiroshima from a UN phone booth. Akiko, who has told her fa­ther’s story in her book Ris­ing From the Ashes: A True Story of Sur­vival and For­give­ness from Hiroshima says Mikamo told her that it was only an ob­ject and that “when you lose some­thing you gain some­thing”. Mikamo, who is to­day 89, heard from un­known rel­a­tives when the stolen watch be­came known in Ja­pan.

He was able to trace his fam­ily back to when they were feu­dal lords in the 15th Cen­tury.

“For the first time since the war I was no longer a street rat, an or­phan with­out fam­ily con­nec­tions,” Akiko quotes her fa­ther. “Get­ting the pocket watch stolen turned out to be a bless­ing.”

The UN took four months to write a let­ter of apol­ogy to her fa­ther and to the Ja­panese author­i­ties. The theft had only been an­nounced to the press five days ear­lier on Septem­ber 29, 1989.

“It was a mat­ter of los­ing face be­cause some­one trusted the UN for a per­ma­nent ex­hibit of war history and even­tu­ally it was stolen, so it was a very shame­ful event for the UN,” said Shin Kurobe, a re­tired UN ad­min­is­tra­tor, from his home in Ja­pan.

The let­ter to Mikamo says the UN con­tin­ues its “in­ves­ti­ga­tion of this de­spi­ca­ble act and the case re­mains open and ac­tive”.

But 26 years later, no one at the UN seems to re­mem­ber any­thing about the watch. Three long-time UN of­fi­cials have never heard the story. And nei­ther had any­one in the UN se­cu­rity depart­ment. But the of­fi­cers there be­came in­trigued and have en­thu­si­as­ti­cally searched for the case file.

Hav­ing failed to find any­thing, they sur­mised that the files may have been among those de­stroyed when Hur­ri­cane Sandy flooded the UN base­ment in 2012.

The theft may have been part of a ring or­gan­ised in­side the UN, but no one knows for sure. A year and a half be­fore the watch was stolen, a sil­ver cof­fee urn and two 21-karat solid gold bot­tles con­tain­ing a rare per­fume, a gift to the UN by the gov­ern­ment of Oman, were stolen from a glass case me­tres from the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil cham­ber.

Shortly be­fore that, two pis­tols were taken from the UN’s ar­moury and a por­trait of Kurt Wald­heim in the UN lobby was re­peat­edly van­dalised.

Akiko is con­vinced that the theft was an in­side job and that no in­ves­ti­ga­tion was ever car­ried out. Only a few peo­ple would have ac­cess to the glass case, said a UN spokesman.

“I don’t think they did any in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Kurobe said. “There were so many other cases, se­cu­rity was very busy and I don’t think they were very much in­ter­ested in a lost watch.” For sur­vivors, he said, “it’s a big is­sue. It’s a spe­cial watch”. But for a “UN se­cu­rity guy, I don’t think it was a big is­sue at all.”

Pic­ture: REUTERS

THEN AND NOW: A com­bi­na­tion pic­ture shows the gut­ted Hiroshima Pre­fec­tural In­dus­trial Pro­mo­tion Hall, cur­rently called the Atomic Bomb Dome or A-Bomb Dome, af­ter the nu­clear bomb­ing of Hiroshima on Au­gust 6, 1945 (top). A hand­out photo, it was taken by...

HANDS FROZEN: Shinji Mikamo found his fa­ther’s watch in the rub­ble of their house in Hiroshima.

‘IN­SIDE JOB’: Akiko Mikamo

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