Survivor tells of Hiroshima, watch in rubble
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.”
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