Maui woman tells stories of atomic bombing at Hiroshima

Melinda Clarke recorded memories of hibakusha, advocates for peace, for a book and documentary

Hiroshima was flattened by the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945. YOSHITO MATSUSHIGE photo

Melinda Clarke saw her life’s calling written in the early-morning sky.


She would see it several more mornings in a vision, and even wore her glasses to bed to make sure.


It was not a good time in her life. She was newly divorced. Thieves had chopped down a door to get into her home to steal. In the world, there was the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster nearby and 11 percent unemployment.

Melinda Clarke, who has interviewed more than 50 survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, gave her talk “Journey Toward Peace” on Saturday at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center. The Maui News / LEE IMADA photo

“Nothing else was working, and I decided OK, we are going to Hiroshima,” she recalled. “I had no idea why we were going, but I knew this was the only response I was getting from anything.”

The reason she packed up her kids and sold her home in Pennsylvania would become clear to her when she got to Japan, to a little fishing village in Shikoku island across the Inland Sea from Hiroshima. She had found work as an English-language teacher.

After receiving her first paycheck, the family went to the hondori, the town’s commercial center, where they met her daughter’s teacher. Out of the blue, the teacher said: “I understand that you’ve come here to interview A-bomb survivors.”

Then, the teacher revealed her “secret,” that she was a “hibakusha,” a survivor of the atomic bombing.

Clarke’s calling was serendipitously revealed: To interview hibakusha from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to record their stories. It became an ongoing passion from then on and forced her to take on a taboo subject in Japan.

Survivors of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima congregate at Miyuki Bridge about three hours after the bomb exploded. This was one of the first photos taken shortly after the atomic blast devastated the city. Yoshito Matsushige was a photojournalist for the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest paper in the city. He was in the city at home when the bomb exploded. He shot the photo as he made his way to the newspaper offices. He used his Mamiya 6 camera to capture the photos that day — three photos in all. He developed them in the open at night, covering the developing tray from the light of the stars and rinsed the film in the river. YOSHITO MATSUSHIGE photo

When asked how many interviews she has done, Clarke indicated that she had not kept count but estimated more than 50.

Clarke built a trust and dialogue with hibakusha and hibakusha groups, enough so that they gifted her three special documentary films. Those three reels included actual footage of the bombings and their destruction and death.

The footage was obtained from the U.S. Archives through the Japanese “Ten Feet Movement.” Regular citizens were asked to donate 3,000 yen to help purchase footage of the bombings that had been made available by the U.S. Archives in the mid 1970s. In all, 100,000 feet of film was returned to Japan.

One of the documentaries made from the footage, titled the “Lost Generation,” was shown by Clarke on Saturday at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center as part of her talk “Journey Toward Peace.” The event was held two days before the anniversary the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by an American B-29 on Aug. 6, 1945, and five days before the anniversary of the second atomic bombing in Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.

An estimated 150,000 people died in Hiroshima and another 75,000 in Nagasaki from the world’s first nuclear attacks.

The documentary, narrated by Jane Fonda, graphically displayed the power of the atomic bomb that laid waste to the two cities. Shadows of people vaporized by the explosion and charred bodies rolled across the screen as well as images of survivors suffering from burns, other injuries and radiation sickness.

Hibakusha, who were children when originally filmed, reacted to the images as adults more than three decades later in the documentary. They were living with the scars and injuries from that day.

“For me the war has not ended,” said a hibakusha in the film. “I am happy enough now I suppose. But war is not something you do twice.”

It is not a documentary for the faint of heart. Even Clarke admits that “you can only take so much.”

Clarke, 77, who has lived on Maui since 2010, explained that after the war American soldiers came to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and confiscated guns, swords and cameras from the Japanese.

“They took the cameras because they didn’t want anyone to see this film,” Clarke said.

Pictures and footage taken by the residents, American soldiers, survey teams and the B-29 bombers that flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki all ended up in the U.S. Archives.

After 30 years, those documents had become public under the Freedom of Information Act. Kazumitsu Aihara and Tsutomu Iwakura led the grass-roots “10 Feet Movement” to purchase the footage from the archives.

About 100,000 feet of film was purchased in the early 1980s.

“This is not something you go to the Redbox to see,” she said. “This was really, really, really hard to get, and people sacrificed just to get this film out.”

It was Aihara who would give Clarke the three reels of film. He was helping her arrange interviews with hibakusha.

“Before we were leaving, he got the films, which were first shown in 1982 at the U.N., and he gave me three films, and he asked me if I could take it around and show it,” Clarke said.

She showed it around the world until the 35-mm films got too heavy for her to carry around. Last year, a student at the University of California at Los Angeles restored and digitized the films for her and put them on lighter DVDs. They are also on YouTube.

Her interviews with the hibakusha changed her view of war and peace.

“We had a societal commitment to violence. I bought into that also until I went to Hiroshima. And that’s when everything changed,” Clarke said.

She continues to be an advocate for the hibakusha and peace. Last year, Clarke won a peace essay contest inspired by the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an agreement to outlaw war signed by 15 countries on Aug. 27, 1928, in the wake of World War I. Mayor Alan Arakawa and Gov. David Ige signed proclamations based on the essay and advocating for peace.

She will soon be off to Washington, D.C., to hand out copies of her book “Waymakers for Peace: Hiroshima & Nagasaki Survivors Speak” with her hibakusha interviews and DVDs of “Lost Generation,” including links on YouTube, to all members of Congress.

“The hardest thing you can do is change your mind and believe that we can do this,” Clarke said. “If you can believe we can end war you can come up with all kinds of ideas of how we can do it.”

Clarke’s website can be found at www.worldaloha.net. “Lost Generation” can be viewed at m.youtube.com/watch?v=IUv-wBK00eM.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.