Sixty years after the United States exploded the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, a New Orleans restaurateur recounts publicly for the first time how he survived the violent dawn of the Nuclear Age. Sangman Kim, 82, a native of Korea, says he was a forced conscript in the Japanese military stationed at a Hiroshima shipyard when the United States dropped the bomb, at approximately 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945.
Kim says he and other soldiers survived by taking cover in a bunker, he says. They were then forced to work "night and day" for the next two weeks clearing the dead from the city streets.
The bombing of Hiroshima, which was followed three days later by the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, led to Japan's surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. The two blasts killed tens of thousands of people in both densely populated cities. Thousands more died later from burns, cancers and other effects of radiation.
Kim escaped, virtually unhurt, his family says. "He suffered only a slight hearing loss," says his daughter, Kim Ragusa, who also serves as her father's translator.
Any supporting photographs and documents of Kim's unique place in history were either lost or left behind during the Korean War or after the family's immigration to the New Orleans area in the late 1970s, Ragusa says. Asked why her father had never spoken publicly about his Hiroshima experience, she replies: "He doesn't talk to too many people about it. My Daddy's a very quiet man."
However, Kim, who speaks fluent Japanese, has discussed his Hiroshima experience in recent years with Nobuo Hayashi, 73, a native of Japan who owns and operates the popular Hayashi Sports Clinic in New Orleans.
Hayashi says he was a boy of 13 when he was recruited into the Japanese military for a suicide mission against Allied forces, but the war ended before he was called. Hayashi's family survived the United States' firebombing of Japan, a five-month air campaign that killed half a million people and destroyed 69 cities before President Harry S. Truman ordered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to Martin Morgan, a research historian at the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
Historians note that Japan and Korea have a history of distrust, aggravated by Japan's wartime atrocities. Today, Hayashi and Kim are two New Orleanians who appear to have quietly made progress at understanding a war that continues to haunt increasingly tense relations between their respective homelands of Japan and Korea.
"My father said he and Mr. Hayashi talked about the war; it was a good talk -- a good talk," Ragusa says.
It is late Monday night, closing time at the Korea House restaurant in Metairie's Fat City. Kim sits quietly at a table. He's a tall, dignified-looking man, agile for his age. He wears wire-rim glasses, a green pullover shirt, striped blue pants and white leather shoes. He passes his hand slowly over one of 15 new Korean barbecue tables, palming its smooth granite surface. His hand moves towards the metal centerpiece that conceals a wood-burning cooking pot.
When Kim Ragusa arrives, introductions are made and her father's history unfolds.
Sangman Kim says he arrived in Japan from Korea -- against his will -- in August 1943. He was 20 years old. He and other young men were rounded up by Japanese troops from their native village of Jin Ju on the Korean peninsula. They were then shipped by boat across the East Sea to Japan for forced service in the Japanese military.
Kim says he was assigned to artillery duty, loading shells for the Japanese defense against Allied attacks. He also fired anti-aircraft guns at American B-27 bombers, though the weaponry was so antiquated that the bullets always fell harmlessly short of their target. Still, it was a role Kim did not relish, family members say.
Korea's troubles with Japan predated the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor by three decades. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and subjugated its people to harsh rule, until the Japanese surrender of 1945. Japanese atrocities in Korea by then included the assassination of Korea's empress and the desecration of her body. There were also notorious mass abductions and rapes of Korean women, who were forced to serve as concubines for the Japanese military. As "imperial subjects," Koreans were forced to engage in Shinto shrine worship and to bow toward Tokyo, according to "Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings," a 1981 study by 34 scientists and other experts, commissioned jointly by the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In October 1944, Kim was transferred to a new military post at Hiroshima. He was assigned to the West 87th Division of the Japanese marines. They wore light green khaki uniforms. He was given a bolt-action rifle and a dagger, which he wore on his right side.
The 87th was stationed at Ujina Port, a shipyard roughly two miles from Hiroshima Castle -- Ground Zero. An estimated 50,000 Koreans lived in Hiroshima at the time of the bombings, according to the 1981 Japanese study. Of that number, roughly 20,000 would die. The "vast majority of foreign A-bomb victims" in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were Koreans, the study states.
There are conflicting accounts as to how many were "recruited" or "forced" to serve as laborers or soldiers. However, all Koreans were subjected to repressive policies of the Japanese rulers, the 1981 Japanese study states. Ujina Port boasted more than 3,000 Japanese troops, Kim recalls.
In late July 1945, American B-27s and B-24s conducted successive raids over Hiroshima. Japanese navy ships were too far out at sea to defend the port city, Kim said. A week before the bomb, American planes passed overhead, dropping leaflets printed in Japanese. One side looked like Japanese money; the other side bore a message praising the civilians but excoriating the government.
Similar leaflets fell throughout the city with warnings that people should evacuate. The leaflets that fell in the shipyard did not contain such warnings, Kim says.
Kim says he was rarely allowed to leave the shipyard. On Aug. 5, however, he was permitted a brief leave. It was Sunday.
Hiroshima was a well-developed city with stores, schools, hospitals, banks, courts, businesses and industries, and streetcars -- in addition to its military installations. Kim walked downtown and looked for other Koreans, who tended to live near the center of the city. He found a grandmother who cooked him a pot of rice.
"The next day they were gone," Kim says.
At 8 a.m. on Aug. 6, Kim and his division reported to an area of the shipyard for a brief "meeting," he recalls. The troops were then dismissed. They lounged about the yard, waiting for their officers' next order.
"All of a sudden, there was a lightning -- like in a thunderstorm," Kim says. "After the lightning, not even a second passed, and there was a loud explosion."
He and two other men dove into a nearby air-raid bunker. After a short while, Kim says, he heard nothing. He emerged from the bunker and saw numerous fires. Where buildings had once stood, there was now only rubble.
"Everywhere there were fires," Kim says. He and the other two marines had no place to go. They waited for orders. None came. They then spent the night inside a cement factory that withstood the blast.
At 9 a.m. the next day, Kim and other members of his division walked from the shipyard to Hiroshima Castle in the downtown area. The castle was only 2 miles away, but the hike took five hours. The city was devastated. "There were dead bodies everywhere," he says.
Streetcars and telephone wires were melted from the heat of the blast. The troops had to cut through the downed power lines and streetcar cables to get to some bodies.
Of all the buildings in Hiroshima, 68 percent were completely burned or demolished. An additional 24 percent were more than half-damaged. All buildings within 2 kilometers of Ground Zero were "burned or leveled by the blast," the 1981 report states.
Kim says his orders were to "clean up the dead." For the next week, he and his fellow troops collected the bodies, most of which were badly burned. The stench of smoke and death hung in the air. Kim says the worst thing he saw was the body of a pregnant woman, one side of which was burned black, the other untouched. Her belly ballooned grotesquely outward.
On Aug. 14, Kim and the other men returned to the cement factory to sleep. At noon, they heard Japanese emperor Hirohito address the public on the radio, but the message was unclear. At 7 p.m. it was announced that the emperor had decided to surrender.
"The Japanese people were crying," Kim says. "I was happy. I couldn't say anything. If they found out I was happy, they would have killed me."
Kim says he stayed in Hiroshima until Sept. 12, when Japanese officials transported him and about a dozen other Koreans back across the East Sea to Korea. Kim returned home to his village, Jin Ju. Five years later, in 1950, the Korean War broke out. Kim was drafted again -- this time, into the American-led army. While in the army, Kim met his future wife, In Sook, then a university student.
"When the North Koreans attacked, my mother fled Seoul and headed south," Kim Ragusa says. In Sook met Sangman Kim at a relative's home; she found him tall and handsome. They married during the war and had two children, their daughter, Kim Ragusa and son, Chan Yong.
In 1977, Samtang Kim left Korea and emigrated to the United States. He moved in with his sister, who still lives in Covington. After several months, Kim moved to an apartment complex in Gretna, where he met other Koreans. They told him he could get work at a West Bank shipyard that had already hired 10 to 15 Koreans. Kim got hired as a shipyard welder's helper. He studied the trade and eventually became a welder.
Kim's wife and daughter joined him in 1978. The two women went to work in a downtown hotel, washing dishes. Kim Ragusa, who was a bookkeeper in Korea and had studied English in school there, could also type. When a hotel secretary quit, Ragusa took her place. The family pooled their earnings and bought a house in Marrero.
Kim's only son, Chan Yong, joined the family in 1979, after serving his mandatory three years in the South Korean military. He became a welder, like his father. The family soon moved to Metairie and, in 1986, they opened the restaurant.
"First we named it 'Fat City,'" says Ragusa, laughing. "Americans said, 'Oh my gosh.'"
The family next changed the name to Seoul Restaurant, but too many people mistakenly thought the Kims were serving soul food. They changed the name to Korea House in 1998.
"Unless America gets serious about North Korea, the Japanese are going to be forced to develop (nuclear) fission," warns Benjamin Wren, an associate professor of history at Loyola University, who specializes in Japanese history and culture.
Wren says Japan's failure to properly recognize its wartime atrocities -- in Korea, China, and the Philippines -- continues to aggravate tensions in the region. "The Japanese people have not been fully aware of the horrors of their wartime atrocities," says Wren, a Jesuit priest from 1948 to 1996. "They never saw the concentration camps, most of which were scattered on islands around the Pacific, as German citizens were forced to do."
Although generally highly educated, many Japanese are ill-informed about the massacre of men and the raping of women in Nanking, China during the 1930s; the Korean women who were forced to become sex slaves of the Japanese military; and the brutal treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
"The war was stricken from history books," Wren says. "The Germans know their story; the Japanese don't."
Since the war, the Japanese government has repeatedly apologized for its wartime misconduct. In a May 25, 2005 editorial titled "Why Japan's apologies always fall flat," Asahi, a daily newspaper in Japan, opined that Japan has done a "poor job of condemning its own past behavior."
The Kims can quickly recite Japan's offenses against Korea, and their resentment becomes evident in the telling. At the same time, however, the Kims speak warmly and respectfully of their friend Nobuo Hayashi, even though he served in the Japanese military during the Pacific war.
Several years ago, the Kims say, Hayashi and his fellow Japanese-American "golfing buddies" visited the Korea House for a meal. Samtung Kim and Hayashi struck up a conversation in Japanese. The two men talked about the war and Hiroshima.
"The Japanese military wanted to fight no matter what," says historian Morgan, of the D-Day Museum. "There was no convincing them that they could be beaten. We only had to get to one man with our military might -- and that was Emperor Hirohito."
The Emperor did not intervene and U.S. bombing continued. American Gen. Curtis LeMay, who ordered the airborne firebombing campaign, later said that if the United States had lost the war, he himself would have been tried as a war criminal.
At the time of the raids, Hayashi was a 13-year-old recruit in a special Japanese boys' military unit that trained for suicide missions.
"Whenever the B-29s came, they dropped a firebomb. Napalm. And you can see from the oceans to the mountains -- fire. Nothing was left: fire, fire, fire," he says.
"In my own eyes, I saw children running in the firebombing. When it hit your body --your whole body get burned."
Every house had a bokayosui, a tub of water placed outside. It was used to extinguish house fires, but was too shallow to jump in. During the firebomb raids, fleeing civilians would run for the tubs, kneel down and put their faces in the water. In the morning, there were dead bodies, face down in the water.
"I thought if there is hell, hell must be a much better place than this," Hayashi recalls.
When news came of another B-29 attack, Hayashi received permission to leave his military post. He put his baby brother on the back of his bicycle and his younger sister on the front. He pedaled toward the safety of a mountain.
"About 3 miles from the mountain, a B-29 came right above us and dropped a firebomb. The napalm. It's just like today's fireworks. ... If it's peacetime, it's a beautiful scene. Just like fireworks on an Independence Day. We were right in the fire. I told my younger brother and sister -- close eyes. We are going to get hit. Luckily, the wind blew the firebomb about 200 yards away from us."
Hayashi hid with his brother and sister under a bridge. After the plane left, they returned home to find their home burned. They had no food.
In the backyard, the chickens had been burned alive. Under the scorched body of a mother hen, Hayashi recalls finding baby chicks that he excitedly presented to his parents as food.
"But Mother cried. 'Don't you understand mother's love? This mother protected her baby under wing and died. How can you think of such a cruel thing as eat it?'"
Hayashi says his mother then ordered him to bury the mother hen "with respect."
Hayashi recalls the night before the bombing of Hiroshima. "About midnight, we heard the radio emergency broadcast warning of an enemy air attack," Hayashi recalls. Everybody ran for the underground bunkers. "There were three B-29s coming toward the Kobe area. My first reaction was -- why only three B-29s? It never happened. Usually there were 50 to 100 B-29s, a fortress in the sky.
"We thought the three B-29s must be spy planes. It was just like waiting for a hurricane. Then we heard the planes were heading west. We said, 'Oh, that's good.'"
The next day, Hayashi heard that the United States had dropped a new bomb that burned down the city of Hiroshima. Nagasaki burned next. On Aug. 15, the Emperor announced the surrender on the radio, though his message was muddled. However, Hayashi recalls that an officer at his training school at Nakajima told the troops to go to their homes and guard their gates from the advancing Americans.
Hayashi says he and his brothers took turns guarding their Kobe home with a sword against the expected assault by American occupation forces. They never came.
"After about 10 days, somebody said, 'You want to see an American soldier? Go to the National Highway. They ride a strange thing, a box (a Jeep).'"
The youths waited by the highway. Eventually, a Jeep pulled up and several American GIs passed out chocolates and chewing gum. Some encouraged the youths to worship with them in church. "Fear and hatred turn into friendship," Hayashi recalls.
Hayashi also recalls an American missionary who came to Japan to teach English. One day, the American went to the back of a newly constructed building, the former site of an orphanage that was destroyed by the bombing. The American knelt down and prayed. He had been a bomber in a B-29, Hayashi says.
In 1963, after a religious conversion by an American missionary, Hayashi journeyed to the United States. He entered the Anderson Theological Seminary at Anderson, Ind. He intended to become a preacher.
During a seminar, however, his fellow seminarians applauded the use of the atomic bomb at Japan to end the war. "I was ready to flip them and break their necks, I was so mad!" says Hayashi, a judo instructor.
The killing of innocent women and children cannot be justified by arguing that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki statistically saved far more lives than would have been lost by a land invasion, he says. "War is evil, no matter what," he says. "But war means you fight against fighter, not against non-combative people, not against women, not against babies."
Hayashi is equally emphatic when criticizing his native Japan for its wartime conduct. "Japanese did terrible things in Nanking. No Japanese have any excuse about their devilish behavior. For that I am very ashamed of being Japanese, even though I did not do it."
He denounces Japanese politicians and scholars who deny that the atrocities at Nanking took place and those who call the Chinese racially inferior. "For that, Japan deserves to suffer for her past," he says. "That's how I feel. My feelings are for the Chinese people."
Japanese officials need to show that their apologies for the war are sincere. "Visiting shrines to Japanese war criminals does not buy friendship or trust," he says, referring to recent protests against Japan's prime minister. Hayashi does say that the Japanese government's contributions to the victims of the tsunami relief fund offer hope for a more generous country and a peaceful future.
Samtung Kim peers intently through his glasses at a map of Hiroshima. He points to a number designating his old shipyard. "Ujina!" he says.
A July 18 poll of 13,204 Japanese hibakusha (Japanese for "explosion-affected persons") found that 59 percent of all responding survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fear another nuclear war. Does Kim?
The elderly man answers without taking his eyes off the map of Hiroshima: "I don't think the U.S. will use it anymore. Now, the bomb would be more worse than 60 years ago."
He then recalls something else that happened after the bombing of Hiroshima. At night, he would guard the ruined city and the corpses of the victims. He says he saw "blue spirit lights" rise up over the dead and blow gently away in the summer wind.
Kim demonstrates, waving his hand gently from right to left. His wife shudders.
The Korea House is now closed. Music pulsates from the bar next door. Youths sit in a corner parking lot, drinking and chatting easily.
Sixty years after Hiroshima, Fat City seems alive and full of possibilities.
- Donn Young
- On Aug. 6, Sangman Kim (pictured with his daughter, Kim Ragusa) and other troops were lounging about a shipyard, waiting for their officers' next order. "All of a sudden, there was a lightning like in a thunderstorm," Kim says. "After the lightning, not even a second passed, and there was a loud explosion."