Japanese A-bomb survivor has spent years trying to bring peace to families of U.S. victims

A dozen U.S. servicemen died in the hell of Hiroshima’s atomic bombing. Thanks to one of Hiroshima’s own survivors, the world has learned a good deal about the little known aspect of the world’s first nuclear attack.

Shigeaki Mori worked for 20 years to track down family members of the servicemen and nail down the details of their captivity and their deaths. Over the years, Mori managed to find family members of 11 of the 12 servicemen and help them fill out the paper work to have them officially recognized.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the U.S. military informed only a few of the families about where or how their loved ones died. And, aside from brief acknowledgments in the late 1940s that they had been in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing, provided little detail. There was an almost complete official silence in public, in keeping with the concerted government efforts to control public opinion about atomic weaponry.

Shigeaki Mori, from screenshot of "Paper Lantern" film project

Shigeaki Mori, from screenshot of “Paper Lantern” film project

As Mori recounted in a 2009 interview, that meant the military often ignored or turned aside years of pleadings from parents and families to know more about what had happened. So it was sometimes not just a surprise but a huge relief when Mori reached out to them with what he knew.

It took freedom of information requests, beginning in the 1970s, to obtain the first U.S. release of the names of most of the prisoners, Mori said.

In the 1980s, according to a Reuters story last year, a local history professor passed along the names to Mori. It was a perfect match. Mori had both the dedication to warning people about the consequences of war of so many survivors, and a passion for history.

He had been an 8-year-old, walking across a bridge on his way to school when the bomb went off. He told Reuters that he was blown off the bridge, but he fell into shallow water. He spent the night in an air raid shelter next to the school, with nothing to eat and terrified by both the prospect of another bombing and the sounds of people yelling in agony in the schoolyard. The aftermath of the bombing left his family, including Mori with health problems.

While he ultimately had a successful career with a company that made musical instruments and raised two children with his wife, pianist and singer, Mori told me that he had an unfulfilled dream. “From my childhood, my dream was to become the professor of a university,” he said. “I wanted to be a professor of history.”

Throughout his junior high and high school days, he earned top marks in his studies. And in a national exam, he received the top grade among the boys and girls all over Japan, making him believe that he would be able to become a professor. But, he said, “In those days, it was very difficult to get jobs. So, my teacher said, ‘It is not a good idea to become a history teacher.'”

He and his wife had two children, and he liked his job’s ability to provide well for his family. At times, he helped out with writing the programs for musical competitions, and he dove into getting the background right, studying how Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven wrote their compositions. A famous pianist praised the programs he wrote. “So, I learned that by studying very hard, my knowledge level will be greatly increased,” he said. It was a lesson he would use after he received the names of the American POWs.

Back around the 1970s, he heard a story from an elderly neighbor that actually stirred his first interest in the POWs who might have been in Hiroshima. She talked about an American bomber plane dropping on her home, and Mori decided he would go out to the area where she had lived and check into what had happened. Eventually, he found that, a few miles away across a mountain, farmers working in a field saw the place coming down and captured an airman. One recalled striking him with a bamboo stick as they captured him.

Tracking down the information eventually led him to realize that there had been a large attack on the naval city of Kure, up the coast from Hiroshima, in late July. Mori learned that the pilot of one plane brought down by Japanese defenses around Kure had been piloted by a man named Cartwright. And Cartwright had survived the war. Mori launched a relentless search, phoning people in the United States with that last name. He decided to start in the northern states and move southward. As he pursued the project, his wife begged him to stop running up the phone bills in what must have seemed like a hopeless quest. Three years later, he finally found Thomas C. Cartwright with a phone call – to Texas, where Cartwright was living at the time.

“And then things moved very quickly,” Mori said. “Mr. Cartwright was also very concerned abut the crew.”

A few days after the crash, Cartwright had been taken to Tokyo for questioning while his surviving crew members were kept in Hiroshima at a military headquarters, according to a nonprofit site, Pacific Wrecks, that tracks World War II and Korean War history.

One of Cartwright’s crewmembers had been James M. Ryan, and Mori was able to reach a brother of Ryan. More told the brother that he would like to register Ryan’s name in the memorial book of the atomic bomb victims that is kept in the cenotaph that is kept in Hiroshima’s Peace Park and updated for each anniversary of the bombing. The brother wanted to do so, but there’s no English version of the registration form. One by one, Mori translated the questions and had Ann American friend proofread his work.

He sent it to Ryan’s brother, Francis, who mailed it back. When the form arrived, Mori was so happy that he cried.

“It was already five years that had passed since I started the project,” he said. He watched his wife’s face and saw that she was happy, too.

“So, for the first time, an American’s name was registered. And the letter that I received from Mr. Ryan’s brother started, ‘My friend.’ And I thought that I can build the friendship between the American and the Japanese people.”

For Ryan’s family and others, families, Mori’s work was decisive in letting them know that their loved ones would be remembered in Hiroshima, and often in filling in the details of their time as captives.

Susan Archinsky, the niece of one POW who died there, was in Hiroshima last month working on a film about Mori’s work, “Paper Lantern.” The film project, by a Massachusetts man named Barry Frechette, grew out of learning that a neighbor was a family member of Normand Brissette, a 19-year-old bomber crewmember whose plane had been brought down near Hiroshima. Brissette survived the bombing but died 13 days later of radiation poisoning. Archinsky told Chugoku Shimbun, Hiroshima’s daily paper, that her father still tears up thinking of his older brother Normand’s agonizing death. The film could be finished late this year.

For Cartwright as much as Mori, their connection proved deeply meaningful. Cartwright, who became a professor of genetics, had long thought about what exactly had happened to the crewmembers in the plane he piloted, the Lonesome Lady. As he recounted in a book he wrote, “A Date with the Lonesome Lady,” he returned to Hiroshima in 1983, making a quiet side trip before delivering a paper at a beef genetics conference in Kyoto. He visited the site of the former military headquarters where he was imprisoned briefly and where six of his crew had been when the bomb was dropped nearby.

Cartwright said he was haunted for years after that return by repulsive feelings from his captivity. But one Hiroshima resident, Keiichi Muranaka, reached out to him, sending a letter expressing his hopes for peace and dispatching a fragment from Cartwright’s plane. Cartwright wrote that his feelings had mellowed significantly by the time Mori found him in 1995. As Mori passed along details of what he was learning about the circumstances of the Lonesome Lady’s downing and the captivity of the crew and told him about a small memorial he had created for the American POWs who died in the bombing, Cartwright came to feel, “I now had two real friends in Japan.”

So, in October 1999, Cartwright decided to make a return trip to Hiroshima, this time with people to meet instead of slipping in and out of town. Indeed, to Cartwright’s surprise, some of the events became very public. A horde of media members showed up when Cartwright, his wife, a son and a fellow veteran went with Mori to see the memorial at an office building on the former Chugoku Military Headquarters Building where his men had been held. Cartwright was carrying a letter of appreciation that he intended to give Mori privately, but he decided to read it for all to hear.

“It is my great pleasure to be able to meet you in person and thank you for the many things you have done to honor our comrades and clarify the history of their fate,” he said. “Your dedication to history, both in revealing events and correcting the record of events, is most noteworthy. The time, energy and funds you have put into this history is beyond our imagination, but we do appreciate and acknowledge your efforts.”

After detailing some of Mori’s efforts and expressing the gratitude of the American families, Cartwright concluded, “The two of us have developed, I believe, a friendship through correspondence – now we can confirm it face to face with a hearty handshake.”

Cartwright, who died just this past January, made it clear in his book that Mori’s tireless research – including tracking down people who had seen the Lonesome Lady and other U.S. planes crash and carefully checking back with witnesses as he assembled various accounts – had provided unparalleled detail about the POWs’ captivity and fates.

Mori has been, by all accounts, driven in his work. He told me that in his eagerness to contribute to society, he had decided to do better research than others. He confesses to a sense of achievement — as a historian.

Part of a series honoring the survivors of the atomic bombings.

Research for this and other articles on this site was done with a Fulbright grant. Joe Copeland can be reached at copeland.joe@gmail.com.

Copyright 2015, Joe Copeland

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