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Flatlands resident Joan Ikeda Heaney survived the “unspeakable second” that changed the world — and Tuesday marks its 68th anniversary.
“We heard on the radio that America had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima,” says the spry septuagenarian, who was a teenager living with her parents and brother 500 miles away in Tokyo, when a B-29 named Enola Gay exploded an atomic bomb on the waterfront city on Aug. 6, 1945.
“Little Boy” wiped out 80,000 people in a fireball that turned steel buildings into flour. Days later, 40,000 more people perished, as a second bomb pulverized Nagasaki. Countless others died agonizing deaths in the coming months, maggots feasting on their rotting flesh.
Heaney’s parents tried to protect her from the carnage.
“But I saw pictures of people with their bodies all burned, and their skin melted off,” says the woman, who later married an American and emigrated to the United States.
The terrifying assault was inescapable: World War II was folding, but Japan deepened its tentacles in the Indian Ocean and unleashed an unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of Americans. President Harry Truman, mindful that excessive American blood had already been spilled, warned the Japanese that he would end the war with the most disastrous weapon on earth, if they didn’t surrender. His alert was ignored, leaving Heaney’s family, and others like them, exposed to an attack that remains peerless.
The Ikedas had already endured the American fire-bombings rained on dozens of Japanese cities.
“When you experience destruction like that everyday, it becomes natural to survive,” says Heaney.
Even the smallest trip outdoors became a nightmare in the spring and summer of 1945.
“I’d be walking home from school, and the sirens would go off, and everybody would start running to their homes, or to the nearest shelter,” she recalls. “Sometimes, the planes came pretty close.”
The relentless sorties decimated once-vibrant Tokyo.
“We had a park, a library, and many banks and hotels,” she says. “Afterwards, it was a ghost town.”
Heaney’s parents wanted her to relocate to the countryside, but she refused.
“I was too young to understand what was going on, but I knew if I was going to die, I was going to die with my family,” says the woman, who lived on food rations, without running water or electricity.
“You had a roof over your head, and maybe a bowl of rice and a little soup, if you were lucky,” she adds.
Heaney’s father built a shelter in the garden.
“He dug the mud out with his hands,” she says. “It was like an igloo, so low that my head touched the ceiling.”
The family huddled inside at night, hoping sleep could tame their torment.
“It was a scary feeling,” says Heaney. “You didn’t know the certainty of what was to become.”
Tuesday commemorates that “unspeakable second” that birthed nuclear terror — and reminds us that another one lies a mouse click away.
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