Jack Knox: Beyond horrors of war, lives without bitterness

Michiko Sakamoto-Senge was just a little girl in another part of Japan, so has no memories of the Nagasaki nuclear bomb going off 75 years ago today.

Still, word filtered through eventually — stories of unbelievable carnage, of burn victims with their skin peeling off, of children dying.

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As a five-year-old, that last bit hit home. “I could relate to them as a little child, and I felt terrible,” she says.

By then her family’s house had already burned in the firestorm that destroyed much of Tokyo after a series of air raids. “We lost everything.”

At least the family survived, as they had already moved to their summer home in the country. Even there they weren’t safe, though. Michiko remembers hanging blackout curtains. When the B-29 bombers came in from the Pacific, neighbours would crowd into the bomb shelter in her family’s garden. “I can remember the smell of the earth.”

They moved again, this time to the middle of nowhere, safe from the bombers. (A quick aside: Did you know hundreds of Rosie the Riveters made B-29 parts at a wartime factory at Yates and Vancouver?) Michiko recalls the emperor’s speech on the radio when, just days after the atomic bombs fell, Japan surrendered and the Second World War came to an end.

Eventually Michiko’s life took her to grad school in Chicago, which is where she met her husband, a Victoria boy. They moved here in 1971. She went on to a stint as immigrant-service co-ordinator at the Inter-Cultural Association and a 24-year career as a Camosun College sociology instructor.

It was also here that, a few years ago, she met Rudi Hoenson.

Rudi’s story has been told before. An 18-year-old Dutch soldier taken prisoner in what is now Indonesia, he spent 3 1/2 grim years in slave labour in Japan, mostly in the Mitsubishi shipyards in Nagasaki. Starving, he was down to 80 pounds when, hearing a plane droning overhead one day, he glanced up just as the nuclear bomb detonated.

It took 70 years for him to talk about the experience. Suffice to say it was worse than you can imagine, yet somehow he recovered from the nightmare to become one of Victoria’s most-admired philanthropists.

When Michiko learned of Rudi in 2014, she had been thinking a lot about how aging affects people, and about their state of mind as they grow old.

“I was concerned that some among the aged might have suffered horrible pains and torturous experiences caused by unavoidable circumstances, like wars. In particular, I was concerned about the welfare and psychological state of seniors who were once POWs under the Japanese Army. … I felt an urge to help to mitigate their suffering by offering to do something. I thought that maybe I could assist by reading newspapers, driving them for appointments or making tea.”

Yet when she inquired about Rudi, she was told he was a pretty independent guy. She wrote to him anyway.

“I mentioned in my letter that I was inspired by his positive attitude of helping others, leaving behind the horrendous pain and suffering he experienced. I also apologized for what the Japanese Army did to him and his comrades.”

That led to a phone call. “You don’t need to apologize,” he told her. “You did not create the war.” She felt relieved.

When they met in person for the first time, both were bearing bouquets. They became friends, enjoying the occasional brief phone call, or a coffee at the Veterans Memorial Lodge at Broadmead. After Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper told Rudi’s story, she translated the article for him. She also translated a booklet of his medical records related to the exposure to the atomic bomb. “He was such a gentleman, always escorting me to my car when I left the lodge.”

The last time they spoke was in January, when they wished one another a happy new year. Rudi died in May at age 96.

“Originally, I wanted to offer something helpful for an aging veteran, a POW, so that he could have a comfortable life in his old age,” she says. “On the contrary, I was the recipient of such a gift: the gift of knowing a beautiful human being and experiencing a positively forceful human spirit.”

What always seemed remarkable about Rudi was his lack of bitterness, whether to his captors or those who dropped the atomic bomb. The same applies to Michiko.

She remembers the war as “a horrible, horrible, horrible time,” but also recalls the example set by her parents, who steadfastly refused to look back while trying to rebuild their once-comfortable lives. “They never complained.”

Today at 11:50 a.m., the bells of Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral will ring in memory of those who died at Nagasaki, part of the global Bells for Peace campaign. Pause then to think of those who died, those who survived, and how they lived.

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