Hiroshima Researcher Mori Shigeaki Makes First-Ever Visit to AmericaSociety
A First Visit for a Dedicated Friend of America
On a cool and somber Memorial Day, May 28, Mori Shigeaki of Hiroshima, Japan, stood at the grave of US Navy Airman 3rd Class Normand Brissette of Lowell, Massachusetts, one of 12 American prisoners of war killed by the first use of an atomic bomb in war.
As his wife, Kayoko, knelt in Christian prayer, family members and friends of some of the servicemen leaned in to hear what Mori would say at this seeming culmination of more than four decades spent researching and drawing attention to the fate of the American servicemen who died in the August 6, 1945, Hiroshima blast.
Most were killed instantly. Brissette and Army Staff Sergeant Ralph Neal survived for a few days after being exposed to the intense radiation. Mori quoted one of them—no one knows for sure which one—whose last words were recorded.
“I feel pain in my heart,” the man said. “That,” Mori said, “was his last word.”
It was so terse, it could have been poetry, a reflection of the pain Mori himself felt as an atomic bomb survivor who has spent half his life dispelling government distortions of the bombing’s effects and documenting the facts. But Mori is quite clear that he has not yet spoken his last words on the subject. He intends now to research the fate of Australian and Dutch POWs he believes also perished in the August 9 atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
The Moris and the families and friends of Airman Brisstte and Sergeant Neal placed roses on the grave. Around them in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, others were feeling their own pain as they visited the graves of fathers and sons, brothers and sisters whose lives were lost in their country’s wars. So too was there pain at the memorial ceremony conducted earlier in the day in a Lowell’s Centralville Veterans Park. Memorial Day is not a celebratory holiday in the United States.
But this year, in this place, Mori Shigeaki’s presence brought a feeling of uplift and warmth to the Lowell observance, an appreciation of the depth of reconciliation between Japan and the United States and also an appreciation of just how much of a difference one person can make.
Impacting the World in a Better Way
Mori’s story may be widely known in Japan, where he became famous when then-President Barack Obama embraced him during a visit to Hiroshima two years ago. But in America, only limited numbers, mostly people who have seen the documentary film Paper Lanterns, have been aware of the man who as an eight-year-old schoolboy was blown off a bridge by the bomb, survived, and dedicated much of the rest of his life to uncovering uncomfortable facts about the toll of the nuclear holocaust. That began to change with his first trip to America, when he spoke and attending showings of the film in San Francisco, in Boston, and at the United Nations in New York.
The Trailer for Paper Lanterns
Joe Dussault, a Korean War veteran who emceed the Lowell observance, likened this year’s event to the classic American biographical TV show This Is Your Life, telling the 81-year-old Japanese man at the outset: “Mr. Mori, this is your day.”
And so the story of the horrors of the bomb and the deaths of American POWs there was freshly engraved on the American consciousness.
Mori’s own remarks were simple and brief. He recounted being blown off the bridge, and his wife’s exposure to the blast, then said: “I came here to America to tell the remaining members of the POWs’ families what had happened to them at the last day. . . . They were true patriots who sacrificed their lives for their own country. I came here because I wanted the American people to know the truth.” He was given a standing ovation.
The story of his work was documented in detail by grateful American family members, friends and government officials.
It was entered into the Congressional Record, the official publication of the US Congress, by Lowell Representative Niki Tsongas, who recorded how Mori’s quest began with his disbelief of the Japanese government statement that 800 people had died from the bomb at the elementary school he had attended. The amateur historian eventually discovered the real number—2,300 dead—and in the course of that research he learned that 12 American POWs were among the more than 100,000 killed by the bomb. He spent much of the next four decades identifying the Americans, documenting their deaths, and running up thousands of dollars in phone bills trying to contact their families. He successfully petitioned to have their names inscribed in Hiroshima’s Register of the Names of the Fallen Atomic Bomb Victims, and took a night job to pay for a memorial plaque to them that is now affixed to the building where they were being held.
“For their families, we thank you for something you never had to do,” City Councilor Rita Mercier told Mori. You did it out of your heart. We’re very, very grateful, and we love you.”
Thomas A. Golden Jr., a representative of the city in the Massachusetts Legislature, linked Mori’s work to the strength of the US-Japan relationship today. “The United States of America and Japan, when they work together, will impact the world in a better way, and that is done because of men like Mr. Mori. It is true—one man can make a difference,” Golden said. “Mr. Mori, thank you for recognizing our fallen brothers. . . . The biggest compliment you can give to anyone is to call him a gentleman. Sir, you are a true gentleman.”
Smiling broadly, Mori rose, bowed, and waved to the applauding crowd.
A Day of Fulfillment
Lowell Mayor William J. Samaras told Mori: “Your work has helped many families here in this country understand the loss of brothers, sisters, and parents. You have brought closure, it is very important . . . and we appreciate that.” He presented Mori with a ceremonial key to the city, and told him, “You have the keys that open the doors to the city of Lowell, but you also have the keys to our hearts because of your great work. We so appreciate it. We are honored to have been able to meet you.” Mori, ebullient, lofted the key for all to see.
The day was a fulfillment of years of networking between Mori and the families and friends of the POWs, most especially Barry Frechette, whose great uncle was a close boyhood friend of Normand Brissette. Frechette was fascinated by the stories he heard, and began looking into telling the story of Brissette’s life. Online, in 2013, he found an article in the August 1, 1998, edition of the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the US armed forces newspaper, about Mori’s creation of the memorial plaque to POWs in Hiroshima. That set in motion a serendipitous chain of events that eventually united dozens of POW friends and family members with Mori and led to the filming of Paper Lanterns.
First, Frechette wrote Mori, then visited him in Hiroshima in 2014, discovering that the Japanese researcher “knew more than anyone else” about all the POWs who died from the blast, not just Brissette. He decided to make a film and posted a Kickstarter appeal for $20,000 to fund production. It was a grossly inadequate amount, but the appeal was noticed by Peter Grilli, president-emeritus of the Japan Society of Boston, who would become a producer of the film, connecting Frechette with funders and making American officials aware of Mori’s work and the film before the Obama visit.
“It became a cause,” Frechette says. He returned to Japan in 2015 with some POW family members—the first Mori had ever met. More trips followed, some paid for by grants, some from Frechette’s own modest pockets. “I call it my midlife crisis,” Frechette said. “My wife and I felt this project was worth doing, that it would make a difference. . . . I wouldn’t trade this experience for having a Jeep in the driveway.”
The support group for Mori and the film, now numbering dozens of people, gathered for a traditional Memorial Day barbeque at Frechette’s home after the formal ceremonies concluded. “A lot of them worked hard” to arrange the Moris’ trip, he said, “I want them to feel appreciated for all that they have done.”