Huffpost Science
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Wayne Biddle Headshot

A Young Actress, a New Bomb

Posted: Updated:
Print

What is left to say about Hiroshima on this 68th anniversary? Much, of course. So far we have mostly covered the window dressing that came with victory and has lasted for three generations after the blood stopped flowing. It took 50 years for revisionist historians to enter the mainstream with evidence that there was no military need to use the Bomb at all, let alone blow a city to smithereens. No doubt it will take longer still to digest the evil of Hiroshima, as W.G. Sebald portrayed the sin of fire-bombing Germany.

A few days ago, Asahi Shimbun, the New York Times of Japan, reported that the long-lost medical records of the death of Midori Naka have been discovered there. Who on earth was she? Midori Naka was a minor actress who died on August 24, 1945, at the age of 36. She was almost nobody, that is, except for the epochal coincidence of having awakened with other members of her theater troupe, known as the Sakura-tai ("Cherry group"), in Hiroshima on the morning of August 6. She was in the kitchen of their dormitory in the Horikawa-cho neighborhood when, according to the new records, she saw a flash of yellow light two meters square and heard a noise like the rupture of a hot water boiler. Fate had placed her about 750 meters from the detonation of Little Boy, the 16-kiloton atomic bomb handmade in New Mexico and dropped by an airplane from Nebraska.

Miraculously without serious apparent injury (the blast had instantly killed five of the troupe's nine members), she squeezed out of the wreckage and headed to the Kyobashigawa River to escape fires raging everywhere. She felt nauseous and vomited. A local rescue corps (first-responders, indeed) took her to a relief camp where there was no medical care. She abandoned the camp and, wrapped only in a straw mat, somehow boarded a train for Tokyo, her home, where she arrived on August 10. She was admitted to the University of Tokyo hospital on August 16. Whatever the details are of this journey, and they will never be known, it is fair to say that Midori Naka was a very, very strong young woman.

At the university was Masao Tsuzuki, a professor of surgery and one of the few doctors in the country -- or the world, for that matter -- familiar with the biological effects of radiation as then poorly understood. The records show that her white cell count had plummeted to 400 per cubic millimeter of blood, less than a tenth of normal. She began shedding clumps of hair the following day. On August 21, her temperature soared to almost 104 degrees. Tsuzuki, who must have realized that her bone marrow had been destroyed, ordered blood transfusions. Her white cell count dipped to 300 per cubic mm on August 22. With essentially no immune system, infectious ulcers formed around her original injuries. More blood transfusions. On August 23, she developed ulcers around a needle injection site, plus hemorrhagic macules the size of rice grains over her entire body. Yet more blood transfusions. Her temperature hit 104.72 degrees on August 24 and she died at 12:30 p.m. Tsuzuki noted the cause of death as "A-bomb disease," making Midori Naka the world's first recognized fatality from radiation exposure.

Scientists within the Manhattan Project had known that the bomb would release lethal amounts of radiation, of course. But the medical profession was in the dark about that, like everyone else, and still infatuated with X-rays for imaging and sundry therapies. Tsuzuki and his colleagues were now in possession of priceless data from their treatment of Midori Naka and other survivors who staggered to their doorstep, which the U.S. Army quickly began to confiscate and hoard. Her autopsy remains were not returned to Japan until 1973. It is likely that the Japanese doctors hid some of their paper work, which was finally located all these years later by family descendants of the medical team.

What is there to say now about Midori Naka? That she was not the only innocent person to die a ghastly death in World War II? That no one, let alone a beautiful young actress, should ever awake on a fine morning and see a nuclear weapon detonate outside the kitchen window? That a new kind of bomb created out of fear that Hitler would make one first should never have been dropped on a city in Japan? That war debases every combattant nation, whether winner or loser? That the asking of these questions is never over, never settled, never sewn up. That Midori Naka should be pondered every year at this time by anyone who feels the need to make sense of senselessness.