For most of her life, Masuko Harada Swick didn’t talk about what happened in Hiroshima. Her husband and daughter knew her parents died shortly after her hometown was bombed by American forces in World War II.
But Mrs. Swick held her trauma close while making a life in America built around helping people.
A few years ago, though, she began opening up. After being diagnosed with osteoporosis and suffering several injuries, Mrs. Swick started telling her family what she remembered.
She died Aug. 16 from a heart attack. She never told anyone her age, her husband said.
“It was her secret.”
It’s one she gets to keep.
Aug. 6, 1945
Kameichi Yamada was about 40 and had two older children when her youngest, a surprise, was born. Her husband, Yuku Harada, was a botanist. The family traced their ancestry to the samurai. In the summer of 1945, after years of war, the Haradas sent their three children to grandma’s house in the country.
On the day the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Mrs. Swick and her older siblings were 100 miles away. The next day, she’d later tell her daughter, the three children made their way home. Their parents had only a few scratches, but they were already dying from severe radiation.
It took just a few days.
Mrs. Swick and her siblings took their bodies to a park and burned them on a bridge over a koi pond. For 10 years, they saved their remains until they could afford to bury them.
Marine Corps Second Lt. Robert Swick had five days left in Vietnam when he was wounded on a mission he’d volunteered for. He spent four months recovering in Pennsylvania before being reinstated and sent to Japan.
Swick, based in Iwakuni, frequently went to Hiroshima. In the 1960s, he found two types of restaurants in Japan — those for everyone, and those just for the Japanese.
“Being me, I went into the one strictly for the Japanese,” Swick said. “On one visit, I saw this lovely lass as the cashier, so I made sure I went back to that restaurant more than once.”
That woman, his future wife, knew about as much English as the young Marine knew Japanese. But they arranged a date. Mrs. Swick chose a movie in English with Japanese subtitles.
When he asked her to marry him, Mrs. Swick agreed, but he had to get permission from her brother, who’d raised her. Yutaka Harada, a retired veteran from the Japanese Navy who’d fought in World War II, wore his full uniform for the meeting. And he agreed to the marriage.
The couple was married off base with two priests, one who could speak English and one Japanese.
“She was a courageous young lady,” Swick said.
That courage showed itself in America.
Adjusting to life here
The Swicks moved to Mount Kisko, N.Y. , where Mrs. Swick took night classes and started teaching herself English by watching television. In the U.S., they found swelling anti-military sentiment. And racism.
Sometimes, Robert Swick said, his wife was ignored by people who sat at the same table.
“She held her head high and got through it.”
They moved to Ridgefield, Conn., where they built a home and helped start a Marine Corps League. That group brought together veterans and their families suffering from something that didn’t have a name at the time — post-traumatic stress disorder.
“That saved our lives, literally,” Robert Swick said.
The group, which Mrs. Swick kept running, channeled the veterans’ pain into community service, including fundraising and marches on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
The couple turned pain into a blessing again when they found out they couldn’t have children and decided to adopt.
“We often said we had 15 years of bliss and then we had Mika,” Robert Swick said, laughing. “And she would throw a shoe at me every now and then.”
Mrs. Swick taught herself to sew and made school dresses for her daughter.
“She always packed the best lunches,” Mika Swick said.
Sometimes, her mom would visit school and bring McDonald’s. Mrs. Swick took in her daughter’s friends who needed support, and she took her daughter back to Japan twice for visits.
The Swicks moved to Florida in the late ‘80s, following close friends. Mrs. Swick loved to entertain. She grew roses and carnations in her garden. She spoke for hours on the phone with her niece, Kumi, in Japan. After decades of discrimination, it took awhile for her aloofness to vanish around new people, her husband said.
“And when it did, she’d just embrace everybody.”
Nine years ago, Robert Swick answered the call to join the ministry and was ordained in a sect of the Catholic Church that allows married priests. His wife would often join him for Mass at his church, St. Francis of Assisi in Dunedin.
As her health gradually declined, she stayed busy. She often took elderly friends to doctor’s visits. And when she became a grandma to Justin, she’d run around the house and play with him like she wasn’t, well, however old she really was.
Mrs. Swick never talked about how she felt about losing her parents in Hiroshima. But she was proud of where she came from, Mika Swick said, and hoped to take Justin, now 4, to Japan someday.
After her death, the Swicks found a translator who could tell her family back home the news. After the call, the translator said she was leaving soon for Japan. Did they have anything she could take for them?
They gave her a small urn with some of Mrs. Swick’s ashes. Last week, her family in Japan held a ceremony to celebrate Mrs. Swick’s life and welcome part of her home.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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