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Released May 23, 2003


By Karen B. Gibbs

HATTIESBURG - Nagasaki, Japan, August 9, 1945. Ground zero for the second atomic bomb. The sudden wail of sirens warns 14-year-old Japanese schoolgirl Akiko "Aki" Ogino to seek shelter beneath a metal shelf in the munitions factory where she and her classmates are required to work. A bone-jarring explosion rips the top off the mountain that houses the factory. Aki watches, terrified, as a clock on the wall in front of her melts to the floor. Around her lie the bodies of dead classmates.

In shock, she scrambles from the wreckage and frantically runs with fellow students to a vacant house outside of Nagasaki. The next morning, she begins her walk along the three-plus miles of railroad tracks leading to her home. So intent is she on reaching the safety of her family that she scarcely notices the superheated train tracks searing the flesh of her feet or the poisonous radiation soaking into her body.

Six years later, Aki sits quietly as the Greyhound bus she is riding in arrives at the station in Hattiesburg, home of The University of Southern Mississippi. There she is greeted by the welcoming arms of a group of Methodist church ladies. They embrace Aki, shower her with presents and hold a party in her honor.

The bridge that brought Aki from Nagasaki to Hattiesburg was begun by her father, Satoru, an engineer who designed Japan's biggest warship. After the war ended, Satoru took many American soldiers into his home. It was during one such gathering that Marine Lt. Col. George Cooper, son of a Hattiesburg war hero, got to know Aki. For months, he would visit her as she lay bedridden with radiation sickness.

As she regained her strength, Aki would join her family in entertaining the American soldiers. An accomplished pianist, she was pleased whenever her father would ask her to play the piano for them.

One day, Cooper told Mr. Ogino that he and his wife wanted to pay for Aki to attend Mississippi Southern College (MSC), now The University of Southern Mississippi. Aki said she was enthusiastic about the offer. "Everyone wanted to go to (America) because it was free and rich and like a dreamland for us at the time," she explained.

Aki's father took Cooper up on the offer, and so 20-year-old Aki traveled alone by ship to San Francisco. From there she took a Greyhound bus to Lake Charles, La., where she stayed with Cooper's relatives for a week before heading to Hattiesburg. And there, from the moment she stepped off the bus, she said she felt herself surrounded by loving, caring people.

Hattiesburg opened its arms to Aki, and MSC introduced her to lifelong friends, but after more than a year there she began to grow homesick. Having learned much, she returned home to Japan, grateful to the people of the United States who welcomed, educated and cared for her.

Aki eventually married Kinjito Sugaya, who was also educated in America. Aki went on to teach English in a girl's high school in Tokyo. She and her husband reside in Tokyo and have two children and six grandchildren.

Recently, Aki returned to the Southern Miss campus. She said the change she most noticed was the great increase in the number of buildings. But despite the physical changes, Aki said the friendly atmosphere had remained the same. "I never, never forget the warm Southern hospitality," she said. "I could not find any words to express my great gratitude to many American people."

These days, Aki and her husband are active in Friendship Force International (FFI), a group founded by Jimmy Carter to promote peace through international friendships and visits. "Now I believe that my duty is to tell the young people how atomic bombs which people have made will destroy our dear earth into hell if once again wars would happen," she said. "I was 14 years old (when Nagasaki was bombed) and just scared (because of) the bombing.

"I am now old enough to have the courage to say the truth, that human beings could be very dangerous as well as generous and kind. We are fortunate to believe that God loves all the people of the world beyond religions, races and colors. And we should know to never use such a dangerous weapon."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM