CHICAGO – About 14 years ago Clifton Daniel, a grandson of U.S. President Harry Truman, was moved when his son read about Sadako Sasaki, a child who battled cancer a decade after the atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima on Truman’s orders.
For the 67th anniversary of the bombing, Daniel will travel to Japan for the first time along with his wife and two sons to remember the victims, including Sasaki, who was 2 when the Aug. 6, 1945, blast occurred close to her home.
He will attend the annual peace ceremony in Hiroshima with Sasaki’s brother, Masahiro, who at 71 years old is a noted peace activist, and other relatives.
Daniel and his family will also attend the memorial service in Nagasaki.
“All of this came about because my son brought home Sadako’s story, she was the start of this for me,” the 55-year-old said in an interview at his Chicago home ahead of his trip to Japan, which begins Wednesday.
As the oldest grandson of the man who ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the former journalist had wrestled with how to address the family’s history with his three children.
In the story “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” which was read by his then 9-year-old son, Wesley, the young girl folds the cranes in the hope it will make her wish come true, in keeping with a Japanese legend.
Despite making scores of the paper birds from her hospital bed using any available material, she died at age 12 in 1955.
Her plight and death sparked a global antinuclear peace movement, putting hibakusha in the international spotlight.
Daniel recalled how his son loved folding the cranes and resonated with the “realistic” story because, as the young boy said, “it did not have a happy ending.”
The schoolboy did not connect the bombing with his great-grandfather’s actions. Daniel, however, felt it necessary for his son to read about that aspect of World War II.
“When he brought home that book I remember thinking . . . this is a good thing for them to read,” he said. “They should know the consequences of decisions.”
The invitation to Japan came about after a culmination of events set in motion more than a decade ago.
During the leadup to the bombing’s 55th anniversary in 2000, Daniel was interviewed by Japanese journalists and told one of them how Sadako Sasaki had impacted his family.
After learning of the interview, Masahiro Sasaki called Daniel and invited him to Hiroshima for the first time.
It took another decade before the two men met in New York after Masahiro Sasaki and his son, Yuji, donated one of Sadako Sasaki’s last remaining cranes to a Manhattan memorial center for the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
Daniel recounted how, in a meeting room of the Tribute Center, Masahiro Sasaki opened a plastic box and placed the last crane his sister made in his hand.
“Words do not seem adequate for how I felt at that moment . . . that meant so much,” he recalled when the tiny faded bird sat in his palm. “That’s the most powerful crane of all and it is the last one.”
The New York native was again invited to travel to Hiroshima and more concrete plans began to materialize, especially after Masahiro Sasaki pledged to give one of the rare cranes to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and did so earlier this year.
Daniel was looking forward to his Japan trip with a mixture of “excitement” and “nervousness,” and hoped his meetings with bomb survivors will be “helpful” for them.
At the events Aug. 6 in Hiroshima and Aug. 9 in Nagasaki he aims to join the survivors in their quest to push for a nuclear-free world.
“My grandfather, having ordered the use of the weapons, was nonetheless horrified by the destruction they caused and spent a great deal of his presidency trying to make sure that we never used those kinds of weapons again,” he explained.
While opinions are still divided on whether the use of the atomic bombs was a necessary means to end the war, Daniel said he has tried to avoid passing judgment.
“I have tried never to see it as a right or wrong thing to do,” he said. “There is no good decision in war.”
The trip will not be without its challenges, as he will be the first Truman relative ever to visit Japan.
“I am in a unique position,” he explained. “I wind up having to reconcile the fact that my grandfather ordered the use of those weapons and the fact that I know personally and could eventually be able to call them friends, the people who survived.”
While having already befriended the Sasakis and other Japanese survivors, he also pointed out another reality he faces in the United States. Countless American World War II veterans, he said, have shaken his hand, expressing gratitude for his grandfather’s decision, which they said saved the lives of many servicemen.
“I am being thanked on his behalf for saving lives, yet I could hold the last paper crane folded by a little girl who lost her life because of that,” he said.
Having only become interested and actively involved in preserving his grandfather’s legacy in his 30s, the honorary chairman of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute in Missouri nonetheless bears a responsibility to promote his legacy while also taking the opportunity to help promote efforts to rid the world of nuclear arms.
“I think my goal is to remember and honor the dead, to listen to the living and to do everything I can to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “The long-range goal is no more nuclear weapons, and I think that would be perfectly in keeping with what my grandfather would have wanted.”