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Kamaishi resident Otoko Wada couldn’t help but recall how the U.S. Navy shelled the local steel plant 70 years ago, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, rocked Iwate Prefecture and left the city in ruins all over again.

“The distressing scene was the same as at that time,” Wada, 85, said recently at her nursing home in Kamaishi. “The whole town was gone. I got choked up inside as I thought I never wanted to see it again.”

Kamaishi is the birthplace of Japan’s modern steel industry. After experiencing two huge tsunami in modern times — in 1896 and 1933 — it became the first target of the U.S. naval bombardment of Honshu in the closing days of the war.

Kamaishi’s recovery from the quake and tsunami, which left 1,040 residents dead or missing, has yet to begin in earnest, and its huge vacant lots remain empty, waiting for families and businesses to return.

On July 14, 1945, Wada was a first-year high school student working at the local iron mill run by Japan Iron & Steel Co., now Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., under the government’s student mobilization program. The plant was destroyed by two hours of artillery fire from 14 U.S. warships off Kamaishi.

Wada and the other students fled from the attack to a tunnel in a hill, along with forced laborers uprooted from the Korean Peninsula. They were the lucky ones.

Afterward, “I saw a sea of dead bodies” because the nearby air-raid shelters had been hit directly by bombs, she said.

Less than a month later, Kamaishi was bombarded for a second time, on Aug. 9, leaving a total of death toll of 756 citizens from the two attacks, according to data released by the city office.

On Aug. 15, Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender to end World War II. Wada shed tears but felt glad because she could study again.

The steel plant resumed blast furnace operations in May 1948.

“We were flooded with orders to produce various goods needed for postwar reconstruction,” recalled Chuzo Fujiwara, 89, who was working at the plant at that time.

But the plant was unable to expand despite the booming business of the mid-1950s because Kamaishi is surrounded by mountains and situated away from the major markets. After the steel industry underwent a nationwide rationalization in the second half of the 1970s, the plant shut down its last blast furnace in 1989 and shifted production exclusively to wire rods.

In 2011, the city was all but obliterated by the tsunami spawned by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off its coast. Fujiwara’s 81-year-old wife, Haru, was found dead eight days later.

Fujiwara, who now lives in a borrowed house away from the sea, does not know when he can return to the place where his home used to stand because land reclamation is making slow progress. Before the disasters, he used to look after a stone statue that was dedicated to the victims of the naval bombardments.

Wada, who worked as an elementary school teacher after the war, survived the tsunami because she was undergoing physical therapy to recover from brain surgery at a hospital that was further inland. But more than 200 of her acquaintances, including friends who survived the U.S. naval bombardments and former students, died in the disasters.

Although reconstruction is underway in Kamaishi, Wada feels the city lacks the vitality it had after the war. Kamaishi was “energetic when smoke was rising from stacks at the ironworks,” she said.

Wada also worries that its population, which has fallen to about 40 percent of its peak of about 92,000, may drop further if its revival is further delayed.

In late January, Wada, who has decided to spend the rest of her life at the nursing home, stood near the tunnel where she took shelter from the bombardment and looked down at the vacant lots of land and a new road.

The landscape had changed completely.

“I hope young people, with the grit of Kamaishi that has overcome many hardships, will rebuild the city,” she said.

“I wonder how the city will change,” she asked.

“I’m sad. I really am.”

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