NAGASAKI/HIROSHIMA – Mitsuo Baba is still grateful to an American who dedicated himself to building homes for A-bomb survivors in Nagasaki, one of two cities destroyed by the terrifying weapons in World War II.
“I met Schmoe-san only a couple of times as a kid and almost never talked with him, but all the residents, including myself, wanted to repay him for his kindness someday,” Baba, 73, said.
Floyd Schmoe, a Quaker, peace activist and professor of forestry who died in 2001 at the age of 105, led a project to build homes in the wake of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Despite all the time that’s passed since Schmoe and his associates began building the houses in 1949, former residents clearly remember those days and ensure the memory of their effort lives on.
Born in 1895 in Kansas, Schmoe was teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle when the Pacific War broke out in 1941. As the war dragged on despite the defeat of Japan’s Nazi ally in Europe, the United States made the fateful decision to try a new weapon — the atomic bomb — on Japan.
Distraught about the fate of the cities’ residents, Schmoe came up with the idea of building houses for them, according to research by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
After returning from his first trip to Japan in 1948, Schmoe enlisted his colleagues’ help. With donations of about $4,300 and building materials, he and three U.S. partners arrived in Hiroshima in August 1949.
Within that month they had begun building four houses with six young volunteers from Tokyo and local residents. A ceremony to present them to the city was held in October. They were supposed to be named Schmoe House, but that was effectively rejected when Schmoe called them the Heiwa Jutaku, or Peace Houses, in his speech.
Referring to those who financially backed the project and individuals who committed themselves to the labor, Schmoe said the houses expressed the goodwill of many Americans who rued the use of the bombs.
Baba guesses Schmoe’s low-key nature is probably one reason why “he’s not well-known, even in Nagasaki.”
Although his helpers changed each year, Schmoe and his group traveled to Japan every summer for five years through 1953, and set up at least 30 residences and community houses in the two cities.
Baba was born in the town of Kohoku in Saga, the prefecture next to Nagasaki, about three months after it was bombed. The Nagasaki A-bomb exposed him to radioactive fallout while in his mother’s womb, killed his father and destroyed their home.
He said it was in 1951 or 1952 when he, his mother and three elder brothers moved into one of Schmoe’s houses upon their return to Nagasaki when he was 5.
“At first, what surprised me was that the house had its own private faucet in the kitchen instead of a shared one outside,” said Baba, looking back on the day he saw it for the first time. “And of course, we were so happy about getting our own home.”
None of the structures Schmoe erected in the Nagasaki project remains standing today.
Baba has lived in a municipal apartment since it was finished in 1977 at the site where houses built for Schmoe’s project were torn down. His building is named Schmoe Apartment and has a plaque thanking the American on its wall. Residents of the demolished houses had demanded the new one commemorate Schmoe’s gift in some way.
“Given his character detesting publicity, this building’s name might go against his wishes,” Baba said with a laugh.
In Hiroshima, where no fewer than 21 Schmoe residences were built, the sole surviving building has been a branch of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum since 2012.
Dubbed “Schmoe House,” the 55-sq.-meter former community center displays house designs, a model and a hammer used in construction. It also introduces other Westerners who helped Hiroshima after the bombing.
The building always draws fewer than 10 visitors daily. Hiroko Nishimura, 61, representative of the Group for Learning from Floyd Schmoe, sometimes regales visitors with detailed stories about the exhibitions.
“Teaming up for one project can lead people with different backgrounds to a mutual understanding and peace. That’s what he embodied, and his story gave me courage,” said the Hiroshima native, whose late father survived the bombing.
She first heard about Schmoe in 2003 when she saw a news report about a vandalized statue of a Japanese hibakusha at Seattle Peace Park, which Schmoe also built.
Since setting up the group in 2004, its six members, all of whom are volunteer guides in Hiroshima, have been undertaking research, conducting interviews and collecting photos. They also compiled two booklets based on the information and made picture cards and illustrated books for children.
Nishimura and Baba met through the former’s door-to-door fieldwork searching for people who had lived in Schmoe’s houses.
“That means the action Schmoe-san took 70 years ago has been bringing us together, even today. I can’t stop (the research) because it’s so enjoyable,” Nishimura said.
Ryo Koyama, a curator at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, said the efforts of local citizens and the exhibitions at Schmoe House have sparked renewed interest in Schmoe in recent years.
“Visitors are still very few, but here you can deepen your understanding of how Schmoe-san and other foreign people have contributed to Hiroshima’s revival from the bombing,” Koyama said, adding, “By all means, we want many people to come here.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5