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Eighty-eight-year old Linda Yasuko Morikouchi at her home in East Vancouver. Morikouchi, who still teaches Japanese, was headed back to Hiroshima from Manchuria when some Japanese soldiers told her about the dropping of nuclear bombs.

Lyle Stafford/lyle stafford The Globe and Mail

Sixty-four years ago today, on a sunny Monday morning in Hiroshima, an unsuspecting civilian population became the first humans to experience firsthand the horrors of nuclear warfare.

A lone atomic bomb dropped from U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay erased more than 70,000 lives in little more than a heartbeat. Thousands more died in the terrible aftermath.

For Linda Yasuko Morikouchi, a still-spry 88-year-old living in a cozy bungalow on Vancouver's east side, Hiroshima Day never passes without a shudder. She was there. Or almost there.

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Although Ms. Morikouchi was born in Vancouver's Japantown, Hiroshima had been her home base since the mid-1930s. It was where she finished school and where she launched her teaching career - and where she was heading when the city was knocked flat. Only the vagaries of war kept her from sharing the fate of relatives, former students and so many others.

"I always thank God that he blessed me with life," Ms. Morikouchi said yesterday, recalling the tumultuous wartime events of long ago. "I should have been dead, like everyone else."

As it was, she and her husband learned of Hiroshima's devastation while they were returning to Japan from a brief stay in Manchuria in China, where the Allies' tightening military noose had brought Japan's 14-year occupation to an end.

"We met some Japanese soldiers at a train station. They told us that Hiroshima had been bombed, and there was nothing left," Ms. Morikouchi said.

That grim notice, however, did nothing to prepare her for the reality of what she saw when she finally made it back.

"You could see from Hiroshima all the way to the next train station. There were no buildings in between. All you could see were burnt-out tree trunks," Ms. Morikouchi said. "I couldn't believe it. There was nothing. Nothing, I tell you."

Rough shacks were soon going up in the razed city. Ms. Morikouchi, her husband and infant daughter ended up with a two-storey, shed-like structure on one of Hiroshima's many riverbanks. "There was no time for nightmares. You had to start working."

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Thanks to the English she grew up with in Vancouver, Ms. Morikouchi quickly found translation work, including the preparation of texts for approval by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. Life improved.

But the scars of Aug. 6, 1945, were never far away. "You'd see people on the street," Ms. Morikouchi said. "I remember one young lady. She was beautiful on one side of her face. The other side was red and gnarled and everything."

The worst moment was running into five of her former students, who had been outside the city when the bomb fell. "With tears in their eyes, they told me that they were the only ones from my class of 52 girls to survive. All the others had been at work that morning, helping to clean the city. Every one of them died," said Ms. Morikouchi, who did not return to Vancouver from Japan until 1974.

"Later, when I went to the museum and saw their pictures, tears just flowed down my cheeks."

Looking back, she said she had never been in favour of Japan's military aggression during the 1930s and 1940s. "When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, I was in normal school. All my school friends were shouting, 'Banzai!' But I had mixed feelings. I was Canadian, so I just kept quiet. I didn't like what was happening at all."

The attack on Hiroshima strongly reinforced her opposition to war. "People should know that war is a horrible thing. And the ones who suffer the most are not the ones who make the wars. It's the ordinary people."

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Like many of her generation, Ms. Morikouchi has endured enormous hardship and catastrophe. She credits her simple, homespun philosophy of life with sustaining her through all the turmoil.

"As long as you can eat, as long as you can sleep safely, that's all you need."

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