Worried Flatlands resident Joan Heaney — née Ikeda — was overjoyed to get in touch with her 86-year-old brother, Kuji, in Tokyo last week after the monster earthquake and tsunami clobbered Japan, shifting the coastline 2.4 meters, sweeping away entire villages, plunging the island nation into a nuclear crisis and killing nearly 7,000 people, with as many still missing.
Heaney’s brother informed her that his house was quivering like a bowl of Jell-O, and that he was huddled under a table with his 82-year-old wife, Michko, their heads covered by crude helmets he had made out of two hats and a cushion.
“Tthey live nearly 500 miles away from where the real devastation is going on!” says the 81-year-old woman who was born and raised in the capital city where she met her late husband, Walter, an American soldier from Mill Basin who brought his bride to the U.S. in 1952.
For Heaney, the twin disasters are a haunting reminder of a time when man, not Mother Nature, assailed her homeland.
She was just a teenager when the terrible news broke on Aug. 6, 1945.
“We heard on the radio that they had dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” she recalls.
By that day’s end, tens of thousands of people had been killed in each city, with tens of thousands fatalities to follow in the coming months.
The ordeal was one Heaney had come to expect.
She had endured the brutal fire-bombings conducted by the U.S. Army on more than 60 Japanese cities during its Pacific campaigns, resulting in more immediate deaths than in the Hiroshima or Nagasaki nuclear attacks.
“When you experience destruction like that everyday, it becomes natural to survive,” she says, describing Tokyo as a thriving, vibrant city before the relentless sorties decimated it.
“It was like downtown Brooklyn, only bigger, we had a park, we had a library, and many banks, hotels and all that; afterwards, it became like a ghost town.”
Heaney’s parents tried to persuade her to go and stay with relatives in the countryside where many Japanese had fled, but she refused.
“I was too young and naive to understand what was going on, but I knew if I was going to die, I was going to die with my family,” she says.
The earthquake has returned a flood of agonizing memories for the woman, reminding her of a time when she had no friends left because their families had relocated them, when she had no running water or electricity, and when she was always hungry.
“You had a roof over your head, and maybe a bowl of rice and a little soup, if you were lucky,” she says.
Even the smallest trip outside became a nightmare for Heaney during the spring and summer of 1945.
“I’d be walking home from school, and the sirens would go off, and everybody would start running to their homes or to the nearest shelter; sometimes, the planes came pretty close,” she remembers.
Her father built an underground bomb shelter in their garden, digging out the mud with his bare hands.
“It was so low that my head touched the ceiling,” discloses the woman, who spent many nights in the dank hole crouched down with her parents and brother, their arms entwining one another — all of them praying for sleep to quickly arrive.
“It was a scary feeling, you didn’t know the certainty of what was to become, it was very unsettling,” says Heaney, whose parents did their best to shield her from the carnage and destruction.
“But, I saw pictures of people with their bodies all burned, and their skin melted off,” she states.
Make no mistake that Japan’s national character will prevail over its current misfortune, vows Heaney, whose father rebuilt their home straight after the war.
“The Japanese people have a very strong constitution, and they will survive this experience, and through it become stronger and wiser, just like they did before,” she promises.