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How a Hiroshima survivor helped remember 12 U.S. POWs killed by bomb

May 27, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now a different look at the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing and a story rarely told.

John Yang has that.

JOHN YANG: Among the thousands killed at Hiroshima were 12 American prisoners of war, the crew of three planes that were shot down on Hiroshima area.

Today, President Obama noted their deaths, as well as the quiet, diligent, four-decades-long effort of one man, Shigeaki Mori, a survivor of the bombing, who wanted to memorialize the 12 Americans. Mori attended Mr. Obama’s speech, and the two men embraced.

Now a new film called “Paper Lanterns” charts Mori’s quest as he sought permission from two of the families of the 12 POWs to register their names for a memorial.

Here is a clip from the film, where Ralph Neal of Kentucky and Susan Brissette Archinski of Massachusetts read the letters Mori sent them seven years ago about their uncles.

SUSAN BRISSETTE ARCHINSKI, Niece of U.S. Veteran: “Dear Mrs. Susan Brissette Archinski.”

RALPH NEAL, Nephew of U.S. Veteran: “Dear Mr. Ralph Neal, I hope this letter finds you well. My name is Shigeaki Mori, a 72-year-old A-bomb survivor and a historian living in Hiroshima, Japan.

“For a long time, I have been reading about American soldiers killed by the atomic bomb. I have erected a memorial dedicated to their unfortunate death. The 64th anniversary of the A-bomb of the city is coming around soon. On this day every year, memorial services are held in the Peace Park under the auspices of the Hiroshima mayor.

“A stone room in the center of the cenotaph, a main structure in the center of the park, contains a list of the domestic and overseas victims of the A-bomb, including those American soldiers who happened to be in the city when the bomb exploded.

SUSAN BRISSETTE ARCHINSKI AND RALPH NEAL: “This is my belief, that names of all victims should be acknowledged equally, regardless of their nationalities.”

SUSAN BRISSETTE ARCHINSKI: “To have one’s name registered, however, an application needs to be filed by a member of the deceased’s family.”

RALPH NEAL: “I have so far contacted the bereaved of nine of the 12 Americans killed by the bomb and submitted the applications to the city on their behalf. And now I am hoping to have the name of Mr. Ralph Neal.”

SUSAN BRISSETTE ARCHINSKI: “Of Mr. Normand Brissette included in the list before this year’s ceremony.”

RALPH NEAL: “I am so happy now that I have finally found you some 20 years after I started in my research. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely yours, Mr. Mori.”

JOHN YANG: We are joined now by the man who made this film Barry Frechette.

Barry, thanks for joining us.

BARRY FRECHETTE, Director, “Paper Lanterns”: Thank you.

JOHN YANG: First of all, I have got to tell you how really moving and powerful this movie is.

Now, this is a story that certainly I wasn’t aware of, and I think a lot of people aren’t aware of. How did it come to you and why did you want to tell this story?

BARRY FRECHETTE: Well, it came to me in a couple ways.

One was, it’s — my great uncle was Normand Brissette’s great, best friend growing up in. And so, in our family, we kind of knew of it. But to be honest, as a kid growing up, it really didn’t have the same impact.

And then through family members, the Brissette family, who are all very close up in Lowell, Massachusetts, made a book just memorializing Normand. And it had some paper — newspaper clippings and other things.

And made its way into my hands three, three-and-a-half years ago now. And it has a picture of Normand on the front, and I was just captured with the idea of a 19-year-old kid in Hiroshima, so far away from home, and witnessing something absolutely terrible. So, I was captured by that.

JOHN YANG: And the movie builds to the final sequence. It takes place in the same park where President Obama spoke this morning.

BARRY FRECHETTE: Right.

JOHN YANG: The ceremony of the paper lanterns, where families of people who died in bombings set off — set lanterns off into the river.

Was this the first time, though, Mr. Mori had gone?

BARRY FRECHETTE: It was.

We went over with Ralph to visit with Mr. Mori during the anniversary of this past year. And I think all of us were kind of assuming he had been there before. But you know what? We were there that morning, and his wife had said he had never gone, and it was really a shocker to us.

And then upon asking him and digging a little deeper, he just didn’t really feel like he had family there, and didn’t have a right the go. But this time, he did. He was with the Neal family, with Ralph Neal. And it was really moving. And it became much more important, I think, for us to sort of share that moment together and actually place lanterns in the water for the airmen and for the memories.

JOHN YANG: I should point out that Mr. Mori was 8 years old, was in Hiroshima, witnessed the attack, spent 40 years researching the American POWs. Why? Why was he doing this?

BARRY FRECHETTE: Well, at first, you know, we thought he’s a historian at heart, so uncovering these facts and bringing them to light, and bringing them to light for a good reason, that was important.

But digging in with him further and after three trips, I think he really opened up to us. And he was supposed to be in a school much, much closer to the epicenter. And for some reason, he was away. He was just moved out of the school.

So, he would have been right where most of the American POWs died. And I think, for him, he felt a connection to them that they were lost and a long way from home, and he felt like they were forgotten. And it was important for him to kind of tell their story, and at the very least make sure the relatives knew what happened to their loved ones, and that put them on this quest and it brought us to this moment this morning.

JOHN YANG: This morning, when President Obama spoke, you were up watching, you told me.

BARRY FRECHETTE: Yes. We — the whole paper lantern family are very well connected, and a lot of tweets and messages and postings going around at the same time.

JOHN YANG: What was going through your mind when you heard first the president mention Mr. Mori, didn’t saw him, but then when you saw the two speak and embrace?

BARRY FRECHETTE: It’s a moment that we never thought would actually happen.

And we have this special place in our heart for him, because he’s done so much, and he’s a very humble man. And when that moment happened, it was really likely like it was the spirits of everyone. The 12 Americans, all of us were there with them, and I think there was a — there was a lot of crying and a lot of emotional moments.

But it’s something none of us will ever forget, seeing that, and I’m so happy it happened.

JOHN YANG: It’s — people see this movie. It’s called “Paper Lanterns.” It’s something people they never forget.

Barry Frechette, thanks for being with us.

BARRY FRECHETTE: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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