Pacifican Michiko Taguchi Benevedes was buried with little fanfare last month in Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno. Because she died in June 2020, as a global pandemic raged, her ashes weren’t placed next to her husband’s for more than a year.
But Janell Seyer, an acquaintance who ultimately held the medical power of attorney for Benevedes, thought her friend deserved notice. After all, Benevedes was a survivor for a long time.
Like many immigrants who make it to 88, Benevedes lived a full life. Born in Japan, she married an American and came to California. She enjoyed ballroom dancing and was renowned for her beauty. She also possessed a Bomb Survivors Certificate Number: 1274760.
Benevedes was 13 when, at 3:47 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1945, an American pilot named Charles Sweeney settled into the cockpit of an American B-29 nicknamed “Bock’s Car.” Tucked into the bomb bay that day was the most destructive device ever deployed in an act of war, a bomb they called “Fat Man.”
The bomb detonated 1,650 feet over the heart of Nagasaki. Somewhere below lived a teenager then known as Michiko Taguchi. The blast was 40 percent more powerful than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima three days earlier. Forty-thousand people died instantly, many vaporized by the blast. Another 30,000 died in the months to come. And, over the next five years, 100,000 deaths were attributed to the Nagasaki bombing, according to the National World War II Museum. Countless others were affected the rest of their lives by radiation poisoning. The Radiation Effects Research Foundation found evidence of 507 types of cancer in tens of thousands of survivors. Like Benevedes, many struggled with health woes, including hair loss and inability to conceive.
“I became involved with her because I manage the storage facility,” Janell Seyer said. Benevedes kept her dancing gowns and other mementos at Crespi Mini Storage in Pacifica. The women struck up a conversation and became friends.
“What struck me about her when I very first met her was what an incredibly well put together, gracious, regal human being she appeared to be,” Seyer said. “She looked like she was stepping out of a Vogue magazine.”
In photos and on video, Benevedes commands attention. Well into her 80s, her makeup and wigs were impeccable. “She wasn’t flamboyant, but you know the queen’s wave?” Seyer asked. “When we would go into a restaurant people would look at her.”
Over the course of their friendship, Benevedes told Seyer about the aftermath of the bombing. She recalled being buried alive under the family house and how her cousin burned to death that day. She recalls her mother digging her out from the smoldering remains of the family home.
She told Seyer that her family traveled by boat to her grandmother’s home in the Goto Islands, a story recounted in a book called, “American Survivors: Trans-Pacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” by Naoko Wake. In the book authored by Wake, a history professor at Michigan State University, Benevedes recounts a harrowing 10-hour journey in a rowboat to the island, and that when they arrived her mother and cousins died, presumably as a result of radiation poisoning. She told Wake that she had stepped on a nail and that the wound was worsening. She had a fever that her grandmother was able to quell with homemade medicine. (In an email, Wake wrote that she remembered well her conversation with Benevedes. “She is an incredible individual whose life calls for much thought,” she wrote.)
Benevedes told Seyer that she survived but that six of her family members were dead within a month. Her own hair fell out and purple spots dotted her skin. She vomited blood for a time. But she survived.