Journey of a lifetime

“We don’t need any more war.”

— retired X-ray technician, social worker and missionary June Lamb

“It’s a small world after all,” observes globetrotter June Lamb, adding, “Good people find each other.”

Those words could be the septuagenarian’s motto. As a radiological researcher, social worker and missionary, she’s traveled through most of Asia and Europe and lived in Japan for some 15 years. In the process, she’s confronted firsthand the ugly aftermaths of nuclear weapons. And while it may have been simple wanderlust that first led Lamb overseas (growing up, she says, her mother encouraged the young June’s sense of adventure, and those promptings obviously took root), her initial venture proved to be only the beginning of a lifelong journey of conscience.

Five decades later, that same love of travel has now taken her back to Japan for a three-and-a-half-week visit — only this time, her excursion is also a quest for peace.

In the 1940s, the Asheville-area native headed off to Lees-McRae College, a Presbyterian school in Banner Elk, N.C., to earn an associate’s degree as a medical secretary. An inspiring apprenticeship with a science professor left her considering the idea of pursuing more schooling, but at age 20, her itchy feet prevailed.

“I wanted to join the Navy” as a way to see the world, she explained during a recent interview. It was an unusual aspiration at the time — the regular armed forces did not accept women. Undaunted, Lamb signed up for the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), a special branch of the Navy established during World War II.

“The WAVES allowed women to do something,” she noted, “but we weren’t in the naval ranks.” Furthermore, by the time Lamb completed basic training, World War II was winding down, so instead of being shipped to some exotic port of call, the would-be adventuress was slated to be sent to the closest available post to her home in Asheville. But she finagled an assignment to a medical center in Norman, Okla., where she served in the X-ray department.

“That’s where I discovered the Textbook for Radiological Technology by Leroy Sante,” remembered Lamb. Newly inspired, Lamb applied to the radiology program (which had only recently begun admitting women) at St. Louis University, where Sante taught. It was a Jesuit school, which worried her staunchly Presbyterian family and friends, but Lamb forged ahead with extending her education.

Returning to Asheville with a four-year degree in hand, the trailblazer began work at Norburn Hospital (which later became Memorial Mission), still longing for more excitement. So when Duke University invited her (based on the recommendations of her SLU Professors) to spend two years in Japan working with the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (founded through the National Research Council), Lamb eagerly packed her bags.

The Casualty Commission was a research organization, not a treatment facility. It was 1950, and the X-ray technician spent the next two years studying the bomb’s effects on the residents of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“We did demographic studies on the human population to sample the effects of radiation,” she explained. “For me, it was like saying, ‘Now we’re going to prove with a human sample what we already knew from animal research.'” But because Lamb arrived in Japan five years after the bombs were dropped, the infrastructure in the demolished cities had been substantially rebuilt and the worst of the short-term radiation impacts had passed, so she didn’t witness a great deal of suffering.

“I was just 26 years old, enjoying being in Japan and seeing this other culture,” she recalled. “I was always impressed with how nonresentful the people were.”

And as her two-year stint was drawing to a close, Lamb found herself already thinking about how she might get back to the country she’d grown so fond of. Her military aspirations had gradually fallen by the wayside as her humanitarian impulses — part of what had drawn her to the medical field to begin with — took precedence. While still in Japan, however, Lamb attended a Protestant service (reconnecting with her Presbyterian roots) and was inspired by this verse from Ephesians: “For it is by grace that you are saved by faith; not of your doing: It is the gift of God.”

“I said, ‘Oh, that’s the good news, and I want to share it with people,'” she recalled. “And that’s how I was inspired to know what I was going to do next.”

Returning to North Carolina, Lamb earned a degree in social work and became a missionary.

At this point in our interview, Kyoko Muecke (a Japanese-born writer who’s now traveling with Lamb) exclaimed, “So, even before you left Japan for the first time, you knew you’d return?”

“No, not really,” Lamb replied. “But when I told Frank Brown [at the Presbyterian Mission in Kobe] that I wanted to be a social worker, he told me the mission had just applied to have a medical social worker [on staff].”

Lamb returned to Japan in 1955 — just in time to help design both the X-ray department and the social-work program at the Yodogawa Christian Hospital in Osaka, where she worked for the next 13 years. “By that time, the Japanese women social workers were far more competent than I was, because they had the language,” noted Lamb. “The department was running fine.”

Even after her return to North Carolina, however, Japan kept cropping up in Lamb’s life.

In the late ’60s, a Japanese student named Norio Ohta came to Western North Carolina to attend Warren Wilson College. During his stay, he was introduced to the Lamb family. Decades later, Ohta sent a copy of a Japanese documentary on Nagasaki to his daughter, who was then attending her father’s alma mater. Lamb appeared in the video in her role with the Casualty Commission, and Ohta had recognized his American friend.

The tape made its way to the former X-ray technician, who enlisted the aid of a retired missionary who spoke Japanese to translate the language. After that, Lamb began showing the film locally — to Japanese-Americans, members of the anti-nuclear activist group Physicians for Social Responsibility, retired missionaries, and other interested viewers. It was at one such screening that Lamb and Muecke met.

“As a child, it was kind of a requirement that we visit Nagasaki or Hiroshima to learn what happened,” Muecke explained.

Those field trips, however, “were not a political education — just an education for facts,” added Lamb.

“Victims of the bombing tried to hide what happened to them out of fear of marriage or job discrimination,” continued Muecke. In traditional arranged marriages, she explained, anyone displaying disfigurement of any sort would not be considered a suitable mate. Growing up in Japan, she noted, “We didn’t learn how people felt or suffered; I never thought about it,” because people hid the atrocities they had suffered.

As she watched Ohta’s tape, Muecke recalled: “In the documentary, there was a man sitting on the floor. … He said he’d had 27 operations — that means he had to go through many agonies. Fortunately, he was able to marry and have two children. When his children wanted to know why he had the scars, he told them, ‘Maybe this is a punishment from God.'”

At that moment, Muecke knew she wanted to write the stories of the people who’d suffered through the bombings, to let everyone know that their pain was, indeed, not a punishment. She shares with Lamb a vision of enlightening others about the atrocities of war as a way to help create peace. “When I saw the video, I realized that, even nowadays, people don’t understand the tragic effect of what happens when you use an atomic bomb,” she said. “That bomb was made more than 50 years ago — it’s even stronger today.”

“We don’t need any more war,” Lamb declared.

Accordingly, on July 23, the two women began what Lamb has described as “a miraculous journey” with a stop-off in San Francisco so Muecke could read some of her essays over the air on the city’s Japanese-language radio station. In Japan, the pair’s agenda will include spending time north of Osaka and at a seaside resort that’s popular with Japanese tourists. Also on the schedule is a reunion with a woman who came to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission Center in the early 1950s and still remembers “a young foreign X-ray tech.”

For Lamb, it’s the culmination of a life marked by remarkable coincidences and unplanned encounters. “I would never be launched on this journey if my friend in Osaka had not taped the program [about] the atomic-bomb blast,” she observes.

The two women will join memorial services in Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and in Nagasaki on Aug. 9. “This is about sharing the human experience to know we’re not alone,” maintains Lamb, adding, “Our common humanity binds us.”

Asheville holds its own memorial service for the victims of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Wednesday, Aug. 6 at the Vance Monument. The Peace Vigil begins at 8:30 p.m.; participants are asked to dress in white. For more information, call 271-0022.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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