Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Dad and Nagasaki

Before I had ever seen this photo, my father described to me his eyewitness astonishment at the the devastation of Nagasaki and the "leaning smokestacks" he saw there in September/October 1945.

On this August week in 1945 the world was changed forever with the release of the atom bombs at Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9).

We could debate forever the efficacy of the decision to use these terrible weapons; but one thing you can say--nobody has been foolish enough to start a world war in the sixty-four years since.

My father was on Ie Shima, a tiny island less than a mile from Okinawa, when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The American fighter pilots, who flew from the airstrip he had built and was maintaining under daily bombings by the Japanese, said they could see the mushroom cloud that day when they went up on patrol.

Over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945. The A-bomb there ended the war and thus may have saved at least a million lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese home islands. But the end still came at a terrible cost.

It was all over very soon after that, and my father--on standby to be part of the invasion of the Japanese home islands (scheduled for November 1945)--was relieved, along with the rest of America, that the horrible war was finally at an end. On September 23, the U.S. Marines came ashore at Sasebo to begin the Occupation and shortly afterward (and before the typhoon hit on October 8, 1945) my father and his Army Corps of Engineers aviation battalion also came ashore in Sasebo to occupy and improve the airfield there.

My father on steamy Ie Shima, July 1945.

He never spoke much about the three months he spent in Sasebo. He and my mother had married in Spokane, Washington in 1944, after a rather brief courtship. When they met, Dad was getting ready to go overseas to be part of the Battle of Okinawa. When he came home in November 1945, she reports that all he said was: "The Japanese children were really cute."

It wasn't until many years later, when I was visiting my grandmother in Spokane and we were paging through her scrapbook, that a newspaper clipping caught my eye and began to fill in some of the blanks. Dated September or October 1945, it was headlined something like this: "Captain Chapman Visits A-Bomb Site" and told about my father's visit to Nagasaki, quoting him on the destruction he had seen there. I wondered what he had been doing there? I wondered why he had never mentioned it? I wanted to ask him about it. But until recently, I did not.

In recent years, with the onset of his illness, my Dad has been talking much more about his memories of World War II, so I've begun to research the War's end in the Pacific, the part of the conflict about which I've known the least. Sasebo, where my father was part of the first days of the Occupation, is just 29 miles across a very small bay from Nagasaki.

According to the Marines Corps archives on the Occupation of the Sasebo/Nagasaki area, dated September 1945: "Lieutenant Colonel George L. Cooper later recalled: '[Nagasaki] Ground zero appeared to have been a rather large sports stadium [actually ground zero was bounded by the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works in the south and by the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works (Torpedo Works) in the north] and all of us were categorically ordered to stay out of any place within pistol shot of this area. The result of this order was that everybody and his brother headed directly for ground zero as soon as they could, and in no time at all had picked the area clean of all movable objects."

Which explains why my father toured Nagasaki. The war was over. He, like every other G.I., was bored and wanted to go home. He, like every other G.I., wanted to see the most amazing site in the world that was, in his case, just a jeep ride away. He went sightseeing. And what he saw there was so terrible he didn't speak about it for sixty-four years.

What was there, I asked him recently? "What was there? Nothing was there. It was flattened. Just those tilting smokestacks. Nothing else."

In May of this year, my father was diagnosed with leukemia/lymphoma. We're not yet sure what the treatment will be since he has a number of other ailments, but this week, during a visit to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, I told the doctor of my father's visit to the A-bomb site at Nagasaki. She raised her eyebrows. Leukemia/lymphoma can sometimes be connected with exposure to radiation. So we're looking into it further.

My father is going to be 90 in four months and, according to his doctor, something else is likely to take his life before this new disease does so.

But the connection is food for thought. He may be paying the price for a soldier's curiosity. He was very surprised to still be alive at the end of the War, he says. He probably thought he was now invincible.

Captain Chapman (third from left, back row) with his men on Ie Shima. Behind the group, you can see the small channel of water that separates Ie Shima from the hilly terrain of Okinawa. Behind the group of men on the other side, you see what looks like a rice field surrounded by a white picket fence, topped by a tall flag post sporting an America flag. Those are graves and the white wood are the crosses. July 1945.

Securing the Surrender: the Occupation of Japan

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1 comment:

Robin Chapman said...

Someone wrote to ask if my father's leukemia/lymphomia was acute or chronic. It is chronic, which means he is not threatened by the disease at present. But it does weaken him and may mean he'll need transfusions when the disease causes him to becomes too anemic.