Hiroshima: A Personal Perspective

Posted on 06 August 2009


Hiroshima

“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

 

Prophetic and chilling, this Biblical admonition scripted centuries ago may well have been written at a far later date: August 6, 1945, to be exact.  On the day known afterward as “Hiroshima” for both the event and the city that it affected, the course of history was forever altered.  As an American soldier serving in the Pacific Arena, I found myself entangled in the changing tide that had begun with a well-planned and meticulously coordinated attack, the most devastating ever witnessed in recorded history.

 

On the day that Hiroshima fell, followed, like a horrific game of dominos, by the city of Nagasaki, three B-29’s rose separately into the skies over Tinian Island, in the Pacific, carrying deadly cargo.  Colonel Paul Tibbets commanded the Enola Gay namely, in an ironic twist of tenderness, for his mother.  It bore a single atomic bomb, code-named Little BoyThe Great Artiste, commandeered by Major Charles W. Sweeney, carried instrumentation gear, and under the direction of Captain George Marquardt, The Necessary Evil conveyed photographic equipment.  Over Iwo Jima, the three planes rendezvoused and headed for Japan in the longest six-hour flight ever known to man.

 

As a precaution, the bomb was armed en route to Japan and the safety devices removed a mere thirty minutes before reaching its primary target, the city of Hiroshima.  When the bomb found its mark, those aboard the B-29’s described the strike as a giant fireball and a mushroom cloud roiling into the sky that completely engulfed and destroyed the Japanese city.

 

Housed in Tokyo, Japan’s military headquarters sent out a plane to investigate the sudden and complete lack of communication from Hiroshima.  Nothing had prepared the pilot and crew for the sight they beheld, of a once thriving city burning like Hell and reduced to rubble.  Immediately, the Japanese government sent aid to Hiroshima, but it was too late; indeed, it would forever be too late.  Although the bomb itself had killed 70,000 people, the fall-out claimed another 70,000 lives in the years to follow.

 

After the bombing, the Allied Forces demanded that the Emperor of Japan surrender under the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.  Had he refused, he was promised that more death would rain from the skies over Japan.  The Japanese do not believe in surrender; a proud people with a fierce sense of nationalism, they wished to negotiate different terms. Having witnessed Japanese resolve, I was acquainted with the suicide (Kamikaze) bombers at Iwo Jima, and the realization that our enemies would prefer to fight to the death rather than surrender.

 

August 9, 1945, the Allied Forces prompted the Emperor of Japan’s decision by way of another B-29 named Bockscar. Armed with a second atomic bomb, the plane unleashed its weapon, code-named Fat Boy, over the city of Nagasaki, Japan. Confronted with destruction on a scale never before witnessed, the Emperor tendered an unconditional surrender under the terms of the Potsdam Convention; on August 12th, he sued for peace.

 

While history was being made, I was aboard a troopship, the U.S.S Extavia in the Pacific Ocean, when our Captain announced the surrender of the Japanese.  We had been heading toward Japan, scheduled to converge with a force of other ships, planes, and troops in the event that a Japanese invasion was necessary.  Thus combined, the size of this force would have dwarfed the greatest armada that had crossed the English Channel on D-Day, in 1944.

 

In Tokyo Bay aboard the Battleship Missouri, on September 2, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Allied Commander, and the Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shegimitsu officially ended World War ll by signing the instruments of Unconditional Surrender.

 

In October of that year, we who had been designated to invade Japan secured and occupied the islands of that nation.  Assigned to the 24th Infantry Division, I landed, with other military units, on the island of Shikoko and set up camp in the town of Matsuyama.  The tents that my fellow soldiers and I pitched would become our homes for the next several months.  As 1946 dawned, we were ordered to replace His Majesty’s Royal Cameron Highlanders at Okayama, on the main island of Honshu. Mess Sgt. Werner Poppe selected three men to accompany him, to set up an advanced military kitchen in that city.  Those three men were Tony Prikosovich (the cook), Paul Bartels (the mess driver), and Tom Petruzzelli (yours truly, who manned the stoves).  With a truck weighing three-quarters of a ton, we hauled a small water carrier over the mountains of Shikoko to a ferry station at Takamatsu on the inland sea.  Boarding the ferry, we then sailed across the inland sea to the town of Uno on the island of Honshu.  The Captain of the ferry invited us up to the wheelhouse and offered us sake, a Japanese wine fermented from rice.  Harsh, hot, and completely colorless, it slid down my throat like fire, bearing little resemblance to the wine I sometimes drank at Sunday dinner prior to my experience with the U.S. military.

 

Landing at Uno, we then motored to Okayama where a page out of a Rudyard Kipling novel awaited my fellows and me. Uno had been secured previously by Scottish forces, which dominated the Asian landscape with their plaid kilts and keening bagpipes; truly, it was sight to behold.  We bunked with Sgt. Major MacDonald, who allowed us to photograph him and a friend in uniform.  Before the Scots left, they put on quite a show for the Americans, which included bagpipe playing and the lively Highland Fling (a Scottish native dance).  Okayama was to house us for the next few months, until our last move to the island of Kyushu.

 

In the latter part of that spring, we were ordered to the southern-most island of Japan: Kyushu.  Landing at a town named Moji near Sasebo, we then motored to the Kitagawa Racetrack area and set up camp near a town named Kokura. This would be our final home in The Land of the Rising Sun until our replacements arrived.  Summer was on the wane and the coolness of the night air brought the hint of autumn.  Soon, we would mark the one-year anniversary of the end of World War II, and that of my own year of living in the Japanese islands.  Rumors flew, bringing with them the hope of heading back home to America once our units were replaced. 

 

In September of 1946, when those rumors were realized as truth, I said, “Sayonara” to Japan as well as the good friends I had made during the most surreal year of my life.  Knowing it would be the last time that we would see each other, the departure was bittersweet.  After a train ride to Yokohama, my unit and I boarded the U.S.S  Hood Victory.  Our voyage home took a northerly route, ferrying us past the Aleutian Islands to the port city of Seattle, Washington in the good old USA.  As we passed the Aleutian Islands, our ship narrowly avoided striking a mine floating but a few hundred yards away, a near-catastrophe that caused quite a stir onboard.  Imagine surviving World War II and facilitating the transition for an entire year, only to meet death so close to home!  Thanks to the watchful eyes of the U.S Navy, I was spared that fate

 

Upon reaching Seattle, our final destination, there were no cheering crowds or marching bands to greet us; war weary America was not ready for us.  My separation from the U.S. Army began at Fort Lawton in the State of Washington.  The Army welcomed us home with a feast, telling us that anything our hearts desired was on the menu at the mess hall.  Then came the long journey home to Separation Centers all across the nation.  I was separated at Fort Mead, Maryland, and on November 17, 1946, I was Honorably Discharged from the U.S. Army.  On that day, World War II finally and truly ended for me.

 

Years after World War II, there was talk among some Americans that President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima constituted a war crime.  As one prepared to defend his country in the wake of Pearl Harbor, I heartily disagree with this perspective.  A President’s first priority is to defend the Constitution and protect American lives. By bringing the conflict in the Pacific to an abrupt halt, the bombs not only saved thousands of American and Allied lives but also thousands of Japanese lives that would have been lost in more drawn-out battle.

 

As you may well imagine, World War II has left an indelible mark upon me.  The things I that did, the things that I witnessed, the places I have been, and the people I have met have all impacted me, in ways both small and significant, my entire life.  Thanks to my mother’s prayers, President Truman’s decision, and the eagle eyes of my compatriots in the U.S. Navy, I was spared from becoming a casualty of war.





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12 Responses to “Hiroshima: A Personal Perspective”

  1. Editor says:

    At Hiroshima, we as Americans unleashed, for all the world to see, the awesome power of the atom and ushered in the Atomic Age. Through the eyes of this author, we, who were not even alive at that time, witness the horrors of war, the exhilaration of victory, and the joy and gratitude of being spared the fate of many who paid the ultimate price for freedom. Outstanding article!!!

  2. Karen says:

    What a walk down memory lane for those of us who were part of the Atomic age ushered in by Hiroshima.

    We at home didn’t know then of radiation and our boys headed right into it with no protection.

    I commend the author for his service to our country and his excellent article. I’d like to see him write more on Japan as it was then.

  3. Mae says:

    Very interesting read. My dad used to tell war stories as he was involved in the Korean war but at the time we did not appreciate them.My sister followed in his military footsteps as well and has been to Iraq several times to serve our Great Country.
    Thanks for your service and sacrifices.

  4. tony cerrone says:

    it’s most interesting how tom’s experiences mirror mine in so many ways i well remember talking to surviors of the nagasaki bombing and what they witnessed some told me how they escaped by being on the outskirts when the bomb detonated others had scars from the burns they suffered it was a long time ago but so well remembered

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  7. Benito Venere says:

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  9. Donald says:

    I was with my grandfather the other day and he showed me a little card from 1945 stating that he had crossed the international dateline on a ship named U.S.S. Extavia. He was in the Marines stationed in the Phillipines during the last year or so of WWII. Thank you for the post and the service to our country. We will NEVER forget! His name is Donald Young. Doubt you will know him just thought I would try. Again, thank you sir.

  10. Author says:

    Thank you for the comment Donald. The troop ship SS Extavia left San Francisco Harbor on August 10th, 1945 and six days later the Japanese surrendered. There was a ship full of replacements aboard, and I can’t remember the name Donald Young. We were scheduled for the Japan Invasion but the atomic bomb solved the problem. Your Grandfather and many more just like him had pledged their efforts at the cost of their lives to rid the world of tyranny. God bless them all!


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