Atomic Bomb

These images are taken from Eric’s private collection, as well as from the Australian war Memorial, with thanks.

After three years of captivity, semi-starvation, brutality and humiliation, the minds of most prisoners of war had hardened into a mould compounded of faint hope, resignation and stubborn defiance. By July 1945 it was apparent that Japan would lose the war, but it was equally obvious that the chance of any prisoner in the enemy homeland surviving it were negligible. For the Japanese people themselves the future was equally bleak. Short of food and overworked, they knew from the increasing presence of American bombers in the sky that an Allied invasion was inevitable.

But all this time in utmost secrecy a terrible saviour had been in the making. The atomic bomb developed jointly by the United States, Great Britain and Canada came into being on 16 July 1945 when the first such bomb in history was detonated at Alamogordo, an American airfield in New Mexico. In late July the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Japan was made by Prime Minister Churchill and President Truman.

On August 6th an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On 8th August the order was issued for another bomb to be dropped on the city of Kokura, with Nagasaki as an alternative target. The following day Major Sweeney piloted a second B-29, ‘Bock’s Car’, over Kokura, but finding the city obscured by smoke and haze turned towards Nagasaki. The second atomic bomb, code-named ‘Fat Boy’, was dropped from 29 000 feet and at 11.02 am exploded 1500 feet above the northern part of the city, more than a mile away from the intended target in the harbour area. Everything within a mile radius of the epicentre of the bomb was flattened, 73900 people were killed and some 76 800 were injured. The unimaginable explosion with its sudden intense heat of a thousand suns struck down men, women and children, skinning them alive, burning deep into their flesh, sucking out eyeballs, bursting bellies and penetrating into the marrow of their bones, glands, hearts and brains. Almost all people near the epicentre were burnt to death, those within two kilometres were severely burnt and those within four kilometres were burnt on the bare parts of their bodies.

The men were trained in their new work like children in the classroom with daily lectures by civilian teachers, that often ended in jovial riots among the men who didn’t take their new classes very seriously. The men were taught how to put rivets in place for building ships, how to weld, caulk and scaffold, for 10 days before being put to work. After the training period was over the men were given black wooden tags on which their prison numbers were printed boldly. Each category of workers was given tags of different colours. These tags enabled dockyard hanchos, gestapo and kaigoons (naval guards) to pick a man’s trade grouping on sight.

At this early stage food was available in the camp but the guards were hasher than what they had been in Java. The men knew if they misbehaved, they would be placed in an ‘eiso’, a small wooden cage near the guardhouse that was so small a man could neither stand nor stretch out, for days at a time. Every tenth day was ‘Yasume Day’, a day of rest on which men could wash clothes, hunt for bugs and lice in their bedding and read books.

Eric was working on a nearby bridge when the bomb was dropped and luckily was called back to the camp earlier than expected. He remembers –

“We arrived back about 10.45 am. We heard the plane overhead that dropped the bomb on August 9th. The whole place came down on top of us, we were sheltered from the ray on account of being in the building. Of the 24 Aussies there, only one, Reg McConnell from Gosford, was the only one that had a slight ray burn. . . Most buildings were blown down and the timber ones burnt.

After the bomb fell we were free for sometime. I said to someone where was everyone and he said they had gone to the hills. I said, ‘Well, we may as well go also.’ I was stunned for a while. I found Peter Kerr in a room also stunned, but we both recovered after a while. There was a horse and lorry standing in the camp as if nothing had happened. We knew there were Red Cross parcels in a room, so six or seven of us loaded as many parcels as possible on the lorry and set sail. We didn’ t know where to, but we just went. I, being a horseman, was in charge of the horse, the others were around the lorry holding the parcels on.

There was debris everywhere, even electric light poles across the roads, but we and our faithful steed took everything in our stride. . . We got clear of Nagasaki and we decided the horse and lorry were of no further use to us so we abandoned the transport and went across paddocks to the hills. I forget what we did with the old horse. Not one of our party had anything of the parcels to eat. We said we wouldn’ t touch them until we met up with the rest of the boys. We were eating raw vegetables from the paddocks.

  • D Company In Syria.
  • Eric on Leave in Palestine.
  • D Company in Syria.

About mid-afternoon the guards picked us up and took us where they had the rest of the boys. The guards took possession of the parcels and throughout the night we could hear them opening cans etc. and eating the contents. We were very hostile that, at least, we didn’ t have a feed ourselves. Next day we were taken to the square in the middle of Nagasaki where we stayed for about a week, cleaning up our factory site etc. There were twenty Englishmen in the camp. One got killed in the bomb and we cremated him on a heap of wood. We collected a few ashes, I suppose most would be wood ashes. After about a week the Nips took us out about seven or eight miles to another camp. There were about 60 odd Dutch POWs. Eight died and many were burnt and injured. We had to make makeshift stretchers, and four of us to a stretcher had to carry the injured Dutch to the new camp.

One day before we left Nagasaki we were cleaning up at the factory and a Yank plane dived at us. We thought we had had it, but they were only looking. There were big water tanks about three feet high for incendiaries and when the plane came over we all went for cover. One of the boys dived in to the water. It was very comical afterwards. Back to the stretchers, how we did it beats me, because we weren’ t in good shape. I suppose the rifle the Nips had helped. Eventually we arrived at our new camp. On the 18th August 1945, the Nips told us of the capitulation. After that the guards were bowing to us instead of the way it was for about 3 1/2 years. A complete turnabout face.”

On August 31st American planes dropped 13 petrol drums of supplies by parachutes around the camp. Eric recalled the men “being as happy as children on Christmas morning”. The supplies consisted of tinned meat and beans, cigarettes, matches, chocolate, tinned fruit and chewing gum. This was the first time in years the mens bellys had been contented. On 3rd of September Red Cross officials visited the camp and on the 4th American planes again dropped supplies for the men.

On the 7th of September an American war correspondent from the New York Times came into the camp. He arrived in Japan with American troops who had landed at the airfield at Kanoya. He told the prisoners that if they could get to Kanoya they would be able to get a lift to Okinawa in one of the supply planes which were returning there empty. The next day the 24 Australian prisoners of war marched to Nagasaki railway station to catch a train to Kanoya. They took with them the ashes of eleven Australians who had died in Camp 14. The Japanese authorities had handed the ashes over to them.

Eric remembers –

“At the station an English Brigadier (POW) approached us and said in true Pommie accent that all POWs must return to their respective camps. Our reply to him would not be fit for print.”

Eventually the station master cleared part of a carriage so that the Australians could be seated. In two days they reached Kanoya where the route to freedom via Okinawa and Manila began.

On September 9th they left by plane and arrived in Okinawa the following day. In Okinawa POW’s were flooding in from all over Japan. At this time members of the Australian and American Red Cross were looking after the men and treating them exceptionally well. After another flight to Manila they were issued new equipment and were medically examined.  Eric left Manila on 4th October on HMS formidable and arrived in Sydney on 13th October. The next day he caught a train to Melbourne and arrived at the Melbourne showgrounds on 15th of October 1945. There, he was paid and met up with his family, who for years had no idea if he was still alive. He arrived home in Goorambat, Victoria on the 17th October and a welcome home party was held for Eric, and other returning POW’s on the 22nd of October 1945.

Excerpts from this chapter were taken from the book “Last Stop Nagasaki” By Hugh Clarke.