WWII’s Last Legion: Dawn of atomic age

George Green, 93, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II from 1944-46. He was a photographer in Nagasaki in the months after the atomic bombings.

First came the noiseless blue white flash, a wave of heat that erased all shadows. Then, the heavens turned orange and, for an hour, rained black.

The atomic bombings of Japan 75 years ago immediately incinerated almost every soul at ground zero. But those who survived describe a mile-wide shockwave that stabbed them with hundreds of needles, a force that vaporized their clothing and ignited cyclones of fire that sent them fleeing through streets lined with corpses.

At least 70,000 were instantly killed at Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and again at Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Another estimated 200,000 died slowly from burns and radiation poisoning.

 “I won’t soon forget the sight and smell of this devastation,” recalled George Green, 93, a Buffalo Crossings resident who, as a Navy seaman third class, was assigned to clear the debris at Nagaski four months later.

“It was common to see three-story brick chimneys standing alone on empty ground,” he said. “The bamboo and rice paper homes were completely destroyed, while most of the steel-built factories were twisted and smashed. The townspeople were exhausted from air raids, nursing injured residents and burying ashes of cremated friends. You could see the weariness in their eyes and in their slow, listless pace.”

President Harry S. Truman defended the use of the world’s most destructive weapon as “urgent and necessary for the prospective welfare of both Japan and the Allies,” estimating that a ground invasion would have resulted in millions of casualties.

“My objective is to save as many American lives as possible,” he said. “But I also have a human feeling for the women and children of Japan.”

Today, few of those who fought in the great conflict remain to tell the tale. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 389,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today.

It is a last legion that still stands as a witness to history in veteran strongholds such as The Villages, home to

about 200.

“I certainly think the bombing saved a hell of a lot of lives, including mine,” said Vince LaRusso, 97, of the Village Del Mar.

As a corporal in the 1st Marine Division, LaRusso fought in the Battle of Okinawa — the last major battle of World War II and one of the bloodiest — six weeks earlier.

By the time American troops landed on Okinawa in June 1945, the war on the European front was nearing its end. Allied and Soviet troops had liberated much of Nazi-occupied Europe and were just weeks away from forcing Germany’s surrender.

Three months earlier, what was to have been a five-day mission on the island of Iwo Jima 750 miles off Japan’s coast, became a five-week bloody slog. The battles included “The Meat Grinder,” in which nearly 850 Marines died capturing a single Japanese stronghold.

It was the only offensive in the Pacific in which the U.S. Marines suffered greater casualties than they inflicted, struggling against Japanese fighters maneuvering from inside the island’s volcanic caves and tunnels.

“You saw very few of them, but you felt them shooting at you,” said Paul Mitchell, 94, of the Village of Summerfield, who was a private first class in the 4th Marine Division. “They were sort of the invisible enemy.”

The offensive resulted in an Allied victory, but kamikaze pilots, rainy weather and fierce fighting on land, sea and air led to a staggering death toll for the Japanese as well.

The U.S. landing forces suffered nearly 7,000 deaths and another 20,000 wounded. Although most in the 20,000-strong Japanese garrison were draftees, they refused to surrender, fighting tenaciously until only a few hundred remained alive to be taken prisoner.

American forces spent weeks trudging through the island’s jungles, finding and killing or capturing Japanese “holdouts” who refused to surrender.

Two of them continued to hide in the island’s caves, scavenging food and supplies until they finally surrendered in 1949, almost four years after the war’s end.

“We knew the battle for Japan would be far worse,” Mitchell said. “If you weren’t frightened, you were stupid.”

The final push at Okinawa, 350 miles from mainland Japan, proved the sentiment.

The 80-day battle was also the war’s bloodiest. Victory at Okinawa cost more than 49,000 American casualties, including at least 12,000 deaths. About 90,000 Japanese forces and an estimated 150,000 civilians died on the island dubbed the “typhoon of steel.”

LaRusso’s unit was once pinned down by enemy fire for eight hours.

“I lost a lot of friends that day,” he said, remembering how relieved he was to hear that the atomic bombing had ended his combat career. “I know we were all overjoyed that we had someone (Truman) who wasn’t afraid to take chances. He was a gallant guy, he helped us all, I think.”

Stewart Banks, 95 of the Village Rio Grande, was an electronic technician’s mate first class on the aircraft carrier USS Bennington, which weathered kamikaze attacks and a typhoon during the Battle of Okinawa.

When powerful winds bent the Bennington’s flight deck, the ship went into repair-mode while its crew dreaded the carnage of a mainland invasion.

“We thought we were getting ready to attack Honshu,” Banks said. “When a few thousand Japanese could cause so many casualties on Iwo Jima or Okinawa, the attack on Honshu could’ve cost a million lives. They fought to the last man. We were very glad it ended.”

Truman’s decision didn’t just end the war; it ushered in a new era of atomic advances and nuclear nervousness that persists today.

A New World In

Radiation Research

Scientists appear not to have had an understanding of radiation; it seemed to catch them by surprise. Green escaped the effects of radiation in the nine months he spent photographing the aftermath for the Navy. “It made the bombs more horrible,” he said.

The bombs are still claiming lives and causing suffering today, as radiation damage often took decades to manifest itself.

In 1946, President Truman approved a new Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission to seize the “unique opportunity for the study of the medical and biological effects of radiation,” and it has been following a cohort of 120,000 survivors in 75 years.

One of the group’s most immediate concerns was the possible impact of radiation on survivors’ children. It was clear that the bombings created birth defects in children already conceived, but a study of 60,000 pregnancies between 1948 and 1952 found no correlation in later births.

The Japanese public was not convinced.

Bombing survivors, hibakusha in Japanese, have long suffered discrimination over fears they might be impaired and that their children might inherit genetic defects.

It’s a stigma that affects female survivors more than men.

“For me, the war is not over yet,” Michiko Kodama, 82, told the Associated Press at an anniversary event earlier this week. She recalled how a receptionist at a medical clinic announced her “hibakusha” status on her medical certificate in a loud voice, and a patient sitting next to her moved away.

“We don’t have much time left,” she said. “I want to tell our story to the younger generations when I still can.”

Nuclear reactors built for war have also transformed peacetime science.

Post-war research using radioactive isotopes led to significant advances in medicine: treatments for cancer, diagnostic tests and insights into how the human body absorbs and uses substances such as iron.

It also led to significant environmental discoveries. For instance, knowledge about the way phosphorus in ponds and lakes led to actions in the 1960s to limit its use in products such as laundry soap. Other research recently has helped scientists tweak photosynthesis to increase crop yields.

Arms Race Shapes

Post-War Society

Nearly 70% of Americans surveyed by Gallup two months after the bombings of Japan said they wanted the international community to agree to never again use nuclear weapons.

But the Soviet Union successfully tested its atomic bomb four years later, a device similar to the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

And the United States countered in 1952 with the advent of a thermonuclear weapon 450 times more destructive.

The weapons race was on.

“I think it was a heightened time, but I don’t recall being fearful,” said Ellen Whitman, 67, of the Village of Hemingway, recalling her childhood in Kansas City, Kansas. “I knew it was something different and we were doing it because we might have to go to war.”

She remembers learning the “duck and cover” nuclear attack drills with other school children and watching a neighbor build a nuclear fallout shelter in his backyard.

Bill Truax’s neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs had an even more vivid reminder of the threat the United States faced.

Truax, 73, of the Village of Hemingway, recalls riding his bike to look at the Nike missile site to look at the installations of surface-to-air missiles deployed to shoot down Soviet bombers.

“I thought it was kind of neat, actually,” he said. “When you’re young, you don’t understand the concept of war.”

Those missiles that once dotted the entire country have since been removed, but many of the sites still exist, such as in the Miami area.

For 13 days in October 1962, the world seemed to be on the verge of Armageddon after the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, less than 100 miles from U.S. territory.

Among those on high alert during that period was Jack Williams, 83, of the Village of Lake Deaton, who was an electronic warfare captain on a B-52 bomber that carried six nuclear weapons.

During the crisis, they were assigned to fly near the Soviet Union and drop the nuclear bombs if necessary. He remembers which areas were targets, but he still won’t say where.

“You know it was probably a one-way trip, but you know there wouldn’t be anything to come back to anyway,” he said.

Although the United States and the Soviet Union were able to lessen tensions after the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, both countries’ nuclear arsenals remained at a high level of readiness for decades: missile-equipped bombers, submarines and land-based launch pads ready at a moment’s notice.

Some of those U.S. missiles came under the responsibility of Debbie McCarty, 59, of the Village of Haciendas at Mission Hills. As an Air Force missile second lieutenant, she was stationed in an underground silo at Grand Forks, North Dakota, working 24-hour shifts awaiting launch orders.

It was a responsibility with great psychic weight.

“I took it very seriously,” she said. “During my first alert I remember being terrified. You’re asking yourself, ‘Can I do this?’ We knew how real it was. We’d get intelligence briefings and we knew how tenuous (the peace) could be. I wanted a job that was important and demanding and that you couldn’t find anywhere else. I was a little in awe of my job.”

America Maintains

Its Mighty Arsenal

Although the threat of a nuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union has been greatly reduced, there are new fears.

Nine countries in the world today possess a total of 13,355 nuclear weapons, according to the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that fights nuclear proliferation (Russia, the United States, France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea).

Russia and the U.S. account for 92% of them.

“For most people, nuclear weapons hardly make it on the list of their day-to-day concerns, it’s too abstract,” said Zack Brown, a policy associate at the organization. “Yes, they can conceptualize what the weapons are, how they were used a long time ago, and that they’re still around today.  But it is another task altogether to recognize that their cities, families, and very lives depend on the continued goodwill of Russian and Chinese leaders who could order a missile strike at any time. There is no technical obstacle to them doing so, and no defense once the missiles are launched. The only real barrier is their fear of what the United States would do in return. Essentially, we have wagered our entire survival on this one emotion.”

In February, the U.S. military put low-yield nuclear warheads into operation on its submarines, citing the need to deter a limited nuclear attack by Russia with similar warheads.

Even as more countries have given up nuclear weapons in the past 30 years than have tried to acquire them, America is leading in both its stockpile and its sales.

The world spends nearly $3 trillion a year on defense items, and the United States drives about 79% of the globe’s weapons trade, according to the U.S. State Department.

In addition to legacy defense systems, trending innovations such as computer-guided “smart weapons,” drones, directed energy weapons, robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are in their growth stages.

But nuclear weapons remain a key component of America’s arsenal. The budget that funds America’s five military branches is $738 billion this year, an increase of $20 billion over 2019. Its nuclear stockpile contains:

3,800 nuclear warheads (and another 2,385 that are retired and awaiting dismantlement).

At least 75 B-52 bombers that can carry a mixed load of conventional and nuclear bombs, missiles and mines.

More than 60 B-1 bombers that can carry the largest payload of any aircraft in the U.S Air Force — more than 75,000 pounds of nuclear missiles, gravity bombs and naval mines.

An undisclosed number of B-2 stealth bombers that can carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.

Dozens of submarines that can stay submerged and potentially launch hundreds of nuclear missiles at land and sea targets.

More than 70 destroyers that serve as the backbone of the Navy’s fleet, each of which can carry up to 56 nuclear missiles.

Eleven active aircraft carriers that can hold more than 60 aircraft each.

Nine amphibious assault ships, which are essentially small aircraft carriers.

About 180 F-22 supersonic stealth fighters, which are designed to defeat enemy fighters and knock out advanced surface-to-air missile systems. Lockeed Martin bills its design as a “nuclear substitute” in terms of deterrence.

Some experts say more nuclear substitutes could be coming as conventional weapons get sophisticated upgrades, part of the new arms modernization program that was announced in 2017 by President Donald Trump.

Fifteen months after taking office, Trump deployed the largest non-nuclear bomb ever dropped by the U.S. in an attack on ISIS in Afghanistan.

Thirty feet in length, weighing 21,000 pounds and creating a mushroom cloud seen up to 20 miles away, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, or “mother of all bombs,” sent an unmistakable message about America’s current military strategy.

“There’s also the very real possibility that we’re sending a message to the North Koreans that we have these bombs,” Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst for the Institute for the Study of War told reporters.

Still, six months later, Trump increased the budget for nuclear weapons by another 11 percent.

Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or steve.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.