Saturday, August 22, 2015

Earl Szwabo - In Memoriam

Earl Martin Szwabo, a veteran of the Battle of Corregidor, passed peacefully on Saturday, August 15, 2015 at the age of 90. His wife of 69 years, Mary Elizabeth, died in June.

Szwabo joined the U.S. Army at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri in September 1941. He was sent immediately to the Philippines aboard the USAT Willard Holbrook arriving in late October. His basic training took place directly on the fortress island of Corregidor in Manila Bay with the 59th Coast Artillery Regiment, 1st Battalion C Battery (Wheeler).

12" DC Gun
His unit manned two 12" Disappearing Carriage (DC) guns at Ft. Mills on Corregidor under the command of Capt. Harry W. Schenk, a 1933 West Point graduate. Schenk died February 1945 in Japan at the Fukuoka #3 POW camp that provided slave labor to the Yawata steel mills. This site was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015.

From the start of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines on December 8, 1941 to Corregidor's surrender on May 6, 1942, Szwabo fought nonstop to defend the island. After surrender, most of the 12,000 Americans on Corregidor were crowded into a small open beach area, the 92nd Garage  to wait in the tropical sun for nearly three weeks before going by boat to Manila. 

They were then made to wade ashore before being paraded through the streets on a Victory March" display of POWs to Bilibid Prison. After a short stay at Bilibid, he was packed into a freight car and sent to Cabanatuan where 30-50 men a day died from disease, starvation, and torture. On August 1, 1942, he and 346 men were sent to the island of Palawan, over 300 miles southwest of Manila on the edge of the Sulu Sea.

Through all this, Private First Class Earl M Szwabo was only 17.

Palawan Massacre Grave
The POWs were tasked with building an airfield. In face of the arduous labor, they were starved, denied medical care, and routinely and capriciously beaten. Prisoners who attempted to escape were tortured and executed while their fellow POWs were forced to watch.

Sometime in the early summer of 1944, Szwabo was returned to Manila. He was among a lucky 150 who were not present for the infamous December 14th Palawan Massacre. Fearing an American invasion, the Kempeitai-led Japanese troops on that day herded the remaining Americans into "air raid shelters," drenched them with gasoline, and tossed in matches. Grenades and machine gun fire followed. Somehow 11 men were able to escape and to preserve this history.

Tears always came to Mr. Szwabo when he remembered his friends who died that day.

Nagoya #5-B
Szwabo had been sent to Nagoya, Japan the summer before the massacre. On July 4, 1944, he and over 1,000 POWs began a harrowing two month journey that took them to Formosa and Okinawa aboard the Sekiho Maru, better known as the SS Canadian Inventor or Mati Mati Maru [Wait Wait Ship].

The ship ended its journey on September 1, 1944 as so many other POW Hellships in Moji.  On September 4, Pvt Szwabo turned 20 at Nagoya #5-B Yokkaichi a POW camp supplying labor to a copper foundry and sulphuric acid factory owned by Ishihara Sangyo Kaisha in Nagoya, a port city south of Tokyo. He remembers melting down church and temple bells Japanese troops had looted from all over Asia.

Book on Nagoya #5-B
click to order
According to a diary by a Dutch POW, the first few months that the Americans were at the camp, were marked by earthquakes and tsunamis. American planes begin to bomb the facility and Nagoya on June 17, 1945. In the afternoon of August 15, 1945 the POWs were released from work and told the war was over. On August 29th, the air drops of food and medicine began. Excess was shared with the Korean laborers in an associated camp.

On the afternoon of September 4th, the men were put aboard a train in Nagoya to Hamamatsu. They were then taken by landing craft to the U.S.S. “The Rescue” (a hospital ship). From there Szwabo was flown to recuperate in Manila and soon returned to the United States for recovery and treatment. He remained hospitalized for several months as doctors helped him regain his health after 42 months of near starvation, deplorable living conditions, and abuse in Japan.

Szwabo, knowing his need for continued medical care,  decided to stay in the Army and advanced in rank to become a chief warrant officer. He retired November 1, 1960. For the next 41 years, he served as director of personnel and purchasing for the city of Florissant, Missouri. He volunteered for many years at the USO in Lambert Airport.

In September 2010, 65 years after his liberation from Japanese captivity, Earl Szwabo was one six POWs who participated in the first American POW trip to Japan to receive the Japanese government's apology for their abuse and use as slave laborers.

The Yokkaichi facility where Mr. Szwabo slaved still exists and Ishihara Sangyo Kaisha (ISK) has prospered worldwide. The company did allow him to visit. He and his wife traveled to the Yokkaichi facility in Nagoya and met with plant officials who expressed their regret for his mistreatment, but emphasized that they were not part of the same company. They refused to speak on the record or offer a corporate apology. He also visited a memorial that company had built to the souls of all those who died laboring for the company at this site. However, as you can see, memorial mentions nothing about POWs or slave labor.

Yokkaichi Memorial
Mr. Szwabo accepted and appreciated the understanding he received from ISK's Yokkaichi plant managers. The hope is that someday, ISK's Chairman will deliver an apology and support efforts to remember the POW experience in Japan. On July 19, 2015, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation became the first Japanese company to offer an apology to the Americans who slaved for them during the War.

Szwabo said his trip to Japan gave him peace.

"I figure I was lucky," he said. "A lot of POWs didn't make it back."

Accepting an apology, however, doesn't mean that the horrors should be forgotten, as Mr. Szwabo told the St. Louis Beacon:
A POW will never forget. I dream still of different things, and think about it," he said. "I lost my outfit on Palawan when they burned 150 alive there. I was lucky that I got shipped out. I guess God was on my side. And I know why I was picked; I was in better shape than the older guys, and the Japanese took the ones who looked the best physically, so they could work us to death. The bad part is you can't forget it.
Memorial donations may be sent to Descendants Group-American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor in care of Ms. Judy Pruitt, 23 Elwell, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Australian, British, Dutch and U.S. POWs: Living under the shadow of the Nagasaki Bomb

First appeared in the The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. 32, No. 5, August 10, 2015

Australian POWs and the Nagasaki A-Bombing

by Michael Broderick, Associate Professor of Media Analysis, Murdoch University

David Palmer’s timely opinion piece in The Melbourne Age on 6 August 2015 draws attention to the little remembered history of scores of Australian and other allied POWs who were held as slave labourers in Japanese war industries in Nagasaki before and at the time of the atom bombing. Aspects of this neglected history also form a major component of my recent multi-screen, hyper-visualisation exhibition “Fading Lights: Australian POW and BCOF Troops in Japan 1945-52” (, co-curated with Stuart Bender (Curtin University).

In 1983 Former Australian POW and author Hugh V. Clarke returned to the Fukuoka Camp No.2, a site now occupied by the Koyagi Junior High School adjacent to the former Kawanami Brothers Shipbuilding Company. 

Palmer’s efforts to have Australian soldier and Nagasaki POW, Private Alan Chick, officially recognized by the Japanese government as hibakusha, is especially commendable given that the award and medical entitlement occurred shortly before the former serviceman died last year. However, there was another Australian POW granted this status more than thirty years before.

At the time of the Nagasaki bombing Sergeant Peter McGrath-Kerr (2/40 Battalion) was also in Fukuoka Camp No 14 opposite the Mitsubishi steel foundry where he labored, alongside scores of other POWs. 1 Earlier that morning he and six comrades had toiled outdoors to repair a bridge over the Mifune Canal that had been destroyed in an air raid only eight days earlier (1 August). They had been sent back to the compound at around 10am for a rest break. McGrath-Kerr recalls that he was on his bunk reading a book when everyone began to bolt towards the air raid shelters.2 He awoke five days later, lying on a stretcher and saw that everything in sight was flattened. He had amnesia, five broken ribs and various cuts and bruises on his hands and legs.

Sergeant Peter McGrath-Kerr of 2/40th Battalion, who was taken prisoner by the Japanese and held in Java until May 1944. Sgt McGrath-Kerr was one of several hundred Australian, British and American POWs aboard the Tamahoko Maru en route to Japan when the ship was torpedoed and sunk by the US submarine Tang on 24 June 1944. One of only 212 survivors, he was transferred to the Fukuoka No. 12 POW camp in central Nagasaki. [This camp is NOT in central Nagasaki. We believe this is a typo and that it should read Fukuoka #14-B.]

McGrath-Kerr, like Private Chick, was one of 24 Australian POWs at Camp No. 14 only 1.7 kms from the nuclear detonation. All miraculously survived. Had they been exposed outside directly in the line-of-sight of the explosion each would have likely perished. Others were not so lucky. At least four POWs were killed and around 30 seriously injured, mostly Dutch.3 A few others died as a result of their exposure in the following weeks. War-time correspondent Denis Warner in a 1995 op ed for the International Herald Tribune (reprinted in the New York Times) recalls speaking with McGrath-Kerr in a Manila hospital shortly after his transfer from Nagasaki. Warner found McGrath-Kerr “emaciated and weak”, still suffering from his broken ribs and “radiation burns on one hand”.

Another injured Australian soldier in the hospital, Sergeant Jack Johnson, also spoke with Warner. Johnson had been between two of the camp buildings when the bomb struck. Looking for fellow survivors amidst the smoke and debris he saw a pair of boots jutting out from under the rubble. It was the unconscious McGrath-Kerr. With fires igniting all round, Johnson worked hard to extract his compatriot and left him in the care of Dutch orderlies. In 1980 McGrath-Kerr returned to Japan as a guest of the City of Nagasaki where he was entitled to free medical treatment and officially recognized as an atom bomb victim (hibakusha).4

Video testimony of five Australian POWs, including Chick, is on display at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. McGrath-Kerr’s testimony can be heard on the Australian War Memorial website.5

Remarkably, Private Chick, who survived both the harsh labor at Camp No. 14 and the Nagasaki atom bombing, returned to Japan only a few months after his liberation to be part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF). In 1948 he visited his former, now destroyed POW Camp and the Mitsubishi Foundry, and posed in uniform amongst former workers. He then served in the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Private Chick (crouching) with some of his former workers at the Mitsubishi foundry in Nagasaki, photographed while on BCOF duties. [AWM P00208.003 photo: Alan Chick]

Like many of his generation, including amongst his POW peers, Chick maintained in his 1995 video testimony displayed at the Nagasaki museum that the atom bombs were necessary and entirely justifiable:
Well I’m all in favour of it, myself. As far as I’m concerned, it saved several million lives. I think that’s a very good argument in favour of it. I think, since the advent of the Bomb, we’ve had no more world wars. Like, before the Bomb, they had two world wars in twenty-five years. And now its fifty years [1995] and there’s been no world war. I consider it to have been a good thing, actually.
While not considered hibakusha, two other Australian POWs witnessed the Nagasaki explosion. On Koyagi Island, south of Nagasaki harbor, the POW camp (Fukuoka No.2) was adjacent to the Kawanami Brothers shipworks. In late-June 1945, most of the Australians were sent north of Nagasaki to work in the coal mine at Nakama, but two Australian soldiers, Bob Watkins and Joe Flynn remained due to illness.6 Both saw the “great flash […] a feeling of heat, huge noise of explosion, followed soon by a great rush of air, dust rose knee height caused by […] shock of concussion transmitted through the ground”.7

Watkins recalls looking up from ten kilometers away towards the mouth of Nagasaki harbor: “I was amazed to see this huge column of smoke and flame rising skywards forming into a distinct mushroom shape as it went”.8

These accounts and the Nagasaki POW history remain little appreciated or recognized today. Similarly, the seven-year Australian BCOF presence (chiefly in the Hiroshima Prefecture) where more than 16,000 Australian troops rotated through Japan after the war, some bringing wives and families, is under-represented in military annals, especially in this centenary year of ANZAC commemorations.

Recent developments during the course of our research into and production of the Fading Lights exhibition were fortuitous. We learned during pre-production that a Nagasaki City Councilor, Mr Toyoichi Ihara (himself a hibakusha) was spearheading efforts by the local community to recognize the former POW camp on Koyagi. Mr Ihara, along with teachers, parents and students of the Junior High School that now occupies the site of the former POW Camp grounds, plan to erect a monument to the 73 soldiers, including 6 Australians, who died at the Camp during the war.9

In April this year we sought permission to film inside the Nagasaki Mitsubishi plant, rebuilt after the atom bombing, on the location where Chick and 23 other Australian POWs survived the nuclear blast. Mr Ihara had informed us that there was a small commemorative plaque inside the plant attesting to the history of the POW workers. Unfortunately, we were denied entry to record at the factory for our exhibition.

However, a few months later in late July, news reports emerged that Mitsubishi was formally beginning the process of apologizing to POWs who were forced to work in their Nagasaki factories. 10 

A surviving American prisoner of war, 94 year-old James Murphy, flew to Japan to accept the Mitsubishi apology*, describing what he endured as “slavery in every way”. A few days later, Mitsubishi’s spokesman Okamoto Yukio announced to the media “If there is such an opportunity, we will do the same apology” to other allied POWs including British, Dutch and Australian. Okamoto publicly admitted that his company was “one of those [that] tortured POWs most, so we have to apologize”.11

*NB: Mr. Murphy did not go to Japan. He accepted the apology in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance. Mr. Murphy worked in a Mitsubishi Mining copper mine that is now owned by Mitsubishi Materials. The apology was from Mitsubishi Materials and only for POWs who worked at their mines. The Kawanami Brothers Shipbuilding Company was not part of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries until the 1960s. Mitsubishi Heavy has not yet apologized.

Nagasaki POWs: living under the shadow of the bomb
by Dr. David Palmer, visiting associate in history at the the University of Melbourne.

On August 6, 1945, 70 years ago, the world's first nuclear war began with the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It unleashed the ongoing threat of annihilation under which the world still cowers.

Twenty-four Australian prisoners of war survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Private Alan Chick, of St Helens, Tasmania, was one of them. But on that day when an American bomber dropped the last atomic bomb in the first nuclear war, it didn't matter if you were Japanese or Australian, if you were a child, a Japanese general, or an Allied POW. Everyone within range of the bomb became a victim. More than 74,000 people died out of a population of 263,000, but some miraculously survived.

Chick and his battalion had been captured by the Japanese in Timor. He was eventually put on a ship bound for Japan, but a US submarine attacked this ship, sinking it along with hundreds of POWs. Chick survived with a few others and was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat off the Kyushu coast. He was taken to Nagasaki's Fukuoka POW Camp 14 and put to work at a Mitsubishi steel foundry [NO, he worked for Kawanami Brothers Shipbuilding Company that was not yet part of Mitsubishi]. His camp was less than two kilometres from the atomic bomb hypocentre on August 9. Knocked unconscious, he awoke to a world of complete black. When the smoke cleared he saw destruction, fires, and death everywhere. He had somehow survived again. 

To make the atomic bombings into solely a national tragedy without reference to non-Japanese who also suffered is a grave error. The bombings were an international tragedy.

By 1944, hundreds of British, Dutch, Australian and American POWs worked as slave labourers in Mitsubishi's massive shipbuilding complex in Nagasaki. Mitsubishi's workforce also included thousands of Korean labourers taken by force from their homeland, who worked under armed guard at the shipyard, its many factories around the city, and in the company's two coal mines on islands just off the coast.

This month, three of these Nagasaki sites – the shipyard (still operating) and the coal mines (closed decades ago) – were approved by UNESCO for World Heritage listing. The listing of the shipyard and mines required extensive negotiations between Japan and South Korea on the Korean forced-labour issue, and agreement on a compromise historical wording was finally reached. Mitsubishi also publicly apologised for its use of POW labour at its many mine sites, but has yet to apologise to those POWs at other sites, including the Nagasaki shipbuilding complex.

Atomic bomb victims, known in Japan as hibakusha, have been eligible for full healthcare and living expenses paid by the Japanese government, but Koreans who returned to their homeland after World War II were refused these benefits. Japanese and Korean peace activists and atomic bomb survivors started a movement decades ago to change this injustice, which has led to many successful court cases in Japan.

In the last few years, Japanese researchers at the Nagasaki Overseas Hibakusha Network, led by Nobuto Hirano, have extended their hibakusha recognition movement to Allied POWs. Like the Korean hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who also were forced labourers in Mitsubishi industries, Allied POWs were double victims: first as foreign forced labourers, and then as atomic bomb survivors. POWs were a substantial part of the labour force in Japan's war production and coal mining from late 1944 until the surrender. Within Japan there were 130 POW camps holding more than 32,000 POWs. Of these about 3500 died in those camps and a further 11,000 died en route to Japan when ships carrying them were sunk by Allied submarines and planes.

The Nagasaki blast.

There were 884 Allied POWs in the Nagasaki city region in two main POW camps: Koyagi Branch Camp (Fukuoka 2-B), on Koyagi Island in Nagasaki Harbour; and Nagasaki Mitsubishi Dockyard Branch Camp (Fukuoka 14-B) based in Saiwamachi (Urakami District). The Mitsubishi camp held 315 POWs. Of these, 113 died in the camp before the atomic bombing and seven died from the atomic bomb. Of the 195 POWs who survived at the end of the war, 152 were Dutch, 24 were Australian, and 19 were British. Alan Chick was held in Fukuoka Camp 14-B, next to Mitsubishi's steel foundry.

The researcher, Hirano, contacted me through Hideto Kimura, a Nagasaki colleague I've known for many years, to locate former Australian POWs who survived the bombing. A few years earlier, Kimura and I had seen a video interview with Alan Chick at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, taped in the 1980s. I found online documents in the Australian War Memorial Archives and National Archives of Australia detailing 24 repatriated Australian POWs who were in Nagasaki. Craig Collie, author of Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing, had interviewed Chick in Heyfield, Victoria, which indicated where he might still be living.

I contacted the Returned and Services League in Heyfield and spoke with local RSL representative Sue Artso. She had been visiting Chick and his Japanese wife Anita (originally Hiroko) regularly in Heyfield's aged-care home. When we made the trip to Heyfield, we interviewed Chick over three days.

I completed the necessary Japanese government forms in English for him so he could get atomic bomb survivor recognition and benefits. I then submitted these to the Japanese consulate in Melbourne, which forwarded them to Tokyo for review. Within weeks, two officials from Nagasaki City delivered his benefits book directly to him – in Heyfield. Without the initiative of Nagasaki peace activists and researchers, Chick would never have received this recognition. Chick was the only Australian POW of the surviving 24 incarcerated at Fukuoka Camp 14-B to ever receive the certificate from the Japanese government. Chick died in 2014, only a year after receiving the certificate, but receiving the survivor book and benefits was a final recognition of his status as an atomic bomb survivor and a former Australian POW who was in Nagasaki.

Chick supported the atomic bombing of Nagasaki because he believed it ended the war. But many historians now argue that the bombs were not the major factor behind the surrender because Japan's industrial capacity had collapsed by mid-1945. The country had no access to raw materials, owing to Allied blockades. Finally, the invasion of Manchuria by the Soviet Red Army, the same day as the Nagasaki bombing, destroyed the fighting capacity of Japan's Kwangtung Army, ending the power of the Japanese military.

Whatever position one takes, the legacy of the atomic bombings continues – through the many diseases of survivors from radiation exposure, the genetic impact on the second generation, and the far greater danger of nuclear weapons hundreds of times more powerful than the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The world also needs to understand that the victims of the atomic bombings were not only Japanese. In his Nagasaki address last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated: "We who experienced the agony of atomic bombings not once but twice have ... raised ourselves to our feet once more, rebuilding our homeland and restoring Nagasaki as a beautiful city."

To make the atomic bombings into solely a national tragedy without reference to non-Japanese who also suffered is a grave error. The bombings were an international tragedy, and the victims included Koreans and Allied POWs. Chick survived, and his survival is testament to the international character of the victims.

1. Peter McGrath-Kerr, quoted in Hugh V. Clarke, 1984, Last Stop Nagaskai! Sydney, Allen & Unwin, p. 96. Denis Warner. 1995. ‘These Men Lived On to Tell a Ghastly Tale’. New York Times. 9 August.

.2 Peter McGrath-Kerr, quoted in Hugh V. Clarke, 1984, Last Stop Nagaski! Sydney, Allen & Unwin, p. 96. Denis Warner. 1995. ‘These Men Lived On to Tell a Ghastly Tale’. New York Times. 9 August.

3. Edlington, David. 1995. “An incandescent flash of death”, The Canberra Times, 27 July, p. 11 .

4. Clarke, Last Stop Nagaskai! p. 130. See also “Free medicine for POWs”, The Canberra Times, 14 August 1980, p. 7.

5.“Peter McGrath-Kerr as a sergeant 2/40th Australian Infantry Battalion and a prisoner of the Japanese, 1940-1945, interviewed by Tim Bowden”

6. Clarke, Last Stop Nagaskai!, pp. 105-109.

7. Clarke, Last Stop Nagaskai!, pp. 106.

8. Ibid.

9. Okada Gen, 2014, “Nagasaki residents seek to remember POWs who died in local camp”, Asahi Shimbun, 29 January

10. BBC News online, 2015 “Japan's Mitsubishi makes prisoners of war apology”

11. Associated Press, 2015, “Mitsubishi to apologise to POWs”, 22 July

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Propaganda context to the final months of WWII

Released on the eve (February 1944) of the beginning of the American strategic bombing campaign of Japan (June 1944), The Purple Heart, is a film portraying the imagined fate of the eight members of a Doolittle Raid bomber crew that were captured by the Japanese of which three were executed and one died of starvation. The Doolittle Raiders were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal this year.

The movie is recalled for having one of the most inspiring endings in a WWII film, Capt. Harvey Ross (Dana Andrews) addresses his Japanese accusers (who look jarringly and inappropriately like Chinese Fu Manchu caricatures) with a defiant speech predicting Japan's coming devastation. Capt. Ross tells the Japanese that Americans do not give up. 

The judges condemn the accused pilots to death, and they proudly march to their destiny, as the US Air Force's theme Wild Blue Yonder plays in a rousing rendition. It is likely the message was as much for the American audiences as it was to impress upon the Germans and Japanese of American determination. 

In the movie, General Ito Mitsubi said "We will win this war because we are willing to sacrifice ten million lives. How many lives is the white man willing to sacrifice?" Well, the answer is we don't have to, we have better technology.

Friday, August 07, 2015

The end of the Japanese Illusion

The moment the sky over Nagasaki lighted up, 
I made a bet with my fellow POW that we would soon be set free. I was right.
The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2015 
What does it mean to fight to the end? In April 1942, it meant fighting until my tank battalion and I were forced to surrender at the Battle of Bataan. For everything else that followed I only fought to survive: the Bataan Death March, brutal transport aboard a “hell ship” to Japan and slave labor in a Mitsui coal mine.

For my imperial Japanese enemy, in contrast, to fight to the end meant to give his life in a presumably noble and glorious fashion. He would die for the emperor—who ruled by divine right—confident that he would be enshrined with his ancestors for his efforts in defense of a mythic civilization. There could be no surrender and no negotiated peace. Death itself was beautiful, and death alone was honorable.

click to order
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, upended this belief. The bombs showed the Japanese the devastating and ultimately inglorious outcome of their fight. The bombs offered no true opportunity for confrontation and no chance of death with honor; they promised only obliteration.

Like its erstwhile ally Nazi Germany, Japan was fighting an ideological war. A superior race was destined to guide those less graced. Death for the empire earned a blessed afterlife in their emperor-god’s eternal favor. For a loyal subject, surrender was a betrayal of everything that sustained the empire’s system of patriotic values. The only option in the face of certain battlefield defeat was to fight to the death.

Japan tried to keep fighting long after any chance of victory was gone. On the mainland, women, children and the elderly were armed with sharpened bamboo sticks. Beginning in May 1945, schools for disabled children were ordered to organize military units and women ordered to serve in volunteer combat units. Young men were recruited by the hundreds for kamikaze missions aboard wooden gliders or small boats.

The country’s infamous biological-weapons research program was hard at work concocting flea-borne plague agents to float by submarine and balloon towards populated American shores. By late-spring 1945, some incendiary explosives called fugo had already landed on the West Coast.

On Okinawa during the 82-day battle from early April to mid-June 1945, the Japanese military instructed civilians to fight and die rather than surrender to the advancing U.S. forces. Civilian households, comprised almost entirely of women and children, were given grenades and encouraged to destroy themselves along with any Americans they might encounter. Many did.

In late spring 1945, I saw that the cruelty with which we prisoners of war were treated was only increasing. Our guards told us that Japanese units facing attack had received orders to kill all military and civilian POWs in their custody. They were to unburden themselves to focus on the fight. The executions were to begin Aug. 17*.

click to order
No Japanese soldier or civilian was preparing to surrender that August.

Early** on the morning of Aug. 9, from the POW camp where I was held some 30 miles across a bay, I saw the sky over Nagasaki change. It glowed red and the air turned warm against my skin.

Until then, red was the color of my subjugation. My Japanese guards were certain that red had a uniquely Japanese meaning. It wasn’t just the central color of their flag, it was viewed as emotionally representative of their pure spirit and sincerity. The red sky over Nagasaki ended those illusions.

At that moment, I made a bet with a friend that soon we would all be set free. I was right.

Japan’s surrender saved us. The dropping of the bombs, as Emperor Hirohito himself acknowledged, was the only thing that made that surrender possible. As he explained to his subjects, “Should we continue to fight, it would only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation.” The bombs’ indiscriminate, total devastation, as no battle or bombing before it, showed the consequences of trying to fight to the end. The bombings destroyed hope and glory, past and future.

It’s also true that the bombings were acts of tragic and unprecedented violence. The bomb—this “cruel weapon,” as the stunned emperor recorded in his surrender message on Aug. 15—ruined two cities, brought suffering and death to many tens of thousands of people and drastically altered landscapes and ecologies. Its use also transformed the nature of modern warfare and erased the last faint lines separating civilian and military, illegitimate and legitimate targets.

We POWs—men who were starved and tortured, who suffocated in the holds of hell ships, who were beaten at will, who died for lack of medical care and who saw friends worked to death—have no doubt that the atomic bombs ended the war. The bombs took away all the justifications for Japan to continue to fight.

The visual obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that Japan could soon cease to exist. Or as the emperor concluded, “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.” There would be no glorious end.

Mr. Tenney served in the 192nd Tank Battalion of the U.S. Army.

*a number of dates are associated with a number of documents for the start of the Kill Order, it is difficult to assess the correct one. It was thus clear that orders did exist and that POW camp officials were all aware that something was to be done. Starting in 1944, as the Americans advanced across the Pacific, a number of dramatic massacres of POWs, Korean workers, Comfort Women, and others were carried out that alarmed Allied officials as to Japanese intentions.
**actually late morning, 11:01am in Nagasaki.