Seventy years ago this week, and a day after the second atomic bomb obliterated Nagasaki, Japan agreed to surrender unconditionally to end World War II.
Though the ceremonial signing of the surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri didn’t happen for about three more weeks, Modesto’s Leroy Myers remembers the moment well, and relates it now to the government’s proposed deal that would prohibit Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. We’ll get to that momentarily.
While folks back home celebrated in the streets in August 1945, Myers wondered whether the Japanese guards and soldiers would follow orders to execute him, his father and all others being held captive in Japan when the surrender was announced.
“It was a scary time,” said Myers, 95 still going strong, and never one to sugarcoat. “There was nothing safe about Japan even though the war had ended. You never knew if some crazy bastard was going to start blowing heads off.”
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To the contrary – and to the POWs’ surprise – the guards and officers soon fled their Allied captives for fear of the same. Gen. MacArthur hadn’t arrived yet to begin the occupation.
“The minute they said the war was over, the Japanese guards and commanders ran,” he said. “They thought we’d kill them and we probably would have. All of a sudden, you couldn’t find (an enemy) soldier if you needed to.”
One night before learning the war was over, Myers sat in bed watching through slats in the walls of the barracks as fires burned in and around Nagasaki. He figure it perhaps resulted from bombing by American planes that had become routine as the Japanese wore down. About two weeks later, he got a much closer look. Catching a ride on a C-47 to Okinawa to begin a month-long journey home, the pilot asked, “Did you see the atomic bomb?”
“What’s an atomic bomb?” Myers replied. “The Japanese had told us it was poisonous gas.”
The pilot routed the flight to show Myers and the three other ex-POWs aboard, including his father, the devastation the bomb wreaked upon Nagasaki just as it had Hiroshima three days earlier.
“I knew it was against the rules, but he flew over it with us,” Myers said. “I saw the destruction of where that bomb hit. We were damned near on the ground – only about two or three hundred feet up. We made two or three passes. Where there had been a smoke stack, there was nothing left but the concrete base. It was completely flat for miles. It was still radioactive.”
I wrote about Myers in a July 4, 2013 column. He and his father, Charles Myers, worked for contractors hired by the United States government to fortify Wake Island in the South Pacific. Only 16 days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, enemy forces took Wake Island and 1,606 prisoners. Roughly 1,100 were civilian contractors, Myers and his father among them. They eventually were sent to Sasebo in Japan, where they were forced to build the Soto Dam. They survived, though 53 Americans died as did Japanese laborers during construction.
They spent the next four-plus years there, packing 100-pound sacks of concrete down the ravine to the mixing areas, being beaten by cruel Japanese guards and spending virtually every day simply trying see the next.
As the 70th anniversary drew national attention, Myers called me to chat and tell that part of the story. A couple of months before the war ended, Myers and his dad were moved to a prison camp at Fukuoka, on the northern end of the island of Kyushu. They’d spent the entire war as POWs and Myers picked up some of the Japanese language. When the surrender was announced and the guards bolted, he left the camp and took a train to another to visit some others who were now free as well.
“(The Americans) had established a base at the tip of the island, but everything else was chaos. We decided to get the hell out of there,” Myers said.
He returned to his dad in Fukuoka. They took a train to the southern tip of Kyushu, the island where Fukuoka is located, and then the flight to Okinawa and to the Philippines. There, they caught a long ride home on a slow freighter that stopped in Hawaii before steaming beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco Bay. They returned to learn Sylvia Myers had died not knowing her husband and son were still alive. Unpaid by the contracting firm, they’d lost their home to foreclosure. They had to sue the U.S. government to get back pay.
This week, people across the nation people are commemorating the war’s end with everything from candle lightings in Tennessee to a program Saturday at a senior complex in Turlock.
Myers remebers devastation he saw from the plane over Nagasaki that day, and cannot understand why some in Washington oppose the agreement that would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons when, according to the Washington Post, dozens of retired generals and admirals are urging Congress to approve the deal.
“You’ve got to sign anything that prohibits it,” he said. “You know the big boys are going to have them – China, Russia, Israel, the U.S. If these other countries get the bomb, we’re not talking about 10,000. We’re talking millions getting killed. We’re so vulnerable ... . It blows your mind to think about it.”
He’s thought about it because he’s seen with his own eyes how it can end.
Want to go?
A remembrance of the war’s end will be held at Paramount Court Senior Living complex, 3791 Crowell Road, Turlock, on Saturday. It begins at 10 a.m. and will include guest speakers, World War II veterans, military vehicles, information booths and food. It is open to the public.