- Historic Sites
“A Straight Path Through Hell ”
Stationed near Nagasaki at the close of the war, a young photographer ventured into the devastated city, and stayed for months
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
I had trained at Parris Island thinking, I was going to the Pacific to fight the Japanese or at the very least to photograph American troops fighting the Japanese. That whole time it had been drummed into us Marines how fiendish the Japanese were. We knew the story of the Bataan death march by then. We knew about the kamikaze pilots crashing into our ships. We knew the Japanese would never surrender.
We knew all that until August 6, 1945, when Harry Truman went on the radio to announce that a new bomb had been dropped on a Japanese city named Hiroshima. Truman called it “a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.” A few days later a second bomb exploded over Nagasaki.
Then, in a literal flash, it was over. The Japanese hemmed and hawed for a few days and surrendered. On August 28 the first occupying troops entered the country. My unit was sent about 10 miles from the city of Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu.
None of us knew what we would find there, General MacArthur and leaders in Washington had tried to limit press access to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the day of the surrender Wilfred Burchett of the London Daily Express traveled 21 hours by train from Tokyo to Hiroshima and reported through a Japanese news agency about radiation sickness. But he was the only one.
Naturally we were curious about the effects of the bomb. My warrant officer told me to go take some pictures, so one day I just walked the whole 10 miles. Another photographer named Larry Johnson went with me. He was kin to Gen. Lewis Hershey, the man who had run the peacetime draft.
It was not just the smell that grew overpowering but the silence. There was nothing: No birds, no wind blowing, nothing to make you think there had once been a real city here.
The road into Nagasaki was long, wide, and unpaved. It was hot that day, and humid, and we were surrounded by flies and mosquitoes. We really had no idea where we were going, so when we finally saw somebody, a Japanese farmer, we took out our language book and tried to ask him where the city was. He answered back, gesturing sadly. We never did know what he was saying. Maybe we didn’t need to.
I knew by the smell when we were getting close. If you’ve ever smelled a dead dog by the side of the road, you’ll have an idea of what it was like. Flies and maggots were everywhere. The smell started a couple of miles before we saw anything.
Nagasaki was hard to see because it was surrounded by a series of ridges. As we got closer, it was not just the smell that grew overpowering but the silence. There was nothing: no birds, no wind blowing, nothing to make you think there had once been a real city here. One of the first people I saw was a man who said, “I live over on that mountain, just at the top. You have to go to the school over there.” He pointed down the valley and up the ridge on the other side. I asked him why, and he said, “I want you to see something.” He spoke in Japanese, but I managed to understand some of it.
I started walking, looking back to see if he was following me, but he wasn’t. I kept going right through the heart of town, or what had been the heart of town. There were piles of brick everywhere and scorched wood. There were no trees or vegetation. When I reached the top of the ridge, I saw a tiny schoolhouse made of cement block, most of it still standing. I walked into the schoolroom, and there they were, all still sitting at their desks, 30 or so kids burned to cinders. When I got back outside, I noticed that the ground leading up to the school had somehow been sheared off. The hillside must have forced the blast upward, sparing the building but incinerating everybody inside. Often what struck me was not what had been destroyed but what had been spared. One day I came across a beautiful paved street. Most of the streets were so filled with debris that I couldn’t walk down them, but this one was so clear that it was like walking a straight path through Hell. I remember taking a photograph of three girls holding a dead body. They didn’t want their picture taken; they thought it would steal their souls or something.
I ran into children playing baseball and women washing their clothes in a pool of water. When I brought out the camera, they waved me away. I didn’t get one picture. That night, back at headquarters, I racked the camera bellows all the way out, took the prongs off, and put in 10 chocolate bars and several sticks of Juicy Fruit gum. After that, whenever I went looking for pictures, I would call out “chocoletto” and the kids would come running.
The hardest thing at first was just finding somebody living. In the beginning the only people I saw were those who had fled town before the blast and had just come back. Eventually more people would show up and poke around what had been a house or a building. Hardly anybody said anything. With the exception of the men in my unit, I saw very few other American Army or Marine personnel. People wanted to stay away from what we had done.
Down near the center of town somebody had created an airstrip. The entire area was just flat. Somebody put up a sign that read ATOMIC-FIELD. Planes would land there. That’s where I would meet my plane, give the pilot my film packs to be developed, or pick up supplies like K rations. The K rations were handy to give the kids, along with the chocolate and cigarettes. Hell, I liked K rations.