In more than 3 1/2 years of combat, countless thousands of servicemen passed through Pearl Harbor, where World War II began for the United States.
Leo Walsh, of Baton Rouge, is in a more select company. He saw where it essentially ended.
Walsh, 92, was a private first class with the 2nd Marine Division when it was assigned to occupation duty at Nagasaki, Japan. There, on Aug. 9, 1945, an atomic bomb was used in warfare for the second and, so far, last time. Japan’s surrender was announced six days later.
Roughly five weeks later, the Marines arrived off the Japanese port city, where between 60,000 and 80,000 people are estimated to have been killed when the bomb exploded. The Marines had little idea of what to expect.
“We had to stay aboard ship about a week while the medical corps went out and checked everything for radiation and if the water was any good,” Walsh said. “As soon as they got a feel for the safety of the troops from radiation, then they started letting us go ashore.
“When we came up in ships and we docked, I never saw any men, but it was all women and children, and the children would come up and look at the ships and us, and we’d be hanging over the rails trying to talk with them, and we’d give them candy and whatnot. I never saw any wounded Japanese people. I guess they had cleaned all of them out.”
The Marines didn’t immediately see the worst of the devastation. Nagasaki was spread across several valleys. The bomb blast was concentrated in one of the valleys, leaving the rest of the city, which had not been heavily bombed earlier in the war, relatively unscathed.
When they reached the rim of the valley where the plutonium-fueled bomb exploded, they saw the aftermath of the power of the explosion and the heat it generated.
“There was a rim you could ride around in the trucks, and I guess looking down less than a quarter of a mile down, there wasn’t anything in the center of the valley. Then you would notice a little foundation about that high,” Walsh said, holding his hands about 4-5 inches apart. “As you went around, the objects started getting a little taller, a little taller, a little taller.
“I passed by a building — the building was all melted away — and you could see that it was a machine shop because it had five or six rows of lathes, and everything from the turntable, half of that was melted all the way up. … Close to that had to be a bottling company because I saw a pile of glass about the size of this room in height and size, and if you went up and examined it, every now and then you saw the end of a bottle. All of that melted glass was bottles.”
It was three or four weeks before the Marines were allowed to bathe in local water, and they were never allowed to eat locally produced food, although that had to do with concerns about sanitation rather than radiation, Walsh said.
The Marines’ duty was keeping order, and the Japanese civilians were extremely compliant, Walsh said. Civilians invited them to come into their homes and talk. Despite orders prohibiting this and the language barrier, Walsh said he and other Marines did so.
The only tense moment came one day when Walsh was walking through the city and heard explosions coming from the port area.
“The women grabbed their children and ran into their house and closed all their blinds,” he said. “They knew the sound of gunfire.”
It turns out, engineers were setting off charges to topple chimneys that had been left standing.
Although some units of the 2nd Marine Division remained in Nagasaki until July 1, 1946, Walsh only stayed there about three months. Military personnel were rotated home based on a point system, and because Walsh was older (26) than most of his fellow Marines and was married with two children, he didn’t have to stay as long.
Walsh returned to Baton Rouge and returned to work for Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil), from which he retired in 1980.