Hiroshima 1945:

Japanese-American officer finds old home an atomic wasteland

by Renita Foster


Public Affairs Office

Second lieutenant Harry Fukuhara trudged slowly up what was left of the train platform he remembered from his school days. It was the first and only landmark he’d recognized of what used to be the railway station in his hometown.


Twice before Fukuhara had attempted to complete the journey that would bring him full circle. But the treacherous roads, destruction, and forbidden entry to countless areas had forced him back.  


The young Army officer was determined, however, and after a day of maneuvering around the devastation, Fukuhara was almost there.


Mustering his courage, Fukuhara finally looked toward the horizon at what used to be the city of Hiroshima.         


Originally from Seattle, Wash., Fukuhara’s mother moved her family back to Japan after her husband’s death in 1933. After completing high school, Fukuhara returned to the states and worked odd jobs while taking college courses.       


Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Although Fukuhara had never even heard of the Hawaiian port and was an American citizen, the fact that he was Nisei (second generation Japanese American) still landed him in an internment camp a few months later.


Thinking his language skills might be useful, Fukuhara had offered to join the Army, but was classified as 4C – enemy alien. “That really made me angry,” said Fukuhara. “I may look like Japanese, but I was not Japanese by birth. I was an American by birth. And my upbringing and my thinking were ‘typical American’, not ‘typical Japanese’.”  


Fukuhara got his chance, however, when the Army came looking for volunteers for military intelligence units and especially Japanese linguists.


Because of his extensive knowledge of both Japanese and English, Fukuhara was a natural. He immediately joined up along with 25 other Niseis from his camp.


“I did have one delicate problem,” said Fukuhara. “My eyes and back were so bad I couldn’t pass a physical. Luckily, the Army didn’t care.”


By the summer of 1945, Fukuhara was a battle-tested veteran infantryman of the Southwest Pacific campaigns, even earning a battlefield commission.


A new assignment with the 33rd Division in northern Luzon offered more challenges to serve America in time of war. Then came the dreaded orders. Fukuhara’s unit would invade Japan on Nov. 1.


Although they were Nisei, Fukuhara was reasonably sure his brothers had been drafted to serve in the Japanese Army. Now, he was haunted by the vision of fighting them on a battlefield.


On Aug. 6, however, came a startling announcement. A powerful, new weapon called the “atom bomb” had been dropped on Hiroshima. Nagasaki became the second city targeted on Aug. 9.


The good news was Japan had agreed to an unconditional surrender. The bad news was Hiroshima was home to Fukuhara’s family. Now he wasn’t sure which scenario was worse, a combat zone where brothers were forced to fight against each other or a bomb that obliterated an entire city.


Although he qualified to return home, Fukuara volunteered to accompany the 33rd Division to Japan as part of the occupation force. He wanted to find his family and working in Japan was the best way to do it.  


Four years of hostilities had taught Fukuhara to expect the worst, but the appearance of the Wakayama Prefecture where he landed in mid-September was shocking. Twelve long years of war had destroyed much of the cities and landscapes.


Commerce and trade were nonexistent, and there were virtually no medical facilities or transportation networks.


Thousands of people were on the verge of starvation.


“Some of them told me it was easier to die than live,” said Fukuhara. “Most had no homes and nowhere to go.”


A few weeks after his arrival, Fukuhara received permission to try and locate his family.


Now, as the sun was beginning to rise, the Nisei Soldier looked out at the city where he had spent his early years, made friends, and gone to school. Only, there was no city. War brought destruction, but the atomic bomb literally disintegrated everything.


Only a few remnants of a once flourishing metropolis were left, surrounded by miles of scorched earth.


Fukuhara was horrified one weapon could be responsible for so much devastation.


“I had some idea what was coming because of what I’d already seen,” said Fukuhara quietly. “But I still didn’t understand what the atom bomb was exactly. I wasn’t even sure I could get in the area because of the radiation. We’d been told no one would be able to enter the city for at least a hundred years. And that it would take that long for anything to grow there again.”       


Fukuhara didn’t stay at the railroad platform for long. The ominous view had all but shattered the hope his family was alive.


Like the route to Hiroshima, the drive to Fukuhara’s home was just as complicated.


As he crossed the desolate area, Fukuhara spotted a fire in a street car. A few men were inside, but when Fukuhara stopped to ask about directions there was no response.


“They were the only people I saw that morning and they acted like zombies,” said Fukuhara. “They just stared at me and never said anything.”


Nearly four hours later, only five miles from ground zero, Fukuhara recognized his old neighborhood. And then his house, partially damaged, but still standing.


While gazing at the structure for a few minutes, he realized there were no sounds or movement anywhere. And when he rang the bell, there was no answer.


After what seemed like an eternity, the door opened. Fukuhara was relieved to see his mother alive and well! But she didn’t recognize the young Japanese man in an American Army uniform.


“She didn’t believe it was me at first, even after I identified myself,” said Fukuhara. “Luckily, my aunt was there and she knew me right away.”        


A bomb shelter had saved his mother’s life. His brother Victor, however, wasn’t so lucky. Caught by the blast on his way to work, he had wandered around for a week before he could make it home. His back had been burned and he had lost all of its skin.


Fukuhara quickly took him to a hospital, but was told that nothing could be done. Other relatives had also died or disappeared in the atomic explosion. One cousin had much of her face burned away, but was still able to talk. Both would soon die of radiation poisoning.


Fukuhara’s younger brothers, Pierce and Frank, had indeed been inducted into the Japanese Army.


Sent to a suicide unit, Frank had been trained to blow up a U.S. military vehicle by detonating an explosive strapped to his body.


It was also disturbing that Frank had been assigned to guard the beaches of Miyazaki Prefecture on Kyushu Island where Fukuhara’s division was expected to land.


Along with caring for his family, Fukuhara made it his personal crusade in promoting good will throughout his area of operations. He was determined to restore faith and trust between Japan and America.          


Aware of the starving children wandering the streets and looking for food motivated Fukuhara to contact the nearby mess hall.


“I’d seen the children rummaging through the garbage cans for leftovers and thought surely we could share the scraps,” said Fukuhara. “The mess hall sergeant was eager to help and the most rewarding moment was watching those kids eat desserts. Most had never seen or tasted sweets and the candy and cakes were a wonderful treat.”


Other Army mess halls joined in distributing their extra provisions. Instead of being feared, the American GIs soon became known for their generosity.


Barriers between the two nations were starting to crumble.


As commander of the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) in Toyama Prefecture a few years later, Fukuhara decided a Christmas party for the Toyama City orphans was another means to bring community members together.    


The eight personnel, including six Nisei, began saving rations as early as June for the event.


“We purchased some items from the Post Exchange train that came through once a month because there was no Post Exchange or Commissary at Toyama,” said Fukuhara.   “We also bought soap and candy and asked our families back in the states to send presents.”


Through the Toyama Prefectural government welfare section, 50 orphans were treated to a Christmas party at the Toyama CIC Office.


After refreshments and songs, each orphan received some candy, soap, and one article of clothing.


“The only thing that wasn’t a hit was Coca Cola,” laughed Fukuhara. “The children thought it tasted like medicine.”


The enormous success of the celebration ensured its future as an annual affair for the next four years. Each time, the occasion increased with presents and children due to the efforts and contributions of local officials working alongside the American Soldiers.         


When Fukuhara remembered how much the Japanese had enjoyed baseball before the war, he lost no time securing sports equipment.


Passing out balls and bats to several local police stations, it wasn’t long before the CIC was playing America’s favorite pastime several days a week.        


“Baseball was banned during the war, but within a year it became our main means of doing business with various government offices,” said Fukuhara. “For our CIC office, it was another way to build friendship and respect for each other.”


Today, Fukuhara spends much of his time highlighting the Nisei heritage from World War II. He insists the Nisei American story must not be forgotten or rewritten. “We loved America too and felt it was our duty to support and protect our country. I think the fact we survived the ordeal is to our credit.” 


(Editor’s Note: This is the seventh story in a series featuring the Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) during World War II.)