Sunday, June 20, 2010

Maj. Gillham visits devastated Hiroshima

The letter today is a rather important one, since it includes Maj. Gillham's descriptions of his visit to the city of Hiroshima, which had been decimated by a uranium bomb dropped by the Allies on August 6, 1945, just seven months earlier.

There are two versions of the letter:  a handwritten version missing two pages, and a typed version which deals only with Maj. Gillham's description of Hiroshima.  My guess is that, owing to the historical significance of the Hiroshima section, someone later typed up that portion of the letter (presumably using the now-missing pages to type from and then not returning the pages to the original letter).  

The handwritten letter contains four pages, written on both sides, with the pagination of 1, 2, 5 and 6, with pages 3 and 4 missing.  The typewritten letter contains most of what is in the handwritten version, save a few incidental personal paragraphs and rewordings, as well as a long stretch which would seem to fit between pages 2 and 5.  This would appear to represent the missing handwritten pages, but with no handwritten pages to compare it with, one cannot be sure if it is exactly what is missing.  In any event, I have made an attempt to merge both letters into something that hopefully represents the letter Maj. Gillham actually wrote.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that on Thursday I received a scanner at my door, courtesy of Andrew Waskey, the son of Martha Gillham Waskey, the Gillham's little girl in these letters.  He bought it for me in memory of our Aunt Bryant, Frances' sister, who died a few weeks ago.  As I mentioned before, Bryant was the family historian, and since I have taken that mantle from her in some ways, this gift seems very appropriate and is quite appreciated!  I have not had a chance to use it yet, since I am visiting my sister in Asheville this weekend, but stay tuned for an increase in scanned photos and memorabilia in future posts. 

Fukuoka, Japan
2 Mar 1946

Dearest Darling,

I will probably carry this letter back to Tokyo with me and mail it there, but I thought I would start writing it and tell you something of my trip south while it is still fresh in my mind.

We left Tokyo Monday night on the "Allied Limited," a special train which carries only occupation force personnel.  We had berths on a first-class Japanese sleeper.  It was very nice, but they don't have very many of them in Japan.  It was a compartment car, with the berths running crosswise.  Each compartment had an upper and lower berth and a fold-down wash basin.  Two compartments could be thrown together, which made a right roomy arrangement.

We stayed in that car until about 10 A.M. the next morning, at which time the sleepers were taken off and we had to move up into a 2nd-class coach.  They aren't bad, but need maintaining.  They are about like one of our ordinary day coaches.  We rode that to Kaidaichi, where we changed trains and got on a 3rd-class coach and went to Kure.  We must have gone thru 75 to 100 tunnels during the day.  The Japanese railways seem to be operated by very young boys.  But when you come to think of it, if an 18 or 20 year old can fly an airplane better than any other age group, it would stand to reason that they could also do a good job with a locomotive.  We are just used to seeing 75 year old engineers in the states.

Several odd things noticed on the trip were:  a Japanese version of an R.R. handcar, consisting of two tandem bicycles equipped with R.R. flanged wheels and held together with tie rods so that one is over each rail;  a section gang working on the track all raised and lowered their picks together in perfect unison;  a locomotive engineer sitting in the cab of his engine, absorbed in pruning a sprig of cherry blossoms;  and all retaining walls are built with stone laid diamond-wise, like lattice-work.

Kure was a former major Japanese naval base, and consequently took quite a beating.  The town is mostly burned up and there are many sunken ships in the harbor.  The natural setting is as beautiful as you could imagine.  It is right on the Inland Sea which is a gorgeous mountain-fringed, island-studded body of water.

We visited the telephone and telegraph offices at Kure.  They were a mess, but I guess they deserve credit for trying to carry on under very difficult conditions.  They had one very good repeater station out on the edge of town.

The second day in Kure we drove over to Hiroshima.  I am glad that I had the opportunity to see that while it was still fairly recent.  It is truly an awful sight.  As you approach the city (formerly 400,000 inhabitants) you notice that the windows of most of the houses have been boarded up.  They were broken and there is no glass for replacement.  Next, you notice loose tiles on roofs, then plastered walls that have shed the plaster.  Next you see houses that look like some giant pushed them in.  A little closer and they look like a tornado had struck them.  However, the parts are not burned.  From this point on everything was burned to the ground.  Four square miles were completely destroyed.  In this area only a few steel and concrete buildings remain and their interiors were blown out.  Bare steel towers supporting electric lines were knocked over flat as if they had been run over by a train.

Everything in the central area was subjected to an extremely great heat.  In the midst of this ruination, I found a little porcelain vase that was still intact.  All the glaze had been completely melted off, but the marks of an ornamental chrysanthemum design are burned into it.

Of all the buildings in the central area, a new telephone dial office building seemed to stand up the best.  All the windows and doors, including their steel frames, were blown in and the equipment churned and scarred, but at least it was still there.

I talked to a man who was in the building at the time of the explosion and lived through it.  He was blown clear across the building, knocked unconscious and remained so for several hours.  He received a bad cut across his face from flying glass.  Another man who was in the Board of Communications Building some distance away had an ear cut off from the same thing.  Three hundred telephone operators were killed on the job.  The amazing thing to is that  none of the people show any outward resentment.  They laugh as though it were a great joke.

The sequence of events described by witnesses was (1) a blinding flash.  All who were looking towards the bomb were permanently blinded.  (2) A heat wave of great intensity.  Some who instinctively threw up their hands at the flash saved their eyes and faces from the heat.  (3) A pressure wave that knocked everything down.  (4) A returning pressure wave to fill the vacuum stirred everything up again.  (5) Everything burned simultaneously.

At a distance, people wearing white clothes were not injured, but those wearing black were badly burned.  Black clothes hanging on a line were charred and fell to pieces, while light colored things were not hurt.

To add to the woes of poor Hiroshima, a typhoon hit that area in September and did a great deal of damage.  A large hospital that was far enough from town to escape the bomb and to which many bomb casualties were taken, was practically demolished by a huge landslide.

At Iwakune I struck up a conversation with an Australian officer, who I took for an officer.  I noticed he had some little crossed sword gadget by his crown which signifies a major.  I also noticed that the Australians in the vicinity were standing very stiffly.  He turned out to be Lieut. General Northcott, who had recently arrived to take command of all British Commonwealth forces in Japan.

The weather while we were there was so cold, wet and miserable that Col. Jacobs got sick and decided to return to Tokyo.  Since I had orders to travel and was that far, I decided to go on down to Fukuoka and see Wrightson.  I left Kure at 1:30 AM, caught another train at Kaitaichi at 3:30 AM and got to Fukuoka about noon.  Wrightson is with a base command located about 15 miles out of town, but I caught a ride with a Stars and Stripes truck and got out there without any trouble.  He is looking fine and has a very nice place to stay, but it is rather isolated.  The outfit is breaking up soon and he expects to be transferred but he doesn't know where yet.  The weather continued terrible, so we didn't go out much.

The only thing I got on the trip was three little Hakata dolls and fans for the children.  Hakata is the old name for Fukuoka and the area is famous for this type of doll.  They are little porcelain figurines but have a satin-like surface and pretty colors.

The return trip took 27 hours continuous running.  It is about 600 miles down there.  I saw all the major Japanese cities on this trip.  Kyoto is the only one that is not in ruins.  I don't think that many people that haven't traveled over Japan recently have any conception of the extent of the damage that was done.  Every little town of any significance whatever is completely leveled.  I marvel that the country is functioning as well as it  is.

I hear that the only type of mail being flown to the states is registered air mail.  I will try it with this one.  I will mail it 5 Mar.  If you receive it in less than two weeks, reply by registered air mail.

I had several letters from you and the children, mailed 4 & 5 Feb, here when I returned.  I am amazed at the size of their feet!  It was interesting to read your letter written from La Jolla just before the war started.  A lot has happened since then.  The only change that has taken place in regards to my love for you is that it is greater than ever, and that means that by this time it is becoming truly immense.

Lots of love,


P.S.  Received the film and lock -- many thanks.

[The following was written on a separate page] 

P.S.  I won't register this letter after all.  I have held it several days trying to get everything together.  I wanted to enclose a money order, but the P.O. closed before I got there yesterday.

Yesterday I took some booster shots for typhoid, typhus and cholera.  They never hurt me much before, but this batch knocked the fool out of me.  I had chills and fever all night, and am still feeling rotten and staying in the hotel today.

I will mail this here and send the registered letter and money order in a day or so.  I want to get something off to you.  My last letter from you was Feb 8.




The facts of the Hiroshima bombing are well known and exhaustively documented online, but here is a brief description of the occurrence:  At 8:15 a.m. on Monday August 6, 1945, a bomb containing 130 lbs. of uranium-235 nicknamed "Little Boy" was dropped onto Hiroshima from the B-29 Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets (who had named the plane after his mother).  Over 80,000 people died instantly, or roughly one third of the city's population.  Final estimates put the area of total destruction at 4.7 square miles.  An additional 40,000 people would later die as a direct result of heat and radiation suffering in the bombing.  This and the subsequent plutonium bombing of Nagasaki two days later effectively forced the surrender of Japan and ended the war in the Pacific.

View of a residential area of Hiroshima after bombing

Map of Japan showing general train route of Maj. Gillham,
from Tokyo west to Hiroshima and Fukuoka (rail line in green).
Click on map for larger image, and then click on resulting map for even larger image.

Lieutenant General John Northcott (1890-1966), with whom Maj. Gillham spoke, was indeed the commander of the British Commonwealth Occupational Forces in Japan, and had served earlier as the Chief of the General Staff during the war itself.  He retired after his command in Japan and became the first Australian-born governor of New South Wales.
Lieutenant General John Northcott

Incidentally, I am in possession of the small vase that Maj. Gillham describes in this letter.  I will make a photo of it and post it here, so stay tuned.  I will announce in a subsequent post when I have posted the photo.