February 19, 2017
As I was taking it easy on my knee (doing nicely, thankyouverymuch!) Saturday afternoon, I wandered into askhistorians to see what was going on. One of the questions was quite interesting: a young man's grandfather was held in a POW camp in Japan at the end of the war and claimed that he saw a nuclear explosion. Where could he have been held, and how did he get there? I didn't know, but I wanted to find out. So I started digging into the intarwebbz with what little information I had:
1) Grandfather was Dutch, living in the East Indies.
2) We had his name.
3) He had to have been held near Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
It was unsurprising to me that there was information about Japan's POW camps on the 'web. What did surprise me was that one of the best sites was from Japan itself. And oh my, it had a list of every POW camp on Japanese soil, broken out by location of the administrative center. And what do you know? Both Hiroshima and Fukuoka, which is just north of Nagasaki, were admin centers for POW camp networks. A quick perusal of nationalities held in the Hiroshima camps made it clear that Grandpa was likely held in a Fukuoka camp: at war's end, only 500 Dutch nationals were held near Hiroshima, while around 3700 were in the vicinity of Nagasaki.
So it was possible that Grandpa could have been in the vicinity of one of the bombs. I was almost ready to call it a night, when I hit a gold mine of information. This site was devoted to Allied POWS in Japanese hands, both in Japan and elsewhere. And there, in the middle of a cluttered index page, was a jewel beyond compare: the POW rosters of each Fukuoka camp at the time they were liberated. Better still, they were official records, pdf'd from the National Archives and Records Administration. There were some 20 or so reports, one for each camp.
As is my wont on any sort of project like this, I started from the back... and after about ten or 15 minutes of searching, I opened the roster for Fukuoka Camp #23, which held mostly Dutch prisoners. I quickly jumped to the correct initial and started looking. And then, about two hours after I had read the original question, I found him.
To say I was excited would something of an understatement. He really could have seen the bomb over Nagasaki! I posted my findings, then started phase II of the search: trying to find where Camp 23 was located. This took no time at all. On another page of the site with Camp #23's roster were photographs of each camp, whatever was available. For #23, there was only one... a remarkably sharp aerial shot. And there at the top was the lat/long of where the pic was taken... a quick wrestle with Googlemaps, cursed be its name, got me to where I was looking.
The red star was the rough location of Fukuoka #23, some 54 miles from Nagasaki as the crow flies. The only thing was that Mt Tara was directly between the two points, but as it turns out it's only just barely a mountain, measuring in at just over 1000m in height. The Nagasaki bomb exploded around 500m over the city.
After all the searching, I pretty much had the answer. Grandpa probably didn't see the flash of the detonation, but certainly could have seen the smoke cloud, and probably heard something of the explosion. Satisfied, I finished updating my post and took a nap.
When I woke up this morning, it was to an inbox filled with comments, a notification that someone had given me a month of "reddit gold", and the revelation that my comment had been linked to by reddit's "best of" page... and one more thing.
Another reddit user found Grandpa's name in the lists for another Fukuoka camp, #14... which was less than two kilometers from Ground Zero. It was totally destroyed by the blast, with seven POW deaths. Despite this, Camp #14 stayed in operation until it was liberated in September. I did some quick digging and found there was no discrepancy: the report the other user found was of all POWs to have held in the camp, not the list of who was there when it was liberated. Clearly Grandpa had been moved to #23 at some time before the bomb dropped. It did, however, allow me to partially answer the OTHER part of the poster's original question: how did Grandpa get there?
It turned out that most of the Dutch POWs were brought to Fukuoka #14 in April 1943, on one of the lesser-known Hell Ships, the Hawaii Maru. It only made two voyages in that role before being used as a troop transport instead. While conditions were as bad in the ship as in any other Hell Ship, remarkably few prisoners died on board.
I do believe the results of my research falls into the category of "a good day's work". I'm stupidly pleased with myself, I am.
Posted by: David at February 20, 2017 04:02 AM (JMkaQ)
Posted by: GreyDuck at February 20, 2017 08:34 AM (rKFiU)
Posted by: Mauser at February 20, 2017 10:08 PM (5Ktpu)
Posted by: Ben at February 21, 2017 09:14 AM (1uZgg)
Very good indeed! Remarkable thing, the Internet. Someday it will be big...
Hiroshima does not surprise me, given that the military port of Ujina, which handled IJA troop movements, is there. Neither does the fact that someone in Japan is hosting a information lode like that - there is a book published in Japan that had information on all the casualties of the Battle of Midway, on both sides, right down to the home towns.
Posted by: cxt217 at February 21, 2017 08:39 PM (lHKW1)
As for whether he saw the flash, I find this plausible. Light bounces off of things in addition to being absorbed, and that was a lot of light -- sudden unexpected light from an odd direction. The "day the sun rose twice" at the Trinity test (higher yield, but much closer to the ground) drew notice much further away than 54 miles.
Aboveground tests at the Nevada Test Site, near Las Vegas in southern Nevada, could sometimes be observed from Los Angeles or even the Bay Area (e.g., these LA photos of the 29-kT Apple 2 test, famed for the surreal pictures of a fake town getting blown away) and were a famous public spectacle in Vegas itself, 65 miles away.
Posted by: Ad absurdum per aspera at February 21, 2017 10:45 PM (f2J2+)
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