Remembering the bomb

It happened so long ago, Bill Pearce says, it feels like a past life. Or even someone else’s life.

Nearly 60 years ago, Pearce was on a U.S. Coast Guard ship and pulling into what was left of the harbor at Nagasaki, Japan. It was September 1945, just weeks after Fat Man, the second atomic bomb dropped by the United States to end Word War II, had scorched the earth and obliterated nearly 150,000 lives.

“We didn’t know what we were going to find,” Pearce, 83, said, explaining the military had no reliable information on the city’s condition. “We knew there was a big explosion, but we didn’t know if there would be anybody left.”

But there was, he said.

“The most scared people I’ve ever met,” Pearce said, because although his ship was transporting Navy construction battalions, sent to rebuild roads, bridges, telephone service and other vital infrastructures in the city, the surviving residents did not know why the Americans were there. “They were frightened that we were going to go in there and ‘really’ clean up.”

Over the years, Pearce’s memories faded, and most of the details are gone. But some of the images he will never forget.

Such as the Japanese perched on the high cliffs above the harbor with “huge guns” pointed at his ship. Or the bodies floating in the water below, bloated and threatening to explode on any man who didn’t immediately run to the other side of the ship, he said.

“And do you know what the cook served for dinner that night? Lamb stew,” Pearce said with a grimace, shaking his head when asked if he could eat it. “No one could. He had to throw it overboard.”

Although the sailors were ordered to stay on the ship, Pearce said he snuck ashore.

“The devastation was complete,” he said, describing rubble littered with body parts and hospitals overflowing with wounded whose flesh was burned, falling off, or just missing. “It was miserable.”

Pearce said he felt no hatred for the survivors, although technically they were a hostile enemy. And it was not a desire to go to war that led him to enlist in the first place, but a particularly persuasive dare from his closest friend.

“He clipped off his toenail and told me I would have to eat it if I didn’t say I would join the Coast Guard with him,” he recalled, laughing. When the time came to join the fighting, however, Pearce said he volunteered to go overseas, while his friend stayed behind.

“He was different that way, I guess,” Pearce said. “I never thought he was, but he was.”

Pearce shipped out from San Francisco in late 1944 and within months was headed from his base in Saipan to Nagasaki in an LST (Landing Ship, Tank), which resembled a “huge, floating bathtub.”

“They were designed to carry tons of equipment, ammunition and men, and they were hard to maneuver, especially in high seas — which we saw a lot of,” he said. “We were just lowly seamen, but we carried the Marines in because we were good at landing those crafts.”

Despite the horrors he saw, Pearce said he has powerful memories that are good, as well.

He especially treasures the time he met up with his younger brother, Max, who was serving on a destroyer at the same time. Pearce said he told his ship’s signalmen the number of his brother’s boat, and asked them to watch for it.

“One day, one of them came running over, all excited and yelling, ‘It’s here,’ ” Pearce said, recalling he was able to ride over in a small boat to visit his brother.

“We had quite a session over there,” Pearce said, remembering they let him steer the ship, then take his brother back to his own ship.

“Ice cream was such a treat out there, and somehow our cook had got his hands on an ice cream maker,” Pearce said. “So we had us a big feast, with ice cream and fried chicken.”

His voice cracked at the memory, then he felt silent, a flicker of a smile on his face.

“We were 7,000 miles from home — what are the odds we’d find each other there?” he said. “It was like finding a diamond in a haystack.”

Both Pearce and his brother survived the war, embarking on new careers and new roles as fathers and grandfathers.

For a short time, Pearce returned to his hometown in California’s San Joaquin Valley, then entered the University of Oklahoma. Graduating in 1951 with a degree in fine arts, Pearce said he planned to become a teacher, but instead became an artist and worked most of his life as a goldsmith.

Before he left Oklahoma, he met his wife, Verona, and together they traveled throughout the Southwest, stopping for long stretches in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Pearce’s favorite city, Sedona.

“That’s about the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” he said, explaining that while in the desert he made and sold jewelry, and his wife painted. Both enjoyed being part of the area’s close-knit artistic community, he said.

After living in Tacoma for several years, the Pearces moved to South Kitsap two years ago, where they proudly display several of Verona’s paintings and countless photos of their five children and one granddaughter.

Decades later, however, Pearce still wonders if dropping the bombs on Japan was necessary.

“I never did think it was. Most of the people who were killed were innocent women and children,” he said. “(President Harry) Truman said the bombs saved a million lives because that’s how many soldiers we would have lost trying to take the country by force. But who knows?”

Pearce paused, twisting a paper napkin in his hands.

“And we’re faced with that same question today,” he said. “But down to its roots, any war it not necessary. If two kings have an argument, let them do the fighting.”

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