Burned into memory
Each August, Gene Godfrey would just as soon forget where he was all those years ago.
It’s difficult, to say the least, for the 76-year-old resident of the town of Washington to claim he was a hero or to reflect on the bodies he saw burning in the streets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after two successive atom bomb blasts that eventually brought Japan to its knees.
The force of those events compelled the Japanese empire to surrender during the dog days of summer 1945.
For those young enough to remember only the sepia-toned historical images, or for those whose only exposure to the horror is the monotone of a social studies instructor during history class, Godfrey has a message:
He lived those images, and no matter how hard he tries, they never go away.
The son of migrant workers, Godfrey joined the U.S. Navy in 1943, a 16-year-old from Whittier whose parents were so poor they gave their son just two choices during those hard times.
“My mother said, ‘You’re either going to college or you’re going to enlist, but you’re not going to stay here,'” Godfrey said.
So it was off to San Diego, where he enlisted in the Navy.
Godfrey and his crew were part of Cruiser Division 8, dubbed “ghost squadrons.” Their job was to attack with a vengeance. They sailed to the Marshall and Caroline islands, the Philippines and New Zealand before landing off the east coast of the Japanese island of Honshu as the Hiroshima bomb was set to go off.
Godfrey and his mates never knew what awaited them as they came ashore.
“That was one of the most closely guarded secrets. Naval intelligence never tells you anything,” said Godfrey, who was expecting a full-on invasion.
But when they arrived in Nagasaki after the second atom bomb blast Aug. 9 and the Japanese surrender Aug. 14, they were unprepared for the horror.
“The streets were (still) burning,” he said. “The people that were alive were dazed, afraid. They had no time to prepare. It was so common to see bodies burning in the streets.”
Bodies of those hiding from the fallout were in sewers and on sidewalks as skeletons burned all around.
Fifty-seven years later, Godfrey believes the atom bomb blasts were unavoidable and meant to spare even more lives than were lost.
“You really don’t know what to think,” Godfrey said Wednesday as he sat on the deck of the Washington Hotel, looking out across the South Yuba River at the campground he owns. “You know they had to do it. It was either that or kill all of our people.
“It was fair to everybody, because it shortened the war, and it shortened the amount of deaths. (President Harry S.) Truman made the right call.”
Godfrey, who has lived in Washington for more than 25 years, doesn’t dwell on the past. He doesn’t belong to veterans’ organizations or try to keep in contact with the men from his ship. He has harsh words for today’s politicians, whom he believes don’t stand up for the decisions they make.
“Truman took responsibility when most politicians don’t,” he said.
Later, Godfrey ferried U.S. prisoners of war on “magic carpet duty” back to San Francisco. He then built rockets for 26 years.
“The Japanese paid a hell of a price for the war,” said Godfrey. He said he doesn’t believe today’s generation will ever see what he remembers.
“It had to be done, but, God, I hope we don’t have to go through that again. It was a mess.”
57 years ago …
— The atomic bomb that fell over Hiroshima was code-named “Little Boy,” a uranium-dynamite bomb that was dropped from the bomber Enola Gay at 8:15 a.m. Aug. 6, 1945. An estimated 75,000 people were killed immediately, and 48,000 buildings destroyed.
— The bomb that fell on Nagasaki three days later, “Fat Man,” contained 21,000 pounds of dynamite. About 40,000 were killed immediately, and 40,000 were wounded.
— The Japanese surrendered Aug. 14. They officially signed a surrender agreement aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
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