How Gordon Smith survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima

Gordon Smith was just 20 years old when he left for the Far East as a Radar Technician in the Royal Ordnance Corps which became the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). He wouldn’t return until he was 25, after spending over three years as prisoner of war in Hiroshima.

One morning in October 1941 Gordon's unit started its journey to the Pacific, forming a convoy off the coast of Ireland. At this stage Gordon still didn’t know their final destination. On 8 December after stopping for fresh water at Freetown, Sierra Leone, they were informed via the ship’s newspaper that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbour.

Gordon's story

At war with Japan

This meant that they were now at war with Japan, so the convoy was redirected from their destination of Basra to Singapore. When they approached Singapore they were continually attacked by Japanese bombers, but their ship was lucky and escaped the bombs. They docked in Singapore early January 1942 and went to Shanghai Barracks for a few days.

Unfortunately, though they had made the trip to Singapore safely, their equipment was still en route to Basra. Gordon’s detachment of ten men (who were all technicians) only had a service rifle and ten rounds of ammunition each.

CAPTURE

They were sent to guard a refinery, but this was taken by Japanese paratroopers. The situation was looking dire. They contacted their commanding officer and he said to commandeer any truck or car they could, pick up any troops they saw, and make their way to the coast. It took Gordon two days and two nights to get to the coast and they arrived just as a small ship was about to leave. After they boarded they found out that they were headed to Java.

Once they arrived in Java they drove around trying to make contact with the remains of their unit but never managed to find them. After a few quick skirmishes with Japanese forces they were informed that on 8 March 1942 the Dutch had capitulated.

Gordon Smith in his army uniform with his mother

Gordon Smith in his Army uniform (left), and posing with his mother (right).

The next day the British forces ceased fire. Gordon became a prisoner of war (POW), although it took two months before he was taken into custody as the unit was transported across Java to Surabaya and they saw very few Japanese troops during their journey.

When they arrived in Surabaya they sabotaged their vehicles by putting fixed tow ropes round both axles, putting them in gear with the engine and sawing the levers off. They were now taken into custody as prisoners of war.

Gordon’s medals from his military service

Life as a POW

They were taken to a POW camp, assigned a number (Gordon’s was 154), and given a small space in a hot tin shack to sleep.

Gordon’s new role was to clear up the docks and other military installations. He worked at least 12 hours a day and was subjected to harsh punishments by the Japanese guards.

In October 1942 he was picked out with around 1,000 other prisoners to be put on a boat called the Singapore Mary and transported to Japan. The boat was overcrowded and the prisoners had to lie in the holds for the majority of the time day and night. The only times they were allowed on deck was once a day for a meal and to use the toilets  which were wooden structures built on side of the ship over the rail. The meal was a small portion of boiled rice, watery stew and cold black tea.

Conditions on board were poor, with rats and dysentery rife. Of the 1,000 prisoners who came aboard, only 600 survived. The rest died from dysentery and malnutrition. Of those who made it off the boat some were too weak to stand and passed away in a few days.

“We all had some type of dysentery and it was God's will that the rest survived,” remembers Gordon.

It was snowing when Gordon arrived in Kobe, Japan. The prisoners were put onto open barges and taken to Hiroshima to a coal mine named Fukuomo 10. It was late at night when they arrived.

“The mining company had hot English meals for us which, in my opinion, saved a lot of us. And they gave us thick clothing to combat the cold.”

Gordon's record of his military service from 1938 to 1946

Down the mine

The mining company gave the prisoners winter clothing to replace their tattered tropical gear. After three days they were sent down the walk-in mine which had 160 steps. They worked 14 hour days with only one day off per month (as well as Christmas Day).

Their billets were wooden huts with a walking space down one side and wooden frame sliding door with paper windows. Each prisoner's bed space consisted of a straw mat (six by two and a half feet) a blanket and a small pillow.

“In the camp was what we called chicken pens, galvanised sheet sheds about two feet high and three feet long by two foot and a half foot and the Japanese put you in for extra punishment, they were very hot,” says Gordon. "The camp had army guards, who’d have roll calls at all times, day and night.

"If you were working you got two meals a day: one a box of rice to take down the pit, the other a bowl of rice and watery stew when you got back to the camp. If you were sick or unable to work you only got one bowl of rice and watery stew for the day. Red Cross parcels arrived at the camp, but didn’t make their way to the prisoners."

The letter Gordon received from King George VI after he returned to the UK

Struck by illness

In March 1943, Gordon had to report sick with stomach pains and was diagnosed with appendicitis. He had to wait until April to be operated on by a Japanese doctor without any anaesthetic. He was told by Japanese guards that if they operated and found that he didn’t have appendicitis then they would behead him.

“They strapped me to a table with two 100-watt lamps strung over me and a bamboo fire in a stove behind me. When the surgeon inserted the knife I passed out and came to in bed. The 6th HHA Commander Colonel Hazel had to stand and watch the operation along with Pur Pardoe of 15 BHTT, 6th HAA, who was a medical orderly.

“After a couple of days the wound became infected and the doctor had to re-open the wound and leave a gaping hole so that it could heal itself. It took quite a while to heal but before it was right the guards saw me walking and sent me back down the mine.”

Gordon received the Pacific Star for his service in the Far East

Freedom

He continued to work down the mine until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The bomb put out all the electrics and flooded the mine.

Luckily there were no prisoners down there as it was their one day off a month.

A few days afterwards, the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the guards disappeared overnight. Gordon and the rest of the prisoners of war were told that the war was over. The Americans dropped food by parachute but much of this missed the camp.

Eventually they left by train to a transit camp on the coast where they were interviewed and then put on a hospital ship headed for Hawaii. Once they arrived in Hawaii they got on board another ship bound for San Francisco where, upon arrival, they went to an army camp.

Gordon left the army camp in a hospital train and was taken to Tacoma, Washington, on the Canadian border. After travelling for six days and five nights on a Canadian Pacific Railway train, Gordon arrived in New Jersey where he boarded the Queen Mary for the final stage of his journey back to to the UK.

Gordon arrived in England on 18 November 1945 and was sent to York Military Hospital for an operation on his appendicitis scar. When he was released from the camp he was under seven stone after suffering from beriberi: a condition caused primarily by a nutritional deficit in vitamin B1 (thiamine).

“I still have nightmares about it, but I was lucky to come home. Some people say they should not have dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. In my opinion, if they had not, nearly all the POWs would have died or been killed by the Japanese.”

Gordon Smith at VJ Day 70, London, August 2015

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