Janesville man witnessed aftermath of Nagasaki bombing
JANESVILLE—Donald Homan will not talk about what he saw in Nagasaki a month after an atomic bomb pulverized the city.
But when the 90-year-old veteran falls quiet, the pain on his face speaks loudly.
Homan was among seamen aboard the U.S.S. Wichita, the first U.S. force to reach the Japanese city in September 1945.
Almost 70 years later, his wife, Lorraine, gently urges him to talk.
“The story needs to be told,” she said. “Sometimes, he will reminisce. Other times, he will start, and it will overwhelm him. He has only started talking about anything in the last year.”
Homan was an 18-year-old Janesville High School student when he entered the service in April 1943.
By the time his heavy cruiser sailed into Nagasaki Harbor, he had survived battle after battle during World War II.
“Everywhere we went, our admiral had to be there first,” Homan said. “He was a glory hunter. We took part in the invasion of 23 islands.”
In the Pacific, the ship's crew participated in battles for the Solomons, the Marianas, the Marshall Islands, the Philippine Sea and Okinawa.
“We had some vicious attacks,” Homan said. “Once I looked toward the back of the ship and saw five spots burning.”
The crew even helped a heavy Australian cruiser, dead in the water from a torpedo hit off the coast of Formosa. The Wichita towed the ship to safety in enemy waters and heavy seas.
The Wichita also saw its share of kamikaze planes. Homan guessed some pilots were only 14 years old when they died for the emperor.
On Sept. 11, 1945, Homan and other sailors had a much different assignment in Nagasaki. Their mission was to evacuate prisoners of war released from Japanese prison camps after the war ended in mid-August in Asia. The prisoners included more than 1,500 U.S. servicemen captured on Bataan and Corregidor.
Homan called the men a horrible sight.
“Their bodies were nothing but bones,” he said. “It was terrible. I had never seen skeletons like that.”
While in Nagasaki, Homan saw the devastation of the atomic bomb, which leveled the city Aug. 9, 1945, and killed at least 80,000 people.
“The city burned like an inferno for 10 days,” Homan said.
The Navy gave a letter to each sailor saying what he could write home about the city. Homan still has the letter, which describes how his ship entered the long, narrow harbor to Nagasaki, proceeded slowly up the channel and dodged ships sunk by bombing raids.
A new Navy hospital ship followed the Wichita and tied up at the dock, where it took on ex-POWs.
Most prisoners came to the dock via narrow-gauged Japanese trains. As each train arrived, the Navy's 10-piece band played, “Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here” and “California Here I Come.” Many POWs had been in Japanese custody for more than three and a half years.
Before the evacuation ended Sept. 23, Homan and most of his shipmates came down with dysentery.
He left the Navy in January 1946 as ship’s cook first class.
When Homan returned to Janesville, he got his high school diploma and eventually worked at General Motors for 30 years. He retired in 1985.
He and Lorraine, his wife of 68 years, built a home in Janesville in 1954 and still live there. They have three daughters and a son.
Among Homan's World War II medals are 11 Bronze Stars, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
“He doesn't show them to anyone,” Lorraine said. “But I do.”
Homan shook his head back and forth.
“I'm no hero,” he said. “Half the time I was so scared.”
He paused, grew quiet and sadness filled his face again.
“People don't understand what the atomic bomb did,” he said. “People don't understand that war is so terrible.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email [email protected].