Nagasaki devastation seen by Corona man weeks after atomic attack

On Aug. 9, 1945, we dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan., three days after we dropped one on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered Aug. 15, ending World War II.

On Sept. 23, 1945, six weeks after the bomb, sailor Richard Lachman’s transport ship pulled into the harbor.

He and his crewmates were there on a humanitarian mission. So were some 50 other ships. His ship’s piece of this almost sounds silly now. They were delivering cases of fruit cocktail.

“We had orders to deliver that and not come back until it was delivered,” Lachman, 94, recalls in his Corona living room, wearing a pink shirt with flamingos and a cap with the phrase “WWII Veteran.”

Boats were lined up waiting for a chance to unload. Lachman and another sailor went ashore during the day and returned to the boat at night.

“I roamed around in Nagasaki. We were there two days and two nights,” Lachman says.

  • Sailor Richard Lachman roamed Nagasaki, Japan on Sept. 23-24, 1945, six weeks after the atomic bomb, and observed the destruction. He snapped a few photos, including this one, with his Brownie camera. (Courtesy Lachman family)

  • Richard Lachman, 94, walks in his Corona home as his dog, Buster, leaps successfully for the sofa. Buster has only one front leg. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Sailor Richard Lachman roamed Nagasaki, Japan on Sept. 23-24, 1945, six weeks after the atomic bomb, and observed the destruction. He snapped a few photos, including this one, with his Brownie camera. (Courtesy Lachman family)

  • Sailor Richard Lachman roamed Nagasaki, Japan on Sept. 23-24, 1945, six weeks after the atomic bomb, and observed the destruction. He snapped a few photos, including this one, with his Brownie camera. (Courtesy Lachman family)

  • Richard Lachman, 94, sits on the patio of his Corona home. The World War II veteran not only wandered Nagasaki in the month after the atomic bombing, he witnessed two nuclear bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll in 1946. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Richard Lachman holds a wartime service book with notations of dates and places he served while in the U.S. Navy. Concerning Sept. 23, 1945, he wrote: “Nagasaki!!! It was no prettier than I expected.” U.S. forces had dropped an atomic bomb on Aug. 9. Lachman roamed the city on foot and observed the destruction. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)



In the Nagasaki bombing, it’s believed some 70,000 people died, most of them civilians. (An estimated 140,000 died in Hiroshima.) Many perished immediately, others in the weeks and months afterward. Many worked in munitions factories.

Our target city for the Aug. 9 mission was Kokura. But because it was obscured from the air by smoke, the bombers diverted to the alternate target, Nagasaki.

Lachman, of course, didn’t know anything about that at the time. But in his visit six weeks later, he knew what he saw on the ground.

“I was just a kid yet then. I was 18. I was horrified by Nagasaki.”

The valley floor and one side of the slope were in ruins. The streets had been cleared of rubble. But the city had been flattened. Many buildings, including the munitions plants, were nothing more than concrete foundations.

Lachman says he and his crewmate didn’t encounter many people. They explored the remains of empty buildings. One stands out in his memory.

“My buddy and I went into a two-story house. We went upstairs through the balcony. I opened the door,” he says, “and started retching. It was my first encounter with decayed human flesh.”

He turns to his son Branton, who was there for our chat.

“Did you know they put me down for PTSD because of it?” he says. Branton shakes his head.

Lachman continues: “I can still smell it when I think about it.”

As he explored Nagasaki, he carried a simple camera, a Brownie. A roll of film had eight exposures. He had one roll, maybe two. A friend on his ship developed the film.

In one snapshot, a two-story building is in tatters, supported by makeshift struts.

In another, a man and a well-dressed young woman pick through the ankle-deep rubble of a structure now reduced to shingle-sized chunks. A passerby wearing a sort of safari jacket and crushed hat walks past, looking almost incongruously jaunty.

In another scene, everything has been flattened over a broad landscape except a Shinto Arch, which remains standing.

“You saw all this destruction,” Lachman says.

With the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the weapon was so new, the young sailor didn’t even know how to pronounce the word, calling it “AT-uh-mick.”

Lachman sides with President Harry Truman that an Allied invasion of Japan would have caused tremendous loss of life on both sides that the bombings prevented.

This was, remarkably, not the end of Lachman’s experiences with nuclear weapons.

In June 1946, toward the end of his Navy service, he was part of the observation force at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Two nuclear bombs were detonated in separate tests, neither of which went right. The second has been described as the world’s first nuclear disaster. It seemed we had unleashed forces beyond our ability to understand or control.

Nevertheless, Lachman, a young man from San Mateo who had enlisted to get away from a bad situation at home, feels lucky to have been there.

“I wasn’t on duty when the bombs went off. I wasn’t on watch. So I was able to be on deck,” Lachman relates.

“I was on the forward deck. I had to put my eyes in the crook of my arm and my back to the bomb during the flash. Then I could turn around and see the whole works.”

He describes it like this: “It was a beautiful sight. It was all pink and fluffy against a blue sky. It was like cotton candy.”

Lachman suffered for his decision to extend his deployment by going to Bikini Atoll.

The crew was ordered to hurry below decks after one test when contaminated rain began falling. “It was the strangest feeling,” he marvels, “to be afraid of rain.”

At another point, he was in the engine room, seeking relief from the tropical heat by sitting on a condenser unit that pumped in cool seawater. A scientist walked by with a Geiger counter, which began clicking faster. Lachman jumped off the pipe. The water it was carrying was radioactive.

“You won’t be having any children,” the scientist said matter-of-factly before walking on.

Wrong. Lachman married, got a pharmacy license, ran Arcade Pharmacy in Corona from the late 1950s to the early 2000s and had three children. He and Blanche, who died in 2018, were married 67 years.

But after five surgeries for cancer, his colon was removed. He’s considered an “atomic veteran” and about five years ago was awarded $75,000 from the government.

Were his experiences at the explosions worth the pain?

“I guess so. A lot of sacrifices happened,” Lachman replies. “I felt very privileged to see it. I expected to see bomb dust. I wasn’t expecting a heavenly cloud.”

Branton says his father was an eyewitness to nuclear history, one with a rare vantage point.

“He saw two atomic bomb explosions. And before that, at Nagasaki, he saw the evidence, the civilian evidence, of destruction,” Branton says. “He may be unique in that.”

The elder Lachman still wrestles with the contradictions of the nuclear explosions he saw and their cotton-candy colors.

“You looked at the bomb,” he says in wonder, “and thought, how could anything be so beautiful, and so destructive, at the same time?”

David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, more to wonder about. Email, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

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