Before the bomb: Roy Matsumoto remembers a city changed on Aug. 6, 1945
August 11, 2010 · 10:11 AM
Sixty-five years ago Aug. 6, the world was irrevocably changed.
In the early hours of that morning in 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The bombing not only altered the course of World War II, but broke all boundaries and norms of warfare.
The bombing — and a subsequent bombing of Nagasaki — compelled Japan to surrender, ending World War II. The bombing of Hiroshima also killed 80,000 civilians, injured as many as 140,000 more, and destroyed 69 percent of the city.
One local man presents a tie to that humanity. Roy Matsumoto, a California-born Nisei who became a U.S. war hero and career soldier, not only had family in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped, but he spent some of his childhood in and around the area.
Matsumoto’s first experience of the city came when he was 8, in 1921. At the time he was being raised in the Los Angeles region, his parents having left Japan years before.
That summer, when Matsumoto got out of school, his grand-uncle took him to Japan to visit his grandfather. He recalls that summer as a golden time of fishing and learning. Little did he know, however, that what started as vacation was to end with permanency.
When Matsumoto thought it was time to go home to his family, his grand-uncle told him no, he was now to live in Japan.
"He said, good bye, you are to stay here and go to a Japanese school. I was very mad at the time at my great-uncle, but what can you do?"
Matsumoto finished elementary school and applied for middle school in Hiroshima. By that time, his father was making a living as a professional photographer and his mother had made enough money to retire from the family farm. When Matsumoto was accepted to middle school in the city, his parents had the means to join him there.
Their new home doubled as a photography studio and was situated near the center of Hiroshima. Very near, in fact, to where the epicenter of the bomb would be.
But in the late 1920s, life went on as normal for Matsumoto. He does not hold any particularly fond memories of pre-bomb Hiroshima. There are recollections of low buildings and tram lines, a reasonably clean environment but with dirt roads. "It was alright," Matsumoto says.
Which is perhaps what any adolescent would have thought of the day-to-day routines of school, home and chores. In fact, it was one of the routine troubles of youth that finally got him sent back to California: love.
His relationship with a "tomboy" girl who his grandmother vehemently disapproved of prompted her to call Matsumoto's mother and get the boy sent back to the States.
"To keep the peace in the family, my mother said, go finish your education in the United States."
Matsumoto said the wrench may have been acute, but that departure "saved my life." This new path would lead him far away from the bomb. His family, however, would remain there.
In his new life, Matsumoto graduated from Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif., worked grocery jobs in the 1930s, was forced to an internment camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, in 1942, joined the U.S. Army. His intelligence work would save the lives of U.S. soldiers in the China-Burma-India Theater. He is now a member of the Army Ranger Hall of Fame and the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
By the time 1945 arrived, Matsumoto would be deep in China on a mission. It was here he would hear about the blast.
The news came over the radio and, to most of the world, it meant loss and damage on an incomprehensible scale. To Matsumoto, whose parents lived and worked near the center of the blast, it meant with all certainty that he had lost his family.
"I knew right away my folks must have perished and not suffered."
Matsumoto was not to find out until later that his parents had actually left Hiroshima a few months before the blast; they had moved because of a lack of photographic supplies.
They were reunited with their son after the war.