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Local veterans on the decision to drop the atomic bomb: ‘It had to be done’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — President Barack Obama’s unprecedented visit to Hiroshima evokes varying emotions among American veterans who served in World War II – a war many say would have been far worse had President Harry Truman decided against using the bomb developed by scientists in Los Alamos and tested at White Sands Missile Range to force Japan’s surrender.

Obama, the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima since the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing, visited that city’s Peace Memorial Park on Friday to pay respects to the estimated 140,000 killed by the bomb and to reiterate his hopes of one day ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

Accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama placed a wreath at the park museum’s concrete monument that pays tribute to the dead.

Three days after the Hiroshima bombing, a second atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki, killing more than 70,000. A week later, the Japanese emperor announced his nation’s surrender, ending the war.

World War II Army veteran Jim Wilson, 94, of Albuquerque, said Friday that it was unfortunate the president chose a date so close to Memorial Day to travel to Japan, saying it shows Obama is more interested in building his legacy than in honoring the more than 400,000 American servicemen who died in the war.

“Doing it so close to Memorial Day just shows he doesn’t care too much about American troops,” Wilson said.

Invasion avoided

In 1945, Wilson was in the Philippines. He and his unit, B Company, 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division, had been preparing for the invasion of the Japanese mainland when they heard of the Japanese surrender in a war that began after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

A few days later, the 11th Airborne Division was sent to Yokohama’s naval yards to begin the occupation.

“While we were waiting to go in, we saw some of the defenses they had put in,” Wilson said. “They had tunnels dug into solid rock. They had a narrow-gauge railroad running a half-mile inside the tunnels, and enough food and water stored in there to last a very long time.

“They even had their anti-aircraft artillery mounted on railcars,” he said.

That level of preparedness convinced Wilson that Truman had made the right call.

“I was there. I saw firsthand what kind of fortifications the Japanese had,” Wilson said. “We would probably still be there fighting if we hadn’t dropped the bomb. I don’t regret that decision for one minute.”

He said he’s pleased the president didn’t apologize for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because “There’s nothing to apologize for.”

World War II Navy veteran Paul Vigil, 93, was aboard the USS McFarland off Maui when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (Kristopher Parra/Albuquerque Journal)

World War II Navy veteran Paul Vigil, 93, was aboard the USS McFarland off Maui when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (Kristopher Parra/Albuquerque Journal)

World War II Navy veteran Paul Vigil, 93, of Albuquerque, was aboard the Clemson-class destroyer USS McFarland conducting anti-submarine maneuvers off Maui when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He witnessed the carnage of the attack when the McFarland steamed back to Pearl Harbor.

Vigil said he doesn’t have an opinion about Obama’s visit to Hiroshima.

“I don’t judge” Obama’s decision to visit to Japan, he said Friday, but said he’s certain the decision to unleash the atomic bombs on Japan was the correct one.

“It had to be done; otherwise, that war would have gone on and on.” Vigil said. “Those bombs, they stopped the war.”

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