Andy Brackeen, a World War II Navy veteran, sits next to a photograph of himself Wednesday at his Winterhaven residence that was taken when he was 17 years old. Sun photo/Jacob Lopez
Sixty years ago, Andy Brackeen was among the first Americans to set foot in Nagasaki, the Japanese city where the United States dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan, ultimately bringing about the end of World War II.
"All the destruction" Brackeen said, "was unbelievable."
Brackeen points to a photograph of himself during World War II that was printed in a book about the exploits that American soldiers conducted while on the USS Lanier. Sun photo/Jacob Lopez
A soft-spoken man, Brackeen, 79, of Winterhaven, did not elaborate in great detail the destruction he witnessed at Nagasaki, except to say the destruction was "widespread." Brackeen pointed to photographs of the annihilated city that are in a log book of the exploits of the USS Lanier, the ship to which he was assigned.
Brackeen, a Texas native, shared his experiences as a U.S. Navy Seaman 1st Class in the Pacific during World War II. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the day the Japanese government formally surrendered to the Allies. That solemn moment, the signing of a peace treaty and Japan's unconditional surrender, took place aboard the USS Missouri which was docked in Tokyo Bay along with other U.S. battleships.
Brackeen said the military never told him or his fellow servicemen about radiation or radioactive fallout at Nagasaki.
"Before we went in they told us about plague and told us to keep away from the Japanese," he said.
The mission to Nagasaki was to escort a Navy hospital ship to the bombed out city in order to provide medical relief, he said, adding neither he or his fellow servicemen on that mission became ill. Brackeen said he was not stricken ill in later years, nor does he know if any of his fellow servicemen later became ill.
Prior to the medical mission, Brackeen's job as a landing craft driver was to bring the first U.S. occupation forces, Marines, to mainland Japan.
"We were kind of nervous whether they had given up or not," Brackeen said.
Brackeen recalled he and his fellow sailors saw the Japanese coastal artillery guns covered with white sheets as the USS Lanier made its way to the Japanese naval port of Yokosuka.
"That was one of the stipulations when we went in," Brackeen said.
Pointing to a photograph in the log book of Japanese prisoners of war, Brackeen said the prisoners were slated to be kamikaze pilots, the suicide mission flyers who, toward the end of the war, guided their bomb-laden aircraft into U.S. vessels.
"They were glad we got them," Brackeen said.
Brackeen, who said he was never wounded in the war, witnessed kamikaze attacks months earlier at the battle of Okinawa, considered the largest assault in the Pacific, lasting from April to June 1945.
Brackeen said the Japanese suicide mission fighters came in groups of eight or 10 at a time. One nearby U.S. destroyer was hit three times by kamikazes.
An estimated 6,706 sailors and Marines were killed in the bombings and landings at Okinawa, an additional 566 died of wounds incurred at that battle, and 2,904 others suffered wounds which left them invalids, according to the Naval Historical Center Web site.
Only months before that battle, Brackeen was transporting Marines to the beachheads of Iwo Jima, part of a group of islands approximately 670 miles south of Tokyo.
"There was fire all the time ... small arms, mortar fire coming in from the beaches" as landing crafts approached to deliver the Marines, Brackeen said.
An estimated 5,841 sailors and Marines were killed during the battle for Iwo Jima, an additional 662 died of wounds incurred at that battle and 3,463 others suffers wounds which left them invalids, according to the center.
In addition to the log book of the USS Lanier's travels during the war, Brackeen has in his collection a Japanese battle flag which he says he snagged from the Nagato, a surrendered Japanese battleship they encountered when they first arrived.
That flag, though slightly tattered and the colors faded, bears the symbol of the Japanese at the time, the "Rising Sun."
Brackeen's wife of 52 years, Nadine Brackeen, remarked their sons keep asking: "What do you keep that flag for?"
To which Andy Brackeen quietly responds: "Memories."