MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
On this day in 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. More than 70,000 people died in the explosion that hastened the end of World War II. It took a month and a half for American ships to deploy to Nagasaki. Even then, the sailors were taken aback by the obliteration.
Reporter Curt Nickisch has the story of one of them.
CURT NICKISCH: Considering how he grew up, it's hard to believe that Rudi Bohlmann witnessed the dawn of the nuclear age. He was born in 1926 on a small South Dakota farm - no electricity, no running water. He remembers all of this, sitting in his living room easy chair today. The Navy assigned him fresh off the farm to the USS Tyrrell.
RUDI BOHLMANN: Oh, my gosh. It was sitting in the water via San Francisco there. I had, didn't think they could make something that big that would float, you know? It's like a big building, a big old barn or something floating in the water.
NICKISCH: The Tyrrell was carrying Marines and supplies for the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland, plans that ended with the atomic bombs. The war over, Bohlmann's ship got orders to sail to Nagasaki where they could smell the stench of death before they even got there.
BOHLMANN: And we knew something was up to stink. Oh, you know, our ships got big ventilation fans, and that was pumping it down into our engine room, that smell. It just - you just about gagged just by breathing it. I hadn't eaten breakfast yet that morning because I'd just come off watch. And I couldn't go eat. Nobody could eat.
NICKISCH: It was the 23rd of September 1945, when the Tyrrell pulled in to the Nagasaki harbor, the first U.S. ship in. Bohlmann remembers how two Japanese boys helped tie the ship to the dock. He says sailors tossed oranges and apples down to them. The boys - maybe 8 years old - devoured every one.
BOHLMANN: They were just starved to death and had sores. Eyes were all mattered and running, their ears sort of dripping with matter. The sides of their mouth was all festered.
NICKISCH: The boys with radiation sickness were the only living people anyone on the Tyrrell saw in Nagasaki, and the ship moored there for five days. Bohlmann could see the power of the bomb wherever he looked.
BOHLMANN: There just was nothing standing there. It ended like a tornado, piled up and pushed together and, like, this is just flattened out, you know, burnt. Just gone.
NICKISCH: When Bohlmann came home from the war to South Dakota, his father wanted to celebrate Rudi's safe return with smoked fish, a real delicacy then on the prairie. But for Rudi, it only recalled what he'd experienced at Nagasaki.
BOHLMANN: I sat down, I took one bite and I had to get up, walk outside and throw up. And Ma looked at me and asked me what's wrong. And I said, I can't eat that fish. Something in the back of my mouth, I said, it just smells like it was over in Japan. And to this day, I can't eat smoked fish. I don't even try it no more.
NICKISCH: Despite such visceral memories, Bohlmann remembers the bombing that killed and sickened more than 100,000 Japanese civilians as, above all, the end of the war. It meant he could return to the family farm where he still lives today.
For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.