Walter Hooke, Nagasaki veteran, civil rights, democracy, and labor activist
29 June 2001
Makhijani: I am writing a book that will inquire about democracy and openness and science in the nuclear weapons complex. It is about the quality of the science on the bomb making side compared or contrasted to that on the health and environmental side. What are the reasons for the difference? The book will go into the question of democracy and harm without informed consent to some extent – the issue that you wrote me about. You are the first veteran I am interviewing for my book. Tell me a little about yourself before World War II.
Hooke: I was 29 when I enlisted in the Marine Corps. I was in Class III-A, which was exempt because I was the sole support of my mother. My father died in 1936. My brothers and sisters were married. I didn’t have to get involved but I got carried away about the Nazis and all and so I enlisted. I was doing labor relations for SH Kress. They had variety stores up and own the East Coast and on the West Coast and they had union and I handled their labor relations. I enlisted in 1942 in December. I was sent to boot camp in Parris Island. Then I went to Quantico to work in the office and I requested a transfer to the fourth division and on August 1, 1943 I went to North Carolina to join the 4th Division. I was with them until about April of 1944 when I was sent back to go to officer’s school and went to Quantico and officers training. After that I was assigned to Camp Pendleton as an instructor and the fact that I had been overseas they assumed I knew everything. I was a replacement in the Fifth Division after Iwo Jima. I was out there in the Pacific with the Fourth Division and the Fifth Division. Because I was older I had supervisory jobs of loading ships and jobs like that. I was in the Pacific twice.
I was with outfits that saw action but I personally didn’t. The Fifth Division was part of the planned invasion of Kyushu and for the occupation they took the units in training for that invasion, which was to have been in November of 1945, and made them temporary occupation forces after the Japanese surrender. We landed in Kyushu at the end of Sept 1945. I was an S4 officer for the battalion during the occupation. An S4 officer is in charge of supplies and getting the equipment to move people, trains etc. I got some kind of commendation, a kind of nice letter from the general.
We moved around Kyushu. The job was taking Japanese military equipment as part of the surrender. Towards the end of October I was sent over to Nagasaki to work over there. I was there until the first of February.
Makhijani: What was the state of Nagasaki at the time?
Hooke: The first troops that went in the occupation went in on 22 September and it was a lot worse then than in October. But in October there were still people walking around with their skin hanging. But we did not run into the terrible odors and everything. It was just an awful mess.
I had met the bishop of Nagasaki as we had a joint service of the Japanese Priests and Marine Chaplains. His church was blown up. It is famous in pictures that were taken after the bombing. They [the Japanese authorities during the war] took all the Christian ministers — if they were young they made them coal miners, and the old, they made them administrators. Bishop Paul Yamaguchi was not in Nagasaki but his mother and sister died in the bombing. I spent a lot of time with him. I met Dr.Takashi Nagai who wrote The Bells of Nagasaki. He had a hospital right near the bomb area and treated hundreds of casualties. He himself died from injuries and cancer in 1951. I drove the Bishop to visit him in a USMC Jeep on one occasion.
I got quite involved with the whole thing. Veterans were quite pleased with the bombing because they didn’t have to invade. I was with the unit that was to be part of the invasion so we were glad but when you got there it was different. The invasion was to be in November. But the war may have been over by then.
At the time everyone was relieved that the war was over. But once you saw what happened you wondered how you could do something like that. Incidentally the bishop thought that Japan was largely responsible. The bishop said that he and people of his caliber said once Saipan fell they knew they would lose the war. That would have been early 1945.
Makhijani: Has that view persisted? Over the years it seems to have become a more one-sided idea that the U.S. was solely responsible for the bombing.
Hooke: Yes that’s so. More and more people seem to think that.
Makhijani: Why is that so? There were, after all, Japanese generals who did not want to surrender after two bombs.
Hooke: That’s so. But we don’t know what would have happened. I’ve read the whole story. But once they agreed to maintain the emperor things calmed down. Once we got there we had no trouble with the Japanese. Once they got the word from the emperor or however it went thought their chain of command that was it. Turning over the weapons was just routine. We had more trouble with the Korean laborers. There is so much speculation. Everyone I knew was thrilled the minute the war ended. We even had the transports available. They had everything lined up for the November invasion.
Makhijani: Were there a lot of people who started having second thoughts after they saw Nagasaki?
Hooke: I don’t think so. Most of them were anxious to get home.
Makhijani: Did you advocate disarmament as a result of your experience?
Hooke: I would say from the early 1950s. I was interested in the United Nations Association. Early on I was involved in the UN and the need for it. The futility of the whole thing that we had been through. There had to be a better way. I was into reading the social doctrines of the Catholic Church. I was interested before I went in on the labor encyclicals. So I picked up that when I got out.
Makhijani: Was that why you were a labor representative?
Hooke: In 1935 I was part of labor’s nonpartisan league. It was part of the 1936 campaign for Roosevelt. Growing up in NYC in the depression and seeing everything it was sort of natural to become interested in workers, and to this day I still am and keep in touch with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and in 1936 I was involved in trying to bring democracy to the waterfront unions. When it spilled over into the other I don’t know.
Makhijani: Democracy seems to be the constant theme in your life.
Hooke: Yeah. I even gave up a couple of good jobs. I gave up a job at Sears even though I had a young family because of some unfair things they did. I was at UPS, which began using me as a consultant. They needed to get in conformance with the Civil Rights Act and I was deeply involved in the civil rights stuff, NAACP, even though I was doing management work. I set up a whole program for UPS, how they would hire a diverse work force, minorities and women. They still have one of the programs I set up [which involved] sending managers to poor areas. They’ve made a documentary about it. My main interest has always been labor and civil rights. I have never been really involved with peaceniks. I tried to get involved but I found they were the most hostile groups — they always seemed to fight each other. I got involved with the atomic veterans in 1972 or 1973.
When I got out of the Marines I was offered a commission in the reserves, but I refused it. But I stayed in touch with my unit. I got something in the mail [in the 1970s] about Marines from Nagasaki bulldozer operators and they felt they got their cancers over there and I got involved with them. When I retired in 1978, I met Dorothy Legaretta through the Catholic Worker and the farm workers. Dorothy had worked at Livermore. She invited me to a NAAV [National Association of Atomic Veterans] meeting in Las Vegas. She got thyroid cancer as a result of her exposure as a young woman. That’s how she got involved in it.
Makhijani: You said the subversion of democracy became routine after World War II. How do you think that happened?
Hooke: It was just a hunch. I guess it became a way of life [for the U.S. government], starting with the atomic bomb and the CIA. We had really deep science and really deep secrets combined. I read a lot about it, people like John Gofman, and about the groups of scientists who opposed the atomic bomb.
I was always upset by the way they [the U.S. government] treated the [American] troops in Nagasaki. They sent really young kids who were on the front line. I was not on the front line, but I knew a lot of them. I always felt they were good enough to go to Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima and then they were sent to Nagasaki and not a word was said to them about anything. They’d change tires and put their hands in their mouths. We had an atomic ball game they played it at ground zero. John Gofman said it was probably the safest place since it had the least fallout! They drank water from the Nagasaki reservoir. Young guys were invited to homes and ate the local food.
I also had quite a hassle in another area. The group I was involved with was a kind of monastic-like [group], several of them were Catholics. We were very upset when MacArthur issued an order opening the houses of prostitution. I got into trouble for sending a letter to Forestall. I collected signatures but our chaplain wouldn’t sign it. I couldn’t figure out why at the time, but I think he wanted to stay in the Navy. He retired after 30 years in the Navy. It was things like that I always seemed to get involved in.
Makhijani: So you were a troublemaker.
Hooke: No, not really. But I cared. We were supposed to be a Christian nation. And we were allowing patronage by our troops of houses of prostitution.
Makhijani: He issued an order to open it?
Hooke: Yes, in October 1945. It was signed by MacArthur as Supreme Commander. You were not supposed to go to local homes because they were short of food and the geisha houses were closed. You were not supposed have contact since they did not have food. Then there was this written order opening up the geisha houses. I did not retain that correspondence and order.
Carole [Gallagher] and others have scolded me many times – I never keep anything. I might have some reference to it. It was quite an issue and we were very upset about it. It was okay for the troops to go to then [after the order].
Makhijani: What did you know about radiation at the time?
Hooke: Nothing. Not one thing. No warning, no word, nothing. I crawled all over that cathedral to salvage things. The bishop gave me a wooden cross and I sent it home to my mother. She was afraid of it and she’d read about radiation and she put it in the closet.
Makhijani: So your mother was the first one in your family to be aware of radiation?
Hooke: Yes. That cross is now in Wilmington Ohio now at the Quaker College there which has a Hiroshima-Nagasaki peace museum located in the Pyle Center.
Makhijani: World War II was supposed to be about freedom and so on. Where did it go wrong?
Hooke: I believed that. I even thought World War II was about workers so they could express their freedom. I don’t know. To me a lot of it takes off from the Manhattan Project. And the secrecy. From there the attitude seems to be “Washington knows best” and “we’ll decide and tell you.” The attitude is that people can’t handle the information. Did they think if they told those Marines to be careful they would have refused to serve? They showed no confidence in the people. My real concern is about working people. They’ve destroyed unions. Reagan did it starting with the air controllers and they’re now destroying democracy in so many ways.
Makhijani: So what do you think World War II was about?
Hooke: I believed at the time it was absolutely necessary to stop Hitler and Mussolini. Then you start reading all this stuff about trapping the Japanese to attack us. Once they get power it goes off the track. I’ve written several letters about the CIA but never sent them. If you read the things they’ve done in Central and South America, they’re way out of control.
I’ve got a 73-year-old niece who was in jail for protesting the School of the Americas. She’s a nun living in Africa. She came home to help look after my sister, her mother, and while she was back she got working in the Bronx with the homeless and ran into the Maryknolls and the nuns who had been killed in El Salvador and got involved at Fort Benning [Georgia]. Every year they have a commemoration of when the six Jesuits got killed. Some years back they had 10,000 people there. The first time they crossed the line, the military told them not to come back. The second time she was given six-month in jail and she did it again a third time with Martin Sheen and got another six months. After my sister died, my niece went back to Africa. [Walter is 89]
It’s amazing some of those nuns are so militant. Phil Berrigan is a friend of mine. I still write to him and he is back in jail for a year for violating probation. He is very much involved about this depleted uranium and dropping the bombs over on Iraq. I believe in protest but I don’t believe in pouring blood on things and damaging them. Neither did my sister. That’s a long way of answering you about the CIA. At one point [Senator Patrick] Moynihan felt it should be abolished. They probably need some kind of intelligence but I don’t think we need all this Ollie North hiring airplanes and stuff. We’re probably doing that in Columbia. I have a hang up about that too. If some country wants to have some form of government, like Nicaragua, they ought to be able to do that.
Makhijani: Could the feeling on the part of the nuclear weapons makers be that what they’re doing is illegitimate?
Hooke: Yes. They were afraid of lawsuits. I know that that seemed to a factor in the Nevada testing. I know they were afraid of lawsuits not only from the public but also the military. I feel more and more that Washington is more about perception and not about truth.
Makhijani: Was it ever about truth?
Hooke: Well I like to think it hasn’t always been this bad. I think when you grew up in the World War I period and in the 1920s, it seemed like there was a feeling of patriotism and belief in your government — at least that’s the way I felt. I think General Groves is a real bad guy in the sense that he was the master in that he could control what the scientists could say. Maybe it’s because I’m more aware of that. It’s gotten progressively worse with the nuclear business.
Makhijani: What should we do to restore democracy?
Hooke: I don’t know. I’ve been telling people that [President George W.] Bush is going to get re-elected and shock them into getting involved. But we all must vote and be involved. When we quit the struggle for justice we cease to live.
Makhijani: Is it as simple as that?
Hooke: I don’t know if it is that simple. Look at what happened in the last election. I’ve had quite a bit of correspondence with the president of Notre Dame [University] for inviting Bush to give a speech. I’ve got a copy — it’s the worst thing. He [Bush] said that Dorothy Day was so concerned about the poor, just like he is. I know he’s trying to win over the Catholic vote and the labor vote. And he’s trying to appeal to labor though building nuclear power plants and the Alaska pipeline and oil exploration.
Makhijani: What did the president of Notre Dame say? [Walter sent Arjun a copy of the letter.]
Hooke: He wrote me back and said he did it because of the office. I don’t think he realized what he said. He said they award degrees on the basis of accomplishments. So I said: “What are his accomplishments? Love of the death penalty?”
I think you are on a very important subject. I don’t know what you’re going to say about it. I think people really need to discuss this deep science and deep secrecy.
Makhijani: This conversation is the first time I have heard it said like that.
Hooke: [With me] everything goes back to early concerns picked up from my parents about treatment of people and social justice. I grew up in Bronxville in NY. They sold the house and moved to New York City, where I went to a Jesuit school.
Makhijani: I went to Jesuit school too.
Hooke: Something of that education stuck with me too like the encyclicals on labor and social justice. I still write letters to archbishops and bishops in protest.
Makhijani: Well, you are inspiration.
Hooke: I don’t know about that, but I am concerned. There are quite a few wishes that I have got. I have catalogs going back 15 years with all white models and I’d write them to ask if they sold to people of color. I guess with the name Hooke they probably think I’m black. We have long way to go. I think your subject matter is something that really is buried and it needs the light of day shone on it. I was so thrilled to see it in your article [on a global truth commission on nuclear weapons].
Makhijani: Thanks so much.