I interviewed World War II veteran Walter Hooke at his home in New York State in 2002. I got to know him when he wrote to me supporting my idea of establishing a Truth Commission on the health and environmental damage done by nuclear weapons, including from their production and testing across the world — not only in the nuclear weapon states but other places like Polynesia, Algeria, Australia, Kazakhstan, and the Marshall Islands where weapons were tested and places like Congo and Namibia and Canada that supplied much of the uranium.

He was a concerned citizen in the very best sense of the term — his compassion and concern were global but he was specially worried about the United States. He was an activist for democracy, for equality, for workers rights, and for peace. He was among the US troops sent to occupy Nagasaki after that city had suffered an atomic bombing. He was posted there at the end of October 1945, more than two-and-a-half months after the August 9, 1945 bombing.

Nagasaki was not actually the intended target, but as it happened the target city, Kokura, had too little visibility; to its misfortune, Nagasaki had a break in the clouds and was destroyed. It wasn’t the first choice because it had already been bombed with other weapons. One of the Target Committee’s criteria for target selection was to bomb an in-tact city so the impact of the atom bomb could be evaluated more accurately.

“At the time everyone was relieved that the war was over,” he told me. “But once you saw what happened you wondered how you could do something like that.” He was referring to terrible destruction and suffering, of course.

“The first troops that went in the occupation went in on 22 September [1945] 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.”

Walter was very upset that General MacArthur had ordered the opening of “houses of prostituion”; he wrote a protest letter to Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal. He met and befriended Paul Yamaguchi, the Bishop of Nagasaki, which was demographically Japan’s most Christian city before the bombing. He “crawled all over” the destroyed cathedral to salvage things. Bishop Yamaguchi gave him a cross from that cathedral as a gift. He sent it home to his mother; it was eventually gifted to the Peace Resource Center of Wilmington College in Ohio. This year, 2019, the Director of that Center, Tanya Maus, returned that cross to the City of Nagasaki in an August 7 ceremony there. Walter died in 2010.

We had an extraordinary conversation. He mentioned his niece, Sister Megan Rice, who protested the training of Latin American military at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Two years after Walter’s death, Sister Rice was part of a three-person Plowshares group that broke into the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons complex and splashed blood on the Y-12 complex, the location for fabricating the uranium parts of nuclear weapons, as part of a non-violent protest.

On a broader note he wondered what had gone wrong in the United States after World War II. He thought World War II was fought for democracy; yet workers in the United States could not freely express their views. He thought “a lot of it takes off from the Manhattan Project” It was he said the marriage of “deep science and deep secrecy.”