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North Dakota veteran visited Hiroshima a month after atomic bomb was dropped

A portrait of Lyle Clow when he was a Navy recruit. Kile Brewer / Forum News Service 1 / 2
Lyle Clow sits in his Devils Lake home recently. Clow was among the first American soldiers to set foot in Hiroshima, Japan, following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Kile Brewer / Forum News Service 2 / 2

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - Lyle Clow is blind, but he’ll never forget the destruction he saw in Hiroshima on Sept. 15, 1945.

Clow and his shipmates on the USS Brock were some of the first Americans into the Japanese city after the U.S. dropped the first-ever-deployed atomic bomb on Aug. 6 of that year.

“I’ve never been as scared back here or back home as I was back in the Navy,” he said recently.

Sitting in his living room in Devils Lake, Clow, now 87, spoke slowly and looked troubled as he described the scene 69 years ago.

He took the tube that ran between his nose and the oxygen tank in the other room and twisted it into a wide circle.

“The towers for communication and radio were rolled up like wire in a ball,” he said.

It was hard to imagine what happened to the people in Hiroshima, Clow said. He still has two small photographs of the scene, which were taken by the official military photographer who accompanied him and his shipmates.

The destruction was unlike anything seen before in warfare. The atom bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki directly killed about 120,000 people and tens of thousands more through radiation, but they also resulted in Japan’s unconditional surrender 69 years ago this week.

Clow doesn’t like to revisit the parts of his service when he saw action.

When his youngest daughter, Darci, 46, asked him about combat he saw in the Philippines, he waved his hand and refused to talk about it, but he did recount the details of what he saw in Hiroshima with shocking clarity.

Darci, who lives with Clow, said he remembers the war better than he can remember the past few days.

‘A creepy feeling’

Clow left his family farm in Humboldt, Minn., at 19 when he was drafted into the Navy in January 1945. He spent most of that year on patrol in the Philippines and the Pacific until the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs.

When the USS Brock, a transport ship, neared the coast of Australia in August 1945, Clow said a voice came over the ship’s loudspeaker and announced a change in course.

“Take a good eyeful, because that’s all you’re gonna see of Australia,” the captain said. “The war’s over.”

Clow and his shipmates landed in Japan in September and took buses inland to see the remains of the city. They were under orders to view the damage and understand the devastating effects of an atomic bomb.

The blast immediately decimated nearly 90 percent of the city, but Clow said there were parts that miraculously remained untouched. He said all the wooden posts were burned out of the docks but that, along some rivers, one side would be completely burned and destroyed while the other side looked untouched.

He mentioned one prison where the blast spared American soldiers.

“There was a prison with curved-in walls with American boys in it,” he said. “The cotton-picking blast went over them.”

So many others, however, weren’t so lucky. Clow has a hard time thinking about that.

“They never even felt the blast either,” he said. “That was the scary part about it.”

He recoiled at the memory.

“That must’ve been a terrible heat,” he said after a long pause. “It’ll give you a creepy feeling.”

While in Hiroshima, the men were instructed to stay on the bus because buildings and other structures were fragile to the touch and could collapse.

After leaving Hiroshima, Clow continued touring Japan. He made it all the way to Tokyo and stopped in sea ports all along Japan’s east coast before traveling to China and eventually to Korea.

Coming home

While Clow continued through Asia, he was given the option to either return to the U.S. and remain on duty on the East Coast, or remain on tour until he was discharged. He chose the latter.

At one point before he returned home, his ship passed over an underwater mine, which only partially detonated. The blast was enough to send Clow flying through a porthole between two of the ship’s rooms. He broke both of his feet and spent time on a hospital ship.

“Had it exploded like some of them did, we would’ve been at the bottom of the ocean,” he said.

Clow eventually made it back to Hawaii at the end of July 1946. He remembered having his first glass of milk in more than two years.

When Clow made it home, he went to North Dakota State University, where he met his wife, Donna. He farmed in Humboldt for 25 years before quitting and moving to Park River, N.D., to work as an Air Force security guard.

The Clows moved to Devils Lake in 2005, and Donna died two years later.

As Lyle Clow retold his story, his son, Brad, watched and listened through a video call.

“It’s amazing,” Brad said of his father’s experience in the war. “Their generation went through so much. It saddens me every morning when I realize we have fewer and fewer of these men left.”

Reflecting on his experience as a whole, Clow has fond memories of his service in the Navy, despite how little he likes to relive the moments of combat.

“If I was young and had to go in again, I’d go right into the Navy,” he said. “I thought the world of the Navy.”