Jack Knox: Victoria philanthropist reveals he survived atomic bombing

The atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m. Rudi Hoenson didn’t see the B-29 that dropped it — “We were not allowed to stand and look at things” — but he heard it.

The plane droned overhead as Hoenson and his fellow prisoners of war laboured to clear the rubble left by an earlier conventional air raid, one that had killed the man sheltering next to him.

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This time, death arrived without warning. Hoenson caught a quick glimpse of something coming down by parachute. Then …

“It was a blinding flash.” A blast of hot air slammed the 22-year-old Dutchman to the ground.

He was lucky. Two metres away, three men who had been pushing a cart were badly burned, their clothes on fire.

Wooden buildings, slapped down by an unseen hand, were engulfed in flames. Gas cylinders exploded. The noise, heat and smoke were overwhelming. Confusion reigned. “It was a scene of death and dying.”

The prisoners, many of them burned, some so severely that they had to be carried by the others, headed for what they hoped was safety. Crossing a canal, they picked their way through the flaming remains of a densely packed residential area, one where the men had all gone to work for the day, leaving their families behind.

Everywhere Hoenson looked, there were Japanese women and children, their clothes ripped apart, their faces and bodies bleeding.

He remembers a baby clinging to its dead mother. Nearby, another mother cried as she held a gravely injured little girl. Several people had been blinded by the flash. The fires were getting worse.

“I wished there was something I could do for them, especially the children. I wondered how long it would take before they could get any help. Think of it — the whole city was flattened.”

That was 70 years ago today.

Hoenson, 92, has never told this story before.

 

 

Here’s the Rudi Hoenson we know: Much-loved, much-admired Victoria philanthropist who has given millions to local charities.

Here’s the version he has kept to himself: Survivor of the only nuclear attack mankind has known.

Ask him why he has never talked about it before, he squirms a little, grimaces. Maybe he didn’t want to sound like he was showing off, he says. He is, in truth, reluctant to tell his story now, wants to know what good will be done by telling the tale.

The good, says his friend Jennifer Jasechko, comes from the rest of the story: how a man — a boy, really — can witness unspeakable depravity, endure 3 1Ú2 years of brutal captivity, be starved to the point of death and live through the horror of nuclear war, yet emerge with his soul intact, his heart free of bitterness.

 

It is Jasechko, who works with the aging veterans at Broadmead Lodge — one of Hoenson’s favourite causes — who has coaxed many of the details from him.

His story goes back to December 1941, when Japan invaded oil-rich Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies. Hoenson, an 18-year-old whose architect father had been sent out from the Netherlands, joined a small, ill-equipped defence force that stubbornly resisted for a few days before being overwhelmed.

Taken captive, he spent three months in Singapore’s notorious Changi Prison before being herded into a small rustbucket of a ship — 200 men crammed in the hold, one ventilation shaft, stifling heat, everyone deathly ill with dysentery — and sent to Japan.

They ended up in Nagasaki’s Camp Fukuoka 14. Life there was harsh, the prisoners treated with contempt, beaten by their Japanese guards. “In their culture, we should not have surrendered,” Hoenson says. “In their eyes, we were nothing.” On one occasion, not bowing to the satisfaction of a soldier earned him a rifle butt to the mouth, costing him five teeth — three upper, two lower — but he says they were rotten and ready to go anyway.

Food was scarce, though Hoenson points out that by the end of the Second World War, the Japanese were starving, too. Hoenson, who went into the camp at about 130 pounds, weighed less than 80 when freed.

By then, records show, 113 of his campmates had died in captivity. All who survived were 152 Dutchmen, 24 Australians and 19 British — though it’s uncertain how many later fell victim to the effects of the atomic blast.

The prisoners had been sent to Nagasaki as slave labour. Hoenson found himself a welder in the Mitsubishi shipyard, standing on a two-by-twelve plank seven storeys in the air while constructing an aircraft carrier.

After the Allied blockade starved the shipyard of building materials, Hoenson was moved to a foundry, welding gun turrets for smaller vessels. It was during an Aug. 1, 1945, air raid there that a bomb landed within 10 metres of his shelter, killing the man beside him and leaving Hoenson with a head wound that took 16 stitches to close, without anesthetic.

 

 

The prisoners were clearing rubble from the ruined foundry when the atomic bomb exploded on Aug. 9, 1945.

The plutonium-based device, nicknamed Fat Man, was carried in an American B-29 Superfortress called Bockscar.

Nagasaki, a city of a quarter million — smaller than Greater Victoria — wasn’t Bockscar’s primary target. Kokura was. But with the latter obscured by cloud and smoke, fuel running low and anti-aircraft fire getting close, the aircraft shifted to the secondary target: Nagasaki.

At 11 a.m., an accompanying B-29 dropped blast-measuring instruments by parachute; this must be what Hoenson glimpsed.

Then the bomb was dropped, exploding 500 metres over Nagasaki, generating heat measured at 3,900ºC and winds of 1,005 kilometres an hour.

Estimates of the number who died that day vary widely, from 22,000 to 75,000. The most common figure used is 40,000, with a similar number succumbing in the following days and months.

The toll would have been even higher had Bockscar’s bombardier, peering through the clouds on an overcast day, not dropped the weapon more than two kilometres off-target. Hoenson read later that the bombardier mistook the outlying Urakami railway station for the central Nagasaki depot, which had a similar appearance.

The mistake saved Hoenson’s life. Instead of being 700 metres from Ground Zero, he was 1.4 kilometres away — just far enough for a chance to survive.

The Fukuoka 14 prisoners had no idea what could have caused such a massive explosion. They didn’t know another nuclear weapon had fallen on Hiroshima three days earlier. “I thought, ‘My gosh, they must have developed a big bomb,’ ” Hoenson says. “For days, we didn’t know what it was.”

They knew it had turned Nagasaki into a raging, burning hell, though, with an apocalyptic mushroom column towering over the destruction below. Hoenson suggested seeking shelter beyond some far hills. It took four hours for 30 of the prisoners, many of them injured, to cover four or five kilometres, working through the narrow passages between wood-frame buildings that were going up like kindling. Progress was slowed by the need to carry two badly wounded men. One, named Van Der Meulen, had been a high school teacher. The other, a doctor’s son named Hans Krol, was burned down his entire left side. They were Hoenson’s best friends.

The flames receded as they moved, though it seemed odd that the crops in the fields had wilted. Met by Japanese soldiers, they were stuffed into a small police station where they could only sit, not lie down. They were parched, but there was no water. Two wooden buckets of rice arrived that evening, but the PoWs had to pick broken glass out of it before eating. Krol in particular was in bad shape. “I held him like a baby all night long, poor guy.”

The next morning, Hoenson’s urine was the colour of black coffee, with a reddish tint. “We did not know why at the time, but now realize it was due to radiation.”

Months later, the effects still showed. “Pieces came out when I combed my hair, and I had trouble with my eyesight.”

It was because of this that, years later, Hoenson and his wife decided not to have children of their own. Too many stories of radiation victims’ offspring being born with severe deformities.

Once out of the police station, the PoWs were herded into a larger group of prisoners and spent three days foraging for food and water — in the radiation zone. Some tore their shirts for others to use as bandages. The 80 healthiest prisoners used salvaged doors and ladders to carry the 20 who couldn’t walk.

On the fourth morning, the relatively healthy ones were sent back into the devastation to retrieve the Japanese dead. “Being the fourth day in the heat, some corpses started to bloat and smell. We dragged the remains to an open field for identification. By the end of the day, we all smelled like dead bodies.”

The next day it got worse. Among the victims were dozens of young women who had died when the big rice- and soup-cookers of an industrial-scale kitchen toppled on them. The Dutchmen had to be careful not to pull limbs off the bodies they moved.

More of the same followed until, one day at noon, the prisoners were ordered back to camp. The war, they were told, was over. Japan surrendered on Aug. 15.

Hoenson’s excitement was short-lived. “I was too tired and all I wanted was to lie down and rest.” He estimates another 20 prisoners died in the month before the Yanks arrived.

 

 

On Sept. 15, the freed PoWs were moved to Nagasaki’s harbour, where they were treated to hot showers and new U.S. Marine uniforms. “Oh, that felt so nice,” Hoenson says. “For 3 1Ú2 years, I never had any clothes that fit.” New underwear to replace the Japanese strap-and-string thing? Luxury.

So was all the chicken and steak that the Americans prepared for them. Their liberators also laid out tables of toiletries, books, watches and more, all free for the taking. “But most of us were too timid after not getting anything for so long, and we were just too intimidated to grab the presents.”

After that, came the long journey home and the even-slower journey back to health. Hoenson remained sick in postwar Holland, sapped of energy, contracting pneumonia. In 1950, he wrote the U.S. government, asking to be tested for after-effects of the atomic bomb, but nothing came of it.

 

 

It wasn’t until he immigrated in 1951 that his life turned a corner. He had been given the choice between the U.S. and Canada, but picked the latter because of the classic movie Rose Marie, featuring actor Nelson Eddy as a Mountie riding a horse through the wilderness. “It looked so beautiful and interesting.”

Landing in Calgary, he got in on the beginning of the oil boom, worked hard and plowed his savings into what turned out to be smart investments.

Best of all, he met a Saskatchewan-raised teacher, Sylvia Mae, the love of his life. They wed in 1956, moved to Victoria in 1979.

“Coming to Canada was wonderful for me,” he once said, “but meeting Sylvia was the main reason I recovered.”

They travelled the world extensively (including one adventure that included a wonderful few days in Japan) before age and infirmity caught up, whereupon they turned to philanthropy.

Their first donation — $20,000 to the Victoria Foundation — launched the Rudi and Sylvia Hoenson Foundation. After Sylvia suffered a slight stroke, a $55,000 gift brought a piece of stroke-detection equipment to Royal Jubilee Hospital in 2004. When she had a leg problem, a $25,000 gift let the Queen Alexandra Centre establish a gait lab for children with mobility problems.

It was after Sylvia died in 2008 that Rudi began divesting himself of most of “a small pile of money.” Among the donations were $1 million to the Victoria Hospital Foundation, $400,000 for a CT scanner and operating rooms at Saanich Peninsula Hospital, another $400,000 to B.C. Children’s Hospital and the Queen Alexandra, and $350,000 for B.C. Cancer Foundation research.

The Lodge at Broadmead, home to many of his fellow veterans, has received $600,000 of the more than $3 million he has given away.

Hoenson made a new pledge just last week: He’ll spend up to $200,000 matching others’ donations to a Broadmead Care campaign to put overhead lifts in residents’ rooms. It’s his way of marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, and the contribution of those in uniform.

The honours have poured in. In 2013, he received the Generosity of Spirit Award at Vancouver Island’s National Philanthropy Day awards. This June, Government House unveiled Rudi’s Tea Room in recognition of his efforts. Saanich’s Reynolds Secondary — whose staff and students he joined in shaving his head for the Tour de Rock last October — celebrated him at a ceremony this spring.

Hoenson shrugs off his generosity. “At my age, what else are you going to do? I ask everybody to find me a nice 39-year-old girl, but no one can find one. I must be difficult, or something.”

He comes across as much younger than 92. His hearing might be fading, but his mind is sharp. He carries himself with an easy, good-humoured self-confidence. Lives alone, still drives a car, does his own cooking because he loves to eat well — a legacy of the 3 1Ú2 years of near-starvation. “In the camp, we never talked about women. It was always food we talked about.”

Those times will never leave him. On the contrary, he thinks back to the war more frequently these days.

“Bad dreams come more often,” he says. He can’t shake the memory of the particularly savage killing of two Dutch prisoners, one that the rest of the captives were forced to watch.

He has nightmares about the atomic aftermath, too: “The fires, heat, smoke, burned bodies, women and children with open wounds, their flesh hanging loose, ripped apart by the blast, total confusion, no help. I was there and experienced it all and I wonder if this is an example awaiting us sinners in hell.”

What is truly remarkable, given all this, is his lack of anger. He is not bitter. He does not dwell. “You get on with things. Coming to Canada, meeting Sylvia — what else do you want?”

He bears no ill will toward the Japanese, who he says acted according to the dictates of what was then their way of thinking.

“I don’t have any hard feelings. … It was part of their upbringing, part of their culture that we were nobodies.” The officers ordered the soldiers to be rough on the prisoners, and the soldiers complied.

The guards themselves weren’t spared, he notes. “We got slapped, but if a Japanese soldier did something wrong, his officer would slap him just like us.”

Perhaps surprisingly, he supports the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, even after seeing the horror, even knowing that the high command was willing to sacrifice Hoenson and his fellow prisoners.

The alternative, he said, was worse: a drawn-out slaughter that would have killed millions before Japan surrendered. He points to the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo by 300 planes, a raid that killed between 80,000 and 130,000 civilians.

Not everyone shares that view, but then not everyone has Hoenson’s perspective. Like the astronauts who walked on the moon, his is an exclusive club. Perhaps one of the reasons he stayed silent for all these years is that none of the rest of us could truly relate to what he lived through, 70 years ago today.

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