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Our War: Centralia man helped unload atom bomb

Bethel Chapman
Bethel Chapman

Bethel Chapman was doing his job at the dock that day, operating a crane to unload supplies from a ship, when he noticed something "special."

"I was a little ways off the dock. The (military police) had it surrounded. My outfit took it off the ship. We unloaded part of it and they had part of it somewhere else. Nobody knew what it was. They didn't' tell us what it was," Chapman said. "It was very secret because they had 300 MPs there, a whole company or more of MPs. We figured it was something special."

It wasn't until a few days later that Chapman realized how special what he had witnessed at the dock that day was.

"We knew what it was after they dropped it," he said.

The top secret shipment was the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

"We were surprised because we hadn't heard of an atomic bomb too much, and we knew it was a secret weapon. We were glad we were going home," he said, adding "the Golden Gate in '48," a slogan he and his fellow soldiers chanted frequently with the expectation that the war would end in 1948.

Chapman, a technician in the U.S. Army's 159th Port Battalion, was stationed in the Pacific where his duties included getting food, ammunition and other supplies to soldiers. His unit was delivering supplies to the Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian when the B-29 Enola Gay launched from Tinian to drop the bomb on Hiroshima.

Chapman also operated large cranes and received training as a skilled rifleman, only a few lessons short of becoming a sharpshooter. As a service section, his company was also responsible for setting up camp, which involved pitching tents, establishing command posts, setting up the mess halls and digging holes for latrines.

He said he saw soldiers battle much more than the Japanese. In addition to the mosquitoes, jungle heat and deadly snakes that crept into their foxholes, soldiers suffered from diseases such as malaria and scabies.

He said suffering was simply a part of the experience.

"It's a suffering thing when you go into service," he said. "It gets in your blood."

And death was something Chapman said you just got used to.

He recalled his arrival on Guadalcanal, where he set up camp on rough terrain after the Marines secured it.

"When we had to pitch tents, we had to pitch them over dead bodies," he said.

The bodies of Japanese soldiers lined the shore. Sometimes he still has flashbacks to the stench.

"They were still in uniform, but they were dead on the beaches and in other places where they were killed. We couldn't bury them, so they were left to the safari worms. They're like army worms, they run in droves. When they leave a body, usually they leave a skeleton there."

Chapman said, by that time, he was used to seeing war casualties, most of them having fought on his side.

"When you first get over there, the first raid, your hair is standing on your head, and after a while you get used to it. We had one man hit with shrapnel who had a nasty wound in his chest, and we lost one man. I saw a lot of people who were cut in two and so forth," Chapman said. "You move on and you keep moving."

He said a certain mental programming is needed.

"(Soldiers) are programmed to kill, and it's kill-kill-kill. That's what you want to do when you're programmed to kill," he said. "The Army, or military service, does something to you. You don't come home what you go over. If you're a boy when you go in, when you come out you'll be a man. You grow up real fast under war conditions."

One thing that always comforted Chapman during the war was his faith.

Raised in the Baptist church, Chapman said he felt it was important to have close relationships with the chaplains overseas because they connected him to his saving grace in hard times. Tending to his spirit gave him strength to cope.

"You've got to fight, but you've got to go to church," he said. "You have to feed that spirit. If you obey it, it makes a strong person out of you. The mind and the spirit work together. You can go crazy if you lose your mind. Prayer is what saves you."

And prayer wasn't the only relief Chapman got out of embracing his faith. It also gave him a chance to have a little fun.

Chapman chuckled as he recalled singing with a choir of island natives who were learning Christian songs from Baptist missionaries. One of the missionaries cut the choir off, a cue Chapman must have missed, leaving him singing an unexpected solo.

After spending two years, 10 months and 20 days overseas, Chapman received an honorable discharge Nov. 24, 1945.

He went on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Canary Bond Chapman, and together they raised 19 children in East St. Louis. The 17 who are still living range in age from 39 to 62. After Canary’s passing, he moved to Centralia in 1990 and married his current wife, Emma Chapman.

The three ribbons he earned for his service in three theaters of war were destroyed in a house fire in 1959, along with a Medal of Good Conduct and a World War II Victory Ribbon. All his military records were destroyed in the 1973 fire at the Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

His unit, entirely made up of black soldiers, didn't see much fighting action unless they were invaded. He said most of the black fighting units were in Europe, like the 66th Tank Destroyers, the unit his brother, Ivory Chapman, fought in under Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

He said race was never an issue until he returned home from war.

"You're all the same thing when you're fighting in the Army," he said. All his unit's main officers were white and everyone "got along just fine."

But segregation awaited him when he arrived at Camp Chafee in Arkansas after his discharge.

"They segregated you when you got off the boat," Chapman said of his arrival at Camp Chafee. "That's when it really hit home, when we got back there."

Chapman said some of his fellow black soldiers, particularly those from the northern states, found the transition especially difficult.

"They weren't used to it," he said, adding that southern racism was much different than that in the North. "Being raised in the South, I had a different attitude, didn't think nothing of it."

Even though he was "used to it," Chapman still had a hard time overcoming the challenges that stemmed from racism, like securing a job and attending school.

"When I came out of the Army, I couldn't even get close to being a cranesman, but that's what I was in the Army. There wasn't a lot of jobs when we got back here. Everything was geared for war. All the factories and whatnot were making war materials. After the war was over, they had to have time to revert back to civilian living, and that affected everybody in the nation."

Eventually, Chapman got a job in at a steel mill in Gary, Ind.

"In striving to get a piece of the pie, I applied myself and I excelled," he said.

Contact reporter Rickeena J. Richards at rrichards@bnd.com or 239-2562.

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