Sergeant Hugh Atkinson of Seattle dies of radiation poisoning from Hiroshima atomic bomb on August 8, 1945.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld
  • Posted 11/30/2015
  • Essay 11152
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On August 8, 1945, two days after the United States drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, U.S. Army Air Corps Sergeant Hugh H. Atkinson (1919-1945) of Seattle, a prisoner of war in Hiroshima, dies of radiation poisoning. Born and raised in Seattle, Hugh Atkinson was drafted into the army in 1943, with the U.S. in the midst of World War II. He requested aviation training, completed radio operator-mechanic school, and was assigned as a radio operator on a Consolidated B-24 bomber nicknamed the "Lonesome Lady." On July 28, 1945, the aircraft is one of five bombers sent to attack the Japanese battleship Haruna in Kure Harbor near Hiroshima. The American bombers come under intense antiaircraft fire and the Lonesome Lady is shot down. The crew bails out and surviving crew members are imprisoned in Hiroshima a short distance from the epicenter of the August 6, 1945, atomic bomb attack. They die in the atomic blast or soon afterward. Sergeant Atkinson, suffering from radiation poisoning, dies two days after the bombing. His father will not be told that his son was a victim of the atomic bomb until 1977.

From West Seattle to the Army Air Corps

Hugh Atkinson was born in Seattle. His father, Theodore Atkinson (1895-1978), was a truck driver with Seattle Transfer Company. His mother, Nettie Hutchinson Atkinson (1901-1971), was a homemaker. They lived in West Seattle on Belvidere Avenue. Hugh attended West Seattle High School and starred on the track team. He graduated in June 1938 and became a butcher. Atkinson quickly advanced to become manager of the meat departments of Seattle-area Big Bear Stores. He married Eva May Chaffin (1920-1983) on February 3, 1941. They had a church wedding at the Alki Congregational Church in West Seattle on March 1, 1941. The couple had a daughter.

On September 11, 1943, Atkinson was drafted into the army. Following basic training he was able to enter United States Army Air Forces training. Private First Class Atkinson graduated from gunnery school at the Yuma Army Airfield in September 1944. There was a surplus of gunnery graduates so he attended the Army Air Forces Radio School at Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He graduated as a radio operator-mechanic and was assigned to a B-24 squadron as a radio operator. Near the end of the war Sergeant Atkinson was in the crew of a Consolidated B-24 bomber nicknamed the Lonesome Lady.

Imprisoned at the Epicenter

On July 28, 1945, the plane flew out of Yontan Airfield on Okinawa on a mission to bomb the battleship Haruna at the Kure Naval Base in Hiroshima Bay. While on the bombing run the Lonesome Lady was hit by antiaircraft fire. The pilot, Second Lieutenant Thomas C. Cartwright (1924-2015), tried to head toward the sea and possible rescue. The aircraft controls had been so damaged that he was unable to maneuver the plane. As the bomber plummeted to the ground, the crew bailed out and was scattered in the vicinity of Hiroshima. The surviving crew members were taken prisoner and held at the Chugoku Military Police Headquarters in the center of Hiroshima, where they and other aviator prisoners were housed in a wood frame barracks.

The military police lacked skilled interrogators so they moved the pilot, Second Lieutenant Cartwright, to a Tokyo prisoner-of-war camp where brutal interrogations were conducted. Like other prisoners he suffered considerably but for only a short period. He survived the war and wrote a book on the Lonesome Lady, relating the crew's experiences including details he learned from Japanese sources.

When the U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the American prisoners were in the barracks area. The Chugoku Military Police Headquarters was very close to the epicenter of the atomic bomb blast. Very few in that area survived the blast. Sergeant Atkinson was one of 12 American prisoners of war known to have been killed by the atomic-bomb attack on Hiroshima. While 12 have been confirmed it is estimated that the actual number may be as high as 23. Records to determine the exact number are lost.

Atkinson survived the bomb blast, but died of radiation poisoning two days later on August 8. His parents were notified that he died in action, with no mention of the atomic bomb. Theodore Atkinson did not learn that his son was a victim of the atomic bomb until 1977. Nellie Atkinson, Sergeant Atkinson's mother, had died in 1971.

Remembering American Atomic-Bomb Victims

In 1949 remains of American prisoners of war killed in the Hiroshima bombing were returned to the United States. On November 3, 1949, Hugh H. Atkinson was buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri, in a group grave with seven additional Hiroshima victims. The group burial included four other members of the Lonesome Lady crew: Sergeant Buford J. Ellison (1923-1945), Corporal John A. Long Jr. (1918-1945), Second Lieutenant Durden W. Looper (1923-1945), and Second Lieutenant James M. Ryan (1925-1945). Two crew members from another bomber, Staff Sergeant Charles O. Baumgartner (1916-1945) and Staff Sergeant Julius Molnar (1924-1945), and naval pilot Lieutenant Junior Grade Raymond Porter (1921-1945) were also buried in the grave.

In 1978 Hugh H. Atkinson was among 2,179 names added to the list of victims of the Hiroshima bombing. The list is maintained in books of the atomic bomb victims in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park cenotaph. Shigeaki Mori (b. 1937), a Hiroshima historian and atomic-bombing survivor who worked for more than 45 years to record the American losses, in 1999 used his own money to install a plaque honoring the Americans. It is located at the site of the Chugoku Military Police Headquarters, now an office building. The plaque text, written by Thomas C. Cartwright, reads:

"The Atomic bomb devastated the city and its people with a force beyond any known before. U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy airmen interned as POWs at the Chugoku Military Police Headquarters, which was located at this site, near the epicenter, were among the victims of this holocaust. This plaque is placed in the memory of these brave and honorable men. May this humble memorial be a perpetual reminder of the savagery of war" (Albrecht).

Sources: T. C. Cartwright, Date with the Lonesome Lady: A Hiroshima POW Returns (Fort Worth: Eakin Press, 2002); Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, Enola Gay: Mission to Hiroshima (New York: Open Road Media, 2014); "Hiawatha Team Wins," The Seattle Times, April 12, 1936, p. 20; "West Seattle Graduates 486," Ibid., June 12, 1938, p. 8; "Notices of Intentions to Wed," Ibid., January 31, 1941, p. 27; "Salute to the Service Men," Ibid., September 12, 1944, p. 6; "2 State Men in Casualty List," Ibid., August 26, 1945, p. 31; "4 Seattle Men Listed as Dead," Ibid., March 22, 1946, p. 21; Svein Gilje, "Father Seeks Details of P.O.W. Son's Death," Ibid., December 23, 1977, p. 1; "Seattle Man's Name Added to Scroll of Hiroshima Victims, 33 Years Later," Ibid, August 6, 1978, p. 4; Chiyomi Sumida, "Advocating for American Bomb Victims," Stars and Stripes, U.S. Edition, August 6, 2015, p. 2; Brian Albrecht, "Ohio Airman Among POWs Killed by Hiroshima Atomic Bomb," The Plain Dealer, August 6, 2015 ( /memories_of_an_ohio_airman_who.html).

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