Chehalis veteran saw USS Indianapolis deliver parts for atomic bomb


On July 26, 1945, after news spread across the island of Tinian in the Marianas, Navy Seabee Clarence Piper joined others to see the USS Indianapolis, a nearly 600-foot-long Portland-class heavy cruiser involved in February’s fighting at Iwo Jima.

Little did he know that the ship stopped at the island to deliver critical parts for the atomic bomb called “Little Boy.” The Indianapolis had left San Francisco 10 days earlier, only four hours after the first successful test detonation of the atomic bomb created by the Manhattan Project. Known as the Trinity Test, the bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, at Jornada del Muerto, 210 miles south of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico’s high desert, resulting in a radioactive mushroom cloud.

The 9,700-pound “Little Boy” bomb containing the equivalent of 15 kilotons of TNT and highly enriched uranium was too large to roll beneath the B-29 to load into the bomb bay. The Seabees dug a trench to lower the 10-foot-long bomb so it could be hoisted into the bomb bay of the Enola Gay.

“I never made the connection to be honest with you,” said Piper, who lived 20 years in Tenino before moving to Woodland Village in Chehalis a few years ago. “It’s only when I read a book about the Indianapolis that I realized what happened in that period. Everything was secret.”

After completing the airport on Tinian and turning it over to the Air Force, Piper and his unit left for Okinawa, where they arrived July 29, 1945.

“They figured we were going to invade Japan,” he said. “That was the next plan. They fully expected it to be a terrible campaign.”

In the wee hours of July 30, a Japanese submarine fired two torpedoes into the USS Indianapolis. It took only 12 minutes for the ship to sink, claiming the lives of about 300 of the nearly 1,200 men aboard immediately. The 890 who floated in the ocean for days while awaiting rescue suffered from dehydration, saltwater poisoning and shark attacks. Only 316 of those in the water survived, and two of the rescued men died within weeks.

On Aug. 6, Col. Paul W. Tibbetts Jr. flew his B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay over Japan and dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, decimating 5 miles of the city and killing 64,000 people immediately and then doubling that number within four days.

The B-29 Superfortress Bockscar dropped “Fat Man,” an atomic bomb weighing 10,800 pounds, on Nagasaki three days after Little Boy hit Hiroshima. Nagasaki’s death toll was 39,000. Many more suffered injuries.

The Japanese surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945, and World War II officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945.

“Everyone was happy,” Piper said, “because maybe we were going to go home instead of going to Japan. Matter of fact, it was shortly after that they disbanded our unit.”

Older servicemen received early discharges, but the younger men like Piper stayed a few months longer in the South Pacific.

As his ship neared the United States, Piper said, the men heard music broadcast over the radio.

“It was the first time we’d heard anything like that in the better part of two years,” Piper recalled. “To me that was kind of emotional.”

Although they arrived in Portland, Oregon, on Christmas Eve, “in typical naval fashion,” it took time to process the paperwork, so he didn’t arrive home until Jan. 2.

About 100 of his neighbors where he grew up in the Puyallup Valley of Washington were Japanese-American farmers who had been interned during the war with their families. Some of his classmates were among the 18,000 Nisei — first-generation Japanese-Americans — who fought fiercely with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the attached 100th Battalion, nicknamed the Purple Heart Battalion, the most-decorated unit in U.S. military history, earning 14,000 awards.

“It’s only years later that any sympathy for Japan was developed,” Piper said.

Piper, who had visited Washington State College in Pullman for a 4-H convention as a ninth-grader, used the G.I. bill to obtain a college education. He lived in South House, studied plant pathology, and graduated in 1950. He took a semester of economics, planning to finish grad school, but instead worked for the Department of Agriculture for a few months and then the state as a beehive inspector for a summer before hiring on with Boeing Co. He worked in quality control, overseeing suppliers, and retired after 30 years.

In his early 40s, on July 6, 1967, in Sumner, he married his sister-in-law, Betty (Havens) Piper, his brother John’s ex-wife and a library worker for two decades. She had been married for 26 years and raised four children — Diane, Frank, John Jr. and Harlan — his three nephews and a niece who became his stepchildren.

“There was tension in the beginning, but it’s long since gone,” Piper said.

After retiring in the mid-1980s, he and Betty moved to Soap Lake, where they lived until moving to the Tenino area in 1998. They had been married more than 50 years when she died.

“I never got over it,” he said. “We had a lot of fun, traveling a bit. Boeing sent me mostly to Japan. We also made trips to Australia.”

As he approaches the century mark, Piper attributes his longevity in part to his “good wife.”

“I never expected to live this long,” he said. “I’m quite lucky to be alive.”

He also has longevity in his family. His mother was just three weeks shy of her 101st birthday when she died in 1984. His father passed away in 1960 at 79. He’s the only one of his siblings still alive as most died of cancer in their 70s or 80s. One of Betty’s sons also died of cancer. But Piper’s sister Dorothy lived to be 101.

“I’m suffering from prostate cancer and high blood pressure and everything else you might associate with ill health,” he said. “But for the most part, I’ve been able to keep it under control.”

He lived in an apartment at Woodland Village for a little more than a year until he fell and fractured his spine three months ago, forcing him to move into assisted living.

“The hardest thing for me in recent months was to give up driving,” he said. “I’m stranded.”

Although he receives visits from his stepchildren, he misses his wife and friends.

“I don’t have anyone left,” he said. “All my friends are gone. It’s hard.”

Most died in their 80s. He was one of only eight classmates at his last high school reunion a decade ago, down from a graduating class of about 85, two dozen more if you count the Japanese-Americans who were forced to leave during the war. Some of those who fought during World War II attended the 50th class reunion, he said.

“They told me some stories about their experiences, mostly in Italy, but they were also in France,” Piper said.

As for the war, he said, “Everyone did their part. My experience here is mediocre. But nevertheless, it’s what I did.”

Reflecting on changes he’s seen, Piper said, “When I grew up, I had no idea that we’d have such a  thing as a computer or cell phone. Everything progressed. The last 100 years has been really rather remarkable.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at