‘We don’t seem to have learnt a lot’: WWII serviceman’s son recreates his photos of 1940s Hiroshima

External Link: Hiroshima video YouTube

Rob Watson grew up listening to his father’s stories about the rebuilding of Japan early after the war.

Key points

  • Doug Watson, 92, took about 100 photographs when stationed at Hiroshima from 1946 to 1948
  • His son Rob Watson is recreating the photographs as a tribute to his father who has alzheimer’s.
  • The British Occupation Forces occupied Japan from 1946 to 1952

Doug Watson was a member of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, made up of troops from British, New Zealand, India and Australia, serving in Japan from November 1946 to April 1948.

Now aged 92, the elder Mr Watson has Alzheimer’s disease, but revisiting the photographs he took more than 70 years ago on the streets of Hiroshima is helping to trigger some memories.

Doug Watson spent his 19th and 20th birthdays in Japan, in the immediate aftermath of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima.

Rob Watson said his father’s stories about his time there had sparked a deep personal interest in the country, to the extent that 30 years ago he helped establish a sister-city relationship between Port Lincoln and Muroto.

While he has himself been to Japan three times, it was only last year — as his father’s memory began fading — that he began searching for the sites he had photographed.

View of harbour, islands, mountains all with vegetation on them, tree in foreground
Photo taken from mainland looking out to bridge linking islands, vegetation on hills in background, tree in foreground

“The photo album’s always been around the house and I looked at it as a kid a lot,” Rob Watson said.

“A lot of the stories at the time sounded like tall tales and so exciting, and as you get older you start to realise he wasn’t much more than a boy.”

His father’s stories recounted adventures of dropping officers to the royal palace and midnight meetings at the Russian embassy.

Doug Watson encountered American military royalty, his own Jeep sidelined to make way for the pomp and ceremony of General Douglas MacArthur and his entourage, driving through the rubble.

These stories and his father’s illness were the catalyst to bring his father’s treasured Hiroshima album to life.

Rob Watson used Google maps to plot possible photo locations, matching angles and landmarks.

“It was remarkable Dad would just wander the streets by himself and take photos,” Rob Watson said.

Black and white photo of city street, old building across the road
City street, brick building across road, people on footpaths and crosswalk, traffic stopped

“He had a photo taken near the ruins of Hiroshima Castle — they rebuilt the castle in the ’50s, but nothing looked familiar.

“When we were walking up this little bit of a slope towards where the castle is now, where it’s been rebuilt. I saw a bit of stonework on a wall and I thought, ‘that looks familiar’.

“I whipped my photo out and you can tell it’s exactly the same spot.

Black and white photograph of large retainer wall made of blocks of stone, view of the corner
Tree with blossoms in foreground with lawn, in front of large stone block retainer wall

“It was very, very emotional — I cried. I video-called Dad and I couldn’t believe it.

“To know that Dad took a photo there just out wandering probably by himself on a day off, and that he would have caught the tram from Ujina up into central Hiroshima.”

Mr Watson also found the wooden barracks his father and the other Australian soldiers stayed in at the port, Ujina.

Black and White photo of stone bridge with four arches, hill in background
Colour photo sone bridge with arches, green mountain background, water in foreground

“I was able to see from Google Earth that the bend was still in the tram track, and it was still there, so that gave me a point to roughly to work out where the barracks were,” he said.

“To find the timber building that survived the atomic bomb — it was just outside the area of total devastation and has survived for now coming up 75 years — was truly amazing.

close up of war jeep black and white photograph

He was able to recreate that scene and four others; some he stumbled upon by sheer luck.

“I was able to go up the fire escape on a nearby apartment building up a few floors, and I could take a photo looking across the roof of this building to those same hills,” he said.

While in Tokyo he recognised an old section of the Tokyo train station from one of his father’s photographs.

Doug Watson, who was the commanding officer’s driver, on call 24 hours a day, said he took up photography as something to do when he did get some down time.

“Back then the Japanese were very good with photography,” Mr Watson said.

Elderly hand pointing to black and white photographs in an album

“You could buy a camera fairly cheap in the Japanese money.

“We’d walk through the ruins and some places there were lots of buildings still standing.”

Black and white photo of Man on left, rooftop view out on rubble of city

Drives through dusty post-blast Hiroshima

Although the war was over, he said, there was still a health risk for the Australians in Hiroshima.

“There’s been some interesting comments as to why the Americans kindly let the Australians have the area that had been bombed,” Rob Watson said.

“Dad spent some months literally driving through central Hiroshima on a daily basis on the back of an open truck or in a Jeep, with the dust blowing around, so that hasn’t done his lungs any good. But he’s 92 and still going.”

One of Doug Watson’s vivid memories was aboard the Kanimbla arriving in Japan.

“There was terrific damage and sunken ships everywhere — I reckon there was hundreds of them,” Mr Watson said.

Old man looking out of shot holding camera a box brownie camera, army jacket and suitcase in background

“It was early morning, misty and I was up on the deck when the ship was going through the inland sea.”

He said the Japanese were just as pleased as the Allies that the war was over.

‘The Japanese were very hungry’

Rob Watson said while the Japanese had been his dad’s sworn enemy, spending time in Japan changed the elder man.

“Dad tells a beautiful story about being in the mess, and there’d always be little Japanese kids hanging around trying to find a scrap to eat because the Japanese were very hungry — there was no food,” he said.

Remnants of building and lots of rubble, hills in background black and white photo

“And that’s when it dawned on Dad that they were just little kids, like any little kids, like his little cousins and the kids he remembered from back home.

“He realised we are all just one and the war is over, and people are people.

“Sadly, we still seem to be having wars. We don’t seem to have learnt a lot.”

Rob Watson said the project had help jog his father’s memories.

He is compiling the photographs into a digital project and hopes to take one of his father’s early cameras to Japan on his next trip to recapture more of his images.