Pa. man at Pearl Harbor, saw aftermath of Hiroshima

August 14, 2005|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Lester Jay Stone bookended World War II.

The 94-year-old artist and retired Navy captain was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed it Dec. 7, 1941, and he was one of the first Americans to see the devastation left by the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki three days later, Stone's ship, an amphibious assault vessel, was ordered to take the 6th Marine Division onto Japanese soil at Sasebo.

"We dropped the Marines off, then went out to the fleet to pick up an Army division and take it to Kure, the big Japanese naval base in the Inland Sea," Stone said.


After completing that assignment, Stone said he and a couple of buddies "stole" an Army jeep and decided to go to Hiroshima to see it for themselves.

"We looked at the map and realized we were only about 15 miles away," Stone said.

It was Sept. 2, 1945, less than a month after the bomb was dropped, leveling the city of 200,000 and killing more than half of its residents.

Six decades have faded his memory, but Stone said one of the first things he and his two buddies noticed on the road leading into the city was that the Japanese were using the pavement to dry grain.

"They hadn't had any gasoline for quite a while, so they didn't need the road to drive on," he said. "As we approached Hiroshima from the east, we saw a vast empty scene with few buildings standing and a lot of stripped trees.

"Many steel utility poles were buckled, but the wooden ones were still up. Some houses were leaning over, and as we drove into the city, we saw more that were knocked down. Most of the houses were made of wood, but they weren't burned up.

"The bomb was detonated about 1,000 feet above the ground, so the concussion did most of the damage. Most of the explosion went up."

Much evidence of fire seemed to be at the street corners, Stone said.

"The Japanese were good at collecting the bodies and they cremated them on the corners," he said.

Stone said he and his buddies talked about the possibility of danger from radiation before they went into Hiroshima, but "we knew other people were there before us."

Stone was born in Kelso, Wash., in July 1911. His father was an itinerant carpenter and Stone spent his early years in Montana, Oregon and California.

He joined the Navy in 1929 as a recruit in a program that would allow him to go to the Naval Academy. He enrolled in 1930 and graduated in 1934.

Over the next six years, he saw duty on a cruiser, a battleship and a destroyer before heading to flight school in Pensacola, Fla. After earning his wings, he was assigned to a torpedo bomber squadron in San Diego. His unit was sent to Hawaii in 1940.

His squadron was in Pearl City, north of Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, he said.

That Sunday morning, he heard a plane go over, looked up and saw it was Japanese, he said.

"I knew right away what was going on," he said.

Stone, who was a lieutenant junior grade in a communications unit, said he "called the photo lab and told the photographers to start taking pictures during the attack. ... A lot of the photos they took are still around today."

He recalled that he was only about three blocks away from Battleship Row during the attack.

"When the Arizona blew up, things started to fall down around us," he said.

Stone was sent to Lakehurst, N.J., in 1942 to work on guided missile systems. He went back to sea later in the war to take part in the battle for Leyte Gulf in October 1944 and the battle for Okinawa in April 1945.

He retired with the rank of captain in 1964.

Before, during and after the war, Stone worked on his art. He considers himself to be a portraitist and landscapist, although his naval career heavily influenced his seascapes.

"I don't ever remember not painting," he said. His only "formal" training was an art class in grammar school, he said.

"Mechanical drawing courses at the (Naval) Academy was a big help," Stone said. He recently donated a large painting of the racing yacht America to the academy.

Stone continues to paint today and conducts painting classes.

His artwork sells from $1,000 to $15,000 and up for large oils. He sells his paintings from his home and studio on Wyndham Avenue.

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