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James Vernon has memories of World War II that are as clear as the day they happened.
The first atomic bomb dropped as a weapon — exactly 63 years ago, on Aug. 6, 1945 — fell upon the city and military base at Hiroshima, Japan, a region Vernon had seen before and after the bombing from the cockpit of his Navy fighter-bomber.
Today, Vernon is an 86-year-old resident of Camarillo and the author of a book about his life as an aviator in the war. In 1945, he was serving in the Navy as a pilot in VBF 87, a fighter-bomber squadron that faced its combat duties aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga.
His Navy enlistment occurred when he was a student at the Montana School of Mines in 1942.
“I never even touched an airplane before that,” Vernon said. “I was prime military age, and so many were swept up in the Army, I decided to enlist in the Navy.”
Vernon’s air group of Hellcat aircraft was shipped to the Pacific theater and eventually to the waters off Japan. It was there that his squadron began bombing and strafing runs of air bases on the islands.
“Our flight path took us over the Kure Naval Base and then south of Hiroshima,” Vernon recalled. “You could see it from the air. I remember how beautiful, green and lush it was. It was a flat area of land, surrounded by green hills — mountains, really.”
One day onboard the Ticonderoga, Vernon’s squadron learned of the bombing.
“It was then they told us that an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima,” Vernon said. But that didn’t mean anything to the crew. “None of us knew what an atomic bomb was.”
Several weeks later, he found himself again flying south of Hiroshima and looking down at the devastated city.
“There were maybe two or three structures standing, and I was amazed that all the streets had been cleared of debris. There was nothing there.”
The mountains and surrounding countryside went from the lush green he’d remembered to “instant autumn. Browns and yellows covered everything that used to be so green.”
It was also in Hiroshima that Vernon lost a comrade. They’d flown together in the air group but were separated when Vernon went to fly fighter-bombers.
“We weren’t best friends or anything, but I knew him, had flown with him. He was a nice guy.” His name was Raymond Porter, and he flew a two-man aircraft when he was shot down, captured and held by the Japanese at Hiroshima.
“It wasn’t until 30 years later that I learned what officially happened to him. That’s when the government declassified the information about American prisoners at Hiroshima.”
Vernon had guessed at his comrade’s circumstances, but he never knew for sure. Porter was killed in the atomic blast. His crewman, however, Normand Brissette, was one of two American POWs to survive the atomic bomb. He and Air Force Sgt. Ralph Neal lived until Aug. 19, 1945, when they both died of their injuries.
In spite of the losses and devastation of that day, Vernon believes dropping the atomic bomb was the right thing to do.
“I think that dropping the atomic bomb was the smartest thing we did during the war,” said Vernon. “Harry Truman was heroic in making that decision.”
Much of the flying that Vernon’s group did involved trying to find the bases where kamikaze aircraft were hiding and put them out of commission before they attacked the American fleet.
“Kamikazes killed about 10,000 American sailors,” he said. “We tried to find them before they found us.”
During one such mission, Vernon was wingman to the squadron leader, Cmdr. Porter Maxwell. They were not facing fighter plane opposition, but there was a great deal of antiaircraft fire from the Kure Naval Base, he said.
Flying south and then east of Hiroshima over Niihama Bay, Vernon said, “the skipper was on my left and all of a sudden, I noticed what looked like debris coming from his tail. It just seemed to fall apart.”
Vernon recounts what happened next in his book, “The Hostile Sky”:
“The skipper’s canopy opened, he stood up, his parachute streamed out and jerked him clear of the plane. The Hellcat hit the water with the skipper a few feet to the right of it.
His parachute didn’t blossom to check his fall; he plunged feet first into the murky shallow water and disappeared.”
Vernon has written about his experiences in three books that span his life. The first is “Tough Times and Hard Rocks,” and it details Vernon’s life during the Depression and his father’s decision to go into mining and prospecting in the West.
“The Hostile Sky” is his second book, on his life as an aviator. His third book, “Deep Six My Heart,” covers his post-war life earning a Ph.D. in geology and completing more than 1,000 scuba dives and numerous manned submersible missions, many of them off the coast of Point Mugu and Santa Barbara. He has also authored two chapbooks of poetry.
“James has led an interesting life, to be sure,” said his wife of 58 years, Doris. The couple had three children together.