It Gave Him Life - It Took It, Too

by George Duffy

In August of 1985, my wife Margaret and I spent a few days in Scotland. I was on a genealogical kick at the time and wanted to visit the town of Hawick, about 40 miles south of Edinburgh where my paternal grandparents, Michael Duffy and Mary Hanagen, were married.

Our afternoon flight into Edinburgh had come down through the overcast and landed in a drizzle of rain, which continued throughout the night and on into the following morning. After breakfast, clad in our rain ponchos, we ventured out and after buying a supply of British currency discovered at the rail station that public transportation to Hawick was by bus. No problem. One was leaving from outside the station momentarily. We climbed aboard. Ten miles down the road, the rain stopped falling, the sky cleared, and the sun appeared.

In our brief wanderings around Edinburgh that first day we saw many broadsides (large bulletin boards) at the news stands advertising Bomb Week on BBC-TV. It was the week of the 40th anniversary of the nuclear bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Uh, oh," I said to myself, "this sounds like some anti-American, peacenik propaganda.

Map of Japan

The delights of Hawick pushed such thoughts out of my mind as we found the streets where my grandparents had lived, and compared my 100 year old postcard views with today's scenes. The lack of change is remarkable: only the highway mileage signs and modern traffic are different. Otherwise, it is the same streets, same buildings, same windows, same chimneys! I bought two very finely woven wool neckties, Margaret picked up the usual souvenirs, and we headed back to Edinburgh.

Guess what? The rain had not ceased. So, instead of a quick supper and a few hours walking the city, it was a leisurely dinner in the hotel,and thence to the room and the "telly." No way did I intend to watch Bomb Week, but with only three channels on the tube, and finding the other two to be carrying utter rubbish, I resigned myself to whatever Bomb Week would be.

Nagasak Foundry marked on the mapForty three years earlier, my ship, the MV American Leader, was sunk and I was taken prisoner. Two nights later, the German raider Michel, which did the deed, also sank the British freighter Empire Dawn, picking up 22 survivors of her 44 man crew. Among that number was Geoffrey Sherring, the vessel's Second Radio Officer, who was born in the same month of the same year as was I. We became friendly, but not buddies. Eventually, we were all handed over to the Japanese on Java. In the first camp there were many British POWs to which the Empire Dawn people attached themselves, so we drifted apart.

Ultimately, in mid-1943, Geoff was selected to go with a number of POWs to Japan. Was it his radio expertise? And for what utilization? Who knows? What is for sure is that he became a riveter in the Mitsubishi shipyard at Nagasaki. [Foundry marked on the map]

Can you imagine my astonishment that rainy evening in Edinburgh when I flipped over to Bomb Week and saw that its subject was Nagasaki and one of it's narrators was my acquaintance of 43 years earlier - Geoffrey Sherring! Working again in the Mitsubishi shipyard, this time on TV! On August 9, 1945 he was less than two kilometers (about a mile) from the explosion's epicenter, and I didn't know that he had survived the war!

Absolutely amazing! What twists of fate had interested me in the Duffy family history, directed me to Edinburgh, confined me to my hotel room, coerced me to watch a program that has never been shown in the United States, and eventually reunited two men who had not seen each other for 45 years. Unimaginable! It took two years, but the BBC did provide Geoff's address, and in August 1988 we visited him and his wife Joan at their home in Stockport, England.

What happened in Nagasaki on that fateful morning was that the Japanese guards came into Fukuoka 14 prison camp as usual to escort the prisoners to the shipyard. Upon arriving at the site, they saw that none of the Japanese workers had come in. This puzzled the soldiers, and the prisoners as well. (Presumably the civilian population had gotten wind of the Hiroshima explosion of three days earlier.)

Following some discussion amongst the guards, the prisoners were marched back to the camp where a few were given odd jobs to perform. Geoff and an Australian named Bernard O'Keefe were detailed to pump an accumulation of rain water from a concrete-slab-covered ditch which served as an air raid shelter. That completed, the two decided to lie low for a while, and Sherring, using a magnifying glass, prepared to light a smoke.

Japanese characters for "Bombed Person"Suddenly to my amazement," he has written, "a very, very brilliant and powerful light shone in from the opposite direction, completely eclipsing the sun, and of an entirely different colour. It was the colour of a welding flash, a blue, mostly ultra-violet flash. We scrambled out and found ourselves in choking dust and smoke which obliterated the bright sunshine. As this rolled back a little we felt very large drops of rain which were about as big as grapes and composed of dirty mud. These did not last very long, and the sight of the flattened city almost defied our comprehension. I suppose that stage of events lasted for about a minute, and after that the greatly accelerated pace of the day kept us working at top speed until nightfall.

"Hereafter I never felt so much a prisoner again and all the work I did seemed more to be a cooperation with the Japanese than a servitude. We helped with the cremation of their dead and with the collection and protection of various pieces of machinery."

[At right, Japanese characters for "Bombed Person," pronounced Hibaku Sha, on business card given to Geoff Sherring upon his return to Japan in 1985]

The prisoners - and the Japanese - didn't know what hit them. This was a "new kind of bomb" and the effects of its ionizing radiation were utterly unknown. Geoff remained in what was left of Nagasaki for four days. The former prisoners were then taken to the outskirts, whence he departed alone on September 8, 1945 to search for the American occupation forces. But for an entire month he had been exposed without his knowledge to an insidious danger. Yet, over the years, he never had anything but praise for the man who ordered the dropping of the bombs.

"Harry Truman", he has written, "was a great president whose courageous decision saved the life of this Englishman".

Photo of Geoffrey SherringSince our first reunion in 1988, I saw Geoff on several occasions. Always, with concern as to the possible lingering problems connected to his long exposure to the radiation, I inquired as to his health. Always, the reply was, "I'm fine." Until two years ago. In May 1997, I found him to be rather overweight and quite lethargic. His doctor had discovered many, many tumors throughout his body, the legacy of Nagasaki. The winter of 1997-98 was a miserable time; last winter, mercifully, less so. In January a letter came. Instead of being in Geoff's familiar hand, it was typed by a neighbor. I telephoned him and he said it was amazing he was lasting this long.

In late April the letter arrived from Joan. Geoff died "willingly and peacefully" on April 6. The bomb which saved his life at age 23 eventually took it - a month shy of his 77th birthday.

[Photo of Geoffrey Sherring in 1995]

This is a combination of two articles which first appeared in The Daily News of Newburyport, Massachusetts

The maps above were based on maps found at and

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Page updated July 7, 1999