Elder Perry’s unforgettable experience as a Marine in Nagasaki after the atomic bomb dropped

I remember when a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles brought me to tears. He shed a few tears with me.

Usually, when I did interviews as a Church News staff writer, I managed to stay “professional” in the sense that I kept my personal feelings at bay. However, tears filled my eyes when Elder L. Tom Perry told me about some of his experiences as a young U.S. Marine going into Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 9, 1945. (A nuclear weapon was dropped on Hiroshima earlier, on Aug. 6.)

Elder Perry said even though he had been trained to be a tough Marine and had been prepared to see and experience the worst of battle, he couldn’t prevent the lump in his throat or tears of sympathy when he got his first view of the devastated city. With a catch in his voice and tears in his eyes, he described how he was on the ship with the first wave of occupational troops to enter Nagasaki after the signing of the peace treaty that led to ending of the hostilities of World War II.

Elder L. Tom Perry is photographed in Nagasaki during his time as a Marine.
Elder L. Tom Perry is photographed in Nagasaki during his time as a Marine. Credit: Courtesy Lee Perry

“We ran topside as we pulled into the harbor,” Elder Perry said. “All I saw was devastation. The city had been built going up little canyons. Everything in those canyons was completely leveled.”

He entered the U.S. Marine Corps one month after he’d completed serving in the Northern States Mission, 1942-1944. After boot camp in San Diego, California, he was assigned to the island of Saipan in the Pacific’s Northern Mariana Islands, where he remained until the end of the war.

Having spent two years as a missionary preaching universal love, he was touched by what he saw at Nagasaki. “It was something you never forget,” he said quietly. “The people were bewildered. They had not even had time to bury their dead.”

Wendell Tolman, who served as Elder Perry’s first missionary companion, served alongside him as a U.S. Marine. They wanted to do something to help the people of Nagasaki. With several other Marines, they began helping a Protestant minister — a Japanese man — rebuild a little church for his congregation. When they finished that building, they began working on another. “We spent our evenings hammering, plastering and painting,” Elder Perry said.

“I fell in love with the Japanese people. I’ll never forget the experience we had when we left. Several of us who had worked on the church buildings were at the train station, waiting to be taken to a port of embarkation. Another group, in which there were some pretty rough men with their girlfriends, was there. Some of them were teasing us because we were so different, having spent our time rebuilding churches when we could have been having fun.

L. Tom Perry, center, is pictured with Japanese friends and a fellow Marine.
L. Tom Perry, center, is pictured with Japanese friends and a fellow Marine. Credit: Courtesy Lee Perry

“I heard something and looked out in the distance. About 200 of these great Japanese people we had helped get back into their churches were coming over a hill, singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’”

Elder Perry paused in recounting the experience. Regaining composure, he continued: “They showered us with gifts, which they could not afford in thanks for what we had done. After we boarded the train, they lined up and held out their hands. We leaned out the windows and they touched our fingertips as the train pulled away. Our experience was such a contrast from what those other Marines had on their last day in Japan.”

After the war, he attended what is now Utah State University in Logan. He married Virginia Lee in the Logan Utah Temple in 1947; they became parents of a son and two daughters. Sister Virginia Perry died in 1974. Elder Perry met Barbara Dayton two years later in the home of one of her relatives. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple in April 1976.

Elder Perry was called as an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve in 1972 and ordained an apostle in 1974. He said that one of his most pleasant experiences as a General Authority was returning to Japan on assignments.

Elder Perry died on May 30, 2015, at the age of 92.