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The Navy ship containing nuclear bombs that a junior officer saw anchored off Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in 1959 was only the most notorious of many U.S. violations of Japan’s official policy banning nuclear weapons. The Japanese government has a long history of secretly agreeing to their deployments, and feigning ignorance when they were revealed. The outrage that erupted in the press and in the Diet when former American Ambassador to Japan, Edwin Reischauer, spoke publicly in 1981 about nuclear-armed warships in Japan’s ports came close to bringing down an LDP government. In Okinawa local residents protested the large numbers and types of nuclear weapons based there during the U.S. military occupation (1945-72). Breaking its promise that they be permanently removed, the Japanese government concluded a secret nuclear understanding as part of the 1969 Okinawa Reversion Agreement that the U.S. government could bring them back whenever it decided there was “a great emergency.” In 2009 a high Japanese government official advocated their return to Okinawa in testimony before a U.S. Congressional Commission.
Stewart Engel was a Navy junior officer in late 1959 when his assigned ship, USS Carpenter, made a port call at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan.
Off our beam, moored or anchored, was an LST [“Landing Ship, Tank” or tank landing ship]. It was by far the worst rust bucket I saw in my three years of active duty. Any C.O. [commanding officer] would have been mightily embarrassed to command it. Its condition convinced me that it had not been to sea with a Navy crew for a while.
During our entire stay at Iwakuni I never saw a sailor on the ship. I did always see two Marines, one forward and one aft. Sometimes Marines are used as decorative base gate guards in their pressed uniforms with perhaps a sidearm. These were not. They were dressed for combat and heavily armed accordingly.