Veteran grateful for atomic bomb

Served in Navy during WWII then became dentist

Correspondent photo / Sean Barron Dr. Thomas E. Soller of Boardman, a World War II Navy veteran, holds a folder that contains declassified documents describing American plans to invade Japan, which likely would have led to mass casualties on both sides. The invasion never occurred, however, because President Harry Truman ordered the August 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a move Soller says may have saved his life.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans. To nominate a veteran, email metro editor Marly Kosinski at mkosinski@tribtoday.com.

BOARDMAN — “Thank God for the bomb.”

Those five words Dr. Fred E. Soller wrote on the first page of a set of declassified documents he obtained leave little doubt about how grateful he is that a major piece of history intervened to end World War II.

“We would have lost many people,” Soller, a World War II Navy veteran, said, referring to Operation Downfall, a once-top secret set of plans that had been housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and called for two massive military invasions of several Japanese islands — one each in November 1945 and March 1946 — with the goal of ensuring the country’s unconditional surrender.

The operation was scuttled because of atomic bombs that were dropped Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, which resulted in Japan’s surrender and the end of the war.

That decision likely saved the life of Soller, 93, and countless others mainly because Japan was well aware that an invasion was imminent and wouldn’t hesitate to attack, he explained, adding the country had built caves and underground bunkers. Had the operation been launched, “combat casualties in Japan would have been at a minimum of the tens of thousands. Every foot of Japanese soil would have been paid for by Japanese and American lives,” according to the document.

“It would have been very ugly,” Soller added.

The 1944 South High School graduate spoke recently from his Boardman home about his two years in the military, as well as working five decades as a dentist after having served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946.

Soller’s ominous assessment about the planned military action seems to be backed up by Adm. William D. Leahy, who estimated that Operation Downfall would have killed or seriously injured more than 250,000 Americans on Kyushu alone. Kyushu is the country’s third-largest island.

Leahy, a five-star admiral, served as the senior-most naval officer on active duty during WWII. Also during the war, he was a key strategic adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and played a pivotal role in unifying the Allies regarding the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Soller was drafted, then spent four months in boot camp at a service school in Gulfport, Miss. Afterward, the Navy veteran was a quartermaster on the USS Carter Hall LSD 3. A large part of his duties included reading charts as well as steering and navigating the 450-foot-long, 800-ton ship, he recalled.

Soller served on the vessel until it left the Pacific Ocean and was decommissioned at the end of World War II, he said.

Toward the end of August 1945, Soller was part of a unit that was sent to Shanghai, but he and the others ran into a typhoon near Okinawa, Japan, which forced the crew to fight for survival with little or no food for three days, he recalled.

“It was the worst experience (of his military career),” Soller said. “How we got through it, I don’t know.”

Once they reached their destination, though, Soller was among a crew tasked with repairing and servicing small boats docked at port.

“We were a floating dry dock, really. We had carpenters, electricians and machinists,” he said.

After leaving the military, Soller’s career took him from repairing boats to repairing people’s dental work. He first entered a pre-med program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, then graduated from The Ohio State University’s dental school in 1955. From there, Soller became a dentist, something he did for about 50 years before retiring in 2006.

“I still get calls from former patients seeking a dentist,” Soller said with a laugh.