Hillel Lodge resident John Franken was a prisoner of war in Nagasaki, Japan when the U.S. Air Force detonated an atomic bomb there on August 9, 1945. He is now the only living Canadian to have survived the blast.
He was working in a coal mine when the bomb exploded.
“Three months before the end of the war, he was transferred to the coal mines and that’s what saved his life,” said his daughter, Roslyn Franken. “He was underground and so wasn’t injured when the bomb went off.”
“I didn’t know what was happening,” John told the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. “I thought it was a big explosion in an ammunition dump. When we came out of the mine, we just waited to see what would happen. The Japanese were ready to kill us. We went to the Red Cross in the town and they told us what had happened.”
Then the men went back to the base and were transported to Manila, Philippines, to recuperate. After going to Australia to fulfil his air force contract, he went back to Indonesia, and then on a ship to England, then Holland.
Now 92, John was born in Semarang, Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies. His parents had moved there from Holland and were running Hotel Franken. John joined the Dutch Navy Air Force at age 18. He was trained as an aircraft mechanic.
When war was declared in the Far East, the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies.
“My Dad and his unit were escaping to Australia. While at sea, the Japanese caught them and put them in a prisoner of war camp in Indonesia,” said Roslyn. “After that, he was transferred to Nagasaki, Japan.”
After the war, he finished his air force contract and moved to Canada a few years later.
“There weren’t a lot of jobs for [airplane mechanics] in Holland,” said Roslyn. “He saw an ad in 1951 that they were looking for mechanics for Canadair in Canada.”
“I was accepted and was building planes for the Korean War,” added John.
John lived in Montreal until he was 90, then moved to Ottawa two years ago to be closer to his daughter. He has been a Hillel Lodge resident for the past year.
He met his late wife, Sonja, a Holocaust survivor, in the Netherlands. She corresponded with him in his early days in Canada and then immigrated to join him.
“It’s a story of survival, of beating the odds,” said Roslyn.
“He spent 20 years leading a demonstration in front of the Japanese embassy asking for an apology for their wartime atrocities and crimes against humanity. CBC aired a Gemini-nominated documentary about his quest for an apology called Tea at the Embassy.
“One of my father’s jobs as a POW was to transform elementary schools into where the comfort women sex slaves were kept for the soldiers,” she said.
“The [Japanese] government never said ‘sorry.’ I’m still waiting,” said John, who still speaks in schools on Remembrance Day to educate students about the horrors of the Second World War.
In 2009, he was awarded the Medal of Orange-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands in recognition of his efforts.
Roslyn, a motivational speaker, is preparing a book and multi-media presentation about her parents’ lives, and about her own life as a second-generation survivor. She plans to have it ready before Holocaust Education Month next year as 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
“History just keeps repeating itself,” John said sadly. “I don’t understand people. The killing, the killing, the killing.”