Sergei Palchikoff
Sergei Palchikoff with his music students in Hiroshima

“Imagine coming out of a subway station in New York and all you see is horizon,” said Jan Palchikoff. That was her way of imagining what her father witnessed when he arrived in Hiroshima a few weeks after it was flattened by the first atomic bomb ever used in military conflict.

Jan was an Olympic rower who competed in the double sculls at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, one of nearly 400 who competed on Team USA. But her story of why she competed as an American is distinctly unique.

In 1942, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, Jan’s father, Nikolay, was 17 years old and he wanted to join the US Army. He had emigrated to America in 1940, attended high school in Los Angeles and then worked odd jobs as a janitor and sales before answering the call for army recruits.

He wasn’t even an American citizen. But he did speak fluent Japanese and Russian.

Nikolay eventually made his way to the Pacific theater, lent out to the Navy to question Japanese soldiers and listen in on radio conversations in Japanese. He did intelligence work in New Caledonia and the Philippines, roaming the seas in an American naval convoy as kamikaze pilots and Mitsubishi G4M bombers attacked.

When Japan surrendered, Nikolay was sent to Japan to help seek out safe places for American troops to land in the Tokyo area to ensure the safety of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, for the surrender ceremony. And when MacArthur oversaw the signing of the instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri, Nikolay watched from a higher perch on the USS General Pershing, which was docked next to the Missouri.

With his primary duty in Japan done, Nikolay insisted that he be allowed to go to Hiroshima. Only one month after the atomic bomb was dropped on that city, the Army intended to send him to Korea, and was reluctant to send a random American soldier over 800 kilometers to the Western part of Japan which was not yet considered safe and secure.

But Nikolay was insistent. After all, Hiroshima was where he was born, and where his parents were.

Nikolay’s father, Sergei Palchikoff, was a Tsarist from Kazan, Russia, who fought the Communists across Imperial Russia before commandeering a ship in Vladivostok and escaping to Japan. Sergei and a few other Russian families ended up staying in Hiroshima.

A jarring fixture in Hiroshima, the Caucasian Palchikoffs stood out in the Japanese streets. Sergei made his way and built up social capital by teaching violin in an all-girls school, as well as teaching Russian and English.

Nikolay was born in Hiroshima, feeling at home playing Japanese war games with his neighborhood friends. As he said in this Japanese article, “When I lived in Hiroshima, I had many friends and I had never been treated as a foreigner. I was accepted as a single Hiroshima person – swimming, fishing in the river, riding around the city by bicycle.”

Nikolay Palchikoff as a child Hiroshima
Nikolay Palchikoff as a child in Hiroshima (from the collection of Jan Palchikoff)

However, as the 21-year-old approached Hiroshima on the train, he began to realize that his hometown would not be the same. His train passed the Kurii Naval Base and “you could see that all the Japanese ships were rusting, turned over” as Kurii had been shelled “for three days and nights. And I thought, “My god, Hiroshima couldn’t possibly be worse than this. And I was wrong.”

There was of course, nothing alive, no plants. No birds chirping. In Japan, there are these cicadas, and they make noise all day long. They’re up in the trees, and we used to try to catch them. Nothing. Dead silence. And I approached my house. There was nothing there, except my wrought-iron bed is used to sleep in, so I knew I was at the right place.

Nikolay could not find his family amidst the rubble. When he encountered one of the Parasuchin’s, one of the few other Russians living in Hiroshima, Nikolay was informed that the Russians were rounded up by the police and had taken them all to the mountainside. Whatever the reason for that, the Palchikoff’s were not in the central part of Hiroshima when the bomb hit. In fact, Nikolay’s parents, as well as his brother, David, and sister, Kaleria, were still alive!

The Palchikoffs were moved to a town called Taishaku away from the bomb blast and the initial spray of radiation. As far as the family in Hiroshima knew, their eldest son was in high school in America. But then one day, he shows up on their doorstep in a uniform, one of the first American soldiers to appear in Hiroshima.

It is hard to fathom the emotions of such a reunion. Most of this narrative is taken from an interview of Nikolay in May, 2003.  In the parts of the transcript where Nikolay is describing his return to Hiroshima, you can see the word “Cries” in brackets, where Nikolay apparently would be talking through his tears.

Nikolay’s sister, Kaleria, was interviewed shortly after the end of the war, her memories an example of the horrors the people of Hiroshima witnessed. In this excerpt, broadcasted on NPR, she described her shock at seeing people whose skin color were burned dark by the blast, and the subsequent radiation sickness that befell them.

We saw Negroes. They weren’t Japanese. They were Negroes. I asked them what happened to them. ‘We saw the flash and this is the color we turned.’ We reached the military hospital. I stayed there for two days. There were people wounded, badly wounded. The skin just peeled off. Some of them you could see the bone. The eyes were closed, the nose bled, the lips swelled, the whole head started swelling. As soon as they gave them water, they vomited it all out, and they would keep on vomiting until they died. On the second day, the wounds became yellow in color, and it would go deeper and deeper. No matter how much you tried to take off the yellow rotten flesh it would go deeper and deeper.

Kaleria Palchikoff class picture
Can you spot Kaleria Palchikoff in her class picture?

Nikolay had to return to duty back in Tokyo, and then in Korea. In the meanwhile, he made sure that his parents and siblings got safe transport back to Tokyo. He was also able to get his father a job in the Officers’ Club in Tokyo. In January, 1946, Nikolay was allowed to return to the United States, and he was able to bring his family with him.

After returning stateside, Nikolay had an appendicitis attack and went to the hospital, where he had his appendix removed, and his heart stolen by a nurse named Dawn Clarke. Nikolay and Dawn got married, and had four children: Jan, Kim, Kai and Jay.

Jan rowed for UCLA, and then for Team USA at the Montreal Olympics. She is still an active athlete who competes in Masters competitions in cycling. She also currently serves as the senior vice president for sports & programs for Special Olympics Southern California.

But the journey of her family that brought Jan to achieve Olympian heights was a century-long road through the Siberian steppes and the atomic wasteland of Hiroshima.

Remembering my grandparents and my parents, it occurs to me now that one of the common threads that runs through our lives is simple perseverance – necessary for survival and for facing adversity and challenges.  My grandparents’ story and how my dad ended up in the US and met my mother has always filled me with awe, wonder and inspiration.  While I was not fighting for my life in sport, I am positive that the drive my grandparents had is alive in me today.  Perseverance and the drive to succeed most certainly are defining factors in my journey as an athlete and in my individual character.

Nikolay Palchikoff
Nikolay Palchikoff returns to Japan