Nuclear FamiliesBy Don Mitchell
August 09, 2010
Sixty-five years ago today (9 August 1945) the bomb known as “Fat Man” fell away from the B-29 bomber “Bockscar,” and detonated about 1,500 feet over Nagasaki. Fat Man exploded with the force of about 21 kilotons of TNT, immediately killing somewhere between 40,000 and 75,000 Japanese, mostly civilians.
I was just over two years old, living in Hilo, Hawai’i, and have no memory of that event, nor do I remember the Hiroshima bomb three days earlier. And I don’t remember Japan’s surrender, which took place only a few days later. My partner Ruth – who is just three months older than I am, and was living in Chicago – also remembers nothing about those explosions.
I don’t have any memories that center on what we used to call “A-bombs” until I was nine or ten years old – this would have been 1952 or 53 – when at Riverside Elementary School, where we had already been taught to duck and cover in case of earthquakes, we were taught to use the same procedure in case of atomic attack. That there should be earthquakes on the island was predictable. They shook and rolled us regularly. As for atomic attacks – who knew what the Russians might do?
I remember riding with a friend, in a car driven by his father. We were playing in the back seat with wooden swords that I had made. Between Waimea and Honoka’a the father asked us, “Do you boys know what to do if there’s an atomic attack?” We said that we did. I remember this because even at that age I recognized the irony of playing at swordfighting while talking about atomic weaponry.
I certainly didn’t know the word irony, but I had some notion of the difference between atomic bombs and conventional ones. I was aware of how strange it was to be play-fighting with weapons no longer used in war, while declaring I knew how to deal with new weapons so fierce that a single one could destroy a city. And I believe that even then, I understood that no matter what our teachers told us, ducking and covering would not keep me safe if the Russians attacked us with atomic bombs.
I had by then read Hersey’s Hiroshima. I found it fascinating, I remember that, and I remember being saddened, and I remember struggling with the scale of the thing. Many more people than lived in our town had died instantly. It was incomprehensible and yet it had happened. So I knew that it should be comprehensible in some way. I just didn’t know what that way was. I can’t say I was obsessed by it. It was something I stored away in memory and sometimes it would bubble up and I would think about it again.
I remember the front page story in the Hilo Tribune-Herald, reporting that Stalin had died. This was March, 1953, and I remember asking my mother whether this meant the end of war, that there could now be no atomic war with Russia. I don’t remember my mother’s response, but I am sure she told me that the threat of atomic war hadn’t disappeared with Stalin.
In 7th grade I wanted to run for Student Council Vice-President. Election posters were allowed, and I remember laying out a large sheet of paper and, with crayons and watercolors, creating a mushroom cloud, all reds and yellows and browns, and lettering it “Vote Mitchell — The Atomic Candidate — for VEEP.” I didn’t win. I was only trying to attract attention. Certainly I didn’t lose the election because of it; I never thought that. But I also never stopped to wonder whether linking my candidacy to mass destruction and death was a good tactic. I only thought that a mushroom cloud would be eye-catching.
On Friday, August 1st, 1958, about midnight, a Redstone ballistic missile carried a W39 thermonuclear device to about 50 miles above Johnston Island, where it detonated. This was the first missile-launched nuclear shot. The W39’s yield was 3.8 megatons, or, putting it another way, it released about 1,800 times the destructive power that Fat Man had. We in the Hawaiian Islands, about 1,000 miles north-northeast of the shot, had not been warned.
I had just turned 15, and was home asleep because my mother did not let me stay out that late. Some of my friends were out in Hilo, and when the sky lit up and something like a mushroom cloud formed, they were amazed and shocked. Was it a volcanic eruption? But no eruption flashed like that, or created a fireball.
Some of them went home, woke up their parents, and told them that World War III had started. There was no place to turn for information. The AM radio bands didn’t seem to be working. Television was never on at that time of night. By the next morning everyone knew it had been only a test.
In those days teenage boys did not talk readily about their fears. But it was clear to me that my friends had been badly frightened. And yet they were excited, too, as I was. What a thing to have seen! An H-bomb!
The military denied that the failure of medium-frequency and high-frequency communications over much of the Pacific, lasting even into the next day, was related to the test. They promised to warn us before the next shot, which would be sometime in August.
Many years later it would be revealed that testing for the effects of the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) was an important goal of that shot, which was code-named Teak. The Teak shot observers failed to gather the data they wanted, because Hans Bethe had miscalculated the likely energy of the EMP, and all the instruments, set to record low levels, were instantly driven into overload and delivered no useful information.
They would do better with the next shot, code-named Orange, scheduled for the night of August 12th, a Tuesday.
In Hawai’i you can be licensed to drive at 15, and I was. A group of us planned to drive to Ka Lae (South Point) about 80 miles from Hilo, to see the H-bomb. I was surprised my parents let me drive the family car there, but they did. Perhaps my mother, a high school teacher, thought it would be educational. I had my sister – a little older than I was – and, I’m almost certain, my girlfriend C. Of course we drove our cars in a convoy, we had beer and cigarettes and radios tuned to mainland stations and we were all excited.
We went to Ka Lae because Ka Lae is the southernmost land in Hawai’i, which meant that there was nothing but the Pacific Ocean between us and Johnston Island. We also went to Ka Lae because there was a tracking station there. I assumed that the tracking station had something to do with the Johnston Island tests, but none of us knew whose tracking station it was. In those days big dishes were rare. This one was surrounded by barbed wire. Its concrete pillar still stands and even now when I drive visitors to Ka Lae I wonder how many of the people who see it near the road know what it was.
We sat in the cars, and outside on blankets, and kept looking where the dish was pointing. And suddenly there it was, of course without warning. A flash, a burst of static on the car radios, and the fireball, rising. This image was made closer to Johnston Island – I haven’t found any images of Orange as seen from Hawai’i – but from Ka Lae it was spectacular. Awesome. The fireball expanded and there seemed to be a cloud, perhaps even a mushroom cloud, around and above it.
More than anything, I was intensely aware that I was seeing an H-bomb. In those first few seconds I had no other thought, and no feeling other than excitement. As a Hawai’i boy I knew the feeling of seeing for the first time things (television, for example) that I knew people on the Mainland were used to seeing. My first thought was: so this is what an H-bomb is. Everything I thought about it was subsumed by the rising, expanding fireball.
And then the excitement. We were all yelling at each other. Did you see that? Amazing! Rugged! We hugged each other and danced around, even though our radios played only static. We drank more of our beer. We waited – for what? I don’t know. We knew there wouldn’t be another, but we didn’t want to leave. Finally, early in the morning, we drove home. I told my parents it had been a sight worth seeing. I described it. I said nothing about what I’d felt.
Did I later stop to think about the enormous destructive power contained in that fireball I witnessed? Not that I remember. Did I relate it to Hiroshima or Nagasaki? No, I didn’t, for all that it was August. I knew I wasn’t likely to forget what I saw that night because it was so extraordinary, but teenage life went on.
A few weeks later I began my junior year at Hilo High. I was involved in amateur radio, the Civil Air Patrol, and the local Civil Defense, which as an organization was much more engaged in lava flows and tsunamis than in fallout shelters. Even so, Civil Defense was supposed to be concerned with atomic warfare, and so I learned about radiation and how to measure it.
In 1960 I was a freshman in college, and thought I wanted to be an electrical engineer. That didn’t last long, but before I discovered Anthropology I signed up for a 1-credit course called “Radiological Health,” which was actually a PE course. We learned how to operate Geiger and other radiation counters (I already knew about them, which made the course look like an easy A), we learned about rads and millirads and shielding and radiation contours.
On the evening of our final exam, the instructor laid out a dozen yellow Geiger counters and sheets of graph paper and said, “I’ve hidden a few dozen sources in the building. Go find them. Map the radiation levels.”
I thought nothing of it beyond admiring it as a clever exam. I made an excellent map – in three dimensions, thanks to having studied Mechanical Drawing at Hilo High – and got a good grade.
In 1964 I met Ruth, who took me home to meet her father Stan. She introduced him as her father, not as Stanley G. Thompson, the nuclear chemist he was, although I am sure that she mentioned it. Ruth is as modest as her father was, but it’s likely that she told me that he was a co-discoverer of three of the transuranic elements: Berkelium, Californium, and Mendelevium. Neither she nor I can remember.
If she did, it didn’t stick with me. I only met him the one time. I remembered what a good time we’d had fishing from his boat, in the Sacramento River delta, nothing more. Over the forty years I spent apart from Ruth – years during which the only chemistry I encountered had to do with archaeological dating – I remembered her father only as a man who knew Willard Libby, the developer of radiocarbon (C14) dating. I believed (wrongly, as I discovered) that they had been colleagues.
And every time I lectured to my classes about C14 I told them I had known someone who had known Libby, and I thought of Ruth and how foolish I had been to have allowed myself to drift away from her when I went East in 1964. And I thought that someday I might find her again, but during those forty years I never even looked.
And when, as always, I had to talk about other radioactive materials and half-lives, and would use plutonium as an example, I would tell my students about having witnessed an H-bomb explosion, although by then I was properly calling it a thermonuclear explosion. I meant to tell them about how casually nuclear explosions and nuclear materials were handled, even in my lifetime. I told them about the shoe-fitting fluoroscopes operated by the salesmen, devices through which I’d been shown my little toes wiggling inside shoes – yes, he has enough room – while the salesman, all unknowing, was receiving a blast of radiation in his crotch. I always told them my Radiological Health story and asked them how long they thought I’d keep my job, tenure or no tenure, if I hid radioactive materials in the Classroom Building at Buffalo State College and sent my students out to find them.
But every time I talked about my H-bomb I knew that part of me had never gone beyond the you can’t believe what I saw amazement of August, 1958. I never failed to talk about it in Part II, Isotopic Dating Methods, and I think my story had a good effect on the students, but I always knew it had a showing-off component I didn’t like admitting to myself. I told my nuke stories twice a semester, four times a year, for more than thirty years.
In 2004 I found Ruth again, 40 years after I’d lost her. As we were getting reacquainted, I asked about her father. She told me he had died of cancer at 64, and she had always thought it likely that the cancer was because of his work with radioactive materials. What they were doing was very exciting, and they had all been careless.
She matched my fluoroscope story with her cooling pond story, one that she had not told me in 1964, because at the time she thought nothing of it. In the mid-fifties the Thompson family was in Sweden, where Stan was at the Nobel Institute for a year. Sweden. Cold. So where were people around the Institute to swim? Where were pools of warm water to be found?
If you know what a cooling pond is you already know the answer. No, they didn’t swim in the actual pond where the spent reactor rods were cooling. But they swam in what must have been secondary or overflow ponds. Indeed it may well be that radiation levels in cooling pond overflows are not great. I don’t know, but as in the fluoroscope example, no one seemed concerned about it.
And then Ruth told me something about her father that I had not known. The Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb, but the first nuclear bomb (the “Gadget,” detonated at Alamogordo) was a plutonium bomb, as was the one dropped on Nagasaki sixty-five years ago today. And so was the W39 device that produced the fireball I saw in the Ka Lae sky.
Ruth’s father Stan was brought into the Manhattan Project to invent a process that could produce plutonium on a massive scale. No one had ever produced more than a few micrograms, but the bomb-makers needed kilograms of it. Glenn Seaborg thought that his high school buddy Stan Thompson could do it if anyone could, and he was right. All the plutonium in Gadget and Fat Boy was produced by the process Ruth’s father invented and oversaw.
Without his work, there would have been no plutonium-fueled bomb. He didn’t design the bomb. He didn’t assemble it. He didn’t open the bomb bay doors and he didn’t detonate it. Even so, the tens of thousands of people who died at Nagasaki in part died because of what Stan, the father of the woman I love, did.
When Ruth told me about her father, it excited me. I admit it. Sometimes I am ashamed of what I let it do to me if I’m not careful. Sometimes I have the urge to tell people who are getting to know Ruth – people like Zara and Simon, there in the restaurant at East Randolph – Do you know what Ruth’s father did? He discovered elements and he made the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb. Is that amazing, or what?
Is that trivializing his work – and him – or what? Of course it is.
The small man I met behind Berkeley in July 1964, the man who took me fishing, handed me beers, looked the other way when I kissed his daughter – this was a man who had done something of consequence, and I had not known it. And when I did learn it, I didn’t know what to do with it. As we say these days, I didn’t know how to process it. I still don’t.
At the Orange shot I was excited by an extraordinary event and for years did not go beyond that excitement. It wasn’t that I couldn’t. I simply felt no need to try. It was something I’d witnessed, and I’d witnessed it because people were casual about thermonuclear shots in those days. I had compartmentalized my experiences; my H-bomb was disconnected from what I knew – had known even before 1958 – about what happened when nuclear weapons were used in war. Neither Teak nor Orange was detonated in anger, and neither did any serious harm.
And yet . . . what was it, then? A simulacrum of the deadly strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Saying so is too facile. If I could return to Ka Lae and inject meaning into that boy’s simple perception of an awe-inspiring, exciting, yes beautiful fireball. . . what would that meaning be? Everything I can think of seems at once too simple to an old man, and too complicated for a boy.
And what of Ruth, and her father, and whatever of her father lies within her and is part of her song? She has written of him in his deafness, pressed up against speakers, listening to Beethoven. She tells of him sitting in his chair, thinking, doing the kind of chemistry-of-the-mind that preceded his making it manifest in the lab. For that, he needed no equipment. He only needed a place to sit, and time to think.
So I am wondering, today, August 9th, 2010, how often and in what ways he thought about the process he conceived, gestated, gave birth to, and then released to others, who made of it fiery destruction as never before seen in the world. It is impossible that he did not think of Nagasaki.
It is said that upon Gadget’s explosion Oppenheimer recited from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Ruth does not know where her father was on that day, except that he was not at Alamogordo, nor does she know where he was on August 9th, 1945.
He might have been in Chicago. He might have been at Hanford. He might have had his first daughter, now my life’s partner, in his arms. Perhaps he sang to her. Perhaps he wept. He never said.