April 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 2
During the Second World War, I was a soldier assigned to Los Alamos, part of the famous Special Engineering Detachment (“SED”). SEDs were soldiers who were selected for duty outside the normal Army units because of some scientific skills they possessed. My qualification consisted mostly of two and a half years as a physics major at the City College of New York. I was given a rather important job, considering my less than impressive rank of private first class. It was to assist in the developing and testing of spark-gap switches for Fat Man, the bomb eventually dropped on Nagasaki. The switches would ignite, as simultaneously as possible, the 32 explosive charges that would compress a spherical shell of plutonium, producing critical mass.
By May of 1945, even before the Trinity test near Alamogordo, it was apparent that the Fat Man bomb would likely work. I was shipped overseas to Tinian in the Mariana Islands, along with other skilled soldiers, officers, and civilians whose responsibility it would be to test and assemble the bomb and the more primitive Little Boy as well. I helped check the sparkgap switches using some very advanced photographic apparatus. We worked in a Quonset hut equipped with a darkroom for developing the photographic strips on which the timing of the sparks would be recorded.
At this late date, 56 years afterward, I can reveal that I was not what one would characterize as a spit-and-polish soldier. My normal uniform on Tinian, which had a hot and humid climate, consisted of a pair of khaki shorts and GI-issued heavy shoes. One day while I was at work in the hut, dressed as usual, it was announced that Curtis LeMay, the commanding Army Air Force major general, would visit. General LeMay had a reputation for being the most aggressive and effective commander in the Air Force, maybe in the entire military. He was a strong advocate of blanket bombing, and after years of effectively leading air strikes over cities in Germany, he was now directing operations over Japan using the newly produced B-29 bombers and had introduced nighttime incendiary bombings of Japanese cities, causing great havoc throughout the country.
Alerted to LeMay’s arrival, we naturally bustled to straighten up our rather casually organized Quonset hut. Unfortunately, or fortunately, someone noticed that I was not wearing a shirt. This did not seem appropriate, but there was no time for me to go back to my tent to grab one. Someone quickly shoved me into the darkroom and instructed me to turn on the red light that indicated that film was being developed, to discourage LeMay from peeking in. I caught a glimpse of the general and his big cigar as I closed and locked the darkroom door.
When the visit was over, about half an hour later, I was allowed out. Everyone was abuzz with the general’s reaction to what he had been told about the bomb. He had expressed complete skepticism about our claims for its destructive power, clearly believing he was in the presence of a bunch of highbrow nuts. The thought that one B-29 delivering one bomb could do the work of his entire fleet of B-29s carrying incendiaries was a pretty difficult dose for him to swallow. Later, after the bombs had been dropped, General LeMay became a strong advocate for maintaining a nuclear arsenal. He went on to head the Strategic Air Command, and even, on occasion, offered the opinion that in some circumstances the use of nuclear weapons might be justified.
I didn’t exactly witness LeMay’s introduction to the atomic age, but I came pretty close.