I was a young war bride in the summer of 1945. A slap-happy one, recently wed to my college sweetheart, a football star from Hardin-Simmons University, for whom I had waited while he flew twenty-five dangerous missions over Europe as a B-17 bombardier. That had taken at least a year; now he was back, we’d had our war wedding, and we were stationed at a base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He was busy every day from dawn to sunset, training crews in the new B-29 bombers for the invasion of Japan. I worked all day as a secretary in something mysterious called air inspection. My life consisted of shopping for privileged goods in the PX, flirting with handsome grounded officers who couldn’t fly for one reason or another, and meeting my captain at night in the officers’ club for dinner and too many drinks. Sometimes we would go out to the White Sands at night, to bury bottles of beer deep in the ice-cold gypsum sand and sit on the dunes, watching the moon rise. It was a romantic, thrilling, mindless time. My husband wanted to forget the horrible things he’d experienced in the 8th Air Force. He never talked about his memories. He made lots of cynical wisecracks, such as “The last time I saw Paris, the sky was full of flak.” The truth was he had survived where others in his crews had not. He never mentioned Japan, but I knew he was dreading it.
I was too young, silly, and addlebrained to take anything—even his possible death—seriously. To me, Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo were cartoon characters who would be easily vanquished by American right and might in the end. My life was fun and games: getting gasoline coupons and keeping up with all the latest swing music, plus playing Myrna Loy in real life, without too much success.
In the predawn of July 16 a shattering blast literally blew us out of bed in the little frame house we were sharing with an Air Force officer named Moskowitz and his glamorous former Copacabana showgirl wife. (The house had been divided into two apartments for the housing shortage.) We all ran outside in our night clothes but couldn’t see what had happened. Later the Air Force issued a formal statement that an ammunition dump had exploded. We thought no more about it but learned that the blast had shattered windows eighty miles away in El Paso.
Three weeks later, on August 6, all was revealed. We had been present, asleep, in fact, at the creation. The first atomic bomb had been exploded in the Los Alamos desert near Alamogordo. The Manhattan Project, which none of us knew existed at the time, had reached fruition. My husband said musingly, “Remember, I told you there was something out there in the twelve mile area of the White Sands desert that they forbade us to fly over when we were training. It must have been the site of the bomb. I wondered what could be in that danged desert that was a secret.”
Now President Truman had ordered that one of the only two other atomic bombs in existence be dropped on Hiroshima, and in that terrible moment of epic tragedy we only knew it was good news. It meant my husband and thousands like him would not have to chance death in the invasion of Japan. We had never heard of John Hersey, radiation sickness, the apocalypse; but it was the end of innocence, and there was no turning back. We simply celebrated the end of the war.
Years later I went back to Alamogordo, a dusty, unassuming little town where only the bowling alley and the post office seemed to matter. I was surprised to find that the residents had proudly posted on the outskirts of town a sign reading ALAMOGORDO: HOME OF THE ATOM BOMB. By then I had learned that this was a dubious distinction. I was already living through what Margaret Mead came to call “the real Generation Gap.” She said it consisted of those born before and after the invention of the Bomb. She was right, of course.