Symposium revisits start of nuclear age

Veterans, experts are in D.C. for talk on 60th anniversary

July 14, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

On Aug. 6, 1945, in an airplane returning from the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, a young, reflective and religious physicist named Lawrence Johnston wrote a letter to his baby daughter.

Dear Ginger,

Your Daddy is leaving the city of Hiroshima in Japan in a B-29 bomber, after having dropped a bomb on the city which appeared to almost completely wipe it out.

Until we land, only the people in our mission of three planes know what has happened, although there are a lot of Japanese who probably suspect they have seen something new under the sun ...

Of course, we hope that it will not be necessary to drop another one. And that this may be the coup de grace that ends the war.

But three days later, he flew on the mission that dropped the second A-bomb, on Nagasaki.

Three weeks earlier, Johnston had been aboard a B-29 flying over the New Mexico desert when the first A-bomb was exploded in the test called Trinity and the nuclear age had begun. He may be the only person to have witnessed all three of those first nuclear explosions.

He's 87 now and he'll join 10 other Trinity veterans today in a roundtable discussion at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington at a public symposium to mark the 60th anniversary of this first manmade nuclear explosion.

In addition to the veterans, academic experts and one congressman will address the past, present and future of nuclear weapons.

"The farther we get away from the actual events, the more difficult it is for people to grasp intellectually what nuclear war really would look like and what the impart of that would be," says Anne Harrington, director of the Committee on International Security and Arms Control, the sponsor of the symposium.

"This is probably the last time any significant number of the individuals who created the science and developed the engineering that allowed this to happen will meet on a major anniversary," she says. "With all of the debate going on right now [about] what we should be doing with the U.S. nuclear arsenal, this is our attempt to put some perspective on that debate - driven by some of the people who created the nuclear age."

In his short paper prepared for the symposium, Johnston says, "I have been asked many times in interviews what were my immediate thoughts when we saw the [Trinity] bomb go off? No problem remembering. I burst out `Praise the Lord, my detonators worked!'"

At the A-bomb laboratories at Los Alamos, N.M., Johnston had worked closely with Luis Alvarez, a physicist who would later win the Nobel Prize for his work in particle physics, in creating the complicated system that detonated the Trinity device and later the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Johnston received a patent for the detonator.

Alvarez, one of his professors at the University of California at Berkeley, had become his mentor. Johnston was a graduate student at Berkeley in 1941 when Johnston recruited him to work on the creation of radar. He moved with Alvarez to work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

Johnston lives now in Moscow, Idaho. He was professor of physics at the University of Idaho there from 1967 until his retirement in 1988.

In his paper and in a long telephone conversation before he headed off for Washington, Johnston says the scientists were not at all sure what would happen with the Trinity test.

"I was in a B-29 flying at 30,000 feet," he says. "We were hoping to use that as a dress rehearsal."

They carried the same equipment for monitoring the blast they would later use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project to develop the bomb, had second thoughts.

"Alvarez got a hurried call from Oppenheimer," Johnston says. "Oppie was worried the bomb might be a lot stronger than they had calculated and that we might be blown out of the sky. He ordered Alvarez to stay at least 25 miles from the tower [that held the bomb]."

So they became spectators at Trinity.

"Quite a few bets were settled," he says. He recalls that the great physicist Enrico Fermi, one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project, bet that half the atmosphere of New Mexico would explode in a thermonuclear reaction.

But Trinity went off almost exactly as the theorists had predicted, Johnston says.

"What I saw was a white flash on a cloud lit up by the flash of the bomb. There were thunderstorms in the area and a lot of clouds remained. The white flash was quite pervasive. It was just like daylight."

He was watching from a small porthole which had replaced the machine gun blister in the side of the B-29. The scientists were in a fairly roomy compartment at the rear of the plane behind the bomb bays. That would be his vantage point at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But on those bombing runs he had more work to do and less time to look.

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