The World adjusts to the Atomic Age

Rare color photograph of the first nuclear test at Trinity site, July 16, 1945. Blurriness is in the original photograph (done when color photography was still fairly new).

Rare color photograph of the first nuclear test at Trinity site, July 16, 1945. Blurriness is in the original photograph (done when color photography was still fairly new).

The news of the atomic bomb was soon spread around the world. Although a startling innovation the implications of the new super weapon were quickly recognised.

The changing outlook for the human race, and the prospect for future wars, was readily grasped by people who had no experience of military strategy. Sy M. Kahn a member of the 495th Port Battalion of the Army Transportation Corps whose principal role was loading and unloading ships. He heard about the bomb while on a ship in mid Pacific:

This afternoon I heard over the radio about the “greatest war invention.”

It’s called the atomic bomb. The information we know about it is as follows: When a test explosion was made in New Mexico, where the research took place, it vaporized a steel tower and left a huge crater. The pressure waves knocked men down at a distance of five miles; forest rangers 150 miles away thought there had been an earthquake, and it rattled windows 250 miles away.

The bomb is equivalent to the bomb load of 2,000 Superforts or 10,000 tons of TNT. President Truman stated that this invention is capable of destroying civilization, wiping out everything that stands above ground. The first of these bombs was dropped on Hiroshima yesterday. Further facts are that the research involved two billion dollars and five years. The bombs are in production now at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Seattle, Washington.

This must be an almost unbelievably powerful weapon. If it is as powerful as stated, then it should bring this war to a speedy close.

In the letter I received from Mom today, she included an article that stated that many Washington big-wigs thought that Japan might surrender as early as the end of this month, but at least by Christmas. Naturally I scoffed at this, for even the latter date seemed improbable, and I was annoyed to read these optimistic predictions handed to the people at home. However, this new weapon may bring a much quicker end than we anticipated.

It has long been known that atomic energy is extremely powerful, if it could be harnessed. Such a weapon as has been developed forecasts what is in store in future wars.

Although these words may sound fantastic now, they may prefigure the destruction of future civilization or, at least, destruction beyond the realm of imagination.

The U.S. has stated that the secret of the weapon will be carefully guarded while a defense against it is developed. Once again we have the vicious circle of powerful, new, destructive weapons and more intricate defenses against them, until this frenzy of diabolical invention shall backfire into the faces of all humanity.

As other eras have had their rise, peak and decline, perhaps we are reaching the peak of our machine age and beyond lie the black pits of decline.

Meanwhile, we are harassed with endless and petty army regulations…

See Sy M. Kahn: Between Tedium and Terror: A Soldier’s World War II Diary, 1943-45

There was only misapprehension in the claims that the U.S. made about the bomb

The U.S. has stated that the secret of the weapon will be carefully guarded while a defense against it is developed.

No-one in the U.S. High Command was yet aware of how many nuclear secrets the Soviets had already managed to obtain.

Little Boy in the bomb pit on Tinian island, before being loaded into Enola Gay’s bomb bay. A section of the bomb bay door is visible on the top right.
The nuclear material to arm the bomb had been brought, in great secrecy, by USS Indianapolis.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

The survivors from the USS Indianapolis, sunk on the 30th July, were now beginning to discover how the Navy would be treating the loss of their ship and the delayed rescue operation. ‘Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man‘ published in July 2018 reconstructs events:

On August 7, some Indy survivors landed at Base Hospital No. 18 on Guam. There, news of the atomic strike and its connection to Tinian Island zipped through the wards like a firecracker string. Finally, the mystery was solved. One by one, the survivors understood the sudden departure from Hunter’s Point, the secrecy, the strange drills, and the presence of the two Army ofcers who had sailed with them.

At Guam, McVay submitted to another press interview, this one with three reporters. Leo Litz of the Indianapolis News, George McWilliams of the International News Service, and Paul Hughes of the Louisville Courier-Journal sat with the captain on a portico overlooking the Pacific. McVay sat in a wheelchair, a notebook in his hand. Already, he had been ordered to file a report on the sinking and had been writing down events as he remembered them.

“My guess is that the Indianapolis was hit in an underwater torpedo attack,” McVay told the reporters. He went on to explain how, as soon as he got to the bridge, he tried to get word down to other parts of the ship. “But all the lights were out and I found that the explosion had paralyzed the communications system. I sent word to the radio room to see that the calls went out for help and later myself went to see about messages.”

At first, McVay said, he was not sure the ship would sink. But as the ship began to list sharply, it became clear that she suffered from “serious, gaping damage.”

Litz, McWilliams, and Hughes also interviewed Dr. Haynes at Guam. He sat with them, his hands bound in bandages. “I’m still in a daze,” Haynes said, relating the horrors of four days drifting at sea. The reporters asked the doctor whether he had any criticism of McVay’s actions.

No, he said. “It was the most terrible thing that could be imagined,and everywhere there was confusion. Nothing worked — fire and blast had severed all wires – and it was impossible to make any kind of progress from one place on the ship to another.”

Paul Hughes went on to talk with several more survivors, all of whom expressed their unqualied support for the captain.

Admiral Spruance arrived at the hospital bearing Purple Hearts, and McVay accompanied the admiral as he bestowed medals on the wounded. Those who were able stood to receive their awards. Others received theirs lying in bed.

Conflicting emotions tore through the men. Seaman Don McCall didn’t think he deserved the honor. Joseph Kiselica, a big, tall fellow from Connecticut, seethed with resentment. “I’m proud of you,” Spruance told Kiselica as he affixed the Purple Heart to his chest.

Kiselica wasn’t proud at all. Not of what the Navy had done to him. And not of what the Navy had done to his shipmates, some living but most dead. First they ignore us for four days, he thought. Now they want to pin medals on us. Kiselica, a second-class machinist’s mate, didn’t dare say anything to the admiral, but after that day, he never wore his Purple Heart again.

When Spruance and McVay got to the quartermaster, Bob Gause, the captain said, “If you decide to stay in the Navy, I’ll see to it that you make chief.” “Thank you, sir, but no thanks,” Gause said. After what he’d just been through, he was going to get out of the Navy double-quick and go home to Florida.

Letters from home caught up with the men. Cleatus Lebow, who had felt that strange dread about returning to Indy at Mare Island, received one from his mother. “I had a dream,” Minervia wrote. “I heard you call me, and I got up from bed and went out on the porch to get you. Papa came out and got me and put me back to bed. It was midnight. At 12:15, I heard you call me again, and I got up and went out again to find you.”

After Lebow read the letter, he looked at the date. His mother had written it on July 29, the day before the ship sank.

As the survivors’ health improved, they asked to be allowed to let their families know they were still alive. The Navy let them — after a fashion. They were given a sheet of Red Cross stationery and a strict set of rules: They were not allowed to mention their whereabouts, the fact that Indianapolis had sunk, their nurses or doctors, or refer in any way to the ordeal they’d just survived.

And so Machinist’s Mate George Horvath wrote lies to his wife:

I’m still doing all right and getting along, or maybe I should say I’m getting settled to the routine life at sea. Three meals a day and a couple of watches to stand. Sounds thrilling, don’t it? I love you – George.

At least, Horvath thought, Alice Mae and their two boys would know he was okay.

Also back at Guam, Malcolm IJhnson and the other reporters drafted their articles. At Peleliu, Johnson’s first look at the survivors had scored his memory like a diamond cutting glass. Some were still bleeding, skin boiled and aflame, faces blistered over, some missing chunks of flesh, others unable even to speak.

In the perverse gallows ethos of journalism, the sinking of Indianapolis was a “great” story, full of drama, tragedy, and heroism, with particulars almost too awful to believe. But it was also an important story that revealed flaws in the Navy’s system of tracking its ships.

Was it possible, Johnson wondered, that as the last, climactic fight loomed to the north, complacency had set in among senior officers in the rear? Was the Navy guilty of negligence on a catastrophic scale?

Through official channels, Guam public affairs personnel asked the Navy Department whether the journalists’ stories about the sinking could be released from Guam. The reply came back: no. They would have to first be sent to Washington. Johnson prepared his story accordingly. Soon, his piece, along with those of the rest of the Guam press corps, was en route to D.C. by air.

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