My father was in the US Navy in 1946. The war was over before he was old enough to enlist, but he wanted to get off the farm, so took the opportunity after he turned 21. His mother was not happy. He wrote back home often. His mother saved the letters in bundles. After she was moved to a nursing home, the bundles were found, all but one. Even after the house was totally emptied, that bundle of letters was never found. What we do have, though, is a treasure trove from a farm boy’s perspective on one of the most momentous developments of the mid 20th century: experiments with atomic bombs.
My own children were the age of my father when he wrote these letters. It was a strange experience for me to meet this young man I never knew. He never reached my age. After a tractor accident, he was recuperating in the hospital when a substitute doctor, while his regular doctor was away, took him off the blood thinner, a clot developed and killed him. So these letters are particularily special. He was only 42.
This was the first time he had been away from home, the first time on an ocean, and the first time in the tropics. The misson of his ship was in the South Pacfic. He was far from home. His homesickness was a major part of his experience. His younger sister thought he shouldn’t have been so homesick, as much as he had wanted an adventure. But she lived in the same county all her life. He wrote once about a photograph he had asked to be sent to him, “I would almost rather look at pictures than eat.” The photographs were of cows.
His ignorance, as well as that of the entire country, and all of mankind, with this new weapon is evidenced by his use of “Radio Activity.” He knew what a radio was, and he knew what activity was, but comgining those two unrelated words, made no sense to him. And, a Geiger Counter, measuring the “heat” was just a toy.
In his first letter home, after his arrival at the mission site, he wrote, “22 May 1946 We arrived here at Bikini (from Pearl Harbor) about 10:00 yesterday morning and got our mail in the afternoon. … This is rather a deserted place, we are anchored about two or three miles from the Island and we rock about as much out here as we did coming out here. It sure is hot here, I was topside about five minutes yesterday in the sun and I sure did turn red. The sun sure is hot. We are about a thousand feet from the place where the target ship is going to be anchored for the test. “
Two days later, he wrote more details, “24 May 1946 I am still here at Bikini and may be here for about a month before we move. I went on liberty yesterday and did not find much to do on the Island but did find some pretty shells while walking on the beach. I want to send them home as soon as I can find something to send them in.” And, “I hope that it is cooler back there than it is here. While I was on the island I thought I was going to roast. The trees stop all the air and the sun beats down on you like a hot fire.”
And, three days later, “27 May 1946 … There are more and more ships coming every day now and they will continue to do so for some time to come. They have both Jap and German ships there that were captured during the war. The Jap ship sure is torn up and it looks like it is about half there. I have not had a close look at the German ships yet, but they say that they are in fair shape.” Some of these ships were observation ships like his, others were to be targets.
Despite the developments around him, he was making plans for his own future, “ I am still making plans for farming when I get out of here. If I can not get all the equipment that I need when I first get out of here, I can get me a part time job in town, I will have plenty of experience by then and I will have an idea what it is like to have a job in town. This job I have now is alright but I am too far from home…”
Sometimes the news from home was shocking. On 10 June, he wrote, “I got your letter you wrote 5 June today, saying that Letha Smith passed away. It sure was a shock to me, I still can not realize that such a thing could have happened to her.” The death was sudden and shocked everyone. She was the only girl who wrote to him whose letters he saved. She was special. Even my mother said they would have married. That puts my life in a different perspective.
His position, though in the center of the action, was not one of information about the action. In that same letter, he says, “I suppose you are keeping up on the news about the A-Bomb test. We do not even know what is going on right under our nose.” So much for an eye-witness to history.
A month later, he wrote with some relief that some action was finally taking place, “We are getting under way 30 June and will be under-way until this area is all clear of all radio-activity caused by the explosion of the “A” Bomb. This will be quite an event and will probably be something to talk about for sometime to come.” That hope of clearing the area was premature; it is still not safe to return.
On 2 July, he writes calmly about an event that chills me,”The first test is over and everything seems to have been on schedule. We were 28 miles away and we could hardly feel the concussion of the bomb. We all had our eyes covered with our arms so that the flash would not hurt our eyes. Right after the blast we all looked to see what we could see. There was the prettiest pinkish white cloud you ever saw and it reached the height of 50,000 feet in a few minutes. It sure is hard to describe on paper but you will probably know more about it than I do by the time you get this letter as far as knowing how many ships sank, I still do not know but we are going into the area this morning…” His was a salvage ship whose mission was to bring up debris from the ships that had been targets of this new bomb.
When I learned of the death of the father of a friend of mine, who was assigned foot patrol in Nagasaki after the bomb there, and the agonizing cancers that ate his body up, I was glad for the first time, that my father had died so young, before any cancers from the radioactivity could begin to eat him up. The hundreds of men on the ships who watched these “tests,” had no protection at all, except for smoked goggles for the second test. That was no protection at all. They were ignorant human guiene pigs.
For some reason, his letters were not censored as they would likely have been during the war. On 29 July, he reports, “We are anchored about 5 miles from the target area but were closer for a few days. Some of the ships are so hot that a man is not supposed to stay aboard more than just a few hours at a time, and the water is still plenty warm. Salvage Parties have been spraying one of the target vessels for the past couple of days and it is still plenty hot. There is also a lot of radio activity in the target area and on most of the target vessels. Men from our ship that are working with the target vessels and pulling them out of the target area and beaching them for further examination by scientists and other effects of the strange effects of the new bomb. I still can not seem to realize that so small a piece of material and so small a bomb could ever do such a great thing.” He should have been worried about the affects on his body.
He continued, “I suppose you read about the Great Aircraft Carrier, U.S.S. SARATOGA. I was about 5 miles away when it sunk but it was sure a great sight and it sure has taken a great beating during the war and being in the two great Atomic-Bomb tests. I suppose that you will read more about it than we will ever hear about it out here…”
Five days later, he gave more chilling details, “We are about 4 miles from (where) the target ship was at the time of the test. They have beached the ships that they could get close enough to, and cut them from their anchors. There was such a great amount of heat created by the bomb that most of the target ships are still too hot to stay aboard for more than just a matter of a few short hours. There sure is a lot of Radio Activity on and around the target area and ships. There are a few of the target ships beached not far from where we are anchored. Great care has to be taken so that one man does not work around the damaged ships only one day out of three. They have been spraying water on it for almost a week now and it is still unsafe for a human to stay aboard it more than 3 hours at one time.” This is not what I’ve read in any history books!
In a letter written the end of August, his homesickness is evident, “I sure do enjoy the pictures you have been sending me with your letters. They really mean a lot to me. I sure do wish that I had a picture of my tractor…”
His ship finally left Bikini on 5 Sept for cooler waters. His ship had not left the area since they arrived months before. After a brief stop at another atol, a week and a half later they were on their way back to the U.S. Finally, on 5 Sept, “We got to go ashore on some good old solid ground and enjoy a good liberty for the first time in more than four months that seems just like a life time. We arrived in Pearl Harbor the 22nd…”
He closed this letter, “I will let you know just when we expect to be in the USA and hope that you will be there to meet me. Your sailor son, the atomic kid.” He didn’t know how “atomic” he really was, but we never really knew.
After his discharge, he rented some land to farm on his own and eventually bought a farm just next to that of his parents. There, he began his family. I was the first to be born. From our house, we could see only two other houses. One was that of his parents, not quite half a mile away. I began walking there on my own, across the pasture, the summer I was two and a half. My father loved farming and was proud to be a farmer. I wanted to farm a different kind of crops on different fields, and I now do: I farm rows of words across fields of paper.
Only recently have I realized that when he wrote these letters, at age 21, his life was half over. I am now nearly the age of his father when my father died. I feel very strange about that.