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A Corner of My Mind: ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of Worlds’

The first atomic bomb test, in White Sands, New Mexico, exploded out of the desert and raced up to the stratosphere, spewing deadly radiation in its path. Man had probed the elemental forces and dared to grasp a fundamental particle in Nature’s Design. 

J. Robert Oppenheimer, brilliant theoretical physicist, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, director of the controversial Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, and his team of scientists, had unleashed a rapacious genie upon the world, and it would never again retreat to its place in the blueprint of the universe. 

Oppie, as he was known by his colleagues, viewed the apocalyptic explosion from inside a desert shelter. The successful detonation was a double-edged blade, the culmination of six years of work on a devastating weapon. 

ppenheimer’s face was drawn. His words were flat, burdened under the sure knowledge that he had played a major role in the development of the most destructive weapon ever laid in the capricious hands of humankind. As shock waves ripped the desert sands, he quoted a line from the Hindu Bhagavita, “Now, I am become Death, destroyer of Worlds.” He wiped a tear. “A few people laughed,” he said of his team’s reaction to the blast. “A few people cried. Most people were silent.”  

And so, on July 16, 1945, while Western forces still struggled under the yoke of the war in the Pacific, the world entered the Atomic Age. 

Rewind to August 2,1939. Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that Germany was engaged in splitting the atom and producing an atomic bomb. Roosevelt’s response was to authorize The Manhattan Project. Thousands of scientists and engineers across the country were enlisted to develop the atom bomb. 

On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Ninety to 166 thousand people perished under the mushroom cloud. Some think they were luckier than those who survived with their skins ripped off. If ever there was hell on earth, this must have been it. Charred bodies lay strewn at ground zero, their eye sockets hollow where the eyes were melted from the skulls. 

In the following months, thousands died from burns and radiation sickness and other causes, including falling debris. Most of the dead were civilians. 

On August 9, the same fate befell Nagasaki, where a second atom bomb killed sixty to eighty thousand. Twenty-two thousand Koreans, imported to Hiroshima and Nagasaki for forced labor, died beside their captives. 

Ironically, at the end of July 1945, while publicly stating their intention to fight to the bitter end, Japanese officials were entreating the neutral Soviet Union to mediate peace. But the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Japan.

On August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito gave a recorded radio address to his nation, announcing the surrender of Japan.

Germany had surrendered on May 7, 1945.

And so ended World War II. Estimates are that fifty to sixty million people died in the most brutal, destructive war in history.

There are those who believe that Japan would have surrendered without the horror of the two bombings. Others, like actor Charlton Heston, who was a fighter pilot during WW II, had different views. 

Heston came to the Los Alamos National Lab years later as a consultant on a classified film. I was a reporter in Los Alamos. Along with reporters and camera people from all over New Mexico, we gathered in a Lab room to interview Heston. We waited casually for the actor to enter. After all, we had interviewed celebrities before.

Then Moses entered the room and we sat, mouths open, awestruck. He was the most physically impressive man I’d ever seen. Tall, straight, with angular features that stood out from the crowd, he had an air of assurance about him that commanded respect. He sat down, looked around the silent room, and drummed his fingers on the table. “Well,” he said, “is anyone going to ask me any questions?” 

We came back to life and put pen to pad.

Heston had agreed to help the Lab with a classified film because he’d been a fighter pilot in WW II, and he believed that if the U.S. had been forced to invade Japan’s mainland, he wouldn’t have come back.

So rest easy, Oppie, you did your best,   right or wrong, for your country. Now, a plutonium implosion-type device and its fiercer brother, the hydrogen bomb, have become Death, the destroyer of Worlds.

Memories of World War II

I remember, as a small child, my mother waking me up to tell me that the war was over. I went back to sleep. But there were block parties to celebrate and our troops were welcomed home with great joy, respect, and love. 

My father told us in later years that as an electrician working in the Brooklyn shipyard, he had seen troops heading out on ships, and men from boats shouting to them that they would take care of their wives. 

I knew a sailor who had been in Pacific battles on a ship. He said their worst fear was the Japanese Kamikaze. The pilots were told to keep their eyes open as they dived into U.S. ships so they would not miss their targets. In the last moment they would see their mothers’ faces. Then, they would be no more. I heard somewhere that Japanese pilots could navigate by the stars, in daytime!

I remember my mother telling me that a young relative who was a wonderful guy, died on a beach somewhere in Italy. It was sadly ironic, since he was Italian. 

A great grandmother of mine died in the American bombing of Monte Cassino on Italy’s mainland.

We will never know the true figures for either side in World War II. Suffice it to say that Hiroshima is now a bustling city and we are great friends with Japan. We will never know the outcome of WW II if Oppenheimer and all the other scientists engaged in splitting the atom had failed in their efforts. 

On humanity’s side, nuclear weapons have never again been used in war. So far. Let’s hope that these Beasts who devour human and animal flesh by the thousands, will never again be let out of the Gates of Hell.

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