Tag Archives: Manhattan Project

A Man in Georgia Passed Away

2 Aug

A few days ago, a 93-year old man passed away in Georgia. The widower was retired from the DuPont Corporation and left behind a loving family. When the news of his death came over the Associated Press Twitter feed, I read the article and read the replies by people in the Twitterverse. I hardly ever do that. Everyone has opinions about the news of the world, and Twitter provides a platform for sharing. However, something told me that I needed to read these.

Some examples:

“Good”

“Rot in Hell”

“Mass Murderer”

What could lead to such hatred toward an elderly man who had just passed away?

Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was the last surviving crew member of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and introduced the world to nuclear weapons. Tens of thousands of people died instantly and more died from the radioactive effects. In the years that followed, more destructive weapons were developed, and two Super Powers pointed them at each other during the Cold War. People lived under the shadow of the bomb, and little kids learned to “Duck and Cover” at school.Duck and Cover

It was a momentous event in history and, obviously, was not humanity’s finest hour. However, I was taken aback by the hatred aimed at “Dutch” Van Kirk, who was a 24-year old navigator following orders.

Each May, a few other teachers and I lead a field trip class to New Mexico and, as part of the trip, visit Los Alamos, the place where the atomic bombs were built. We sit outside of a museum housed in one of the original buildings and discuss the Manhattan Project. During this discussion, we talk about the bombings of Japan and their aftermath. At some point, I ask them what they would have done if they were part of the decision-making process. Undoubtedly, they say that they would not have done it.

Then, I ask them to put themselves in the places of the people involved. Take away 70 years of hindsight and make a decision. When I read the Twitter responses, I tried to put myself in the place of Van Kirk.

World War II began in 1939 when he was 18 years old. He probably heard news reports of the war in Europe where Germany was bombarding London, invading Russia and killing civilians. He may also been reading about the Japanese advances in Asia and their killing of civilians. He could not have known about the Holocaust.

In 1941, Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor, but it was not only an attack of the naval base. It was an attack of the island of Oahu, which probably killed civilians. Van Kirk was 20-years old. Did he volunteer? Did he get drafted? I do not know, but I know he was trained as a navigator for bombers.

During his time in uniform, Van Kirk flew 25 bombing missions over Europe and North Africa. Undoubtedly, these were harrowing missions. I have no idea of his targets, but I know that the Allies bombed German cities. Dresden was bombed into oblivion, and over 100,000 people were killed. That is more than were killed at Hiroshima.

What does all of this mean? By 1945, Van Kirk had spent 25% of his life with the world fighting the largest war in history. It was a war where the killing of civilians became military practice for all sides. It was a war that every side tried to win at all costs.

At some point, Van Kirk found himself training in the Pacific and being told that the mission being planned could end this war – a war that had cost millions of lives and people wanted to bring to an end. In August of 1945, the orders came through to complete the mission. The man who had given the order was President Harry Truman.Harry Truman

What was Truman thinking?

He had become president a few months before and around the same time Germany had surrendered. It was then that he learned of the Manhattan Project and the weapons that it had created. As the war in the Pacific went on, the American people were getting restless. Germany had been defeated. When is the same thing going to happen to Japan?

Allied forces were getting closer to the Japanese mainland, and Truman’s advisers were telling him that an invasion could lead to a million casualties. A man that I know said that he was training for that invasion, and he, along with everyone training with him, knew that they were training to die. He never liked Truman, but, when he heard about the bombing, he loved Truman.

Truman had a decision to make. He could ask the American people to sacrifice more men in a battle like the world had never seen, or he could use a weapon that tax dollars had been spent to build.

What would happen if he agreed to the invasion, and Americans later learned that it could have been avoided?

He chose to use the atomic bomb.

Van Kirk and the rest of the Enola Gay completed their mission by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A few days later, another plane, Bock’s Car, dropped another bomb on Nagasaki. With that, World War II came to an end, and the Cold War began.

Did Harry Truman make the right decision? I have no idea. I am not trying to justify it. I am saying that we should put ourselves in the past before judging decisions with hindsight.

Should Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk be vilified on Twitter for the actions of his crew? I do not believe he should. He came to age during the worst war in human history and was told that he had the chance to end it. For 69 years, he lived with the memory of that mission. I have no idea what he thought about when he looked back. He was in that place at that time and did was he was ordered to do.

Maybe the people on Twitter would have done it differently, but they do not know that for a fact.

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History is Local – Tennessee Style

30 Apr

Another academic year is coming to a close, and, over the past few days, I have been reflecting upon it. Things have gone decently, but this is the first year that I have wondered if anyone is listening. As usual, there have been some engaged students and some who would probably rather be somewhere else. However, I have gotten more frustrated this time than ever before.

At our university, all students are required to take two semesters of History, and I realize that most of them are taking it because they have to take it. They are not planning on being historians, museum curators, lawyers or any other of the great professions you can get with a History degree. Still, it would be nice if they did not stare out of the windows or sneakily play with their phones. Heck, it would be even nice if some of them brought paper and pencil to class.

Honestly, it gets frustrating. I may not get them to love the subject, but I want them to get something out of it. To accomplish this, I sprinkle some local history in with the American history. They may not be interested in the millworks of New England, but they may be interested in the millworks of our town. Simply, not all history takes place far away. Some of it takes place right around the corner in places they pass everyday.

That is why I throw as much Tennessee history into the mix as I can. This might perk them up, and it might help them realize that this state has played an important role in our nation’s past.Tennessee Flag

We cover the three Tennessee presidents – Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson – because presidents are important. Did you know that Polk is the president that brought California into the United States? Yep, a guy from Columbia, Tennessee did that.

However, I like to go deeper than that and talk about people who they may have never heard of.

Peter Burnett, a Tennessee native, was the first governor of California.

Grantland Rice, perhaps the greatest sportswriter to sit behind a typewriter, was from Murfreesboro. He wrote about the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and a line that goes like this:

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes – not that you won or lost –

But how you played the game.

Cordell Hull, a graduate of Cumberland University (where I work), was known as the “Father of the United Nations” and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on that organization.

David Crockett, defender of the Alamo and hero to millions of kids in the 1950s, was a Tennessean.

Sam Houston, who led the rebel forces in the fight for Texas independence, had his first law office here in Lebanon.

W.E.B. DuBois graduated from Fisk University and taught school in Wilson County before going on to create the NAACP.

George Rappelyea thought of a publicity stunt to draw attention to his town of Dayton. They arrested John Scopes for teaching the theory of evolution and hosted the Scopes Monkey Trial, one of the many “Trials of the Century.” It sparked a debate that continues to this day.

John Butler, the legislator who sponsored the anti-evolution bill, represented the neighboring counties of Sumner, Trousdale and Macon.

Oak Ridge is a small town that came to prominence as one of the sites of the Manhattan Project, which brought us into the atomic age.

In 1920, legislative leaders met at the Hermitage Hotel to discuss voting for or against the 19th Amendment. It is a long story, but they eventually approved it. That made Tennessee the decisive state in women getting the right to vote.

John Chisum was born in Tennessee but gained notoriety as the “King of the Pecos”, one of the most successful cattlemen in the West.

I could name others, but these are a few that I can think of. I really think mentioning local people helps students learn a little more about American history. At least, I hope it does.

Pueblos, Pottery and Captain Vla

22 May

I have returned from the sojourn into New Mexico with fellow faculty and a class full of students. Fun was had by all, and it would be impossible to cover everything we did in a blog post. With that in mind, I will provide a brief synopsis by describing my favorite activities from each day. Hopefully, this will provide an entertaining glimpse into our adventures.

Day 1 – The beginning of a trip is always the best part of the first day. The students are anticipating the places that they have yet to see, and the teachers are anticipating the return to an interesting part of the country.

Day 2 – We can’t drive vans to New Mexico in one day, so we check out some things along the way. My favorite part of the second day is driving through Hereford, Texas, the citizen-proclaimed “Beef Capital of the World”. I don’t know if that is true, but there are definitely more cows in Hereford than there are people. Holding pens line the highway and railroad as thousands of head of cattle wait to be shipped to the plates of America. The students could only discern the smell, but I find the beef industry, both its past and present, interesting.

Day 3 – We made it to Santa Fe, our ultimate destination, later this day, but we had one stop along the way where I had the chance to talk about some history where that history took place. Billy the Kid is buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Well, most people think he is buried there. Conspiracy folks believe he survived instead of being killed by Pat Garrett. Anyway, I was able to tell the students about Billy the Kid next to his grave.

Day 4 – Our plans to hike Chaco Canyon were rained out, and our leader had to develop a day full of activities on the fly. We went to the Santa Fe plaza, but my favorite part of the day was spent at the Shidoni Gallery. The building and surrounding grounds are full of metal artwork that has been forged at the on-site foundry. It is interesting to see what people consider art and the prices they are willing to pay for it.

Day 5 – On this day, we went to a few places that we had never taken students before. The Very Large Array, or VLA, was the best. This is a series of giant satellite dishes used to study the far reaches of space. I don’t have a good picture of these, but if you have seen Contact with Jodie Foster, then you have seen the VLA.

It was cool to walk around them, but the real fun was on the periphery. On the way, we drove through sunshine, rain and hail. On the way back, we drove through snow. This is the first time we have seen precipitation in New Mexico – much less three different kinds. Also, one of our students, with my help, began calling himself Captain Vla. He imagined himself a superhero who could fly through space, powered by the satellite dish that emerges from his butt. His only weakness would be his limitation to travel by rail while on Earth, just like the VLA dishes. He even had a theme song – Super hearing! Super sight! He can travel through space at the speed of light! (For those readers who know the students who went, I will give you one guess who turned himself in Captain Vla.)

Day 6 – We visited my favorite place on the entire trip, the Acoma Pueblo. The oldest continually inhabited place in the United States, Acoma is located on top of a mesa and has a history of survival from the elements and European invaders. Native American docents take groups on a tour through their pueblo and their culture. Along the way, tourists can buy pottery from local artisans. One of our teachers, who shall remain nameless, buys pottery from the same lady every time we go. He also gets a hug.

Day 7 – We always eat well in New Mexico, and this trip was no different. The New Mexican cuisine is wonderful, especially the sopapillas that are always served for dessert. On the seventh day, we ate at Rancho de Chimayo, one of the great restaurants of the area, but dining was not the only enjoyment. There is a pottery shop inside, and two of the faculty members on the trip are addicted to buying Pueblo pottery. It so happens that the shop had a pot that they were lusting after. As they bickered back and forth about which one was going to purchase the $1,400 piece of pottery, the third teacher, not me, stepped in and said he would buy it. They both stood there with their mouths hanging open.

Day 8 – This was an easy day with little driving and little expended energy. Believe me when I say that everyone was ready for it. We were also ready to visit Madrid, New Mexico, an old ghost town that was resettled by flower children in the early 1970s. It is like going back in time to a place where peace, love and other things were still possible. The guys found a blonde in the ice cream parlor/art gallery that they wanted to find peace with. I found the first person to move to Madrid in 1973 and had a discussion about his life.

Mel Johnson was a dean at the Art Institute of Chicago and gave that up for a life in Madrid. In the following years, other people followed him until the town was filled with artisans and free-thinkers. Before I left his studio, I had found an interesting story and bought a painting.

Day 9 – Once again,  I was able to talk about history where it actually took place. We visited Los Alamos and a museum that is housed in the only remaining building from the days of the Manhattan Project. I find World War II history interesting and have a special interest in the building of the atomic bomb. One reason is that Oak Ridge, Tennessee was one of the secret locations. Another reason is that my mom’s uncle worked in the Manhattan Project and told a lot of stories about it. People have different opinions about the use of the bomb on Japan, and it is great to discuss the different views of the students. In the end, we agreed that hindsight is 20/20, and we can’t place that hindsight on people who were making decisions in the moment.

Day 10 – This was our last full day in New Mexico and was really a time to wind down. We hiked the mesa at Ghost Ranch and spent some time back on the plaza in Santa Fe. On top of the mesa, the students and I spent a spiritual moment reading a Native American poem, an ode to the land of New Mexico. I think we all felt a twinge of sadness because we were soon leaving and a sense of happiness because we had a great time throughout the trip.

Day 11 – We left Santa Fe at 5 am and drove over 700 miles to our original hotel in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. After a meal at Western Sizzlin’, the professors pulled chairs from our rooms into the Super 8 parking lot and discussed the trip. We deemed it a success.

Day 12 – We left Sallisaw at 5 am and headed home to Tennessee. It seemed that we got faster the closer we got to home. Like most trips, we were glad that we went but also were glad to get home.