Posts Tagged ‘Tinian’


Going Back to Tinian

Friday, August 24th, 2012

In my last post, I talked about what the island of Tinian was like in World War II, when it served as the launching point for strategic bombing raids on Japan — including the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A physicist friend of mine from graduate school, Alex Boxer (who currently consults the Navy about submarines, and has his own history of science blog), recently took a vacation to Tinian, and took a ton of photographs. He’s given me permission to re-print some of them here, along with some of his comments on them (which are in italics).

You can begin your virtual tour of Tinian with this movie of what it’s like to fly there from Saipan.  The planes are just little 6-seater prop-planes, and the flight is probably a grand total of 10 minutes.  In this movie (sped-up 2x to reduce its size) you can see the whole island and what’s left of the North Field runways.

There’s very little to see that’s bomb-related — it’s striking, really, it’s almost as if the US military was never there.  The only buildings which remain from that era are Japanese installations.

A random Japanese propeller located on the southern end of the island:

At North Field (located, sensibly enough, at the North end of the island) there are several Japanese buildings:

Description from a placard outside the building:

This two-story building was the World War II headquarters of the Japanese Navy’s 1st Air Fleet (Base Air Force of the Marianas), commanded by Vice Admiral Kakuji Kakuta. … Admiral Kakuta’s airfields in the Marianas and Iwo Jima served as staging areas for moving aircraft to southern Pacific battle areas and for attacks on American ships. By July of 1944, the airfields directed from the 1st Fleet headquarters had been captured or destroyed. What remained of Admiral Kakuta’s airplanes was destroyed in the naval battle of the Philippine Sea a month before the battle of Tinian. … When Americans captured Ushi Field, the headquarters building was abandoned and Ushi Field was a “ghost field” of abandoned airplane wrecks. The fate of Vice Admiral Kakuta is unknown, but was probably suicide or death. His last radio message to Tokyo was on July 30 as the battle of Tinian was nearing its conclusion. The massive concrete headquarters building was damaged by American artillery, but the building was repaired and used by American military officers after the invasion.

Another placard:

This building was the control center for the Japanese Navy’s 1st Air Fleet operations on Tinian, directing traffic on the runway to the south. It contained an office, the operations room, and a generator room. This is a standard design for World War II Japanese air operations buildings, with other examples located on Saipan and Chuuk. … The building was repaired and used as a control tower by the 20th Air Force after the B-29 runways of North Field were constructed here.

One more placard:

This massive power plant was probably build in 1939-1940 as part of the Japanese military construction of Ushi Field. the “bombproof” building was constructed of reinforced concrete and had steel shutters covering the windows. The building housed a 200 kilowatt power plant run by diesel fuel.

 And here’s what you’ve been waiting for: bomb-pits! — The pits where Little Boy and Fat Man were loaded into the B-29s that dropped them on Japan.

I was somewhat dismayed at how little there was to see.  It’s just two pits now under glass enclosures, somewhat like the entrance to the Louvre.  The glass was also highly reflective which means that most of my photos didn’t come out very well.

The loading pit is under the glass enclosure.

Tinian was fantastic because it was one of the emptiest and quietest places I’ve ever been.  I felt like I had the whole place to myself.  However, there is nominally a tourist industry there which includes a rather shady hotel/casino.  The tourists are mainly from Asia and Russia — there’s hardly anyone from the mainland US (a brief look at a map of the Pacific will make it clear why this is so).  Anyways, our silent day was enlivened by a large tour-bus.  I’m certain that these tourists are not Japanese; I’m almost, but not quite 100% certain that they are Chinese.

Interjection: just to compare, here are the actual loadings of Little Boy and a Fat Man test unit.

Or you could fly all the way to Tinian, and see the same sort of photos in the actual bomb pit:

Back to Boxer:

And as much as I’m an aficionado of atomic (or, rather, nuclear?) history, that wasn’t the main lure for me.  Here’s what I really wanted to see on Tinian:

These are parts of the House of Taga:

The site is the location of a series of prehistoric latte stone pillars which were quarried about 4,000 feet south of it. Only one pillar is left standing erect. The name is derived from a mythological chief named Taga, who is said to have erected the pillars as a foundation for his own house. Legend says Chief Taga was murdered by his daughter, and her spirit is imprisoned in the lone standing megalith at the site.

I have to admit, I wasn’t aware that the only other tourist site on Tinian was just about as grim at the first atomic bomb loading pits.

And, just for fun, here’s a lovely photo of a Flame Tree:

Very cool. Let’s all give a little round of virtual applause for Dr. Boxer and maybe visit his website while we’re at it.

Now, you might be thinking — well, Tinian’s heyday has come and gone. And you might be right. But there’s been some interesting news about it from earlier this year:

Japan Self-Defense Forces officials will arrive today to discuss with CNMI officials their plans for Tinian where two-thirds of land are already leased by the U.S. Department of Defense, and the discussions could center around Japan’s plan to help fund a U.S. military base on Tinian or the training or stationing of their own forces there.

That’s right — there’s a chance (perhaps not a great one) that Tinian might yet be the site of a military base. What would be more appropriate — or inappropriate? — than Tinian becoming a joint US-Japanese military site?


“We all aged ten years until the plane cleared the island.”

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

The island of Tinian is somewhat of an amazing thing. This small — 41 square miles – member of the Marianas served the the jumping-off point for the late-World War II American bomber raids against Japan. In this capacity, it was also the launching spot for the B-29s that used the first atomic bombs.

View of WWII-era Tinian, from the air

During World War II, Tinian was nothing less than a gigantic airbase carved onto a tiny, relatively flat island, one that had been hard-taken from the Japanese. There was hardly anything else to the island but runways, troop housing, and all of the buildings required for a massive military airport. “Massive” doesn’t really cut it, though: imagine an airport that had to support a thousand B-29 Superfortresses, taking off for raids of 100 planes at a time.

The Manhattan Project sent a contingent of some 50 people to Tinian for the atomic bomb work. At least a third of them were civilian scientists. It was an impressive group: two of the scientists involved in bomb assembly would later win Nobel Prizes. One of these was Norman F. Ramsey, who passed away only last November, the assistant chief to the Los Alamos contingent.

Sometime after the Nagasaki run, Ramsey wrote a 12-page, handwritten letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer with his thoughts on how the operation had gone, and his thoughts for future bomb improvements. (The letter is undated, but it is clearly written sometime after August 20.) It’s a gripping read, one that conjures up the grittiness of the Tinian experience. The parts that are most interesting are those that concern Ramsey’s fears on the days of the bombings.1

Click to view PDF. Note that Ramsey hand-write “Secret” at the top of the page — secrecy without a stamp is a tedious business!

The letter begins with Ramsey lamenting the fact that he can’t communicate with Los Alamos. As the chief scientist of the Tinian operation, Ramsey had sent numerous reports to Los Alamos, some even to Oppenheimer by name. It was evident, though, that Los Alamos was not receiving them — they were asking questions that had been explicitly already answered. So Ramsey resorted to these hand-written, hand-carried letters, “only means of communication with you in which I have any real confidence.” I’m not sure what caused the communication glitch — DC would have been a complete mess at that point in things.

Ramsey then turns to the real meat of the letter:

Our experience in the delivery of the Fat Man has convinced almost all of us of the importance of one much needed improvement. It is in my opinion essential that any atomic bomb to be used in any fair quantity must be capable of being completely protected against even a slight possibility of a nuclear explosion being detonated by fire in take off of the aircraft. This will be particularly true later when atomic bombs are available in sufficient quantity that one can not safely gamble the safety of the base on merely the low probability of a fire on a single takeoff and when one can afford even a small loss of reliability to ensure the protection of the home base.

This “one much needed improvement” is a biggie — Ramsey was pointing out that if an atomic bomb of the Manhattan Project vintage caught on fire, it would very possibly detonate with a nuclear yield. This was no trivial matter. The Little Boy bomb was notoriously unsafe (not only could it easily accidentally detonate, but if it merely was dropped into salt water it would become a dangerous, uncontrolled nuclear reactor), and the Fat Man bomb, even with its complex firing mechanism, was still not very safe by later standards. Los Alamos would actually spend quite a long time trying to make sure that its bombs were reasonably safe from accidental fires or plane crashes.

Norman Ramsey on Tinian. From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, AIP. Unrelatedly, but an awesome photograph: Norman Ramsey, age 5, celebrating Washington’s birthday.

This concern was rooted in Ramsey’s personal experience of life on Tinian:

Only twice since I have been here have I been even slightly worried or nervous but both of these times the intensity of my worry made up for the relative calm of the other periods. …[T]he worst period was that between the time the B-29 engines with the Fat Man were cranked up and the time the plane was well clear of the island. The night before the takeoff four planes in succession crashed in takeoff at the other end of the island — in fact the situation got so bad a mission of 100 planes was cancelled after only 30 got off the ground. Since I have been here I have watched several fires resulting from crashes. By actual timing a very intense gasoline fire continues for over twenty minutes. Six of eight fire engines working on such a fire don’t even making a dent. After witnessing such fires and after having sweated out one FM [Fat Man] atomic bomb take off, I can’t urge too strongly the importance of complete nuclear safety in take off for future models. … The one FM take off has been my most unpleasant experience since joining the project. … We all aged ten years until the plane cleared the Island.

Ramsey was worried about atomic bombs catching on fire because in his experience it seemed like an awfully real possibility.

Has any historian contemplated what would have happened if the Enola Gay, instead of making it to Hiroshima, had crashed while taking off, setting off a nuclear explosion on the most important forward airbase in the Pacific Theater? I would have done quite a number on the US bomber capabilities, to say the least. Talk about your counter-factual possibilities.

Ramsey also offered up some concrete suggestions to making the bombs safer:

The only sure ways I have been able to think of is a trap door model with a cylindrical plug through the HE so that the active material can be inserted in flight or the insertion of neutral material in the open space of a non-Christy. I realize the difficulty of this especially with a non-Christy model. However, I feel that this feature is so important that with future great abundance of active material even a loss in efficiency and reliability to achieve it is justified.

HE means high-explosives; Ramsey is suggesting that they could do in-flight insertion of the fissile material (that is, only put the plutonium in once the plane has cleared the most dangerous part of the flight — the takeoff) which is in fact what they did in the next generation of nuclear weapons. Below is a Mark 5 bomb from the early 1950s showing how easily you could open it up to plunk in the plutonium:

Climb on in!

It’s not a bad solution to the problem, except that it limits what you can do with the bombs. Most later bombs and missiles became sealed-pit weapons — you don’t have someone up there on the top of the ICBM trying to insert a sphere of plutonium — which introduces its own safety concerns.

Ramsey’s other suggestion was to put a solid (non-radioactive) material inside the center of a hollow bomb core. The Fat Man core was a “Christy”-type core, meaning a completely solid plutonium mass with just a tiny hole for the neutron initiator. (So-named after Robert Christy, who proved that you could do such a thing.  Edward Teller later claimed to have come up with the original idea, interestingly enough, inspired by his work with George Gamow on the compressed iron core of the Earth, but there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that he told Christy about this. I met Christy some years back and asked him if he minded having his name associated with such an invention — he said he didn’t mind.)

Basically if you put a bunch of metal inside a hollow plutonium core, it won’t be able to compress into a solid mass, and thus shouldn’t be able to become critical. It’s a clever idea — the US apparently did this with the super-dangerous Mark 18 nuclear (the all-fission Ivy King device, which had a lot of HEU in it), putting an aluminum chain inside the pit until it was ready to drop.2  Brian Burnell reports that the British definitely used this sort of system in a number of their warheads.

The Fat Man bomb on Tinian: large, unwieldy, dangerous.

Ramsey continued the letter with some thoughts on future atomic basing requirements (he favors a centralized atomic base that could deploy bombs abroad when necessary), and the Nagasaki mission (which was something of a fiasco, though Ramsey concludes that it had gone, in the end, “remarkably well” — though he attributes much of that to luck). He finished on an interesting note:

Up to 19 August this was the most successful and best managed field party that I have ever seen or heard of. Everyone did a really excellent job and the whole organization worked beautifully as a unit. Unfortunately, the orders requiring us to stop on after 20 August made a bad anti-climax. However, since then we have tried to make the best of a sad situation. I hope that you can do something to get us home. Everyone deserves at least this much of a reward.

Imagine, the worst anti-climax being told not to prepare another atomic bomb for use! What I like about Ramsey’s letter is it hammers home, again, how primitive the first atomic bombs were. We think of them as these paragons of sophistication, and in some ways, they were: they were built to previously-unheard of tolerances, and were as cutting edge as existed at the time. And yet, they were large, ad hoc, one-of-a-kind, dangerous devices. They required two future Nobel Prize physicists to assemble them. No surprise that the first work on the postwar stockpile was to “G.I. proof” the existing bombs — to make them something that could be assembled and used by people with considerably lesser talent.


  1. Letter from Norman Ramsey to J. Robert Oppenheimer (Undated, ca. August 1945), Library of Congress, J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers, Box 60, “Ramsey, Norman.” Via the National Security Archive. A typed excerpt is available from them here.  []
  2. A related idea pushed by Matt Bunn is that of “pit stuffing,” where you would insert a bunch of wire into stored pits, as a way of proving that you weren’t planning on using them in bombs, and didn’t want to make it easy for anyone else to use them in bombs. []

General Groves and General LeMay “chat” about Hiroshima

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Yesterday I had the honor of having a generously long meeting with Hans Kristensen, Steven Aftergood, and Stan Norris, all at the Federation of American Scientists. We had a nice free-wheeling conversation that had a tendency to return back to General Leslie Groves a number of times. Stan is, as most people reading this blog probably know, the author of the authoritative biography of General Groves, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (Steerforth Press, 2002).

One thing that came up a number of times is the fact that Groves spent most of his time on the Manhattan Project not at Los Alamos, not at Oak Ridge, not a Hanford, but in the “New War Building” (now the Old State Department building) on 21st and Virginia, Northwest, Washington, D.C., not too far from where my wife and I regularly walk the dog on the weekends. Groves’ office, which now has a plaque noting its special status, was on the fifth floor.

Historians of science in particular are fond of emphasizing the importance of space in thinking about how ideas are transmitted, how technology is built, how organizations are run. Knowledge doesn’t just instantly transmit from one place to another: it has to be reduced to a transmissible form, it has to be put into systems of transmission, it have its meaning mangled in various ways as it jumps from one human brain to another.

The Manhattan Project had a lot of space. The numerous sites involved in the project were physically quite separated from one another, in an age where rail travel was still the most common form of long-range transportation, and where key Manhattan Project personnel were banned from using airplanes on the grounds that they were too valuable to risk to such a dangerous mode of transportation.

Tinian, the island from which the atomic raids on Japan were launched, was farther still. With a 15 hour time difference from Washington, D.C., on the other side of the International Date Line, it was no trivial thing to get in touch with someone on the tiny air-strip island. So when Groves knew that the Hiroshima bomb was finally scheduled to be used, he fretted about nervously. He had dinner at the Army-Navy Club, with his family, and then informed them that he was going to spend the night at his office, on a cot. Hours later than he had hoped it would be (there had been a delay in getting him the news), he finally heard that the Hiroshima raid had been a success.

This week’s document is of a “special teletype conference” between Major General Leslie Groves and Major General Curtis LeMay, the architect of the (horrific) strategic bombing campaign in the Pacific, and who under whose auspices the atomic bombs were actually being dropped.1

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  1. Teletype conference transcript between Leslie R. Groves and Curtis LeMay (6 August 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5, “Events Preceding and Following the Dropping of the First Atomic Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Subfile 5H, “Damage Reports.” Note that the “cleaned up” version of the transcript has the date 8 August 1945, but this cannot be correct given the content of the conversation, as someone else has long ago noted on the document. []
News and Notes

R.I.P.: Paul Doty and Lawrence H. Johnston

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

This is just a small post to acknowledge the passing of two participants in the Manhattan Project this week.

Paul Doty (L) and Jerome Wiesner (R) with John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Paul M. Doty (1920-2011) passed away yesterday morning, according to a release from the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. I had some chance to talk with Professor Doty last year when I was a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center. Professor Doty was crucial to the running of the Pugwash Conference in the early years, and gave me some opportunity to look at, and talk to him about the disposition of, many of his copious and well-kept volumes of Pugwash proceedings and ephemera. His opening address at the Sixth Pugwash Conference (1960), “Current Attitudes on Disarmament in America,”1 is an interesting read, and represents the mix of pragmatism and idealism that characterized Doty’s thinking:

Our job now in this meeting is not to pass resolutions stating the importance of disarmament. Our job is to get on with the task of finding realistic and more secure alternatives to the arms race. We must not misjudge the scope of this problem. For more than a generation the genius and labor treasure of the major powers have been concentrated in the most highly organized effort the world has ever known. This will not tumble and a peaceful world fitting each person’s desire will not appear by saying it should. If this enormous agglomeration of carefully counterpoised power is not dismantled with a skill at least equal to that which created it, we may invite the very catastrophe we seek to avoid.

These words seem as true to me today with regards to disarmament as they did in 1960. One more great Doty excerpt: “Fear is usually based not on what we know, but on what we do not know of others. Fear can only be driven from the relations among states by increasing openness among us — by a progressive reduction in the outmoded fog of secrecy which surrounds our national affairs.”

Lawrence H. Johnston (1918-2011) passed away yesterday as well. Johnston was featured in a previous post as one of the people involved with assembling the atomic bomb on Tinian, and posing with the plutonium core of the “Fat Man” bomb. I had been in touch with him over e-mail in 2006 regarding his patent on the Exploding-Bridgewire Detonator, a precise blasting cap that initiates by means of an electrical current, and was part of the instrumentation necessary to detonate the explosive lenses of the “Fat Man” and “Trinity” bombs.

He was, as far as I know, the only person to witness all three of the first atomic detonations firsthand — at only age 27 or so. (Aside from being present at the “Trinity” test, he was aboard an instrumentation plane for both of the Japanese bombing missions.)

Lawrence H. Johnston in a flack suit in front of "The Great Artiste," an instrument support plane that accompanied "Bockscar" on the Nagasaki bombing mission.

He gave a talk at Los Alamos in 2006 about the invention of the detonator, as well as his role in the bomb in general, which is still online. It’s an interesting little read, very defensive of the positions of Ernest Lawrence and Johnston’s mentor, Luis Alvarez:

Back at Los Alamos there was lots of rejoicing. “We won the War!”  But several important people were having pangs of conscience, most notably Oppenheimer.  Yes we had stopped the wartime killing, but we had killed a lot of people with our bombs, and worst of all we had let the genie out of the bottle, and now nuclear war would be a specter for the world to face.  … Oppie felt especially responsible for this nuclear worry, and he made public statements of remorse.  I think it was because of this that Oppie was forgiven by the 1945 Peace Activists in the Physics community.  Instead he became their hero. But Alvarez was not forgiven, and he suffered public insults as a warmonger.  The same for Ernest Lawrence.  The Peace activists sounded like they wished we had lost the war, or at least that it had ended in a bloody stalemate.

I don’t think that’s a totally accurate reading of the history, but within it you can see the conflict and frustration of a man who felt like he was doing the right thing — working to end World War II — and found himself seen as being part of something awful by a large proportion of his own scientific community.

  1. My copy of this was provided to me by Professor Doty, and was from his personal files. []

Posing with the Plutonium

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Everybody loves those moments when you feel yourself to be “part of history in the making.” I’m sympathetic with that. It’s exciting when you feel like you’re becoming part of a great movement, or something that people will look back on in wonder. No surprise today that, with the profusion of cell-phone cameras, you can’t go within five feet of anything “historical” without someone snapping their own grainy photo of it. It’s not that they think their cell phone photo of the Mona Lisa is going to be somehow a replacement of it — it’s some kind of act of documentation, some sort of “I was here” motion, in an age where getting accurate reproductions of famous things has become a trivial as typing their names into a search bar. But despite its obvious presence in modernity, the compulsion to self-document seems to be pretty old:

But I digress a bit. Today’s set of images is a grouping of self-documentation that I find fascinating. In the late summer of 1945, a group of scientists and technicians from Los Alamos went to the island of Tinian to prepare for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The first atomic bombs were big, clunky, ad hoc engineering creations and took a lot of work to put together, so the level of scientific talent was pretty high. Just to illustrate this, it’s worth noting that one of the people who assembled the final bombs was Luis Alvarez, who would later win a Nobel Prize in Physics:

Physicist and future Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez posing with a mysterious box on Tinian

The scientists heavily documented the Tinian mission. John Coster-Mullen has used a lot of these now-declassified photos to pretty extreme ends in figuring out exactly what they were doing in assembling these bombs. But my favorite set of photos are these ones the Tinian scientists took of themselves in front of Quonset hut with a funny little box in their hands:1

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  1. The original source for these are the TR- series of photographs from Los Alamos National Laboratory. These particular files were provided to me by John Coster-Mullen as part of a much larger set of TR- series photos. []