a Magazine for Writers

The Secret
by Stephen M. MacKinnon

March 2003: It is dinnertime at the Harrington House, and Papa, my 92-year-old grandfather, is sitting upright waiting for his turkey and gravy.  His reflection in the window, as he stares into the dusk, is that of a man on his way to the gallows at dawn.  He does not face me.  He is thinking again, I know, about Hiroshima.  Ever rational, there is no doubt in his mind that he had helped kill more than 70,000 innocent people.  The remaining question:  would God accept him into heaven?  If not, where would his soul go?

I ask if he believes in forgiveness, but get no answer. I ask if he thinks God judges a life by one act; he looks at the floor, the line shining off the bald spot that separates his cottony gray hair.

For years my grandfather – kind, gentle, the one you went to for bloodless splinter removal - had kept his involvement in the atomic bomb a distant truth - as much from himself as his family.  He raised geraniums, healed broken bird wings, and oversaw the Masonic blood bank.  We were told of his involvement in designing housing for Oak Ridge, Tennessee workers who built the bomb.  He offered a few facts: 38 million square feet of plywood were used; because of the scarcity of copper, fifteen thousand tons of silver were brought in from the U.S. Treasury.

2003:  I am 37.  I discover the yellowed papers in his bottom bureau drawer, with a sterling service pin, and commendations from General Leslie R. Groves and Secretary of War Stimson, that praise his work on Y-12.  I learn from the Internet that Y-12 was the code name for the Oak Ridge plant which produced the uranium bomb fuel through an electromagnetic isotope-separation process.  My grandfather led a crew of engineers that designed this plant.

1942-1944:  Physicists and engineers negotiated for two months about the design and the space needed to carry out the work.  Uranium would be shot through a “racetrack” of magnets.  The initial plan called for three large two-story buildings spread over an area equal to 150 football fields.  In the end, the complex would consist of more than 250 buildings.

The buildings and the electromagnetic process required cooling.  My grandfather, who had taken a correspondence course in heating and cooling (advertised in the back of Popular Mechanics), was in charge of six engineers.  Design was done assembly-line-style, engineers handing off small drawings that were patch worked together so no one individual would have a complete understanding of the entire project.  German spies were known to be in Boston as U-Boats were known to be off the New England coast.  My grandfather told me he never knew what he was working on at the time, just that the complex would be built in two phases.

There was no time to build a pilot plant.  Groundbreaking for the first building took place February 18, 1943.  However, blueprints could not be produced fast enough for the second building so ground-breaking took place without written plans.  Huge amounts of material were brought in.  The electromagnets needed so much copper that the silver from the Treasury had had to be substituted.  The silver solved an immediate problem, but the persistent shortages of electronic tubes, generators, regulators and other equipment plagued the project and posed a serious threat to deadlines.  In addition, last minute changes continued to frustrate engineers.  My grandfather cancelled his summer Salisbury beach vacation

During the summer and fall of 1943, the first electromagnetic plant began to take shape.  In Happy Valley, as it was known, 15,000 workers installed everything from electrical switches to motors, valves, and collection plates.  Then, between October and December, Y-12 paid the price for being a new technology that had not been put through its paces in a pilot plant.  Isotope collectors leaked and shimmied out of line due to unforeseen tremendous magnetic forces, welds failed, electrical circuits malfunctioned, and operators made frequent and costly mistakes.  Most seriously, the magnetic coils shorted out because of rust and sediment in the cooling oil.  In December, General Groves shut the entire facility down for repairs, and it fared slightly better when it re-opened the following month.  Three months later, in March, the first shipment of uranium was sent to Los Alamos.

On July 16, 1945, the Trinity test device was successfully exploded in New Mexico. Several days later, my grandfather and the rest of the Stone & Webster staff were brought into the John Hancock Auditorium in downtown Boston and shown a film of the explosion.  Less than a month later, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

My grandmother recalled an _expression of relief when he learned about the bomb.  “I was making his usual, poached eggs, and he just went quiet all of a sudden.  Ordinarily, he never read the paper.  But there it was.  Everything he’d done during the war.  He ate and went to work.  The war was over. “

“Did he say anything?”

“I think he was too shocked.”

One month later, he received his service pin at a ceremony at the John Hancock Auditorium.

“He hardly ever talked about it after the awards ceremony,” my grandmother told me. 

“In fact, he didn’t talk all the way home on the train that night.  You’d think, with all the secrecy lifted, he’d want to tell me about it, but he said he didn’t want to talk about it.  He almost never talked about it.  We all – you had to have lived through it – we all just wanted to get on with our lives.”

That Christmas, passing Woolworth’s department store, he bought six Japanese-made tree ornaments for thirty two cents. Cheap, sparkly plastic cylinders with pinwheels inside; they have always reminded me of the tail cone of Little Boy.  I can’t help wondering if it had the same visual effect on him.  “Their economy was shot; I wanted to help them get back on their feet again.”

He had nightmares. On vacation the next summer in a rented cottage my aunt woke up one morning and saw him replacing a window he’d put his hand through the night before. The bloody rag was still wrapped around his hand.

He’d kept everything bottled up.  During the project, talk of the work, even with my grandmother, was forbidden; his mumblings as he thrashed in his sleep were meaningless to her.  Secrecy was paramount.  Although for secrecy purposes the project had been broken down into many different pieces, it would not have been difficult for someone who knew what they were looking for to assemble the larger picture, for Germany to get the bomb and win the war.  MP guards let no paper in or out of the office.  Butcher paper covered the windows.  He was encouraged to be suspicious. Paranoia set in among his men.  One of his engineers had a nervous breakdown.  One engineer began sleeping with a pistol under his pillow. In his monthly reports on his crew members to the FBI, my grandfather was specific and yet general enough not to raise suspicions with Hoover’s men.  Any man pulled off the job would lose pay and be sent overseas, perhaps to die in a Normandy hedgerow.  Afflicted with a spastic colon and “nerves,” he himself twice tried to quit the project and enlist, but the recruitment office sent him back to Stone & Webster.

June, 1981:  The corner of my parents’ kitchen; my older brother’s high school graduation.  I don’t know what prompted the corner conversation between Papa and Harry, my maternal grandfather, an infantry medic at Omaha Beach.  Perhaps it was my brother’s going on to college, not war, to learn to design Corvettes, not bombs.  Harry tried to comfort Papa.

“You saved me, Don, and lots of others,” said Harry, who was slated to be part of the Japan invasion force.  He compared the casualty collection on Omaha Beach to shoveling snow. 

“Think of the civilians,” Papa said.

“I do.”

“Harry, I never had a gun pointed at my nose.”

At age fifteen I could sense their emotions.  They just shook their heads, each bearing the sorrow of war.  Then, quietly, Papa went into the nearby bathroom, turned on the faucet for a long time.  I think he cried.  He did not waste tap water.

9/11: When the planes hit, he told my father on the phone, “We’re at war again.”  He didn’t want to be alone.  My father sat with him that afternoon.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He kept saying that he hoped we were not going to war, because he didn’t want another one; he’d seen too many.”

“Did he say anything else?”
“I think it was too emotional.”  Later, Newsweek’s photos of people fleeing burning buildings made my grandfather weep. 

February, 2003:  My grandfather’s memories surface.  He is at Faulkner Hospital. His kidneys have failed again.  His doctor is Japanese.  Emerging from post-anesthesia delirium, he tells his doctor, “I am sorry for what we have done to your people.  I am doing my best.”  For days he tells visitors “the city” is doing better. Food is being brought in.  The Japanese, he says, are being fed and cared for.  We, his family, nod our heads in sympathy.

March, 2003. Darkness has fallen.  His turkey is cold, the gravy is a rubbery mass.  He has been whistling a Judy Collins ballad.  Suddenly, he jerks his hands up to his ruddy face as if he has just awakened from a bad dream, blinks, and closes his eyes again.  He pitches forward against his restraints.  I put my finger on his pulse (racing), and he takes my hand in his clammy, weak fingers.


I ask where he thinks we go when we die, and if there is a heaven, would he be going there.

He shrugs.  His eyes are dry.  He squeezes my hand hard - like he used to during our swimming lessons on Cape Cod.

I think about his Canadian Anglican roots.  He believes in everlasting life.  He believes that souls that do not meet God’s standard for perfection, depending on the genuineness of their repentance, are routed to Hell or returned to earth for further lessons, within the same family.  These thoughts quickly meshed in my mind with the Elements of St. Augustine's Just War Theory, the use of Biblical texts for legitimization and authorization of war, which does not offer noncombatant immunity.  After all, he said, he’d never had a gun pointed at his nose. 

I never told my grandfather I knew the details about Y-12.  It would have invaded his privacy.  Instead, I ask if he wants to speak to a minister; no, he insists.  Oh, I suppose I could have tried to coax a confession, could have urged self forgiveness, offered a geopolitical rationale, or counseled that personal responsibility, his double-edge sword, is not part of the equation.  Instead I kiss the top of his head, run my hand along his bony shoulder, and say nothing.

Three months later, the geraniums had begun to bloom.  I felt his spirit all around me, like a calm, scented wind, when I sat down to write his eulogy.  An image of his furrowed brow, the cotton-soft gray hair, rested in my mind’s eye, and I imagined his words with himself.  I had just finished reading a kamikaze pilot’s letter to his newborn daughter explaining his action had made the world safer.

The impulse to absolve stuck to all my senses.  I had my opinions.  Could it be said the bomb was the lesser evil?  I wanted to be able to say that, but quickly I realized this violated and marginalized a life’s teachings.  I went with my stronger instincts.  I stood before the congregation that sunny day and said I had a story to tell.

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