‘Now we’re all sons of bitches’

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MAURO GIA SAMONTE

If uttered by President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, that title would read: “Ngayon putang ina na tayong lahat.”

But the President was barely four months old at the time those words were spoken and was way better off suckling on his mother’s breasts than mouthing expletives, for which he would, seven scores and two years thence, be notorious. So in this discussion, the better to flash those words back to the mouth of the original utterer: Kenneth Bainbridge.

The year 1945 was a particularly decisive one for the United States. In the European theater of World War 2, Italy had broken away from the Axis powers, a preliminary to the ultimate downfall of Germany, which took place following the D-Day in Normandy in 1944. At the Potsdam Conference from July 17 to August 2, 1945, the Allies decided to divide among themselves the nation of the Great Aryan Race, but in the context of world ideological conflict, between East and West, the former solely consisted of the Soviet Union, the latter of the Allied powers of the United States, France and the United Kingdom.

But in the Pacific Theater, Japan was continuing to hold out against the Allies, and though it had abandoned its captive territories such as the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia, Imperial Japan itself appeared not about ready to crumble as yet; the allied attack on Okinawa, separate from Mainland Japan, pictured the sheer grit of the Japanese to fight to death. And at the time, Japan had a population of 100 million – the number necessarily presumed to have imbibed the Japanese code of the bushido or “honor before death.”

This was the quandary of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Japan had been crippled, yes, but it certainly was not quite vanquished. It continued to defy the Potsdam Declaration demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender. The Japanese militarist clique of Premier Hideki Tojo continued to prevail over Emperor Hirohito not to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. They clung to a hope of still striking up an alliance with the Soviet Union, which refused to sign the Potsdam unconditional surrender terms for Japan.

MacArthur surely calculated that millions of Japanese civilians would be slaughtered in the event of a land invasion of Japan by America.

On the night of March 9, 1945, the United States Air Force conducted what political writers had since then popularly believed to be the deadliest air attack in history. Codenamed Operation Meetinghouse, the air strikes involved an aerial armada of 334 B-29 bombers which, in a space of a few hours, dropped 1,667 tons of napalm-filled incendiary bombs on the Japanese capital. One account puts the civilian casualties thus: “killing more than 100,000 people in a single strike, and injuring several times that number. It was the highest death toll of any air raid during the war, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” It was obvious, the purpose was to soften Japan and make it accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. But still, for all the death and destruction wrought by the fire-bombing, Japan would not bow.

Finally, the United States set to motion the final phase of the US war design which, though started back in 1939, would only now be put to practice: the Manhattan Project.

The project was a brainchild of famous scientists for transforming nuclear energy into military hardware. Fugitives all from fascist regimes in Europe, these scientists had taken refuge in America, which tapped their genius in matching Germany’s push toward world nuclear supremacy. Prominent names in the group were Enrico Fermi, a Nobel Prize Awardee in physics, acknowledged creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor and dubbed the “architect of the nuclear age;” and J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist regarded as the “father of the atomic bomb,” and tasked with the enormous job of building laboratories and other infrastructure facilities for detonating the first nuclear-powered bomb in the history of humankind. The project, involving 130,000 people, a cost of $27 billion, and research and production work spanning 30 sites across the US, the United Kingdom, and Canada, after more than half a decade of theoretical and practical undertakings, came to a feverish pitch in the face of Japan’s adamant refusal of the Potsdam Declaration. It became high time Japan were taught the final lesson.

Oppenheimer himself christened the undertaking for testing the effectiveness of the atomic bomb, calling it “Trinity Test,” reportedly inspired by poems of John Donne. The test site was in the deep recesses of the Alamagordo Bombing Range. Weirdly enough, the site, 210 miles south of Los Alamos, was also called “Jornada del Muerto,” or “Journey of Death.”

But even weirder was the date of arrival at the test site of the “Gadget,” the name given to the atomic bomb assembly. Did that arrival bring any sad foreboding? As Fermi called for a challenge to his bet: “Would the bomb ignite the atmosphere, and if so, would it merely destroy New Mexico or destroy the world?” Finally in the morning hours of the 15th, with the “Gadget” secured in a 100-foot steel tower and the test personnel lying face down in their respective bunkers, the test was set at 4:00 a.m. But at the strike of the hour, it rained hard, making Test Director Kenneth Bainbridge postpone it by one hour. The superstitious would readily regard this as omen for bad fortune. But then, as we would term it, “behind the cloud lies the silver lining.” In the Trinity Test Site, after the rain came dull streams of a nascent break of day. It was 5:00 a.m. Bainbridge decided to give it a go. At a minute to 5:30, the countdown began.

For a good feel of that moment, here are snatches from an online article titled “The Manhattan Project,” of what the test heads and staff personnel were up to in that final minute of the Trinity Test countdown.

“During the final seconds, most observers laid down on the ground with their feet facing the Trinity site and simply waited. As the countdown approached one minute, Isidore Rabi said to the man lying next to him, Kenneth Griesen, ‘Aren’t you nervous?’ ‘Nope’ was Griesen’s reply. As Groves later wrote, ‘As I lay there in the final seconds, I thought only of what I would do if the countdown got to zero and nothing happened.’ Conant said he never knew seconds could be so long. As the countdown reached 10 seconds, Griesen suddenly blurted out to his neighbor Rabi, ‘now I’m scared.’ Three, two, one, and Sam Allison cried out, ‘Now!’

“While Manhattan Project staff members watched anxiously, the device exploded over the New Mexico desert, vaporizing the tower and turning the asphalt around the base of the tower to green sand. Seconds after the explosion came a huge blast wave and heat searing out across the desert. No one could see the radiation generated by the explosion, but they all knew it was there. The steel container “Jumbo,” weighing over 200 tons and transported to the desert only to be eliminated from the test, was knocked ajar even though it stood half a mile from ground zero. As the orange and yellow fireball stretched up and spread, a second column, narrower than the first, rose and flattened into a mushroom shape, thus providing the atomic age with a visual image that has become imprinted on the human consciousness as a symbol of power and awesome destruction.”

Through a simple experiment, Fermi estimated the blast strength at 10,000 tons of TNT. Actual calculations placed the figure at 21,000 tons of TNT. The detonation threw everybody into jubilation. Oppenheimer walked out of his bunker, wearing his ubiquitous hat, as though to complete someone’s recollection of that strut as High Noon.

Only one man seemed to refuse cheers as one staff member passed around a bottle of liquor.

Kenneth Bainbridge appeared not at all enthused. He stood up to Oppenheimer at the end of the latter’s High Noon strut, saying, “It was a foul and awesome display. Now we’re all sons of bitches.”

(To be continued)

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