We have met the enemy, and he is us…

This quote is parody on a message sent by an American commodore to an American admiral in 1813, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”  It was used several times by Walt Kelly, an American cartoonist, most famously in a poster for the first Earth Day in 1971.  Kelly draws his raccoon looking over pollution and trash in his swamp, with the words, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

These words pop into my mind often, especially now, in the face of nuclear radiation permeating the atmosphere in Japan.  How ironic that Japan, the “times two” victim of the atomic bomb, should be facing this horrific dilemma again, after falling victim to the peaceful, and apparently efficient, use of nuclear energy.  I am not going into a meditation on nuclear energy in this blog entry.  Suffice it to say that we need to think long and hard about the impacts of its use in an unstable world–geologically and politically.

From my early teenage years on I have been fascinated by World War II.  My dad was a veteran of that war, spending 36 uninterrupted months in the Mediterranean Theater.  He served in the Army Air Corps, later becoming a new branch of military service, the United States Air Force.  He spent his tour of duty as a Bombardment Officer–supervising the loading of bombs onto light bombers that flew in support of British and American forces in Europe.  From November 1942 until June 1945, my dad was in England, Scotland, North Africa, Sicily, Corsica, Italy and France.  I have written a memoir about those times and the impact of war on his later life and the life of our family, so the war has become a focus of reading and research throughout my adult life.

After my father returned to the Denver in July of 1945, he was on leave, waiting to be sent to the Pacific front in the second week in August, 1945.  If it had not been for the invention of the atomic bomb, resulting in the dropping of two bombs on Japan on August 6th and 9th, 1945, he might never have returned to my mother, and my sister and I would not have been born.  The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had significant impact on the decision of the Japanese to surrender, thus ending World War II.  Instead of receiving new orders, he was sent home a civilian.  As cruel as it sounds, I believe I owe my existence to the detonations of Little Boy and Fat Man in 1945.

As a child growing up in post-World War II America, I could not escape hearing about the bomb.  Duck and cover drills, bomb shelters and mushroom clouds, as well as the threats the Cold War and Communism, kept us ever alert to the dangers we faced.  Later on, as a teenager i read about the victims of World War II–the Jews and concentration camps as well as the horrors of nuclear radiation, and by extension, the victims of the atomic bombs.

Little did I know that there were victims of bombs in our own country until I met one in the late eighties when I was teaching.  She was my paraprofessional (teaching aide), a very bright woman who had been an Air Force nurse.  During the years we worked together, she told me that she had been born in Nevada and that after a high school class reunion, she learned that a high number of her classmates had died from cancer or were diagnosed with it.  They attributed it to bomb testing at Nellis Air Force Base during the 1950s.  She was somewhat older than I, so she had been in junior high and high school during the testing, which began in 1951.   My friend was terrified that she would become another victim, adding herself to the statistics.  Over time I believed she was paranoid, but changed my mind upon hearing that she had developed stomach cancer.  She died one week after my mother, in January, 1990.

During our conversations before her diagnosis, my friend told me about several movie stars who had died of cancer after the making of a movie, The Conqueror, in 1953.  Among those were the stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Dick Powell and Agnes Moorehead. When I researched this, I discovered that 91 out of 220 people suffered from cancer, 46 dying from the disease. This is a high percentage of percentage of people, despite the fact that a few of them were heavy smokers.  The death rate is attributable to the “downwinder” effect. The film was shot near St. George, Utah, downwind from the Nevada test site.   On top of that, Howard Hughes, the producer/director, shipped 60 tons of the Utah dirt to Hollywood, so that studio scenes would match those shot on location.

Besides the recent news, what reminded me of the dangers of radioactive poisoning is an underlying current in the book I’m reading right now, The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall.  Set in the 1970s, in the southwestern corner of Utah, the story follows the ups and downs of the husband of four wives in a fundamentalist polygamist family.  I’m intrigued by the book and enjoy the subtle humor as well as the hint of pathos and tragedy that hang over the main characters.   Last night I came across a remarkable description of radioactive fallout from a bomb test that took place in 1951 at the Nevada test site.  Ironically, Udall names the bomb Roy–my father’s name.  This test actually happened, impacting several characters in the book many years later in the story.

Excerpted from the book, these are among the best descriptions of radioactive fallout that I have ever read.

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall, W.H. Norton, New York, 2010
excerpts from pp. 305-312

Exactly two hours and twenty minutes earlier, two hundred thirty miles to the west, a bomb named Roy had waited for the radio signal that would bring it to glorious fruition.  Roy was an atomic bomb, a seventy-kiloton device five times more powerful than the sorry little firecracker that obliterated Hiroshima.  He waited in a corrugated steel cab at the top of a heavily lightly four-hundred-foot tower that looked, in the predawn dark, as cheery as a Christmas tree…

…The scientists, miles away behind bombproof glass, knew immediately they had severely miscalculated; Roy was more awful, more viciously destructive than any of their most liberal predictions.  They didn’t cheer—they were scientists—but one of them called out, “Raises all around!” and another stepped behind a file cabinet and did a weird little feet-shuffling dance.

…Roy, meanwhile, was just getting started.  The crest of his robust cloud, still lit from within by pink and amber nuclear fires, had ascended to thirty thousand feet—five and a half miles—into the atmosphere.  He moved quickly west across the lunar hills of the great desert, borne aloft by warm air currents, spreading in slow-bloom like a drop of ink in tap water, blocking out the light of dawn.  Over the flat-pan playas and crumbling cinder cones burning orange with the new sun, the cloud flattened out as it butted against a rogue cross-wind that sent it diving into the canyons and sand washes where wiry free-range called smelled something foul on the air and went bucking crazily into the brush.  Over Ely and Buck Valley, across the broad Lincoln County Range laced with its ancient, wandering game trails that had been appropriated by humans and their livestock, ever-deepening grooves that crisscrossed the surface of the land like the creases in the palm of an old sheepherder’s hand…

…Of course, he wasn’t going to waste all his charm on these rocky backwaters; Roy had places to go.  Salt Lake City, Fort Collins, Rock Springs, Gillette, and over the border into Alberta, where he would drop a nice dose of fallout on the Fort Defiance Weiner Roast and founders Day Parade.  Apparently unimpressed with Canada, he would circle back, buzzing the outskirts of greater Duluth, taking on moisture on his tour down the Mississippi River and releasing a thunder burst of irradiated rain over Chicago’s south side.  Nearly two days after his detonation, Roy would leave the continent with one last gift; in an irony that would be lost on history, he would unload three minutes’ worth of radioactive hail on Washington, D.C.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project: “I am become become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

2 thoughts on “We have met the enemy, and he is us…

  1. Mary, my dad said they made an offer to the troops to come watch testing when he was in the Marines. I don’t remember where the testing was, but he did Basic training in San Diego and then was in Korea. He decided not to go, but you have to think it wasn’t that far away from him. In the end he had both prostate and esophageal cancer.

  2. Yes, that is what I read. However, the Japanese turned down the offer. Bombing Hiroshima still didn’t get a surrender, so the U.S. bombed Nagasaki. Some historians say that they surrendered because Russia declared war against Japan, not because of the second bombing. I imagine it was both reasons.

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