MY STORY OF Whidbey Island resident Kiyoko Neumiller is about her escape from the effects of an atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945.
In contrast, my father, Frank Wolf, jumped in a boat and sped toward the epicenter of an atomic blast at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946. It was his job to measure its effects.
The close of World War II initiated a new era defined, in part, by the stunning progress of science. What powers, conveniences and gadgets would the Atomic Age inspire? At a Paris fashion show, a swimsuit design (“bikini”) named after the bombsite debuted. On television, “The Jetsons” depicted a high-tech, high-speed world of the future, with a hovercraft in every carport.
Wearing the lightning-bolt insignia of the Special Engineering Detachment on his shoulder, Dad must have felt part of the power surge carrying America into that future. As radiation monitor for the Baker test, the fifth explosion of a nuclear bomb, Dad kept his eyes on a Geiger counter showing radiation levels. The levels climbed as the crew of monitors entered the lagoon — and then dropped to almost zero.
The major in charge of their gunboat decided it was safe to proceed. Rather than argue, my father used a more sensitive instrument, an ion chamber, to show that the levels of radiation were, in fact, higher than the Geiger counter could measure. They were in radioactivity 10 times above the level considered tolerable. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” the major ordered.
As the long-term dangers of radiation exposure became clear, more and more people opposed the use of nuclear weapons. Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of Harry Truman, the president who ordered the bombings of Japan, is one of those people working for peace. Daniel has reached out to the Japanese people in an effort to ensure that such bombings never happen again, anywhere.
Even Enrico Fermi, the physicist who produced the first nuclear chain reaction, cautioned, “What we all fervently hope is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires over nature.”
My father died in 2000 of a type of lung cancer associated with radiation exposure. I wish I had asked him more questions about his work and his life. Now my neighbor Kiyoko Neumiller is 90 years old. With Dad in mind, I made sure to ask her questions and listen to her answers so I could share her story. As Kiyoko says, “I have faith we can have peace.”