Study Guide

Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the Worlds Most Dangerous Weapon Fear

By Steve Sheinkin


Woods couldn't be sure what the others were thinking. She had a feeling their thoughts were similar to her own. "Of course, the Germans have already made a chain reaction," she said to herself. "We have, and they have been ahead until now."

Then she thought, When do we get as scared as we ought to? (Chicago Pile.(13).42-43)

Which do you think Woods thinks they should be more afraid of, the Germans developing atomic warfare before they could? Or the idea of atomic bombs altogether?

"A tough young fellow who did not know what nerves meant," was how Sörlie described Lier-Hansen. "Seldom have I seen anyone become so enthusiastic at the prospect of being involved in an action that might be dangerous." (Ferry Job.(19).21)

Being fearless was basically a job requirement for these guys, though, so Lier-Hansen definitely found his calling.

Kisty knew the explosives were extremely unstable—any sudden jolt could set them off. "Not wishing to ask others to do an untried job, I spent most of one night, a week before the Trinity test, drilling holes in some faulty casings so as to reach the air cavities."

He mixed a batch of liquid explosives and, drop by drop, gently filled the holes.

"You don't worry about it," he said. "I mean, if fifty pounds of explosives goes in your lap, you won't know it." (Trinity.(30).7-9)

Don't you just love this no-nonsense point of view? Like, why be scared? You'd never survive long enough to feel pain, so don't sweat it.

He calmed himself with the knowledge that if lightning struck, the tower's steel frame would most likely conduct the electricity harmlessly into the ground. Or, perhaps, the electrical burst would set off the bomb.

"And in that case, I'd never know about it," he said. "So I read my book." (Trinity.(30).43-44)

Here's another example of someone using common sense to conquer fear (which would be pretty justified, if you ask us). Just like Kisty, Hornig is of the opinion that if it would kill you so fast you'd never even realize you were getting killed, so why worry?

Teller warned the others on the hill to be careful of sunburn. He took out a tube of suntan lotion, squeezed a bit onto his hand, and passed the tube on.

The reporter William Laurence looked on in shock. "It was an eerie sight," he said, "to see a number of our highest-ranking scientists seriously rubbing sunburn lotion on their faces and hands in the pitch-blackness of the night, twenty miles away from the expected flash." (Test Shot.(31).31-32)

Knowing what we know now about nuclear fallout, it is almost funny to think about the fact that scientists were worried about a little sunburn. But fear can manifest in a million ways, so no judgment from over here.

Groves lay on the ground in a separate bunker, his eyes facing away from the blast site. "As we approached the final minute, the quiet grew more intense," he remembered. "I thought only of what I would do if, when the countdown got to zero, nothing happened." (Test Shot.(31).41)

Sometimes the fear of failure is worse than anything else you can think of. There was so much riding on the success of the Trinity test, and Groves wanted to be one step ahead of catastrophe if it was at all possible. Luckily for him, he didn't have to troubleshoot an atomic bomb technical difficulty.

"I like to think that my reputation for keeping cool in moments such as this was deserved," Tibbets said. "But now I found myself gripping the controls with a nervous tension I hadn't experienced since that first combat mission."

This is the moment, he told himself. This is the reason they chose me. (Little Boy.(32).44-45)

Uh, yeah, we'd be afraid, too, if we were flying a plane that's already massive plus loaded with extra fuel and fifteen thousand pounds more cargo than it's designed to carry, as well as—oh yeah—an atomic bomb. There's no way we'd "keep cool" under those circumstances.

An image that haunted many in Hiroshima was the horrific parade of victims on the streets. "They stagger exactly like sleepwalkers," said one survivor; "like walking ghosts" said another.

"They held their arms out in front of their chest like kangaroos," said a high school girl, "with only their hands pointed downward."

Dr. Hachiya saw this as he was wobbling toward the hospital where he worked. "They moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling," he said. "These people puzzled me until I suddenly realized that they had been burned and were holding their arms out to prevent the painful friction of raw surfaces rubbing together. One thing was common to everyone I saw—complete silence." (Hiroshima.(34).28-30)

Yup—that's terrifying. Even though today we are a little desensitized to imagery like this (this a scene in like, every Walking Dead episode), you have to remember that these were real people, suffering real pain and terror. In silence. That's pretty eerie.

"We were sobered by the knowledge that the world would never be the same," he said. "War, the scourge of the human race since time began, now held terrors beyond belief." (Hiroshima.(34).43)

Up until then, even in war you stood a chance. The bombs could miss your house during the night raid, or the battle could go around your city and be fought in the fields. But once we created the atomic bomb, there would be no surviving a blast like that.

Frank Oppenheimer, who was standing outside his brother's office, remembered thinking, "Thank God it wasn't a dud." But a second thought followed quickly. "Before the whole sentence of the broadcast was finished, one suddenly got this horror of all the people who had been killed." (Reaction Begins.(34).18)

What a conflict of interest. Of course he would want the bomb to be a success; he'd spent years of his life trying to make a theory a real possibility. But then again, his "success" meant the death of thousand of people. That's a horrible reality to have to face.

"People were saying that Tokyo would be next," remembered a Tokyo resident named Yukio Mishima. As he walked the streets of Japan's capital, Mishima could feel the agonizing suspense in the air; he could see it in passing faces. "It was just as though one was continuing to blow up an already bulging toy balloon, wondering, 'Will it burst now? Will it burst now?"

"If it had gone on any longer," he said, "there would have been nothing to do but go mad." (Reaction Begins.(34).87-88)

The state of constant terror must have been so awful. Imagine the stress of trying to live your life while wondering whether it would all end in the next moment. This was how effective the bomb was: Truman was counting on the fact that after dropping two bombs the fear alone would be enough to obtain Japan's unconditional surrender.

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