The date was Saturday, June 28th, 2008. I had spent the better part of
the day cleaning up my rental property in Ocean City, MD. It was
already past 4:00PM, and I was waiting for the plumber to arrive to do
the last of the repairs from the somewhat disastrous rental for Senior
Week in Ocean City. I called John and let him know I was going to be
I finally arrived and took the box of documents out of the back of the
car. I was thinking how often (or not so often) a person has a moment
like this, where they get to connect history.
I rang the bell, and John Newman came to the door.
You'll notice I blotted out the address on the plaque behind him, much
like how the censors blotted out pictures in World War 2.
We went in, and sat down. John is an easy guy to have conversation
with, and I think I do a fairly good job keeping up my end of the
conversation. Then I was kind of faced with an odd realization. I
mean, until I knew that I had a chance to talk to John, "The Unknown"
left open a whole slew of ideas regarding what the documents in the
box were about. But now, here I was, face to face with the man who was
actually the lead character in the story. And I think I was faced with
the concept that perhaps reality and life might not be as exciting as we
might make them out to be. I mean, John was really glad that I brought
his stuff to him. And I did ask him some questions.
What I did learn was that his assignment as an Ensign was temporary
duty. He was actually in the Naval Reserve, and was bumped up to
active duty for this stint on Crossroads. Now, if the war were still on, I
am sure he would have been kept on as an officer (note: Ensign is the
lowest officer rank in the Navy. The lowest rank, yes, but still an
officer). He and another officer were in charge of writing letters to all
the people who sent letters to the Navy complaining about the atomic
bomb tests. He said the most prevalent complaint was about the use of
animals on the decks of the ships that were nuked. I asked John if the
replies he wrote were just letters meant to blow off the people and tell
them to get lost; you know, some sort of Navy directive to tell
complainers to scram. He said, no, they really made a point of being
polite, and letting the people know their concerns were heard. What he
did say, was that after the first hundred letters, he and the other guy
wrote up 3 or 4 different form letters. The found that any one of those
fit the bill for what the complaint was about, whether it was about the
animals, or the bombs in general, etc.
John was also the guy who had to entertain the Senators, Congressmen,
and media types who were going to see the bomb test. One thing: John
didn't stick around to see the bombs go off. He said he just wanted to
get home. A good enough reason, I guess. But he said he wishes he
had stayed to watch.
I felt like I was on a roll, and I started quizzing him about the public's
attitudes. Questions about what people thought about dropping the
bomb, and how they felt about that. John just sat for a few seconds,
and said he really didn't know. Whereas, I was here, 62 years later,
asking him to contrast the public's attitudes from then and now, here
was a guy who had lived his life, and all that was behind him. Anyone
who considers themselves a student of history needs to experience a
moment like this. I think it really showed how years later, we all have
hindsight and a context, and the majority of people during the time that
history is being made, well, they are just "there", not really projecting
grandiose ideas, good or bad, as we might years later.