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 late.
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
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.