My Ordinary and Extraordinary Generation

The Trinity explosion, 0.016 seconds after detonation. The fireball is about 600 feet (200 m) wide.
The black specks silhouetted along the horizon are trees. Photo: Wikipedia.


As I write this, I am 94 years old and probably the only person you, the reader, know who felt and was awakened by the tremor of the world’s first atomic blast as we slept, eighty or ninety miles away, from the detonation of the “practice” or test bomb some called “The Gadgett.”  It was July 16, 1945 near the far end of the White Sands New Mexico Missile Range—we were told an ammunition “dump” had exploded at Alamogordo Air Force Base—an area I had visited often and near the real location—a place called “Trinity.”

By my side I have correspondence from Thomas R. Hill, an engineer, who played varsity basketball as I did at Kansas State and who has been employed in the secret scientific and very secure world of Los Alamos since his graduation.  We were both not only “jocks” but also students.  For example, during my sophomore year I was the No. 1 Outstanding Student in the College of Agriculture—the largest college in the University.  On the other hand, scientists like Tom actually did the scientific development and control work, I just “studied” it.

Those introductory paragraphs are only to acquaint you with the ordinary and extraordinary “generation”—my friends and associates, who fought and of necessity won World War II with attitude and accomplishments far beyond expectations and with a support structure and commitment of a population—ordinary and extraordinary families, friends and just people, who knew it was really “do or die,” liberty or enslavement.

As a college student in 1936, I did not expect to have war.  I thought they would “work it out.”  Kansas State was a “land grant” college so all of us took two years of ROTC.  We could continue, with good pay, in the ROTC Program and after graduation could almost immediately become Officers.  I did not continue the program and went through WW II saluting most of my friends.  I had to complete almost nine months of “Cadet School” which must have resembled “Hell” in great training places such as Basic Training in Boca Raton, Florida and Yale University.

My wartime friends and family were representative, talented and achievers.

I married in about one year after graduation , which was about three weeks before Pearl Harbor—plans changed, attitudes and —– everything [changed].  My wife, an outstanding student, with lots of motivation and talent was soon involved in “war effort work” except she would manage to be a “camp follower” and somehow manage to “show up without orders or authority”, wherever I might be stationed.

I “enlisted”—“volunteered”—was not drafted and not because of more patriotism than others but because we all expected to be killed and I preferred to be shot out of the skies rather than out of a muddy trench.

My two best friends were very bright young men with much the same background and motivation that I had grown up with. Winston Brook was super-bright, became a CPA and joined the FBI.  His wife was also committed to “war effort” activities and they decided to go ahead and have one child while we decided children should be delayed.  Theo or “Ted” Mobley was undoubtedly as scholastically endowed as either or both of us but he was not as motivated.  Mobleys also decided to have children and he became doubly involved with “war effort” employment all of his life—that was a very good thing, as his son, named for me—“Joe” Mobley, became a highly decorated Four Star Admiral, now retired, after spending more than four years in “The Hanoi Hilton” following being shot down over North Korea during Vietnam.

Sometime during our active duty time we became friends with Captain John and Betty White—he was in charge of Athletic Programs and I played basketball for his team against the Harlem Globetrotters and New York Rens.  Other friends included Col. Ralph and Betty Cable—a career Ohio State graduate who earned a Harvard MBA while in service.  They had three charming daughters educated in England and New England.  His wife was an athlete–all of their family rode horses.

The above reasons made it apparent that our activities were many and community—associated but also associated with the war effort and we did not find that unusual.

I was out-ranked by almost all my associates.  For example: Captain Jack Shanklin (wife Betty, and three wonderful daughters) I probably was “accepted” socially because of my charming, talented and cooperative wife.

My association with “The Manhattan Project” was the most unusual of any during my 39 months of active-duty which extended from fall of 1942 to Jan. 1946.  The period covered a time when almost all of community and individual “work” and activity were part of the “War Effort” (WWII) or preparation and/or involvement in it.  It was the period of time when I became aware that Albuquerque and especially Kirtland Air Base became fixed in my mind and duty as important to something really significant to reaching our goals, whatever they were, or “winning the war” if there were to be one.

For reasons till unknown to me, my military career was less than outstanding yet I probably was closer to more powerful military rank than 95% of those in the Armed Forces.  Who else had a four-star Admiral named after him? And who else had pledged “a to-be Five-Star NATO Commander” to his fraternity?  While I seemed to be an unassigned or miss-assigned” General’s aide who could walk in the company of the powerful, I somehow recognized early the importance of Kirtland Air Base and Albuquerque, New Mexico and managed to stay “in touch” with it.

My wife, Virginia Baxter Robertson, changed roles and “stations” as frequently as I did during WW II.  If I expected to be at a base for any significant time, Virginia would move from wherever she was and join me in the community of civilian war effort involvement in whatever activities available.  All civilians used gas rationing cards.  It was generally not possible to buy a new car.  Sugar and coffee were especially hard to come by and meat was rationed.  Virginia was often involved with Red Cross work.  It could be said in general that “Rosie the Riveter” was a name, a symbol that represented how nearly all were “doing their part” in or out of association with the Military.  Virginia taught classes in subjects that were regarded as contributing to “Victory.”

My first assignment of length was at Davis-Monthan where I was Aerial Photo Intelligence and Bomb Camera Officer.  My monthly pay  was $125 per month not per week or day.  As a 1st Lt., our motel room was $150 per week until Captain John White arranged for us to move into a 20×20 Seneca Courts Apartment for $50 per month.  I fortunately had extra income.  Virginia’s very substantial contribution was all volunteer work—no pay!

It was during my assignment at Davis Monthan that I (we) became really enamored with Albuquerque and Kirtland Field.  Everything about the Field and city became more impressive each time I (we) learned more.  I (we) passed through this great city and that great Air Base each time either one or both of us traveled from Indiana, Kansas or wherever on duty or “pass” to or from Tucson, Arizona (Davis Monthan). The rail trips were an adventure and with Virginia sometimes using a milk can for a seat and I on occasion had to wear a parachute so I could ride rail or wings depending on availability.  I think on the “Rock Island Rocket” as I switched from Military Air to rail, I was asked by a traveling sailor, “Are you going to bail out, Matey?”

The rail facilities in Albuquerque were attractive as were motels; “Old Town” kept the unique character of the new and old city displaying the histories of the Santa Fe Trail and Rio Grande.  They were always in evidence AND Kirtland Field looked much the same even before 1946 as it did in a landing there in 2010.  And, I somehow sensed the unique importance, particularly of the base.  And I, had experiences there which forever impressed me with things I know helped win WW II.

After a year at Davis Monthan in Tucson, Arizona I was stationed at Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas.  We were the 16th Bombardment Operational Training Wing of the 2nd Air Force, General Newton Longfellow, Commanding.  Somehow I found out later I was a part of “The Manhattan Project.”The 16th Wing was part of General Ent’s 2nd Air Force and “security” was so nearly perfect that I had no idea of what I was doing, goals or purpose.  I was possibly miss-assigned or unassigned but I only knew I was performing daily as a General’s Aide and we flew frequently over White Sands and landed frequently at or near Alamogordo bomb range near what I learned later to be the Trinity Site.

Now I will digress to express my somewhat qualified opinion that any one story you hear about The Manhattan Project is different from any other story.

I didn’t know (then) Colonel Paul Tibbets personally, but we were training seven special crews for a mission involving 200 plus mph winds aloft and we weren’t that windy off the runways at Biggs.

At this point, I didn’t know of a project named the Manhattan Project.  When I touched down at Oak Ridge, TN, I didn’t know we separated uranium there.  It was also operating a pilot plant for plutonium.  And, I visited Hanford, Washington but I didn’t know it was home to the first full scale production facility in the world nor that plutonium made at that site was used in the “Fat Man” Atomic Bomb.

General Graves was in charge of the military phases of operation and made it happen.  Oppenheimer, the scientific production leader, was not fully convinced the weapon was humane ,but after considerable research and some involvement, I am convinced Harry Truman’s decision– without national or international total approva–l saved hundreds of thousands—maybe a million American lives and saved more lives than it destroyed.

The Enola Gay was the B-29 very heavy bomber, which Col. Tibbets and his crew flew over a neutralized Pacific Ocean to end a war where our adversaries were often committed to death before dishonor (losing).

Since the end of WW II I have driven south out of Albuquerque to the Trinity Site.  Although I had been at and/or near the site during the war and flying with a General, I was denied entrance at the gate.  I don’t even find agreement on the exact location or explosion site but it did happen and was the most significant action of WW II although actions and events associated and akin to those which I associated with Kirtland were very important.

Somehow, my General, Newton Longfellow, was involved with “The Ploesti Raid” which came to be the Ploesti Raid(s) and source of much competition and favoritism, courage and death in destroying the oil refining capacity of the Romanian plants which supplied more than half of the oil required for Hilter’s War Machine.

For a large part of WW II, I was involved with three great airplanes—two heavy bombers—the beloved and graceful, reliable B-17’s, Flying Fortress, and B-24 Liberator with more range and more bomb capacity.  AND, the great very heavy bomber, the unbelievable B-29 which would fly almost as fast as early war fighters and carry an unbelievable load for an unbelievable distance—it was Co. Tibbet’s Enola Gay which ended the war.

Ploesti predated Hiroshima.  American bombers were intended to do high altitude daylight with the super accurate and secret Norden bomb sights.  The early Ploesti Raids originated in a number of places and flew in often-changing flight plans and formations at planned altitudes of up to 30,000 ft. but actual altitudes so low that bomb explosions from B-17’s were actually damaging the B-24’s—sometimes in the dark!  And then perhaps I would carry official raid review papers to B-17 and B-24 Flight Leaders which I delivered PDQ and got out of Kirtland on the first available plane.

While working with bombing training for Ploesti Raids or secret (Atomic) delivery missions I received a commendation from “The Big Guy” (General Hap Arnold) for my part in developing a Nadir Point combination camera/bombing system which allowed our bomb training planes to do both photo or camera bombing of live targets while transporting a load of live 100 pound bombs to drop on target fields without blowing up real simulated targets.  American ingenuity was present in all real and training operations and that discovery, developed and attitude nowhere more prevalent than at Kirtland where personnel always seemed to want to do new things better in a place that always looked the same and yet was filled with tradition in doing things better—the old and the new.

Joe Robertson


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