Thursday, November 11, 2010

Atomic Dan

(published in the News-Item of Shamokin, PA, November 11, 2010)

As he saw history's very first nuclear explosion - religiously code-named "Trinity" - spread across the barely sunlit New Mexico skyline, Dan Gillespie admits his first thought perhaps didn't measure up to the magnitude of the blast. "Well, thank God it went off," was all that came to his mind. Almost immediately afterward, his feelings turned more introspective, closer to those of his Manhattan Project boss, J. Robert Oppenheimer: "I then thought, 'What have we done?'"
Today, Alzheimer's disease slowly robs the 88-year-old Shamokin native of his memory, but it doesn't take away any regrets Gillespie may have had for helping to develop the atomic bomb. He never had any to begin with.
"We knew than the impending invasion of Japan would cost a million American lives," Gillespie says from Skidaway Island in Savannah, Ga., the city Gillespie has called home since 1993. "We also knew that Germany and Japan were working on a bomb. We were way ahead of them as it turned out, but we didn't know that at the time."

Valedictorian at SHS

Gillespie didn't know he would be working on the bomb, either. After graduating as valedictorian of Shamokin High School's Class of 1939, he initially received deferments from the draft when America entered the war as he pursued a chemical engineering degree from Penn State. Gillespie got his degree in 1943 and promptly received another deferment because he worked in what was considered an essential civilian industry. But the need for manpower grew, and Gillespie's number came up, landing him in Army basic training near Little Rock, Ark.

"They assigned me to an infantry unit, but I had also applied for OCS (officer candidate school) as well as ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) based on my chemical engineering background," he said.
One day during his 14th week of training, a second lieutenant pulled Gillespie off a rifle line to tell him he had been accepted to both, and Gillespie made what turned out to be a historically important choice.
"I asked the officer what he would do, and he said he had decided to do ASTP first and then go to OCS, so I told him I'd do that, too."

Off to Los Alamos

After some training at Ohio State University, the Army sent Gillespie to what appeared to be a mountainous no-man's land; Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer, often called the "father" of the atomic bomb, had scouted the mostly desolate area that formerly housed the Los Alamos Ranch School, a private boarding school whose alumni included writer Gore Vidal, an author and political activist. The federal government bought the land that would become the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1942, consolidating nuclear work previously scattered across a number of universities.

Gillespie was told he would be designing an initiator, in essence the trigger to detonate an atomic bomb. In oh-by-the-way fashion, Gillespie was also told that he, all of 22-years-old with a degree but practically no real world chemical experience, would be the only scientist working on a particular type of initiator.
"I later learned they were using a 'shotgun' approach, with several scientists trying several types of initiators until they found one that worked," he said.

Gillespie's approach must have been OK - it was the one chosen for that first "Trinity" test explosion.
"I still have some of the Trinitite," Gillespie proudly says of the glass particles the explosion created from the desert sand.

Gillespie then helped design "Fat Man," the second and, thus far, last nuclear weapon used during war. The bomb named after the character in the novel and movie "The Maltese Falcon" was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima. Gillespie's work was done, as Japan surrendered soon afterward.

Still active at 88

After a career at Dorr-Oliver, a company that made equipment for separating solids from liquids, where he eventually became CEO, Gillespie retired to Savannah where, in 1950, he had met Juliet Yearns while on a business trip. They would remain married until her death in 2006. Not long after losing Juliet, Gillespie learned that occasional memory lapses he was experiencing were the early stages of Alzheimer's. It may have slowed him down a bit, but he hasn't let it stop him from living.

Gillespie sings tenor in the 13th Colony Sound, Savannah's men's barbershop chorus and doesn't have any problem remembering the words to songs. He also still has his wit; during one of the chorus's stage shows, amidst the frenetic back-stage bustle, Gillespie remarked "building initiators was easier than this."
He also enjoys hot wings from Spanky's, the chorus's local hangout, making him the envy of other older gentlemen whose stomachs can no longer tolerate spicy food.

Telling his story

Most importantly, Gillespie wants to tell the story of the World War II generation to as many young people as he can while his memory allows him to do so. "Fortunately, I remember what happened back then better than I remember what happened yesterday," he said. His dedication to preserving that era stems from a talk he gave to a high school history class taught by his son, David, in Poolesville, Md. "I asked if anyone had any questions, and the first question was from a young lady who asked 'What does WWII stand for?' I thought, my God, we're in trouble if the young people don't even know that." His son helped him make a PowerPoint presentation of the story of his time at Los Alamos to help him deliver speeches.

'He's my hero'

Gillespie also beams whenever he shows off one of his most prized possessions, a letter of recommendation from Oppenheimer himself. "Your diligent work during the most trying times and under the difficult and dangerous conditions that the urgency of the work required was an important factor in bringing success to the project," Oppenheimer wrote. Bob Kearns, the president of the 13th Colony Sound and Gillespie's close friend, describes him in more simple terms, "He's my hero."

Gillespie likes to say that he was proud to have "made a contribution." What he did was take his small town central Pennsylvania smarts and use them to help save the world. Some contribution, indeed.

(Many thanks to News-Item editor Andy Heintzelman for helping to tell Dan's story.)

No comments:

Post a Comment