Reflections on My Home Town's Nuclear Bomb Legacy

I recently attended a reunion of my high school graduation class from the city of Richland in Washington State. For those who do not know the history of Richland, it was one of three cities created in the early 1940s to develop parts of the atomic bombs that the US dropped on Nagasaki Japan in August 1945. Over 70 years have passed since those bombs were dropped and the devastation was caused.

Our class graduated in 1966, or 19 years after the revelation to the city that it was an atomic bomb that had been developed, while deeply clothed in secrecy.

Like everyone else in the community, I was taught that the two bombs contributed to an earlier end of World War II, thereby ultimately saving more lives than the 100,000+ civilians who perished in the two cities on August 6 and 9th. Indeed, there clearly was a sense of pride that the city—in our isolated area in the desert of eastern Washington State—had played a key role in establishing peace. Ultimately, this pride apparently is misplaced in light of the actual reasons for dropping the bombs, but more on that later.

Growing up in Richland it was not easy to realize that the town was a bubble. The symbols of nuclear energy (reactors, businesses like the “Atomic Bowling Lanes, street names like Proton Lane, etc.) were the norm and around us daily. Even today in the Atomic Brew Pub, the menu includes such items as “nuclear quesadilla, “B reactor brownie” and a large selection of locally-brewed beers.

We did not question either the safety of nuclear energy or any negativity of atomic bombs.

Raised during the Cold War, it was instilled in us that our city was a certain target of the Soviet Union and so we periodically practiced “duck and cover” – ducking beneath our small elementary school desks to practice in case of an actual nuclear attack. Our elementary school also periodically loaded all students into buses and drove us into nearby hills to practice an evacuation routine.

Things nuclear were the norm, including at school. While other schools might be the Lions, Bobcats, and Bears, our high school mascot was the “Bombers.” The school logo included a nuclear bomb mushroom cloud and during half-time at home basketball games, a green and gold bomb casing was placed at center court. School sports players wore the logos on their jackets. “Bombers” signs donned most buildings on the school campus.

As a student leader my senior year, I was surprised when the Assistant Principal brought a number of us together in 1966 to suggest that it was time to change the mascot of the school to something less militaristic. We students reacted with shock that someone would suggest that our tradition be halted or worse, demeaned and discarded. The mascot remained.

After graduation, many of us moved from Richland to attend universities and seek careers regionally, nationally and internationally. Once outside of the Richland “bubble,” it was clear to some of us that nuclear bombs, mushroom clouds and fighter bombers were once part of the city’s history, but not part of communities outside of it.

Later, perhaps in the 1980s, I learned that a teacher at the school had brought a group of visiting Japanese teachers to the high school and realized how offensive the mascot might be to persons from other countries, particularly from Japan. I joined in a letter to the editor of the local paper, the “Tri-City Herald” in support of a change. To no avail.

Why this resistance to change, to move beyond the militaristic symbols of 70 years ago?

When one examines the experience of Richland’s two “sister” cities that also developed components of the atomic bombs, a very different picture emerges. Looking at the websites of the high schools of Los Alamos, NM and Oak Ridge, TN, the mascots are the “Hilltoppers” and “Wildcats.” Oak Ridge: http://highschool.ortn.edu Los Alamos: http://laschools.net/lahs

Neither of these other two schools is still fighting World War II. Neither, however, has completely discarded its past. The football field at Los Alamos High School is called “bomber field,” but nowhere can an image of bombs, bombing or bombers be found. The school song refers to mountains high and spirt bold, but nothing about bombs or the nuclear age. Interestingly, the school colors are green and gold, identical to Richland.

And at Oak Ridge High School, the school emblem contains a symbol of an atom, in recognition of its history, but a search of the school’s website does not turn up anything but books for sale when one searches on “bomb,” “bomber,” “atomic,” or “nuclear.” The “About” section of the website makes no reference to the history of the community’s role in the development of the atomic bomb.

This leaves me wondering about those of us from Richland. This is particularly so when one looks at the Richland city images/logos that highlight the environmental features of sun and Columbia River (http://www.ci.richland.wa.us/home). The city has moved far beyond our class of 1966 toward a new identity.

Looking for answers, one might examine the issue of historic pride that mentioned earlier. After all, if a high school can claim that it is carrying the legacy of peace-making, that is a laudable heritage. I haven’t researched this, but I assume that few schools can claim that they helped bring about an end to a world war.

Of course, actually the school had nothing to do with the atomic bomb because prior to August 1945 no students knew of its development a few miles away and the school’s “bomber” mascot probably referred to a B-17 bomber plane that was produced through a day’s pay contribution by employees at the Hanford nuclear works for the war effort—before the end of the war. The atomic bomb was instead dropped by a B-29 bomber named the “Bockscar.” A mural of the B-17 (“Days Pay”), the actual source of the mascot name, is now painted on the side of the gymnasium. And the high school has actually replaced the mushroom cloud on its website with this painting (http://wwwrichlandbombers.us).

But, what then of the misplaced pride within our high school class? Although the public was told that the bomb was dropped in August of 1945 to shorten the end of the war, considerable research and intelligence reports actually demonstrate that the timing was instead aimed at intimidating the Soviet Union—as the Soviet army was marching toward Asia to assist in the war against Japan after the fall of Germany earlier in 1945. Most military generals (Eisenhower, Macarthur, LeMay, and many others) knew that the war would end in few weeks and counseled against dropping the bomb and certainly not on the two cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Neither had any significant military targets (which is why they had not been bombed earlier) and the bombs killed over 100,000 persons in the two cities, the vast majority being civilians.

So, if the evidence suggests that the pride is misplaced and others have moved beyond a war-time fixation, what is the story with Richland High School?

I actually don’t know. But, what strikes me is that there seems to be a fear of losing what might turn out to be a false heritage, potentially opening up a quandary about how Richland is unique. What is our school’s story, or legacy, if not the beneficial bomb? I also wonder if it’s connected to what seems to be happening nationally in terms of a feeling of losing one’s past place in society and reluctance to accept a changing community, country and world. And it may be that suggestions for change, in our case the school’s atomic bomb mushroom logo, result in an even tighter grip on the past and status quo.

Looking at the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos paths, I would suggest that Richland has a great deal to celebrate as contributions to the world. Here I would offer some suggestions for attributes on which the school might focus:

  • Environment – Mountains, sun, desert and river - as the city of Richland has done
  • Nuclear and other contributions to science and research– as Oak Ridge has done
  • Globally recognized grapes and wine (no, I’m not suggesting the “Richland Winos”)

There is so much that is positive in Richland.

There is a Chinese proverb: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” Richland High School class of 1966, let’s move beyond August of 1945.

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