The Manhattan Project

John Coster-Mullen's Interview

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John Coster-Mullen's Interview

John Coster-Mullen is a photographer, truck driver, and nuclear archeologist. He has played a crucial role in establishing a public, permanent record of the creation of the bomb, and was featured in “The New Yorker.” In this interview, Coster-Mullen discusses the origins of his project and roadblocks he has encountered along the way, and addresses concerns that his work has revealed classified information. He shares a number of turning point moments and recounts important conversations with Manhattan Project veterans and government officials. He also talks about his time visiting Japan and Tinian Island. Finally, he describes some of the nuclear artifacts he has acquired over the years.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
January 30, 2017
Location of the Interview: 
Washington DC

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. This is January 30th, 2017. We’re in Washington, D.C., and I’m with John Coster-Mullen. I want to start by asking him to say his name and spell it, please.

John Coster-Mullen: John Coster-Mullen, J-O-H-N C-O-S-T-E-R-M-U-L-L-E-N.

Kelly: Great. Some have called you “Atomic John.”

Coster-Mullen: Yes. 

Kelly: I want you to back up, tell us, you know, roughly when and where you were born and how you got involved in being a “nuclear archeologist,” as you call yourself. 

Coster-Mullen: I was born in 1946, the year of the Crossroads test and a year after these units were completed and dropped on Japan to end World War II. I grew up in the ‘50s, when the atom was going to be our friend. We were going to have nuclear power, reactors in our homes, atomic-powered cars, and all of this stuff. I kept an interest with it. It was the most forbidden of topics, because it was the biggest secret in the whole world, the one you could never know.

It wasn’t until I was in seventh grade, almost near 1960, that the first photographs of Little Boy and Fat Man, the two weapons that destroyed—that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were declassified. Up to that point, not even a photograph could be obtained of that. I remember Henry Luce, who was the head of Time-Life, he was the most important media magnate in the country. Even he could not get a photograph of Little Boy or Fat Man for Life or Time magazine. He couldn’t even get a photograph of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. I went through all the copies of Life magazine for months. It was all artist renderings of what they thought these things looked like.

I went into my seventh-grade class and the first day pulled out the brand new set of World Book Encyclopedias. I pulled up “A” and started going through it. I got to “Atomic,” and there were the first pictures of Little Boy and Fat Man. I was just dumbstruck, because it was the biggest secret, the one you could never know. There they were. So I kept an interest with that.

When I got into high school my junior year, my chemistry teacher had worked at the Metallurgical Lab at the University of Chicago, which is where Glenn Seaborg developed plutonium. He told me about how they would report to a person in the chemistry lab. You could talk to anybody else in the lab about the [White] Sox, the Cubs, the Bears, whatever, but you could not ask that person what they were doing. You reported directly to somebody else. It was a chain of command. Every time I asked him what he did, he said, “Well, I can’t tell you. If I told you, I’d have to shoot you,” jokingly, of course.

But at that time, I was starting to get interested in chemistry and physics, certainly, and I was in the advanced math classes and that sort of thing. When I got to the university, I was going to get a B.S. degree at the University of Wisconsin. When I got to my junior year, I had to take calculus. I had taken advanced geometry and trig and so on in high school. Calculus may as well have been Martian. I just simply couldn’t understand it. That was back in the days before there were mentors and tutors, and there wasn’t an online anything, because computers hadn’t been invented yet. I had to drop out my junior year. I almost had a nervous breakdown because of that, because my career path just ended abruptly.

I drifted into photography because I had worked at camera stores after school and on weekends and so on. If I hadn’t wound up getting a thirty-year career in photography, I never would have been able to do my research. Because I did a lot of industrial photography, and was exposed to a myriad of industrial techniques and assembly techniques and machining and everything else. Plus, I had to deal with art directors and clients who had an idea locked up here for a photograph. I would have to get that idea out of there and turn it into a piece of film that they could take to a printer to put ink on paper. There’s a lot between this and this.

When I started drifting into this—what turned into the twenty-five years of research on the first two bombs— of course, the major players were all deceased at that point. I was winding up getting introduced to machinists and the chemists and so on that worked in the middle levels of all of this. In many cases, “You’re the first person to ever ask me this!” etc. “Sure, I’ll tell you what I remember,” etc.

It was the same thing. They would tell me over and over again how they had the eggheads, or the “longhairs,” as they called them, would come into their shop or their office or their lab with an idea. They would have to translate that idea into something that could be machined out of plastic or aluminum. They would take it back to their office and study it and come back later. “Can we move this over here? Can we change this to this?”

“Sure.” That’s how that project just moved together by leaps and bounds. I started to identify with those people, because I had to do the exact same thing with photography.

The fact that I was exposed to all these assembly techniques and construction techniques, it allowed me to help figure out how I could reverse engineer these weapons. It was very instrumental; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. 

Kelly: That brings us up to what year?

Coster-Mullen: I started this in the early ‘90s, although I’d had an obvious interest in it. I was going to naively make little models of these bombs for the fiftieth anniversary and maybe sell them, either online or little ads somewhere in hobby shops. I figured I had to have some kind of an information sheet that would go with both of them, so I started collecting data about the bombs. I also wound up attending the reunions of the 509th Composite Group, which was the air group that dropped these bombs.

My son and I had visited—we had permission from the head of the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson to spend some time there at the museum, because they had two, they had a Fat Man and a Little Boy underneath Bockscar, which was the Nagasaki strike aircraft. We spent several days there studying, measuring, and photographing. My first real exposure to the actual weapons themselves.

On the last day, we were walking through the gift shop, and they just happened to have a bulletin board over to the side. I just happened to have seen it, and it said “Reunions.” I said, “Well, wait a minute.” We walked over and they were on little file cards and by air group number. I got down three or four rows, “Oh, 509th Composite. They’re holding a reunion in Chicago,” which is ninety miles from Milwaukee, where I lived.

I called up the gentleman who happened to be the copilot on the Nagasaki plane, Fred Olivi, and said, “Can I come to—”

“Oh, sure, sure, come on, we’d love to have you.”

I got down there and that was the first time I ever met with the air group people. I didn’t even pay to come to the reunion. They put me at a little card table in the lobby. I laid out what little stuff I had at that point, and I was trying to read the name badges of all of these people as they were going by. I would recognize—“Oh, he was on, oh, they’re from the Enola Gay, and oh, from this and that.” It was like living history walking by.

What really struck me was, two of the people that would hang out all the time together were Don Albury and Jim Van Pelt. Albury was the copilot on both missions with [Chuck] Sweeney, and Van Pelt was the navigator. They stopped and talked to me a few times.

Unfortunately, like a week later—Sunday was the end of the reunion, and the following Friday, Jim Van Pelt died of a heart attack. I never got to ask him the questions that I needed to ask him. He was very instrumental in the Nagasaki mission. The first mission [Hiroshima] was flawless, the second mission, anything that could go wrong went wrong. It was a far more interesting mission. In fact, they spent more time, because they got lost, over Japanese territory than any airplane in World War II.

Then at the beginning—actually, back up for a moment. The beginning of that reunion week, I had been sending out copies of my manuscript—which at that time and some people say it still is pathetic—to everybody I could think of and addresses that I got. I sent one to then Admiral [Frederick] Ashworth. In the beginning, he was Commander Ashworth, and he was in charge of the Nagasaki plane, in charge of the bomb, the Fat Man bomb on the Nagasaki mission.

He sent me back a letter that I received on Monday of that week. It said in essence, “Either treat the subject with the seriousness that it deserves, or drop it altogether. Because frankly, what you have right now isn’t very good.” That was a real kick in the gut for me, and I had to make a decision. Do I drop it, or do I treat it with the seriousness? I decided to do the latter and not the former, and I’m glad I did.

It turned out over these decades, this quarter of a century of research, that I was simply the right person in the right place at the right time. As the old saying goes, “Chance favors the prepared person.” When something happens, and so many times it happened to be just when I was there, and I took advantage of it. Then later, “Why did I just see what I just saw, or why did I just experience what I just saw? Why did this happen to me at this moment?” Chance favors the prepared person.

It was a quarter of a century of research that if somebody had told me at the very beginning where this would lead, I would have told them they were absolutely crazy. I mean, I have a collection of my papers—the National Archives opened them up five years ago. I was permanently inside the area as Truman Presidential Library.

I was the subject of a major cover story in New Yorker magazine. In fact, I asked the author, I said, “Why me? How did you find me?” It turned out, he was going to be doing an article about the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository.

As he was being taken through the site, he was being shown everything. The guy happened to mention, he said, “Well, this is all very interesting, but what’s really interesting is what’s on the other side of this mountain.”

Of course, being a journalist, his ears perked up, “What’s that?”

“The Nevada Test Site.”

He was born in the ‘70s or ‘80s, whatever, knew nothing about it. “What’s that?”

“That’s where we tested all our atomic bombs.”

As David Samuels, the writer, told me later, naively thinking, “Oh, thirty or forty.” “How many did you test?”

“About 900.”


That was his next story. He wound up interviewing all of these original veterans from the Nevada Test Site. Of course, one of the questions he would always ask is, “What do these bombs look like?”

“Well, can’t tell you. They’re still classified.”

“Oh, come on, they’re thirty, forty, fifty years old.”

“Nope, still can’t talk about them.”

He’d go back to his home in Manhattan, and he started calling up all his contacts in New York and Washington, D.C. They would tell him things about the weapons. Over and over again, he kept hearing, “But, if you really want to know something, there’s this truck driver in Wisconsin.” That’s why it led to you. Plus he likes concentrating on people who he thinks lead dual lives.

Of course, I had a career as a photographer for thirty years. Then we used that ancient technology called film that you have to look in the history books. Now, everything’s digital, and the prices of everything went up ten, twenty-fold. It was getting way too expensive for me, so I got out of the business.

I had followed a lot of trucks on the way to factories that I photographed then. “That’s got to be pretty easy. Guys with the brains of squirrels can do that; I should be able to do this handily.” I found out it was the toughest job I’ve ever had. You have to keep your concentration 100% of the time at the highest levels, because if you make a mistake, you and other people die.

I drive only at night, and it gives me a lot of thinking time. When I was over the road for a couple of years, I would come into these towns where my sources had been. We’d meet at a truck stop or a Walmart parking lot or whatever, and they’d climb up inside my truck and look around. “Oh, this is like my motorhome. This is pretty cool.” Then they would start bringing out photographs of objects that they had kept or descriptions of things, this and that. I’d have to come to grips with the fact that I’m sitting in a Walmart parking lot, we’re talking about atomic bombs and what was inside of them!

One thing led to another, and I had a lot of thinking time to myself while I’m driving. When mandatory rest would come up, I’d sit down with a pocket calculator and start working out possible this and possible that, and at the same time taking notes.

One thing led to another, because I was putting myself in all these different situations in different areas. One of my original sources on Little Boy was at the fiftieth reunion, which was held in Albuquerque and Los Alamos. They decided to invite not only the 509th people, the bombers, but also the Project Alberta people, the Los Alamos scientists. That was the first time they all got together, and a lot of them came to that reunion. That was ’95, and that was the last year Los Alamos held annual reunions of the veterans. They had cut that off at ’95. 

One of the people that I interviewed was a man by the name of Gunnar Thornton. He worked on the Little Boy project both at Los Alamos and on Tinian. After the war, he returned to his home in Syracuse, started work for General Electric, and essentially was one of the main movers and shakers behind General Electric’s entire nuclear reactor program, reactors that went in ships and submarines and aircraft carriers. All of what he did in World War II quickly receded into his memory and in his background.

I did a long three-hour interview with him in Los Alamos, and he was a typical engineer. He came down to the interview with 3x5 file cards, everything all laid out, because he had read my book the night before. He said, “Okay, now on page 22, paragraph three, you say thus and such.” Then he would get into an explanation of that.

He had forgotten so much about what he had done that when Dick Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb came out, he thought, “Well, maybe he’s got access to newer information. I don’t remember it quite like this. But Dick’s got it there, so it must be real.”

At that time, one of my first interviews with the person who was charged with making the Little Boy bombs for our postwar stockpile, I spent a lot of time calling him up and writing him. He’s the person that told me the secret of Little Boy, which was that the projectile was hollow, and not the male projectile/female target that everybody else had.

I ran that past Gunnar at the reunion, and, “I don’t remember it like that.” Every time I passed through Syracuse, which was frequently as an over-the-road trucker, I would call him up and we’d talk for a little bit. The last time I called him—I hadn’t realized—but when he was at the reunion, he was dying of cancer. When I called the very last time, it turned out he was near the end, heavily sedated and had a lot of obvious pain.

I told his wife, I said, “Well, then I don’t have to talk to him.”

She said, “No, no, no, he wants to talk to you. Besides, it will take his mind of what’s going on.”

That was the most difficult interview I’ve ever conducted with anybody. I taped it. I’ve only been able to listen to it once, and it was to get the exact quotes. He would break into a pain spasm, and it was exceedingly uncomfortable and painful for me to listen to him.

But he said, he’s had a lot of time to himself at the end, thinking about his life. He said, “I’ve run all of that through my head.” He said, “You were right. The projectile was hollow.” I consider that to be a deathbed confession.

Now, it wasn’t until that document that I showed today in my talk [at the American Physics Society conference] that was declassified in 1981 during the Reagan Administration, which was thirteen years before Harlow Russ told me the projectile was hollow. Here is this document that talked about cadmium plating, the inner cylindrical surface of the projectile rings and the outer cylindrical surface of the target rings. As Alex Wellerstein, who sent it to me, pointed out in the email, “There’s no way you could read this document without visualizing the hollow projectile design. You, sir, are vindicated.” That was twenty years after that was told to me.

It’s lucky I’m not working for a deadline on any of this stuff. When I worked at a newspaper, deadline was 11:00 every morning and not 11:01, as the editor reminded everybody out loud every day. It was the fact that I’ve had the freedom to do this over a long period of time—and self-publishing, I don’t have to meet an editor and have to have a deadline—that I’ve been able to expand my book with every new bit of data that I get.

Something that somebody told me in 1996 or ’93, or whatever connects with something that I learned five years ago, which is reinforced by another document that I received a month ago. All of a sudden, everything comes together and clicks. I’ve had a lot of these “Aha!” moments followed by, “You idiot, why didn’t you see this earlier?” But over and over and over again, that’s how I’ve been able to piece together this complex, three-dimensional crossword puzzle, where once you get this filled in with that filled in, then you can extrapolate what’s in between.

Before we got into the actual nuclear archeology expedition that I went on in 2013, where I got to actually handle these weapons. We physically photographed, measured, inspected by whatever means possible—if it was dental mirrors through openings, or fiber optic probes or just sticking a piece of piano wire through a crack to, how far in is such and such? Then pulling it out, measuring the length, and you can figure out the diameters of things and where it is.

To actually find these fragments where they were exploded open, just as if somebody had saw-cut them in half so I had cross sections. If they were all assembled, I never would have been able to find these pieces. But because they were blown apart, it was like, “Oh, there’s a wall thickness here, there’s a wall thickness here. Oh, there’s a curvature, there’s a tapered section.”

As I started putting these things together—especially that last where I revised my Little Boy drawing almost a year ago and sent it off to everybody behind the fence [Los Alamos National Laboratory], knowing of course, they couldn’t respond. They are either rolling on the floor laughing when they get this, or they’re doing the exact opposite: they’re shaking their collective fists in the air, screaming, “WTF, how does he know this stuff?” How, indeed. I’m hoping it’s the latter and not the former. I keep everybody appraised of what I’m doing. It’s a CYA maneuver on my part, so they know exactly where I’m at on all of this.

That year ago when I revised the Little Boy drawing, I only got one response back. By moving the core center of that Little Boy bomb forward and backward, as I have over the decades, I finally settled on where I believe the exact core center is, based entirely on that nuclear archeology information, where I physically measured the interiors and put this case together with this case and was able to—what I believe is where everything is.

Moving that forward and backward changes the center of gravity of the weapon. I only got that one response back for the person who knows everything there is to know about every nuclear weapon we have ever made in complete detail, wrote back simply, “I’m really enjoying your new center of gravity.” At that point for me, that was final confirmation.

I know the people can respond, so I would send out a—I said, “Imagine this a baseball game, am I in the stadium? Am I in the stands? Am I in the dugout? Am I on the playing field? And, if I am, what base am I on? Or, worse case scenario, am I stuck in a locked car out in the parking lot with smoked windows and I’m listening to the game on the radio?”

It took a person over a year to respond, one of these people. He said, “Are you in the car? You’ll have to answer that for yourself. But, if I were you, I’d get a catcher’s mitt to start shagging foul balls, because you’re very close to home plate.” That was a real stunner for me. I knew I was at least on the playing field, and that I was close to various things.

When I spent that week with Harold Agnew out on Tinian in 2005, I had my book open to my cross section of Little Boy drawing. He demanded to know, “Where did you get this drawing?” It turned out he had scanned them, sent them back to the lab as email attachments. He said, “They immediately called me up and demanded that I purge my computer of classified information.”

When I asked what was classified, he said, “Your drawings are classified.”

He then waved his hand back. He asked me, “Where did you get this drawing?”

I said, “Well, I made that drawing.”

He was stunned. When he recovered, he started waving his hand back and forth over it, “How did you know where all this stuff was?”

I told him, and when I was done, he said, “Unbelievable. If I still ran the shop, I’d have you back there in a heartbeat to tell everybody how you did this, so if we had to keep something really secret, we’d know where to plug the leaks.”

Well, that was the kicker. Nobody’s ever leaked anything to me. I found out that this stuff was literally all hiding in plain sight.

I filed a FOIA request in 1995 for all of the information. It was one of the fifteen or sixteen books that they created after the war that detailed all of the different processes, the reactors and then Little Boy, and the implosion bomb, for the implosion bomb information. It took them seven years and three months to give me a response.

When I got it, I had a lot of blank pages. What’s ironic is, during that waiting period, I had uncovered everything they had redacted. I found it all lying in plain sight in documents that had already been declassified. “Here’s the dimension, here’s the quantity, here’s the position within the weapon, this is how many we made, this is how many were in each weapon,” etc, etc.

Over and over and over again, I’d get these documents and, “What blithering idiot declassified this? And thank you very much!” I’ve talked to people behind the fence who declassified these things, and they’re looking for code words. They’re looking for red flags. If they don’t find them, they’re more than likely to just let the whole thing get declassified and not worry about it.

I have found, that quarter of century, over and over again, here’s a bit of information that, “Oh, this fits in here and this goes with that.” Pretty soon the lightbulbs go off in your head, and you have those “Aha” moments. It’s just this continual refinement of, especially my cross-section drawings of Little Boy, which as they told me right upfront was a no-brainer. It was very simple, which is why they are so frightened that any information gets out. Like I said, the new center of gravity comment really confirmed it to me, that I had finally figured all of it out.

Kelly: In the session that we just had at the American Physical Society, you had some questions from people who were concerned that the information you have assembled so very cleverly to figure out exactly how the bombs were constructed, that it might tip off people and be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Can you explain who is concerned about this, and why they should or shouldn’t be concerned?

Coster-Mullen: Of course that was one of my first concerns at the very outset of this, that I would be revealing information, designs, etc.

Unless you have the nuclear fuel, the plutonium or uranium, these things are just fancy lawn ornaments or works of art. If you do have the fuel, anybody in the trade, so to speak, already knows how to build all of these. They know which ones work and which ones don’t work, and what things they should include on the inside.

This is all basic knowledge. It’s well known to the top physicists and the nuclear designers everywhere on earth, which is why nobody’s ever made a Little Boy again, and they only make implosion weapons. The original Fat Man, which was five feet in diameter, is now down to about the size of a soccer ball. You don’t need a Star Wars missile defense system to keep a soccer ball from coming into the country. I have asked myself over and over again, “Is this information giving knowledge to somebody that shouldn’t have this knowledge?”

Again, that was one of the questions I discussed with people behind the fence at Los Alamos and other places. They finished laughing, they said, “No, nobody would ever build those two weapons.”

Yes, you’re revealing nuclear weapon design information, but it is information that’s already well known within the trade. It’s not something that anybody could use today, because once you start substituting this for that, then these dimensions change and this dimension changes. These bombs, as everybody knows, were tremendously overbuilt, over-engineered, over-designed, to ensure absolute reliability the first time they were used. After that, all of the postwar decades of refinement from this weapon to this weapon to this weapon—“Oh, we can reduce this, or we can eliminate this.” Pretty soon, the sizes kept dropping and dropping and dropping and dropping.

The most advanced nuclear weapon designed by Los Alamos, for instance, the B61, it’s up to Mod 11 or Mod 12 or whatever at this point. They have bent over backwards to tell and show everything that’s inside that weapon. They’re still doing it. There’s a video that was produced decades ago called “Building and Producing the B61.” In there, they show you the position of the primary relative to the secondary. That was the big problem with the Wen Ho Lee case, was the position of the primary relative to the secondary. I think it was the W67 warhead or whatever.

Here it’s laid out, because one of the slides that they’re showing you in this video is the class at the Defense Nuclear Weapons School in Albuquerque. On the chalkboard behind the instructor’s head, there’s the primary, there’s the secondary, and you can extrapolate where everything else is. Plus, they show photographs of all of these components. Here’s the physics package, and here’s what’s inside the physics package. 

I used to do still lifes for a living. I did thousands of these for catalogues and brochures. This was a typical, beautiful, in-color still-life of all of the components of the physics package all laid out. You could tell relative sizes of one to the other. You could probably guess pretty much what they were made of, because they were in color. “This is this color, this is that color. Oh, this is that, oh, look, there’s the secondary cylinder with the hole bored in the middle for the plutonium spark plug.” They liked it so much they had it twice in that film.

I’m thinking to myself, “Why does this stuff have to be shown? Why did they release this?” They only had about fifteen to eighteen seconds that were censored, so to speak, where the screen went black, but they kept the narration going on in the background. You can pretty much figure out what they were talking about. Plus right now, they have slow-motion films of the current ones being tested, where they’re crashing into the ground in slow motion and other things. Why? Why show all of this? I don’t understand it.

One of my book buyers a year or so ago had worked at Aldermaston in England. We had both reached the conclusion separately that none of this stuff should ever have been revealed. No photographs released, no documents declassified, certainly no weapon casings or components put on display in public museums around the world. Once they did that—as I pointed out to that former weapons division director who accused me of violating the NPT—I said, “You’re the guys that threw these barn doors open decades ago. Those horses are galloping merrily all over the planet.” Why?

I can’t be faulted for picking up this delicious trail of cookie crumbs and, as my son puts it, putting the cookie back together again. You guys have revealed all of this, and if you don’t want us to know, stop standing on the mountaintops and screaming it. It’s been a puzzle to me. I’m thankful they did it, because I’ve been able to piece together the first two weapons.

That’s my only interest. I don’t care about any modifications afterward or how they got turned into hydrogen bombs or anything else. It’s always been, how did they figure this all out to begin with? Creating something from nothing in two and a half years, using nothing more sophisticated than slip sticks, the old slide rules, and chalk on blackboards. Once in a while they had an electrified, motorized adding machine, a Marchant calculator that the output from one became the input for the next one. That’s what Dick Feynman did with that room full of his girls. They would come out with the final answer at the end, and then they would use that for a calculation. The fact that they did this something from nothing in two and a half years—any way you look at it from any different direction is absolutely astonishing.

Creating something from nothing, as [General Leslie R.] Groves would say, “Do I build one factory, or do I build ten? How do we know this is going to work?”

“We don’t.” That whole thing at Oak Ridge, where they had all of these three different processes going at the same time to enrich uranium. Somebody finally came up with the idea, “Well, why don’t we use the output from one as the input product for the next one?” We’ve leapfrogged ahead.

It was almost a year’s worth of production to get enough uranium for one bomb. They wouldn’t have enough based on the output tables, which I’ve been kind enough to receive for that period of time and which are in my book. They wouldn’t have had enough uranium for a second one for another two months, so that would have been in the middle of October. In the meantime, plutonium was being spewed out at Hanford at the rate of one core every ten days. So three per month, which is the rate they would have been dropping them on Japan until somebody surrendered or there was no more Japan.

Kelly: One of the things that you’re hinting at is the innovation that’s reflected in the details of putting this bomb together. It’s the first in the world. How did they do this? What are some of the innovations that you think are particularly remarkable?

Coster-Mullen: Considering the production of uranium and the different methods—the gaseous diffusion, the electromagnetic separation, etc.—all of those were absolutely remarkable in terms of how they did some. The ideas that would come forth, and the fact that this freedom of association and that they were able to do this and suggest things, and people would, “Yeah, let’s give it a try, let’s do this, let’s do that."

At Los Alamos, it was the Tuesday night colloquia every week. Anybody could say anything to anyone, and nothing would be held back. “Oh, you, that’s a plus instead of a minus, or you dropped a decimal point there,” whatever.

No, there were no repercussions. That moved everything forward. Like I said, the people that would come into their shops, in their labs, in their machine shops— “I’ve got an idea.” The fact that they could gallop together on this. The fact that Groves brought the best and the brightest together from all of these institutions was in itself remarkable. The fact that he and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer got along is remarkable.

The Little Boy program, they tried so many different things. Everything was wide open, everything was, “Let’s try this, let’s test this, let’s test that.” They had essentially unlimited budgets, and, “Let’s build this, let’s try this, let’s try that.”

The Little Boy was just a giant gun with a giant uranium tip projectile. It took them a long time. They originally just fired the gun at the target area, and the gun tube was not screwed into the target case. As they got more and more confident, they kept moving the two together, until finally they had to bite the bullet and actually screw the gun into the target case. I imagine that first test was, you know, everybody hiding behind this and hiding behind that, and then they fired. “Oh, it didn’t fall apart. Well, okay, that works.”

When you think back on it now, that whole design, it was pie in the sky. I call them garage bombs or glorified science fair experiments. They didn’t know if any of this was going to work. This was all a big, giant experiment, and each of these individual components had to work perfectly.

The primary thing were the detonators all going off within a microsecond of each other. Today that sort of, with CAD/CAM [computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing], detonator number one is the same as detonator 2,000,732. They’re all exact. But in World War II, these were made by hand. They would put the explosives in the detonator and it bring the lever down to a certain—they were watching a dial indicator, how much pressure and so on. They wound up doing it the same way each time, over and over and over again. They got the technique down.

They told me the detonator group was a very, very tiny group. The fact that they got it down to a microsecond, which is a millionth of a second, simultaneity between these things, you look back on that now, and it’s absolutely, stunningly remarkable that they were able to do this. That cascaded through the whole weapon—that this had to be produced, that had to be produced. Everything had to work, everything had to function, and it was all a big gamble. Like Groves, “Do I build one factory, or do I build ten?”

I’m sure they ran into an awful lot of dead-ends. Whether this happened or not, but one of my neighbors, it turned out, had worked at Oak Ridge. They were taking him on the tour of I don’t know which facility at Oak Ridge, but it was second or third floor. They got to a door, and he asked, “What’s behind the door?”

They said, “Well, I’ll show you.” He opened up the door, and there was nothing there. It was just a drop. There was just a big empty hole there. He said, “Yeah, we had an accident here and we had to take the whole thing down and get rid of it, because there was so much radiation around.” Oh okay, well, that was something that didn’t work, but they went on, they moved on.

The primary motivating factor for everybody along this whole thing was that in the back of their head, their colleagues, their fraternity buddies, their friends, their neighbors, their uncles, their parents, their brothers and so on were dying in World War II. We’ve never had a conflict like that before or since. They were dying in combat and non-combat related deaths at the rate of 400 a day. Every second they could shave off of this project, off of that war—400 a day, that’s remarkable. That was their motivating factor.

One of the first books I read was the Project W-47 book, where this person had worked at Wendover, way six miles out in a desert, on building all of the test units during the spring and summer of ’45. They were talking about, from the inside point of view, how grueling the schedule was, because they were constantly being visited by Los Alamos, and pushing them harder and harder and more test units to assemble. Because they were trying to figure out not so much the physics package portion of it, but how to get these weapons to detonate at 2,000 feet in the air so the shockwave pushed down. They kept pushing harder and harder and harder.

The book is very interesting, because—Les Rowe was the author of that, James Les Rowe, and he worked after the war at Sandia his whole career. Everything they were doing was impossible, and everything that they were trying was impossible. Yet they would do it, they would try this, they would try that. If this worked, fine. If it didn’t work, out it went. We’d try something else and something else and something else. “Okay, this works with this. Okay, this is success, now we can move on to the next phase.” They kept pushing these people harder and harder to finish these test units.

They were working, of course, hand-in-hand with the Los Alamos people. They were dropping these test units at places like Wendover and out at China Lake in California. There were several drop zones area, and even took them out over the Pacific. They were testing these things right up to the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima.

This was just a science experiment. If this didn’t work or this didn’t work, and this worked or this didn’t. They were pursuing every avenue in parallel, in hopes that this would eventually bear fruit or this would eventually bear fruit. Like Groves said, “Do I build one factory or ten?” Because nobody knew, absolutely nobody knew at all. Of course, Groves’ favorite ploy was to get two scientists to argue with each other, and then he’d sit back and just observe and take notes and let them work out the problems.

I was sent a series of documents many years ago by someone who was born at Los Alamos, a little infant right at the end of the Manhattan Project, or their tour there at Los Alamos. He followed his father to Sandia, and then he followed him, and they moved to Pennsylvania. He would go to the National Archives all the time. He wound end up copying an awful lot of things and documents that are no longer there, and that sort of thing. He was driven by that too, and finding out what happened.

He sent me a thick packet of reports that started in like May, and it was daily reports. I sat down in one reading and read all of them through. You could sense it was coming to a conclusion. The excitement—not the excitement level—but you could tell the amount of reports increased. The people that I interviewed, the scientists, told me that they could feel it too, that they knew that it was coming to a conclusion. The excitement level was building. It was no longer out there somewhere. They could actually see and sense and feel this.

Especially in the case of Gunnar Thornton, when he was done working in his—whatever he was working at Los Alamos for the day—he would come back after dinner at night and assemble initiators, which had a very short half-life, in a glove box every day for the next day’s group of experiments. He said people stopped taking breaks, they stopped going back to read a book or whatever in their little—wherever they were living at Los Alamos. They said there was a palpable sense that this thing was coming into a conclusion, and they worked harder and harder.

Plus, as these guys put it to me after the war, they met with old fraternity buddies. One of them, John Tucker, worked on the X unit, which was this giant 300-pound gadget that fed all of the power to all of the detonators in the Fat Man. After the war, he was at a reunion of his fraternity or whatever, and one of his buddies came up to him and said that their first target for the Nagasaki [bomb] was not Nagasaki, it was Kokura, which contained the largest arsenal in Japan. They spent almost an hour trying to come at Kokura from three different angles at three different altitudes. But they had firebombed Yahata the day before, and the smoke and the clouds. Every time the bombardier lined up on the ground, a cloud would move in between and cut off the—and they were under orders, strict orders for visual bombing only. If they could not acquire it, they couldn’t do it. Well, this fraternity buddy it turned out had been in a POW camp just on the edge of downtown. He said, “If you had dropped it, I would have been dead.”

These are some of the stories that you find out after the war. But all these people had friends, relatives, neighbors, etc. They said there wasn’t a city block or anywhere in the country that they didn’t have a gold or a silver star in the window, which meant dead or wounded. That was in everybody’s mind all the way through.

There were so few people that were involved in this, everybody’s job was very, very important. These guys told me that, like Dick Jeppson, who monitored Little Boy all the way there, it was automatically assumed that when you were given a task that you would do it to the best of your ability with nobody watching you. Because people were dying every day, and the pressure was on. It was a totally different mindset from that period of time to what they have, perhaps, currently, because nobody knows anybody that’s in a war anymore.

This was palpable, everybody knew it. It’s like the Oklahoma City bombing in ’95. I spent a lot of time traveling through as a trucker and we had a terminal for our company in Oklahoma City, and I would stay overnight there. They said there wasn’t a block in Oklahoma City that wasn’t affected by somebody who had been in that explosion. They were either wounded or they had a relative or member of their family, that it grabbed the entire city. This is what was going on at Los Alamos. That sense of not just duty, but it was a world war.

The Japanese war in the Pacific was totally different from fighting the Germans. They would fight the good fight, but when it came up to the end, the white flag had come out, and one side or the other would surrender. Not with the Japanese: they fought to the last person. This was such a mindset where they knew there was no way that the Japanese could get off Iwo Jima or any of these other islands. Instead of surrendering, they fought to the last person. It became a very personal one-on-one battle, especially seeing what the Japanese did as far as warfare and how they conducted it. Very vicious, very brutal, samurai mentality. 

At the reunions, there would be people that would come to these reunions who had friends, neighbors, relatives who had fought in that vicious, savage Pacific war that started with Pearl Harbor. We didn’t join the fight against the Japanese until June of ’45 [misspoke: ’44]—I mean, against the Germans. It ended like ten months later. And, at that point, we were still fighting the Japanese, and no intention whatsoever of surrendering.

[President Harry] Truman attended especially the June 22 War Cabinet meeting. That was where they were discussing how many casualties would happen during the invasion, and they were downplaying all of it. Truman—there are some historians that try to make him out as some naive—“They didn’t even tell him about the Manhattan Project when he was vice president. Now, suddenly, you know, under the evil influence of Jimmy Byrnes, the Secretary of State, blah, blah, blah.”

You have to go back to his biography and realize that he had fought in the savage trench warfare of World War I and had commanded a little artillery squad. He saw firsthand the difference between what the people at the top were saying—that World War I is going to be a cakewalk—and what it was really like on the ground. When these generals say, “Oh, we’re only going to lose 30,000 in the invasion and so on.”

“No, I don’t think so.” If they were willing to fight to the last person, as they had been on this island-hopping campaign. As they got closer to Okinawa and Iwo Jima, as they got closer to the mainland, the harder they fought.

One of the things that happened is when I went out to Tinian in 2005—it’s an island six miles wide, twelve miles long. I knew all about the atomic bomb stuff at the north end. I didn’t know anything about—they had had a thriving sugar cane industry run by the Japanese for decades, when all the Japanese moved down to the south end of the island. Well, one of things they did on that week-long, sixtieth anniversary commemoration of events, where I was there with Harold Agnew and others, they took us down to the bonsai cliffs, the suicide cliffs at the south end of Tinian. There were bleachers set up there, because the Japanese have been coming there for decades to honor what their ancestors did there.

I was there first as a group bus, but then I came back with a motor-scooter, which you could rent there on Tinian, to be there just by myself, just to let the spirits talk to me. It’s probably what you would imagine an idyllic Pacific paradise island to look like. It was absolutely stunningly beautiful. There was a cove down below, and you could hear the waves crashing on the rocks and the seagulls and the albatross calling to each other. I grew up a couple of blocks from Lake Michigan in Milwaukee as a kid, and Lake Michigan could only muster a sickly pea green in the summer. This is a deep blue ocean and the beautiful puffy clouds. The grass was about a foot high and it’s waving back and forth.

Then you look around and there are little memorial stones, some of which were no bigger than a football, brought by these relatives. Because after Tinian was captured in ’44, Hirohito issued a command that—code of bushido, death before dishonor—you must all kill yourselves.

There was behind us, the rise went up to a cliff face that went down to the horizon, narrowed down. There were caves up there, you could see them pockmarked with caves. They lived in shacks and huts and whatever they could cobble together. Every day, they saw their fellow Japanese citizens come down to this—it’s about have the size of a football pitch—and they would walk or run to the edge and jump. It was ten stories to the rocks below. That ocean floor down there, that little cove has to be littered with literally tens of thousands of bones, Japanese, who are still there.

Like I said, they have bleachers there, and there were little memorial stones no bigger than a football all the way up to huge, elaborate displays that have been brought there over the years. It’s hundreds and hundreds on Tinian. They have two places like that on Saipan, 15 to 20,000 died that way. They bulldozed them into mass graves, and this was a full year before Hiroshima. That was the mindset of that time.

Over and over and over again, these 509th reunions on Saturday afternoon, they’d go to the hotel ballroom, and there would be journalists there and historians, and they’d pepper people with questions. They would get up, and they would explain what they had done after the war. Time and time again, there were these companies that they worked for that had formed joint ventures with American and Japanese companies.

They’d be sitting there at their desks, and they’d look up and there would be a Japanese man or woman standing there. “Are you so-and-so?”

 “Yep. How can I help you?”

Then, the next question that they asked caused a chill to go up and down their spines, “Were you in that group that dropped the atomic bombs?”  That’s why they were talking to them, because they knew that person was there.

They said, “No, do not be, do not be afraid. I was thirteen, I was fourteen, I was fifteen. I had been taken out of school. I was working at a munitions factory or whatever. I had been given a grenade or a satchel charge or a spear and shown what rock outcropping, or tree, or bush to hide behind. The first GI I saw during the invasion, I was to kill myself and that GI in service to the Emperor. Because you did what you did, you took our military away from us. You brought freedom and democracy.

“For the first time in the entire 1,000-plus year existence of Japan, we could own private property. We were no longer a snap-finger society where the Emperor said, ‘You live, you die’ and no questions asked, you killed yourself immediately. It was never a consideration. I got to marry my childhood sweetheart, or I got to work for this great company. We would be honored to have you come to our house for dinner.”

Not everybody in Japan is dead set against what happened. I know there are plenty of people, and they are certainly justifiable. I’ve met several hibakusha, and I’ve spent time with them.

After Admiral Ashworth sent me that letter, the next night I went to the Milwaukee Peace Action Center because they had a hibakusha from Hiroshima, a survivor, give a talk that night. There probably about two dozen people, and I sat in the hallway while she gave her talk. She had her head down the whole time, never looked up, repeated the same talk she’d probably given thousands of times in English.

You could tell, even though her high collar and her long sleeves, that she had been horribly burned, that she was near the hypocenter and carried those scars her for whole life. She said something that went over the heads of pretty much everybody in that audience, that she had been taken out of school, she and her classmates were working in munitions factory. Then she said something that I know was ignored by everybody in that room: “We were a legitimate target.”

Now, whether you’re killed by a bomb, a bullet, a really big bomb like an atomic bomb, the object of war has always been to break things and kill people until somebody or other says, “We’ve had enough. We surrender.” That’s been going on since cavemen versus cavemen, and it will continue forever. Nobody seems to learn.

This project was a massive project. Like I said, I knew nothing about that. The other thing that happened to me—and I was totally unprepared for it—was the professor from the University of Maine [Anderson Giles], who was hosting this thing. His father had been one of the Marines that took the island in ’44, and his uncle was one of the Seabees that basically made the entire north end of the island. They made the bombing assembly buildings, the loading pits, etc.

He took me to one of the invasion beaches, and I have this picture. I’ve shown it to a few people, and I showed it during my talk at the Fuller Lodge. We were standing back maybe twenty yards or so from the invasion beach itself, and it looked like Wisconsin. They had pine trees and pine needles on the sand and stuff.

He pointed to something about this long and said, “What’s that?”

I said, “Well, I grew up near Lake Michigan, it’s a piece of driftwood.”

He said, “Pick it up.”

I did, I examined it, about this diameter, and it’s a piece of driftwood. Actually, it’s the forearm bone of a Marine who was shot and killed during the invasion. His body sank to the bottom of the Pacific along with dozens of his fellow Marines, and every time there’s a storm or a typhoon, the ocean surge washes these bones up, and they get blown all over the island.

I was so shaken that I was holding a human being’s remains—some nineteen-year-old who never came back, their parents never got his body, they just got that telegram from the president, “We regret to inform you,” blah, blah, blah. I reverently placed it back down in the same spot again.

Then he took me down to the invasion beach, and we walked in the water, and there’s rock outcroppings all over. He moved some pine boughs away, and there was an upper and lower leg bone, jagged on both ends, but still connected at the knee. He said, “Here’s another one that never made it back.” They collect these bones. They have sent them to their historic preservation office, and then they ship them to Pearl Harbor for processing. They get these from all over the Pacific.

Then I started galloping ahead, “Well, think about Omaha Beach. They have to be getting washed ashore all the time, and somebody walking their dog, the dog runs up and picks up a bone in his mouth. This stuff has to be there.” It’s scattered all over the Pacific, as a constant reminder seventy years later of the savagery of war. I almost passed out from that. During the tour, somebody had looked over when we were near one of the runways, and there was a hip bone with the socket, with the ball there still at the end, jagged on this end. They were all over the place.

Before that sixtieth thing, they came across a grave, makeshift grave of four Seabees, and they found literally in the jungle, they found four stakes with helmets on three of them. They were Seabees that were shot by a Japanese sniper. These are still there, all over the island. The remains, the savage remains of world war are still there. I’m sure there’s plenty of Japanese deceased there.

Once you consider the mindset of that and put yourself back in that era, you understand why Truman—if there was a possibility that this atomic bomb would stop the war, that it would change the Emperor’s mind—“I’m going to use it. I’m going to do it.”

Like I mentioned in my talk, they were spitting out plutonium cores at Hanford at the rate of three a month, which is the rate at which they would have been dropping them on Japan until somebody surrendered, or there simply was no more Japan.

There’s a little museum down in Tyler, Texas that has the Elmer Dixson photo collection. Dixson was in charge of photo reconnaissance for Curtis LeMay’s 20th Air Force. There are thousands and thousands of aerial photographs, 9x9 and 9x18-inch contact prints, of every one of the sixty-plus cities they destroyed in Japan, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I just simply pulled the file drawers open at random and looked at the photographs. They’re absolutely indistinguishable from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are totally wiped out. The only difference was the number of casualties, because once the lookouts spotted hundreds of B-29s coming their way, they of course would fire air raid siren, you know, sirens would sound, and the people would have chance to flee. Not so with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Casualties were a lot higher in those two cities, but the devastation was absolutely identical. I challenge anybody to go to that museum and study those photographs and tell me there’s any difference whatsoever between those and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It was sixty-plus cities, and the war command, the war cabinet—General [Korechika] Anami, General [Yoshijiro] Umezu, Admiral [Teijiro] Toyoda, [Hideki] Tojo, [Shigenori] Togo, Lord [Kōichi] Kido, the Emperor—were totally unmoved by that. Even that March 9 firebombing of Tokyo, that war cabinet was meeting on the grounds of the Imperial Palace that night. They could smell the hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens dying. “We will continue to prosecute the war.” Even the minutes of the war cabinet meeting on the August 6, 7, 8, 9, etc., when they got word that, “Yes, the Russians declared against us, and oh, we also can’t contact Nagasaki.” The comments, “We will continue to prosecute the war.”

The Emperor was unable to use that bomb, that thing, as an excuse for pulling the plug. “We didn’t do anything wrong, it’s the bomb, we can blame the bomb, that thing.” It didn’t matter, just as long as they ended the war, that’s all anybody cared about, and that’s all the Japanese cared about. We’re either going to win or lose, and now it’s over, and look what that country is today. It’s one of our largest trading partners—freedom, democracy.

I’ve been to Hiroshima, I know what it looks like. I’ve walked the Ground Zero areas. There are people there today who know nothing about the bombing, which surprises the heck out of me.

These twenty-somethings that were interviewed for the National Geographic special. “Really? Here? Hiroshima? We were, we were destroyed by what? An atomic bomb? What?”

Did you ever go past Peace Park? Did you ever wonder what that big area was like, why those hundred thousand people show up every August 6?

“No, that’s old people, I don’t deal with that.”

Kelly: Do you want to tell us the story of your artifacts, your latest dig?

Coster-Mullen: In 2013, one of my book buyers contacted me, who had absolutely no interest in any of this. He has a hobby, he runs his own business. He likes to go out with a metal detector all over the United States looking for meteorites, which are worth more per ounce, according to him, than gold. What he literally stumbled across were untold acres of Little Boy and Fat Man debris from these test units. At the time in 1945, they were all dropped in government land. The very day that he was out there for the first time—and he’s been there many, many, many dozens of times since then—there was an entire group of people there from the Bureau of Land Management. The supervisor said—he waved his arm around 180 degrees, and he said, “This is all public land. What you find here, good hunting.”

Between the two of us, we legally own tons of Little Boy and Fat Man. Some of these fragments are what I showed today. These are all pieces of what I call the Trinity sphere, the outer casing for the Nagasaki and Trinity device. It was made out of an alloy of aluminum called dural, and there was, like I said, tons of it. This debris was scattered all over, He had the metal detector—three, four, five, six feet down, and he would uncover something where they brought the components back, blew them apart, buried the fragments with a bulldozer, and walked away from it.

The pieces I have are these priceless historic relics. One of them is the piece where—that Trinity device’s sphere had two round polar caps on both ends, and then in the center section were five pieces bolted together. This is one of the seams in between those five segments, and you can see it’s still bolted together.

Another piece is they had five, or excuse me, eight three-inch cubes cast into those central five pieces. They would have a hole bored through it. That’s how they very cleverly used that to attach the forward and rear armored cases that turn that physics package into an actual weapon that could be dropped from a plane. The tail would be attached then to the rear section there. This is a piece, there’s one of the cubes, and here’s the bracket from one of the rear, for the real armored shells. On the other side, you can see the actual surface of that three-inch thick armored steel.

Here’s another section of that case that contains an actual remnant of the cork lining, the original cork lining that was attached to the other side. That’s what pressed up against the outer explosive lenses of that implosion device. There is another piece, and this is where it attached to one of those five central pieces to the polar cap. You can see the section’s machined out, and the holes where they bolted them on. Then the last piece, of course, is a piece of the edge of one of the polar caps, and you can see how it’s flat and then goes up. This is the rounded part, and there are some holes bored where they attached the pieces together.

Kelly: Does this corroborate what you had been thinking of, how the bomb was designed? Or did you get new insight from actually seeing pieces?

Coster-Mullen: Those pieces of Trinity sphere, I already knew everything about that at that point. It’s the pieces that we uncovered of the Little Boy that were buried deep underground, there were 500, 700, 900, 1100-pound fragments. I knew some of the dimensions on the interior, but this just was the mother lode, and gave me all the final confirming dimensions that nailed down everything that was inside that physics package, which is still highly classified.