US Stamps

By Ken Lawrence

The covers and letters that document atomic bomb’s design, assembly and testing

September 28, 2016 07:00 PM

  • The Santa Fe Unit 1 post office served the post-exchange at Bruns General Hospital in Santa Fe, which provided medical and dental services to personnel at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Santa Fe Unit 1 also served a Military Police PX branch at Los Alamos until an independent PX with its own undercover address opened at the Site Y location. The Unit 1 branch continued to provide money order and COD services for Los Alamos residents until October 1945.
  • Two covers mailed three weeks apart to Cpl. Donald R. De Long shed light on postal services for Los Alamos. The first, mailed Feb. 23, 1945, at Van Wert, Ohio, to him at his Miami Beach training camp address was forwarded to the U.S. Engineer Office, Room 8, Bishop Bldg., Santa Fe, which was not an address that received mail. The Santa Fe post office directed the letter to the Unit 1 station, where it was marked “MISSENT BRUNS GENERAL HOSPITAL SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO” and backstamped “Mar 4” with the Unit 1 round dater, but actually delivered at the Los Alamos laboratory. The second, mailed March 15 at Van Wert, is addressed to him at the P.O. Box 1663 Santa Fe undercover address for Los Alamos civilian and military technical personnel. Removing the censor’s tape to open it defaced the postage stamp.
  • With an influx of additional military technical personnel in 1945, Box 180 Santa Fe became their separate undercover address. The addressee, S/Sgt. Alvin D. Van Vessem of the Special Engineer Detachment, was a member of the crews that assembled the Trinity Test bomb at Alamogordo and the Fat Man plutonium bomb that devastated Nagasaki. Van Vessem graduated from Northeastern University in 1944 and immediately went to work as an engineer at the Los Alamos scientific laboratory. In a postwar letter of commendation to him, chief scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote, “Your assistance in development of assembly techniques through the various evolutions of the Atomic Bomb was of utmost importance to the Project.”
  • Box 527 Santa Fe was assigned to the Los Alamos security detail — men and women of the 4817th Service Command Unit, 8th Service Command Detachment — who arrived at Los Alamos in late April 1943. Despite its homely appearance, this is a rare cover; only one other from this undercover address has been reported. Sgt. John A. White was a member of the Los Alamos Military Police.
  • After the war, the Box 1663 undercover address became so well known that the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory kept it as its permanent mailing address, but at the Los Alamos post office, not at Santa Fe.
  • Army Post Office 247 in care of the San Francisco postmaster was located at Tinian in the Marshall Islands, the site of the world’s largest airfield. From there long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers flew missions against Japan, including the flights that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. July 27, 1945, the postmark date on this APO 247 cover, was the date (at Tinian, west of the International Date Line, July 26 in Europe and America) of the Potsdam Declaration issued by the United States, Great Britain, and China. The Allies’ ultimatum concluded, “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
  • S/Sgt. George R. Caron, tailgunner of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay, mailed this cover to his wife before he left on his historic mission. It was postmarked Aug. 6, 1945, at Tinian, the date that the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Take note that no APO number is included in the cancel. On that same day a new APO 336 address had been assigned to the atomic bomb crews at Tinian, which subjected their mail to a heightened level of security, limiting disclosures about the bombing mission and its effects to information released officially. (Image courtesy of Scott R. Trepel.)
  • In this Aug. 13, 1945, unprocessed V-mail letter to T/5 (Cpl.) John A. Mitchell, an active-duty member of the 812th Signal Service Company at APO 782 (Leghorn, Italy), his father wrote, “with the atomic bomb and Russia declaring war on Japan it would seem that the end should come soon.” Two days later Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender.
  • On Sept. 2, 1945, Japanese leaders signed the instrument of surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Navy Chaplain Roland W. Faulk, who delivered the prayer at the surrender ceremony, mailed this cover on that historic occasion.
  • Robert M. Akin Jr. sent his eyewitness account of the July 1, 1946, Operation Crossroads atomic bomb test from the Navy’s observation ship USS Panamint. Akin was the chairman of Hudson Wire Co., a military contractor that supplied high-temperature conductors and insulators for advanced weapons systems. The addressee, Livingston Platt, was chairman of the Republican Party in Westchester County, N.Y.
  • A 1995 stamp, Grenada Scott 2489i, pictured Hans A. Bethe, the Nobel laureate, atomic bomb scientist, and stamp collector.

By Ken Lawrence

Part 1 of this article explored cards and letters to and from places where the first experiments in sustained nuclear fission were conducted and secret locations where fissionable materials were transmuted, enriched, and purified for use in atomic bombs. Here we resume the narrative at the location where those bombs were designed, assembled, and tested. 

Site Y at Los Alamos, New Mexico

Early in 1943 the Manhattan Project established the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory as its most secret location. Under the direction of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, its mission was to perform the necessary research, develop the technology, and manufacture atomic bombs in time to affect the outcome of the war.

The Army acquired the campus of the exclusive private Los Alamos Ranch School in December 1942 and ordered that the property be vacated by mid-February 1943. Scientists began arriving in mid-March, when accommodations were spartan and amenities nonexistent. 

A seasonal post office near the school, previously named Otowi, had been renamed Los Alamos in 1941. It was appropriated and maintained as a fourth class office by the M.M. Sundt Construction Co., the Army’s contractor, for use of Sundt employees, and was discontinued Nov. 8, 1943, after their work was done.

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Only a handful of covers are known with Los Alamos cancels from that location; I believe Wayne Youngblood, whose wonderful “Lost Almost” gold medal exhibit showcases Manhattan Project mail of New Mexico, is at this time the only collector who owns examples.

For both military and civilian laboratory personnel, the Army wanted to conceal the location of its atomic bomb research, testing, and assembly location by using remote undercover addresses. In a conveniently related development, the Army opened the 1,575-bed Earl H. Bruns General Hospital at Santa Fe, 40 miles away, in April 1943, with its own post-exchange. The hospital’s purpose was to treat casualties from the Pacific war, but it also became an important healthcare facility for Los Alamos during the first year. 

Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago   Part I: How postal history tells the story of the atomic bomb: The history of the atomic bomb began with Albert Einstein’s Aug. 2, 1939, letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Post Office Department established the Santa Fe Unit 1 station at the hospital PX, which in turn established a Military Police branch at the Los Alamos laboratory. That temporary PX handled the mail until a dedicated PX that used an undercover address at Santa Fe opened at the Los Alamos Trading Post in June 1943. A second Los Alamos PX opened in the former schoolhouse in September 1943, and a third, for members of the Special Engineer Detachment, in September 1944. 

Santa Fe Unit 1 continued to serve as the money order and COD branch at Los Alamos for the duration of the wartime secrecy period, until a Santa Fe Unit 2 branch was established at Los Alamos in October 1945. 

The laboratory grounds had only a five-bed infirmary for civilians and a three-bed infirmary for military personnel, which were insufficient for any condition that required special treatment or prolonged hospitalization, including maternity care complications. Over the 2½-year period of the laboratory’s top-secret existence, 206 babies were born to resident families and 30 residents died. It’s a safe bet that many of them were among Bruns Hospital’s guests.

Undercover Santa Fe Post Office Box Addresses

On Oct. 2, 1945, the Hearst papers’ International News Service distributed a story by Harold Heroux datelined Los Alamos that revealed secret undercover addresses that had helped hide the atomic bomb laboratory location during the war:

At long last the war department today permitted the telling of the story of six mail boxes at Santa Fe, N.M. — the city’s “invisible population” of 6,000 persons.

Those boxes are 1663, 1539, 169, 1036, 527 and 180. The persons who had their mail addressed to those boxes didn’t live in Santa Fe — they resided and toiled under military guard at Los Alamos, 40 miles away and high in the Jemez mountains.

Those undercover addresses have attracted the greatest amount of collector attention in atomic bomb-related mail ever since, for essentially three reasons: First, more people who lived and worked at Los Alamos understood the historic importance of their mission than at other Manhattan Project sites. Second, some of them were stamp and cover collectors, including the future Nobel laureate Hans A. Bethe. Third, one of those resident collectors alerted the philatelic community about the significance of Los Alamos covers and taught hobbyists how to identify them barely six months after the war ended, before they had been widely dispersed or irretrievably lost.

“Censorship at the Atomic Bomb Project” by Alan U. Hershey appeared in the Feb. 23, 1946, issue of Stamps magazine. He specified the users assigned to three Santa Fe undercover addresses: 

1) Civilian technical personnel, P.O. Box 1663; (2) Military technical personnel, P.O. Box 180; (until the end of 1944, P.O. Box 1663 was used for both types of technical personnel. Then, the influx of soldier scientists and technicians became so great that a division of mail had to be made.) (3) Civilian and military non-technical personnel, P.O. Box 1539.

Hershey also published incorrect information, which unfortunately has taken root and spread. He wrote that Los Alamos mail comprised the only purely domestic letters opened and examined by military censors. As I reported in Part 1 of this article, domestic mail to and from Manhattan Project personnel was opened and examined by Army censors at Hanford and Oak Ridge also. To date, inbound Los Alamos domestic-mail covers are the only ones found with examiner seals and numbered base censor markings, but we have not yet seen how mail was censored at Manhattan Project headquarters in Washington or New York.

My two covers addressed to Cpl. Donald R. De Long in February and March 1945 help illustrate the way mail for Los Alamos residents was handled. The first had been sent to him at his training camp address in Miami Beach, Fla., and was forwarded from there to the address where he had been ordered to appear for his next assignment: the U.S. Engineer Office, Room 8, Bishop Bldg., Santa Fe, N.M. That was the place where new arrivals reported for duty, but it was not a postal address.

Evidently a postal clerk directed it to the Santa Fe Unit 1 station, the Army’s address that served both Bruns Hospital and the Los Alamos money order and COD branch, but it was misdirected to the hospital before eventually being delivered to him at Los Alamos. The second cover, sent three weeks later, was properly addressed to him at the Box 1663 undercover address, where it was delivered to him after a censor had examined it and deleted part of the enclosed letter.

A Box 180 cover addressed to S/Sgt. Alvin D. Van Vessem of the Special Engineer Detachment is illustrated here. Box 180 mail is scarce, at least in relative numbers, because it was not activated until May 1945. In an August 2009 American Philatelist article, Youngblood wrote, “If you are looking to collect the postal history of Los Alamos, you’re likely to have trouble finding much of anything other than P.O. Box 1663 covers.” 

Nevertheless, for the past 30 years the number of Box 180 covers available to collectors has gradually grown. When John M. Hotchner illustrated a June 9, 1945, cover to Hershey at Box 180 in his Oct. 13, 1986, Linn’s column (page 42), it was the only one its owner, Florida collector Paul Filipkowski, had seen at that time. 

Six months later in an April 1987 American Philatelist article, Filipkowski wrote that he had seen “very few.” In 1988, he included a dozen Box 180 covers in his Napex postal history exhibit titled “The Manhattan Project,” and had unearthed about 30 others. Collectors and dealers have discovered more since then. 

Box 1539 covers are rare, I believe; I have seen at least five but fewer than 10. I do not own one. Contrary to Heroux’s and Hershey’s reports, that was actually the undercover address for personnel assigned to the Army’s Manhattan District management and recruiting office at Room 8 of the Bishop Building at 123 W. Palace Ave., Santa Fe, not literally a Los Alamos address.

A fourth undercover address that Heroux had listed but Hershey did not — P.O. Box 527 — was assigned to security personnel of the 1st Provisional Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Detachment and the 4817th Service Command Unit, 8th Service Command Detachment, which arrived at Los Alamos in April 1943, and to the 9812th Technical Service Unit, Corps of Engineers, in August. 

The WAAC detachment became a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) unit of the 4817th in July. Besides guarding the gate and patrolling the perimeter, men and women of those units censored the mail and escorted vehicles that transported the mail to and from Santa Fe three times each day. My cover illustrated here is only the second Box 527 cover I have recorded. The first was pictured in Les Winick’s May 1, 1989, Linn’s column (page 64).

As Youngblood advised, most plentiful and easiest to collect are covers to and from Box 1663. Filipkowski knew of about 250 in 1988, and quite a few more have been found since then. But that does not mean they are easy to acquire. Hotchner pictured a cover addressed to Hershey at Box 1663 in his June 2, 2014, Linn’s column (page 6), the only one he had found. 

Competition for covers to these undercover addresses is strong, not only among atomic bomb and World War II postal history and topical collectors, but also among specialists in each of the then-current series of stamps and postal stationery — Presidential, Famous Americans, National Defense, Win the War, Overrun Countries, Transport airmail, Circular Die, Monoplane Die, and contemporaneous commemoratives.

The most famous Box 1663 Santa Fe letter is one that President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent from the White House to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos on June 29, 1943, which complimented him and his team for their important service to the country. It can be read at the Library of Congress website.

For sentimental reasons and because that once-secret address has become widely known to the public, the Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to use P.O. Box 1663 as its mailing address today, but at Los Alamos NM 87545, not at Santa Fe.

No mail has yet been found to or from two other addresses that Heroux reported, Box 169 and Box 1036, Santa Fe.

Censorship and Protest

The formerly classified report Manhattan District History: Nonscientific Aspects of Los Alamos Project Y 1942-1946 describes the security system: “Only official mail was exempt from censorship, and all Project personnel, military and civilian, were advised that personal communications were being censored.” (As were telegrams and teletypes; telephone calls were monitored.)

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman at Los Alamos and his wife in California liked to exchange coded puzzles in their letters. Security officials grilled him suspiciously about them, and forbade him to continue sending them. In his 1985 memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the Nobel laureate called the censorship “totally illegal,” but he got his revenge by craftily slipping hidden messages past the examiners.

Feynman’s wasn’t the first objection. In the authoritative 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes wrote that in 1942 at the secret Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory where physicist Enrico Fermi had conducted the first chain reaction, “Fermi was angry to find his mail being opened and complained indignantly until the practice was stopped (or managed more surreptitiously).”

Besides the Santa Fe boxes, the Manhattan Project used at least three other undercover addresses elsewhere.

P.O. Box 5370, Metropolitan Station, Los Angeles, Calif., was the mail drop for the Los Alamos scientists’ subscriptions to scientific journals, to avoid drawing any attention to their actual locations at Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos. I’m not aware of any surviving covers to or from that address.

P.O. Box 42, Station F, New York, N.Y., was the address for the United States Engineer, Manhattan Engineer District office, in charge of contracts and finances. 

P.O. Box 2610, Washington, D.C., was the address for mail to Manhattan Engineer District headquarters and for participants who frequently moved around among the secret sites, yet it too has so far eluded collector searches. Other than Groves and his senior staff, the best-known user of that box was the only news reporter cleared for and accredited to the Manhattan Project, science writer William L. Laurence of the New York Times who had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. According to The Oak Ridge Story:

Mr. Laurence began his quest for official facts with visits into the huge, restricted Oak Ridge plants. The quest then took him to Los Alamos, Hanford, Berkeley, California; Chicago and New York, and back again to Oak Ridge, where he wrote the majority of his stories in a special office set aside for him in District headquarters. In all, Mr. Laurence traveled over 50,000 miles in his A-bomb itinerary, a tour climaxed as he rode in an escort plane when the second bomb fell over Nagasaki August 9 [1945]. 

With five undercover addresses for which no covers yet are known despite collectors’ pursuit of them for three quarters of a century, this specialty offers more than ordinary challenges ahead for postal history collectors to savor. 

The address of the Metallurgical Laboratory where Enrico Fermi had demonstrated the world’s first nuclear chain reaction — P.O. Box 5207, Chicago 80, Ill., located at the downtown post office — kept the University of Chicago location secret as long as necessary, but afterward became the published address of Argonne National Laboratory when Met Lab’s work was relocated to Palos Hills in the forest preserve outside the city limits.

Testing and Delivering the Atomic Bombs

Army Air Forces commanding Gen. Henry H. Arnold selected veteran pilot Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr. to lead the atomic bomb mission. In September 1944, Tibbets assembled his 393rd Bombardment Squadron at Wendover Field in western Utah to begin training for the attack on targets in Japan, flying huge Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bombers. 

The 1.8 million-acre Wendover base was the world’s largest gunnery and bombing range. The Utah drills dropped orange 5,500-pound dummy bombs nicknamed pumpkins. Postal historians Filipkowski, Richard W. Helbock, and Joseph G. Bock all managed to collect covers from 393rd crew members posted at Wendover.

The 509th Composite Group, consisting of the 393rd as the attack squadron and others as transport and supply units, was activated in December and was detailed to Batista Field, Cuba, for six weeks of navigational training, and to practice both visual and radar-guided bomb runs at high altitude. APO 632 Miami was the address for the 509th while it was stationed there. Filipkowski exhibited two covers from that address, one of which is currently in Bock’s collection, and one from Wendover Field to APO 632.

President Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945, and Vice President Harry S. Truman was sworn in as his successor. On April 25, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson briefed Truman about the Manhattan Project. Two weeks later, Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe. 

In mid-July, leaders of the victorious Allies — Truman representing the United States; Winston Churchill, the United Kingdom; and Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union — met at Potsdam near Berlin to negotiate the future of Europe, their countries’ respective spheres of influence, and Russian entry into the war against Japan.

On July 16, the day after Truman’s entourage arrived at Potsdam, Oppenheimer and Groves presided over the Trinity Test, the successful detonation of a plutonium bomb at a site near Alamogordo, N.M., 210 miles south of Los Alamos. The scientists calculated that the blast had equaled the force of between 15,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. Filipkowski’s exhibit included a cover addressed to Van Vessem, one of the technicians who had assembled the bomb, canceled on the date of the test.

Even before the Trinity Test, as the war in Europe was ending in May 1945, the 509th had transferred to Tinian in the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean, where Navy construction battalions, abbreviated CBs or Seabees, had built the world’s largest airfield to base heavy bombers for attacks on Japanese cities. The Tinian address was APO 247 San Francisco. 

On July 21, a special courier notified Stimson at Potsdam of the successful New Mexico test, and that atomic bombs could be dropped on Japan as early as Aug. 1. Stimson promptly passed the report to Truman and Churchill. On July 24, Truman in turn advised Stalin that the United States had “a new weapon of unusual destructive force.” Stalin, whose spies had kept him abreast of the weapon since its inception, urged Truman “to make good use of this new addition to the Allied arsenal.”

On July 26 at Potsdam, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and China (the U.S.S.R. had not yet declared war on Japan) issued an ultimatum that concluded, “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese government rejected the demand on July 29. 

Meanwhile on July 25, as authorized by the president, Stimson had approved the plan to deliver the first bomb to one of the targets as early as Aug. 3, weather permitting. Japan’s failure to heed the ultimatum removed the last obstacle to implementing that order. 

The Army’s official history, Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb by Vincent C. Jones picked up the story from there:

Component parts and active material for both types of atomic bombs reached the detachment on Tinian only shortly before they were actually used in bombing missions. Those for Little Boy [the uranium bomb] arrived first. Most of its components and the U-235 had left Los Alamos in mid-July in custody of Maj. Robert R. Furman, a special projects officer from Groves’s Washington headquarters, and Capt. James F. Nolan, chief medical officer at the New Mexico installation. They traveled by automobile from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, by airplane to Hamilton Field near San Francisco, thence to Hunters Point to board the cruiser Indianapolis. Crossing the Pacific in record time, they reached Tinian on 26 July. Two Los Alamos security officers brought the remaining components and the rest of the active material for Little Boy aboard two C-54 cargo aircraft, the first arriving at Tinian on the twenty-eighth and the second on the following day.

Bock’s collection includes a March 13, 1945, cover from a Navy man aboard USS Indianapolis to Portland, Ore. It’s the nearest-to-the-event war-dated cover from that ship I have seen. Four days after the ship had delivered the bomb to Tinian, fatal hits by two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine sank the Indianapolis en route from Guam to the Philippines.

Jones continued, “… components for the Fat Man [plutonium bomb] arrived at Tinian aboard two B-29’s that Groves had held at Albuquerque for that purpose and plutonium active material came in aboard a C-54.”

From Aug. 1 to Aug. 5, long-range American aircraft rained 5 million warning leaflets on 35 Japanese cities, which in translation began:

Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a friend or relative. In the next few days, some or all of the cities named on the reverse side will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique which they are using to prolong this useless war. But unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities and save your lives.

Aug. 6 and AUG. 9, 1945, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki

At 2:45 a.m. Tinian time on Aug. 6 the B-29 bomber Enola Gay lifted off Tinian with Tibbets at the controls. At 9:15 a.m., the crew dropped the Little Boy bomb on Hiroshima in the world’s first act of nuclear warfare, unleashing unprecedented destruction. Approximately 66,000 Japanese died and 69,000 were injured by the blast; many more suffered and died later from radiation exposure. The great majority were civilians.

Scott R. Trepel’s invited exhibit at the New York 2016 international exhibition titled “The Japanese-American World War II Experience” ended with the illustrated cover that the Enola Gay’s tailgunner George R. Caron had mailed to his wife from APO 247 at Tinian before departing on the historic flight, which was postmarked on the date of the event. That might have violated his orders. According to Rhodes, in his pre-flight briefing for his crew Tibbetts “forbade them to write letters home or to discuss the mission even among themselves.” 

That cover had previously been the pride of Filipkowski’s 1988 exhibit, which included 12 other covers from the same correspondence. The origin locations followed Caron from test flights at Wendover and Batista Field in February to his return to Tinian. Caron’s address on an Aug. 9 cover had changed to APO 336, which was the Army’s method of tightening security on mail to and from atomic bomb crews to prevent unauthorized leaks of information.

Another Caron cover from Tinian, formerly in Filipkowski’s exhibit, is now in Bock’s collection.

In his Aug. 6 official announcement of the Hiroshima bomb, President Truman summarized the bomb’s history and publicly disclosed the locations of the formerly secret sites at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos. He noted that the Japanese leaders had rejected the Potsdam ultimatum, and declared, “If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

With no response from Japan to Truman’s second warning, on the morning of Aug. 9 the B-29 bomber Bockscar, piloted by Maj. Charles W. Sweeney, dropped the Fat Man plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. On that occasion, about 39,000 were killed and 25,000 injured immediately, with a continuing toll of suffering and deaths afterward.

In an unplanned but poetic stroke of revenge, the Nagasaki bomb destroyed the Mitsubishi torpedo factory, which had supplied the weapons that crippled and sank U.S. Navy ships at Pearl Harbor.

Filipkowski’s exhibit included two covers that Sgt. Walter Goodman carried on the Great Artiste observer plane during the Nagasaki mission, which Goodman mailed to his wife from APO 336 upon his return to Tinian. He posted one on Aug. 11; the other on Aug. 13. A third is reported to exist, but I have not learned its cancellation date. Bock’s collection includes a July 30 APO 247 cover posted by Lt. Fred J. Olivi, copilot on the Bockscar atomic bomb flight. 

My Aug. 10, 1945, cover addressed to Van Vessem at Box 180 Santa Fe, illustrated earlier, has poignant personal links to these epic events. Besides being a member of the crew that assembled the Trinity Test bomb, he had been sent to Tinian to assemble the Fat Man plutonium bomb. After he had carried out that assignment, the Army flew him to Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands for passage back to the United States.

Van Vessem’s wife, the former Helen Lucas, mailed her letter to him one day after the bomb he helped build had devastated Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, the most memorable event of his life. The two had wed in February, after he had been stationed at Los Alamos for several months. Helen would have known of the bombing from news reports, but she could not have known that Alvin had departed Kwajalein aboard a Navy transport on July 30, and was at sea on the fateful day. He arrived at San Pedro on Aug. 12; her letter awaited his return to Los Alamos. Helen, who also joined the Army, died in 1992 at age 76; Alvin, in 2003 at age 85. The mortal remains of both are buried at Santa Fe National Cemetery.

News of the atomic bomb brought hope to Americans on duty overseas and to their loved ones on the home front that the war would end quickly and that families would soon be reunited, as shown in an Aug. 13, 1945, V-mail from a father in Vermont to his son in the Army stationed at Leghorn, Italy, posted two days before Emperor Hirohito broadcast his announcement that Japan would surrender. The formal instrument of surrender was signed on the deck of the USS Missouri at Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2. 

V-J Day Surrender Ceremony, Sept. 2, 1945

Navy Chaplain Roland W. Faulk delivered this prayer at the surrender ceremony:

Eternal God, Father of all living, we offer our sincere prayer of thanksgiving to Thee on this day which we now dedicate in peace among the nations, remembering another Sabbath Day that was desecrated by the beginning of this brutal war. We are thankful that those who have loved peace have been rewarded with victory over those who have loved war. May it ever be so!

On this day of deliverance we pray for those who through long years have been imprisoned, destitute, sick and forsaken. Heal their bodies and their spirits, O God, for their wounds are grievous and deep. May the scars which they bear remind us that victory is not without cost and peace is not without price. May we never forget those who have paid the cost of our victory and peace.

On this day of surrender, we turn hopefully from war to peace, from destroying to building, from killing to saving. But peace without justice we know is hopeless, and justice without mercy Thou will surely despise. Help us, therefore, O God, to do justice and love mercy and to walk humbly before Thee.

We pray for Thy servant, the President of the United States, and for the leaders of all lands that they may be endowed with wisdom sufficient for their great tasks. Grant unto all the peoples of the earth knowledge of Thee, with courage and faith to abide within the shelter of Thy sovereign law. Amen.

Faulk posted the illustrated cover there on that historic occasion. Today the original manuscript of his prayer is on display at the Douglas MacArthur Library in Norfolk, Va.

Operation Crossroads Atomic Bombs

In a July 1946 joint operation called Operation Crossroads, the U.S. armed forces conducted two atomic bomb tests in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands after evicting 167 indigenous Pacific Islander residents. The purpose of the tests was to study the effects of nuclear weapons in naval warfare. Comedian Bob Hope quipped, “As soon as the war ended, we located the one spot on earth that hadn’t been touched by the war and blew it to hell.” 

 Although Joint Task Force 1 that conducted the operation included the Army, the Air Force, and civilians, the location and purpose dictated that the Navy comprised the largest cohort — 38,000 personnel of the 42,000 total and more than 150 ships. In his March 2005 La Posta article, Helbock published a checklist of all those ships and the assigned duty of each one, plus shore-based Navy post offices on other islands that provided support for the tests. Dozens of them are illustrated in The Nuclear Option: A Philatelic Documentary by Rev. John Walden.

Shot Able on July 1 was an air burst dropped from a B-29 bomber. Shot Baker on July 25 was an underwater blast from a depth of 90 feet below the surface. These were both plutonium bombs, the fourth and fifth Manhattan Project devices. Some collectors attempt to gather covers from every participating Navy ship and shore location on both dates.

Illustrated here is a postal card with an airmail stamp added, written by Robert M. Akin Jr., an observer aboard the USS Panamint in the late afternoon of July 1, headed “5 10 PM Bomb Day.” Akin wrote, “Our first bomb exploded with a roar this morning. Eight hours have passed and ships are still burning.” The card was struck with Panamint’s July 2 ship cancel.

Although these tests were conducted before the public onset of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, events aboard Panamint ominously foretold what was in store. Among the passengers invited to observe the tests were military contractors such as Akin, 22 foreign representatives, and undercover American intelligence officers whose assignment was to monitor the foreigners and record their reactions.

The trip lasted several months. Cut off from the outside world, and with few opportunities for other concerns, the hosts had created a hothouse setting for espionage. The foreign delegation included Russian physicist Mikhail G. Mescheryakov and Simon Peter Alexandrov, the man in charge of procuring uranium for the Soviet atomic bomb program. Alexandrov’s boasts provided evidence that the USSR had its own atomic weapons program. 

Declassified documents released to the National Security Archive and published July 22, 2016, recorded that Mescheryakov was tight-lipped, but that Alexandrov told the Russian-born U.S. marine biologist and observer Paul S. Galtsoff that the purpose of the test was “to frighten the Soviets,” but that they were “not afraid,” because they had “wonderful planes” that could bomb the United States in the event of war between the countries. 

Brookings Institute economist Stephen Schwartz has written that Operation Crossroads was the most expensive nuclear test series in history, costing the equivalent of $2.2 billion in today’s dollars. The Manhattan Project’s official history called it “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted.”

As an appropriately pessimistic film noir sequel to the 1946 tests, Stanley Kubrick used footage of the Operation Crossroads explosions in his 1964 satirical motion picture Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The two Operation Crossroads tests were the last ones that involved the Manhattan Engineer District. In one year’s time the Manhattan Project had manufactured fissionable components for up to 18 atomic bombs, all but the Hiroshima bomb powered by plutonium. 

The Los Alamos laboratory assembled the unused balance as a nuclear weapons stockpile, from which more atomic bombs were assembled at Sandia Base in Albuquerque. On Jan. 1, 1947, the civilian Atomic Energy Commission took control of the nation’s nuclear program, replacing the Army’s Manhattan Engineer District. The MED was officially abolished on Aug. 15.

In Conclusion

The World War II atomic bomb story has not yet met its Homer or Tchaikovsky, but when it eventually does, the poet or composer will do well to glean highlights and interludes from the philatelic legacy bequeathed by Filipkowski, Helbock, Hershey, and Winick, and the narrative that is being retold today by Bock, Hotchner, Trepel, and Youngblood. (I am aware that California collector and dealer Carl Sasaki also has collected atomic bomb covers but I have not seen them.) My own covers, cards and photographs presented here are excerpted from a larger album dedicated to the 75th anniversary of World War II postal history from the American perspective, 1941-1945. Dec. 7 of this year will mark the beginning of that observance.

Remembering Hans A. Bethe, Los Alamos Physicist and Philatelist

Hans Albrecht Bethe (1906-2005) headed the theoretical physics division of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in World War II. After the war, despite his political disagreements with the hawkish Cold War attitude of his successor, Edward Teller, he assisted in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

In 1967, Bethe was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics “for his contributions to the theory of nuclear reactions, especially his discoveries concerning the energy production in stars.” He opposed the nuclear arms race and programs such as the Strategic Defense Initiative. He was a supporter of the SALT I and II anti-proliferation and test-ban treaties.

Bethe was a member of the Cornell University faculty from 1935, shortly after he was forced to leave Nazi Germany because his mother was Jewish, until his death 70 years later. His Cornell Chronicle obituary saluted him as the “conscience of science … the last of the giants of the golden age of 20th-century physics and the birth of modern atomic theory. … 

“Yet he was deeply committed to humanitarian values, as shown in his efforts to limit the use of nuclear weapons and his work to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy. ‘Science is always more unsolved questions, and its great advantage is that you can prove something is true or something is false. You can’t do that about human affairs — most human things can be right from one point of view and wrong from another,’ he said.” 

After Oppenheimer lost his security clearance over accusations of disloyalty, Bethe and other Manhattan Project scientists rose to his defense. In his book The Road from Los Alamos, Bethe wrote, “In contrast to this, the German university professors, with a few notable exceptions, did not protest when their colleagues were dismissed in 1933.”

The Hans Bethe Papers collection at the Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, includes his Manhattan Project records. According to reference specialist Theodore Wolf, Bethe used the P.O. Box 1663 Santa Fe undercover address for his Los Alamos correspondence.

The Chronicle obituary quoted Hans Bethe’s opinion about his stamp-collecting hobby: “It was the one place in the world where all countries sat together peacefully.” Stamp collecting became a Bethe family tradition. Henry G. Bethe, Hans’ son, was born at Los Alamos in 1944. After his death in 2015, an obituary recounted Henry’s achievements as a championship bridge player, but also described him as a “lifelong stamp collector.” 

I met Hans and Henry Bethe in the 1990s when they visited American Philatelic Society headquarters in State College, Pa. Both were APS members. Hans Bethe was also a member of the Germany Philatelic Society.