World War II—
The Radiation Laboratory
"Radar won the war, the atomic bomb brought the peace" has become a cliché about World War II. In no other war had technology and technological advantage played such a decisive role.
Quite unpredictably, I spent the war years in the role of a radar system engineer-designer and flight tester. But then war produces many distortions, disrupting many lives.
That technology played such a decisive military role was in part a reflection of the increasingly technological basis of our society. In part, it also reflected the happenstance of recent major scientific breakthroughs that could be adapted to important military purposes. To make such adaptations that needed the latest scientific understanding and to do so quickly required all the recently educated manpower the country could muster. My training was in some ways marginal, but I had the requisite background.
My youth was scarred by World War II. All of my MIT experience had been shaded by the growing threat of war in Europe. Each spring and fall brought a new crisis: Anschluss with Austria, Munich, the Sudetenland, the Soviet-German Pact, and finally, in 1939, Poland and full-scale war. Reared in the Midwest, in the isolationist heartland, I largely shared that view. Europe had been a battleground, an arena for senseless, vengeful conflict for centuries. Many of our ancestors, including my own, had come to this country at considerable hardship to escape for themselves and their descendants the burdens of European
history with its recurrent cycles of destruction. Why should we now undo their sacrifice to intervene in these savage squabbles?
Europe seemed remote. Over a thousand miles from either coast, separated from Europe and Asia by thousands of miles of ocean, people in the Midwest felt that the conflicts of Europe or Asia were not their concern. Nor did it matter much who won or lost. International trade was small, and distance seemed to provide an invulnerable barrier. No one envisioned the shrunken postwar world of supersonic flight, intercontinental missiles, and nuclear weapons.
Generally, we believed that the United States' entry into World War I had been a mistake; we had salvaged victory for the French and the British, who had then shunted the U.S. aside and imposed a vindictive peace on Germany. We were now seeing the inevitable revenge. Weekly picture sections in the newspapers reminded us of the endless carnage and torment of World War I and reinforced the conviction, "not again."
Looking back at the countless wars of history, I saw conflict as a futile, feckless endeavor, accomplishing little if anything of lasting benefit to humanity. Through the accretion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, humankind had discovered a far more enduring means to achieve progress and enhance human life than that of robbing and slaying one's neighbor. After the outbreak of war in Europe, I was relieved that we were not involved and hoped that somehow this neutrality could continue. The prospect of war was not merely one of unpleasantness and danger; it was a complete and useless diversion, a loss of who knew how many years from the scientific career for which I was single-mindedly preparing.
In retrospect, this attitude toward World War II must seem näive. Today, World War II is regarded as the "good war," the necessary war against the forces of a barbaric fascism that sought to destroy much of Western civilization. But during my student years at MIT, I did not read a daily newspaper, I had no radio, and of course there was no television. My days were principally devoted to study and learning. Major news events penetrated our world, of course—the growing prospect of war, the political campaigns. But, other than in very general terms, I was quite ignorant until after the war of Hitler's depravity, of the campaign of genocide against the Jews, and of the systematic slaughter in the death camps.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor came as an utter and stunning shock. Few of us had paid much attention to events in the Pacific. Asia was
even more remote than Europe, both physically and culturally. Japanese industry and its military, unlike those of the Germans, were held in low regard. How could they dare to challenge the United States? The extent of the damage was for a time well concealed, but the bombing of Pearl Harbor needed no exclamation point. It was the bell whose toll had long been dreaded. We were now at war—and for how long? The future was suddenly unpredictable, a new fact of life that quickly became chronic.
Only a few days after Pearl Harbor, air raid sirens wailed across MIT. Students, staff, and faculty crowded into the dimly lit basement tunnels that had been designated as the safest places. I recall John Loofbourow and his wife circulating through the tunnels, trying to provide some reassurance, and I remember saying, "Now it comes to this"—huddling in a basement, waiting for destruction. It seemed a depressing step down from the exhilaration of scientific advance.
After the radio announced that enemy planes were fifty miles from the coast, we expected to hear explosions within a few minutes. No one doubted that MIT would be a prime target in Boston, and we had no defenses. As time passed slowly in the tunnels, confusion and doubt began to mix with fear and bravado. After about two hours an all-clear sounded. In truth, the whole episode was a hoax, concocted by the Air Defense Command to test the state of our preparation, but its effect was counterproductive, leading people to disregard subsequent alerts.
Pearl Harbor created a personal dilemma. I was in the fifth year of a five-year program leading to a degree in quantitative biology. My plan had been to continue further graduate study for a Ph.D. The military draft would now make that plan impossible. In addition, after the shock of Pearl Harbor, despite my convictions of the folly of war, I felt a deep moral obligation to contribute to the nation's war effort. Having completed nearly five years of a high-level technical education, it seemed to me that I should in some role be able to make a more meaningful and significant contribution than I might as an ordinary foot soldier. But biology per se—and, certainly not in that era, the basic biochemistry and biophysics in which I was so interested—seemed unlikely to be helpful in this war.
My problem was resolved in a fortuitous manner. My mentor, John Loofbourow, a biophysicist well trained in physics, was asked to join the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, then rapidly expanding. He in turn asked his two graduate students, myself and Roy Slaunwhite, to join the laboratory. Our training in basic physics and mathematics, and more
particularly in electric circuits and electronics, would be useful. The very existence of the Radiation Laboratory, started in 1940, had been a secret kept remarkably well from most of the MIT community. We had, of course, seen sheds and strange-looking domes arise on the roof of the Eastman Laboratory, but their function was obscure. Rumors circulated of research into high-frequency radio waves and even into microwaves. But to what purpose? The strange palindrome radar was mentioned, but its meaning was unknown. Even the presence, as I later learned, of some very distinguished physicists went unnoticed.
All soon became clear. The Radiation Laboratory, in the spring of 1942, expanded from a few hundred personnel to several thousand. New wooden buildings were rapidly constructed on space made available by tearing down temporary buildings left over from World War I. (The temporary buildings of World War II persisted at MIT until the 1980s.) As we soon learned, the mission at the laboratory was to develop microwave radar. Radar—its name an acronym for radio detection and ranging—was a means to detect distant objects such as airplanes, surface vessels, and surfaced submarines by the reflection of radio waves. By emitting such waves in short, microsecond bursts and measuring the time for the reflection to return, one could, knowing the velocity of radio waves, ascertain the distance of the object. By focusing such waves into a beam like a searchlight's and scanning across a sector, one could determine the location of the reflecting object. The more tightly focused the beam, the more precisely the direction could be ascertained. The shorter microwaves could be focused into a narrower beam with an antenna of portable size that could be fitted onto airplanes.
Today radar is commonplace, used for navigation and control of air and ship traffic, for detection of speeders on highways, even for determining the velocity of baseball pitches. But in 1942, the ability to detect and locate planes and ships at great distances at night or through clouds or fog seemed almost miraculous.
Longer-wave, ground-based radar had played a decisive role in the aerial struggle over England during the Battle of Britain. But to use microwaves for radar required an efficient source of microwave radiation. Such a source, the magnetron, had been invented in England in 1940 and, besieged as they were, the British had brought the magnetron to the United States. The Office of Scientific Research and Development, under Vannevar Bush, had then established the Radiation Laboratory at MIT to exploit this breakthrough. Lee DuBridge was
brought in to head the laboratory, and distinguished physicists were recruited from across the country.
Microwaves not only permitted the development of much higher precision radar but also put us one jump ahead of the Germans, who had no such capability. Thus, they at first were quite unaware of our radar surveillance. But because the Germans would in time surely catch up, the laboratory continually pressed on to new and shorter microwave frequencies. Initially, systems were developed using ten-centimeter radiation (S-band); subsequently, three-centimeter radar (X-band) and finally 1.25-centimeter radar (K-band) were developed, the latter of which, unfortunately, turned out to coincide with an absorption band of water vapor in the atmosphere that limited its useful range in some climates. Each new wavelength required the development of new transmitters, radiation carriers (wave guides), receivers, and antennas. Each new application required the development of a system, involving coordinated transmitter, receiver, antenna, and display devices, all adapted to particular functions and vehicles (plane, ship, truck, and so on).
The constant technological ferment of the Radiation Laboratory was illuminating. It gave me a lasting insight into the modern power of sustained, cumulative technological development performed on a massive scale. In the postwar years, a similar process has led progressively to the revolutions in electronics, communications, computers, and space programs. Many years later, this experience prepared me to conceive of and recognize the existence of the technological potential to sequence the human genome.
An essential and novel component of these radar systems, in addition to the use of microwaves, was the use of feedback circuits for self-correcting control, aiming, and so forth. In such circuits, a portion of the system output is "fed back" to be combined with input in such a manner as to converge the output on a desired goal. If the input changes, the system swiftly self-corrects. The theory of the use of these circuits was then new and increasingly elaborated. I was struck by the analogies between such circuits and various processes such as homeostasis in the biological world and all manner of cyclic phenomena in society in general. Biology was always in the back of my mind.
With its urgent mission, the Radiation Laboratory was organized hierarchically and I was a very junior member, to be assigned where needed. I was arbitrarily placed in Division 9, Airborne Radar. Over the next few years, I was thus assigned successively to three different air-
borne radar programs—a radar for navy night-fighter planes, a tail-warning system for air force fighter planes, and lastly a general purpose navigational radar, primarily for the Troop Carrier Command. I was involved in the design and flight testing of each system and accompanied its demonstration to the military at various airbases. All of this was a continual learning experience of diverse episodes—many boring, some unpleasant, some dangerous, some triumphant, all crowded into a few years that seemed endless at the time.
The X-band radar for navy night-fighter planes, to enable a pilot to locate and shoot down an enemy fighter plane at night or in heavy fog, was already well along in design. An installation of a laboratory-built model was proceeding into a test plane. A hangar had been set aside for Radiation Laboratory use at Boston's Logan Airport and converted into a somewhat makeshift laboratory. Then and there I immediately came to appreciate the gulf between the theoretical understanding of a device and the practical task of making it work. The latter requires not only understanding but well-thought-out procedures, adequate test equipment, and often experience-based knowledge of the likely causes of malfunction. In a novel experimental system, all of these may well be lacking. Ingenuity and intuition are in high demand.
When I first arrived one morning at Logan Airport—we were taken on a bus from MIT each morning and returned each evening—I found my new "chief," Bill Cady, reflecting in some dismay on the disassembled radar system that had just been brought out from MIT to be installed in the test plane. First it had to be assembled on the bench and made operational. When the rotating antenna was installed in an airport window, everything was out of alignment. The entire apparatus—transmitter, transmit-receive box (a device to shield the receiver during the pulse transmission), waveguides, antenna, and receiver—had to be hand-tuned to the magnetron frequency, which in turn had to be chosen to match a resonance in the magnetron cavity so as to maximize the power output.
Because this was one of the very first X-band systems, for test equipment we had only primitive power meters (in certain ranges only a small neon bulb that glowed when exposed to radiation). The process required systematic adjustment, measurement, readjustment, and remeasurement in a complex cyclic process that gradually proceeded through the system until all the components were optimally aligned and coordinated. If the magnetron failed, we repeated the whole procedure.
Nearly fifty years later, I found myself in a similar predicament in
seeking to master the operation of a "homemade" version of a very new physical instrument, an atomic force microscope. Lacking appropriate test equipment, the only criterion for alignment was the provision of a clear output, the image. Failure to obtain a clear image could be due to a flaw at any of several stages and alignment was again a delicate reiterative process.
In 1942, the war in Europe and North Africa was going badly. American efforts to resupply Great Britain, Russia, and the Free French were gravely hindered by the German submarine attack. Even along our Atlantic coast shipping was being devastated. The biggest contribution of radar to the war effort at this time was in the detection of submarines by airplanes. The submarines of that era had to surface periodically to recharge their batteries and their hulls then made good radar reflectors. Homing in on these, and undetected because of the use of microwaves, the radar-bearing aircraft were able to substantially reduce the submarine toll on Allied shipping on our East Coast and in the Atlantic.
Spurred on by this example, we felt a real sense of urgency—the military desperately needed this new equipment. Sometimes the contrast between our tasks of performing abstract calculations and machining parts and that of a navy pilot straining in the dark to see an attacking enemy plane seemed bizarre. But such is modern warfare.
We worked Saturdays and often Sundays into the evenings. Finally, the equipment was installed in a two-seater fighter and test-flown. I was then assigned to accompany the plane to the Quonset naval base at Narangansett, to keep the equipment operational while navy pilots conducted tests on simulated missions.
Seldom have I felt so out of place. Life for a civilian at the base was generally unpleasant. I was assigned a room in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters (BOQ). Most personnel were confused as to what a civilian was doing on the base, and I was regarded with understandable suspicion. Why was this civilian wandering about the hangar and into high-security areas? I had no permit to go off base and no transportation to do so anyway.
Evenings were spent with the pilots who were flight-testing the equipment. We had little in common—young, cocky, and seemingly eager to get into combat, they were far from academic types. Their evenings were spent in heavy, drinking and swapping endless flying stories. Apparently, all junior officers were expected at some time in their stay at Quonset to fly their planes in forbidden patterns under the Naragansett Bridge as evidence of their skill and daring. For this they would
be nominally reprimanded by the commanding officer and toasted with champagne at the Officers' Club.
On weekends the pilots all received passes and cleared out for Providence, Newport, or New York. I was left more or less stranded.
Fortunately (for me), after two weeks a major accident occurred. A portion of the rotating antenna support cracked and the spinning antenna broke loose, damaging not only itself but the radome (plastic covering) as well. This was beyond my capacity to repair, so the plane and I returned to Boston. The navy at that point decided that no further testing was necessary. The equipment was taken out of our hands and put into production and later used successfully.
I had intended to entertain no thought of marriage until I completed graduate study, but the war promised to postpone that time indefinitely. Most of the Radiation Laboratory personnel had families; the laboratory did not provide the comradeship of classmates. I had become close to Joan Hirsch, from Chicago, then in nurse's training, whom I had met a few summers earlier. In August 1943, we were married in Chicago. After a very brief honeymoon in New Hampshire, we found a small apartment in Cambridge and Joan soon found a job as a laboratory technician at Boston City Hospital. Our marriage produced two daughters and a son. Some twenty-eight years later, however, our interests having greatly diverged, it ended in divorce.
After the night-fighter project, I was assigned to a small project to explore the possibility of an automatic radar tail-warning device for air force fighter planes This design brought me in contact with the diversity and wealth of talents and skills that had been assembled.
The Radiation Laboratory was a remarkable place. It was perhaps the first laboratory to undertake research and development on such a grand scale. Also extraordinary was the virtually unlimited availability of resources. The stockroom was free! And the stock was swiftly replenished by knowledgeable purchasing agents. One simply went to it and took whatever resistors, capacitors, vacuum tubes, and so on one needed. At MIT, in the chemistry stockrooms, every item, every test tube, beaker, and bunsen burner had been charged against one's account and returned for credit if still in "good" condition. The difference in paperwork was revealing.
Expert help on any aspect of radar theory and technology could be readily obtained. Specialists were continually seeking to improve transmitters, receivers, antennas, display devices, and so on. The laboratory
had brought together an extraordinary group, mostly young physicists, who were applying their theoretical knowledge and their native ingenuity to a single multifaceted goal—advancement of microwave radar. Within the laboratory, knowledge was, with a few security exceptions, shared freely. Weekly evening seminars were held to disseminate the more recent advances. Project reports (classified) were written and available in the laboratory library. A few projects were, for unclear reasons, regarded as more highly classified, but the knowledge of their existence and parameters inevitably spread within the community.
All the work at the Radiation Laboratory was under security clearance, and a photo badge was needed for admission. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a military guard was placed at the laboratory. Secrecy was taken seriously—I did not discuss the nature of my work outside the laboratory, even in my family. This created an unfortunate habit of reticence, which in part has persisted long after the reason for it disappeared.
The military presence guarding the laboratory persisted until 1943 when an associate director was shot while leaving the laboratory, one evening, for failing to halt. Less security, was then deemed sufficient.
In 1943, the Eighth Air Force began its major bomb attacks on Germany. A key laboratory project at this time was the construction of a dozen advanced X-band terrain-scanning radars to be installed in the Eighth Air Force bombers in England. These were to be used as lead planes to guide bombing missions over Germany in the frequent bad weather or at night. A number of laboratory personnel accompanied these to England to oversee their installation, maintain the equipment, and suggest modifications in use.
Outside the laboratory, life was becoming increasingly unpleasant for everyone, albeit much less so than for those in combat. Increasingly stringent food rationing restricted our diet. We had no car and could not have found gas if we did. All transportation was overwhelmed with troop movements, and any travel became arduous. When my father-in-law died in Chicago, the trip to the funeral required two twenty-four-hour stints in overcrowded train coaches that gave me a severe bronchitis.
As draft registration had begun while I was a student, I was registered in my home district of Chicago. The draft board there, understandably, regularly sought to draft me Each time, the laboratory filed an appeal on grounds of the national importance of our work and, each time, the appeal was granted whether at the state or national level. However, only
a six-month deferment was granted, so every six months the process started over again. As the appeal often took several weeks, I was repeatedly required to take the standard physical exam for draftees in Boston and on one occasion even received orders for induction before the appeal was finally granted. This apprehension—the recurrent threat of imminent major upheaval—was disconcerting.
Actually, it later became evident that it was not possible to leave the laboratory even if one desired. A few of the younger scientists decided they would rather serve in the military and signed up. Imagine their surprise when they were immediately assigned back to the laboratory, only now in uniform.
The tail-warning system was a technical gamble from the beginning. Given the weight and power limits that fighter planes could afford, quick calculations suggested that the ability to detect an enemy plane at a useful range would be marginal. Nevertheless, the importance of the problem suggested that it was worth a design and feasibility test and assembly of a prototype. Bob Taylor, a scientist of similar age, and I were assigned this project.
The only hope of providing a radar reflection of sufficient strength to be unambiguously and automatically detectable seemed to lie in an integrative approach that would rely on the repetitive character of the returning echo contrasted to the sporadic character of the background circuit "noise." Because, however, the pursuing plane would be closing in, the time available for integration of successive echoes was strictly limited. With today's computers and electronics, this would be a far more feasible task. Using the electronic techniques then available, we were in fact able to detect quite weak signals and use these to activate a bell or light for the pilot in the cockpit. We then assembled a prototype that (barely) fit within the weight limits and installed it in a Cessna aircraft for flight testing.
Testing was somewhat hampered because it always required two planes, our own and a target plane We also soon learned that the pilots had very limited ability to judge the distance of a second plane. So we had to modify our equipment, which had no readout other than a warning signal, with a test monitor to provide range information. We also had to automatically limit the range of detection to a distance less than the plane's altitude or else the radar reflection from the ground would trigger the warning.
We soon discovered yet another problem. It had long been known that some clouds, especially cumulus clouds involved in thunderstorms
that accumulated electric charge, could give weak, diffuse radar echoes. Indeed, this property is now used in meteorology. On a radar screen this caused little problem; however, with our increased sensitivity and our designed ability to integrate echoes over a wide sector, we found the thunderheads were not infrequently setting off our alarm. When we reported these results, it was generally agreed that the project, if feasible at all, would be more likely to succeed at longer, submicrowave frequencies (for technical reasons having to do with antenna effectiveness and lesser reflection of clouds). The problem, in any case, did not require the narrow beams for which microwaves provide a significant advantage. The project was thus terminated and I was assigned to a new one then being initiated, the design of a general purpose terrain radar, initially intended for use by the Troop Carrier Command in locating their drop zones.
This experience illustrated a negative aspect of work at a junior level within a large laboratory. One may be assigned to a problem and work on it with great diligence, energy, and imagination only to be informed that one's solution will not be implemented. In basic science, the goal is simply knowledge. In applied science, the goal is practicality as measured by military, economic, or political criteria.
The years of war dragged on. Coping with the daily minutia of system design, airplane installation, and test flights repeatedly postponed because of weather or aircraft maintenance delays, it was difficult to sustain the earlier sense of urgency. The work was challenging, requiring improvisation and ingenuity, but now connected through some lengthy channel of time to the military struggle. And my real interests were elsewhere.
By now, early 1944, the invasion of Europe was expected within the year. We were more knowledgeable of the time and scale of effort required to design, test, and shepherd into production each new radar system. Was it sensible to launch entirely new projects? The response was that Washington expected the war might continue as long as ten years. Success in Europe might require two to three more years, to be followed by, it was expected, a battle of near extermination against the Japanese army, which would never surrender. It was a grim prospect. While my situation was surely better than that of those in combat, it appeared that my entire youth would be spent in an unwanted war, doing development research in a field of only secondary interest to me.
The ability of radar to distinguish features of terrain was evident early on. Water was a poor reflector, but coastlines and the shores of lakes
were readily detected. Structures, too, and clusters of structures were good reflectors, though at low altitudes hills and ridges created obscuring radar shadows. The finer beams of three-centimeter radar permitted more precise resolution of details.
The immediate aim of the new project, dubbed APS-10, was to use the most advanced techniques available to develop a sophisticated, lightweight, relatively low-power radar to be used by the military for general navigation and by the DC3s of the Troop Carrier Command for specific troop drops at night by following previously established radar "maps." The APS-10 was also conceived to be a prototype for possible postwar radar for civilian aviation.
Design and assembly of the system went relatively smoothly. I was familiar with every aspect of the system and was subsequently given responsibility for installation of the first test system into a DC3. The Radiation Laboratory had outgrown its facility at Logan Airport and was now using Bedford Airport near Lincoln, Massachusetts. It was a longer busride and there was no alternative means of transport should I miss the bus.
DC3s were manifestly not designed to accommodate radar equipment. To provide a radar plot of forward terrain, the scanning antenna had to be located in a plastic dome beneath the fuselage. Aerodynamic consultants indicated that a dome of the size needed would probably not threaten the craft's airworthiness.
By May 1944, installation was at last completed, the equipment was operational, and all was ready for our first test flight. When we arrived at the airport, however, we learned that disaster had struck. Our air crew had without authorization taken our plane that morning to an airbase in New Hampshire to pick up some parts needed for maintenance of another plane. Unfortunately, visibility was poor at the New Hampshire base, and our plane had somehow struck the side of a mountain, killing the crew, disintegrating the plane, and demolishing our radar installation. This shock reminded us of the hazards of our occupation.
But flight testing of the radar design was still required. Assembly of another radar system would take but a few weeks. Acquisition of another DC3, its modification with a radome, and installation of the radar would need three months or more. We therefore made an impromptu installation of the radar in the nose cone of an A25 fighter-bomber. Normally, this site was occupied by the gunner. We crammed in the radar antenna, transmitter, receiver, and display unit. As the operator, I had
to sit in the nose cone just behind the antenna. Remarkably, this all worked surprisingly well. While regulations prohibited anyone to be in the nose cone during takeoff and landing, the equipment made getting in and out during flight much too onerous a task. The landings were quite exciting with only the dome of clear plastic between myself and the runway a few feet away.
When the second DC3 installation was complete and operational, we took the equipment to the military for scrutiny by its personnel. Our first assignment, in November 1944, was to the Troop Carrier Command in Indianapolis. Shortly after arriving there, we discovered that a crucial piece of test equipment needed to keep the system operational at near peak performance was not available. When I was sent back to Boston to bring one out a bizarre incident resulted.
On my return, an air force general who had been visiting the Radiation Laboratory was flying back to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and it was arranged that I would carry the equipment on board his personal plane. We arrived at Wright Field late in the evening, and I was put up for the night at the BOQ. My equipment was left on the plane. Next morning, I sought to retrieve the equipment to take it by train from Dayton to Indianapolis. Once again, I was an odd civilian poking about high-security hangars. I was quite certain as to which hangar held the plane in which I had arrived. To my dismay, it had been moved. When I inquired, no one had any knowledge of the plane. Remarkably, there seemed to be no record of its arrival.
It was clear that my inquiries were breeding dark suspicions of my interest and perhaps my sanity. Finally, on the verge of being turned over to the MPs, I persuaded an unbelieving sergeant to call the general's office. With some difficulty, I was able to reach the general, who with evident annoyance was able to resolve the situation and arrange for the return of my equipment. I thereupon as quickly and boldly as possible strode out through the airfield gate, suitcase in one hand, equipment in the other, to catch a bus to town. That I was able to simply walk off the military field with a piece of classified electronic equipment with no pass or identification still mystifies me.
This incident notwithstanding, secret war research on applications of high technology to defeat a sophisticated foe was not as glamorous as one might expect. The reality, at least in our roles, far removed from the levels of decision, was often tedium.
In Indianapolis, the weather was, as might be expected in November, miserable. We could fly perhaps every third day. On the days we could
fly, we went up two or three times at troop carrier drop altitudes of about five hundred feet to avoid enemy radar. At such altitudes, the turbulence was constant—every gust, every thermal, jolted the plane. It was a good test for the equipment, which performed well, and for us who did not perform as well. I became airsick nearly every flight but "carried on." After about three weeks, the Troop Carrier Command seemed well satisfied with the equipment and when the weather cleared, we returned to Boston. This was my first extended night flight and I marveled at the lights of the cities and towns against the deep blackness of the countryside. Greater New York was a vast sea of light.
Our next demonstration, to be held in Orlando, Florida, seemed more promising. We took off from Bedford early one frigid January morning (it was minus ten degrees) and, after the serious mishap en route, described in the Introduction, arrived at balmy Eglin Field in Orlando. As a northerner, I had frequently read about or seen pictures of Florida in the wintertime, but the reality of this sunny, lush land less than a day away from the frozen gloom of New England was startling. Today, with television and jet travel we are accustomed to these contrasting realities. In 1945, this was a novel, almost bewildering experience. At the same time, I was shocked and offended by my first exposure to the segregated restrooms and drinking fountains of the South. And these were, of course, but the most superficial evidences of racial discrimination.
Compared to those in Indianapolis, demonstration flights for the air force at Orlando were easy. We flew over sea to the Bahamas and over land in Florida. The equipment performed well and the air force personnel seemed pleased. Except for the exceptional size of the cockroaches, life in Orlando seemed idyllic. After two and one half weeks we returned uneventfully to Boston.
Next, the APS-10 had to be put into production. The General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York, had in some way been selected as the manufacturer and I was sent to there as liaison to the engineers. Here was yet another unfamiliar and hectic milieu. As I soon learned, the problems of mass production of a few thousand radar sets, plus spare parts and technical manuals, to be operated by military personnel, are very different from the construction of a few prototypes to be operated by highly trained scientists and engineers. Cost factors, simplicity of controls, ease of maintenance and repair, adaptation of design to production-line manufacture, even aesthetics of appearance, all became important elements that could not, however, be allowed to compromise
performance. I am sure the GE engineers were very good at their jobs—as an academic researcher, however, I was not always fully sympathetic with their problems or solutions.
Schenectady was not so far from Boston, so I shuttled back and forth. Thus, I was at the Radiation Laboratory on VE Day in May 1945. It was a joyous celebration, taking off from work, at least informally. A group of us gathered at Art Solomon's house to hail the victory. Many whose interests were more focused on Europe seemed to feel the war was over. Others of us still thought of Japan and the blood yet to be shed. Nevertheless, from that day on, we could begin to foresee the end of the Radiation Laboratory and to envision the return to a postwar world.
Soon, we learned that the long-held secret of the Radiation Laboratory was at last to be told. Our activities and the important role of radar in the war effort were to be made public. At last I could let my wife and family know what I'd been doing for the past three years, although it did indeed seem strange to have (selected) reporters prowling about the laboratory, asking questions, taking pictures, and so on. The release date for the story was, for obscure reasons, repeatedly postponed. It was finally set for the first week of August—as it turned out, the day of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Rumors of some kind of atomic development had spread from time to time around the laboratory. Several of the senior people—Luis Alvarez, Robert Bacher, and others—had rather abruptly disappeared. When asked, we were simply told they had "gone West." I was aware of some large projects in Tennessee and in Washington State. I was unaware of Los Alamos, and my imagination conceived only of an atomic-powered engine that might power an airplane or a submarine for unlimited range—not a bomb!
Thus, Truman's announcement on 6 August was a stunning surprise, although I immediately appreciated its epochal significance. Nagasaki, on 9 August, answered the question of whether we had more than one bomb, and VJ Day truly ended the war.
As we now know, many of the scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb anguished over the invention of such a devastating weapon of mass destruction. I would today have similar concerns about the development of biological weapons.
Since Vietnam, many scientists have questioned the morality and ethics of the application of science to military pursuits, but during World War II I had no such qualms. We had been wantonly attacked.
(While there are revisionist historians that maintain that President Roosevelt's policies invited such attack, I believe this to be a misreading of history. The America I knew did not want war.) We had no choice but to defend ourselves. If the application of our science and technology could shorten and help to win the war, save lives and punish aggressors, and thereby perhaps deter future aggression, then we should surely use our talents toward that end.
Radar is, to be sure, a relatively passive and defensive technology that provides information. In war, radar per se never killed anyone. But one cannot escape the fact that in war the lines between offensive and defensive are constantly blurred. The radar that guided bombers to German cities at night certainly had a part in the resultant deaths. I had no qualms, because the end—a just end—necessitated the deplorable means. Hiroshima and Nagasaki frightened me as a portent of the future, but they did not revolt me. From all that I knew and know, they spared hundreds of thousands or more American casualties. And that was enough. We cannot always choose the world in which we live.
I know that for some who survived, World War II was the greatest adventure, the most vibrant time of their lives. Not for me. I've always felt, in a sense, cheated by World War II. By luck, I did not have to endure the agony and danger of combat, but four of the potentially most creative, most carefree years of my life—irretrievable years of greatest imagination, of highest energy, of most recent training—four years of intense and draining effort had to be spent in an alien pursuit.
Detoured from a nascent career in biophysics, my reactions to the Radiation Laboratory were atypical. Most of the scientists were physicists, Ph.D.'s of varying degrees of professional maturity. For them, the Radiation Laboratory was an opportunity to advance, at a very accelerated rate, a sector of their science, as well as an opportunity to utilize to the fullest their training and skills in a project of great importance to the war effort. While recognizing the latter, I, in a much junior role, could utilize only a portion of my training and aptitudes.
My entire generation had been forced to wage a war we never sought. Never again could I know the simple, secure Midwestern insularity of my youth. The war was an epic of courage and national will, but it also forever destroyed the youthful illusion that one had ultimate control over one's individual destiny.
In 1944, in the midst of the carnage of World War II, Avery, McCarty, and McLeod at the Rockefeller Institute demonstrate that the "transforming principle"—a substance extracted from one strain of Pneumococcus that could, hereditarily, alter the properties of a second strain, so as to make it resemble the first—is, in fact, composed of DNA. This most surprising and significant result provided the first direct evidence that DNA played a major role in the transmission of hereditary information.