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To scoop the world on the atomic bomb, a reporter vanished into the corridors of top-secret power

In early May 1945, U.S. Army Major General Leslie R. Groves visited the New York Times offices on West 43rd Street to talk with managing editor Edwin James. After he  and Groves had conferred, James called science reporter William L. Laurence into his office.

Groves said he wanted Laurence to work on a vital wartime task. Sure, Laurence said, what was the job? Groves would say only that for the duration, Laurence would be detached from the Times, working in absolute secrecy. No one would know where he was or what he was doing.

“If this is about the atomic bomb, I need to see everything,”the newsman replied, looking the general in the eye. “I need to go to the labs and plants in Oak Ridge and New Mexico and Washington State. I’m the kind of reporter who has to have firsthand knowledge and access.”

Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project, a secret Army Corps of Engineers program named for the New York borough where it began, didn’t flinch.“You’ll go to all those places, Mr. Laurence,” he said.“And much farther.”

Laurence, who recognized the significance of atomic energy long before any of his colleagues did, had been on the story from its beginnings. At a Columbia University conference in February 1939 he learned the military potential of an atomic “chain reaction.” Immediately Laurence became an atomic Paul Revere, warning anyone who would listen what it would mean if Nazi Germany got the ultimate weapon. Laurence’s alarms went largely ignored, even after his six-column feature headlined“Vast Power Source in Atomic Energy Opened by Science” ran on May 5, 1940.

Groves approached Laurence because Laurence knew the subject, because he wrote for the nation’s newspaper of record— and because letting Bill Laurence in on America’s biggest secret was the easiest way to put a leash on a tenacious reporter.

Laurence—who later joked that Groves realized he had to hire him, or shoot him—had come far from Lithuania, where he was born to Jewish parents who named him Lieb Wolf Siew. In the 1905 revolution, a Czarist policeman broke the young man’s nose with a rifle butt. Soon after, the 17-year-old Siew sailed to New York and headed for Boston, where he renamed himself William Leonard Laurence. He attended Harvard College and Boston University, and in 1913 became an American citizen. During World War I Laurence enlisted in the Army Signal Corps, for which he wrote psychological warfare pamphlets and worked as a translator.

After the war, Laurence enrolled at Harvard Law School. In 1925, degree in hand but still rebel enough to spurn a lucrative tax law position, he returned to New York. Roped into a trivia game at a party, he beat the reigning champ, publisher Herbert Bayard Swope, who hired Laurence as a reporter for his New York World. In 1930 Laurence joined the Times, where in 1936 his science writing earned him a Pulitzer Prize. By 1945, he and his wife Florence had a nice place on the Upper East Side. Short and dark with a slight accent and crooked nose, Laurence seemed more prizefighter gone to seed than top journalist. And now the former revolutionary would have the story of the century all to himself.

There was a catch. As official chronicler of the Manhattan Project, Laurence would be working not only with government approval but under government control. Not one article, one sentence, one word would go out unless Groves gave the nod. Laurence would be writing press releases, public statements, and other official communications. Not only would he be the Manhattan Project’s historian—he would be its press agent.

Some reporters, Groves said, might have a problem with that. Not Laurence. He saw the Manhattan Project offer as another chance to serve his adopted country. He could live with secrecy: since Pearl Harbor he and his ilk had been censoring themselves to protect national secrets of many sorts. And since he would be detached from the Times, he saw no conflict of interest.

Groves told Laurence to wind up his affairs and report to him the following Monday in Washington, D.C. Laurence was at home over the weekend when reality hit. He answered the door to find two uniformed men. The soldiers presented a document dense with ominous phrases: “strictly confidential,”“hazardous project,” “no liability on the part of the U.S. government,” “accepts full responsibility,” “subject to military discipline.” As the soldiers watched him read and sign the papers, Laurence realized that he essentially was being drafted. Fortunately Florence was out walking the dog.

“I couldn’t tell anyone, neither my friends nor my wife, what I was going to do,” he later wrote. “In fact, I didn’t know myself too well. I was going into the unknown.”

With a disingenuous explanation to Florence, Laurence disappeared into “Atomland-on- Mars,” as he came to call his temporary home, a netherworld where he “met the impossible everywhere I went.” He saw enormous uranium separation plants at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; the plutonium-producing reactors of Hanford, Washington; the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where in 1942 Enrico Fermi had achieved the first controlled chain reaction; and the nerve center—the laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, that J. Robert Oppenheimer headed. From his office at Oak Ridge, Laurence could go anywhere, buttonhole anyone, ask any question, and write up what he learned. His observations were locked in a safe marked TOP SECRET. Every night, janitors collected and burned Laurence’s stray notes and the contents of his wastebasket. These men, like Laurence, had been specially selected. They were illiterate backwoodsmen.

After 18 years in journalism, Laurence chafed at his new role. “It was very difficult for me to see these tremendous developments which should have been page one stories,” he wrote. “There I am seeing them and I can’t say a word.” Aside from occasional censored letters to Florence, who could reach him only through a post office box, Laurence had no contact with the greater world.

The exception came in mid-July 1945, when Groves let him send the Times a brief update. In a few weeks, a bomb would explode over Japan, and Laurence wanted his bosses to be ready for a big story—even if he couldn’t tell it quite yet.

“I have covered lots of ground and seen things that made me dizzy. In fact, I have been in a constant state of bewilderment now for some two months and the bigger surprises are still ahead,” Laurence told Edwin James, apologizing for being vague. “It will be an eighth-day wonder…, the world will not be the same.” He would be the only reporter with firsthand knowledge, giving the Times a “considerable edge.”

Once he had posted his letter, Laurence prepared to set out for Alamogordo, New Mexico, from which he would travel to an adjacent wilderness called Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of Death, where he expected to witness the event J. Robert Oppenheimer had labeled Trinity—an atomic bomb test.

But first Laurence had to draft press releases for every imaginable contingency, from success (explained as an accident at an ammunition bunker), to a fizzle, to the destruction of the test site and the death (in a fictitious poison gas accident) of all present, including Groves, Oppenheimer, Fermi, and a certain reporter from a certain big paper back east. The assignment was hardly more surreal to Laurence than writing his own obituary. He thought nothing more could surprise him.

Laurence reached the Trinity site around 2 a.m. on July 16, 1945, aboard an army bus. With scientists and other VIPs he stepped into a miserable cold drizzle. He was irritated. Not only did the weather threaten the test, but his assigned location, Compania Hill, was 20 miles northwest of “ground zero,” as the technicians had come to call the spot where the atomic device was slated to go off. How was he supposed to record a detailed account from that far away?

“Don’t worry, you’ll see all you need to,” a scientist told him. “We want our chronicler to survive.”

Compania Hill wasn’t even in touch with the control bunker. The only radio, a tempermental shortwave unit, was resisting physicist Richard Feynman’s efforts to get it working. No one at the hill knew what time the test was or if the test was even still on.

Hours passed. The weather cleared. Morale lifted. Tensions shifted from frustration that Trinity might be canceled to anticipation that it might happen. Feynman got the radio going long enough to hear that the blast was set for 5:30 a.m.

People began to pick spots, most of them lying prone and, as instructed, protecting their eyes with welders’ goggles or pieces of tinted glass. Watching scientist Edward Teller slather his face and arms with protective unguent before handing the bottle around, Laurence began to have second thoughts. If even at this distance Teller and friends were laying on the suntan lotion, he mused, maybe they really would be seeing something.

A siren echoed, and to the south a green signal rocket flashed: the five-minute warning. Three minutes later the siren whined again, followed by a red rocket.

Welder’s goggles on and notebook in hand, William Laurence crouched on the hillside, staring into the silent void.

At 5:29:45 a.m., the brightest light ever seen on earth pierced the darkness. “There rose as if from the bowels of the earth a light not of this world, the light of many suns in one,”Laurence later wrote.“It was a sunrise such as this world has never seen.”

The luminescence gave way to a “great ball of fire about a mile in diameter, changing colors as it kept shooting upward, from deep purple to orange, expanding, growing bigger, rising as it expanded, an elemental force freed from its bonds after being chained for billions of years,” the journalist continued. “On that moment hung eternity. Time stood still. Space contracted to a pinpoint. It was as though the earth had opened and the skies had split. One felt as though one were present at that moment of creation when God said,‘Let There Be Light.’”

Laurence had entered a new realm of wonder. “We felt as though we were really transported to another planet, to another era, to another civilization,” he later told an interviewer.

The scene so transfixed Laurence that he forgot that light and sound travel at different speeds. As the shock wave and roar belatedly reached Compania Hill, the reporter yelled, “What is this?” The bomb, a bemused Feynman explained.

The scientists were all reacting with glee. “They clapped their hands as they leaped from the ground—earthbound man symbolizing the birth of a new force that gives him the means to free himself from the gravitational bonds that held him down,” Laurence wrote.“The dance of the primitive man lasted but a few seconds, during which an evolutionary period of 10,000 years had been telescoped. Primitive man was metamorphosed in those few seconds into modern man.”

Already Laurence was coining the nomenclature of the atomic age (a term he later invented). His concepts and imagery would inform all the reporting and writing that followed. Oddly, for an Orthodox Jew turned atheist, Laurence favored Biblical imagery: “The story of Creation.… Like being witness to the Second Coming of Christ…, the first cry of a newborn world.”

Later in the day, Laurence spoke with Oppenheimer. The physicist said that as the bomb was going off, he was pondering Hindu scripture:“Now I am become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds.”No one will ever know if Oppenheimer’s thoughts were anything other than sheer relief, but thanks to Laurence, the lyrical quote entered Manhattan Project lore.

The atomic device had worked, the test had ended, and only one chapter of the story remained to witness. The components of the first atomic weapon were bound for the Pacific. Laurence prepared to join them. He had not been in a combat zone in nearly three decades. Now he would accompany American fighting men as they ushered in a hellish form of warfare.

As Laurence was preparing to head west, Groves handed him sealed orders, not to be opened until he reached Guam, and a card assigning his civilian publicist the status and privileges of a colonel in the army. The catch was stamped in bold red: “Valid only if captured by the enemy.” In theory, the Japanese would respect rank. Laurence had no desire to test the theory.

The card certainly was no help catching a flight across the Pacific. As July melted into August, Laurence simmered in San Francisco. Military transport personnel politely ignored his entreaties about having a priority assignment while filling westbound planes and ships with brass and civilian big shots.

It took three days to snag an army transport. The only civilian in a planeload of GIs, Laurence fell asleep expecting to awake in Honolulu, but thanks to engine trouble he woke up back in San Francisco, where he had to wait two more days for a plane.

Laurence reached Guam the morning of August 5. His orders directed him 120 miles south to Tinian Island. There, at 509th Composite Group headquarters, Laurence learned he would not be flying on the first atomic mission. With the uranium device codenamed Little Boy aboard, B-29 transport Enola Gay was overweight. He could catch the next flight—if there was one.

Laurence dutifully spent the day studying Enola Gay and its eerie cargo, bound for Hiroshima, and talking with crewmen. He persuaded copilot Captain Robert A. Lewis to keep a log and take notes Laurence would use in a Times story. He attended a briefing by 509th commander Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, and at 2:45 a.m. on August 6 watched Tibbets take Enola Gay aloft. With the rest of Tinian, Laurence agonized through hours of radio silence. Finally, just after 9:30 a.m. came the message: “Mission successful.”

On August 7, Laurence made his first B-29 trip, a Hiroshima reconnaissance flight that also carried leaflets. Dropped by the million that day all over Japan, the broadsheet had largely been written by William L. Laurence. “To the Japanese People,” the message began.“America asks that you take immediate heed of what we say on this leaflet. We are in possession of the most destructive explosive ever devised by man…. We have just begun to use this weapon against your homeland. If you still have any doubt, make inquiry as to what happened to Hiroshima when just one atomic bomb fell on that city. Before using this bomb to destroy every resource of the military by which they are prolonging this useless war, we ask that you now petition the Emperor to end the war. Our President has outlined for you the 13 consequences of an honorable surrender…. You should take steps now to cease military resistance. Otherwise, we shall resolutely employ this bomb and all our other superior weapons to promptly and forcefully end the war.”

Japan ignored the demand to surrender. The evening of August 8, while watching a noisy craps game at the officers’ club, Laurence was summoned to the commander’s office. In the morning, another B-29 would drop a second bomb on Japan. Laurence would be going along.

Within hours, Laurence was aboard Artiste B-29s that were head separately for Japan. Bock’s Car, piloted by Major Charles W. Sweeney, carried the plutonium bomb codenamed Fat Man, which Groves wanted dropped without radar to ensure accuracy and a clear view of the effects. Big Stink was the camera plane. On Artiste, crammed with scientific instruments, Laurence perched atop a metal box and began to make notes.

Weather craft whose crews would pick the target had left long before.“The winds over Japan will make the decision,” Laurence scribbled.“If they carry heavy clouds over Kokura, that city will be saved, at least for the time being. Its inhabitants will not know that a wind of a benevolent destiny had passed over their heads. But that same wind will doom Nagasaki.”

The weather planes radioed in: clear skies at Kokura. Artiste and Bock’s Car rendezvoused over the island of Yakoshima. Awaiting Big Stink, the pilots began to circle.

Laurence reflected on the quirks of fate that had caused him to be flying 30,000 feet above enemy territory. “How did I get into this?… We were all creatures of destiny. We were all playing a part on a tremendous stage, the stage of history…in which forces that had been working for thousands of years had finally come to a culminating point.”

He thought about the people below.“All the inhabitants gone to bed, men, women and children…going about their jobs night after night, month after month, week after week, year after year. And here I am,” he wrote.“I am destiny. I know. They don’t know. But I know that this was their last night on earth…. Does one feel any pity or compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks of Pearl Harbor and of the death march on Bataan.”

After nearly an hour, running late and eyeing their fuel gauges, the pilots wrote off Big Stink and turned toward Kokura. But now Kokura was socked in. Bock’s Car made three passes, looking for an in. Flak batteries below began to fire. Fighter planes were taking off. Sweeney headed for his secondary target.

Nagasaki was also cloudy, but at 11:01 a.m. bombardier Kermit Beahan found a window. Aboard the B-29s all hands donned goggles, and Beahan let slip Fat Man. As the planes banked, an unearthly glow flooded Artiste’s cabin.

“The light still lingered on, a bluish-green light that illuminated the entire sky all around,” Laurence wrote.“A tremendous blast wave struck our ship and made it tremble from nose to tail…. Observers in the tail of our ship saw a giant ball of fire rise as though from the bowels of the earth…; next they saw a giant pillar of purple fire, 10,000 feet high, shooting skyward with enormous speed. By the time our ship had made another turn in the direction of the atomic explosion the pillar of purple fire had reached the level of our altitude. Only about 45 seconds had passed. Awestruck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth instead of outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes…. It kept struggling in an elemental fury, like a creature in the act of breaking the bonds that held it down.”

While the B-29s were refueling on Okinawa, Laurence and companions learned that the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan. Around 10:30 p.m., when the planes reached Tinian, Laurence rushed to his typewriter. The copy he hammered out and wired to the New York Times ran under the byline of William H. Lawrence, a war correspondent turned rewrite man. Not until September 9 would a Times story about the atomic bomb appear under Laurence’s name, but in those pages and elsewhere his words were already appearing, verbatim and paraphrased, and always pure Laurence: the Biblical analogies, the “new age,” the notion of creation intertwined with doom.

A third atomic core was being readied and the 509th was preparing another bombing mission when, on August 14, Japan surrendered. The war was over.

Laurence had arranged to accompany a mission to survey Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the ground, but had to drop out when Washington ordered him stateside. The New York Times wanted its star science reporter back—immediately. “That was one of my greatest disappointments,” Laurence recalled.“I had had the biggest assignment that any reporter could have and I wasn’t given the opportunity to…tell the rest of the story.”

The newsroom gave Laurence a hero’s welcome when he arrived in late August.“I don’t think any newspaperman coming back from an assignment got the kind of greeting I got from the staff,” he remembered. In a Times series that began running on September 26, Laurence detailed his odyssey starting with Trinity and using material from the Oak Ridge safe, scrubbed of secrets. His reporting, particularly on the Nagasaki raid, earned him a second Pulitzer.

Eventually returning to the science beat, Laurence came to be known around the newsroom as Atomic Bill to distinguish him from William H. Lawrence, now on the political beat.

More than any individual in the immediate postwar era, William L. Laurence shaped public discourse on the atomic bomb. He evolved in his attitudes from impassioned appeals for international control to unqualified support of the hydrogen bomb and U.S. nuclear superiority once the Soviets went atomic. By the 1950s, he seemed to some to have tilted from being an unbiased journalist to becoming head cheerleader for the atomic establishment. Yet even that changed: the older Laurence— he was the Times science editor when he retired in 1964—was ambivalent about the bomb.

Perhaps William L. Laurence, like so many others present that July morning in New Mexico, never recovered from the experience. He spent his life trying to understand, justify, and accept everything he saw at Trinity and through the Plexiglas of The Great Artiste. As he predicted, after the bomb the world was not the same—but neither was Bill Laurence.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.