The Manhattan Project

George Allen's interview

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George Allen's Interview

George Allen flew B-29s during World War II. He was in Alamogordo, New Mexico, when the Trinity test was conducted, and witnessed the explosion from far away. He shares his thoughts on the Manhattan Project’s effects on the war, as well as the difference in attitudes about war between then and now.
Date of Interview: 
2014
Location of the Interview: 
Louisiana
Transcript: 

George Allen: Alright. This is in Alexandria, Louisiana at the city park. My name is George Allen. G-E-O-R-G-E, A-L-L-E-N.

Interviewer: Alright and where was your place and date of birth?

Allen: I was born right in Alexandria on September the 10th, 1925.

Interviewer: Okay. How did you first become involved with the Army Air Force?

Allen: Well, when the war began in ‘39, the European war, Hitler ran all over Europe. And of course we knew eventually we would get into the fight. And most of the guys that I knew, right here at Bolton High School, had some sort of idea what they wanted to do when their time came to get in, assuming it’d last that long. So I loved the Air Force. A lot of my friends like the Navy. Some liked the Army, but I chose the Air Force. And in so doing, I just started accumulating news items and things that I thought were of interest. And I just got to where I wanted to be part of it—as did most young males in those days. That was not unusual. Everybody wanted to get in the fight.

Interviewer: What was special about your background or abilities in education that made you a good candidate?

Allen: Well, when I was at Bolton in my senior year, they gave us a test—all the senior boys. By the secretary of the army and if you passed it, I mean passed meant in those days, in this particular test, a very high grade—like get a 97 percentile. If you didn’t make that much, you were not considered a candidate. It was for going to LSU, getting a civil engineers degree in three years and then being put in the army as an officer. And of course, it was a great deal and I was one of two who passed that luckily.

And I got the deal. My mom was happy about it. I wasn’t and I went to my dad, I said, look I don’t particularly want to do that. He said here’s what we’re going to do. You’re still seventeen. He said, “You go ahead and go to LSU for a year, you’ll be eighteen. You do what you want after that.”

So I did go for one term at LSU and decided I wanted to go in the Air Force. Went out to Harding Field, Baton Rouge and signed up, became a member of the Air Force. And they called me in early 1944. Of course, everybody wanted to be a pilot, but the European war was winding down then, and we had lost so many aircraft on daylight bombing—the British did the night bombing, we did the day time bombing—and our attrition rate was high. We’d lose twenty to thirty B-17’s and that is nine guys to a plane. So they would train pilots very rapidly and when the time came for us to get in at a later date, they had excess number of pilots.

So when I got to what’s called classification, they told me and the other cadets that we were only going to be given a choice of navigator or bombardier.  No more pilots. So of course we were disappointed, but they did give the option to the cadets of resigning. They’d have to stay in about another six months and one of my friends in Alexandria took that option. He was still in it. And I stayed in and became a navigator and was assigned to B-29’s.

Interviewer: That was back when navigating—there wasn’t any computers.

Allen: No sir. You had what you call an E-6B. It was called a computer but it was like a slide rule really. And we did have radar. We had just gotten radar—it was very new. And I can remember the radar guy sat mid ships and I was up front, right behind the pilot. And here’s another thing about your B-29: it had a tunnel. All of this was pressurized and to save room and pressurization techniques, they had a tunnel to crawl from the front of the airplane to mid-ships. And every time you had to go, that’s the way you went.

So I wanted to go back and look at the radar, and they always told us, when you get in that tunnel, you get and go, because if you have a depressurization, you’re a missile. The pressure decreases, you go shooting out of there like a cannonball. We had reports of one such incident where the guy was just squashed against the wall. So, that’s how that went in those days.

Interviewer: What did you first know about the Trinity test, which was of course, the world’s first explosion of an atomic bomb?

Allen: Well, we knew absolutely nothing about it. On that particular day, July the 16th, 1945, we were scheduled for an early morning flight. Our flights in the B-29 would go anywhere from six to fourteen hours. We had the capability of staying up fourteen hours. I don’t recall the extent of the one we had that morning, but probably around eight hours.

So we got up at 4:00am and got prepared—went to the mess hall and got something to eat. Pre-flighted the airplane, which takes about forty-five minutes. Certain areas, each flight guy was responsible for. And I remember one of the final things we did was to walk through the props. Each of us grabbed a propeller and pushed it. We had to be sure, of course, that the ignition wasn’t on.  

And well, always the co-pilot went up there and on this particular day, he went up and sat up there and we got a little antsy—somebody did—and pushed the props through twice. This guy was banging on the wall, he hadn’t turned the switches off then. If that thing had caught, we’d have wound up probably in New Mexico North or something like that. We had a lot of fun.

Interviewer: Now, do you recall the blast? I mean—

Allen: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Interviewer: I mean what the sky looked like? And what did you feel?

Allen: It was dark. It was 5:30 in the morning and when we got ready to take off, [we] called the tower as usual and the pilot asked me what heading and I gave it to him. And so tower said, “Hold.” Not unusual, you know, somebody’s got something going on ahead of us. Well about ten minutes later, we made another attempt, another hold. The third time they told us, we’ll call you. So we sat there for quite a while—probably another twenty or thirty minutes.

And almost 5:30am on the dot, it lit up just like the sky today. It was pitch dark and just slowly the light came. Slowly it subsided—had no idea what it was—not even an inkling. We were told that an arsenal had exploded. Of course we knew better than that. If they knew it was going to happen, and they did, I think they’d have stopped it.

Interviewer: Now did the ground shake or anything?

Allen: No sir. We didn’t see anything other than illumination. We didn’t hear anything nor did we feel anything. It was just a little bit too far away—I think it was about thirty or forty miles, so.

Interviewer: Now you were told that it was an arsenal explosion.

Allen: Yeah. Oh, of course, we’re not that stupid, I don’t think.

Interviewer: What did you think it was?

Allen: Had no idea. See the atomic bomb at that time, you know, I didn’t even know what it was. I’d never heard of it. We knew rudiments of the atom—it could be made to provide a lot of energy—but we didn’t have any idea anything like this was in the books.

Interviewer: Now when did you first hear about the Manhattan Project and the testing of the first bomb?

Allen: Well, when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima we had the idea that that’s what it was. And of course the announcement came later that the bomb test was made at Alamogordo. And that’s the one we saw.

Interviewer: How much of this information did you learn through the proper channels or through scuttlebutt?

Allen: No, we didn’t know anything other than what we saw and heard because it was obvious when we heard about the Hiroshima bomb that that’s what we had seen. So we had no formal idea of what it was. It was just a pretty solid guess.

Interviewer: Okay. Describe your experience with the army Air Force. And were you assigned to go to the Pacific and were you involved in the invasion?

Allen: Well this [the atomic bomb] probably may have saved my skin. Because yes, we were at that particular mission I just told you about when the bomb went off, we were on our next to last training mission. We had one more after that and we would have gone to Pacific and coursed to Saipan or Tinian—one of those islands where the B-29’s were stored. We would have gone from there to the Japanese islands and back which is about 2500-3000 mile round trip.

And along those lines, of course, we were subject to enemy attack, especially when we got close to the Japanese islands. But luckily, I didn’t have to go. I would have loved to have gone just a little bit because the training process we went through, about a year and a half altogether, was wasted. And I would have loved to have gone and survived of course. But all that training for nothing!

Interviewer: Being a young gung-ho soldier—

Allen: Yeah. Everybody had that idea. Yeah. Yeah.

Interviewer: Yeah and it’s kind of like a let down—you get all that, you’re raring to go.

Allen: I’m sure. It’s like anything you prepare for and spend a lot of time with and get all pumped for it and it doesn’t happen.

Interviewer: Now were you aware of the planned invasion of the Japanese?

Allen: Well we knew that from the island hopping we were doing, you know, that’s when you had all those islands, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and more and more of them was being taken over by that Allies at that time. And eventually went to Okinawa, which was the last land battle. Had we not dropped that bomb, I really believe that the Japanese would have, civilian and all, fought us all the way across that Japanese homeland because they decided we weren’t going to take it.

Interviewer: How’s that affect you attitude towards the atomic bomb?

Allen: Well, I’m sorry to see all those people killed, naturally. But when I heard about Pearl Harbor, my dad and the whole family, once in a while he’d scoop us and take us on a little weekend ride. And we went to New Orleans that morning in the car just driving around. And about 11:00 in the morning, I think, the radio was going and it broke in and announced that. I thought it was some sort of a drama they were putting on it. But it was not of course. And my dad said we’re going home—which we did. And I recall what happened: my mom and my two sisters and myself had a Pontiac Sedan and on the way back home, there were servicemen lined along the highway trying to get back to their bases and we picked up four of them.

And I often think, I’m sure some of those were killed because they were the ones that bore the brunt; they were already in the service. And as far as the Japanese, I regret they had to lose a lot of people with the bombs, but if the other alternative was to invade, there would’ve been a lot of people killed, including their people and our people. And they were suicidal. I really believe they would have fought to the last person.

Interviewer: Do you remember any humorous incidents or do you have any funny personal stories to share about your time?

Allen: Yeah, I guess. I remember one time we were had a training fight. And the bombardier and I were good friends and this was after the bomb fell, but we were still training. So we were kind of goofing around really and we were going out in the Pacific somewhere to make a so-called bomb run on something out there. And so the pilot told me, he said, “Why don’t you sit up there in the nose and navigate. All this is unnecessary anyway.”

So the bombardier and I switched places. And I wore what you call a chest chute—snaps on. So when I got up there in the nose, I took that chute off, put it by me, and I began navigating what they call pilotage—looking at the ground. The bombardier went back there and went to sleep in my seat. And when we got near the IP—the initial point— where the bombing [was], I called him about ten minutes ahead.

And I said, “Come on up here, we’ve got to swap. We’ve got to get that bomb sideways.”

He did and I did. And I neglected to pick up my chute, which was still in the nose and I went back to my seat. And my bombardier, John Novak—with whom I still correspond by the way—looked up and said he saw this B-29 coming either at us or going away. And he assumed the plane was going away to bomb the same thing we were. And he said he looked up again, and the airplane was getting closer. So he turned around the pilot, about half asleep, and he hit him on the knee and woke him up and he reared back on the yolk like that and the plane went up. And I don’t think the other guy ever saw it, but I’m sure we came within a football field of being hit. It was not funny at the time, but it is now [laugh]. We had several incidents like that.

Interviewer: Now you’ve already answered about how you feel about the decision to drop the bomb on Japan. How do you feel about the Manhattan Project and the making of the atomic bomb? I mean, it’s sort of like a Pandora’s Box?

Allen: Yeah, that was all necessary. Anytime you have a piece of armament, that’s of benefit to your side. I don’t think you’ve got to consider it, excluding of course, chemical warfare. I don’t think that should be included. Anything of an explosive nature, no matter how destructive it is, I think it’s what they should be used and we did. And it probably saved quite a number of us.

Interviewer: How would you describe the legacy of the Manhattan Project?

Allen: Well, I have mixed emotions about it. I realize the number of people that were killed by the bomb, and it was probably close to 200,000. But you put that against the number of people that we would have lost in the invasion plus the number of people the Japanese would have lost, I do believe that’s minimal number. And so I’m positive about it. I regret there were civilians that were lost, most of them. But there was no other way. If we hand to fight hand to hand across there, it wouldn’t have been beneficial to us.

Interviewer: There was a lot of things that have come out of those experiments—a lot of energy and whatnot through that. I mean, what’s your take on that?

Allen: Well, I tell you. That’s one reason why I sort of initiated what we’re doing right now. At the time that this happened, I was nineteen. Most of the people in the Manhattan Project were elderly—not necessarily elderly, but well up into adulthood—thirty, forty or so. That meant, now, ‘45 to 2000—that’s fifty-five plus fourteen—that’s sixty-nine years ago this happened. And most of those were thirty plus—that makes those people ninety-nine to one hundred years old. I doubt there’s many left. And if something isn’t done to record this like you’re doing now, in a couple years we might all be gone. So that’s why I appreciate what your company is doing to let us have a little say so about this and get it before the public.

Interviewer: Now you said that you still talk to your bombardier, John, there?

Allen: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. The fact of the matter is, he supposed to be in on this too. I gave his name to the lady up at the museum and she was going to get in contact with him because as I said, the numbers are dwindling and that’s what bothers me. In another two years, three years there may not be any of us left. So it’s good to get all recorded and I think the futures generations to realize what the guys went through in World War II.

I tell you, the young lady I married, I went right there to Bolton High School with her. And to show how things were in those days, when I left here, of course she was still a junior. Well I told her, I said, “Look, you can’t go hole yourself up in a room waiting on me. I hope we get back together.”

And she said, “I don’t want to go out.”

I said, “You do it anyway.”

So she had dates and then about six months into my longevity there in the Air Force, I get a letter from her, “I’m not going out anymore. I’m not having any fun.”

And that was the mindset of people in those days. If you sacrifice, somebody in your family was going to try to do the same or somebody you knew. When I got back home in January of ‘46, we got married in March of ‘46. And she passed away about two years ago, but that shows you the dedication people had in those days. It was not cursory. It was factual. And so that’s just it.

Interviewer: You all were married how long?

Allen: Sixty-five years when she passed away. Yeah.

Interviewer: Sixty-five years. And you’re lifelong residents of central Louisiana?

Allen: Yeah, I was. She lived in Stempel for a while and came here in Pineville. That’s where I met her. But yeah, I lived in Alexandria all my life. My dad was a locksmith and gunsmith. In those days you did everything. When I came back, I was going to college—I hoped to. I had a year in already. And it so happened he was getting pretty ill. So I took over the family business and that’s what I did all my life until 2005 when I retired. I was eighty then. So, I worked until I was almost eighty.

Interviewer: Wow. I agree with you. I mean, I’m a third generation vet. My grandfather was in World War II—and grandmother. My father was in Vietnam and I was in Desert Storm.

Allen: Really?

Interviewer: Yes sir. And what I’ve seen or what I’ve noticed in talking to my dad—my grandfather died when I was young—I didn’t really know him. But talking to other World War II vets and talking to my father and then my experiences, and then I have some friends who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s changed tremendously. I mean just the wartime experience.

Allen: Well, it’s sad to say it has. And I don’t think for the better. It’s just one of those things our population is getting, I think, more like “me, me, me.” It’s not like “What can I do for my country?” like Kennedy said. It’s “What I can do for me?” It’s the reverse philosophy. And unfortunately that’s the way people are nowadays. And I don’t, you know, criticize them for it, but I wish it were more in a patriotic vein like it used to be. It just isn’t. In fact the population is getting more, I think, divided over issues that they really shouldn’t. There’s not a lot we can do about it, but that’s okay.

Interviewer: Well but there seems to be those who, specifically Marines, Army, you know Air Force, you know, those who go into the service have a different mindset as far as the nation goes.

Allen: I think so. I think so because they are responsible people. They wouldn’t have done what they did—most of them volunteered. There was not a whole lot of draft in recent years. And they were ready to make the sacrifice, and then they did. Some of them paid the price. Some of them died, some of them came back in horrible condition, but I hope they’re taken care of. It’s just the duty of the country to do that stuff because they gave all for us.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Allen: And I think it’s just philosophy to do that.

Interviewer: And that mentality, that mindset, in the forties, in the thirties, forties, fifties, actually it kind of ended in the fifties as far as you know, when you had the Beatnik Revolution kind of. But I mean that mentality—scrap drives and the war bonds and stuff like that.

Allen: That’s another thing about my girlfriend, future wife. I had a little Chevrolet Coupe and the first time we went out together was informal—we went on a little scrap drive at Bolton High School. And she and I went scrapping. And it led to a great life. It’s one of kind with her—had a nice big family and so forth.

Interviewer: How many kids do you all have?

Allen: We had seven. Two of them passed away already. And she passed away, so it was a great time. My life has been fun.

Interviewer: Seven kids—that’s a lot of kids.

Allen: It is, but she enjoyed it and I enjoyed it. And it’s nice to have them now as adults. My son lives with me and takes care of his old man. So it’s nice to have him around. But it’s been a good life for me and I can’t complain if I’m not here tomorrow.

Interviewer: Now did you all stay together or stay in touch as far as your whole bomb crew—your whole flight crew?

Allen: Two of the guys on my crew I corresponded with in addition to my bombardier—three altogether. But those two passed away, so only the bombardier, John Novak and I correspond. I do not know what happened to the rest of them. There was a sort of a catastrophe in the records keeping with the armed forces. They lost a bunch of records. So I was unable to find out where my buddies went.

Interviewer: How was it going from Alexandria, Louisiana to Alamogordo, New Mexico?

Allen: Well, there was several stops along the way other than that, but we didn’t get out a lot. We were continually training and going out on the town was not something we had the liberty to do too much. But I enjoyed every place I went. I mostly was around this local in Texas had a lot of air fields there, and New Mexico and so forth. That’s generally the area where we stayed.

Interviewer: Now you all were in there during winter or summer?

Allen: Well, I was in two and half years.

Interviewer: Two and half years in Alamogordo?

Allen: No, no. Alamogordo I was there from…practically the whole year of 45. Most of 45.

Interviewer: I’ve been to Phoenix and I lived in Colorado. That’s where I met my wife right after Desert Storm. It gets hot. It’s a different kind of heat, isn’t it?

Allen: I should have told you something, I neglected about—

Interviewer: I’m still recording.

Allen: Okay. After the bomb went off, of course they wouldn’t let us fly around there nor were we able to go look at it. But several weeks after that, we were allowed to go.  And we saw areas there that was congealed in sort of a glass finish—very slick looking. That sand had melted at a very high degrees was the temperature of that. And we saw some cattle that obviously were somewhat involved in it because the pelt on one side of the hide was white. And I’m sure they died later on. But that was a very light bomb compared to the rest of them and the damage it there impressed me so I know what the others heavy bombs did.

Interviewer: Now Trinity explosion, how big was that? Do you remember the tonnage on that?

Allen: I do not. I think it was a hundred—I better not say because I don’t know. But it was the lightest one they had because there were even scientists who thought it was going to blow up the whole state. You know some of these guys thought a chain reaction was going to happen. Thank God it didn’t.

Interviewer: Yeah, I know that was one of the theories that actually could be the end of the universe if you do this.

Allen: Absolutely. Of course, you know, atomic reactions are going on in the sun every second on the second. And we get these flares from the sun, so I don’t suppose it’s very likely that we’d ever get a chain reaction. But I was impressed by what I saw after the fact and I wouldn’t have wanted to have been around there when it happened. It sure devastated everything.

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