Long Island/ August 1, 2020/ News Day — It took 53 seconds for the bomb to fall from the sky.
From the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber more than 30,000 feet over Hiroshima to the detonation altitude of 1,968 feet, where it exploded in a blinding flash of light that vaporized, incinerated and doomed tens of thousands in less time than it took to read this sentence.
Fifty-three seconds to unspeakable horror, to an event that led to the death of at least 80,000 Japanese.
To the course of humankind forever altered.
The explosion was at 8:16 a.m. local time, on Aug. 6, 1945.
Almost 75 years later Meyer Steinberg said the thought of nuclear war remains “terrifying,” calling the ever-present threat that led to decades of Cold War with Russia and the old Soviet Union and new threats from burgeoning nuclear nations like North Korea and Iran “a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.”
But Steinberg, 96, a resident at the Brandywine Senior Living complex in Melville, also said this week: “We were thinking about trying to end the war at the time.”
Steinberg wasn’t aboard the Enola Gay, piloted by Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbetts Jr., as it flew into history, dropping that first atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima. He wasn’t aboard either of the escort B-29 bombers — The Great Artiste and an aircraft later named Necessary Evil — that lifted off that morning from North Field on Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands headed for Kokura, Japan, a city spared when weather forced the three planes to divert to Hiroshima, their secondary target.
And he wasn’t aboard Bockscar, the B-29 that dropped the second atomic bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” Aug. 9, 1945, on Nagasaki.
Meyer Steinberg was among thousands who helped build the bombs.
‘We saved a lot of lives’
He remains proud of that accomplishment because it helped the United States avoid a planned invasion of Japan officials estimated could have cost a million American lives. Because it brought an end to World War II, with Japan signing surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay.
“We saved a lot of lives, American lives, even though a large number of Japanese were killed,” Steinberg said. “We were thinking of how to end the war at the time and we did. What we were working on was successful. You’re in the Army, at war, and it brought it to a conclusion. [U.S. President Harry] Truman made the right decision.”
Born in Philadelphia, Steinberg grew up in Astoria, Queens, and was a graduate of Bryant High School and The Cooper Union in Manhattan when at age 20 he joined the U.S. Army as a private first class in 1944. This was not even three years after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; and five years after Adolf Hitler started World War II with the Sept. 1, 1939, invasion of Poland.
A chemical engineer and scientist, Steinberg found himself assigned to the Manhattan Project — a top-secret research and development group that ultimately built the bomb.
It wasn’t long before Steinberg himself was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, just west of Knoxville, where he worked at the K-25 site — a place where “gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment technology” was engineered, according to the Oak Ridge museum website. Later Steinberg was sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb research was perfected under the leadership of nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer and Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Helped separate isotopes
At K-25, Steinberg worked to separate the uranium-235 isotope from uranium-238 and later worked on the processing of plutonium-239.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation, in partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, has documented the history of the Manhattan Project. The official website notes Steinberg is “a veteran of the Special Engineer Detachment” who worked on both “the Gadget,” as the first bomb was known, “and Fat Man bombs.”
After leaving the Army in 1946, Steinberg earned an advanced engineering degree at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and went to work at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1957, becoming an expert on greenhouse gases and leading research into clean energy in a 41-year career that saw him retire with 38 patents, 500 scientific journal publications and a book on the effects of CO2 and global warming.
Though not present at the Trinity site outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, when the prototype bomb was first tested on July 16, 1945, Steinberg was still at Los Alamos. “We were told about it, we heard about it,” he said. “We heard it was successful. But, we didn’t know then we were going to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All we knew was we had a chance to bring the war to an end.”
As Steinberg said, the initial goal of the project was to build the bomb before scientists in Nazi Germany built one. We knew if they had [the bomb] they’d use it on us,” he said.
The Germans surrendered on May 9, 1945. Steinberg had relatives who died in the Holocaust.
The use of atomic weapons has been controversial since the United States dropped those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the lone use of nuclear weapons. The debate has been the subject of documentaries, scientific papers, protests, novels and movies like the 1964 classic “Dr. Strangelove,” where fictional bomber commander Maj. T.J. Kong rides the bomb like a cowboy.
It was at the heart of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1964 presidential campaign with its infamous “Daisy Girl” TV commercial — where a little girl counts daisy petals leading to the flash of an atomic explosion — urging voters to back President Lyndon B. Johnson instead of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who’d said he’d use the bomb if need be.
Most recently, the Brookings Institution, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit policy organization, urged more “realistic” political approaches to dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran, while the International Atomic Energy Agency website says it “aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology,” as well as “foster the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of disarmament.”
Steinberg said this week that while he still believes the bomb was necessary in World War II, his subsequent role as father of two sons and grandfather of four led to new perspectives — and his hope nuclear weapons will never be used again.
Son Jay Steinberg, 63, a gastroenterologist at New York University-Langone Health, said those perspectives have changed for him, too — from his boyhood in South Huntington to his role as father of three sons and a daughter.
“When you’re growing up talking bragging rights,” he said, “one kid would be like, ‘My dad’s a great athlete’ and another would be like, ‘Yeah, well my dad’s a millionaire.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, well my father built the atom bomb!'” Now, Jay Steinberg said, like his father, he’s simply grateful the world has never had another nuclear war.
“My father was not a political animal,” he said. “He was definitely more of a pacifist.”
Granddaughter Rina Steinberg, 24, of Huntington, said: “My grandfather was the same as any kid of 18 or 19 going off to war who has to kill somebody or be killed. I see my grandfather as someone who fought for his country, but who used his brain instead of a gun … Though I think war is very destructive.”
As a scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Meyer Steinberg said he visited Hiroshima for a seminar in 1980 and was “awed” by the severity of what he saw. The infamous Atomic Bomb Dome at Aioi Bridge, ground zero in August 1945, is home to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum — established in 1955 as a reminder of the horrors of nuclear war.
An introduction to the museum’s English guide notes: “Each of the items displayed embodies the grief, anger, or pain of real people … Hiroshima’s deepest wish is the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the realization of a genuinely peaceful international community.”
As Meyer Steinberg said: “Evidently, people don’t learn enough about the horror of war. But you should learn. Hopefully, this will never happen again.”