When Japan agreed to end World War II 70 years ago, most people probably had no idea what impact the Navy base at Dahlgren had on the conflict.
From producing secret bombsights to providing the brain power to design atomic bombs, the local base “played a key role in winning the war,” said Vice Adm. William Hilarides, who oversees a global workforce of almost 60,000 people. “Dahlgren has a very important place in that history.”
Hilarides was the guest speaker Tuesday at a forum sponsored by the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation. More than 200 people packed the meeting room of the University of Mary Washington’s Dahlgren campus to hear his remarks.
The forum was the second offered by the foundation during the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. This week’s gathering was particularly timely as Japan agreed to end the war on Aug. 15, 1945.
Because of the difference in time zones, that news hit American airwaves the afternoon of Aug. 14, and spontaneous celebrations broke out throughout the country.
The iconic photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York City’s Times Square illustrated the joy of a nation.
Japan officially surrendered Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Allied leaders and Japanese officials gathered for the ceremony in the shadow of the ship’s 16-inch gun barrels.
“Where were those guns proven? Where were those guns partially developed? Right here at Dahlgren,” said Chris Kolakowski, director of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk.
He also spoke at the forum, and he has personal ties to the base. His father, Pete, retired last fall as operations director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.
‘A TREMENDOUS LEGACY’
The younger Kolakowski said the guns on the Missouri looked “like the bristles of a gigantic hedgehog” and were the perfect symbol of Allied power.
That power, as well as the damage inflicted on two Japanese cities by atomic bombs—which also have a connection to Dahlgren—ultimately led to Japan’s surrender.
But first, there were bombsights that helped airplanes wipe out targets throughout Europe.
The Norden bombsight, which was refined and produced at Dahlgren, was so top-secret, it was loaded onto a plane under armed guard and removed as soon as the plane landed, according to the World War II encyclopedia.
Carl Norden, a Dutch engineer who came to the United States in 1904, designed the sight, which “allowed a bomber’s deadly payload to be dropped at exactly the right time needed to hit the target,” the encyclopedia states.
Word was, “bombardiers could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet,” says the World War II encyclopedia.
The bombsight wasn’t invented at Dahlgren, “but it was brought to Dahlgren and improved,” Hilarides said.
“That’s what Dahlgren really does best,” he said. “It takes new innovations, tests them and makes them better.”
By the war’s end, almost 90,000 sights had been produced, mostly for the Army Air Corps.
“Every single one of those came through Dahlgren to be calibrated and accepted by the government,” Hilarides said. “They were critical to both theaters in the World War II and in Korea and Vietnam. That’s a tremendous legacy.”
BRAINS BEHIND THE BOMBS
Navy officials did some preliminary testing at Dahlgren on devices that led to the atomic bomb. But because of security concerns and limited space, the Navy couldn’t bring the atomic bomb to Dahlgren for further development, so it brought Dahlgren officials to the atomic bomb.
Several key players from Dahlgren were sent to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico “to design the weapon side of it,” said Dr. James Colvard, the retired technical director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
Foremost among them was William “Deak” Parsons, a Naval Academy graduate who first came to Dahlgren in 1930—and went on to become a rear admiral.
He was an ordnance officer at the time of the development of the atomic bomb and was critical to the design and testing of the bomb, according to “The Sound of Freedom,” a history of Dahlgren by Rodney Carlisle and James Rife.
As the crew of the Enola Gay prepared to drop the first bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Parsons was concerned.
He had watched four B–29s crash on a runway on Tinian Island, the airstrip in the Pacific Ocean from which the Enola Gay was to deploy.
“He said, ‘If the Enola Gay crashes, we may blow half of Tinian into the water,’” Kolakowski said during the forum.
He convinced others to let the plane take off with an unarmed atomic bomb, saying he could arm it in the air.
He spent the rest of the day practicing “until he ground his fingers down to bloody nubs,” Kolakowski said.
When the plane took off on Aug. 6, 1945, Parsons was airborne when he assembled the bomb known as “Little Boy.”
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Kolakowski said. “He was critical to the mission’s success.”
Dahlgren Commander Frederick Ashworth did the same with the “Fat Man” bomb used in the Nagasaki mission. Colvard said he later had some interesting conversations with Ashworth, asking him how he felt about releasing a bomb he knew would kill 70,000 people.
“He said, ‘I was a part of a process that I did not start, I did not start the war. I had a role to play, and I played the role.’”