Giebien Na interviews Professor James Nolan

My name is Giebien Na, and I graduated Williams College in June 2020. I recently talked to Chair of Anthropology and Sociology and Washington Gladden Professor of Sociology James Nolan about a subject near to his heart that has been garnering national attention. Read our conversation below!

Hi Professor Nolan! Thanks so much for your time in letting me interview you. I hope you’ve been well.

JN: Well enough given the challenging circumstances in which we are all living. I’m happy for the chance to talk with you.

Well, let’s get right into it! To start off, the focus of our conversation today will be about your class, Going Nuclear: American Culture in the Atomic Age, which I had the pleasure of taking with you in Fall of 2019. Looking at the other classes that you teach and the more recent books that you’ve written, it looks like it’s a little bit of an outlier to your normal research interests. Can you tell me a little more about the class and what inspired you to offer it?

JN: The class was inspired by a project that I began working on several years ago.  After my dad passed away in 2012, I was given a box of papers and artifacts that he had quietly kept for many years.  The box, which no one except my dad even knew existed, contains a treasure trove of information about my grandfather’s experience on the Manhattan Project.  My grandfather (Dr. James F. Nolan) was an ob-gyn radiologist and was recruited by Robert Oppenheimer, scientific head of the Manhattan Project, to run the hospital in Los Alamos.  Over time Dr. Nolan took on a variety of interesting roles in the early nuclear age.

Obviously, I’ve heard the backstory before, but I still get chills thinking about how personal your connections are to the Manhattan Project. Let’s dig into a specific moment of the class. There was one lecture, somewhere in the middle of the semester, where you began by asking us if anybody had heard of the USS Indianapolis. I certainly hadn’t, and I remember that you drew blanks on most of my classmates’ faces as well. Why study a navy ship in a class about the atom bomb?

JN:  The Indianapolis secretly carried the uranium (U-235) bomb from San Francisco to Tinian Island.  At Tinian, the bomb (nicknamed “Little Boy”) was assembled and put on board the Enola Gay for its fateful flight to Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. After its successful delivery of Little Boy, the Indianapolis was briefly directed to Guam, and then sent to Leyte in the Philippines to join the rest of the U.S. fleet preparing for the anticipated land invasion of Japan…

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the bomb being on the ship was a pretty heavily guarded secret.

JN: Yes, it was. The 18 by 24 inch canister of subcritical uranium was so secret that not even the captain of the Indianapolis was informed of the contents, which were estimated at the time to be worth $300 million. After boarding the ship, my grandfather…

Sorry, Dr. Nolan was on the ship? What was the head doctor of Los Alamos doing escorting the bomb to Japan?

JN: General Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, wanted both a security courier and a medical/scientific courier.  My grandfather was the latter, and he carried with him a Geiger counter and other radiation measuring instruments to test the bomb while en route.  He was posing as an army artillery officer as he accompanied the bomb aboard the Indianapolis, and he got off at Tinian with Little Boy.

A fake identity! Maybe Dr. Nolan could have been a covert operative in another life if he never became a doctor.

JN: I’m afraid not. Evidently, he did not even know how to wear the army-issued artillery insignia on his uniform, which hung upside down during the journey.  One day aboard the Indianapolis, a navy officer asked my grandfather what size artillery he worked with.  Not knowing the first thing about artillery, he made a circle with his hands and said, “Oh about this big.”  As you could imagine, this was far from a convincing performance.

I can’t stop laughing trying to picture that in my head, although maybe it wasn’t so funny in the moment. Sorry, I promise I’ll stop interrupting you now.

JN: Anyways, though my grandfather was masquerading as an Army artillery officer, he did inform the captain of the ship, Charles McVay, that he was actually a medical doctor and that what he was carrying would do no harm to McVay’s ship or crew.  Bewildered, Captain McVay, stated, “I didn’t think we were going to use bacteriological weapons in this war.”  Because he was sworn to secrecy, Dr. Nolan did not reply, but rather awkwardly walked away. Or, as he put it: “We let it go at that.”

So where’s the ship? The Enola Gay got a museum exhibition for flying the Hiroshima bomb. Surely the Indianapolis has a display somewhere commemorating its service as well.

JN: It’s not in any museum – after Tinian Island and the short stay at Guam, the Indianapolis never made it to Leyte. A Japanese submarine, captained by Mochitsura Hashimoto, spotted the Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea just after midnight on July 31, 1945. Hashimoto hit the Indianapolis with two torpedoes, sinking the vessel in less than 12 minutes. Between 800 and 900 of the nearly 1,200 crew members abandoned ship and were stranded in the open waters for nearly four days, suffering brutal deaths by dehydration, shark attacks, or even acts of violence at the hands of hallucinating shipmates. It was a horrifying experience.

Alright, so I’ll admit I remember more about the USS Indianapolis than I’ve let on so far. I wouldn’t have been a very good student if I hadn’t actually remembered any of this, now would I? (*nervous laughter*) …So anyways, the Indianapolis tragically became (arguably) the worst disaster in Navy history, and Captain Charles McVay’s reward for surviving the loss of his ship was… a court-martial? I seem to recall that none of his crew blamed him for the sinking.  

JN: McVay’s court-martial was, in fact, a grave injustice.  With the loss of more than 870 crewmembers and the shockingly long delay in any rescue effort, the sinking of the Indianapolis was an embarrassment to the navy.  Thus, there was the need for a fall guy. Because it was late at night, and visibility had been low, the ship was not zig-zagging (a strategy used to throw off enemy ships) at the time of the attack, a tactic that had been left to the discretion of the captain.  This was the ostensible infraction for which McVay was court-martialed.  As a consequence, for years thereafter he received hate mail from the families of the sailors who went down with the ship.  McVay finally had enough and in 1968, using his navy-issued revolver, took his own life outside his Connecticut home.

As you rightly note, surviving crew members supported their captain.  My grandfather also expressed deep sympathy for McVay and felt he had been used as a scapegoat.  Why did the navy act as it did?  At the time, the navy’s very relevance was in question.  The United States had just ended the war with two atom bombs.  With the possession of such destructive weapons, some began to ask uncomfortable questions about the need for a large and expensive navy.

Why spend years designing and building an aircraft carrier when one bomb can just blow it out of the water?

JN: Yes, that was the basic question being asked. Therefore, the navy was at the time very sensitive to bad publicity.  Concern about its perceived obsolescence would also play a role in the testing of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands in the summer of 1946.

If I remember correctly, the powers that be were so desperate to make McVay look at fault that the U.S. even brought in the Japanese commander of the submarine, Hashimoto, to testify against McVay. Surely, that can’t be standard practice.

JN: It was certainly an unprecedented move.  The military brought to Washington, D.C. an enemy combatant to testify against one of its own officers.  Hashimoto’s testimony, however, essentially backfired.  He stated that it didn’t matter whether the Indianapolis was zig-zagging or not.  The ship was travelling alone, without escort (although McVay had requested one), and Hashimoto knew that he could hit his target.

Hashimoto later attended the 49th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and met some of the survivors of the Indianapolis.  Through a translator, he said to them, “I came here to pray with you for your shipmates whose deaths I caused.”  They forgave him, and members of Hashimoto’s family were eventually invited to attend the annual reunions of the Indianapolis survivors.

The Indianapolis makes a cameo in Jaws, and we watched in class the scene where the ship is referenced. But ultimately, this is a movie about a bloodthirsty shark, not a naval disaster. What does Jaws really add to our story? 

JN: In the scene we watched in class, a grizzly boat captain named Quint, played by Robert Shaw, discusses the sinking of the Indianapolis and the four dreadful days the crewmembers endured floating in the Philippine Sea.  In 1996, an eleven-year-old named Hunter Scott, from Pensacola, Florida watched the movie with his father and, after viewing that scene, asked him if the Indianapolis story was true.  After his dad confirmed that it was, Hunter Scott decided to explore the event as part of a 6th grade history project.

I have the utmost respect for 6th graders, but the project probably consisted of a quick Google search, skimming over a Wikipedia entry or two, and a good excuse to rewatch Jaws for fun, right? Isn’t that pretty much how all essays are written?

JN: I hope that is not how you write your papers at Williams. As it concerns Hunter Scott’s research, the first thing Hunter Scott did was to put an ad in the local paper looking for any nearby survivors.  One responded and confirmed the basic account given in Jaws.  Hunter then got a list of all the remaining survivors and sent them a survey.  At the time, 154 survivors were still alive.  More than 80 responded.  One of the questions was about McVay, and the responses were unanimous: the survivors believed their captain had been treated unfairly by the navy.  Hunter Scott’s project won his school’s history competition and was later displayed in the district office of then-Congressman Joe Scarborough, who at the time represented Florida’s 1st District.  It was spotted by a local reporter and then generated more widespread media attention.

Okay, so maybe I need to rethink my approach to writing papers. What do you think it means that an 11-year-old kid could accomplish and place the national spotlight on something that nobody else could?

JN: Yes, it is rather remarkable, isn’t it?  In one sense, he was in the right place at the right time.  Others had been making efforts to clear McVay’s name, including the survivors, members of McVay’s family, and even the captain of the Japanese submarine that sunk the Indianapolis.  In fact, Hashimoto played a critical role in getting the Senate to finally pass a resolution in 2000 to exonerate McVay.  In November 1999, Hashimoto wrote a letter to Senator John Warner, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urging Warner and his colleagues to clear McVay of any wrongdoing: “I have met many of your brave men who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis,” Hashimoto wrote. “I would like to join them in urging that your national legislature clear their captain’s name.  Our peoples have forgiven each other for that terrible war and its consequences. Perhaps it is time your peoples forgave Captain McVay for the humiliation of his unjust conviction.”  In 2000, Congress passed a resolution exonerating McVay.  One year later, the navy followed suit.

Well, I’ve taken up a ton of time from you here and we barely only covered one aspect of what was an incredible class. Just before we go, a quick question with a broader scope: you’re a professor of sociology, but your Going Nuclear class is also cross-listed under history (which is what I took it as). How would you characterize the difference between the two disciplines in what they study and what they try to achieve?

JN: Well, I very much see them as complementary disciplines.  When I first offered the course at Williams, I had the good fortune of co-teaching it with historian Jessica Chapman.  History has always been an important part of sociology.  As C. Wright Mills puts it in his book, The Sociological Imagination, “all sociology worth its name is historical sociology.”  I should add that my work on this topic is not only an historical account of the contributions of the doctors on the Manhattan Project, but also a sociological assessment of the role of technology in society more generally.  I see the atom bomb as the defining and determinative technological innovation of the twentieth century, the consequences of which provide important lessons for our discovery and use of new and emerging technologies.  History, as such, necessarily informs our contemporary situation.

Thanks so much, Professor! It was great to have you.

JN: Thanks Giebien, it’s been a pleasure.



If you want to learn more about Professor Nolan’s work on the topic, check out this piece in the Williams Spring Magazine issue, this recent feature with Inside Edition, or read his newly released book, Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, reviewed by the New York Times here.