By Ed Jones, President of the Dahlgren Heritage Foundation
By 1941, the two men had become a familiar sight on their evening walks across the manicured lawns of the imposing officers’ quarters on the Navy base at Dahlgren. One was the base’s top civilian scientist, often referred to as “Dr. Tommy”; the other was a young naval officer nicknamed “Deak,” with the soul of a sailor and the mind of a scientist.
The friendship and partnership of Dr. L.T.E. Thompson and then Lieutenant Commander William S. “Deak” Parsons would have a huge impact on Dahlgren’s mission and on the Navy’s. Together they dreamed of a naval laboratory where scientists and officers would work closely together on creative research key to the Navy’s future. They would be free of the bureaucratic stagnation and civilian/military rivalry that so often stifled such work. Their dream was a variation of what became known as “the Dahlgren way.”
But the story of Deak Parsons was just getting started in 1941. As the United States teetered on the brink of war, the amiable, reserved Parsons, reared on the plains of New Mexico with its fields of mesquite and cactus, could hardly have imagined what lay ahead over the next 12 years.
By 1943, two years after his evening walks at Dahlgren ended, Parsons had become a key colleague to Dr. Robert Oppenheimer on Project Y, the top-secret initiative in Los Alamos, N.M., to create an atomic bomb. Always a hands-on leader, Parsons would serve as the Navy’s bomb commander on the August 1945 flight of the Enola Gay. The husband and dad who was never handy around the house would crawl into the bay of the B-29 to assemble the Little Boy atomic device on the flight to Hiroshima.
After the war, Parsons became known as “the atomic admiral” — the officer leading the Navy’s post-war projects to harness the power of atomic energy for the needs of the Navy. His commitment to mission ended early with his unexpected death in 1953 from a heart attack at the age of 52.
The naval career of Parsons, from his plebe year at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1921 to his death 32 years later, was one of the most notable and yet underreported stories of naval leadership from the end of one world war to the aftermath of a second. This was in part due to his own humility and self-effacement. But his was indeed a remarkable career, critically shaped, both professionally and personally, by his connections to Dahlgren.
After receiving orders to report to the remote proving ground at Dahlgren for his first assignment there in 1929, Deak and his wife, Martha, are thought to have traveled there on the Grampus, a 1907 river steamer purchased by the Navy. At that time, river travel to Dahlgren was considered preferable, as the roads to Dahlgren were subject to flooding. Parsons thought his new assignment would separate him from his new bride. But with the help of the base commander, Martha was tapped as the manager of the Bachelor Officers Quarters on the base, and the two ended up living there together.
Ten years later, during his second assignment to Dahlgren in 1939, Deak and Martha, along with their two daughters, had a more comfortable living arrangement. They were assigned to one of the 1921 captains’ houses on Sampson Road, with a graciously large lawn and scenic views of Machodoc Creek. This row of four homes remains one of the most beautiful residential areas for naval officers. It provided a source of stability and comfort for the Parsons family during the critical war years of the early 1940s.
Yet Dahlgren wasn’t for everybody, as Al Christman notes in his 1998 book, “Target Hiroshima: Deak Parsons and the Creation of the Atomic Bomb”:
“Life at Dahlgren resembled that of a remote post in the foreign service, only with guns — lots of guns, all kinds of guns, but mainly big guns with barrels as long as seventy feet.” Indeed, the biggest blast of all occurred on the day Deak and Martha arrived in September of 1939 — the firing of an 18-inch gun that, according to Martha, “caused the whole place to nearly fall to pieces.”
As the daughter of an admiral, Martha had no trouble adapting to the sound of the guns. And she thoroughly enjoyed the amenities of Dahlgren as a community. There were tennis courts, sailboats and, as Christman noted, two choices for golf: “Bones Cogswells’ three-hole course in back of the executive officers’ quarters, or the nine-hole sand greens.”
Dahlgren’s splendid isolation lent itself to socializing traditions. The cocktail parties on the base became an art form, particularly for visiting dignitaries. Poker games were also the rage on the base, though Parsons, who was almost always focused on his work, found diplomatic ways to avoid them.
Beyond the community traditions and attributes, there were also career advantages for Parsons at Dahlgren. For an ordnance officer like Parsons, Dahlgren was THE place to be. Writes Christman, “the only way to the top in (naval) ordnance was through Dahlgren,” with its unmatched test range and creative research teams.
Yet Dahlgren had its professional frustrations. Parsons worked with Thompson to free the base from the Navy’s resistance to new ideas and bureaucratic infighting. He was frustrated by the Navy’s foot-dragging in developing radar systems before the war. On the positive side, he was a key contributor to the research at Dahlgren and elsewhere on the development of a proximity fuze, which gave our forces greater accuracy in antiaircraft and artillery fire. But his biggest assignment took him in 1943 to his home state of New Mexico and, specifically, to Los Alamos.
When Parsons, and several key scientists and engineers from Dahlgren, departed the base for Los Alamos to work on the Project Y mission to create an atomic device, Parsons forged the same sort of officer/scientist relationship with Oppenheimer as he had had with Thompson at Dahlgren. He continued to serve as an officer who knew the front-line needs of the Navy and believed in the importance of unleashing the creative energy of the scientists.
Tall and thin, with piercing brown eyes and a large forehead that suggested a cerebral presence, Parsons had an aura of confidence and competence that inspired his colleagues. Though he was a by-the-book officer, he also believed that red tape and bureaucratic infighting were dangerous barriers to the Navy.
The warp-speed work at Los Alamos crested in August of 1945, when the atomic device was readied for use against Japan. Parsons was one of the thousands of U.S. forces on the island of Tinian in the Pacific, 1,500 miles from Japan. This would be the base from where the Enola Gay would launch its strike. Parsons told the crew of the bombers preparing to take off that they would be dropping “the most destructive weapon ever produced.”
The plan was for the atomic device to be assembled before departure on the six-and-a-half-hour flight. But the crashes on takeoff of several B-29 bombers the day before convinced Parsons that the danger was too high for an Enola Gay accident that could wipe out much of the Tinian base. The device would have to be assembled during the flight to Japan.
Shortly after takeoff, Parsons crawled into the bomb bay, wedging himself into the narrow confines at the tail of the 10 1/2-foot bomb named Little Boy, with a diameter of 29 inches and a weight of 9,700 pounds. The intricate mission to assemble the bomb was carried out without a hitch.
There is no evidence that Parsons ever second-guessed his work on the atomic bomb. His correspondence to family reflects his feeling that he was given an important assignment and did everything he could to complete it. He felt that the dropping of the bomb saved thousands of Japanese and American lives that would have been lost if the war had dragged on.
Despite his key involvement in the most momentous and controversial weapons development of the 20th century, Parsons was at his core a traditional officer guided by a basic moral code of doing his duty and meeting the highest standards of the Navy.
During one of his brief returns from the Pacific to his family at Dahlgren in the 1940s, Deak was welcomed back with a fried chicken dinner — one of his favorites. But Martha carefully avoided telling Deak that the chicken came from the flock being raised by the base commander, Captain David Hedrick. Deak felt a military leader had no business selling chickens to people under his command. It violated his moral code.