From the A-Bomb to the Enterprise
clearance finally came in — he was driven out to the construction
site where the rest of the company he was assigned to — Navy
Special Weapons Unit number 471 — was working.
Sitting there was a partially assembled “Little Boy,” the
same type of atomic bomb that helped to bring victory to
the US at the end of World War II.
“My division officer took me back to look at it and
showed me what I was going to be responsible for. I went
with him and another petty officer and we worked on a
piece of electronics equipment that they hadn’t been able
to fix. It didn’t take me but a few minutes to say, ‘you’ve got
a shorted out power transformer,’ which they hadn’t
“Then he assigned me to my other duties: Number
one, maintaining all of the equipment and tools necessary.
“Number two, whenever he wasn’t around, I was to
insert the plutonium balls down into the weapon.”
(Important safety tip to the younger readers of Nuts
& Volts: Don’t insert plutonium balls into atomic bombs
without proper adult supervision. Trust me on this, kids.)
While the phrase, “insert the plutonium balls down into
the weapon,” conjures up China Syndrome-like mental
images, Norman says it was actually much safer than how
the phrase sounds.
“It wasn’t dangerous. It was dangerous if you took two
or three of the balls and put them up on the workbench at
the same time; it might go critical on you, but they were all
kept in little cages, so that they were separated by the
proper distance. I never had more than one or two in the
workshop at the same time.”
So you weren’t too worried that you’d end up as a
stain on the desert floor?
“No, I wasn’t, but, when I left there in February of
1951, the man who relieved me was afraid of the job. I
believe he died, not too many
years later. I called his wife when I
went through Albuquerque in ’ 62, I
believe and she said that he had
died of cancer, lost all his hair, and
“I knew he was afraid of the job.
Plutonium oxidizes — it was a great
alpha-emitter and, of course, if you
got plutonium down in your lungs,
they say that’s a very great poison.
We would rub the balls down with
Kleenex and stick ‘em under an alpha
counter to see how active they were.”
“But other than that,” Norman
says, “I never was afraid of them.”
atomic bomb from a naval aircraft carrier, the USS Coral
Sea. “This was the first time I had been in the Atlantic Ocean.
We assembled a couple of weapons, then came back into
port and anchored out in Hampton Roads, VA. A whole
bunch of VIPs came aboard and we went back out to sea.
“In the meantime, we had loaded a P2V aircraft, which
was a two-engine aircraft that was too big to land on the
carrier; it was lifted by crane up on the flight deck.”
The P2V was the propeller-driven Lockheed Neptune,
variations of which served the Navy until the late 1970s.
On April 21st, 1950, at 7: 30 AM, it took off from the
Coral Sea. Bomb and all, the plane weighed 74,668
pounds and, in addition to being the first plane to be carrier-launched with an atomic weapon, it was also the heaviest
aircraft ever launched from an aircraft carrier up to that
point. It was so heavy and the Coral Sea’s was deck too
short for it, so the Neptune required JATO (Jet Assisted
Take Off) bottles to get it airborne. (Norman has a page on
the USS Coral Sea’s website devoted to the launch:
Preparing the First
During that time, Norman helped
load the first aircraft that carried an
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