Washington Under the Bomb
|1951: "The nation's capital after the atomic blast" (Painting by Chesley Bonestell, pp. 20-21)|
The issue was meant to serve as a precautionary tale. In this piece, Hal Boyle of the Associated Press gives an eyewitness account of the devastation in Washington D.C. after a nuclear attack in 1953.
From Collier's magazine, October 27, 1951, pp. 20-21:
Washington Under the Bomb
By Hal Boyle
Washington, May 10, 1953
(Note to editors: Following is the first eyewitness account of the A-bombing of Washington, D.C. early today by a Soviet plane. Associated Press columnist Hal Boyle sent his story out in a helicopter which evacuated congressmen from the stricken capital.)
The American capital is missing in action.
A single enemy atom bomb has destroyed the heart of the city. The rest is rapidly becoming a fire-washed memory. The flames are ranging over 18 square miles.
Washington is burning to death. Communications are temporarily disrupted. Help of all kinds is urgently needed from the rest of the country—blood, drugs, bandages, doctors, nurses, food, transportation.
Uncounted thousands are dead. More thousands of injured lie, spread in untended rows, on hospital lawns and parks, or walk unheeded until they fall.
Civil defense has broken down. The few valiant disaster squads are helpless in this homeless flood of agony and misery. Troops are moving to restore order among maddened masses trying to flee the city.
Fright crowds the rubbled streets and wears the blank face of awe. It couldn't happen here yesterday. It did happen here before dawn today.
The bomb exploded in southwest Washington, midway between the Capitol building and the Jefferson Memorial. It lighted the city as if it were a Roman candle.
For a radius of a mile from the center of the blast, the devastation is utter—a huge scorched zero, as if a giant, white-hot hammer had pounded the area into the earth. Blast and fire then reached out in widening waves.
Most of the shrines that united the American people are casualties. The Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials are in ruins. The top of the Washington Monument sheared off, but the main part of the shaft still stands.
The White House is gutted. The President and his family are safe. The Secret Service has escorted him from the capital to a secret destination.
The dome of the Capitol itself is a great white shattered teacup. The office building of the House of Representatives is flaming. The Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery, the archives building, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Internal Revenue lie in tremendous wreckage. A prank of the bomb: windows melted in the Bureau of Engraving, but a few green leaves still cling to the trees in East Park.
I entered the city, after a five-mile walk along the railroad tracks, just as the roof of the Union Station caved in and shot up a tower of sparks.
A taxi horn sounded frantically, and a voice called: "Get in, you damned fool!"
It was Don Whitehead, a fellow AP war correspondent. He too was back in the States from the European front for a special briefing. The taxi windshield was shattered, and as we drove away I felt blood on the seat.
"The driver," said Whitehead. "Piece of debris got him. I found him dying. Loaded him on an ambulance truck. Took his cab."
I remember the meter was still ticking. It read $2.60.
"The Reds sure hung a dead cat on our rainbow," said Whitehead. "One edge of the Pentagon, I understand, is on fire. Most of the bridges are down. The people can't get away."
Fallen wires writhed across the street like live grapevines. Abandoned trolleys stood at halt like big dead beetles. Wreckage and bits of flesh littered the streets.
We rode through a river of dazed refugees, burdened with any belongings they had been able to snatch up. One woman held a picture clenched in her hands. Behind her trailed a little girl pushing a doll buggy.
An old man, struggling to bear a crippled son in his tired arms, suddenly collapsed and went down. A young woman, carrying her elderly mother on her back, crawled painfully on hands and knees. A man in charred rags screamed on the pavement. No one stopped.
The heat seared. The entire business district raged in bonfire. It crackled like a million cattle stampeding in a field of potato chips. Shriveled corpses lay where they had fallen. They looked small and lonely.
A fat man wearing nothing but the bottoms of his pajamas stepped out in front of us and called hopefully:
"Poor fool," said Don, as we went by. "There's a man who believes in normal living."
We already had picked up five lost children in the cab, and there wasn't room for anybody else.
Hoping to get the five children in the cab out of danger, we drove toward the Arlington Memorial Bridge. It was broken. The span had dropped into the Potomac. The entrance to the bridge was choked by thousands of refugees, held back by a police line.
"A plane came over about an hour ago," said a sweating policeman. "Somebody hollered, 'It's the Reds again!' That started a panic. They broke through us and rushed out on the bridge. My God! They were pushed right on off into the river and drowned—hundreds of them. Hundreds of them!"
We drove back to the long green mall below the Capitol. Helicopters were landing there and taking away surviving members of Congress to a new meeting place. Ten are known to be dead, at least 30 are missing.
Whitehead has found a congressman who has agreed to fly the story out with him.
Whitehead then showed the congressman, who is a bachelor, the five frightened children in our cab. And he asked him:
"Aren't you taking your family with you, too, sir?"
"Sure,” he said, wryly. "They'll vote someday. Start loading."
Before boarding a helicopter, a white-haired senator turned toward the silent Capitol. His eyes streaming, he lifted both fists and shook them fiercely at the bright morning sky, palled by rolling smoke clouds.
A young soldier has just climbed out on the lower roof of the Capitol and tied up an American flag. As it catches the breeze above the ruins, a sigh as of a tremendous wind sweeps through the vast crowd. And now everybody is crying and cheering together.
But to the north the flames are rising higher and spreading fast, as the enemy fire eats away the glory of this show window of America.
In its ashes Washington cries to the nation for help.