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‘Oppenheimer’ film breathes new life into former FLC professor’s life mission

Leonard ‘Red’ Bird taught peace and dangers of nuclear war

In his book, former Fort Lewis College professor Leonard “Red” Bird describes being hunkered down in a trench, barely able to breathe through his gas mask, shivering with fear on July 5, 1957, in the Nevada desert.

“Five, four, three, two, one...” Bird writes in “Folding Paper Cranes: An Atomic Memoir.”

“From the direction of the tower I hear a sharp click. Night disappears. A white sun burns through crossed arms, cotton jackets, rubber masks, and tightly closed eyes.

“... After a silent second that stretches past eternity, the blast crashes by, two feet above our bowed heads. The vacuum behind the explosion tries to suck us from the trench.”

Bird, 21 at the time, was serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Marines. He was one of thousands of service members to participate in a series of nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site in 1957.

He witnessed the Shot Hood blast, a 74-kiloton bomb that was six times larger than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the largest atmospheric test ever over the continental U.S.

Bird, who taught English for more than 30 years at Fort Lewis College, died on Oct. 22, 2010, eight years after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. He was 74.

Bird was one of the lucky ones, in that he lived 53 years after the blast, said his widow, Jane Leonard, in an interview this past week with The Durango Herald. Other service members died much sooner as a result of their exposure to radioactive dust.

“The multiple myeloma was directly linked – and the government admits it – to that detonation,” Leonard said.

Bird spent a good part of his life trying to raise public awareness and educate his students about the atomic bomb and the horrors it wrought. He made several trips to Japan after World War II, including visits to Hiroshima and its famed Peace Memorial Park.

Bird’s mission to find hope, make peace and educate others about the bomb aligns neatly with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life mission after he helped create the bomb, Leonard said. It is an underlying theme that runs through “Oppenheimer” the film released last month around the world, with more than $666 million in box office sales.

Bird would have been among the first to see the movie and would have been heartened to know so many people have gone to see it, Leonard said from her home in Arizona.

“It certainly will have the effect of raising their consciousness if they have not been exposed to the history of the development of the atomic bomb,” she said. “The more that people are exposed to the dangers that we face today, I think he would be relieved.”

Jane Leonard and Leonard "Red" Bird. Courtesy of Jane Leonard
A symbol of peace, obliterated

After the thunderous blast in the Nevada desert, Bird and his fellow Marines were ordered to stand and face ground zero, which was only 4,000 feet away – less than a mile.

“We stare at the rising ball of red and orange and yellow atomic matter, already ten thousand feet above the desert floor,” Bird writes. “Twenty thousand feet. Our mesmerized faces tilt back as the great cloud of nuclear bile becomes our umbrella.”

The fireball hung in the sky for about 15 minutes, he said. As the Marines exited their trenches, Bird’s hand landed on a bleeding mourning dove, “its feathers blasted away by the heat.”

He screamed: “Goddamn!”

Other Marines gathered in a semicircle around the bird as it flopped and twitched.

Bridget Irish, former assistant dean of arts and sciences at Fort Lewis College, helped select “Folding Paper Cranes” for the college’s 2006 Common Reading Experience, in which a book is selected to be read and discussed across the campus.

“That dove is seared into my mind,” she said of Bird’s depiction.

She thought it was striking that “Oppenheimer” the movie also showed a dying bird after the Trinity Test in 1945.

“There’s a picture of Oppenheimer looking down on the ground at this shriveled, burned, horrible object,” she said.

Doves are often a symbol of peace. Irish isn’t sure if Bird intended to use the dove as symbolism in his book. But part of his mission was to teach students about peace and how the bomb threatens to destroy peace, Irish said.

Bridget Irish sits on a bench that is dedicated to Leonard “Red” Bird on Friday at Hesperus Peace Park at Fort Lewis College. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Around the time of Bird’s book release, the college developed the Peace and Conflict Studies Minor, in which students study the concepts of peace and how to create peace as opposed to always studying past wars.

“They’d all thought about war, but they hadn’t thought about how do you go about creating conversations and programs about the concept of peace,” Irish said.

A visit to ground zero

Two hours after leaving the trenches, the Marines were driven back to the test site. Several miles from the hypocenter of the blast, destruction from the nuclear wind was apparent: “scores of dead and dying birds and rabbits and even two coyotes,” Bird wrote.

Leonard "Red" Bird

“Within three miles of ground zero all signs of life, or even recognizable death, have disappeared,” he wrote. “At ground zero and for at least half a mile in any direction, nothing exists but a concave disk of blowing dirt.”

The Marines were given gas masks, but officers knew they wouldn’t be able to don them during their entire visit to ground zero. They are too difficult to breathe through. Sure enough, one-by-one, the soldiers began to remove their masks to gulp for air.

Back at the base, a Geiger counter screamed as it was waved over Bird’s feet, legs and groin area. He was ordered to head for the showers.

“I step into the shower and scrub every inch of skin and scalp, soaping and scrubbing until my skin glows pink,” he wrote.

When his book was published in 2005, Bird wrote that test survivors continued to experience abnormally high incidents of diseases related to radiation poisoning. He said his multiple myeloma became an increasingly common form of bone-blood cancer related to plutonium, strontium-90 and cesium-137.

Two years after the first symptoms, Bird lacked sufficient energy to teach a full load at Fort Lewis College.

Service members were forced to face the fireball and visit ground zero hours after the blast because the military wanted to know how foot soldiers would react in a nuclear battlefield.

Despite repeated claims that it would be safe, one of Bird’s friends and fellow soldiers said they were no more than “Guinea pigs.”

A search for hope

The second half of “Folding Paper Cranes” is largely about Bird’s quest to find hope.

He made several trips to Hiroshima’s International Park for World Peace, where he eventually met a child and survivors of the A-bomb who would offer him some solace.

After Bird’s book was selected for FLC’s Common Reading Experience, Hesperus Park in the center of campus was dedicated and renamed to include the word “peace”: Hesperus Peace Park, in honor of Bird.

“He was always very passionate about getting the word out: ‘Wake up,’ you know? ‘This is right on our doorstep of catastrophes,’” Leonard said. “So having more people see ‘Oppenheimer,’ I would just hope that would help.”


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