Drive lnto History
J.B. Hunt driver’s book about the first atomic weapons speeds into the public imagination
One night this past winter, Waukesha, Wis.-based J.B. Hunt driver John Coster-Mullen was heading toward the exit door at a Pilot truckstop when something above a large, locked merchandise display cabinet caught his eye. “There were several flat-screen TVs running the Weather Channel,” he says. Going about his business, his attention was nonetheless piqued by the name Paul Tibbets, spoken by the narrator of what turned out to be an installment of a Weather Channel series on infamous moments “When Weather Changed History,” as goes the series title. Tibbets was the Air Force pilot (later brigadier general) who piloted the Enola Gay over Hiroshima to deliver the first atomic weapon ever used in combat.
Coster-Mullen’s eyes then snapped back to the TVs, where he recognized the program – about the atomic Trinity test, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were all impacted by particularities of weather – but not just because it had been running all week in scheduled repeats. He was in it. The J.B. Hunt million-miler and honorary member of the 509th Composite Group, the combat unit of the Army Air Force tasked with that first atomic delivery, is today likewise recognized as the foremost scholar on the design of the historic Little Boy and Fat Man bombs, as they were known, and among foremost historians on the Nagasaki mission.
“Ten seconds later,” Coster-Mullen says, “there I am on the TV.” The “really odd feeling” he got watching himself there in that most pedestrian of places, at a fuel stop on his dedicated run between Wisconsin and Chicago, came in the wake of perhaps even higher-profile attention he and his book received when journalist David Samuels published a lengthy feature on him in the New Yorker last December (see “Beginning With a Bang,” p. 48).
The culmination of upwards of 15 years of research is Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man. It’s “top secret” because, though the 12-year Hunt driver had decades of scholarship to draw upon in addition to his own expertise in photographic analysis (as well as extensive time spent with surviving members of the combat mission), most engineering information about the original bombs is officially classified to this day. Among his readers are government physicists, combat veterans and historians. “The people in the government at the highest levels are fully aware of my book,” Coster-Mullen says.
When he was on his cross-country trip with Samuels to visit his actual-size replica of the Little Boy bomb at the Wendover Air Field museum in Utah, Samuels was just off work on an Atlantic Monthly story about then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom Samuels had told about Coster-Mullen. When Rice learned of Samuels’ next story, about a truck driver who’d written the definitive account of the engineering specifics behind the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs, “[Samuels] said her face kind of brightened,” Coster-Mullen told me. “And she said, ‘Oh – my – God.’”
The information necessary for Coster-Mullen to complete the project was out there and publicly available, in the end, as the author’s quick to point out, and his work fills an important niche in scholarship on the bombs. But for Coster-Mullen, who turned 62 last December, the opportunity to interact with individual readers lends further meaning to his ongoing project – now tooled toward making certain his work reaches those who can appreciate its historical value.
Since the New Yorker story was published, Coster-Mullen’s home time is in large part dedicated to filling orders. “I’ve filled orders from all 50 states and some foreign countries,” he says. A recent one came from a navy sailor on a Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine. With the letter Coster-Mullen sent along with his book, he included three mementoes.
The first was a piece of stone “harvested by me in 2005 from the center of Able Runway,” he wrote, on the island of Tinian, from which the World War II atomic missions were launched. “If Paul Tibbets and Chuck Sweeney were the great pilots they always told us they were, then the wheels of their B-29s probably passed over this very stone on their way into history that early August in 1945.”
The other two mementoes were links to the present, given to Coster-Mullen by his son, Jason, a former air force sergeant who worked as a civilian contractor in Iraq – a keychain medallion from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and “a piece of shrapnel,” Coster-Mullen wrote, that Jason picked up after a rocket/mortar explosion in Baghdad. “Since you share the same danger and protect us from our enemies, I included this so you will have a direct connection to this conflict, which to you must seem very far away.”
New book for truckers features tips, recipes for healthier lifestyle – by Laura Pitts
For many truckers, eating on the road can be a nightmare. The convenience of a truckstop can easily become an unhealthy trap for the driver who values “fast and easy” over “good for you.”
Pam Whitfield and Don Jacobson, hosts of the Sirius XM show Roadcookin’, tackle truckers’ eating habits in their new book, Roadcookin’: A Long Haul Driver’s Guide to Healthy Eating. The book addresses struggles long-haulers face managing weight, heart health and related issues, serving as a nutritional guide to easy ways to improving overall health.