nv daughters

Letter to Janet Farrell Cafferata from Barbara Vucanovich
Former Member, U.S. House of Representatives

To: Janet Farrell Cafferata
Portland, Oregon

2 Newlands Circle
Reno, Nevada
Wednesday night

Dear Farrell:

My great-grandfather, Michael Farrell, immigrated to America from Ireland around 1848 as an itinerant teacher. My great-grandmother was Catherine Danahy. (Catherine with a "C" is the Catholic spelling.) They had only one child: my grandfather, John J. Farrell. He married Margaret Connally Farrell, who died before I was born, and they had nine children.

My father, Thomas Francis Farrell, was the fourth child in his Irish Catholic family of five boys and four girls. He was born on December 3, 1891 in Brunswick, New York. The family was close-knit. My aunts and uncles always kept in touch with each ot her. I knew all my Farrell cousins because we spent so much time together growing up. I don't recall that any of my aunts worked outside the home, except for Aunt Anna who never married.

Dad was 5'10" or 6' tall with wonderful military posture, always straight and strong. Physically fit, he took a walk every night after dinner. His complexion was ruddy, with freckles all over his arms and legs. He had a square Irish face with twinkl ing blue eyes and sandy colored hair. His hands and feet were long and slender. At work he either wore an Army uniform appropriate to his rank, or a suit with a white shirt and bow tie when he was not in the Army.

Dad spent most of his professional life working either for the U. S. Army or for the State of New York in positions appointed by the governor. Dad's first engineering job was on the New York State Barge Canal, now known as the Erie Canal. It was on t hat job that Dad became a firm believer in labor unions. He witnessed first-hand, and often talked about, the beating of Irish immigrant workers by their bosses.

In 1926 Dad resigned from the Army and joined the Reserves. He was appointed Commissioner of Canals and Waterway for the State of New York by Governor Alfred E. Smith. Dad took me to New York City where I danced with Governor Smith at the Waldorf Ast oria in 1928 during his campaign for president against Herbert Hoover. The first President I remember is Hoover. Since my Dad worked for Al Smith, my parents were against Hoover so when the newspaper printed an insert about Hoover with his picture on th e front, I took a pencil and poked holes in the paper, then gleefully showed it to my parents.

In January 1945, Dad was recalled from his wartime post in the China-Burma-India theater for his biggest job in World War II. He became Major General Leslie Groves' deputy on the atomic bomb project, code-named "The Manhattan Project." The Army Engi neer Corps was in charge of the Manhattan Project, with scientific direction provided by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and his team. Work had been going on in secret for several years, but soon after my father joined the project there was a big discussion as to whether it would go forward because President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Vice President Harry Truman knew nothing about the bomb.

Dad was ultimately present with Oppenheimer in the control shelter at Alamogordo, New Mexico when the first experimental explosion took place on July 16, 1945. (Groves was in a separate area, as per their arrangement never to be in the same place at d angerous times.) It is pretty clear from my father's notes that they really had little idea what to expect in Alamogordo. Dad's report reads: "Everyone in that room knew the awful potentialities of the thing that they thought was about to happen. The scientists felt that their figuring must be right and that the bomb had to go off but there was in everyone's mind a strong measure of doubt. The feeling of many could be expressed by 'Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.' We were reaching into the unknown and did not know what might come of it."

None of the witnesses, including Dad, could quite grasp the magnitude of the explosion. His notes tell the story: "In that brief instant in the remote New Mexico desert the tremendous effort of the brains and brawn of all these people came suddenly a nd startlingly to the fullest fruition." The world suddenly changed forever, and Dad witnessed it.

Dad traveled to the Marianas Islands to supervise field operations for assembling the atomic bombs for delivery against Japan. Here again, we can tell from his notes that they did not fully understand the magnitude of what they were doing. My father literally held the plutonium charge that provided the fissionable material for one of the bombs in his hands. He later talked about how hot the metal casing was to his bare skin!

Later, Dad often spoke to groups about the bomb and its aftermath. He described the tension of those developing the bomb, the dedication of the men involved, and the awesome responsibility of what he and others so quickly labeled "The Age of Atomic Sc ience." Dad fully understood atomic energy was a new force that could be used for good or evil. Dad described the effects as unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying.

Like my mother, Dad believed in contributing to society. If there was a job to be done and you were asked you responded. As kids we volunteered to help other children, like in recreation programs. He expected us to be responsible citizens. He chall enged all of us with quizzes on our multiplication tables and division and spelling.

(Barbara F. Vucanovich)

© 1999 Patty Cafferata