Properly remembering Harry Daghlian
In August 1945, as a decidedly war-weary public was still jubilant over the news that the Japanese surrender had ended World War II, a brilliant young scientist who grew up and attended school in New London died an excruciating and lonely death in service to his country at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Haroutune Krikor Daghlian Jr., known as Harry, was a graduate of New London’s Bulkeley School and a member of a small group of scientists working with the Manhattan Project in developing the first atomic bomb. Recruited for the project following his graduate work at Purdue University, Daghlian participated in nuclear experiments and witnessed the test of the first nuclear weapon in the desert at Alamogordo.
The scientists worked largely in secret and when Daghlian was exposed to a fatal dose of radiation during an experiment gone awry, shortly after the first nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, he remained isolated in the New Mexico desert as he suffered for two weeks before his death. His fellow scientists visited his bedside, and his mother and sister were flown to the site to be with him in his final days, as Lee Howard and John Ruddy reported.
Perhaps because of the secretive nature of the Manhattan Project; perhaps because of the horrific news of that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had killed at least 100,000 people instantly and many more from the effects of radiation sickness; or perhaps because of the general eagerness of the American people to put the long war behind them, Daghlian’s death at age 24 received little notice.
Although Daghlian’s colleague and mentor Louis Slotin, who died in a similar accident just nine months after Daghlian, received a hero’s sendoff with some 3,000 attendees at his funeral in Canada, Daglian’s life, his contributions to nuclear science and his tragic death were largely quietly forgotten by the U.S. government and by his home city of New London.
Fifty-five years after his death, a group of his former Bulkeley School classmates finally had a small memorial erected in his honor at the city’s Calkins Park. The marker, located at the park in which Daghlian and his classmates frequently played and close to the home in which he grew up, acknowledges Daghlian as the first civilian American casualty of the nuclear age. Unfortunately, even this unobtrusive marker is flawed as his last name is misspelled.
Now, as the blockbuster movie “Oppenheimer,” which focuses on the life J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed the Manhattan Project, rekindles interest in the early days of the nuclear age, it is high time Daghlian received some notice and a memorial befitting his contributions.
At the very least, a new marker at Calkins Park should be installed that correctly spells Daghlian’s name. Better yet, a larger memorial could be erected either there or at his burial site at Cedar Grove Cemetery that more completely tells the story of both Daghlian’s bravery and passion for the then emerging field of nuclear science, as well as some of the horrors and tragedy that ultimately was unleashed on the world by atomic weapons.
Just as Americans are showing new interest in so many pieces of forgotten or purposely buried history, the story of a brilliant New London man who died too young deserves more appropriate recognition from the city in which he grew up.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, retired executive editor Tim Cotter and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.
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