‘Oppenheimer’ and Hamilton Field: How the Bay Area, Including Marin, Helped Usher in the Atomic Age 

If you saw Oppenheimer you’ll be intrigued by the role Marin and the Bay Area played in delivering the atom bomb to a tiny island in the South Pacific. The movie didn’t tell this story.

On July 16, 1945, two significant events in the development of the atom bomb occurred at the same time: 1. The theory that splitting of atoms would cause an explosion of unimagined destruction was proven in a New Mexico desert. And 2. Components of a similar bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, were loaded aboard the cruiser U.S.S Indianapolis at Hunters Point in San Francisco Bay.

One week earlier, “The Father of the Atomic Bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer had briefed ersatz Army Major Robert Furman on his mission to deliver a “package” to Tinian Island in the South Pacific. That “package” was Little Boy and, according to the book Indianapolis (Simon and Schuster, 2018), the briefing occurred in Oppenheimer’s Chevy sedan parked outside New Mexico Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel. The talk covered how “Furman would fly with weapon components to Hamilton Army Air Base near Mare Island Naval Shipyard where the U.S.S. Indianapolis would be temporarily docked.” 

Once the Indianapolis had crossed San Francisco Bay and was moored at Hunters Point, Furman and a massive security detail would drive the components on a meticulously arranged route from Hamilton Field through Marin County and San Francisco. And on Monday, July 16, as the test bomb was detonated in New Mexico, Furman would oversee the loading of the actual weapon aboard the heavy cruiser. No one on the Indianapolis was made aware of its critical cargo.

On July 26, the Indianapolis reached Tinian Island; on August 6, Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima; and on August 15, 1945, the Empire of Japan unconditionally surrendered. 

The above photo was taken at Novato’s Hamilton Field in 1948. The aircraft on the ground is a four-engine B-29, similar to the Enola Gay that attacked Hiroshima. The aircraft aloft is a six-engine B-36, nicknamed “The Peacemaker,’ that was deemed too heavy to land at Hamilton Army Air Base. 

Hamilton is now a much-desired Marin residential community.

In a tragic footnote, on July 31,1945, the U.S.S. Indianapolis, after delivering the war-ending bomb to Tinian Island from where it was flown over Japan, the heavy cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine while crossing the Philippine Sea. The attacked killed nearly 900 personnel in the worst sea disaster in U.S. Naval history. Two weeks later, the war ended.