In a small town in Washington state, pride and shame over atomic legacy

by @Leah_Sottile July 21, 2015 5:00AM ET

Richland High School's controversial mascot honors the community's role in producing the plutonium dropped on Nagasaki

Nuclear Weapons
Richland High School students play basketball during gym class. The mushroom cloud is the symbol of the school's sports teams, known as the Bombers.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

RICHLAND, Wash. — The workers inside Hanford’s nuclear reactors in the early 1940s knew their jobs were important, even if many of them didn’t know why. They worked hard, and for that they were paid well. They tucked their children into bed at night in handsome homes with green lawns on streets named for brilliant engineers —Goethals Drive, Jadwin Avenue.   

The secrecy around Hanford, a part of the Manhattan Project, came to light on Aug. 9, 1945, when U.S. forces dropped a thick-bellied, 10,000-pound plutonium-filled bomb called Fat Man on Nagasaki, Japan — vaporizing some 60,000 to 80,000 people in an instant and leading to the end of World War II. All along at Hanford, they had been contributing to the war effort, producing plutonium that would make up the core of Fat Man.

“Peace!” the local newspaper headlines cried on Aug. 14, 1945. “Our bomb clinched it!”

“This town just went totally nuts,” said Burt Pierard, 74, who remembers beating pots and pans in a parade of children around his neighborhood. “It was euphoria, just the whole atmosphere was party-time, patriotic.”

Richland’s pride flooded into the hallways of the local high school. That fall, the students of Columbia High voted to change their mascot from the Beavers to the Bombers, and the yearbook for that school year was dedicated to the atomic bomb. Mushroom clouds found their way onto the school crest, class rings and football helmets. In the 1980s the school became Richland High and adopted a new logo: a bright yellow capital R with a white mushroom cloud billowing up behind it. They called it the R-Cloud.

Outside the Bombers Drive Thru, a restaurant in Richland, Washington.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
A trophy case at the high school celebrates the teams' triumphs.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Today, Richland’s plutonium days are behind it, but many residents are still proud of what their predecessors made here. The local Atomic Ale Brewpub sells pints of Half-Life Hefe and Cerium Saison. There’s a drive-through coffee stand called Bombshellz, and a gym called Fallout Crossfit. A walk-up hamburger joint sells “Bomber Burgers” with names like the “B-17 Flying Fortress” and the “Meltdown.”

But there’s no symbol more prominent in Richland than the high school’s R-Cloud, which hangs floor-to-ceiling on the side of the cafeteria. It’s splashed across the center of the shiny gym floor and printed on T-shirts and infant onesies. Windshield stickers on cars in the area boast there’s a Bomber inside.

For some, Richland High’s mascot embodies political incorrectness: a symbol that glorifies destruction and the deaths of innocents, a mark of hatred and fear. The bombs changed “humanity’s relationship with technology,” said Tim Connor, who was born in Hanford in the 1950s. Connor went on to become an investigative journalist and activist, working to shut down plutonium production at Hanford, which is now considered the most contaminated nuclear site in the country. “We really used our best and brightest to unlock the secrets of the atom that, in a way, still hold the world hostage to this incredible terror.”

But for Pierard, a 1959 local graduate with cloudy blue eyes and a long gray ponytail, the Bombers R-Cloud is an inspiring reminder of a time when Richland, in his mind, saved the world. He’s not willing to see this symbol dismissed without a fight. “If you are gonna take my R-Cloud away from me,” he said, rolling back his black sweatshirt to reveal a green and gold R-Cloud tattooed onto his right shoulder, “you’re gonna rip it off my cold, dead arm.”

Richland High alumnus Burt Pierard, class of 1959.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
Pierard's R-Cloud tattoo.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

For just as long as Richland students and alumni have shouted that they are “proud of the cloud,” the R-Cloud has raised eyebrows. For years, alumni have fought off R-Cloud detractors in newspaper letters and on the vibrant Alumni Sandstorm website. At the height of the Cold War, news reporters flocked to Richland to hear the student body chant “Nuke ‘em till they glow!” across football fields and basketball courts. In 1985, one newspaper said the logo gave the impression that Washingtonians viewed the atomic industry with “chilling flippancy.” In 1988, Tom Brokaw brought television cameras and a Japanese delegation to watch students vote in favor of keeping the cloud as their mascot. The next year, a National Geographic photographer captured a student in green and gold facepaint with a hachimaki band (worn by World War II kamikaze fighters) tied around his head. In the photo, he stares into the camera with a look that dares someone to challenge him.

But even the most ardent supporters have started to bend. The shift began in 1993, when  the school’s installed a mural in the courtyard depicting a B-17 from 1944 called “Day’s Pay.” The bomber was named by workers from Hanford who rallied together to donate one day’s wages to purchase a B-17 for the war effort. They called the donated aircraft “Day’s Pay.”

In the 1990s, local newspapers reported that the Day’s Pay bomber, not the bomb itself, was the school’s namesake. Local museums and faculty at the high school repeated this narrative. Jim Qualheim, student activities director and track coach at the school, said students responded well. “That’s our community. That’s very, very patriotic,” he said. “It’s a great story.”

But many alumni were outraged by what they saw as an attempt to revise history to be more palatable by modern standards. Keith Maupin, a now-deceased alum, issued a report proving that the Bomber name was a direct reference to the Fat Man. In an article titled “The Bomber, The Bomb and the Bombers,” Maupin wrote that “the school used the mushroom cloud prior to any reference of Day’s Pay.”

“Tastes do indeed change,” Maupin wrote, “but facts do not.”

A mural of a B-17 called "Day's Pay" was painted on a wall outside of Richland High School in 1993.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Qualheim, an alumnus of the school who has taught there since 1979, said he prefers to stay quiet about the Richland High mascot these days. In the past, he had expressed his personal distaste for the R-Cloud after visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Since then, he feels branded by some alumni as a conspirator looking to rewrite history yet again.

“I certainly don’t run around carrying a picket sign saying, ‘Down with the cloud!’” Qualheim said. But he won’t wear the R-Cloud mascot, and he’s removed it from uniforms for the students he coaches. But he no longer has the energy to fight it. If a student asks, he’ll talk about what he sees in the logo.

“Some people look at [the R-Cloud] as a peace symbol. When I see that, I see that vaporized shadow in the cement and I see those melted baby bottles and melted tricycles. That’s what I see,” he said. “Their skin was dripping from their bodies.”

To Trisha Pritikin, who grew up in Richland but moved away years ago, the R-Cloud has only negative connotations. “It indicates a joy for destruction and death,” she said. “Like, ‘Let’s celebrate the fact that we can destroy and kill with this atomic technology.’” She sees it as a blight on Richland.

“I’m glad to tell anybody that I was born and raised in Richland, and if indeed the bomb did end the war, then I’m so glad it saved a lot of lives,” she said. “But I’m not proud of the death and destruction brought by the bomb. How could anybody be?”

Pritikin is a Hanford Downwinder, who watched her parents die from cancer and has thyroid disease that she attributes to the radioactive emissions from Hanford. “My whole family got wiped out,” she said.

Hanford’s toxic reach didn’t stop at the site’s barbed-wire fences: radioactive emissions released into the air fell on fields where livestock grazed. Soon, local children were drinking tainted milk, fish from the Columbia River were contaminated, and the Oregon Health Division deemed it  “the most radioactive river in the world from World War II to the 1970s.” Thousands of people who were unknowingly exposed have filed claims, but very few have seen any compensation.

“They blanketed the community and beyond with radiation, and they didn’t tell us. It seems to me that would put a little dent in the pride around [the mascot],” Pritikin said.

Signs denoting buildings at the Hanford Site that have been decommissioned or demolished line a fence surrounding the site.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America
The highway passing near the Hanford site is dotted with green deer signs like this one.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Shirley Olinger  sees sides to the Bomber debate that few others can. Olinger’s mother was a resident of Nagasaki when the bomb dropped. She only survived because she was away from the city the day it hit. As a former manager of the Department of Energy’s Office of River Protection, Olinger led cleanup efforts at Hanford. Her daughter graduated from Richland High this year.

 “We’re proud of the cloud,” said Olinger, who regularly carried a portable cushion emblazoned with the R-Cloud logo to her daughter’s basketball and volleyball games. She sees the Nagasaki bomb as simply a part of Richland’s history.

“It’s like the Civil War — we killed a lot of our own brothers,” she added, pausing, “but it ended slavery.”

To her, the cloud represents destruction but also the sacrifices made by the people in her community to better the rest of the world. “We [built] this bomb that ends the war,” she said. “But we live with the consequences of this material. There’s no free lunch.”

To Pierard, a vehement defender of the cloud, the logo remains a symbol of life, not death. “Those bombs actually saved the Japanese culture,” he said. “[The Japanese government was] ready to sacrifice every man woman and child in the invasion.”

Is that how most Bomber fans see the R-Cloud? As a symbol of life, not death?

“Oh no,” he chuckled. “Not at all.”