BEVERLY — As the world today marks the 65th anniversary of the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, the name of Frederick "Dick" Ashworth is likely to come up.
Ashworth was the U.S. Navy officer who served as the weaponeer on the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.
He was also a central figure in the top-secret planning that led up to the bombings. It was his decision to select the island of Tinian as the base for both missions. Six days after Ashworth's Nagasaki mission, Japan surrendered, marking the end of World War II.
Despite the fact that Ashworth played such a key role in those historic events, chances are that few people on the North Shore realize that he is one of their own.
Ashworth was born in Beverly, grew up in Wenham, and graduated from Beverly High School in 1928. His father, Fred, worked for 43 years at the United Shoe Machinery Corp. in Beverly, sang in the choir at the First Baptist Church, and was president of the Beverly Rotary Club. His mother, Minnie, served on the Wenham School Committee and volunteered for years at the Wenham Historical Association and Museum.
Local historian Ed Brown said Ashworth's place in history is either overlooked or completely unknown on the North Shore. Even Brown did not know about Ashworth's local roots until 2001.
"More people should know about him," Brown said. "He was a brave man who was dedicated to serving his country."
Roots in Beverly, Wenham
According to Brown's 2006 book about Ashworth, "What Only Two Could Do," Ashworth was born in Beverly in 1912. He was baptized at the First Baptist Church, lived the first six years of his life in his family's home on Larcom Avenue in the Prospect Hill section of the city, and attended first grade at the former Prospect School.
Ashworth's family moved to Wenham in 1918, renting a farmhouse at what is now Canaan Farm, and later moving a half-mile down the road on Main Street. Ashworth, like most Wenham students at the time, attended Beverly High School, where he served as president of the Student Council and ran track and cross country.
Ashworth graduated in 1928 at the age of 16. After a year at Dartmouth College, he was accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy as a replacement for another candidate who had failed his physical due to poor teeth.
Ashworth became a pilot, earning the Bronze Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for the combat missions he flew in the Solomon Islands during World War II.
In November of 1944, Ashworth was chosen to help out with the Manhattan Project, the top-secret effort to develop and build an atomic bomb. One of Ashworth's jobs was to recruit a team to assemble the bombs.
Brown said Ashworth could walk through the halls of the Pentagon and hand-pick the most skilled people, using the code word "silverplate," which conveyed to those who did not know about the project that Ashworth's instructions must be followed.
In February of 1945, Ashworth was sent to the Pacific to select the base from where the atomic bomb missions would be launched. Ashworth also hand-delivered a letter to Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of U.S. Naval forces in the Pacific, informing him of the atomic bomb project.
Responsible for bomb
For the Nagasaki mission, Ashworth served as the "weaponeer" on the 13-man crew of the Bockscar, the nickname for their B-29. During the flight, Ashworth and his assistant monitored the electronics of the bomb. Ashworth's responsibility was to make sure the 10,000-pound bomb was technically ready to be released on the assigned target.
Due to smoke and haze over the initial target of Kokura, the Bockscar headed for its secondary target, Nagasaki. With Ashworth helping to verify the target, the bomb was dropped. Estimates of the death toll range from 35,000 to 45,000.
Ashworth went on to a distinguished career in the Navy, working for the Atomic Energy Commission and commanding the Sixth Fleet. He also selected the Bikini atoll in the Pacific for further nuclear bomb tests after the war. A French designer immediately adopted the name for his new "atom-sized" two-piece bathing suit.
Ashworth achieved the rank of three-star vice admiral before retiring in 1968. He spent his retirement years in New Mexico, where he lived with his second wife, Ercie. He had three sons with his first wife, Nan Bliss of Peabody, whom he divorced in 1990 after 55 years of marriage. Ashworth died in 2005 at the age of 93.
Brown said Ashworth never regretted his role in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both of which he visited after they were re-built.
"Naturally all the people involved regretted the loss of life," Brown said. "But they all felt that by dropping those bombs they saved even more lives that would've been lost on both sides if we had to invade Japan."
Ashworth returned to Beverly in 1966 to be honored by the Beverly Rotary Club, and also made visits to his parents, who lived in Wenham for the rest of their lives.
But despite his status as an "American hero," as Brown calls him, Ashworth's place in history remains largely unknown in his own hometown. Brown attributes his obscurity in part to the fact that he never returned here to live, and also to the "ambivalence" of many over the decision to drop the atomic bombs.
"There are people who as soon as you mention 'atomic bomb' don't want to hear anything about it," Brown said. "I'm sure more people should know about him."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.