William Sterling “Deak” Parsons (26 November 1901 – 5 December 1953) was an American naval officer who worked as an ordnance expert on the Manhattan Project during World War II.
He is best known for being the weaponeer on the Enola Gay, the aircraft which dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.
During the flight to Hiroshima, Parsons climbed into the bomb bay to load the powder charge, to avoid the possibility of a nuclear explosion if the aircraft crashed and burned on takeoff. He was awarded the Silver Star for his part in the mission.
A 1922 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Parsons served on a variety of warships beginning with the battleship USS Idaho.
He was trained in ordnance and studied ballistics under L.T.E. Thompson at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia. In July 1933, Parsons became liaison officer between the Bureau of Ordnance and the Naval Research Laboratory.
He became interested in radar and was one of the first to recognize its potential to locate ships and aircraft, and perhaps even track shells in flight.
In September 1940, Parsons and Merle Tuve of the National Defense Research Committee began work on the development of the proximity fuze, a radar-triggered fuze that would explode a shell in the proximity of the target.
The fuze, eventually known as the VT (variable time) fuze, Mark 32, went into production in 1942. Parsons was on hand to watch the cruiser USS Helena shoot down the first enemy aircraft with a VT fuze in the Solomon Islands in January 1943.
In June 1943, Parsons joined the Manhattan Project as Associate Director at the research laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico under J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Parsons became responsible for the ordnance aspects of the project, including the design and testing of the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. In a reorganization in 1944, he lost responsibility for the implosion-type fission weapon, but retained that for the design and development of the gun-type fission weapon, which eventually became Little Boy.
He was also responsible for the delivery program, codenamed Project Alberta. He watched the Trinity nuclear test from a B-29.
After the war, Parsons was promoted to the rank of rear admiral without ever having commanded a ship. He participated in Operation Crossroads, the nuclear weapon tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946, and later the Operation Sandstone tests at Enewetak Atoll in 1948. In 1947, he became deputy commander of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. He died of a heart attack on 5 December 1953.
William Sterling Parsons was born in Chicago, Illinois, on 26 November 1901, the oldest of three children of a lawyer, Harry Robert Parsons, and his wife Clara, née Doolittle. In 1909, the family moved to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where William learned to speak fluent Spanish.
He attended the local schools in Fort Sumner and was home schooled by his mother for a time. He commenced at Santa Rosa High School, where his mother taught English and Spanish, rapidly advancing through three years in just one. In 1917 he attended Fort Sumner High School, from which he graduated in 1918.
In 1917 Parsons travelled to Roswell, New Mexico to take the United States Naval Academy exam for one of the appointments by Senator Andrieus A. Jones. He was only an alternate, but passed the exam while more favored candidates did not, and received the appointment.
As he was only 16, two years younger than most candidates, he was shorter and lighter than the physical standards called for, but managed to convince the examining board to admit him anyway.
He entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in 1918, and eventually graduated 48th out of 539 in the class of 1922, in which Hyman G. Rickover graduated 107th.
At the time, it was customary for midshipmen to acquire nicknames, and Parsons was called “Deacon”, a play on his last name. This became shortened to “Deak”.
In November 1945, King created a new position of Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Special Weapons, which was given to Vice Admiral Blandy. Parsons became Blandy’s assistant. In turn, Parsons had two assistants of his own, Ashworth and Horacio Rivero, Jr. He also brought Greenbacker from Los Alamos to help set up the new office.
Parsons was a strong supporter of research into the use of nuclear power for warship propulsion, but disagreed with Rear Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Sr., the head of the Office of Research and Inventions, who wanted the Navy to initiate its own nuclear project.
Parsons felt that the Navy should work with the Manhattan Project, and arranged for Naval officers to be assigned to Oak Ridge. The most senior of them was his former classmate Rickover, who became assistant director there. They immersed themselves in the study of nuclear energy, laying the foundations for a nuclear-powered navy.
On 11 January 1946, Blandy was appointed to command Joint Task Force One (JTF-1), a special force created to conduct a series of nuclear weapon tests at Bikini Atoll, which he named Operation Crossroads, to determine the effect of nuclear weapons on warships.
Parsons, who was promoted to the rank of rear admiral on 8 January 1946, became Blandy’s Deputy Commander for Technical Direction and Commander Task Group 1.1. Parsons worked hard to make a success of the operation, which he described as “the largest laboratory experiment in history”.
In addition to the 95 target ships, there was a support fleet of more than 150 ships, 156 aircraft, and over 42,000 personnel.
Parsons witnessed the first explosion, Able, from the deck of the task force flagship, the command ship USS Mount McKinley. An airburst like the Hiroshima blast, it was unimpressive, and even Parsons thought that it must have been smaller than the Hiroshima bomb. It failed to sink the target ship, the battleship USS Nevada, mainly because it missed it by a considerable distance. This made it difficult to assess the amount of damage caused, which was the objective of the exercise.
Blandy then announced that the next test, Baker, would occur in just three weeks. This meant that Parsons had to carry out the evaluation of Able simultaneously with the preparations for Baker. This time he assisted with the final preparations on USS LSM-60 before heading back to seaplane tender USS Cumberland Sound for the test.
The underwater Baker explosion was no larger than Able, but the dome and water column made it look far more spectacular. However the real problem was the radioactive fallout, as Colonel Stafford L. Warren, the Manhattan Project’s medical advisor, had predicted.
The target ships proved impossible to decontaminate and, lacking targets, the test series had to be called off. For his part in Operation Crossroads, Parsons was awarded the Legion of Merit.
The Special Weapons Office was abolished in November 1946, and the Manhattan Project followed suit at the end of the year. A civilian agency, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), was created by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to take over the functions and assets of the Manhattan Project, including development, production and control of nuclear weapons. The law provided for a Military Liaison Committee (MLC) to advise the AEC on military matters, and Parsons became a member.
A joint Army-Navy organization, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP), was created to handle the military aspects of nuclear weapons. Groves was appointed to command the AFSWP, with Parsons and Air Force Major General Roscoe C. Wilson as his deputies. In this capacity, Parsons pressed for the development of improved nuclear weapons.
During the Operation Sandstone series of nuclear weapon tests at Enewetak Atoll in 1948, Parsons once again served as deputy commander. Parsons hoped that his next posting would be to sea, but he was instead sent to the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group in 1949. However, in 1951 he finally returned to sea duty, this time as Commander, Cruiser Division 6, despite having never commanded a ship. Parsons and his cruisers conducted a tour of the Mediterranean showing the flag. He then became Deputy Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance in March 1952.
Parsons remained in contact with Oppenheimer. The two men and their wives visited each other from time to time, and the Parsons family especially enjoyed visiting its former neighbors at their new home at Olden Manor, a 17th-century estate with a cook and groundskeeper, surrounded by 265 acres (107 ha) of woodlands at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Parsons was disturbed by the rise of McCarthyism in the early 1950s, but in 1953 he wrote a letter to Oppenheimer expressing his hope that “the anti-intellectualism of recent months may have passed its peak”.
However, on 4 December 1953, Parsons heard of President Dwight Eisenhower’s “blank wall” directive, blocking Oppenheimer from access to classified material. Parsons became visibly upset, and that night began experiencing severe chest pains.
The next morning, he went to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where he died while the doctors were still examining him. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery alongside his daughter Hannah. He was survived by his father, brother, half-brother and sister, as well as his wife Martha and daughters Peggy and Clare.
The Rear Admiral William S. Parsons Award for Scientific and Technical Progress was established by the Navy in his memory. It is awarded “to a Navy or Marine Corps officer, enlisted person, or civilian who has made an outstanding contribution in any field of science that has furthered the development and progress of the Navy or Marine Corps.” The Forrest Sherman-class destroyer USS Parsons was named in his honor.
Her keel was laid down by Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Mississippi on 17 June 1957 and was launched by his widow Martha on 17 August 1958. When it was rechristened as a guided missile destroyer (DDG-33) in 1967, Clare, now a Naval officer herself, represented her family.
Parsons was decommissioned on 19 November 1982, stricken from the Navy list on 1 December 1984, and disposed of as a target on 25 April 1989. The Deak Parsons Center, headquarters of Afloat Training Group, Atlantic, in Norfolk, Virginia, was also named for him.
Parsons’ portrait is among a series of paintings related to Operation Crossroads. His papers are in the Naval Historical Center in Washington, DC.