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A tremendous responsibility

North Liberty Library’s veteran appreciation day reminds us of the demands of military service
Joe Segreti explains how an atomic bomb is constructed and detonated during a presentation Tuesday, Nov. 10, at the North Liberty Community Library. Segreti spoke of his time in a security detail at Los Alamos, N.M., during the early years of the Cold War. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY — He was 24 years old and holding a lead container filled with the ingredients of an atomic bomb.
Joe Segreti didn’t think anything of it at the time. It was just a part of his job.
Segreti, an Iowa City resident and patron of the North Liberty Community Library, said he was among the lucky ones in World War II.
“I seemed to be behind everything…way behind, fortunately,” said Segreti. During the first Veterans’ Appreciation event at the North Liberty Community Library on Tuesday, November 10, Segreti told of his time in an engineering outfit at the end of the war, and his subsequent reassignment to a security detail at Los Alamos, N.M., home of the United States’ fledgling atomic bomb program.
Segreti was sent to Officers Candidate School (OCS) and commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Army’s combat engineers. From there, he spent 10 months overseas as the war wound down.
“I was expected to come home in August 1945, and went into a replacement depot, from which you’d ultimately ship home,” he said. While there, they received news that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. Nobody knew just what an “atomic bomb” was, he explained.
“It didn’t mean anything to us, it was just some kind of a new bomb,” Segreti explained.
The end of the war in the Pacific came within days, and along with it, a new assignment for Segreti. Originally, he was to return to the United States and receive an assignment for Japan. Instead, he was sent to Austria where, among other duties, he was tasked with preparing a building for the GI’s to play basketball. He described the difficulties in obtaining materials, including a shellac for the floor. “I finally found something; unfortunately it had some sort of a wax base, so it was a little slippery, but it was the best we had,” he said, eliciting the audience’s laughter.
Segreti finally made it back to the States around Christmas 1945, and after a few weeks of leave, received new orders that left him baffled.
“I was assigned, and I don’t know why, to Intelligence and Security, and sent to Los Alamos.” He said the location really didn’t mean much to him, nor did the name of the program, “The Manhattan Engineers District.” The Manhattan Project was the code name for the top-secret program that developed the atomic bomb, led by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.
It was an era when not much was known about atomic energy and radiation, which sometimes led to tragedy. Segreti told the story of a young technician who made a fatal error. The technician would configure atomic material and stack it together to reach just below critical mass– the point where the nucleus of an atom splits into nuclei of lighter atoms while releasing energy.
“Unfortunately, he made a little error…and he got it past critical mass. He recognized it right away and knocked it down, but he knew at that time he was a dead man,” Segreti said. The technician died five days later after causing himself fatal radiation levels.
Sometimes Segreti would have to transport material to the west coast and transfer it to Navy personnel. The material was contained in a lead canister.
“I got to thinking later, I had at my fingertips the guts of an atomic bomb. It never occurred to me at the time. I was young…nothing occurs to you when you’re young,” he said. He recalled one return flight, without the canister, was rough with turbulence from a storm.
“We circled around it, bounced up and down, and we all had our parachutes on,” Segreti said. Later, he thought about the circumstances had the turbulence occurred on the trip out instead. “I have no idea what I would’ve done…would I have pitched it out and then jumped? I don’t know,” he said.
It struck him just how much responsibility the military put on him and others, young soldiers in their early 20s.
“Just thinking back, my God, I was this young fellow. I was lucky,” Segreti said. Eventually, he left the atomic program and moved to Iowa City to oversee the startup of a new toothpaste factory. Segreti retired after 32 years from Proctor & Gamble in Iowa City.
Following Segreti’s presentation, Sgt. Chris Prior, an eight-year veteran of the Marine Corps with three deployments under his belt, and Paul Swihart, a long-time adult leader with Boy Scout Troop 2000 in Coralville, demonstrated the proper way to fold the flag of the United States of America.
Swihart likened a veteran’s committee to a blank check written to the government, “…for an amount up to and including their lives. I think everybody here should respect the fact these people served, dedicated their lives…to lay it down for everybody else’s freedoms that they have here,” said Swihart . He urged the audience to thank veterans for their service. Swihart also discussed flag etiquette for displaying the flag, and asked those who have flag poles in their yards to either take the flag down at night, or install lighting.
“Our national symbol should never be left in the dark,” he said. “The United States flag should never be up in the dark, without illumination.” He also asked that people respect and honor the flag, and remember those who have fallen.
Jennie Garner, Library Director, said she and her staff heard of Segreti’s story and wanted to hold a program to allow him to share it with a broader audience.
“Veterans Day seemed the logical choice, and it just kind of tumbled in from there,” said Garner. The Iowa Army National Guard co-sponsored the event, which Garner said she hopes will expand in the coming years so more veterans can share their experiences.