Nuclear physicist Lawrence H. "Larry" Johnston, one of the last survivors of the Manhattan Project, died peacefully Sunday at his home in Moscow, Idaho. Millie, his wife of 69 years, and family were with him. He was 93.
Johnston designed the first atomic bomb detonator and is believed to be the only eyewitness to all three 1945 atomic explosions - at White Sands, N.M., and in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events that killed some 200,000 people and ended World War II. Johnston was assigned to measure the impact of the bombs.
Johnston had just completed his bachelor's degree and begun graduate work at University of California, Berkeley in 1940, when he agreed to follow his mentor, Nobel-prize-winning Luis Alvarez, to Boston to help develop microwave radar at MIT's Radiation Laboratory. By 1943, Johnston had helped develop a ground-controlled-approach radar blind landing system for airplanes, an invention critical to the success of World War II Battle of Britain and the post-war Berlin Airlift. Both Alvarez and Johnston then moved to Los Alamos, N.M., to help develop the atomic bomb.
Back at Berkeley after the war, Johnston helped Alvarez build a new type of proton linear accelerator. Johnston then headed construction of a larger version of it at the University of Minnesota, and worked on another at Stanford University. In 1967, the Johnstons moved to Moscow where he served as physics professor at the University of Idaho until 1988. He focused on nuclear physics, lasers and molecular spectroscopy. After retiring, Johnston continued to give talks about his experiences to all ages, from elementary school children to scientists. A natural teacher, Johnston used many occasions as teachable moments. When fishing, gutting fish meant also examining contents of the fish's stomach and asking his kids to decipher its last meal. "Hmm, caddis fly larvae."
Friends and family teased Johnston that his interest in explosives went back to his birth on Chinese New Year - known for its fireworks - Feb. 11, 1918, in Shantung Province, China, to Christian missionaries. A picture at age 3 shows him grinning and holding a large Chinese firecracker. The family spent Larry's fifth summer traveling across the USA in a Model-T Ford, paying farmers 25 cents to camp on their property and visiting national parks. Ever after, Larry loved camping and the outdoors.
Larry was beginning graduate studies at the University of California Berkeley when he fell in love with the beautiful Mildred "Millie" Hillis, finding in her a match for his wit and intelligence and a partner in his Christian faith. After Luis Alvarez recruited Larry to come to Boston to help invent radar, leaving Millie behind, Alvarez thought Larry seemed depressed. When Larry admitted he was missing Millie, Alvarez pulled strings to fly Larry to Berkeley, where they were married and returned together to Boston. Millie sometimes accompanied the radar team on trips to test their new blind landing system. She had a ringside seat for history in the making.
As children arrived, Millie ensured that they had quality time to spend with their busy father, who often worked around the clock on war projects. Thus began a tradition of his telling bedtime stories that continued throughout their five children's childhoods.
Intermingled with stories of Reddy Fox were tales of Larry's youthful experiments with electricity, involving chewing gum, his sister, Eunice, and her bedsprings. Stories about his summer adventures tide pooling at La Jolla also figured prominently. "Though we have mostly lived inland, we all think our love for the sea is thanks to Daddy's bedtime stories," said daughter Margy. His kids could stall the going-to-bed process by asking scientific questions, "Tell us about the giant squids, Daddy!"
Johnston was asked in post-war years whether he regretted working on the A bomb. "My answer," Johnston told an MIT interviewer in 1991, "is that I felt very privileged to be part of an effort that promised to end the war abruptly, and which had the prospect of saving many lives, both Japanese and American." Johnston, known for his wit and kindness to all, held this view even during heated debate over the ethics of the bomb in more recent decades.
Johnston devoted much of his retirement to improving the relationship between modern science and the Bible. A proponent of intelligent design, Johnston sought understanding of evolutionary biology from the University of Idaho's Holly Wichman and James Foster through weekly lunchtime sessions that continued until his death.
Millie and Larry treasured two trips to Israel where they worked on Biblical archeology projects and Larry helped Israeli scientists use sonar to locate potential dig sites. The Johnstons supported Christian ministries in Moscow and attended Bridge Bible Fellowship.
Johnston died of lung cancer. He is survived by his wife, Mildred, and five children, Mary Virginia "Ginger" Johnston, Milton-Freewater, Ore.; Margy McClenahan (Tom), Salt Lake City, Utah, Dan Johnston (Olivia), Benicia, Calif., Lois Johnston, Spokane, Wash., and Karen Johnston (Barlow Buescher), Lakewood, Wash.; also four grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9, at the First Presbyterian Church, 405 Van Buren Street, Moscow, with a reception to follow. Memorial gifts may be sent to Bridge Bible Fellowship, Moscow, or The American Physical Society.