Service and Sacrifice: Two women, strangers, connected by the atomic bomb

Sue Wilkerson and Mary Rawdon share their memories with WPSD’s Jennifer Horbelt.

UNION CITY, TN — Two women, complete strangers, but they have one thing in common: the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. One helped make it. The other’s husband helped deliver it.

Somehow, they ended up as neighbors at Magnolia Place Assisted Living in Union City.

“They didn’t know what they had,” Mary Rawdon said of what her husband’s ship was carrying during World War II.

“It was secret. I could not even tell my parents where I was at,” Sue Wilkerson explained of her job during the war.

The Little Boy atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima near the end of WWII.

It’s quite a connection they have.

“And we would have never known it if we hadn’t been here,” Mary said.

That connection was a tool of war. The atomic bomb known as Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. World War II ended as a result. It started its journey in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the uranium necessary for it was enriched.

“That’s when mother graduated from high school,” Sue’s daughter Jenny Newberry explained, pointing to a picture in a photo album. “That’s when she was recruited to Oak Ridge.”

A shot of a group of women leaving the uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge during WWII.

Sue was one of several girls recruited. She’s the only one that went, and it was personal.

“Three brothers. One fiance. What am I worth? I went. I went,” Sue said.

While the men in her life served overseas on the front lines, Sue sat in front of huge machines at Oak Ridge for hours at a time.

Jenny Newberry looks through photo albums with her mom, Sue Wilkerson.

“They monitored these gauges all day long, watching them and then make adjustments,” Jenny said of the job women like her mom had at the facility. “They knew they were supposed to keep it at a certain level, and that was their job.”

Jenny shared the details of what Sue did at that job. Sue still doesn’t feel completely comfortable talking about her work.

“It was a very thankless job. It was top secret. No one knew what they were doing,” Jenny said. “They were in dormitories, secluded from the rest of the world.”

“I’m not ashamed,” Sue said of her job during the war. “Somebody had to do it.”

USS Indianapolis

The uranium enriched at Oak Ridge made Little Boy possible. The bomb was then built at a laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It was the USS Indianapolis that would deliver that bomb across the Pacific Ocean. Mary’s husband, Herbert Rawdon, was one of 1,196 sailors on that ship.

“I know if they hadn’t of dropped it, we probably wouldn’t be Americans no more,” Mary said of the atomic bomb her husband’s ship carried.

There was a high price to pay for the dangerous mission. After delivering its important cargo, a Japanese sub fired on the USS Indianapolis, sinking it. Herbert died several years ago, but before he did he shared his experience with us in 2006. It’s one of the only times he ever talked about what happened.


“And the last thing I saw was that ship going down and both engines, props turning,” Herbert told our news crew during that interview.

Sue Wilkerson was recruited to Oak Ridge right out of high school.

He and more than 900 other men made it into the water alive. Somehow, Herbert survived continuous shark attacks for days. It was weeks before Mary knew he was one of just 317 men coming home.

“I cannot imagine what she went through, what the rest of them went through knowing that their loved ones were dead or missing in action,” Mary’s son Wayne said.

The man who returned was different in many ways.

“Didn’t have eyebrows, didn’t have any skin on his ears,” Mary said of the physical toll taken on him. “And just things that, I don’t know. I don’t know how they made it.”

Asked if he ever talk about what happened, Mary said, “No ma’am, he sure didn’t.”

He had nightmares, however.

Herbert Rawdon

“About a month before he died, he got up and went to the bathroom, and he didn’t come back to bed,” Mary said. “And then he hollered for me. He was holding the door facing. You know, like he was holding onto something.”

“Herbert, what are you doing?” Wayne recalls his mother asking his father. “He said, I’m hanging on, I don’t want to sink.”

“We can only imagine what that would be like to live through that,” Wayne said.

“I ain’t never got over it,” Herbert said in his interview in 2006.

Mary Rawdon and Sue Wilkerson, featured in the Union City Messenger.

Wayne said his dad wasn’t the only tough one — his mom had to be strong too.

“She’d have to be tough. She’d have to be,” he said. “She indicates what the women were back then.”

Strong. Resilient. Ready to answer their country’s call.

Asked if she is proud that she served her country, Sue said, without hesitation “Absolutely. Absolutely yes.”

“If there could have been anything else, I could have done, I’d have done it,” Sue said.

Below, you’ll find three videos. Two are extended interviews with Mary and Sue. The third is the story WPSD did in 2006 with Mary’s husband, Herbert, about his experience on the USS Indianapolis.

Sue Wilkerson extended interview

Mary Rawdon extended interview

2006 story