e-Newsletter, January 2002

9/11 student drawing: Can anyone identify the young student who created the drawing printed in the latest issue of the newsletter? If so, please contact me.

The Atomic Bomb (Part IV)

[ Part III | Association ]

April 12, 1945 found the 486th standing down from operations after flying combat for 5 straight days, and losing 9 planes. Two of those crews, Vanderhoef and Lowe would return, but the others suffered a number killed in action and prisoners of war. Of the aircraft that did return, flak damage took its toll. The 12th became a day to lick wounds and prepare for another round of battle. The 486th would fly 7 more missions in the next 9 days, and would lose two more crews when the 8th AF stood down for good on the 22nd. Meanwhile, some crews took advantage of the down time, and relaxed. Others flew practice missions, or slow timed newly installed engines. There was training, and passes to enjoy. The ground crews, however, were busy patching holes, and fixing broken plane parts. For the ground crews it was a day to catch up.

News from home took some time to make its way across the pond, but, when it did, it shocked soldiers, airmen and sailors to learn their Commander and Chief died from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. The man who brought a nation out of its depression, and who lead it into war did not live long enough to the see final victory. America's military couldn't afford the luxury of feeling sorry for itself. Perhaps, the fighting men of America felt a bigger sense of purpose and pushed deeper into enemy territory toward the final defeat of NAZI Germany. (The 486th newsletter, "The Bomb Bay," would run a eulogy for the president in the April 18th issue, Volume 1, Number 9.)

There were other events of April 12th that received no press whatsoever, but held great consequences for a nation at war. The 20th Air Force was conducting another bombing mission against Japan. Their target was an industrial complex where the Riken Lab was located. Although the strategists didn't realize it at the time, the raid destroyed the laboratories that made up the Japanese gaseous diffusion plant needed to enrich U235 at the Riken. This raid was a fatal blow to the Japanese Nuclear Research Program. The Japanese had started a program of research in 1941 that would hopefully result in a weapon of untold power, and would provide a source of useful energy for the nation and its Navy. That effort lay in ruins on April 12th, 1945. (the 13th in Japan). In the US General Leslie Groves would not learn of this event, but he did receive equally important news from Europe.

Earlier in the year, GEN Groves realized that there was no attempt to gather intelligence information about the German nuclear research projects. He corrected this by creating a special intelligence unit that rode into Paris the day it was liberated by the Free French Armies led by GEN Charles deGaulle. Raiding the laboratories of French collaborators Groves' operatives followed a trail through western Europe that would lead them to the stockpiles of German uranium ore, and, ultimately, to the scientists who were conducting Germany's nuclear research. This unit was able to secure, and return to the US all of Germany's uranium ore. The scientists were also round up, and among them would be their leader, Werner Heisenberg. Thus, was dealt the death blow  to Germany's nuclear program. More than that, the seizures and arrests would deny the Russians the materials that would benefit their research programs. (It was later learned that the Russians weren't hurt that badly, when it was discovered that a former German physicist working at Los Alamos was spying for the Russians.)

By April 12th Los Alamos scientists completed critical experiments with U235 and the implosion experiments. The US stood on the brink of being the world's only nuclear power.

From the beginnings in 1897 until 1939 all nuclear research was conducted as a purely academic pursuit. Researchers published their results in the appropriate journals and technical papers. Information was exchanged freely, and the knowledge was shared by everyone. In the 1930's Europe was undergoing a dramatic and frightening change. Intellectuals found themselves looked upon with suspicion. Jews were discriminated against by all nations of Europe, especially in Germany. German academies began dismissing Jewish faculty. The writing was on the wall, and those who could began to emigrate to escape the persecution, and to find new lives. This exodus of the intelligentsia diminished the German brain trust that was once the pride of Europe. America, and, to a lesser extent, Britain would be the beneficiaries of this exodus. Their personal experiences and their knowledge would be a driving force behind the American and British nuclear power programs. Chief among the foreign scientists who would enjoy much influence was Leo Szilard. A physicist born in Hungary, and trained under Einstein, another Jew. They were able to convince the US and British governments that Germany was capable of developing a bomb of awesome power, and that they would be wise to beat Germany in this deadly quest. Britain was hard pressed to start a weapons program that appeared to hold little promise of success. Still they began research into the feasibility of nuclear weapons. The US was a little slower to join the race.

By 1939 Szilard was trying to convince the US government that they needed to take control of all nuclear research programs within the US, and to put a lid of secrecy on these projects. Scientist were, naturally, loathe to operate under a cloak of secrecy. Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr argued against secrecy, arguing that science could not progress without the freedom to freely exchange information and critique each other's research. However, when the French announced that uranium was theoretically capable of undergoing a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction the picture was changed. Immediately Germany put its nuclear research behind closed doors, and began to seize uranium and radium ores within its occupied territories in Europe. The French approached a Belgian company that operated mines in Africa for ores to conduct bomb research in northern Africa. Fortunately, the owner of that company was forewarned by the British what may be coming and denied France access to his ores. Instead, he sold everything he had to the Americans. The US government began to take control of nuclear research and clamped a lid of secrecy over these programs. In 1939 the race was on!

The Japanese military, led by LT GEN Takeo Yasuda, followed the scientific literature regarding nuclear research in the West. In 1940 GEN Yasuda tasked LTCOL Tatsusaburo Suzuki to write a full report of developments to date. LTCOL Suzuki's conclusions were that Japan had access to sufficient uranium deposits to proceed with a nuclear program. The problem was posed to Yoshio Nishina of the Japanese Physical and Chemical Research Institute. Nishina trained with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, and operated a cyclotron at the Riken Laboratory. One assistant was trained at the University of Berkeley. In April of 41, Japanese physicists had accumulated enough information to allow the Imperial Japanese Air Force to authorize and fund development of a nuclear bomb. However, as work progressed, it became apparent that many years of research would be required before workable power plants or weapons could be realized. They predicted America would not fair any better, and a sense of urgency was lost. The Japanese effort failed to overcome the difficulties that the Americans had. Moreover, materiel and electrical power shortages made reaching a solution much more difficult. In April of '45, their accomplishments proved to be for naught.

German efforts were well ahead of the Japanese, but still fell short of the Americans. The Germans were operating a nuclear reactor, but used heavy water rather than pure carbon as a moderator (to slow fast fission neutrons down), which was the choice of American researchers. Unfortunately, the only supply of heavy water was in Norway, and the Norwegian underground and British made sure that the Germans would have difficulty obtaining sufficient supply to conduct their research and development. The inaccessibility of raw materials, the lack of confidence of success, and the lack of a sense of urgency hampered German scientists, dooming their research program.

American scientists realized the difficulties in developing an atomic bomb, but Yankee ingenuity would not allow them to give up. Even if they wanted to, the foreign scientists within their midst wouldn't let them. As long as Germany stood a chance of creating a Nuclear weapon, the US could not afford to come in second.

Any research of this scope would normally require many years of preliminary research and pilot projects before a full scale development program would be given any consideration. However, war time did not permit any country this luxury, and answers had to be found quickly. GEN Groves was assigned the task of leading the Manhattan Project in the fall of '42, and approached the problems with no doubt of the outcome. He assembled his team of scientists, and signed on contractors to begin constructing everything that would be needed to refine U235, and assemble it into a working bomb. Often times, equipment was built before anyone clearly understood what was needed. How much was enough? How big did the processing plants have to be? Which method of refinement was best? In the latter case, 5 refinement techniques existed, with no one a clear favorite. Groves authorized, and funded, different groups to pursue each one.

Although much had been learned about nuclear physics, there were many unanswered questions. For example, somatic affects of radiation exposure were documented, but not fully understood. Consequently, some short cuts could not be taken, and extreme safety precautions had to be implemented. One contractor, Du Pont, was so intimidated by the project, that they refused to make a profit so that they wouldn't be held responsible for any failures, particularly catastrophic failures. Government contract law didn't allow this and Du Pont was forced to accept $1 for its part in the Manhattan Project (Comically, DuPont was paid before the contract had been fulfilled. As a consequence they were required to reimburse the government 33 cents.)

On April 12th, success of the Manhattan Project was all but assured, and the field of competitors was now down to just America (Britain was riding the coat-tails of the American bomb project).

Two other proposals were borne of the Manhattan project, neither was pursued with much vigor; at least, initially. Edward Teller had realized that fusion of light elements such as hydrogen would have a far larger explosive yield than fission of heavy elements. Teller made his "Super bomb" proposal to Oppenheimer, but would not get his enthusiastic support. Oppenheimer argued that there were too many proposals and work to complete without adding to the them. Additionally, the "Super" required a fission bomb to initiate the process. This meant that little could be done until the fission bombs could be proven to work. Edward Teller would have to wait until after the war to see his dream come to fruition. His "Super bomb" became known as the "Hydrogen Bomb," or simply "H-Bomb." (Japanese scientists had theorized that the H-Bomb was possible about the same time.) The other proposal considered manufacturing a "dirty" bomb. Some scientists felt that the Germans would fail to develop a working fission bomb, and realizing their failure, would construct a bomb which worked as a conventional bomb. This bomb, however, would include highly radioactive elements, which would be strewn over a wide area upon detonation of the conventional explosives. These radioactive elements, primarily Strontium-90, would contaminate crop fields. Crops grown in these fields would absorb the radioactive elements, which, in turn, would be consumed by the local populace. The Strontium-90 had a chemistry similar to calcium, and would be stored in the bones. The radioactivity would destroy slowly from within. The argument presented to Oppenheimer followed the same paranoia driving the main fission research; i.e., if the Germans develop one, the US should be ready with one. Oppenheimer authorized a look into this idea, but did not give it a very high priority.

The Manhattan Project must stand as one of the most ambitious, and productive engineering projects ever undertaken by man. At the outset, the odds of success were even. Many years of research and pilot studies were compressed into 3 years. All construction, procurement of materiel, and workers was done at a time when wartime needs made it difficult to find sufficient quantities of skilled and unskilled labor and materiel. Two billion dollars were spent on the project, and Groves feared having to justify this expense to Congress should they fail, as much as he feared the Germans beating him to the punch. Yet, when success was so near at hand in the Spring in '45, the whole project was about to unravel as the defeat of Germany caused many scientists to have second thoughts about what they were doing. Even Leo Szilard, the main drive behind the Atomic Bomb research, sought to have the project cancelled. Politicians who knew about the project, also questioned the wisdom behind the creation and deployment of such a destructive weapon. Groves and Oppenheimer kept the program on track, and the politicians gave their endorsement, even if reluctantly, to use the weapon. They knew that many more people were going to die in the defeat of Japan, and how they died was not as important as how many and on which side. The geopolitical situation was also an important factor. The use of the Nuclear trump card was hoped to derail the Soviet efforts to dominate eastern Europe, and to deny them the opportunity in sharing in the spoils of war in the Pacific.

On August 6, 1945 Hiroshima all but vanished, followed by Nagasaki on the 9th. Had the Japanese not conceded defeat, and accepted the unconditional surrender terms, other cities would have followed. The peace that would follow would be a tense peace, but the echoes of the detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki would help saner minds prevail.


The Making of the Atomic Bomb , by Richard Rhodes, 1986, Simon and Schuster.

Now It Can Be Told: The story of the Manhattan Project , by General Leslie M. Groves, 1962, Da Capo Press.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman , by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton, 1985, W. W. Norton & Co.

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