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Manhattan Project, page 3

From Augustana magazine, Summer 1999

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By Clair Schersten '39, Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Clair and Marion Mirfield Schersten
Clair Schersten '39 and Marion Mirfield '43 Schersten with Carol '68, then 8 months old, in the front yard of their Oak Ridge home. This photo was taken in February 1947.

In March of 1944, I learned of a secret scientific project vital to the war effort. Larry Magnusson, my friend since childhood, was involved with the project at the University of Chicago. He could tell me only that I'd find the work highly interesting, and he suggested that I apply.

At that time I was at Augie completing a chemistry major I had discontinued to take some "pre-sem" courses. After two academic years in the Seminary and two years as an intern and "student pastor," I came to the conclusion I belonged instead where my natural bent and talent lay -- in science and math.

Soon after an interview with the people in the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, I arrived in Knoxville, Tenn. There, in a small downtown office, I learned I would be working and living at a location 25 miles west, in Oak Ridge, on government-owned land. I rode on a shuttle to Clinton Laboratories (to be named Oak Ridge National Laboratory shortly after the war).

What I learned about the Project's magnitude from a young chemist, already on the payroll, who happened to be the only other passenger on the shuttle, was startling to say the least. Only 16 months after groundbreaking, thousands were already employed at three major laboratories on the site. The total population on the 90-square-mile Oak Ridge reservation was estimated at 60,000, many being families of construction workers living in "trailer camps" while completing work on the third massive plant. The three laboratory plants were located miles from each other and from "town-site." The town had stores, schools, cafeterias, a post office, recreation halls, two theaters, two bowling alleys, at least two dozen dormitories and already maybe 4,000 houses. More than half were "pre-fabs," but the others on permanent foundations, with many more being built.

But the most amazing information of the day came from the Clinton Laboratories' security officer. The objective at the lab, or X-10 as it was called, he said, was to produce a new element, plutonium, by the neutron bombardment of uranium metal in "the pile," as the graphite reactor was called. Plutonium is capable of fission-being split into smaller elements with the release of tremendous energy. He said an atomic bomb the size of the large glass ashtray on his desk could have the power of 20,000 tons of TNT! He told us this in a hushed tone and stressed the absolute secrecy of the project.

For the first nine months, I worked in the analytical control lab to determine the very small quantities, at least in the beginning, of plutonium produced. We also measured the total beta and gamma radiation in the samples.

The project was challenging and exciting because its goal was a way to put an end to the awful war. The work was equally challenging because it was in entirely new fields of nuclear physics and radiochemistry.

Exciting events also were happening in my personal life during my first months as a Tennessean. On June 30, 1944, Marion Mirfield '43 and I were married. Our first residence at Oak Ridge, for more than two months, was a dormitory room with a shared bathroom. We then moved into a one bedroom apartment in a residential neighborhood. In April 1946, we qualified to move into a two-bedroom house because we were expecting a baby. Carol '68 was our first child, followed by Tom '71 and Mark '74.

After WWII ended, the research and development program at the lab changed in focus and direction. It moved toward nuclear reactors for energy production and toward radio isotopes separation. I worked for a year on the separation of some radioactive fission products, and about three years in radiochemical process development. Then my interest and assignments shifted toward administration. From 1950 to 1961, I was the assistant to the director of the chemical technology division. Then I was transferred to Union Carbide's central research and development site in West Virginia, where I worked until retirement in 1983.

By the late Dr. Lawrence Magnusson '40, University of Chicago

Dr. Lawrence Magnusson
Dr. Lawrence Magnusson

The Rock Island unit of the Illinois National Guard was mustered into the U.S. Army in the fall of 1940. I was there but chose not to join my former comrades because I was near graduation and felt I could contribute more, if need be, in science than as a corporal in an artillery unit.

I remember hearing F.D.R.'s "Day of Infamy" and declaration of war on the radio in a shared office-lab in grad school in Ames, Iowa. A profoundly chilling moment.

In late spring of 1942, thanks to Civil Service, I found myself shoveling sulfur in a chemical warfare service plant in Huntsville, Ala. We made tons and tons of the nasty stuff-mustard gas and lewisite-in case the Nazis should revert to chemical warfare. Several workers were killed. I had a near death experience from sniffing what I believe was phosgene.

There was no science in Huntsville, and I got out as soon as I could. In 1943 I was picked up at an American Chemical Society meeting in Pittsburgh by a recruiter from the mysterious Manhattan Project. After arriving at the University of Chicago, I soon learned that a distinguished group of scientists was attempting to make a monstrous bomb based on nuclear energy. It was believed that scientists in Germany were working toward the same objective. The assembly of scientific talent associated with the Manhattan Project was awesome to me, a neophyte, Fermi, Conant, Condon, Szilard, Teller, Oppenheimer, the Compton brothers Karl and Arthur, Zachariasen. I met these people. In about a week I had ascended from hell to heaven in the scientific world.

Dr. Glenn Seaborg, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1951, gave me the job of isolating enough of the newly synthesized element 93, neptunium (Np), to study its chemical properties. This was important because Np-239 is the precursor of plutonium-239, the bomb ingredient used in the reactors at Hanford, Wash.

Our initial source of Np was uranium bombarded in accelerators, or cyclotrons, at Berkeley University and the University of Chicago. A co-worker and I were able to isolate a few micrograms of Np-237 to determine the half-life of the unstable element. Our determination, with a smidgen of the stuff, proved to be accurate to within one percent according to measurements made many years later. That made us feel good. Later, with milligram amounts isolated from reactor plutonium, we were able to study the chemistry of neptunium in detail.

At the war's end, Professor Seaborg invited me and some friends to go to Berkeley to complete graduate studies. So began another fascinating chapter in my life.

By Dr. C. Marcus Olson '32, University of Chicago

C. Marcus Olson
C. Marcus Olson '32, with his children, 1-year-old Marcia and 4-year-old C. Erik, at Oak Ridge in July 1944.

My academic research in X-ray spectroscopy and industrial experience in the separation of finely divided solids prompted an invitation for me to join the Manhattan Project. My association with Dr. Glenn Seaborg was not critical in the success of the Manhattan Project, but he gave me an honorable mention in his weighty book.

In reality, my contribution to the success of the Project was most modest. I participated in the research and production of plutonium synthesized in reactors called "atomic piles." It was a necessary task but I have a problem being proud of it. One does not take pride in meting out punishment.

As events turned out, the Allies guided by radar defeated the Japanese on the high seas, blowing their ships out of the water. My participation in the development of air-borne radar in 1942 -- finding a feasible process for producing electronic grade silicon -- gives me greater comfort. Getting that equipment deployed even a day earlier may have allowed some airmen a chance to get home.

I must add that a substantial measure of credit is due to another Augustana graduate. Loraine Swanson '33 Olson. Along with our two small children, she followed me with tender loving care, having no idea whatever about the work or hazards to which we were exposed.

After WWII ended, I left my position at the Hanford site in Washington start to resume my peacetime research at DuPont.