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Memories of the Manhattan Project

From Augustana magazine, Summer 1999

In the early 1940s, Germany banned the export of uranium, and the United States feared German scientists were developing a nuclear weapon. In response, the government organized the Manhattan Project (1942-1946) to produce two types of atomic weapons, a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb.

The Project took place at three large secret sites: Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Los Alamos, N.M.; and Hanford, Wash., and dozens of smaller sites. These installations, many of them hidden in mountains and mesas, became tightly guarded communities in the government's effort to develop and produce the most dangerous weapon in the history of the world. Although as many as 125,000 people were employed at one time, and hundreds of thousands during the run of the Project, the work was conducted in secrecy from the enemy as well as the American public.

In recognition of the World War II-Era Classes Reunion in May 1999, here are six condensed essays by or about Augustana graduates whose contributions were significant to the success of the Manhattan Project and to the end of WWII.

By Dr. Ernie Anderson '42, Los Alamos, N.M.

Dr. Ernie Anderson kept this card handy when he was at Los Alamos.

In the winter of 1941-42, John Wertz, an assistant of Augustana chemistry professor Dr. J.P. Magnusson, was taking courses at the University of Chicago. He came back with word that a war project was looking for chemists. I had decided to go to Iowa City in the fall; the university had a fair chemistry department but a superb orchestra.

So I went to the Metallurgical Lab at Chicago looking for a summer job. Fortunately, I had taken an extension course at St. Ambrose College on the chemistry of powder and explosives. The interview was very low key. I wasn't the analytical chemist they had in mind. I explained I wasn't enthusiastic either because I was going to study organic chemistry at Iowa. But could I have a job for the summer? They said duration was no problem to them. (They knew very well that once I found out what was up, I would never leave.) The problem was they needed people yesterday. How soon could I come? It was February and I was going to graduate in June. Augie was patriotic and willing so I took an informal philosophy exam and skipped the rest for a degree in absentia in June.

At the Metallurgical Lab, we knew about nuclear energy and theoretical chain reactions; bombs weren't talked about. So we chemists prepared ever-purer uranium and analyzed it for minute traces of the exotic elements that had excessive appetites for the precious neutrons. The physicists made their measurements and computed the "pile" which Dr. Enrico Fermi built in the famous squash court in the west stands of the abandoned athletic field. In addition to our full-time jobs, we were permitted (indeed, expected) to take the courses leading to Ph.D. research.

After two years on the Midway campus, our group began to disperse to mysterious places known prosaically as sites X, Y and Z. We analyzed water from these places and immediately went to the literature to determine where in the United States such water was found. More clever people at other labs looked into their libraries' state guide books and found that many of their missing colleagues shared ties to Tennessee and New Mexico. I was by then a supposed expert in determining miniscule amounts of boron in minute samples of uranium, so I was offered a chance to go to Site Y "somewhere in northern New Mexico."

Then things became very hush-hush. Do not close your bank account; continue to use it. Have all your journals and other subscriptions sent to an address in Los Angeles. Your address (family only) is P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, N.M. No visitors are allowed closer than Albuquerque, about 80 miles away, except those with clearance through Army intelligence.

The birth certificate of my second son states his place of birth as P.O. Box 1663, and my New Mexico driver's license is in the name of No. xxxx, Special List B, signature not required.

The deal that Project Director Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer ("Oppie") had made with U.S. Army General Leslie Groves was that in exchange for tight military security (including mail censorship whose existence was censored) and limits on travel, the lab would have no compartmentalization internally. Every Tuesday night, one of the two theaters was reserved for a colloquium of the entire scientific staff. There were only two forbidden topics: the rates of delivery of uranium and plutonium to us and the date we would deliver a weapon. Oppie's idea was not only to keep up morale but also to take advantage of everyone's ideas and suggestions. So early on we watched Dr. Edward Teller draw fantastically improbable diagrams of his idealized, theoretical hydrogen bomb.

The Tuesday night colloquia sometimes featured a committee on the stage for a roundtable of a current problem. One night I counted four Nobelists on the stage with two more in the audience, not counting several who later received the honor.

In the spring of 1946 my family returned to Chicago so I could resume the quest for a Ph.D. It turned into a frightful trial because of housing problems which Bob Fryxell '44 shared with us in part. I was fortunate to be able to work with Dr. Willard Libby in the discovery of natural radiocarbon and the development of a method of accurately dating archaeological artifacts. He got the Nobel Prize and I got my degree, which I considered a fair division of the rewards.

In 1949 we hurried back to the haven of Los Alamos and stayed there some 30 years until my retirement in 1979. This time I chose to join the biomedical research group studying the health hazard s associated with nuclear energy... a chemist doing physics for a bunch of biologists. This was the same group Fryxell had worked for during the war but its field had expanded to include the effects of irradiation from external sources. During the years, the focus shifted to the study of world-wide fallout from nuclear weapons testing, where my experience in the measurement of very low levels of radioactivity was useful.

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