The Oak Ridge Story

Oak Ridge Story book coverThis book was referenced in an article provided by a friend, and it contains some extraordinarily interesting aspects for a book published in 1950. For example, the Introduction describes how the Japanese, when they were in control of Southern Luzon in the Philippines, conducted a roundup of “…persons suspected of unfriendly attitudes.” An elderly American who had lived in the Philippines for many years was questioned about his nationality. “The man replied he was from Tennessee. A perplexed look crossed the (Japanese) officer’s face. Then he decreed. ‘You may depart. You are of a non-belligerent nation. Japan has no war with Tennessee’.” The irony is that activities in Tennessee would lead to the first atomic bomb used in warfare that was detonated over Hiroshima in 1945.

The book describes how John Hendrix was a devoutly religious person who lived in Eastern Tennessee at the turn of the Twentieth Century and described visions that caused people to laugh. He described a railroad that had yet to be built but was eventually built. However, that isn’t the most remarkable vision described by the “Prophet.” He described visions he had during a forty day self-imposed isolation in the woods. He emerged from his isolation to tell neighbors the valley, “…some day will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be…Big engines will dig big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake…I’ve seen it. It’s coming.”

Many of the neighbors of Hendrix undoubtedly considered him to be hopelessly delusional, or perhaps they just passed him off as an interesting eccentric. There is no doubt his visions, perhaps by sheer luck or by actual prophesy, accurately predicted the building of massive Manhattan Project installations in Eastern Tennessee. I find the prediction that, “…the earth will shake” to be the most compelling. The detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 indeed caused the earth to shake along with other effects that killed or injured tens of thousands of people in that Japanese city. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did indeed, as prophesized by Mr. Hendrix, “…help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be…” Continue reading


Hiroshima book coverI’ve been told this book by John Hershey is the most famous of the many books describing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. My first reaction was to be astonished that it was so small. I won’t be so foolish to dismiss the importance of a book that has over 400 Amazon reviews with an average of more than 4 out of five “stars,” but I expected more. Perhaps I’ve read too many books that describe the horrific effects of a nuclear weapon detonation over a city. My purpose for finally reading it was to look for new information for the book I’m writing that has the working title of “Nuclear Deterrence: An Early History of The Rocky Flats Plant.” That history obviously includes the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any history of the impact of nuclear weapons on deterrence would obviously be deficient without a discussion of the first use of nuclear weapons in war.

The book describes the situations of six residents of Hiroshima when the nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The six are described as a clerk who was chatting with a coworker, a physician who had sat down to read a newspaper, a tailor’s widow who was watching a neighbor, a German priest who was reading a magazine, a surgeon who was carrying a blood sample to a laboratory, and a Methodist pastor who was unloading a cart of clothes. The first observation is that they all had, for one reason or another, turned their heads away from the location of the detonation or were a few feet beyond a window that faced the detonation. Those small accidents of history saved all of them from having their eyes destroyed. There is a description of how a contingent of Japanese soldiers was outside and all had looked up to see the single B-29 when the detonation occurred. All of them had their “eyes melted.” Continue reading

109 East Palace

book cover of 109 East PalaceThe fascinating book “109 East Palace, Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos,” was written by Jennet Conant.  She is the granddaughter of James B. Conant, the administrator of the Manhattan Project. The address in the title was given to people who were to report for work on the Manhattan Project.  They would enter a wrought iron gate and narrow passageway off a tourist plaza to meet Dorothy McKibbin, a widow who became the gatekeeper for twenty-seven months to Los Alamos and personal confidant to Oppenheimer.  The relationship between General Leslie R. Groves and Oppenheimer also fits into the story.  The two men were able to work together effectively despite opposite personalities.  The author writes in the preface that the book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes details “the saga of scientific discovery,” while her book examines “the very personal stories of the projects key personnel.”

Arthur Compton, the director of the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) at the University of Chicago (unofficially “bomb headquarters,”) summoned J. Robert Oppenheimer to an assembly of brilliant physicists including Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Richard Tolman, and Robert Serber to meet in attic rooms in Le Conte Hall. The meetings were held in the utmost secrecy, but Priscilla Greene, Oppenheimer’s young secretary one day walked into his office to find a drawing of what “…was obviously a bomb.” “Almost immediately after that, everyone started calling it ‘the gadget’.” Continue reading

Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb under the Auspices of the United States Government

atomic-energy-for-military-purposesThis report, written by Henry DeWolf Smyth at the request of Major General L.R. Groves (who led the Manhattan Project), is better known the “Smyth Report.” The copyright announcement by Smyth is interesting. “Reproduction in whole or in part authorized and permitted.” Groves wrote in the Foreword that “…there is no reason why the administrative history of the Atomic Bomb Project and the basic scientific knowledge on which the several developments were based should not be available to the general public.” There also are blunt warnings against requesting or releasing additional information “…subject to severe penalties under the Espionage Act.” Smyth explains in the Preface that “The ultimate responsibility for our nation’s policy rests on its citizens and they can discharge such responsibilities wisely only if they are informed.” He explains that the report is written about the construction of atomic bombs for “…engineers and scientific men who can understand such things and who can explain the potentialities of atomic bombs to their fellow citizens.” The book gives a tutorial on the history of research on atomic structure and radioactivity and the basics of nuclear physics.

The administrative history of the research has been well-documented in many sources, but many of them probably used the information in this book. One issue that was considered in depth early on was the need for secrecy about the research that was being considered or was on-going.  A “Reference Committee” was established in the National Research Council “…to control publication policy in all fields of possible military interest.” Journal editors would send copies of papers to the committee for review. The system worked well. Most physicists were soon absorbed into the various projects, “…which reduced papers being submitted to the committee almost to the vanishing point.” The arrangement was voluntary, but scientists in the country cooperated.  Scientists in Germany, the Soviet Union, and other countries recognized that the United States was attempting to develop atomic energy for a weapon based on the sudden absence of research papers being published by scientists in the U.S.

One piece of information that disagrees with many other sources is that Harry Truman was well aware of the project and its magnitude when he was a Senator. He was briefed by Stimson and Groves on the project immediately after FDR’s death and his inauguration, and he kept “…in constant touch with the program.” Continue reading

The Los Alamos Primer

los_alamos-primerThe subtitle of this book is “The First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb.” The book was annotated by Robert Serber and edited with an introduction by Richard Rhodes. It is a fascinating book that would take a long time to fully digest despite its length (only 98 pages including Appendices, Biographical Notes, and an index. The Biographical Notes includes many of the “famous scientists of the times,” but not Robert Serber. I enjoyed the book because it wove the very complicated scientific developments with refreshing non-technical descriptions and comments that made me feel less intimidated about the brilliance of what was being described. The descriptions were often “clipped,” which means it didn’t always flow as well as what you would expect from a literature major. Perhaps that is because the author was a physicist. Some of my favorite passages involve Charlotte Serber (who also is sadly not listed in the index), Robert Serber’s wife. For example, she is described as being the librarian for the project before there were books. I thought about buying a copy for each of our grandsons who are interested in science. However, I admit that I was a bit intimidated by the $40-$60 price for the used books. I suggest you request your local library to borrow it from a local university, which is what I did.

I’ve selected a few snippets from the introduction by Richard Rhodes. Young scientists began arriving in New Mexico to work on a project they were told could end the war. They knew they would be behind barbed wire and cut off from the world. They knew they would be governed by a blanket of secrecy, but “…unofficially they whispered that they had signed on to attempt nothing less than inventing, designing, assembling the world’s first atomic bombs…” “Signing on to invent and craft new weapons of unprecedented destructiveness may seem bloodthirsty from today’s long perspective of limited war and nuclear truce. Those were different times. War was general throughout the world, a pandemic of manmade death.” ix Churchill used the postwar phrase, “a miracle of deliverance.” Continue reading

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

dark-sun book cvrThe first several chapters of this book by Richard Rhodes contain a detailed description of Soviet spying on the Manhattan Project. The value of what was provided to the Soviets is well documented. The U.S. only identified and convicted some of the spies. Some escaped detection and others managed to make it to the Soviet Union before they were captured.

The Prologue demonstrates the rich dialogue of the book. “The Hiroshima bomb, Little Boy, was a uranium gun. It used sixty-four kilograms of rare uranium 235, all of that dense, purple-black metal the United States had been able to accumulate up to the end of July 1945.” Luis Alvarz was an American experimental physicist who worked in the Manhattan Project and invented a device for measuring the yield of the Hiroshima burst. The devices were dropped by parachute ahead of the bomb radioed their readings to Alvarez in a backup plane. “Alvarez had seen the bright flash of the Hiroshima explosion, had watched (the) pressure gauges register on the oscilloscopes…(and) felt the two sharp slaps of direct and ground-reflected shock waves slamming the plane like flak explosions…”Alvarez searched for the city below the rising mushroom cloud. “Alvarez could not see the city because the city had been destroyed.” A second atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki three days later and the Japanese surrendered a few days later with the emperor referring to the “terrible bomb.” Continue reading