Editor’s note - this article was written in 1996.
We celebrate our American independence each year on July 4, however, few of us know, another day in July was very significant to the freedom that we all hold dear.
September 1, 1939, on my 25th birthday, Germany invaded Danzig, Poland, and I spent a few years as a GI Joe. The saddest period of my life I recall was leaving an easy job in Fort Francis E. Warren, Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1945.
I was moved to Oak Ridge to the Manhattan Project in the K25 area extracting plutonium, making uranium 235 for the bomb. When I was at Tennessee Tech, F.U. Foster was my science teacher. He taught about splitting the atom, little did I think I’d have a hand in it one day.
It happened at 5:30 in the morning of July 16, 1945, during a lull in a storm over the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Two spheres of plutonium had slowly been hoisted to the top of a steel tower at what was called ground zero.
Several of America’s most brilliant physicists kept anxious watch on Compania Hill twenty miles away.
Suddenly, noiselessly the sky ignited, a reddish yellow fireball, 10,000 times hotter than the sun ascended 8 miles into the atmosphere. It turned night into day for more than 100 miles. That was the material made at Oak Ridge.
That morning in 1945 when human beings beheld that awesome mushroom cloud proved to be the day of the nuclear age. Never again would we be able to look upon our universe in quite the same way.
The terrifying power left us all feeling vulnerable about the future. Today more than 50 years—this mushroom cloud still hangs over us.
Five nations openly manufacture nuclear weapons. All have the ability to plunge us into a nuclear holocaust. But that’s not all—at least 10 others have the technology and the equipment to produce the bomb in a short time and they say 16 others are also working on it.
To better understand what a difference that makes, most of us at Oak Ridge had only a good guess of what we were doing.
The material came in what looked like a water heater. It was surrounded by a jacket and heated by a 1,000 pound of steam which made it flow in a series of nickel pipes which were enclosed by a larger galvanized pipe. This steam was forced between the nickel and copper.
The purpose of the outside galvanized pipe was so water could be pumped between the copper and galvanized, since temperature was the only way to stop the action when a leak occurred. That’s why we all had a gas mask by our side.
Another safety we found later was that our building had 18 inches of water on the roof. This was another admission that no one knew what it took to control this power being released. Again—that’s why we all kept a gas mask by our side!
Los Alamos, New Mexico, was chosen for experiments. Louis Slotin, a young Canadian carried out the first few experiments to determine the exact amount of U-235 necessary for a chain reaction. He died because of his experiments.
Two weeks after the bomb was detonated, our President gave the order to use it on Japan. The first fell August 6, 1945. Three days later, the second dropped on an industrial area stopping World War II, not a minute too soon because they had 5 million soldiers. Many lives were saved.
I tried to forget the horrors of World War II, so many were killed needlessly. The part of my life and memories at Oak Ridge causes me a lot of remorse. Never again would we be able to look on our universe in quite the same way. The terrifying power unleashed by the atom bomb left us all feeling vulnerable. Visions of destruction haunted our thoughts about the future.
I’m sure this will go down in history as the most dangerous thing done to humans in which all of us connived. I often wonder what made me a part of it.