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article number 598
article date 10-06-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Make an Atom Bomb, Part 3: In Secret, We Build and Deploy the Bomb
by Wesley Stout, Chrysler Corporation

From the 1947 Chrysler Corporation book, Secret.

* * *

. . . the product of more than a billion dollars spent at Oak Ridge alone was leaving there in nothing bigger than a brief case, each carried by a messenger.

The messengers had no idea what they were transporting. Each as sent by a new route to a new destination, though the powder was destined always either for the Hanford works or for Los Alamos, New Mexico.

You have heard less about Los Alamos, a New Mexican mesa some 30 miles from Santa Fe, that was a boys’ ranch school until 1942, than of Oak Ridge and of Hanford because it is there that Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and a large staff of scientists worked out the technique of forming and exploding the bombs. This continues to be the top secret.

Any other explosive can he tested safely in small amounts, but a small-scale atomic bomb would be no bomb at all. U-235 or plutonium are no more automatically explosive than so much sand until the quantity reaches a certain size and shape. Hence the bombs had to be the product of pure calculation on the part of the theoretical physics division at Los Alamos.

If, for a given shape there is a critical weight and the stuff explodes instantly when this weight is reached, how could man postpone the explosion until a desired moment? The obvious way would be to divide the bomb into two or more well-separated parts, bringing them together at the chosen moment with gunpowder or some other convenient force.

DIAGRAM: The Gadget. “. . .divide the bomb into two or more well-separated parts, bringing them together at the chosen moment . . .” GUY FLEMING DRAWING.
The trial New Mexican bomb photographed from ten miles away. The photographer wore arc-welder’s glasses to shield his eyes from the searing light. U. S. ARMY PHOTO.

The famous Smyth report published a few days after Hiroshima indicates that some sort of gun barrel shot one section of the mass at the other, the gun being fired by a time fuse which went into action when the bomb was dropped from the plane.

The true secret of the atomic bomb, however, was exposed in the next few moments after the Superfortress “Enola Gay” opened its bomb bay doors over Hiroshima. For the greatest secret of all was to keep all knowledge of the bomb’s imminence from the enemy.

A first necessity of this was to limit all knowledge of Oak Ridge, Hanford and Los Alamos to as few as possible.

Billion dollar plants employing tens of thousands of workers are hard to hide, but “cat fur to make kitten britches” can be a better defense against curiosity than hard looks or threats. “Blackout paint for lightning bugs” was a favorite jest at Oak Ridge, and some anonymous local humorist wrote a burlesque secret document which was circulated in the thousands of copies. It read:


“They are taking plumscrate, raw plumscrate mind you, and putting it into ballisportle tanks. These are called ballisportle tanks because the inside is coated with quadrelstitle and this preserves the full strength of the plumscrate.

“Next, this is taken to the sarraputing room where only expert sarraputers are employed. At this point of course is when they add thungborium, the ingredient which causes the entire masterfuge to Knoxify and then after spurndazzle is applied the entire product disappears. This invisible cocompund is later transferred to the abblesnurting building where glass snagglehooks are applied for carrying. This completes the manufacturing operation and delivery is the next problem.

“At 12:20 on the third Tuesday night of each month, 800 men known as shizzlefrinks because their brains have been siphoned from their heads, are lined up in single file, each given two ingots of oustenstufftingle (name of the finished product) and away they march over the hills to Fakima where they trade the finished product for enough raw material to make another batch of oustenstufftingle.


Several hundred thousand men and women in America had a part in the bomb, but the project was so compartmentalized, both in the plants and research laboratories, that few learned more than was essential to his own task.

Workers at Oak Ridge Tennessee. U. S. ARMY PHOTO.

It was a rare American who had any faint inkling of what was coming even after the trial bomb had been proven in the dawn of July 16, 1945, in New Mexico, or understood what the President of the United States and the Premier of Great Britain were saying ten days later when, at Potsdam, they issued a surrender ultimatum to Japan.

How well the secret was kept even from some professionals is indicated by a prediction made by Dr. Kai Seigbahn, Swedish physicist of world repute. The Berlin radio had quoted the High Command as threatening, in retaliation for the mass bombing of German cities, “by one fell, drastic stroke to end this unbridled mass murder,” adding that “mankind is not far from the point where it can at will blow up half the globe.”

To any physicist this meant the atomic bomb, but Dr. Siegbahn commented: “Despite all the secretiveness about research into the uranium problem, I venture to say that the uranium bomb still is nonexistent except as a research objective.”

The Japanese premier was another skeptic. He contemptuously dismissed the Truman-Bevin ultimatum on July 29th. Eight days later Hiroshima was annihilated and in another three days a second bomb fell on Nagasaki.

The following day the Swiss Charge d’Affaires at Washington, acting for Tokyo notified our State Department of Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam terms. Formal surrender followed in three days more.

This was two and a half months prior to the date fixed for our invasion of the Japanese mainland in force.

By the estimates of the Army and Navy we were saved as many as one million casualties.

At her surrender, Japan had more than 9,000 planes in the home islands available for Kamikaze attack, of which more than 5,000 already had been specially fitted for these suicide tactics against our expected invasion. This was no idle threat. At Okinawa nearly 20% of all Kamikaze missions had been effective.

Though no ship of ours larger than an escort carrier ever was sunk by the Kamikazes, fifteen battleships, twelve carriers and sixteen escort carriers were damaged. Misled by their own exaggerated claims of heavy ships sunk, the Japanese fortunately had ignored the advice of their technicians that a heavier explosive head was needed to sink capital ships, or our losses would have been severe indeed.

Think of the appalling ease with which two cities were destroyed and a war decided. To drop 2,000 tons of ordinary high explosives or incendiaries on a Japanese target, with greatly less destruction, had taken sorties of 300 or more B-29 Superfortresses.

One group, the 509th, dropped both bombs on Japan. There are only thirty planes in a group and only two of the thirty were used.

Practicing the loading of an “Fat Man” style atomic bomb into a B-29 Superfortress of the 393rd Bombardment Squadron. U. S. ARMY PHOTO.

The 509th had been the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, had completed two-thirds of its training at a Nebraska field and was preparing to be sent overseas for straight bombardment work when it was detached in October, 1944, and sent to Wendover Field, on the salt flats at the Utah-Nevada line to train for a “highly secret job,” described only as one which, if successful, might shorten the war by a year or more.

As they were equipped with Superforts from the Martin-Nebraska assembly plant at Omaha, it may be inferred that they had Dodge-Chicago built engines and Chrysler-made nose sections, it is known definitely that “Bockscar”, which dropped the plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, was B-29 No. 42-7353, assembled at Omaha.

In January, 1945, the first ten planes were dispatched to Batista Field, Cuba, for long, simulated combat missions against Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico; the Virgin Isles, Bermuda and Norfolk.

All but the crews left San Francisco on the transport, Cape Victory, May 6th, joining a convoy at Honolulu, putting in at Eniwetok nine days later and landing on Tinian Memorial Day morning.

The planes followed in June and early July, bringing the group to 1,500 men and 200 officers.

Orders for a strike against the Japanese homeland were issued July 19th. ‘‘This is it,” the word ran through Tinian, but it and three more missions carried out by flights of eight to eleven B-29’s were ordinary bombing runs to familiarize the crews with their coming task.

Three planes, the Enola Gay and a photographic and an instrument ship, took off under flood lights from Tinian at half past two of an August Sunday morning, dropping the Hiroshima bomb at 8:15 Japanese time of that sunny morning.

“One of our cities is missing” gasped a gunner. The awesome result was reported to Tinian by coded radio and when the Enola Gay put down at 3 P.M., a loud speaker commanded “Attention to orders!” General Carl A. (Tooey) Spaatz stepped forward and pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on Colonel Tibbett’s chest.

‘‘One of our cities is missing.’’ Of Hiroshima’s 90,000 buildings, 62,000 were destroyed and 6,000 more damaged beyond repair. COLORED INTERNATIONAL NEWS PHOTO.

Three days later the B-29 Bockscar took off for Kokura—which never has been publicly identified by the Government. This time the weather was bad and the primary target “socked in”. The anti-aircraft fire also was severe.

After losing an hour seeking a break in the clouds, Bockscar, low on gas, turned to unlucky Nagasaki, its secondary target, finding it by radar. The clouds here parted at the last moment and Captain Kermit K. Behan dropped the bomb visually.

"Fat Man" a plutonium bomb like that tested at the New Mexico "Trinity" site, was dropped on Nagasaki. U. S. ARMY PHOTO.

This was the first plutonium bomb and the shock felt by Bockscar was much greater. Refueling at Okinawa, the crew were home well in time to attend a dance for three hundred Army nurses just landed on Tinian.

There was no anti-arcraft fire and no interceptor attack either at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Our B-29’s long had been using Lake Biwa, northeast of Hiroshima, as a rendezvous point in their massed attacks on Japanese cities so alarms had been constant in Hiroshima. But no bomb ever had been dropped there and an American weather plane came over every morning at about this hour.

Seeing only one B-san or Mister B, as the Japanese had come to call the Superfort, at a high altitude that morning, the air wardens had sounded the usual alert—heeded by relatively few—and then, satisfied that it was the morning weather plane as usual, blown the ”All Clear” a minute or two before the atomic bomb burst, killing many as they emerged from shelters.

The first plutonium bomb; the Nagasaki burst mushrooming into the stratosphere. A wing of the photograph ship shows at lower right. COLORED U. S. A. A. F. PHOTO.

Mica, the melting point of which is 900 degrees, was found fused on gravestones a thousand feet from the center of the blast. The bomb’s heat on the ground at its center was estimated by the Japanese at 6,000 degrees, its force at 5.3 to 8 tons per square yard.

In November the Japanese reported the Hiroshima casualties as 78,150 killed, 13,983 missing and 37,425 injured, but these figures went on growing.

Of 90,000 buildings in a city that had been chosen as Imperial headquarters in the event we should invade Japan and capture Tokyo, 62,000 were destroyed and 6,000 more damaged beyond repair. Only five modern buildings in the city’s heart survived in a condition that allowed their use without major reconstruction.

Nagasaki steel works half a mile from the blast center was smashed in as if by a giant’s sledge-hammer. INTERNATIONAL NEWS PHOTO.

Two dozen men who suffered no scratch had killed or injured some 300,000 Japanese. In the whole war our dead and missing, exclusive of disease and rear area accidents, was only 225,000. In the two and a half months we were driving the Germans from the Normandy beaches to their own frontier, Hitler’s forces lost only 200,000 in dead and wounded.

Battles as deadly as the Somme or Ypres of World War I, both drawn out for months, were won in seconds with the tripping of a lever. Our world could never be the same again.

‘‘The beginning or the end—.” The Hiroshima bomb burst. Photographed from the B-29 Enola Gay, which dropped the bomb. INTERNATIONAL NEWS PHOTO.
Steel-concrete buildings were crushed at a distance from the Hiroshima blast center where the bomb’s force was estimated at 8 tons per square yard. INTERNATIONAL NEWS PHOTO.
Wreckage of the Mitsubishi steel plant at Nagasaki on the outer fringes of the bomb’s fury. COLORED U. S. A. A. F. PHOTO.

* * * * *

Chrysler’s Role: Gaseous Diffusers for U-235 Production

Colonel Ed. Garbisch of the Corps of Engineers, one-time West Point football star and a son-in-law of the late Walter Chrysler, phoned Mr. Keller on March 20, 1943, on behalf of Colonel J. C. Marshall of the Manhattan District, who wished to see Chrysler’s president.

The latter never had heard of the Manhattan District or of Colonel Marshall, but Colonel Garbisch said that it was important. Colonel Marshall’s errand was not disclosed.

An appointment was made for April 2nd in Detroit. The visitors, led by Maj. Gen. L. R. Groves, head of the Manhattan District, withheld nothing from the Chrysler group composed of B. E. Hutchinson, H. L. Weckler, Fred L. Zeder, Nicholas Kelley and Mr. Keller, none of whom had heard until then of atomic fission other than as a scientific dream.

To laymen, the thing sounded almost incredibly fantastic, but if the United States Government thought it practicable, this, Mr. Keller said, was all that the Corporation needed to know.

Mr. Keller with Brig. Gen. T. F. Farrell, who commanded the atom-bombing of Japan; Col., now General, K. D. Nichols of the Manhattan Project; and Comm. F. L. Ashworth, ranking officer on the Nagasaki bombing flight.

In any case, Chrysler’s job would have nothing to do with nuclear physics. The gaseous diffusion method of separating U-235 from uranium was described and Chrysler asked to undertake the design and manufacture of the large metal diffusers, a problem which the Government felt needed the research and manufacturing resources of the Corporation. It would be a $75,000,000 contract.

The gas was so corrosive, it was explained, that only one group of metals would resist it, and only one of this group, nickel, is reasonably commercial in price and supply. The Government specified that the diffusers should be made of solid nickel.

The containers necessarily would be big and many thousands of them would be wanted. (As designed by Chrysler, they looked something like an anchor buoy, or an oversized depth bomb, or a poison gas drum.)

A quick calculation indicated that the first order would eat up all the nickel mined in America for two years—though nickel is not a scarce metal.

As no such supply was to be had, Mr. Keller suggested electroplating nickel on steel, using no more than a thousandth as much nickel.

But no plating would resist the hexafluoride gas, according to expert testimony; any plating would peel off and the gas then would devour the steel.

To Chrysler, which knew nothing about uranium hexafluoride but a great deal about nickel plating, this seemed improbable. A plating should resist anything which solid nickel resists if the plating was pure and the bond a good one, because the metal’s resistance has nothing to do with its depth.

Mr. Keller had great confidence in the Chrysler Engineering plating laboratory and its director, Carl E. Heussner, which never had failed the Corporation and which had been working as the war began on a new plating process of promise.

J. M. Hartgering, Works Manager of the Chrysler X-100 Plant.

So when the Corporation put J. M. Hartgering in charge of this new war job and sent him to New York to study the gaseous diffusion pilot plant at Columbia University, it sent Heussner with him. They found New York unconcerned about the staggering quantities of nickel needed, taking it for granted that the project’s exalted directive would provide anything it asked.

As for plating, no plating could be held under these conditions, the laboratory men repeated. Not until the second day would they agree to humor Heussner to the extent of promising to test his plating samples in the gas chamber.

He hurried back to Detroit to prepare his samples and to get control samples of pure nickel from the International Nickel Co., and was ready within a week. When his plating was exposed to uranium hexafluoride it withstood the gas even better than the pure control samples, as Heussner had been confident it would.

The so-called pure nickel of commerce contains about 1% of impurities; in the electro-plating process very little of this 1% of foreign matter is transferred to the plate, and so the latter is a little the purer of the two.

Without waiting for the Columbia laboratory report, Mr. Keller told Heussner to run a full-scale test, plating a large shell with enough of a set-up to be sure of a first-rate job. Heussner was lent some space in the Highland Park plant where a pit was dug for a plating bath.

He chose for the test as unpromising a piece of material as lay at hand, a sheet of old boiler plate. Cleaning and welding it into a cylinder, he covered it with a thin coating of nickel with the same success he had had with his samples.

All that was needed was a good mechanical bond and all that is required for such a bond is a good, clean, active surface.

No hexafluoride gas was available in Detroit for a test, but he was in doubt only about the porosity of the plating and this he checked by immersing it in hot water mixed with carbon dioxide. This same hot water-carbon dioxide bath was used as a control test in the early months of manufacture, but the plating was so successful from the first that the Government shortly ordered this test discontinued.

This great saving of nickel was the Corporation’s most notable contribution to the atomic bomb. But for Chrysler’s demonstration that the diffusers could be made with a thin plating, it is unlikely that an atomic bomb could have been dropped on Japan as early as August of 1945, for sheer lack of nickel.

Construction of K-25 gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge Tennessee. U. S. ARMY PHOTO.

The F.B.I. and Army Intelligence moved in with a security patrol, but keeping such a secret within large a corporation called for unusual precautions on the Corporation’s part.

Driving down Woodward Avenue, Mr. Keller noticed the vacant department store building at 1525 in Detroit’s downtown, the first floor of which temporarily was housing the current bond drive headquarters.

Vacant space in Detroit during the war was precious, and Keller’s first act on returning to his office was to order the place rented. The bond drive continued to use the ground floor, conveniently masking Chrysler’s secret. All Chrysler personnel assigned to X-100 moved into the upper floors, which the Corporation continued to occupy for nearly two years.

More than half a million feet of manufacturing space would be needed and the building must be unusually tight and clean. Manufacturing space being as scarce as any other, Chrysler first planned on a new building. When the shortage of steel balked this, the Corporation converted its Lynch Road factory to the manufacture of diffusers.

By means of various shifts, in which the Manhattan District cooperated helpfully, Lynch Road’s normal jobs were moved elsewhere. Its truck operations were transferred to a new, though much smaller building, authorized as an addition to the Dodge Truck plant.

The elimination of all organic matter—which is one way of saying “absolute cleanliness”—being a necessity to the defeat of hexafluoride, the entire assembly section in the remodeled Lynch Road factory was air-conditioned.

Chrysler had been required to make a quick estimate of the cost of converting the plant, a figure the Corporation later reduced voluntarily by nearly $400,000 as a result of economies found possible.

Welding nickel plate is a cranky job and a vast amount of welding went into the fabricated assembly. Among many details, Lynch Road had to drill 50 million holes held to very close limits and very accurately placed in relation one to another.

In order to get an absolutely even nickel coating throughout, it was necessary to radius burr each of these millions of holes at both ends. New kinds of machinery had to be designed. In all, Lynch Road shipped more than a thousand carloads of finished apparatus to Oak Ridge, plated a surface equal to many acres.

When Mr. Keller walked into the plant the morning of August 7, 1945, to deliver the congratulations of General Groves, a couple of smiling foremen greeted him knowingly with “We dood it.” Many wore a knowing look as if the bomb had been no secret to them.

The fact, was, however, that except for Mr. Hartgering, his chief engineer, Alan Loofburrow; his assistant works manager, Ralph Jones; his designing engineer, David Tooth; the superintendent of final testing, John Hutchinson; and Charles Heinan and Charles Morris of the engineering staff, most of whom had visited Oak Ridge, probably no one had a remote idea of the purpose of the job until he read the morning papers of August 7th, and many had failed then to realize that this was the fruit of their work.

For that matter, many high officials of the Corporation knew no more about X-100 than that it was a dangerous secret.

Construction continues on Oak Ridge diffusion plant necessary to separate uranium U-235 from U-238. U. S. ARMY PHOTO.

In giving the job a code name, Chrysler had followed Manhattan District practice. In the entire Manhattan project the word uranium never was used; its code designation was “lubealloy.” The numbers 235 and 238 were taboo, always represented by the letters X and Y. No parts of the critical apparatus, nor any plant or building or responsible officer ever was referred to in writing or by telephone except by code.

Every employee of Lynch Road and of 1525 Woodward, not excepting janitors and office girls or Mr. Keller and Mr. Zeder, was methodically investigated by Army Intelligence or the F.B.I., and signed a security agreement not to talk. While this precaution was wise, what any of them could have disclosed usually would have been more misleading than useful to an enemy agent.

Human curiosity being what it is, their minds naturally speculated about the secret and as naturally reached the common conclusion that the plant was making materials for rocket bombs similar to the German V-1 and V-2, these secret weapons being the sensation of the moment.

The better informed risked being misled by their own technical knowledge. For example, chemists on the laboratory staff, knowing that they were dealing with fluorine, assumed that the project was making poison gas, all the fluorine gases being deadly.

Mr. Keller had with him that morning, too, a telegram from Robert F. Patterson, then Under Secretary of War, which read:

“Today the whole world knows the secret you have helped us to keep for many months. I am pleased to be able to add that the war lords of Japan now know its effect even better than we ourselves. The atomic bomb you have helped to develop with high devotion to patriotic duty is the most devastating military weapon that any country ever has been able to turn against an enemy.

“No one of you has worked on the entire project or has known the whole story. Each of you has done his own job and kept his own secret and so today I speak for a grateful nation when I say we are proud of every one of you.”

Gaseous diffuser at Oak Ridge. U. S. ARMY PHOTO.

Chrysler’s role was described in detail at the atomic bomb award dinner given by the Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering Society February 26, 1946, by P. C. Keith, who had been technical director of the Kellex Company, which built the gaseous diffusion works.

“The manufacture of the diffusers was hardly attractive business for the overworked industrialist,” Mr. Keith told the audience. “Nevertheless, the Chrysler Corporation agreed to undertake it.

“While patiently awaiting the solution of the barrier material problem, they tooled up an efficient assembly line and manufactured some of the parts. They also studied the mechanical properties of available specimens of the barrier, devised methods of fabricating the barrier into a gas-tight sub-assembly, and carried on extensive research and development along related lines.

“As a result, when the barrier finally was available, they were able to turn out diffusers in record time. It may now be revealed to their credit, and to the credit of the engineers at Oak Ridge, that all but two of the thousands of units manufactured for installation at Oak Ridge were actually set up and operated.”

The research mentioned by Mr. Keith was carried out by a force of 170 technicians assigned to Lynch Road from the Chrysler Engineering Division.

A part of the diffuser plating line in the remodelled Chrysler Lynch Road plant.

A letter which went into the Keller scrap book was written by General Groves at Christmas of 1945. “No one outside the K-25 portion of the project,” wrote the project’s director, “can ever know how much we depended upon you and how well you performed. Those of us who do know will never forget how important your work was and how well you did it.’’

Few can ever know, either, how frightening was the responsibility of General Groves and how well he performed. There had been a time when Under Secretary Patterson, growing uneasy about an expense that had passed the billion dollar mark, sent out a confidential emissary to look over Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Hanford.

“Few can ever know how frightening was the responsibility of Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves,” who commanded the Manhattan Project. J. E. WESTCOTT PHOTO.

When the emissary returned to Washington, the Under Secretary, expecting a lengthy report, sent word that he could not see him that day, but would set aside the next afternoon to hear the report. The confidential investigator sent back word that he could speak his piece in one minute flat, and so he was ushered in at once.

“If it works,” he told Secretary Patterson, “no one will ever investigate its cost; if it doesn’t work, they’ll investigate nothing else.”

Co-hero of the bomb with General Groves was Dr. Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, under which name the scientific brains of America were mobilized for war. The atomic bomb was one detail of its vast labors, the record of which fills 2,500,000 volumes, or almost enough to stock the New York public library.

As for Lynch Road, reconverted to peace, it now is making axles for Chrysler Corporation cars and trucks.

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