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"Hiroshima's First Victims"

Page 1 of 2

by: Arnold Kramish

The Rocky Mountain News
Sunday: August 6, 1995
Reprinted with Permission
Web Master's Notes are in RED


"Before bomb fell, two Americans paid ultimate price"

     The journey from my father's shoe repair shop on South Broadway in Denver, from South High and the University of Denver to the Manhattan Project was fateful and came to hold many memories.

     It was at DU where I first learned from my physics professors, Jane and David Hall, of the vast energy from fission.  On leave from the Army in December 1943, I stopped by the University of Chicago, where the Halls were then a part of Enrico Fermi's research team.  They walked me by the entrance to Stagg Field and said, "That's where it started a year ago."  They did not tell me it had been the first nuclear chain reaction, but I knew.  It was perhaps inevitable that I came to be assigned to the Manhattan Project some months later.

     By mid-1944, the Manhattan Project had embarked upon a two-pronged approach to nuclear weapons.  The first, via enriched uranium would produce a "simple" atomic bomb, but would require very large quantities of fissionable materials.  That was the bomb that was "tested" over Hiroshima.  The second approach was to be via plutonium, in a more complex bomb, but requiring smaller amounts of materials.  That type of bomb, first tested at the Trinity site near Alamagordo, NM, was dropped over Nagasaki.

     At Los Alamos, NM, where the first atomic bombs were produced, I had been given sole responsibility for the quality control of the detonators for the Trinity and Nagasaki plutonium bombs.  But, before that, my association with the Hiroshima bomb had become rather more intimate.  It is that memory which is etched more deeply.

     By mid-1944, it had become clear that the major methods of enriching uranium would require "boosting" to meet the schedule.  Another, untried method, thermal diffusion, was proposed to boost the production rate of the two principal enrichment plants at Oak Ridge, TN. (See the Y-12 Plant and the K-25 Plant for more information)  In August 1944, James Conant, Harvard's president and a chief science adviser of the Manhattan Project, gathered 10 soldier specialists (SED's) at Oak Ridge, asking them to volunteer for a "very dangerous job"; developing the process at the thermal diffusion pilot plant at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  All volunteered, including me, then a private first-class.

     At 1:20 PM on Sept. 2, 1944, a cylinder of uranium hexafluoride exploded in the transfer room, bursting steam pipes.  Water combined chemically with the uranium compound, creating one of the most corrosive of acids, hydrogen fluoride.

     There were three of us in the transfer room at the time - myself and two civilians: Peter N. Bragg, Jr. of Fayetteville, Ark. and Douglas P. Meigs of Owings Mills, Md.  We inhaled large quantities of uranium compounds and suffered whole-body acid burns.  Peter and Douglas died soon thereafter.

     Two soldiers, George LeFevre and John Tompkins, standing outside the exploded transfer room, also suffered serious injuries, requiring weeks of treatment at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital and months of treatment and observation at Oak Ridge.  In my case, the uranium, a bone-seeker like calcium, was not eliminated from my body for decades, and the acid burns remain troublesome.

     On the positive side, the information gained from the accident helped to create improved safety conditions at Oak Ridge and to treat later victims of less severe nuclear accidents.

     For decades, the families of Peter Bragg and Douglas Meigs never knew how they died.  Then, an Arkansan became president, and as happens in such transitions, there was a search for relevance.  Lo, the name of Peter Bragg, who had two living brothers, Braxton and John, in Camden, Ark., popped out of the computer.

     In June, 1993, in a moving ceremony in Camden, Peter's brothers were presented a medal in his honor.  John Tompkins and I were present.  Possibly, after a Maryland president takes office, Douglas Meigs will be given his due.

     Lt. Col. Mark C. Fox, the director of the thermal diffusion project, had promised medals to the three survivors.  Presumably, those medals also will be posthumous.  George LeFevre, who became a distinguished geneticist, died in 1990.  In retirement, John Tompkins enjoys music in South Carolina, after achieving a reputation as an expert on nuclear phenomena.