First Atomic Bomb Victims and the Manhattan Project

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The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon.

Before the nuclear atrocity in Hiroshima, there were three American bomb victims; young scientists who worked on the $2 billion atomic weapons project.

The American nuclear bomb making venture, Manhattan Project, began in mid-1944 during WWII. The project’s goal was to produce two different types of nuclear weapons; the uranium enriched large fissionable bomb (used in Hiroshima) and the plutonium produced more complex bomb (used in Nagasaki). During the project three young Americans lives were lost.

Manhattan Project

The United States took over their competitor’s (British) atomic bomb project and named it the “Manhattan Project”. It was carried out under utmost secrecy (even Truman was not initially told about the project); only a handful of people knew what was being built within the gigantic secret facilities across the U.S.

The three primary facilities included Hansford, WA for plutonium-production, Oak Ridge, TN for uranium enrichment, and Los Alamos, NM for weapons research and design. The project was so secret that even major contributing businesses and state agencies were unaware of the true purpose. The scale of the project was unprecedented; it used total of 60,000 acres and employed more than 130,000 people.

Gen. Leslie Groves almost single-handedly orchestrated the project under the largest construction effort in U.S. history. Under his “compartmentalization” practice (limiting intelligence to a ‘Need To Know’ basis), to build the nuclear facilities, entire established communities were told to pack up, leave, and no questions were to be asked. Many Americans simply followed government directives to contribute to the war efforts.

Although the Manhattan Project spent $2 billion, there was no official or public authorization by the government. However both Gen. Groves and the Secretary of State (James Byrnes) were keenly aware of the importance of the successful development and utilization of the two nuclear weapons to gain long-term control of international relations favorable to their country.

A Fatal Accident in the Nuclear Lab – the First Victim

The core organization of the project, the Los Alamos Laboratory, required the best scientists and engineers. In addition to brilliant foreign engineers, young and talented Americans were recruited from all over the country.

The laboratory handled designing, building, and testing of nuclear fusion. Among those brilliant young engineers directly recruited by the laboratory’s head physicist Robert Oppenheimer (“Father of the Atomic Bomb”), was a young physicist, Harry K. Daghlian.

Daghlian was a superb math student in high school and entered in MIT at age 17. Fascinated with the rising field of physics, he transferred to Purdue University. In 1943, he was recruited by Oppenheimer to work at Los Alamos Laboratory.

In August, 1944, when the young and eager physicist attempted to test a critical assembly of plutonium, his right hand became accidently exposed with a critical amount of radiation. He was immediately admitted to a hospital. After suffering excruciatingly painful symptoms – continuous vomiting, pain, and high fever – Daghlian died 26 days after the accident. He was 24 years old.

A nurse worked and watched his progress of illness recalled “how the excruciating pain he endured sent chills throughout the entire hospital staff”.

Other Victims, Two More Deaths and a Devastated Chaplain

Two more young American lives were abruptly taken in September, 1944; a chemical engineer, Peter Bragg who volunteered for a dangerous assignment to test uranium activation, and his co-worker, Douglas Meigs.

For decades, the families of Bragg and Meigs never knew the true cause of death of the young men.

Shortly after the tragic accident, a Navy chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Louis V. McDonough, gave last rites to the two dying young men. McDonough was not aware what was being tested when the two men had the fatal accident.

In 1980, he received a phone call from one of the surviving victims of the accident. For the first time, McDonough was told that the Bragg and Meigs’ death were caused by the same chemical components used in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. The phone line went dead, and the caller later found out that McDonough died of a heart attack during the call.

Nuclear Testing After 1945 (Continued till 2008)

Following the Manhattan Project, 1945 until 2008, there have been over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted worldwide.

Over twenty nuclear bomb tests were performed between 1946 and 1958 at Bikini Atoll. The series of tests have caused countless devastating effects on the Micronesian inhabitants from damages to their health (cancer to deformity of unborn children) to heavy contamination to their soil. The hydrogen bomb testing was twice as large as the United States had expected and victimized a Japanese tuna fishing boat.

In the fall of 1944, the three young men, Daghlian, Bragg, and Meigs, left the world while pursuing the limitless potential of science; the secret production of massive war weapons which would kill countless women and children. They were bright and ambitious young men with passion for science no different than aspiring students today.

Sources:

  1. “Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. (Dolly-an) 1921-1945 – Killed While Tickling the Dragon’s Tail.” The Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association, Inc.
  2. “In Memory of Douglas Paul Meigs.” The Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association, Inc.
  3. “In Memory of Peter Newport Bragg.” The Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association, Inc.
  4. Kramish, Arnold. “Hiroshima’s First Victims.” The Rocky Mountain News. August 6, 1995. Web.
  5. “Nuclear Test Sites,” Atomic Archive.com, Web.
  6. Zeilig, Martin. “Louis Slotin and ‘The Invisible Killer’.” The Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association, Inc.