Building the Bomb in Oakwood

 

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on September 18, 1983
 
Building the Bomb in Oakwood
 
     In the 1930’s, it was simply the Runnymede Playhouse on the Talbott Estate in Oakwood.  The Talbott family was generous with its use and the Playhouse, which had been built in 1927, became virtually a community center.  There were dinners and recitals, tennis and squash matches, concerts and plays, lectures and benefit card parties.  Then in 1944, the U. S. Government took it over—to use as a film laboratory, the official documents stated.  But, that wasn’t what was done. It was there, at the Runnymede Playhouse, that scientists produced the radioactive element Polonium that was a necessary part in the Atomic Bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.
 
 
THE BOMB
IT Wasn’t Always Fun And Games At The Playhouse
By Howard Shook and Joseph M. Williams
 
     On Aug. 6, 1945, the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It was the most devastating demonstration of American power ever . . . until three days later when an even bigger bomb hit Nagasaki.
     News of the blasts shocked the country. In Oakwood, Dr. Charles A. Thomas assembled his group of employees and described the development of the bomb, how six weeks earlier he had witnessed a secret test of the bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
     It was the first official news the employees had received concerning their work.
     Their work had been not only to research, but to produce, a radioactive element, known as Polonium – code name Postum – that was necessary to trigger the Nagasaki bomb and would be used in other subsequent Atomic Bomb explosions.
     It was developed in what was known as the Runnymede Playhouse on the Talbott estate in Oakwood.
     With the story of the Dayton Project, a part of the Manhattan Project, locked in government secrecy, none of the scientists have received credit for their part in the climatic act of World War II.
     Two months ago, at the request of the authors of this article, those files were finally declassified by the U. S. Department of Energy.
     They reveal details of a breathless race against the clock, culminating in the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
     W. C. Fernelius, a Dayton Project director and a key scientist in the Polonium process and now a chemistry professor at Kent State University, recalls the heightened intensity of feelings of the staff upon the initial formation of Polonium, Element No. 84, the element to be used in combination with Beryllium as the “initiator” in the atomic explosion process.  Together they would generate the neutrons necessary to ensure the chain reaction of the Atomic Bomb.
     “Don’t’ forget,” said Dr.. Fernelius recently, “nobody had ever seen it before.  It was a soft, silvery-looking metal.  If you turned off the lights, you see a faint, purple glow, which would intensify as the purity increased.”
     This is the story of the Dayton project. It is based on interviews with personnel of the Monsanto Chemical Co., original Dayton Project scientists, Manhattan Project officials, as well as declassified documents deposited in the National Archives and sections of the official Manhattan District history.
*   *   * 
     Dr. Charles Allen Thomas and Dr. Carroll A. Hochwalt had worked in Dayton with Charles F. “Boss” Kettering on the invention of anti-knock gasoline; left General Motors to form Thomas and Hochwalt Laboratory on North Ludlow Street and, in 1936, sold their company to Monsanto -- becoming the Central Research Department of Monsanto -- which they continued to head.
     In early 1943 Dr. Thomas was called to Washington, D.C., to a War Department meeting with Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan District Project, and with a friend of Dr. Thomas’, Dr. James Conant, president of Harvard University and chairman of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC).
     After swearing Thomas to secrecy, the two men revealed the plan to build an Atomic Bomb.  They urged Thomas to become co-director at Los Alamos, N. M., with Dr. Robert Oppenheimer.
     But, Thomas was reluctant to leave Monsanto.  A top secret, two-day conference was set up at Los Alamos among Gen. Groves, Oppenheimer, Conant and Thomas.  A compromise placed Thomas in charge of the final chemistry and metallurgy of Plutonium, the key element in the Bomb.  Thomas was to take as much time away from Monsanto as seemed necessary for his assignment and he immediately proceeded to coordinate the work between Los Alamos and the Universities of Chicago, California and Iowa.
     By the summer of 1943, it became obvious that Polonium would be needed to ensure the atomic explosion and the task of mass producing the element fell to Thomas.  And it would be done in his hometown through the auspices of Monsanto. 
     Ironically, the importance of the work and its enduring secrecy would deny Charlie Thomas his place in history alongside Oppenheimer and the other three or four scientists principally responsible for the Atomic Bomb.
     In July, Thomas returned to Dayton and began coordinating the Polonium project with Hochwalt and James Lum, who later became a laboratory director.  Lum was given the responsibility to recruit chemistry professors, students and commercial chemists.
     Recruits had to sign on to the Dayton Project without knowing the nature of the work.  Everyone hired had to sign the Espionage Act and backgrounds were investigated by the FBI.
     In addition, the Army’s Special Engineer Detachment assigned 30 to 40 men.  Although military, they wore civilian clothes for security reason, which on at least one occasion, led to trouble when the Oakwood Police, suspicious of an able-bodied man out of uniform, jailed the man for the night.  By the project’s end in 1949, there would be 334 full-time employees.
     The preliminary research was conducted at the Monsanto facility on Nicholas road, designated Unit 1.  X-ray and spectrographic work on Polonium remained there until 1949, when Mound Laboratory in Miamisburg was completed.
     The project expanded quickly, and within a few months Monsanto leased a property at 1601 W. First St. in Dayton from the Dayton Board of Education, which had been using it as a warehouse.  The building was over 60 years old and had originally been constructed to house the Bonebrake Seminary.
     Converting the structure into a laboratory required extensive renovation.  A cafeteria was added, as was a special laundry to decontaminate clothing.  Designed Unit III, the First Street site eventually included some 20 smaller buildings covering nearly a city block.
     Unit II was located by Ohio 741, and used for non-bomb related work involving jet-assist take-off devices for heavy aircraft.
     It soon became evident that the seminary would not be adequate for the full-scale production of Polonium.  With space in wartime Dayton at a premium, Thomas turned to Oakwood, and the estate of his mother-in-law.
*   *   *
     On Runnymede Road, near Dixon Avenue, stood one of the Dayton area’s most beautiful estates, Runnymede, the home of the Talbott family.  By 1944, the old mansion had been torn down, but the “Playhouse” remained.
     The two-story building, which provided recreational facilities for the Talbotts, had been built in 1927, the same year Charles Thomas had married Margaret Talbott.  The building had a tennis court under a roof of corrugated glass; a stage and balcony at the far walls; windows and two tiers of balconies on each side.  In other rooms were a squash court, card rooms, kitchen, changing rooms, showers appointed with Italian marble, a spacious lounge with a huge stone fireplace.
     The Playhouse also served as a site for annual dinners, charity benefits, dramatic performances and music recitals.  Students from nearby Harman Elementary School sang Christmas carols there.
     The Oakwood City Council saw it as a potential community center.
     But the U. S. Government wanted it.
     According to Hochwalt, Thomas appeared before the Oakwood Council and assured them that the building would not be damaged.  But, he could not disclose the Government’s plans.
     There are indications that the Talbotts objected to losing the building, so, in March 1944, the property was acquired by the United States under the Emergency Powers Act in a declaration signed by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.  The document stated the structure would be used as a film laboratory for the Army Signal Corps.
     Monsanto extensively altered the interior, partitioning the tennis court into several smaller rooms over which a ceiling was dropped.  Between the two ceilings, heating, ventilating, filtering and air-conditioning equipment were installed.  The balconies were sealed off and used as radiation counting labs; offices and storage space were established.  One of the greenhouses was converted into a loading dock.
     Exterior additions were security-related.  Guard houses were constructed and a barbed-wire-topped fence surrounded the grounds which were, to the annoyance of neighbors, floodlit at night.  At Units III and IV, 43 armed guards kept the unauthorized out and maintained an eye on the employees.
     Lee Jones, a long-time resident of a home just up the street recalls, “Between big trucks rolling in and out, the floodlights and heavy-duty power lines strung all over, the place was a real mess.  But those were the days when you knew enough not to ask questions.”
*   *   *
     On March 15, 1944, the first shipment of Polonium, in a lead-lined suitcase, left the Playhouse by military courier for Site Y -- Los Alamos.
     Although few knew the overall picture, certain personnel developed varying degrees of knowledge about their work and its implications.
     Edward McCarthy, one of the original Dayton employees who later served as director of Mound Laboratory, says that, “The technical people had a pretty good idea.  We knew it was going to be big.”
     Fernelius recalls that one security leak occurred at a bridge party.
     “One employee’s wife was amazed to learn that none of the other wives knew what their husbands were doing.  She told them.  It was obvious where it came from and the next morning the employee was severely reprimanded.”
     Fernelius kept his own family in the dark, but not without strain.
     “I don’t think my wife is completely reconciled to it even yet,” he said.  “And I never realized how much it bothered my son (who was then 9 years old.)  He was very young and had fears about me being the victim of German or Japanese terrorists.”
     But perhaps the hardest silence to endure came from within the Manhattan Project itself.  Major Gen. Kenneth Nichols, who served as Groves’ deputy and is now retired in Maryland, admits that security surrounding the Dayton Project was more intensive than in other departments.
     “It was considered very secret, yes,” he says now.  “It was part of the weapon (but) we gave very little indication to anybody that we needed it.”
     Which led to problems.
     “When one of our people would go somewhere to meet somebody,” said Fernelius, “they were told the our work wasn’t significant.  That produced morale problems we had to fight all the way through.”
     Most of those involved have accepted the anonymity of their roles, but Fernelius admits, “I was always a little mad about it.”
     So was George Mahfouz, a process engineer at the Playhouse.  “For awhile my nose was out of joint,” says Mahfouz.  “When you figure the amount of work that went into this thing, you’d like to get at least some recognition.”
*   *   *
     Then, the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Thomas talked to the Dayton Project employees.
     “That was an exciting day,” recalls Fernelius.  “I had to put a clamp on all outgoing phone calls because in the excitement something might have been said that shouldn’t have.”
     One week later, Gen. Groves wrote to the chairman of the Monsanto Chemical Co.: “A detailed description of your efforts must still remain undisclosed because of security requirements, but I want you to know that Dr. Thomas, at Dayton, completed vital research and solved production problems of extreme complexity without which the Atomic Bomb could not have been.”
     Oakwood residents living near the Playhouse, whose suspicions about the activity there had been building for years, became concerned as the site was linked to atomic energy research.
     Mahfouz recalls an incident when “some mulberries or some kind of berries had fallen out of a tree in the compound and a lady called up and said, “You have little pieces of radioactivity all over the ground out there.”
     “She was a friend of the Talbotts and I was told to do something.  So, I had three or four guys put on white suits and shoe covers and sent them out there with brushes and a foamy solution.  They spread the suds on the ground and swept up all the berries.  She called us back and thanked us for cleaning up the ‘radioactivity.’”
     Fernelius claims that they were handed the blame for air pollution problems, as well.
     Gen. Nichols, who periodically visited Dayton to consult with Hochwalt, says that the production of the Polonium was “a very difficult assignment, not only because it had never been seen before, but also because of the radiation involved.”
     Detection of worker contamination prompted the development of “glove-boxes” for Polonium processing.  Several units, initially made of plywood, were used at the Play- house.  Materials were totally enclosed and handled through glove-ports.
     The urgency of getting production started prevented health investigations until the early spring of 1944.  But, Mahfouz remains satisfied with the precautions taken almost 40 years ago.
     “You weren’t allowed to smoke or eat in the area and every time you left you had to wash your hands,” he says.  “We used a very diluted hydrochloric acid, a good solvent.  We had a counter at each washstand.  You would put your hands underneath to make sure you had gotten rid of everything. We showered at the end of the day.  Every week, we took samples and if your urine level was above so many counts, you couldn’t go into the processing area.
     “I was more worried about the nitric and hydrochloric acid than I was about the Polonium,” says Mahfouz.  “I know it sounds crazy, but that’s the way it was.”
     Fernelius recalls that one female employee at Unit 4 had unruly hair, some of which became contaminated.  “When she did her hair, she would put the bobby pins in her mouth.  She had the highest urine count in the place.”
     It was virtually impossible to work with Polonium and avoid getting the material in your system, but Polonium, discovered in 1898 by Marie and Pierre Curie and named for her native Poland, is also eliminated rapidly and does not settle in dangerous concentrations in bone as do Radium and Plutonium.  Polonium 210 has a half-live of 138 days, meaning that every 138-day period reduces its radioactiviey by one-half.
*   *   *
     In July of 1946, the fourth and fifth bombs, Able and Baker, were tested at the Bikini atoll in the Marshall Island Chain in the Pacific.  Old warships, both Allied and Japanese, had been positioned in the bay as targets.  The first explosion was above ground, the second under water.
     Hochwalt attended the first test as a VIP from Monsanto.  Fernelius, one of six Monsanto people to see the under water blast, remembers it well. “We were given quarters on the Cumberland Sound… At the appropriate time, we were told to look in a certain direction.  We saw this big column of water going up, then hesitating, then falling again.  After a reasonable time we heard the sound.
     “Even at a 15-mile distance, says Fernelius, “it was a fantastic performance.  I don’t think anybody could be quite the same after seeing it.  We realized the destructive power of these things and wished to heaven there was some way they’d never be used.”
 
*   *   *
     On Jan. 1, 1947, the newly established Atomic Energy Commission replaced the Manhattan District.  The A E C wanted a permanent site to continue the work of the Dayton Project.  The plant was to be an underground structure, secure against a 2,000-pound armor-piercing, jet-assisted bomb and protected against biological and chemical warfare.  An area of about 160 acres was found in Miamisburg near the Indian Mound.  It became Monsanto’s Mound Lab.  Fear of sabotage or malfunction led the A E C to begin work on a duplicate plant at Marion.
     With a new facility underway, Units III and IV faced decommission as both had been leased on terms that would return the buildings in their original condition.
     The seminary, where mostly experimental work had been done, was decontaminated and returned to the Dayton Board of Education in 1950.  “All we had to do there was paint over the walls and sand down the floors until we didn’t get anymore readings,” recalls Mahfouz, who was in charge of the decontamination phase.
     The building has since been torn down.
     The Playhouse was a different story.  It was so contaminated that it had to be destroyed.
     “Anything radioactive, of course, we had to tear out,” says Mahfouz.  “We cut up what was too long and either drummed it or boxed it.  We took everything out.”
     All the material was sent to The Mound Lab or Oak Ridge, Tenn.  The cobblestones from the driveway were also shipped, along with seven feet of earth taken from under the foundation.  “The dirt wasn’t that bad, but our instructions were to get it out of there,” said Mahfouz.  After the Monsanto-built inner structures had been removed, a local contractor salvaged the empty playhouse shell.
     The Talbotts received $138,000 from the AEC in compensation for the Playhouse.  By the spring of 1950, all that remained of the site was a grassy knoll.
     Air, water, mud and vegetation samples were taken by Monsanto within a 75-mile radius of Unit IV.  Water and mud samples were taken from 57 sites along the banks of the Great Miami River.  According to a 1966 AEC study, “There have been no test results from any of the environmental sampling sites which showed excessive amounts of Polonium present for any appreciable amount of time.”
     Since 1950, any left-over Polonium would have been halved over 87 times.  The passage of just 30 half-lives would have reduced the Polonium to less than 0.00000001 of its original state.
 
 
Thomas & Hochwalt: They Started in a City of Entrepreneurs
 
     Just before the 1932 Presidential election, Dayton scientists Charles Thomas and
Carroll Hochwalt predicted a Roosevelt victory and a subsequent repeal of Prohibition.
     And they went a step further.  Aware that the distilling industry would be unable to meet the demand for whisky, they produced an agent that artificially aged raw, green liquor.  When the country went wet, the founders of Thomas & Hochwalt Laboratory signed a contract with National Distillers and 3 million bottles hit the shelves.
     “It wasn’t great whiskey,” recalls Hochwalt, now 84 years old, “but it was wet and available.”
     The story illustrates the scientific ability and the business sense that would ultimately propel the pair to the forefront of American science.
     The two met in 1923 at the GM Research Corp. in Moraine.  Hochwalt, a Dayton native and University of Dayton graduate, had worked there three years before the arrival of Kentucky-born Thomas, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate.  They quickly became friends.  “We were compatible spirits,” says Hochwalt.
     Together, they played key roles in the development of leaded gasoline under Charles F. “Boss” Kettering.  But, in 1925, when GM relocated its facility to Detroit, Thomas and Hochwalt remained in Dayton to go into the research business for themselves – as Thomas & Hochwalt Lab at 127 N. Ludlow St.  Within two years, they transferred to 1515 Nicholas Road.
     By the mid-1930s, Thomas & Hochwalt had become the largest chemical consulting lab in the country.  One of their suppliers was the Monsanto Chemical Co.  and soon, they were doing considerable work for Monsanto.  Then, Monsanto “made us a deal we couldn’t refuse,” says Hochwalt.  On Easter Sunday, 1936, in exchange for 1.4 million shares of Monsanto common stock, Thomas & Hochwalt became Monsanto’s Central Research Department.
     After the war, Thomas served as president of Monsanto from 1951 to 1960 and as board chairman from 1960 to 1965.  He retired in 1970 and died March 29, 1982.
     Hochwalt became vice president of research of Monsanto before retiring in 1964.  He now lives near Monsanto world headquarters outside St. Louis.
     Says Hochwalt of his native Dayton, “It was a city of entrepreneurs – Kettering being a fine example of that – and I like to think of ourselves as being an example of that, too.”
 
 
Plutonium, Beryllium, Polonium—They Made Possible Probable
 
     The Los Alamos radio-chemists knew spontaneous fission was possible, but without an initiator, they weren’t sure that it was probable.  And without spontaneous fission, the Atomic Bomb wouldn’t explode.
     From April 1943 to August 1944, they sought an initiator—nicknamed Urchin.
     It was imperative to incorporate some neutron-making device in the bomb, but equally important not to release the neutrons prematurely.  Somehow, the weapon had to be assembled without neutrons and then neutrons had to appear suddenly, exactly at the micro-second of implosion.
     Early in their investigations, the Los Alamos team realized that Polonium, in combination with Beryllium, could be the Urchin, but there had never been enough Polonium produced even to see it.  So, there was great doubt if it could be sufficiently purified or produced.
     Because of this uncertainty, two different techniques for initiating the chain reaction were pursued.
     One became the “Little Boy,” bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and the other, which used the Polonium produced in Oakwood, was called “Fat Man” and was dropped on Nagasaki.
     When Charles Thomas accepted the task of providing the Polonium, he was faced with a race against time.
    At the beginning of the Dayton Project, it was known that neutron-bombarded Bismuth was the most satisfactory source of Polonium, but that method had resulted in only minute quantities in a cyclotron and no method of concentration and purification had been developed. 
     Other early research was directed toward extraction of Polonium from radioactive lead dioxide, which was immediately available in residues from the Radium refinery at Port Hope, Canada.  But it took one ton of lead dioxide to produce one milligram of Polonium.
     So, in May of 1945, just three months before the bombs were dropped on Japan, this method was abandoned when large quantities of Bismuth finally became available.
     After the Bismuth, a heavy leaden metal, underwent an intense neutron flux inside a reactor at Oak Ridge, Tenn., it was flown by military transport to Dayton’s Wright field.  An unmarked truck delivered the shipments to Unit IV – the Playhouse.
     Originally, the Bismuth was shipped in wood-packed bricks, which were stored in a tile-lined cavity in the Playhouse floor.  Later, these bricks were replaced by aluminum-jacketed Bismuth slugs, 4 inches long by 1½ inches in diameter, which were kept in either a specially shielded vault or under water in a tile-lined pool.
     At the Playhouse, the aluminum jackets were dissolved and the Bismuth yielded, depending on its purity, between 6 and 16 grams of Polonium.  Over 50 tons of radioactive Bismuth were processed at the Playhouse.
     The Polonium was assembled in the first Urchins at Los Alamos, but by 1946 the assemblage had shifted to Dayton’s Unit III and in 1949 to the Mound at Miamisburg.
     In the Little Boy bomb that killed 80,000 people in Hiroshima, the bombardier set the control plugs to arm the 9,000-pound bomb just before it was dropped from a B-29 bomber.  When the bomb reached 1,850 feet, a radar echo set off an ordinary explosive inside.  This drove a projectile wedge of Uranium 235 into a larger piece of U235 setting off a blast with the force of 11,800 metric tons of TNT.
     Three days later, the 10,000-pound Fat Man bomb killed over 40,000 people in Nagasaki, using the Oakwood Polonium in a more advanced nuclear principle. Control plugs and a radar antenna on this bomb performed the same tasks as those on Little Boy.  An ordinary explosive crushed a hollow sphere of Plutonium 239 into a Beryllium-Polonium core, the size of a nut, releasing massive amounts of neutrons and setting off the chain reaction.  This basic design was to be used in others of America’s early Atomic weapons.