The Manhattan Project, so named because the first plan originated in that “district,” was America’s top-secret mission to harness nuclear energy into a massively powerful bomb and end World War ll. The mission’s leaders were Dr. Leo Oppenheimer on the science side, and General Leslie Groves on the management/military procurement and coordination side. The rest, as they say, is history . . .

January 16, 1944 — the day General Leslie Groves arrived in Decatur — was grey and cold. At midnight the night before, exhausted after a long train trip from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Groves had missed his connection in Cincinnati. He immediately arranged for a car and driver to take him overnight to Decatur, and told the driver he’d talk to him all night in order to keep him awake. He had to be in Decatur at 8:30 a.m.

The general arrived thirty minutes late at the Houdaille-Hershey plant on Garfield Street. He was there for a hastily called meeting involving the highest levels of national security.

World War II was raging in the Pacific. The American military was preparing, mile by tortuous mile across the Pacific, to invade the Japanese mainland. Based on fighting at Iwo Jima, Guadacanal, Midway, and other historic clashes, military command knew American losses would be catastrophic — worse than the Normandy invasion of Europe; worse than anything seen in any war at any time. They had no doubt: Tens of thousands of American lives would be lost.

Perhaps, however, there was a way to avoid such tragic consequences.

By the time General Groves left Decatur later that day, the die was cast and the end game in place to win the war without a single American soldier setting foot in Japan.

Sites Are Set

The scenario in Decatur began years earlier with a letter from a European emigrant named Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt. Having turned the world’s understanding of natural science on its ear with his special and general theory of relativity, Einstein warned Roosevelt of his belief that Nazi Germany was developing a nuclear device the world would later call the atomic bomb. Einstein urged the president to enlist the nascent American nuclear community to begin research on the project before the Germans could unleash this bomb’s fury on the allies. (Ironically, it was later learned that Hitler had little faith in the arcane idea, and did not deploy resources toward the bomb’s development until the war was almost over.)

Roosevelt embraced the idea, and assigned the project to Brigadier General Leslie Groves — a man known to tackle the most difficult military missions with enthusiasm. Groves was overwhelmed, and scientists he interviewed under the darkest veil of security were highly skeptical. The concept of “splitting the atom” and harnessing nuclear fission was as theoretical as relativity itself. To actually put this idea to the test involved enormous risks and a level of difficulty never before attempted.

Security was particularly problematic. The mission would involve ten different complex research tasks, performed at ten sites around the United States. To maintain maximum security, each site would know nothing of the others and workers would not know the project’s nature. Anything short of complete success at each location would equal failure. There were a thousand ways to fail, and one way to succeed.

Two of the ten sites were in Illinois. The University of Chicago was chosen to conduct experimental efforts to achieve critical mass of uranium bombardment and thus achieve a chain reaction necessary for detonation. A small, isolated campus building under the direction of brilliant Nobel prize-winning scientist Enrico Fermi served as test lab. But before Fermi could conduct experiments, sufficient high grade Uranium 235 (U235) had to be separated from the lower grade Uranium 238 (U238).

This separation process became one of the mission’s most challenging efforts. No filter, or barrier, existed that could perform the separation process. U238 contained an incredibly small amount of U235 — about 0.07 percent — and several pounds of U235 were necessary for critical mass. The separation process appeared impossible, as a filter one-half inch square containing one-half million holes and capable of withstanding enormous pressure would have to be discovered, or invented.

Grove enlisted the Houdaille-Hershey company, a Chicago auto parts manufacturer, as producer of the mysterious product. The company agreed to undertake the challenge, and chose Decatur as its plant site. They constructed a $5,000 facility on Garfield Street to manufacture a product that did not exist.

Tapping Top Minds

The unlikely inventor of the tested barrier was Edward Norris, an interior decorator from London. In 1934, he had invented a paint spray gun with a finer nozzle to more evenly coat walls. It was commercially successful, and caught the attention of British scientist Franz Simon, one of many chemists working on the uranium separation project. Simon contacted Norris, and asked if he could make a small half-inch square screen with one half million holes. Although he was not told why, Norris was aware that British scientists were working with something called gaseous diffusion, and the curious decorator remembered a Saturday Evening Post article on the process.

By the time Norris set up shop in the United States, he had figured out what was underway. He was teamed with Edward Adler, a talented 26-year-old chemist from New York’s City College who could not understand Norris’ role on such a project. Nonetheless, the young chemist and the uptight decorator began to work together tirelessly. Their efforts looked promising, though questions remained regarding the textile strength of the millions of lacy filters needed to assimilate the necessary amount of U235.

In Decatur, the mission’s “cover” was automobile radiator experimentation, and plant workers thought they were on the cutting edge of new auto parts. In 1944, the world was a much more naïve place.

Barrier experimentation was being conducted elsewhere as well, and the scientific community disagreed on the best means to success. Groves had an additional problem: Not only must he find the best way to separate U235 and U238, but also the fastest way, as the U.S. believed Germany was on the verge of success. Meanwhile, Clarence Johnson, a researcher with the Kellex company, had indirectly developed a competing, and even more promising barrier, and Groves faced another gut-wrenching decision — proceed with the Norris-Adler barrier, or risk all with the new Johnson technique.

The January 1944 meeting in Decatur was a turning point. It was at this contentious gathering that Groves, hearing the spirited debate, decided to abandon the Norris-Adler barrier experiment and convert the already-constructed Decatur plant to the Johnson process. The Houdaille-Hershey management rolled its eyes at the enormous waste of taxpayers’ money in stripping the plant for a new technique.

Eighteen months later, on July 16th, 1945, Leo Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leslie Groves, along with the best and brightest minds in America, assembled under the clear desert skies of Alamogordo, New Mexico. On that day, a light — its flash brighter than any of them had ever seen on earth — appeared twenty miles away. The sight occurred seconds before the sound and wind from the detonation stole the very breath of those who gave it birth.

Within six weeks, the Japanese surrendered. World War II was won without an invasion, and the world was forever changed.

The nuclear age dawned, and Decatur had played a significant role in its arrival.


City Manager and history buff Steve Garman is a frequent contributor to Decatur Magazine.



This article originally appeared in the April/May 2005 issue of Decatur Magazine. It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher’s consent.

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