Rio History: Atom Bomb Test Site on Padre Island?

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

We who call Padre Island home, have always known our days are numbered; for our beautiful tropical home is just one hurricane away from annihilation. Oddly, the potential damage of one of nature’s deadliest storms pales when compared to what almost happened to Padre Island one hot day in June over 70 years ago.

Our story begins on Oct. 11, 1939, when Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In it, Einstein discusses a nuclear chain reaction and the magnitude of the powerful atomic bombs that might be constructed. Einstein believed the German government was actively supporting research in this area and urged the United States government to do likewise

“A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port,” Einstein wrote, “might very well destroy the whole port, together with some of the surrounding territory.”

Einstein composed his famous letter with the help of the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, one of a number of European scientists, including Edward Teller and Eugene Wignedr, who had fled to the United States in the 1930s to escape the Nazis. The scientists considered it their responsibility to alert America to the fact that the Germans were working on an atomic bomb

“I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over,” Einstein wrote, “That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsacker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.”

Believing that the United States could not take the risk of allowing Adolf Hitler to possess such a device, Roosevelt wrote Einstein on Oct. 19, 1939 informing the physicist that he had appointed a committee to study the matter. The leaders of the American atomic energy program recognized the tremendous military potential of atomic research and they realized from the beginning the need for maintaining a high degree of secrecy. In June 1940, the Committee on Uranium became a subcommittee of the National Defense Research Committee, which put it under military rule, and more importantly, the security for the program fell under the jurisdiction of both Army and Naval intelligence.

The budget for the secret work, now known as the “Manhattan Project,” was growing exponentially and its costs were kept carefully hidden away in a massive wartime budget by a small group of powerful Washington politicians.

As a result of the almost total secrecy, the Axis Powers, (Germany, Italy and Japan) remained ignorant of the great weapon contemplated by the Americans. If they had even the slightest hint, especially the Germans, they would have poured every resource they had into producing their own bomb. It goes without saying they would not have rested until they had destroyed our program.

Ironically, it was the very LACK of published research, that raised the suspicions of Russian physicist, Georgy Nikolayevich Flyorov, who informed Joseph Stalin, in 1942, of the conspicuous silence among the world’s top nuclear researchers. The Russians were able to penetrate the Manhattan Project and stunned the world on Aug, 29, 1949 when they blew a gigantic hole in the wilderness at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan.

The first phase was completed in early December 1942, when Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist who had fled Benito Mussolini, induced the first controlled nuclear reaction in a laboratory located at a secret complex built under the wooden seats of the abandoned bleachers of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. Now it was up to the scientists at the Clinton Engineering Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and their contemporaries at Hanford Engineering in Richland,  Washington, to develop a method of creating fuel for the atomic bomb.

Over the next year and a half, the scientists figured out the extraction processes needed to create fuel for the reactors. By 1944, enough U-235 had been produced that scientists at Los Alamos were able to build three atomic bombs.

The first, called “the gadget” or “the device,” was a gun-type weapon that used a slug of U-235 that when dropped down the barrel of a gun into the center of another specially shaped piece of U-235, would produce an atomic explosion. It would actually be detonated at a test site. If the test were successful, the other two bombs, nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy, could be deployed. Hopefully, they would be enough to persuade our enemies to surrender.

All that remained now was to find a suitable test site.

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