Michigan Tech and the Manhattan Project
By Marcia Goodrich
Michigan Tech alumnus and faculty emeritus Walter Anderson brings World War II into the high school classroom, telling his personal stories about the development of the atomic bomb code-named “Little Boy.”
The Manhattan Project was cloaked in secrecy, hidden even from most of the scientists involved. But Walter Anderson and other curious engineers at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, calculated that the mysterious substance they were producing was the rare isotope uranium 235. A few years later, U-235 from Oak Ridge would fuel the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Their equations, scribbled on paper, are seen on the cover.
For the gregarious Walter Anderson ’43, the hardest part about working on the Manhattan Project—America’s gargantuan, covert effort to build the atomic bomb—was keeping quiet about it.
“The most we could say was, ‘Yeah, I was at Los Alamos, yeah, I was at Oak Ridge,’” says the retired Michigan Tech emeritus professor.
While they didn’t talk about it much, over the years it became clear that as many as thirty University alumni and faculty had worked on the bomb.
“Michigan Tech was represented on the Manhattan Project entirely out of proportion to its size,” says Anderson. “Back then, we only had about nine hundred students.”
Robert Sherman ’43 worked at Los Alamos, where the bombs were built. Alumnus Manley Fortune ’43 kept track of America’s uranium stockpiles. Michigan Tech student Phillip Barnes was a sergeant on the plane that carried Fat Man, the plutonium bomb, to Nagasaki.
“During the flight, they discovered there was a problem with the bomb, and he fixed it,” says Anderson. Other Manhattan Project veterans were Meriott Bredekamp, a Michigan Tech chemistry professor, and electrical engineering alumnus Leroy Hartmann ’43.
Eventually, federal secrecy rules relaxed, and Anderson began telling his story at local high schools, including Ted Holmstrom’s American history class at Chassell High. “They are always interested,” Holmstrom says afterward. “He’s a primary source. Just think: when these students are forty or fifty years old, they’ll be able to say they met someone who worked on the Manhattan Project.”
“Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have dared to give this talk,” Anderson observes. But now, he and Sherman can discuss their work on this desperate, high-stakes scientific endeavor, a fulcrum in history that assured American victory over Japan and changed world politics forever.
In 1943, Walter Anderson was a young engineer working for General Electric and waiting for greetings from his draft board. Then he got a summons of another kind.
At the age of 21, Anderson went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as part of America’s desperate effort to develop an atomic bomb. He supervised a crew of young women from throughout the South, who ran equipment used to make weapons-grade uranium.
“I got a call that somebody wanted to interview me, and they said it was a secret project,” says Anderson. Back then he was fresh out of Michigan Tech, with a BS in Electrical Engineering.
After a cryptic interview, he resigned from General Electric, where he was making a respectable ninety cents an hour, and found himself riding a train from Schenectady, New York, to Knoxville, Tennessee. There, he boarded a bus to Oak Ridge, a two-year-old, 60,000-acre community that was so secret even the governor didn’t know it was there. For two weeks, he hung out in a big room with a crowd of other young men, “telling jokes and reading newspapers.”
None of them knew they’d been handpicked to work on the super-secret Manhattan Project. The secrecy applied even to those who made it through the security screening and were put to work. “They never told us what we were making,” Anderson remembers.
What they would make at Oak Ridge was fuel for Little Boy, the uranium bomb that would level Hiroshima and hasten the end of World War II. Oak Ridge was one of three primary research and production sites of the Manhattan Project; the others were the plutonium-production facility at the Hanford Site, in Washington state; and the weapons R&D laboratory at Los Alamos in New Mexico.
“One night, we were sitting around wondering what we were doing,” says Anderson. “We knew everything about the process except the strength of the magnetic field.” So they asked around and got the missing piece of the puzzle. “Then we figured it out. We were making uranium-235.”
When the army found out about their discovery, they confiscated the engineers’ security badges. “We asked the sergeant if we were fired,” Anderson remembers. “But then they gave us new badges.” The curious scientists’ security clearance was bumped up to reflect their new knowledge.
U-235, now known as weapons-grade uranium, was made using electromagnetic separation to winnow out the rare isotope from the garden-variety U-238. The process was carried out on a massive scale that only yielded U-235 by the gram. “The locals saw all this construction, with so much going into Oak Ridge and nothing coming out,” says Anderson. Indeed, almost nothing did go out. The U-235 left Oak Ridge periodically in a briefcase by an army courier.
Much of the hands-on work at Oak Ridge was done by thousands of young women hired from throughout the South. “There were dormitories that housed five thousand,” Anderson says. He supervised a crew of operators in the electromagnetic plant, who also had no idea what they were making, or why.
However, the purpose of their work was made abundantly clear on August 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb, fueled by U-235, exploded over Hiroshima.
The workers at Oak Ridge realized instantly that they had played a crucial role. “That night, my group had midnight shift, and the girls caught on quickly,” says Anderson. “There was one who sat on her operator’s stool and cried for eight hours. Her brother and husband were in the Philippines, as was my brother. A lot of those guys claim we saved their lives, and I think we did. But she was so laden with guilt.”
After the war, Anderson earned his master’s degree and returned to Oak Ridge to work in the gaseous diffusion program, a new process to create U-235, albeit briefly. “In 1954, I turned in my resignation and went to Tech,” he says, where he served first on the faculty of the Department of Electrical Engineering (now Electrical and Computer Engineering) and later as dean of the School of Technology, until his retirement in 1988.
Looking back on his years at Oak Ridge, Anderson does not second-guess the morality of his work. “War is hell,” he states. “It’s expensive in equipment, it’s expensive in lives. It’s a horrible thing.” And for all its devastation, Little Boy helped put an end to it.
When Robert Sherman heard he’d be working on the Manhattan Project, he thought, “Good. I’ll be in New York City.”
Michigan Tech alumnus Robert Sherman joined the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. He designed and built equipment used during the test of “the gadget”—the plutonium bomb detonated in 1945 over the New Mexico desert.
He got his orders while stationed in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in the US Army Signal Corps. It was 1944, and Sherman had just graduated from Michigan Tech in December 1943 with a BS in Electrical Engineering.
“One day, I was at the movies, and a sign appeared on the screen with my name, along with the names of a few other people, saying to report to the commanding officer.”
He went to see the CO the next day. “I asked question after question, but nobody helped,” Sherman remembers. Finally, he did extract the name of his new assignment, but much to his surprise, he was sent not to New York but to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, then to Santa Fe, New Mexico. “We were still in a cloud,” Sherman recalls. “When we got off the train, we saw a big bus. We got on it, and went north and west, to a place called Los Alamos.”
There, they learned that they would be serving in the Army Corps of Engineers, and that they would be part of the R&D team for completing work on the atomic bomb, under extremely secret conditions.
Those were exciting times for young men fresh out of college. “Most of us were young fellows with degrees in science or engineering,” Sherman says, “and we were fortunate to be able to attend some secret meetings with very high-level personnel.”
While their mail was censored and their phone conversations monitored, the R&D staff at Los Alamos did occasionally get to go on leave, hitchhiking rides from locals. “People would ask us what we were doing in the mountains,” he chuckles. “We told them we were building the front ends of horses and sending them to Washington for final assembly.”
While he was familiar with virtually all phases of bomb development at Los Alamos, Sherman is careful not to reveal too much about his technical contributions, though he did design and build equipment used during the test of “the gadget.” The plutonium-fueled bomb was detonated July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert.
“We were about five miles away, waiting for the explosion, and no one knew if there would be a detonation,” Sherman says. “Everybody there was apprehensive.
“Finally, there was a mass of color, heat, and noise, and it grew and grew to fill the whole site. There was tremendous hand clapping and shrieks of appreciation.”
Shortly thereafter, they learned that bombs they had built were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that the war was over.
“This news [of the war ending] caused considerable celebration,” Sherman remembers. “Several days we spent laughing, smoking, and drinking. In fact, I was sick for about three or four days, mostly because of the cigars.”
Corporate recruiters descended on Los Alamos, looking for trained scientists and engineers. Sherman was snapped up by AT&T Bell Laboratories and finally got his trip to New York. After several promotions and transfers, he moved to New England with his wife and children. Now retired, he lives in Peabody, Massachusetts.
As for his wartime service, he has no regrets. “It allowed me to use my education and do some very critical work,” says Sherman. “We were working to avoid the invasion of Japan and avoid the land war, and we succeeded.”
His colleague at Oak Ridge agrees. “Some people ask if President Truman should have dropped the bomb,” says Anderson. “All of those guys who were in the Philippines that I’ve talked to said we saved their lives.
“The atomic bomb is not nice—it’s hell—but it did end the war.”