W E B Griffin – Men at War 1 – The Last Heroes

W E B Griffin – Men at War 1 – The Last Heroes

W E B Griffin – Men at War 1 – The Last Heroes


In January 1939, Professor Niels Bohr, a German physicist who had fled Germany and was then living in Copenhagen, traveled to the United States and visited with Professor Albert Einstein, a German mathematician who had also fled Germany and was then living in Princeton, New Jersey.

Among other things, they discussed an interesting phenomenon observed when uranium, a natural element, was bombarded with neutrons: barium and krypton were formed, indicating that the uranium atom had been split into two nearly equal fragments.

Professor Bohr further discussed this phenomenon, which he called fission, with a number of other eminent scientists. Among these was Professor Enrico Fermi (then of the University of Chicago). At a conference in Washington, D.C., on January 26, 1939, Fermi suggested that neutrons might be released during fission, and if this were the case, a continuous disintegration–a “chain reaction”–might be possible. Fermi believed that such a chain reaction might release energy of a rather stunning magnitude.

The first contact between the scientific community and the government concerning nuclear fission took place in March 1939, when Professor George B. Pegram of Columbia University arranged for Fermi to discuss the matter with certain officers of the U.S. Navy.

Energy yields were of considerable importance to the U.S. Navy, whose engineers were constantly striving to extract a few more British thermal units from each gallon of bunkerfuel oil and aviation gasoline. An increase of fifty percent in energy yield would give whoever owned the secret a tremendous advantage over his enemy, and these respectable scientists were talking of greater than tenfold or even hundredfold energy increases.

And even if there were technical drawbacks that would keep the Navy’s fuel tanks from getting a sudden miracle energy boost, perhaps there was something in this mysterious process that would work for ammunition. Increasing the power of a cannon shell was always a welcome possibility.

Professor Fermi told the naval officers that though he didn’t have any precise figures, still, as an educated guess, fission of one hundred pounds of uranium 235 would probably release as much energy as twenty thousand tons of an explosive like, say, trinitrotoluene, commonly called TNT.

The Navy found that fascinating and asked if there was much interest in this sort of thing in Europe. Professor Fermi said there was. The Germans seemed curious about the subject. And there were uranian mines in Germany.

The Navy inquired if mining and refining this new explosive was difficult.

Professor Fermi sadly indicated that it was, since not just any uranium would do. The kind of uranium required for a chain reaction, uranium 235, was an isotope, one part in 140. The current total world’s supply of pure uranium 235, he told them, was 0.000001 pound.

In the summer of 1939, Alexander Sachs presented the views of Einstein and others to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Approximately six months later, Roosevelt made funds available to look further into the matter. The scientists thought they could do everything that had to be done for six thousand dollars, and that is how much the President gave them.

How much money naval intelligence spent looking for a source of uranian ore somewhere outside the borders of Nazi Germany has never been revealed, but it is known that by December 6, 1941, when the atomic fission project was put under the direction of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, the Navy knew there were several hundred tons of uranian ore in Kolwezi, a small mining town in Katanga Province of the Belgian Congo.


Annapolis, Maryland 1330 Hours 4 June 1941

The United States Naval Academy class of 1941, having more or less patiently endured the more or less predictably inspiring remarks of the secretary of the Navy, formed a line according to academic rank and moved across the platform to receive their diplomas and handshakes. As they walked back to their seats, they glanced toward the sky. The next item on the program was a flyover of Navy fighter aircraft.

The commandant of the Naval Academy had not been enthusiastic about the flyover when it had been proposed to him. So far as he was concerned, the graduation exercises should not be turned into an air show. Indeed he privately believed that the Navy did not need combat aircraft at all, that the battleship remained the ultimate weapon of naval power, and that the Navy needed airplanes only in order to locate the enemy fleet. The notion of bright young ensigns applying for flight training offended him. They should be learning their profession aboard battleships and cruisers.

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