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Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016

Local man worked on atomic bomb

Monday, August 1, 2005

Lennie Whitworth of Sikeston sketches a cross section of one of the explosive devices.
SIKESTON - Not many people can say they have personally witnessed an atomic blast. Fewer yet can say they helped develop the technology that made it possible.

Sixty years ago, the world became a different place with the test detonation of the first atomic bomb on July 16 and the first actual use as a weapon on Hiroshima, Japan, following on Aug. 6.

The path that ultimately led to Lennie Whitworth of Sikeston being part of the team which brought that change started when he joined the U.S. Army in 1943 after serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A commanding officer in the Corps had suggested Whitworth should volunteer to be a civil engineer in the Army, which sent him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for additional study.

It was at MIT that his life took a very interesting turn. "In 1944, Gen. Leslie Groves came looking for engineers to put on the atomic bomb projects," Whitworth said.

Groves, who was appointed to be in charge of the project, did not tell Whitworth that, of course. "He told me, 'We are looking for engineers and scientists to work on a secret project for the government,'" Whitworth said.

With the country at war, there were a lot of "secret projects," according to Whitworth. "My thought was, I was in the Army and I was going to do what I was told."

The notion of working on a secret project was interesting, however, Whitworth said. Only Whitworth and one other civil engineer from MIT were selected.

Whitworth was soon on a train that, after dropping others off at Oak Ridge, Tenn., to work on other parts of the Manhattan Project, brought him to Los Alamos, N.M.

While parts of the project were taking place at several places around the country like Oak Ridge, "at Los Alamos, it was the center of design and development," according to Whitworth.

He didn't have to wait long to find out what the secret project was.

"The day I arrived, they put me in a room with this physicist who described what they were trying to do about making a bomb and the method," he recalled. "I was impressed - particularly if we were successful and could end the war without having more loss of our soldiers."

Security was high at Los Alamos, Whitworth said: "All of our telephone calls were monitored, all letters were mailed unsealed, all letters received had been opened and inspected." He ended up spending almost all of the next two and half years there.

Whitworth was assigned to work under Dr. Jim Tuck, an English physicist. "I was put into what we called the bomb physics division," he said. "The bomb physics division was the primary design section to determine how to accomplish a nuclear explosion that could be made into a bomb."

As any physics student knows, force is equal to mass times acceleration squared. Much of Whitworth's efforts were dedicated to setting up and timing explosions down to the millisecond in an effort to find a way of propelling neutrons at atoms to smash them and start a nuclear chain reaction.

They had the very best of equipment and materials to work with. "We could get anything we wanted if it was made," he said. If what they needed didn't exist, people were put to work to make it for them.

Dr. Jim Tuck eventually developed the method used for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, and tested at Alamogordo, N.M., but Whitworth passed up the chance to view the test.

"I was invited to go to the site in New Mexico but I knew the urgency of our project and offered to stay at Los Alamos and complete the testing," Whitworth said. "There was no other project like this in the world."

For those who did watch the test, "there was a feeling of relief that we had succeeded, that the job had been done correctly and it worked," Whitworth said.

He got his chance to witness the fruits of his work following the end of World War II.

"Dr. Tuck was asked to design and build equipment to test radiation levels at tests to be conducted at the Bikini Atoll where two bombs were to be tested - one underwater and one in the air," Whitworth said.

Tuck offered Whitworth a job assisting him, which he accepted.

For the test, ships were placed in concentric circles around a ship selected to be the target. Following the explosion, Whitworth and Tuck were to retrieve canisters with special equipment inside to measure radiation that were placed on some of the ships at different distances.

Standing at the rail of a ship 18 miles away and wearing protective goggles, Whitworth watched a nuclear explosion. "It was like I was standing in front of a furnace and somebody opened the furnace door and then it was shut," he said. "We were all amazed at the magnitude. Some of the ships were vaporized because of the heat and force. Others were damaged extensively and those farther away from the center experienced lessor forces."

While they knew that materials like lead resisted radiation, the idea of using lead in protective suits had not been thought of yet.

"The doctors say that the reason for my numerous operations and three types of cancer related to the radiation I experienced," Whitworth said.

Nevertheless, he has no regret for participating in the project. "I'm not happy that I have these physical problems and I'm lucky to be alive," he said. But then, he adds, "It was a tremendous experience. I did things that no one else in the world did. I have lots of memories."

Whitworth prefers to avoid debating the development and use of nuclear weapons. "We were in the Army, we had a job to do," he said. "I personally had nothing to do with that decision."