Monday, July 26, 2010

Fat Man

Hanford, Washington

Hanford Engineer Works (1944)
Soon after a woman sold me an old Christmas menu online, she wrote to let me know something about it. Her father had been a machinist who rode the rails looking for work in the 1930s. He eventually landed a job at the Hanford Engineer Works in Washington State, where he worked for the Manhattan Project during World War II. In 1944, he enclosed this holiday bill of fare in a letter to his family in Chicago as a way of reassuring them that he was okay. There was a hand-written notation on the back of the menu that summarized its story. It read “atom bomb job.”

The Manhattan Project was a nationwide complex of laboratories and plants that produced the first atomic bombs. During the summer of 1943, Richland, a farming community situated on the Columbia River, became one of the project’s boom-towns. Under the direction of the U.S. Army and several private contractors, over 50,000 workers hurriedly built a plant there to manufacture plutonium.

Hanford was shrouded in secrecy. Only a handful of the people working at the site knew the true purpose of the facility. Margaret Hoffarth, a waitress in one of the eight large mess halls, later recalled, “All we were told was we were doing something for the war.”  Despite such patriotic appeals, workers left in droves, driven away by the dismal housing conditions, the bleak surroundings (made all the worse by severe dust storms), and the fact that they could not bring their families to live with them. However, some stayed until the war was over. WAC corporeal Hope Sloan Amacker reminisced, “In 1944 everyone was young here, and it was heavenly. The experience was once in a lifetime.” The cover of their Christmas menu that year featured a jolly Santa Claus, an ironic image considering the deadly weapon they were making was codenamed “Fat Man.”

The first irradiated slugs of plutonium were discharged from Hanford’s reactor on that Christmas Day in 1944. Within months, there was enough plutonium to make two bombs. At the same time, one additional bomb was produced at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, using enriched uranium as its fuel. In July 1945, the first nuclear weapon was tested in New Mexico using plutonium made at Hanford. This explosion marked the beginning of the Atomic Age.

The uranium-fission bomb called “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Three days later, the more powerful plutonium-based “Fat Man” was detonated over Nagasaki. The two atomic bombs instantly killed over 75,000 people.  By some estimates, the death toll rose to a quarter of a million people within four months after the bombings. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, ending the Second World War.

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