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FTR #444 Interview with Peter Vogel

Record­ed Feb­ru­ary 1, 2004
Lis­ten:
MP3 Side 1 [1] | Side 2 [2]
RealAu­dio [3]

Fol­low­ing up infor­ma­tion pre­sent­ed in Mis­cel­la­neous Archive Show M23 and FTRs 129, 163, this broad­cast fea­tures the land­mark research of Peter Vogel on the Port Chica­go explo­sion of 7/17/1944. One of the largest man-made dis­as­ters in his­to­ry, the Port Chica­go explo­sion claimed the lives of 320 sailors, 220 of them African Amer­i­cans. Sub­se­quent­ly, African-Amer­i­can sailors refused to con­tin­ue load­ing ammu­ni­tion at Port Chica­go and were con­vict­ed of Mutiny. Offi­cial­ly the explo­sion of con­ven­tion­al muni­tions aboard an ammu­ni­tion ship, the E.A. Bryan, the Port Chica­go blast was actu­al­ly the test of an ear­ly atom­ic weapon, the auto­cat­alyt­ic ura­ni­um hydride lat­er­al implo­sion exper­i­men­tal device—named the Mark II. After relat­ing Peter’s long odyssey explor­ing the explo­sion and the offi­cial dis­sem­bling that sur­rounds the event, the pro­gram relates the fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­men­tary trail con­firm­ing the nature of the explo­sion and the chronol­o­gy of this ear­ly, sig­nif­i­cant step in the devel­op­ment of the atom­ic weapons.

Pro­gram High­lights Include: Peter’s proof that a suf­fi­cient amount of fis­sion­able mate­r­i­al for test­ing a fis­sion weapon was avail­able in 1944 (despite offi­cial pro­nounce­ments to the con­trary); the neg­a­tive reac­tions of Edward Teller (father of the H‑bomb) and Don­ald Kerr (direc­tor of Los Alam­os Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry) to Peter’s inquiries about Port Chica­go; the tremen­dous inter­est of the Los Alam­os Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry in this (sup­pos­ed­ly con­ven­tion­al) explo­sion; the back­ground of Cap­tain William Par­sons (the point man for the Los Alam­os research on Port Chica­go); the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the explo­sion that pin­point it as being a nuclear fis­sion blast; cor­re­spon­dence among some of the prin­ci­pals in the Man­hat­tan Project con­firm­ing that the Port Chica­go explo­sion was a test of the Mark II; indi­ca­tions that the Ger­mans were work­ing on a ura­ni­um hydride weapon; Sovi­et espi­onage on the Man­hat­tan Project that indi­cat­ed aware­ness of the test of Mark II; the pos­si­ble sig­nif­i­cance of the Port Chica­go explo­sion for the revo­ca­tion of Robert Oppen­heimer’s secu­ri­ty clear­ance; the sig­nif­i­cance of the Port Chica­go explo­sion in the his­to­ry of African-Amer­i­can civ­il lib­er­ties.

Note: This descrip­tion is for­mat­ted by pre­sent­ing the ques­tions that Dave asked Peter Vogel, and then a syn­op­tic overview of Peter’s response. For more detailed infor­ma­tion about the Port Chica­go explo­sion, see The Last Wave from Port Chica­go [4].

1. Dave: “Tell us about your dis­cov­ery of a doc­u­ment enti­tled ‘His­to­ry of 10,000-Ton Gad­get’ at a rum­mage sale.” Peter: Explains that the infor­ma­tion pre­sent­ed in the doc­u­ment he picked up at a church rum­mage sale obvi­ous­ly describes the explo­sion of a nuclear fis­sion device. The tremen­dous heat gen­er­at­ed by a nuclear blast caus­es the pecu­liar for­ma­tion of the mush­room cloud, which ris­es to a great height because of this heat, then cools and “mush­rooms out.” He did not rec­og­nize the ref­er­ence to Port Chica­go, and (after a tip by pro­fes­sion­al col­leagues) found the descrip­tion of the explo­sion of the Lib­er­ty Ship E.A. Bryan at the Port Chica­go Naval instal­la­tion in San Fran­cis­co Bay on July 17, 1944. Three hun­dred and twen­ty men died in the explo­sion (220 of them African-Amer­i­can sailors). When African-Amer­i­can sailors refused to con­tin­ue load­ing muni­tions, they were con­vict­ed of mutiny in a land­mark case for African-Amer­i­can civ­il lib­er­ties in the Unit­ed States.

2. Dave: “You pre­sent­ed the doc­u­ment to Edward Teller, the father of the H‑Bomb. How did he react? Why do you think he react­ed that way?” Peter: After dis­cussing the authors of the report (Joseph O. Hirschfelder and William G. Pen­ney), Peter relates his pre­sen­ta­tion of the doc­u­ment to Edward Teller, the father of the H‑bomb. Teller react­ed in a con­tentious fash­ion, inform­ing Peter that he had a clas­si­fied doc­u­ment and stat­ing that he would deny that he had ever seen the doc­u­ment. (In Peter’s book, there are pho­tographs of Teller read­ing the doc­u­ment.)

3. Dave: “What was the reac­tion of then Los Alam­os Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry Direc­tor Don­ald M. Kerr, Jr. when you asked about the paper?” Peter: Kerr told Peter that he’d nev­er be able to prove that the explo­sion was nuclear. Peter told him he’d try. Kerr has since held impor­tant posi­tions with the FBI and CIA.

4. Dave: “What were the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Port Chica­go explo­sion that con­vinced you that it was a nuclear explo­sion?” Peter: After dis­cussing the mush­room cloud and the dis­tinc­tive heat con­vec­tion that forms a mush­room cloud, Peter explains that the explo­sion lit the Bay Area as bright­ly as noon with a bril­liant flash of white light. That dis­tinc­tive white col­or (char­ac­ter­is­tic of a nuclear explo­sion) also derives from the extreme­ly high tem­per­a­tures gen­er­at­ed by a nuclear explo­sion. In addi­tion, Peter notes that pilots in air­craft fly­ing over the Bay Area not­ed what appeared to be a Wil­son Con­den­sa­tion Cloud—a large, ring-shaped cloud pro­duced by the det­o­na­tion of a nuclear device over water. (Although it is pos­si­ble for a Wil­son Con­den­sa­tion Cloud to be gen­er­at­ed by a pow­er­ful con­ven­tion­al explo­sion, the very large size of the ring-shaped cloud around Port Chica­go is almost cer­tain­ly char­ac­ter­is­tic of a nuclear det­o­na­tion.)

5. Dave: “Offi­cial­ly, there was not sup­posed to have been enough fis­sion­able mate­r­i­al avail­able for a 1944 test. Relate to us what your inves­ti­ga­tion even­tu­al­ly uncov­ered.” Peter: Upon pen­e­trat­ing the offi­cial posi­tion that there was not enough U‑235 avail­able for a test of a weapon pri­or to the 1945 Trin­i­ty explo­sion, Peter obtained doc­u­men­ta­tion that, in fact, enough mate­r­i­al was avail­able.

6. Dave: “You dis­cov­ered that there was a tremen­dous amount of inter­est in the [sup­pos­ed­ly con­ven­tion­al] Port Chica­go explo­sion on the part of the Los Alam­os Lab­o­ra­to­ry. Tell us about that, and the back­ground of Cap­tain William Par­sons, who wrote the study. Peter: Peter relates that there was a tremen­dous amount of inter­est in the explo­sion on the part of the Los Alam­os Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry, and that the inves­ti­ga­tion was super­vised by Cap­tain William Par­sons, an expert in the devel­op­ment of Naval guns. (The Hiroshi­ma explo­sion involved the use of a mod­i­fied 5‑inch naval gun bar­rel, used to achieve crit­i­cal mass by fir­ing a pro­jec­tile of U‑235 into the main con­cen­tra­tion of the fis­sion­able load.) Par­sons was the bomb­ing offi­cer on board the Eno­la Gay, the B‑29 bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshi­ma. Lat­er, Par­sons super­vised the Oper­a­tions Cross­roads tests con­duct­ed around Biki­ni Atoll.

7. Dave: “A crit­ic might raise the issue of resid­ual radi­a­tion and what that might deter­mi­na­tion that would have for your asser­tion about the Port Chica­go explo­sion being a Nuke. How would you address that issue?” Peter: After not­ing that the Port Chica­go explo­sion was rel­a­tive­ly low-yield and that the blast was atten­u­at­ed by the hull of the E.A. Bryan, Peter notes that the back­ground radi­a­tion lev­el would have returned to nor­mal with­in a rel­a­tive­ly short time after the explo­sion. Chap­ter 16 of the book deals with this issue.

8. Dave: “Tell us about the Mark II—What was the full name of this device and how did it dif­fer from the Marks I and II.” Peter: He notes that the Mark II car­ried the lengthy name of “auto­cat­alyt­ic ura­ni­um hydride lat­er­al implo­sion exper­i­men­tal device.” In addi­tion, Peter notes that the Mark I was the “Gun” device used on Hiroshi­ma and that the Mark III was the device used on Nagasa­ki. The Mark II test­ed at Port Chica­go had a rel­a­tive­ly low yield of explo­sion 2–3 hun­dred tons. Robert Oppen­heimer had pro­ject­ed the devel­op­ment of such a weapon in 1939.

9. Dave: “Let’s turn to some of the key doc­u­ments you uncov­ered dur­ing your inves­ti­ga­tion. Tell us about a 7/4/1944 mem­o­ran­dum writ­ten by Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Pres­i­dent James Conant

to Gen­er­al Groves.” Peter: This mem­o­ran­dum projects that the Mark II should be ready for oper­a­tional use and indi­cates a pro­vi­sion­al intent to proof-fire the Mark II, oblig­a­tory if Mark II were to be vouched fea­si­ble for oper­a­tional use.

10. Dave: “Anoth­er doc­u­ment dis­cussed in Chap­ter 13 of your book con­cerns a con­ver­sa­tion that occurred just hours before the Port Chica­go explo­sion. Tell us about that con­ver­sa­tion and its sig­nif­i­cance.” Peter: Relates the dis­cus­sion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go in which Conant urges Oppen­heimer to test the Mark II as soon as pos­si­ble. In this con­ver­sa­tion, it is stat­ed that, if suc­cess­ful, the Mark II could be “put on the shelf” and work on the more pow­er­ful weapons could be accel­er­at­ed. This con­ver­sa­tion estab­lish­es explic­it intent to proof fire the Mark II.

11. Dave: “Yet anoth­er doc­u­ment repro­duced in chap­ter 13 of your book is a ‘Report to Gen­er­al Groves on Vis­it to Los Alam­os on August 17, 1944.’ This informs the gen­er­al of a deci­sion tak­en at Los Alam­os. Tell us about that deci­sion and its sig­nif­i­cance.” Peter: This con­ver­sa­tion relates a deci­sion to put the Mark II on the shelf, after which it could be read­ied for oper­a­tional use in 3–4 months’ time. The sig­nif­i­cance of this deci­sion lies in the fact that it indi­cates (in light of the pre­vi­ous doc­u­men­ta­tion) that the Mark II was suc­cess­ful­ly test-fired. In addi­tion, there is dis­cus­sion of pos­si­bly improv­ing the Mark II if the explo­sive-lens devel­op­ment goes bad­ly. (These explo­sive lens­es were inte­gral to the devel­op­ment of the Mark III.)

12. Dave: “The August 17 mem­o­ran­dum also con­tained some spe­cif­ic dis­cus­sion of dam­age radii. Explain the “Class B” dam­age dis­cus­sion and its sig­nif­i­cance.” Peter: In this dis­cus­sion, it is agreed that the B‑level dam­age radius—damage beyond repair—for Port Chica­go is .75 miles. Again, this infor­ma­tion con­firms the nature of the Port Chica­go explosion—a test of the Mark II.

13. Dave: “Tell us how the Port Chica­go test—with 2–3 hun­dred tons TNT equiv­a­lent from the Mark II plus the con­ven­tion­al ordinance—anticipated the opti­mal air-burst effec­tive­ness of the Mark II.” Peter: He relates that the com­bined explo­sive equiv­a­lent of the Mark II and the con­ven­tion­al ordi­nance approx­i­mat­ed the dam­age pro­duced by the 1,000 tons equiv­a­lent of TNT of an opti­mal Mark II air burst.

14. Dave: “Short­ly after the Port Chica­go explo­sion, the nature of the work at Los Alam­os shift­ed in a sig­nif­i­cant way. Explain the change in the nature of the lab’s work.” Peter: Peter relates that the work at Los Alam­os shift­ed to devel­op­ing the explo­sive lens tech­nol­o­gy that would be used in the Fat-Man (Nagasa­ki) weapon. He notes that the devel­op­ment of the explo­sive lens­es also fig­ured in the pro­ject­ed devel­op­ment of the H‑bomb.

15. Dave: “What was the S‑1 Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee and what did they have to say about Ger­man atom­ic research?” Peter: This was a group that pre­ced­ed the for­mal estab­lish­ment of the Man­hat­tan project. It pro­ject­ed that Ger­many might have a Ura­ni­um hydride weapon avail­able for oper­a­tional use by mid-1944. This would have made the devel­op­ment and test­ing of the Mark II all the more imper­a­tive.

16. Dave: “In your book you dis­close that Sovi­et espi­onage into the Amer­i­can atom­ic research pro­gram had unearthed infor­ma­tion about a ura­ni­um hydride weapon. Tell us about Igor Kur­cha­tov and his spec­u­la­tion about the progress of U.S. research.” Peter: Kur­cha­tov was in charge of review­ing infor­ma­tion about atom­ic espi­onage for Sovi­et espi­onage chief Lavren­ti Beria. He had infor­ma­tion in ear­ly 1945 that the U.S. appeared to have devel­oped and test­ed a Ura­ni­um hydride weapon. Peter relates that he has­n’t seen any clue as to the iden­ti­ty of the Amer­i­can spy who pro­vid­ed the infor­ma­tion about the Mark II to the Sovi­ets.

17. Dave: “In a pure­ly spec­u­la­tive mode, Peter, do you think the Kur­cha­tov obser­va­tions and the Mark II explo­sion at Port Chica­go bear in any way on the issue of Robert Oppen­heimer hav­ing his secu­ri­ty clear­ance lift­ed?” Peter: He spec­u­lates that Oppen­heimer may have been both­ered by the deaths of 320 sailors and that this may have been a fac­tor in Oppen­heimer’s impeach­ment dur­ing the McCarthy peri­od. Obvi­ous­ly, any pub­lic dis­cus­sion of Port Chica­go might have become a major pro­pa­gan­da foot­ball dur­ing the Cold War. Inter­est­ing­ly, Cap­tain Par­sons died of a mas­sive heart attack the day after Oppen­heimer lost his secu­ri­ty clear­ance. Peter con­cludes the dis­cus­sion by not­ing that he has called for a rever­sal of the con­vic­tions of the Port Chica­go “muti­neers.” In addi­tion, he notes that there has been some media inter­est by major out­lets in the U.S. and Britain. It remains to be seen if they bring the pro­ject­ed cov­er­age of the Port Chica­go explo­sion to fruition.

18. Be sure to read Peter’s on-line book The Last Wave from Port Chica­go [4].