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 .
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 .