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Atomic patriot

Nathan Rodriguez
Kristin AndersonEagle resident Paul Numerof was stationed at Los Alamos during World War II, and played a key role in the Manhattan Project.
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As World War II raged, Dr. Paul Numerof was enlisted in the Army. After a few standardized tests, he was ordered to board a train, not knowing his destination or final purpose.

The next couple years of his life would be devoted to helping build an atomic bomb, while stationed at Los Alamos, N.M.

Today, his warm nature and easy smile break only when discussing how his sense of regret over dropping the bomb is no greater than his feelings over Pearl Harbor. He has since visited both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and while he enjoyed his visit and the people he met, he said he felt the Japanese government is whitewashing history by all but omitting Pearl Harbor from its history books.

The following is Numerof’s description, in his own words, of being a “participant in one of the seminal events in world history.”

I was in the Army. It was World War II, and after basic training I was sent to the University of Mississippi.

We were told there was a special Army program, and we could apply for it if we wished. The day after the test, I was ordered to report to the commanding officer. Immediately, I was defensive: “I haven’t done anything wrong! Why do they want to see me?”

So I went to go see him, and he said, “You know, you did very well on the exam.” He said, “Do you know how well you did?” And I said, “No, sir.” And then he said on the science part, I had the highest mark of anyone who’d taken the exam up until then. He said out of 138 problems, I got 136 of them right. And I wasn’t trying to be a smart aleck, but I said “Can I see the two that I missed?” …

I told them I had no interest in medicine … and that I wanted to go to M.I.T.

(Massachusetts Institute of Technology). … I had been there about five weeks, and they called about 40 or 50 of us in, and we were told to pack up, that we were shipping out. Where? We didn’t know. Nobody told us.

So we got on a train, and the train took us to Washington, D.C., and we also went to a place that I had never seen before, that I had never heard of, and it looked like a city under construction. I found out that it was Oak Ridge, Tenn. (one of the three main sites for the Manhattan Project). I was there for about four or five days, and every day we had a lecture on security. Every day. We wondered what was so important that we were getting these lectures every day, but nobody would tell us.

So one morning we were told that we would move out the next day. There must have been about 15 or 20 men, and we got on a train. Again, we didn’t know where we were being taken, but there was one thing they couldn’t keep from us, that they couldn’t take away, not even the Army, not even the United States Army ” they couldn’t stop the movement of the sun. I just looked at which way the sun was setting, and I knew we were heading west.

We had no idea where we were going, or for what purpose.

Before too long, we began to see signs that said, Santa Fe this, Santa Fe that, so I knew the general area we were in …

We were greeted by this wonderful, charming woman, who said, “Welcome to Los Alamos.”

The next day we had interviews …

He called me in, and he had a big, warm smile, and said “Sit down.” So I sat down, and we chatted for a while, and he said, “What do you think we’re doing here?”

I said, “I don’t know, we haven’t been briefed on it.”

He said, you know, take a guess, and asked me again.

I said, “Dr. Kennedy, we spent a week at Oak Ridge, with lectures every day on security, I don’t even know if I should tell you what I think is going on.”

He said, “Young man, I don’t think I can learn anything from you that I don’t already know about it.” And then he asked me again what I thought was going on.

So I said, “I think you’re trying to make an atom bomb.”

He leaned back in his chair and said, “What in the world ever gave you a ridiculous idea like that?”

I said, “Oh, come on, Dr. Kennedy,” and I told him I knew what was going on with nuclear fission, and in the hallway on my walk there, I told him I’d never seen so many containers of uranium in my whole life.

So he said, “That’s good analysis.”

Then he said, “Let me take a look at your records.” So he looked through them, and said, “You’re a pretty good student.”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

And so he said, “I see you’ve got two years of analytical chemistry ” that’s very unusual. Do you like it?”

And I said, “Of course, it’s my favorite subject.”

He asked me why, and I said because it felt like I was playing Sherlock Holmes.

He said, “I understand that,” and he said, “I have an opening, and you would fit that opening perfectly.”

He said they had a small chemistry group, and they needed someone to work in analytical chemistry … He made the call, and soon I met with the men who would be my colleagues for the next almost three years.

So I met everyone, and asked who my supervisor was, and what I was supposed to do. They said, “Oh, you’ll find out what to do as you go along; don’t worry about it.” …

Our job was to purify the uranium … and between me and the five other men, every piece of uranium that went into the Hiroshima bomb passed through our hands.

Nathan Rodriguez may be reached for comment at nrodriguez@vailtrail.com.

>> For Numerof’s complete story, his book “In August 1945” is available through Amazon.com.


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