In Memoriam: Monroe Messinger

In Memoriam: Monroe Messinger

A group of soldiers from the Special Engineering Detachment at Los Alamos. Messinger is pictured at the far right.

We are sad to report the passing of Manhattan Project veteran Monroe Messinger on August 2, 2016, at the age of 94. 

Messinger was born in New Jersey and grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from the College of the City of New York. While in college, he joined the Army in the Enlisted Reserve in 1942 and was called up in 1943. After completing the Army Specialized Training Program in civil engineering and and surveying, he was promoted to staff sergeant and put in charge of a unit of men being sent somewhere in the West. As he and his men discovered, they were sent to Los Alamos and became the first unit of the Special Engineer Detachment (SED) at the site. The SED consisted of GIs possessing scientific and technical backgrounds. These GIs played important roles in the scientific and engineering research done at Los Alamos and other Manhattan Project sites.

In his memoirs, Messinger recalled that he eventually figured out what the goal of their work at Los Alamos was: "It took a while before any of us grasped the particular goal of the mission. While at first we were told we would be working on a 'development,' I knew enough science to be pretty certain that the heart of our mission was figuring out how to release energy from the atom for the purpose of creating a weapon."

Messinger attended some of the talks given by Los Alamos laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer and other leading scientists. He was assigned to a lab group focused on crafting high explosive charges for the plutonium gun-type bomb. After working in George Kistiakowsky's Explosives Division for some time, he was transferred to the group preparing high-speed photography equipment for the Trinity test.

Messinger remembered his awe at witnessing the Trinity test: "There was a countdown and then an astonishing sequence of light and sound. The roar of the shock wave took 40 seconds to reach us. You know, I had been engaging in explosive activity for two years, yet all of that now seemed like no more than a children's game in comparison to the monumental power of the real thing."

While Messinger spent most of his time working hard, he also found time to go horseback riding on his horse, Silver, and to hike around the beautiful New Mexico mountains and countryside. But he and his colleagues stayed focused on their jobs. "My own commitment to doing what I could to help make the bomb was intensified by my perception of what was occurring across the oceans...We talked a great deal about what was happening in Europe and the Pacific, and the nightmarish reports coming back to us certainly added additional fuel to our motivation to finish our job."

After the war, he went on to a career as an analytical research director for Chesebrough-Ponds (now Unilever). He enjoyed traveling with his wife and riding motorcycles.