The latest episode of Manhattan brings the story forward from June to December of 1944. We learn about the events of those six months through the eyes of Woodrow Lorentzen, the reporter who is writing the exclusive account of the project and is fixated on Frank Winter’s role in it. (Historian Alex Wellerstein has an excellent blog post on Lorentzen’s real-life counterpart, New York Times reporter William Laurence). As Los Alamos prepares for its New Year’s festivities, Lorentzen interviews our characters about what has happened since Frank’s return to the Hill.
The previous episode left off with Frank informing Charlie that the Army lied to the scientists about the state of the German atomic bomb project. But Charlie is unmoved. “The Gadget is an inevitability,” he tells Frank, who is then arrested again and brought to face Colonel Darrow.
Darrow gives Frank two options: return to prison in Texas because he revealed classified information to Charlie, or enlist in the Army as a private. Frank chooses the second. But rather than send him to the front, Darrow curiously decides to keep him at Los Alamos. Lorentzen dubs Frank the “best-educated grunt in the history of the U.S. military.”
After a quick goodbye to Liza – who he is now forbidden from seeing – Frank reports to barracks. He develops a bond with Private Dunlavey, who remains smitten with Callie. But after Frank secretly visits Liza, Colonel Darrow sends Dunlavey to Saipan, on the front lines of the war in the Pacific. (After it was captured by the U.S., Saipan’s neighboring island, Tinian, served as the launching point for B-29 raids on Japan and the atomic bombing missions.) Frank gives the young man his cigarette lighter for good luck.
Frank, of course, soon involves himself in the atomic bomb project once more. Charlie, Fritz, and Jim discover this when they arrive at the Trinity test site to find Frank assisting the Russian explosives expert, Lazar. “Explosives, whiskey. Just like old times!” Lazar exclaims.
Frank then saves the day when the group has an Old West-style confrontation with local ranchers, who have refused to hand over their property to the government. Frank persuades the ranchers to accept the government’s takeover, but fight for more money in court by claiming their land has oil and silver: “The feds don't have time to spend in court debating mineral rights. What they have is money. A tap that never runs dry.”
During the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government ordered thousands of people in New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington State to leave their lands and homes. The government issued compensation, but many people (like the ranchers on the show) considered the amount insufficient. For example, Annette Heriford’s family was offered twenty-five cents an acre for their property at Hanford, WA. The “price offered…was ridiculous. Ridiculous!” Heriford remembered.
People displaced by the Manhattan Project had a range of emotions, from anger to acceptance that their land was needed for the war effort. “It was a terrible shock,” Heriford recalled. “I cannot describe it. It was unbelievable. The only thing that made it credible to us was because of the war, and our town was chosen for the war effort…although we could go along with that idea, it was still a terrible blow.”
“I was not able to conceive the bitterness that both my parents had to have to leave here,” remembered Ludwig Bruggemann, who was five years old when his family was forced to leave their farm in White Bluffs, WA. You can view the eviction order Ludwig’s father received here.
At Hanford, the government also displaced the local Native American tribes, including the Wanapum tribe. “[The Wanapum] didn't know what to think or what to feel, because they didn't understand why they were going to have to leave,” described Rex Buck, who grew up near the Hanford Site. You can learn more about the evictions at Hanford and their impact on the “Hanford’s Pioneers” tour on AHF’s “Ranger in Your Pocket” website.
Frank’s meddling infuriates Charlie, who bans Frank from the Tech Area. But unsurprisingly, Frank finds his way in anyway. On one visit, he comes across Paul Crosley, who as the gun group’s liaison to the Manhattan Project site at Oak Ridge, TN, is trying to resolve the “uranium problem” – how to separate out and purify enough uranium to build the “Little Boy” uranium bomb.
Separating enough fissile uranium-235 from its more abundant relative, uranium-238, was a difficult task for the Manhattan Project’s scientists. “It looked like a terrible, terrible job,” remembered physicist Philip Abelson, whose thermal diffusion process was used in the S-50 Plant at Oak Ridge. “It was a job like nothing that had been done before.”
As the show depicts, the scientists looked at several different ways to enrich enough uranium for the bomb, including electromagnetic separation, gaseous diffusion, and thermal diffusion. To ensure that enough enriched uranium was produced, project director General Leslie Groves ordered that all three methods be employed in different production plants at Oak Ridge. The Y-12 plant used electromagnetic separation; the K-25 plant, gaseous diffusion; and the S-50 plant, thermal diffusion.
As Frank secretly ponders the uranium problem, we learn that Abby has suffered a miscarriage. She asks Liza if radiation could have been the cause. “I'm not saying that the work on the Hill has no effect on pregnancy. I'm just saying we have no evidence,” Liza replies, in an interesting contrast with her fears from last season.
Lilli Hornig was a plutonium chemist on the Manhattan Project. She was assigned to another group after scientists feared that plutonium could cause “reproductive damage.” “I tried delicately to point out that they might be more susceptible than I was,” Hornig remembered. “That didn’t go over well.”
Meanwhile, the sleazy William Hogarth cajoles Paul into passing information to help Britain develop its own nuclear program. “Britain needs a future. You need a future,” Hogarth says. He claims his daughter, Lucy, is willing to reconcile with Paul, and shows him a photograph of his son, Hogarth’s grandson – “your little boy.” The uranium bomb now has a name. (On the real Manhattan Project, engineer and physicist Robert Serber was responsible for giving the bombs code names; “Little Boy” is supposedly named after a character in the movie The Maltese Falcon).
As the episode concludes, Lorentzen reads aloud his account of the project to Liza. Frank comes in with tragic news: he has received a package with a letter and the lighter he gave Dunlavey. Dunlavey has been killed in the Pacific. As the Winters mourn, the clock strikes midnight and Los Alamos celebrates 1945. The Trinity test is seven months away.
In her grief, who will Abby turn to next? Why does Jim look so morose at the New Year’s celebration? And what exactly is Frank’s role in the project now? We will review the next episode of Manhattan next week!
For more information about the history of the Manhattan Project, check out our online store, which includes “A Guide to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico” and our bestselling anthology, “The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians.”