Chapter 54 – Start of a Project – September 1942
Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves Jr. took charge of the Manhattan Project in September of 1942. The Manhattan Project was the highly classified project created to not only develop the atomic bomb but also to win the race to become the first of the Second World War protagonists to do so. Groves had been selected because he had proven to be a person of iron will with an imposing personality who knew how to get things done. He was a larger-than-life figure, a little overweight, a mustache on his top lip that could probably be best described as a stubble.
The whole Manhattan Project was a massive endeavor, involving as many as 130,000 people at various locations throughout the United States. Groves oversaw all the project’s phases, including scientific, technical and process development; construction; security and military intelligence of enemy activities. Groves was involved in most aspects of the project’s development and participated in the selection of the sites for research and production. In fact, the day after he took over the project, Groves took a train to Tennessee to inspect a potential site at Oak Ridge, he was impressed, noting especially that the Clinch river ran through the location. The Oak Ridge site was being earmarked to produce the plutonium which was to be an essential component for the manufacture of the atomic bomb. The bomb itself was to be made and tested in Los Alamos, Nevada.
Naturally, the plutonium would have to be transported from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos. Obviously, rail, air, and road were the preferred modes of transportation but after further research Groves also discovered a potential water route that could be navigated between Oak Ridge and St. Louis which would be ideal if he ever wanted to transport plutonium on a water-going vessel.
The construction of the Oak Ridge factory to produce the plutonium began in February 1943 and the reactor was up and running by November of the same year. By early 1944 the factory had produced its first supply of plutonium and delivery to Los Alamos now had to be arranged. It was decided that small amounts of plutonium were to be shipped via several train trips to Los Alamos. But Groves, being security conscious, was only too aware of the possibility of sabotage. He wanted to build in some redundancy by arranging for a portion of the plutonium to be transported, first by boat to St. Louis, then by car and onwards to Los Alamos. To facilitate this, he needed military personnel with experience on the inland waterways system, especially the Mississippi. Groves ordered some staff members to scour naval records in search of a couple of matelots with any Mississippi tug-boat knowledge to be able to fulfill his plan. Groves’ plan was for two individuals to innocently sail a cabin cruiser along the Clinch River to the Tennessee River. Just south of the town of Grand River they would cross over to the Cumberland River that would then join the Ohio and eventually the Mississippi with their final destination being St. Louis. From there they would drive across country to Los Alamos. Naturally, it would have been much quicker to just drive to the Cumberland or the Ohio rivers and pick-up a boat there, but Groves felt that two guys on a cabin-cruiser sailing the long way around would be much more innocuous to any interested spies. After all, two playboy types with a fun boat, sailing part of the Great Loop in springtime would not be an unusual occurrence.
Groves would need a reliable resource to lead this secret project and after personally researching for a potential candidate, Groves settled on a Captain Edward Beardsley. Beardsley was one of the few Americans working for the British in the Special Operations Executive, carrying out covert operations across the English Channel. Beardsley participated in many missions behind enemy lines until he was injured escaping from the clutches of a German patrol that his group had encountered on the coast of France. He had returned to the states to recuperate and it was while he was there that his impeccable record attracted the attention of Lieutenant General Groves. Beardsley was an athletic specimen, just over six feet tall and was not only proficient in martial arts but was also an excellent marksman. Furthermore, his experience in subterfuge gleaned from the SOE missions made him a perfect candidate for Groves’ needs.
Groves shared the details of his plan with Beardsley, the only other man to know all the facts. Groves gave Beardsley a list of potential seamen and he was told to whittle the list down to two of them. They would need an appropriate boat, it would need to be racy but not enough to attract too much attention and it would need to be modified to safely accommodate a few grams of plutonium. In addition, the engine should be finely tuned and souped-up, just in case some extra horses should be required during the trip. Beardsley would be responsible for all the logistics of the project but most importantly, the selected seamen should never know what they were transporting.
Beardsley went to work. The chosen boat was a 1940 Chris Craft Double Stateroom cruiser and it would represent pure luxury for the two selected sailors who would be joining the team. But it had to be fitted with a hidden stainless-steel receptacle for carrying the plutonium, Beardsley had to consult with engineers to mitigate this issue. The receptacle, Beardsley had built at the Oak Ridge plant, but the difficulty was hiding it on the boat. One of the engineers solved that problem by suggesting a relatively new innovation, liquid fiberglass. A receptacle containing the plutonium could be fixed to the hull of the boat then a false bottom could be built over the existing hull and by injecting fiberglass into the vacuum, it would protect the receptacle. Unless the boat came out of the water, no one would ever know that it had a false hull. Beardsley also arranged to have a safe fixed into the boat for any personal documents the mariners may have and somewhere to put money for the trip.
With the boat organized, Beardsley’s next task was to select two seamen from the list given to him by Groves. It didn’t take long to determine that Clifford and Lawless were the appropriate candidates for the mission. Beardsley then set about making the necessary arrangements for their assignment to his project and for their transportation to Knoxville. The hotel rooms were booked and the whole subterfuge of changing them from seamen to civilians was arranged by him. Next was communications and he had just been informed of a brand-new radio system, the Joan-Eleanor system, that had been used successfully during flying missions in the European theatre. The security factor of the system was exactly what was needed for this project, unfortunately, it relied on a line-of-sight to aircraft flying overhead. Beardsley couldn’t have planes flying above the boat for 24 hours a day, nor during really bad weather, consequently, he reluctantly came up with two codes to be used on the marine radio. One would be used for an emergency, simply, ‘Halifax is in Canada’, the other for their arrival in St. Louis, ‘Cardinals are in town’. The drill was that the security system should be attempted first and if no acknowledgment was received, to resort to the marine radio.
With everything in place, Beardsley reported to Groves, who insisted on meeting the two men prior to their trip. After Beardsley drove the two men in the taxi to the boathouse and sent them on their way he had been kept abreast of their whereabouts by a succession of planes that had been tracking the boat until the day of the storm. As soon as he had received the emergency call from the seamen he drove down to the State Marina of Missouri to inspect the boat. Once he saw the tell-tale signs of the plutonium emanating from the bottom of the boat into the water, he knew the worst scenario had occurred. Beardsley contacted his superior and he was told to contain the situation.