The Manhattan Project

George Mahfouz's Interview

Printer-friendly version
George Mahfouz became involved in the Manhattan Project first in Decatur, Illinois building gaseous diffusion tubes for the K-25 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Later, Mr. Mahfouz was involved in the Dayton Project, working on the process to make the trigger for the atomic bomb.
Interviewee: 
Date of Interview: 
June 18, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Collections: 
Atomic Heritage Foundation
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Transcript: 

Cynthia Kelly: Why don’t you start, George, by telling us your name and spelling it.

George Mahfouz: I’m George Mahfouz, last name is spelled M-A-H-F-, as in Frank, -O-U-Z, as in zebra.

Kelly: Is that Egyptian? 

Mahfouz: It’s Middle Eastern. The name is Syrian. 

Kelly: Anyways, sorry, next question—tell us about your background, you know, where you went to college...

Mahfouz: After I graduated from the University of Iowa, I was hired by U.S. Rubber to work at the TNT plant that was being built in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. However, the plant was not anywhere near ready to be operated, so I, and probably about thirty other newly hired technical people, were sent up to the Naugatuck, Connecticut chemical plant, where we were distributed throughout the plant, if you will. 

We were under the leadership of the training manager, whatever that meant, and each week we would be assigned to a different area. They’d made a whole series of products, many of them, and so each week each one of us would be assigned to a different area. And no, we didn’t just sit around because we were guests, because every Monday morning, complete process review of everything that went on. A report was due on our training manager’s desk Monday morning, so we didn’t go out and party on Saturday night. Besides, if you knew anything about Naugatuck, Connecticut, there was no place to party, [laughter], because if you got hungry after 7:30 at night, you were in trouble.

Anyway—go ahead, I’m sorry. 

Kelly: No, go ahead.

Mahfouz: And then, Americans being very ingenious, once we got the plant started, somewhere along the line, there were a number of TNT plants all over the United States. And somewhere along the line, some ingenious individual decided that the two-hour time cycle didn’t need to be two hours. It could be shortened. And they shortened it to making a batch of TNT every forty-five minutes. A batch is 3,300 pounds. And so all of a sudden we had all these plants that were being built, or had been built, and/or were in operation. 

We had more capacity than we knew what we needed, because we were producing it faster than two times the needed amount. We only heard—but I don’t know who it was—a couple of plants were being shut down. Also, we had a twelve-line plant, twelve production lines, if you will. The orders came through after the line number—I think it was line number six—we’re not going to operate the others. So, I saw the handwriting on the wall. And so I’m sitting there thinking about what am I going to do, because if they shut this plant down, then what?

A friend of mine, in the meantime, who had worked at the TNT plant, somehow—I don’t know how—but he’d gotten a job in Decatur, Illinois. And we were in communication, so I wrote and told him. In those days, we didn’t have computers, you know, and all that good stuff. We had paper and pen and stamps and U.S. Mail. 

So anyway, so I’d been writing to him and I told him that, you know, things didn’t look that good from a job standpoint. He wrote back and said, “Gee, they’re hiring like crazy here in Decatur, but I can’t tell you what we’re doing. Would you be interested in a job? Because they’re looking for technical people.” So I wrote back and said, “Yeah.” 

So he sent me all the paperwork, which was a ton, because included in this paperwork was all kinds of, “Where did you live?” And I didn’t know about the secrecy and any idea of the security-type requirements of what was going on in the Manhattan Project. So I filled it all out and I mailed it back in, and about a week later I was offered a job. So that’s how I got to Decatur, Illinois.

Okay, so in Decatur, a plant was being built to make tubes, gaseous diffusion tubes for K-25 here at Oak Ridge, but it was all in the development stage. A plant was being built and we didn’t even have a process yet that you could make a decent tube, if you will—this is a hollow tube, okay? And they were having an awful time because the process that they were working on was one that involved coating nickel on copper and taking some of the copper off. The nickel was a nickel compound and this was utilizing powder metallurgy technology at that time. I’m not sure what of the process is still classified—that, I have no knowledge, so that’s about as far as I’m going to go there. 

But there was a big panic, and the first day I got to work I was assigned to work for this one group leader in the plating lab. And he said, “What do you know about plating?” And I said, “Nothing.” So he hands me a book and says, “When you get this done let me know, but I want to know that you’ve read it by Friday.” And then I was assigned to work in the plating lab. 

And somewhere along the line—I don’t remember how long I spent in the plating lab. And I did find out that, somehow or other, some of this kind of work, or a different type of work, was being carried on at Columbia University in the SAM Labs. SAM, I think, stood for Special Alloyed Materials. Another secrecy, you know, classification problem. And a number of approaches were being used—well, one that would finally work. 

And all the equipment that had been designed and built for what I call the copper-nickel process—that may not be the right title, by the way—that was all stripped out of the production plant, and, utilizing a powdered nickel and that process, that was being put into the production plant. Not in total—there were other subsequent operations to that. 

And so at that point, once they got that process installed and working, they did not need any more plating development, so I was assigned to the testing department, in which, now, you made these tubes and every single tube had to be tested individually. It was numbered and its total history was recorded all the way from day one. 

And so I had a crew on the production floor—all women, by the way—who were doing this testing routinely. And all that data was being fed to a statistical analysis group up in the office areas. And I did that until pretty much, well, after the atomic bomb dropped in August. And the plant was still—we were still producing porous nickel tubes to be sent here to Oak Ridge. That’s not quite totally accurate. The tubes were sent to Detroit, where Chrysler Corporation put them into what I call a tube bundle—and that looks like a heat exchanger, a chemical process heat exchanger. And then that was sent here to K-25 at Oak Ridge.

But at that time I didn’t even know anything about Oak Ridge. Matter of fact, I didn’t know anything about any of the other sites. Security was the word of the day.  Nobody, as far as I know that I worked with, knew about any other place. The only thing we knew about was the SAM Labs at Columbia University. That was the only other site I was aware of. All this other stuff—all secret stuff. And you didn’t ask questions, either. 

And so, after they dropped those two bombs in August and Japan surrendered and all that, there were a lot of labor problems in the United States. Whatever the rate hour—I think the hourly rate was somewhere around a dollar. General Motors—the automotive industry wanted a twenty-five cent or fifty cent increase in hourly rate. The automotive companies refused to go along with it. They went on strike and shut the country down. Everybody went on strike. Everybody wanted an increase in rate, including the production people at Houdaille-Hershey in Decatur. 

And that went on probably two or three weeks, and then the word came in from Washington: “Hey, we got all the diffusion barrier we need. Close the plant.” So they shut the plant down. 

I was lucky enough to be one of the people that was then assigned to write up all the operating procedures, to update them to where they ought to be, because we were making tubes and testing them. We weren’t worried about how did you do it and what did you do. There were procedures, but we didn’t keep them up. So I did that ‘til December.

[Tape change.]

Mahfouz: We need a little two-minute introduction to get to that point because Monsanto’s involvement started before the Playhouse. You can edit anything you want anyway, after we finish. You have that authority—you get the tape, right? 

Cameraman: Rolling. Okay. 

Mahfouz: Now? Okay. In early ’43, Charlie Thomas, who was Director of Monsanto’s Central Research Department in Dayton, was called to Washington and he was—by General Groves, he went to see Groves. There, he saw Dr. Conant Bryant [James Bryant Conant], previous president of Harvard University, both of whom had different groups in the National Research Defense Council in Washington. And there’s more ahead of that, but anyway. 

So when Charlie got to Groves’ office, he saw Conant. Groves told him, “Hey, we’re building an atomic weapon,” after they swore him to secrecy, “and we want to get you involved, you and Monsanto involved. We need your knowledge.” And so they talked—they meaning Conant and Charlie Thomas—talked for about the next four or five days.

To shorten the story, he was sent to Oak Ridge along with Conant, and out there they met Oppenheimer and they talked for a while about that. And then it was decided that Charlie Thomas should be co-director with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Charlie Thomas couldn’t take over that, because that meant uprooting his family, moving. He had responsibilities because he was director of the Dayton research lab for the entire corporation. 

Well, anyway, they reached a compromise. He could stay in Dayton, but then he asked if he could take over heading up the research on plutonium chemistry. And that work was being carried on by the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and the University of California. So he checks back with St. Louis, with Edgar Queeny, who was the president of Monsanto. They said yes. Charlie now has accepted that responsibility. 

Subsequent to that time, the need for polonium was established. Nothing was known about polonium. We need someone to research and develop something about it because, at that point in time, the amount of polonium available in the world was next to nothing. There was no material, no knowledge of its chemical, physical, or any other properties. And so that responsibility was—they asked Charlie Thomas. Obviously, he checks back with corporate, Edgar Queeny, the president of Monsanto. The word is, you know, “Hey, this is for the war effort. Go!”

Kelly: Can you just explain what polonium is?

Mahfouz: Polonium is a radioactive, alpha-emitter, radioactive material—it’s an alpha-emitter. It’s a metal. When polonium is in contact with beryllium, neutrons by the bazillions are the result of this interaction between the polonium and the beryllium. You need all the neutrons because if you don’t have any neutrons, there’s no bomb. It’s the trigger for the bomb, actually, in simple English. 

Kelly: Polonium is a man-made element?

Mahfouz: Yeah. Polonium—well, it occurs naturally, but you’ve got tons and tons of pitch blend, or some equivalent product, and it has to be extracted. You have to process tons to get practically no material out of it—I mean less than a milligram. And you need more than that to make lots of initiators. So you have to get a lot of it made. 

Okay, now, that can be done and is done, or had been done—since I haven’t been working in that business for twenty years, I don’t know what’s going on. But the way they get polonium, or had gotten polonium then, they took bismuth, encased, of course, in aluminum because bismuth is very friable. It fractures just looking at it, practically, which you can’t do by putting a bismuth slug into a nuclear reactor. It’s encased in aluminum, and then that bismuth slug is irradiated with neutrons, again, in a reactor. 

The bismuth is then converted, byproduct of that is polonium-210, a very small fraction. And then that slug is then—that whole process, by the way, was developed in Dayton by Monsanto. They developed the process between Nicholas Road, which was essential research, and another unit, which was called Unit 3, which was an old seminary building [Bonebrake Seminary] that Monsanto rented, refurbished in its entirety, put in labs, hired people to do the R & D [Research and Development] work, because, as I said earlier, nothing is known about polonium. 

Eventually somewhere between—in time now, not too long, now, this all took place in a very short time. We need to keep one thing in mind: nothing started until ’43, relatively early in ’43. The bomb went off in ’45. I mean, that’s a miracle, for that kind of result when nothing was known of how to make a bomb work. 

In fact, when they fired the bomb at Alamogordo, they really weren’t sure it was going to work. They were sure it was going to work, but they really weren’t sure. They were kind of surprised, as probably we were, once we heard about it.

All right, so we needed more work after we had the R & D work that was going on at Bonebrake Seminary. If I’m confusing, just step in. Okay, so they needed more space. That was the R & D effort there. Once they established process and all that, they needed more room, so then they rented the Runnymede Playhouse, which had been a playhouse for the Talbott family. 

And the way they found out—the way Charlie Thomas knew about that, his wife was the daughter of Mrs. Talbott. She was a Talbott. And, of course, the Playhouse was not being used much during the war anyway because a lot of the Talbott family people no longer lived in Dayton. Now, they were not the only ones that enjoyed the Playhouse. Mrs. Talbott used to invite theatrical groups from New York, wherever, entertain her friends there because the Playhouse had a big stage. 

It was big enough that it had a tennis court, a full-size tennis court inside, squash courts. It was a complex; it wasn’t just a small playhouse. I don’t remember the dimensions, but it seemed to me it was—you got them there? Oh wait, you don’t know where they’re at. Anyway, it was a big, big building. It was a monster building, which had grown over the years. 

But anyway, that was leased to the government, and, of course, since it had a tennis court and all that, the entire building was essentially a big shell. Then partitions were put in there, heating, ventilating equipment was put in there. Labs were installed. And, you know, a production facility was installed there. The production methods had been developed again, primarily, and upgraded really, by the technical people at Unit 3, the Bonebrake Seminary. And that process was then put into practice at Unit 4, at Runnymede. 

Now there’s a gap because we called the Central Research Department for Monsanto Unit 1. Unit 3 is the Seminary. Unit 4 is the Playhouse. The question is, what happens to number two? Well number two had no part in the Manhattan Project. It was a separate contract by the Air Force with Monsanto. That work was done in Dayton, or outside of Dayton city limits, and had no part in this thing. But for Monsanto records, it was 1, 2, 3, 4.

And then polonium was then processed at Unit 4, at the Runnymede Playhouse. And that went on until after, well—let me back up a minute. We’re in the process of making polonium. We’re making “urchins,” or triggers, of polonium-beryllium, because you have to have the beryllium—did I mention that earlier? Okay, so now this is a temporary situation. The Manhattan Project, the military, whomsoever, says, “Hey, we can’t have that, we need a permanent site.” 

So they looked around for a site and they found the real estate in Miamisburg, Ohio, which was ten miles away, out from Dayton proper. And Miamisburg was a small town of about 14,000 people, plenty of real estate. Another reason for locating it there, there was everything they needed—a lot of water, a lot of power, a lot of labor. That’s all they needed to put a Unit 5. So they built Unit 5, which was Mound Lab. The reason it was called Mound is, across the street from Mound Lab is an old, conical Indian mound—burial ground. That’s where the “mound” comes from. And we built seventeen buildings in Miamisburg. We had about 200 acres. 

And the main building, the production building, called the “T” building—which stood for “technical”—was really built in the side of a hill. And it was to be bombproof and resist a 2,000-pound penetrating bomb because they wanted to be absolutely sure that production could continue in the “T” building. 

Now, there was a lot of other buildings—there were sixteen other buildings. There was a research building, there was a biology building, in which they had to carry out research because no one knew anything about the effect of polonium on the body. So that work had to be carried out. So we had a biology department that did that kind of work. Then the other buildings, you know, administration, cafeteria, garage, shops, administration, and the rest of that type of stuff. 

Now, the production work started in the “T” building in making initiators. Once that started, and it was ongoing, they then shut down everything at Runnymede. So we now have two buildings that are essentially abandoned, or material has been hauled to Unit 5 or Mound, one of which is Runnymede. The other one is Bonebrake Seminary, or Unit 3. 

And I was lucky enough to be called in to my superintendent of engineering’s office one day and he said, “We’ve got a new assignment for you.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he says, “You’re going to clean up whatever can be moved out of Units 3 and 4 and you’ve got twenty-seven people that are ready to go to work.” I said, “What procedures do we use?” He said, “I have no idea. You work it out.” Which we did. But I didn’t do it all myself. 

We had a young man—unfortunately I don’t remember his name. He was a health physicist and he was really a bright guy. He deserves—as to how we did it and what we did—he deserves, really, most of the credit. And so we—the equipment that could be cleaned up—now all the clean equipment, new equipment and all that, that had already been sent down to Mound. Clean equipment means it was non-radioactive. It was not contaminated. 

Okay, so now we have contaminated equipment. Now, you can decontaminate some things by just plain soap and water. If that doesn’t do it, you then go to Clorox. If that doesn’t do it, the procedure then that we had was, you go to dilute hydrochloric acid, which was the procedure they went through to clean our hands, by the way, in the process area when they got contaminated. 

You couldn’t leave Unit 4 and go home unless your hands were zero. And the health physics guy stood there while you checked. This was not on the honor system. They wanted to make sure that your hands were clean and nothing would happen. And we did. That’s how you got your hands clean. Soap and water and you check. Still contaminated? Clorox. Multiple washings, or rinsings, or whatever you want to call it. And if that didn’t clean it up, then you began using dilute—I think it was 3 normal, I’m not sure now, it was too far back—hydrochloric acid. And sometimes you scrubbed until your knuckles bled. And they did. But when you went home your hands were clean.

They were worried about the family, stuff offsite. And along that line, the health physics people monitored the entire surrounding area, both water and air, on a continuous basis, even as far away, I believe, as seventy-five-mile radius around Runnymede, to make sure there was no contamination anywhere. That was insurance for, I’m not sure what, but anyway, they needed to know that. Are we far enough with Runnymede or do you want to talk about…? 

Kelly: Yeah, that’s good. What about… So to ask the question: why should Dayton be remembered in the Manhattan Project?

Mahfouz: Okay, Dayton is remembered in the Manhattan Project because, quite simply, if we didn’t work out the process to make the trigger—now, the fundamental process was worked out at Los Alamos by the Los Alamos people. They did the fundamental stuff. But okay, now that’s the making of the trigger, but the process and everything thereafter, we did in Dayton. And that work, the processing and everything that we did, was kept classified until July of 1983. No one knew what we did. The entire complex did not know what we did. 

And when all the contributions to the nuclear program weapons systems—by all the rest of the world, if you will, and the United States of course—all their work were broadcast and all kinds of awards were given to the senior management, the technical staff, not because they weren’t in it, but anyway, there was recognition. No one even knew we existed. And again, no trigger, no bomb. Just that simple.

[End.]