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Monday, December 1, 2014

The Belgian Connection

      Many of you out there that know your Second World War history know that the name of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan at Hiroshima was "Little Boy". This was one of two designs the famous Manhattan Project worked on.It was called the gun type which made it long but skinny.  The other designs detonated where of the implosion-explosian type called Trinity and Fat Man. They were more complicated but more efficient. What you may not know is just where we got all the uranium for those early bombs from. The story is interesting.

     When war broke out in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, the world watched the failure of appeasement as Hitler swallowed up Poland. The invasion of that sovereign state by the Germans brought declarations of war from Britain and France. It was only a matter of time before the war came to the western front. Along the French-German frontier lay the Maginot Line. A series of heavily armed defensive forts that in the French mind would deter or repel an invasion force. However, further north the small country of Belgium lay between the two European juggernauts. Belgium had been invaded by the Germans just a couple decades before in the Great War and many Belgians worried that due to its position geographically, war would come through Belgium again.

     Knowing what might happen and fearing a German occupation many within the Belgium government and businesses did what they could to prepare for a possible German occupation. Fearing key assets might fall into German hands some business managers sought to ship materials out of the country rather than have them fall into Nazi hands. One of these men was named Edgar Sengier. He was in charge of the Belgian mining conglomerate UMHK in the Belgian Congo. This mine had been a major producer of certain radioactive materials used in commercial glassware, ceramics, and illuminated dials. However, the 1930's had been witness to leaps and bounds in the area of atomic physics and the idea of weaponizing certain radioactive materials was out there. The Germans were among the forefront in 1939 in this area. Sengier immediately had all stockpiled materials shipped away to a neutral location...a warehouse in New York City.

     When Spring of 1940 came the German Juggernaut did not crash into the French Maginot Line. Instead it went through Belgium and the Netherlands, effectively bypassing the French fortifications. As had happened in the previous war, the Belgians found themselves under German occupation. And as feared, key industries and materials were hijacked by the occupying force. However, quietly for nearly two years, massive quantities of Uranium and Radium were sitting relatively unprotected in a New York warehouse. No one inquired about them until 1942.

     At the end of 1941, the USA became an active combatant in the war against the Axis powers after the brutal attack at Pearl Harbor. Shortly after President Roosevelt, having received council from many leading scientists in the USA such as Albert Einstein(a refugee from Hitler since 1933), decided to start the secret Manhattan Project. The Germans were known to be working on a bomb under the famed physicist Werner Heisenberg and fear of a Nazi A-bomb made the American project a top priority. However, the USA did not have enough mined uranium to conduct the experiments and build the bombs. There was simply not enough time to dig for and enrich the uranium if the Germans were to be beat in the A bomb race so the American government looked everywhere for a stockpile.Through back channels and dark alley meetings reminiscent of a spy movie, U.S. agents were made aware of the nearly 30,000 TONS of uranium hidden away in a New York City warehouse. Even the Belgian government in exile did not know where it was. The U.S.  Manhattan Project secretly bought it all and sent detachments of army engineers to the Congo to mine more and safeguard the supply. In total about 100 million dollars of the Manhattan Project funding was spent on securing Belgian uranium. Nearly 70 percent of the uranium used in the project was from that Belgian source that one man decided to hide from the Germans several years before in worn down warehouse in one of the most populated metropolitan areas in North America and a hotbed for Nazi spy activity.


Edgar Sengier. He was awarded a medal by the US government after the war for his help.

The train depot at the Belgian Uranium mine in the Congo.

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