World Stamps

What newly surfaced atomic bomb postal history teaches us

Dec 26, 2016, 2 PM

By Ken Lawrence

Since the publication of my two-part Spotlight on Philately column (published online Sept. 1 and Sept. 28), new information about the history and the postal history of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb have come to light, and several significant previously unreported cards, letters, and covers have appeared, some of them as a consequence of what I wrote. 

FAM 22 and Uranium Ore From the Belgian Congo

Albert Einstein’s Aug. 2, 1939, letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, which begat the American program to build an atomic bomb, advised the president about possible sources of uranium ore, the fissionable raw material needed to build nuclear weapons:

The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is in the Belgian Congo. …

[Liaison between the administration and nuclear physicists could] put forward recommendations for Government action, giving particular attention to the problem of securing a supply of uranium ore for the United States.

In the 75 years since the Manhattan Project began, details surrounding uranium procurement and, of equal importance, denying Nazi Germany access to those supplies, have been shrouded in secrecy. A new book, Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II by Susan Williams, has lifted the shroud. 

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Williams, a senior fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, secured the release of classified British and American documents to confirm a story of importance to postal history and airmail collectors.

Among the most secret purposes of Pan American Airways’ Foreign Air Mail Route No. 22 (FAM 22) from Miami to the Belgian Congo — which began service on Dec. 6, 1941, one day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — was to provide a rapid, reliable transport route between the United States and the source of high-grade uranium ore, the Shinkolobwe mine operated by Union Miniere du Haut Katanga. The mine was located near Jadotville (Likasi today), about 90 miles northwest of Elisabethville (Lubumbashi today) in Katanga, the southernmost province of the Congo.

At first the FAM 22 route went only as far as Leopoldville (Kinshasa today) in the north, served by Boeing B-314A flying boats, with a terminal on the Congo River, because suitable aerodromes for large landplanes had not been built. But U.S. Army engineers constructed the required airfields at both Leopoldville and Elisabethville. The Air Transport Command then replaced the flying boat service with a landplane route that connected Accra, Gold Coast; Lagos, Nigeria; Leopoldville; Elisabethville; and Nairobi, Kenya.

In my January 2014 American Philatelist article “Via Miami 1941-1945: FAM 22 Trans-Atlantic Air Mail,” I quoted an April-June 1942 report by U.S. Army Air Force intelligence officer J.W.S. Foster:

You can make the flight from Nairobi to Elisabethville very comfortably in a DC-3. They are working on the aerodrome there now and it will be finished by the Fourth of July and will be an excellent field [with] very extensive underground gasoline facilities. . . .

At Leopoldville they were also putting in a concrete landing strip that is as good as you will find anywhere on the African Continent. They are working day and night there. That was the only project in Africa on which they were working 24 hours a day. The airport at Leopoldville will be finished on July 4th, too, and turned over to the United States Government to tie up at the same time as Elisabethville.

Williams found my article online at the American Philatelic Society’s website; she cited that report in her book (pages 8 and 279, footnote 39). According to the official ATC history, which I had accepted as accurate, the purpose of the Congo Route was to transport civilian mail and military personnel on furlough between Accra and Nairobi. Williams’ research disclosed that the true purpose concerned uranium for atomic bombs. When she asked me for additional references, I cited a document in the PAA archive at the University of Miami Richter Library, but she had already found it.

Uranium by Air from Katanga

Although most of the uranium ore was brought to America on cargo ships, Williams used that and other documents to pin down a fact that has been the subject of skeptical debate in Airpost Journal for many years: “Uranium for the Manhattan Project was also transported by air on the Pan American Airways Clipper service.” (page 7) 

Edwin Webb Martin, one of the American vice consuls in Leopoldville … discovered on his arrival in March 1944 that it was his special responsibility to organize the shipment of uranium to the USA. “Our particular work there, aside from the routine consular duties,” he explained some time afterwards, “was to expedite the shipment of raw materials, and particularly uranium. We used to ship uranium — that is we used to issue consular invoices for commercial shipments of uranium by air.” (page 26)

The Africa section of the American spy agency Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was headquartered at Accra. Pan Am and other businesses provided cover for OSS intelligence agents. Their mission, Williams wrote, was “to protect the export of uranium to the USA from the Shinkolobwe mine in the province of Katanga, in the south of the Congo, and to ensure that the uranium did not end up in enemy hands.” 

Read Ken Lawrence's Earlier Atomic Bomb Postal History Columns:

Manhattan ProjectHow postal history tells the story of the atomic bomb: The history of the atomic bomb began with Albert Einstein’s Aug. 2, 1939, letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Manhattan Project coverThe covers and letters that document atomic bomb’s design, assembly and testing: Undercover P.O. boxes, eyewitness accounts of bomb tests, and an Enola Gay gunner's letter home are all part of the amazing story.

She discovered that the United States consulate at Elisabethville was an OSS operation, both to secure the uranium for America and to thwart attempts to smuggle uranium out of the Congo to Angola and (via Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia) to Mozambique for shipment to Nazi Germany.

Williams wrote, “A commercial arm of Union Miniere was especially set up in New York to arrange for the transport of the ore. This was the African Metals Corporation, also known as Afrimet, which became the sole agent for the sale of Union Miniere products in the US.” (page 3) My collection includes a 1944 airmail cover from an African Metals executive in New York to his wife at Elisabethville, flown over FAM 22 trans-Atlantic and ATC trans-Africa routes.

Hanford, Washington, Covers

Hanford Engineer Works, which enclosed a huge tract in Washington State, was by area the largest component of the secret Manhattan Project facilities and the most remote from metropolitan centers. Facilities built and operated by E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. refined and transmuted uranium ore into fissionable plutonium, the essential component of all but one of the American atomic bombs detonated in the 1940s, including the one that demolished Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.

Wartime mail posted at Hanford is uncommon, but the people and the stories represented by those cards and letters make them more precious to collectors than their simple appearance might suggest. Irma Johnston, the sender of the illustrated Jan. 14, 1944, postcard, had been a teacher at nearby Prosser. At Hanford she taught children of construction workers, scientists, engineers, and military administrators of the secret facility.

Carol Athene Wentz was employed at Hanford by Du Pont. She sent the Jan. 10, 1944, airmail cover shown here to her fiance, Army Air Force Cpl. Clinton Parker Doriss, stationed at an airfield in Lincoln, Nebr. The two were married three weeks later while he was on furlough at Salt Lake City before being deployed overseas. By the time Mrs. Doriss mailed the May 1, 1944, letter, he was en route to his posting. APO 12853 was a temporary address for Army personnel in transit to India, forwarded to Headquarters Squadron, 80th Air Depot Group, at Karachi, backstamped there on arrival June 19.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Covers

Clinton Engineer Works at Oak Ridge, Tenn., which enriched uranium to extract the rare fissionable U-235 isotope from the preponderant U-238, was the most expensive component of the secret Manhattan Project facilities, at a cost of $1.19 billion, equivalent to about $18.9 billion in today’s money. 

Larry Nelson, a specialist in postal censorship, provided the image of his Official mail April 3, 1944, cover with metered airmail postage from the U.S. Engineer Office at Oak Ridge. It’s an outstanding example of postal history from the secret atomic city that had swollen in one year from a sparsely populated hinterland to become Tennessee’s fifth largest city. Nelson described and illustrated other interesting covers in his article titled “The MIT Radiation Lab and the Atomic Bomb” in the Fall 2013 issue of the Military Postal History Society Bulletin.

My collection includes an Aug. 23, 1944, war ballot card, an example of free airmail sent by a member of the U.S. Army’s Special Engineer Detachment, which consisted mostly of college-educated engineers and scientists. They augmented and eventually outnumbered the civilian academic personnel who had designed and implemented the technical methods of atomic bomb manufacture.

During World War II, Americans (unlike our Soviet allies) regarded combat as exclusively men’s work. On the home front, women moved into jobs that had been exclusive male preserves before the men shipped out to fight, but they seldom were welcomed into the workforce with equal pay and respect.

Even as men retained their dominance, gender imbalances jolted established dating and courtship conventions, while uncertainty of what the future would bring eroded the sanctity and permanence of marriage. Some consequences of those social upheavals can be measured by the content of letters between young women and men as they accepted their patriotic responsibilities and took their respective places in the war effort.

Soldiers’ Letters to Their Oak Ridge Sweetheart

In 1944, 19-year-old Pauline Perdue left college at Bowling Green, Ky., to take a job at Oak Ridge in the secret uranium processing center, where women outnumbered men 20 to one in a closed city with a population of about 75,000. The letters she received during the war and kept for the rest of her life document the disruption of traditional romantic rituals wrought by these unfamiliar imbalances.

Perdue corresponded with two of her high school beaux from Monticello, Ky., who were in the Army stationed overseas — Lt. Lewis D. Humble in Europe and S/Sgt. Jack L. Ragan in the Pacific — while she dated other men who worked in the atomic city. I have a bundle of her wartime letters that include 34 from Humble and 25 from Ragan in my collection of atomic bomb-related mail. Two are pictured above.

Ragan wrote the March 16, 1945, letter in his foxhole during the battle for Iwo Jima. His unit had landed Feb. 24 with the Marines on Red Beach. In a March 11 letter he had written, “The other night they dropped a few mortar shells right in our area and I don’t want to make any targets for tonite.” He wasn’t happy when Perdue wrote to him that a man with a mustache had kissed her on their night out, so he notified her that he had grown a mustache. 

Humble wrote to Perdue frequently as he fought in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany. He was wounded at Anzio, but returned to his unit and was among the first Americans who marched into Rome. Humble too was distressed that Perdue was seeing other men. In several letters he asked her to marry him and to bear his child (a boy, not a girl, he hoped). She did marry him after the war, but the marriage did not last.

The senders and recipients of letters I have quoted and illustrated in this series of articles are no longer living, so the only constraints on publication of intimate contents are matters of taste, decorum, and editorial style. However, collectors of World War II postal history should keep in mind that some of the people whose mail we read are still alive. Even though their letters are important documents of social and military history, the privacy rights of identified living individuals must be respected.

Fictional Murder at Oak Ridge; True Life Loss of an Oak Ridge Woman's Spouse Overseas

To grasp the gritty mood, rationed austerity, popular culture, and stresses of life in the sterile high-tech processing centers, muddy streets, ramshackle housing, and jammed dance halls at Oak Ridge during the war, I recommend reading a recent murder mystery, Scandal in the Secret City by Diane Fanning. Her protagonist Libby Clark is a made-for-Hollywood superhero (a brainy, glamorous, compassionate, vulnerable, morally conflicted chemist, physicist, and proto-feminist wracked by self-doubt) who solves crimes amid the bleak race to build atomic bombs before the Nazis could build theirs. The sequel Treason in the Secret City isn’t as good.

Mail from a secret Manhattan Project address to a foreign destination posed special security concerns, especially with respect to mail that might be routed through enemy territory. Mail to American prisoners of war was the usual example. By the time the Dec. 7, 1944, airmail cover was sent to the Red Cross at Geneva, Switzerland, it would have been transported through liberated areas of France with no opportunity for German censors to intercept it.

The sender was employed at the secret Oak Ridge facility, probably in a service position considering her residential street address in the town. Her husband, Pvt. Samuel E. Poore, had been captured by German forces at Saint-Lo, France, on Aug. 7 and died in captivity two days later. His widow might have been unaware of his death; she was probably seeking information about his fate.

Largest Building in the World

The secret city did not open its gates to outsiders until 1949, but pictures of the various administrative and processing centers became available as postcard views after August 1945. One that merits more attention than it ever received, shown here on a Nov. 29, 1948, card, is the K-25 building where uranium was enriched by the gaseous diffusion process.

At a cost of $512 million, K-25 was the most expensive facility at Oak Ridge. When it was built in 1944, it was the world’s largest building, with an area of 1.64 million square feet under one roof. Had it not been a closely guarded military secret, that fact alone would have made headlines around the world, and possibly merited postal commemoration. The mile-long building was demolished in 2013.

Besides the gaseous diffusion method, other Oak Ridge buildings enriched uranium by electromagnetic separation and liquid thermal diffusion. A centrifuge process had been tested but could not be perfected at that time. Physicists in Nazi Germany had planned to use a photochemical separation system, but the war ended before they had been able to conduct a successful fission chain reaction test.

Los Alamos, New Mexico, Covers

Scientists at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory designed, constructed, and tested the world’s first atomic bombs. Their residential and community life lacked many amenities, but Army planners strove to accommodate their religious, cultural, sports, educational, and entertainment needs and tastes.

Besides providing medical and psychological care, the Army staff of Bruns General Hospital at Santa Fe also organized Scouting activities and concerts for Los Alamos residents. The hospital chaplain, Maj. A. Morton Jenkins, sender of the July 12, 1943, postcard from the Army’s Santa Fe Unit 1 post office, provided pastoral services until separate ministries were established at Los Alamos in 1944.

Several previously unreported covers to the various Los Alamos undercover addresses have appeared since I wrote my September and October 2016 Linn’s Spotlight columns. PFC Monroe “Mike” Feder, addressee of the May 4, 1944, cover to P.O. Box 1663 Santa Fe was a member of the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos from 1943 to 1946. Later mail to him was probably addressed to the P.O. Box 180 address assigned to military technical personnel.

The book Los Alamos 1944-1947 by Toni Michnovicz Gibson and Jon Michnovitz includes a picture of the P.O. Box 1539 Santa Fe post office at Los Alamos as well as Box 180, contradicting what I wrote in my October 2016 article. Either Box 1539 was relocated from the Manhattan District office in downtown Santa Fe, or else it was expanded to handle mail to and from both locations, but the official history of the laboratory omitted that detail.

Regarding the scarcer undercover address, P.O. Box 527, in addition to a cover Les Winick owned and the one in my collection, both described in my October column, Wayne Youngblood reports that he now has three of them and John Hotchner reports a fourth. Those discoveries should encourage other collectors to search for more. 

Manhattan Project Collectors

My September column included a tribute to Florida collector Paul Filipkowski, who did more to promote the postal history of the atomic bomb than anyone else before or since, and who exhibited his collection in national competition in the 1980s. He was the man who introduced me to these interesting covers.

Filipkowski died tragically in 1991 at age 37 in an automobile accident. He had followed in the footsteps of philatelists who had been present at Los Alamos when the bomb was invented during World War II: Alan U. Hershey and Hans A. Bethe. Most World War II covers to and from Los Alamos in today’s collections were originally gathered by Filipkowski from others who had been involved there.

L.D. Mayo Jr. sold Filipkowski’s collection in his Feb. 26, 1993, public auction. It consisted of more than 800 covers divided into about 150 lots. Of those, non-philatelic covers to and from Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and the 509th Composite Group that flew the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing missions numbered approximately 80, lotted individually. Prices realized on those lots ranged from $70 to $650 plus a 10 percent buyer’s premium.

The most expensive lot (worth more than $10,000 today) was the Aug. 6, 1945, cover sent by Enola Gay tail gunner George Caron to his wife just before he left Tinian Island on the mission to bomb Hiroshima. The collector who wound up owning it was Stephen W. Ekstrom of Connecticut, a specialist in the 1941 set of Twin-engine Transport airmail stamps. Ekstrom died in June 2002 at age 49.

One might think of Filipkowski as the leader of the second generation of atomic bomb philatelists, which included Ekstrom, Richard W. Helbock, and Les Winick. Another airmail collector who built a significant collection of atomic bomb postal history was Robert B. Spooner of Pennsylvania. Spooner died in 2006 at age 86. Kelleher Auctions sold Spooner’s 80-page exhibit titled “Building America’s Nuclear Capability” in its June 10-12, 1993 sale. It realized $2,360 including the buyer’s premium.

Today’s collectors of atomic bomb postal history — Joseph G. Bock, John M. Hotchner, Larry Nelson, Carl Sasaki, Scott R. Trepel, Wayne L. Youngblood, myself, and probably others I haven’t met — are fortunate to be following in their footsteps.

Part 4 will explore mail related to Manhattan District studies of radiation hazards and atmospheric fallout, Nazi Germany’s attempt to build an atomic bomb, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the aftermath.