The year was 1943 and the United States and Nazi Germany were in an all out race to develop the first atomic bomb. Winning that horrific race meant the potential overnight end to a horrific war. Luckily for humanity’s sake, it was the Americans who crossed that finish line first. Otherwise, we might have found ourselves living in a reality of “The Man in the High Castle” (excellent Amazon Prime mind-bender if you haven’t seen it yet).
At the beginning of the scientific competition, Germany held the advantage as Hitler was able to command all the resources of his militaristic state to his will, with facilities working around the clock to develop all of the necessary components such as heavy water, nuclear reactors and isotope separation. Though you might have heard of the Manhattan Project, America’s early efforts to develop an atomic bomb were far from an organized effort and the scientists involved believed their chances of success to be slim.
The U.S. would build a new facility dedicated to the atomic project at Los Alamos, bringing together scientists and Army engineers under the direction of General Leslie Groves. Calling it the Manhattan Project actually threw off Russian and German spies since they spent the majority of their time running down incorrect leads in New York City. Far away in the deserts of New Mexico, Groves appointed Robert Oppenheimer, a former Communist Party member, to lead the scientific effort.
One of the key requirements for success involved amassing hundreds of tons of pure-grade ore found in places like the Belgian Congo — if you are a student of history you will know that the Congo was controlled by the Nazis at the time, making acquisition of the needed ore nearly impossible. It was the meeting of two unlikely characters that would put the necessary ore into the hands of the Manhattan Project scientists. Edgar Sengier was a Belgian and the managing director of the largest mining company, Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK), in the Belgian Congo at the outbreak of World War II. Sengier once had a meeting with the director of the British Imperial College of Science and Technology, Sir Henry Tizard, who gave Sengier this ominous warning: “Never forget that you have in your hands something which may mean catastrophe to your country and mine if this material were to fall into the hands of a possible enemy.”
Luckily for the Allies, Sengier remembered that warning and took it to heart when Belgium was invaded by the Nazis in 1939. He ordered the entire stock of his mining company’s radium to be shipped to England and the United States and for 1250 tons of uranium to be shipped directly to New York City where it was stored in a warehouse under a false name. Sengier would make several attempts to alert the U.S. State Department to the treasure he had squirreled away for them on their own shores, but it fell on mostly deaf ears since the State Department had not been looped into the War Department’s work on the Manhattan Project.
Sengier was finally able to get the attention of one of George Marshall’s deputies who met with the Belgian and cut him a secret deal, acquiring the ore for an undisclosed amount of money. The purchase of the ore proved instrumental in U.S. efforts to develop the atomic bomb, allowing them to beat the Germans to the finish line. Because of his quick thinking, Sengier became the first foreigner to receive the civilian Presidential Medal for Merit by the United States government.
Featured Image: Atomic Heritage Foundation