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Vet remembers Manhattan Project

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

Ralph Gates celebrated New Year’s 1945 in Anniston, Ala., about 13 hours before he received orders to board a train for New York City.

New York was just a stopover for Gates, who was in the Army but had been studying engineering at Vanderbilt University in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn.

The military wanted his brains, not his brawn. He was not to be deployed to the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific. Gates was on his way to the remote New Mexico town of Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project was completing the atomic bomb.

"It was a secret. I had no idea. All I knew was we were being shipped out West," Gates says, recalling three or four nights in a sealed train car from Knoxville, Tenn., to Los Alamos, when he and the other soldiers had to tell military officials that the "shipment was intact" and nobody had approached them about their travels.

It was 8 a.m. one day when he arrived at the bomb-making campus in Los Alamos, and he quickly learned what was occurring. Brass shuffled them to a conference room, and they were told they were readying a new type of weapon, one that held the explosive power of 10,000 tons of TNT.

"I was just doing my job. That’s all. It seemed amazing to me . . . that such could be possible," says Gates, who can still, in seconds, draw a rough sketch of the designs of the first atomic bombs.

Gates made high explosive lenses, which were placed around the bomb’s core. When the 32 lenses were set off, they compressed the core to the point atomic fission started, setting off the bomb, he explains.

His superiors assigned him to the atomic bomb made from plutonium, the type dropped on Nagasaki, and Gates says it is conceivable he worked on the Nagasaki bomb itself.

He left the Army a year after the war ended, returned to Vanderbilt and went to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before spending his career as a chemical engineer. He retired and moved to Park City to enjoy the mountain-resort lifestyle.

As the war ended, Gates held hopes that atomic bombs would deter future wars and the energy from atoms would power the world.

"I was certainly probably naive when I was 20 years old that there would never be war," Gates says.

Name: Ralph Gates Jr.

Age: 82

Branch, highest rank: Army, technical sergeant

Unit: Special Engineer Detachment

Based: Los Alamos, N.M.

Medals: Unit citations


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