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It’s a little known fact locally that seven individuals from Dexter, Missouri, worked on the atomic bomb during World War II.
Dubbed “The Manhattan Project,” a group of scientists including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and many others set out in the mid 1940s to develop the world’s first nuclear weapon. Even Albert Einstein worked on the project.
In the summer of 1943, scientists organizing The Manhattan Project began contacting universities across the country, checking into physics students who showed promise. One such school was Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College —now Southeast Missouri State University.
Ralph Nobles and Keaton Keller, both of Dexter, shared a dorm room together that year. Nobles was recommended by a professor, and he got his brother and Keaton Keller in on the job as well.
Keller was going to work in the chemistry portion of The Manhattan Project. He then was instrumental in securing a position in the project for his brother, Edward “Bud” Keller.
Bud Keller was in Dexter recently and shared memories from his time in Los Alamos helping to construct the atomic bomb.
When he first learned of his coming job, he went for a physical thinking he was just joining the military. He didn’t realize there was much more in his future.
“The FBI came to Dexter to look into my past,” Keller said.
He noted that they interviewed M.T. Minton, Thurston Hill and Lyndel Stroud’s father.
Before reporting to Los Alamos, he traveled to Pittsburgh and purchased a 1941 two-door Chevrolet for $1,050.
Even though he wasn’t supposed to, he took his mother to New Mexico with him.
“I went to work in chemistry — cleaning beakers and other things,” he said, but he wasn’t a cleaner for long.
As a technician handling explosives, he wasn’t supposed to be “privy” to all of the inner workings of what they were doing in New Mexico, but he knew enough.
“If you had a white badge, that meant you were ‘in the know,’” Keller said, noting he didn’t have a white badge.
He explained there were two different means they used to split the atom in the bombs they created.
In the first bomb, named “Little Boy,” Keller explained that a uranium rod was fired at another uranium rod with a gun-type mechanism. They were placed together in a tube and crammed together to create the explosion.
This bomb was never tested before being dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945.
Seth Neddermeyer, who held a Ph.D. in Physics from the California Institute of Technology, was recruited for The Manhattan Project by Oppenheimer, or “Oppie” as Keller calls him. Neddermeyer proposed that a method of implosion could create a more powerful explosion by compressing the radioactive material.
While there was a considerable amount of work put into this method, Keller said the scientists were convinced it should be tested.
A large tower was constructed in the desert at the Trinity test site in New Mexico. The bomb and its housing mechanism, dubbed “the Gadget,” were lifted by cables approximately 100-feet to the top of the tower where it would be ignited.
Keller was on hand for the first test on July 16, 1945, and watched from a distance of only 16 miles.
“I can remember listening to the countdown from the radio in our Jeep,” he said. “We couldn’t watch the flash because it was brighter than the sun. After the flash, we all turned around.”
Not before or since has Keller seen anything like what he saw that day in New Mexico. A mushroom cloud caused by an explosion the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT had released a blast of energy unlike anything the world had seen.
Soldiers and scientists carried Geiger counters, trying to determine the level of radiation and its direction of travel. Keller said trucks were prepared to move neighboring ranchers out of their homes if it was determined that they had received radiation pollution.
“Thankfully, the wind didn’t blow,” Keller said.
After the successful test, workers were left scrambling in an attempt to find a way to ship the bomb around the world for detonation. Coincidentally, it was Jim Sisler of Dexter who discovered that the best way to transport the bomb was in a wooden container, which he designed.
Keller explained that the reason wood was preferred is because it would float and could take more damage than steel without damaging the bomb itself.
On Aug. 9, 1945, less than a month after the first test, the bomb named Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. It generated heat of approximately 7,050 degrees Fahrenheit, killing as many as 80,000 people by some estimates.
Even after the test, the Manhattan Project was still shrouded in secrecy, despite employing as many as 120,000 individuals.
“Even those of us who knew what we were doing knew we weren’t supposed to tell a soul,” Keller said. “We couldn’t even seal our mail. I knew one guy who was fired for something in the mail he received.”
Keller recalled taking his own souvenirs from the project, only to have federal agents show up at his door asking for them back. He noted that he just carried them in his pocket.
“They must have been low in radiation,” Keller said. “Guys who got too much radiation had it bad. You swell way up, you see.”
A letter received from J. Robert Oppenheimer, dated Oct. 1, 1945, thanks Keller for his efforts and refers to him as having been “consistently willing and dependable,” commanding the “highest respect.”
Now 90, regularly traveling between Florida and Nevada, Keller still looks back fondly on his work with the Manhattan Project, knowing that he was part of an integral project in American history.
Following is a complete list of the Dexter individuals who worked on the Manhattan Project, the first six of whom all served in Los Alamos.
Edward “Bud” Keller
Robert Nobles (worked in Chicago under Enrico Fermi)