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Fall 2005 | Volume 21 |  Issue 2

I Faked A Nuke

I READ WITH GREAT INTER est “The Atomic Cannon” (by James Lament, Summer 2005). My first active-duty assignment after I’d been commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers was to carry out simulated nuclear explosions. This was in the summer of 1958 at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The purpose was to show groups of VIP military personnel and congressmen how tactical nuclear weapons could be used with an armored division on the battlefield. A large grandstand held the dignitaries in front of an open field that extended for miles. The highlight of the program was a mad minute when all the armored division’s firepower was directed in front of the grandstand, with tanks advancing in the field, along with overhead artillery explosions.

A simulated nuclear explosion about a mile from the grandstand was the climax of the show. A glowing, swirling, orange fireball about 40 feet in diameter slowly rose hundreds of feet into a cloud of white smoke, leaving a glow and a mushroom cloud very similar to the photograph in the article. A 155 howitzer cannon in front of the grandstand was said to be capable of firing the atomic shell. I guess that by 1958 an atomic warhead could fit in that cannon.

The plans and formula for the simulated nuclear explosion were given to me, and I had our engineering company prepare it. The basic ingredient was seven 55-gallon drums of napalm, arranged in a large circle. Underneath each drum was an explosive charge that faced upward to make the fireball rise. Cases of white phosphorus grenades were placed in the circle and packed with TNT charges to generate white smoke for the mushroom cloud. A 200pound TNT noise charge was also included. All the explosives were wired to a detonating device in an armored personal carrier in a ravine at a safe distance. During the demonstration I was positioned in a control tower at the back of the grandstand with radio contact with the detonating personnel. On cue with the script I sent the radio command to set off the explosion. It was spectacular, nearly breaking the windows in the control tower, which was a mile away from the blast.


I don’t know if this experience shaped my career, but I devoted 36 years of engineering to the peaceful use of nuclear power.

Noel P. Grimm

I Faked A Nuke

THE ARTICLE ABOUT THE atomic cannon brought back long-forgotten memories. I was employed by the Dravo Corporation in Pittsburgh, where the guns were assembled and most of their components were built. In 1953 and 1954 I worked on the manuals for putting the atomic cannon into mass production in the event of a war. Each evening we had to put all our work in a vault and burn all scrap paper. The guns were not very maneuverable, because they were so long, and I remember several were damaged in accidents while trying to traverse the narrow streets in Europe. That was one reason more were not built. Also, the development of small missiles like the Honest John, which could be carried by truck and were more easily set up and fired, made the atomic cannon obsolete. I saw one fired when I was stationed at Fort Sill in 1960, and this surprised me because by then they were definitely outdated.


Fred Leonard

What Greatest Generation?

IN THE SUMMER 2005 ISSUE, Stephen Zanichkowsky writes of the photograph of Norris Bradbury, with the Trinity test bomb, that “he radiates the hands-on surety and toughness and pride of an earlier generation.” I was stunned to read this. An earlier generation? Do toughness, surety, and pride belong to the past? Are there no men like Norris Bradbury today? Personally I think Zanichkowsky is wrong. There are men and women today who are tough and sure and proud of their skill and craftsmanship. If there are not, we had better start producing them pronto, or we are going to be in big trouble.


Carter Kennedy

Faria’s Fast One

AS HOLDER OF PATENTS 3,332,828 (along with Jim Faria) and 3,346,916 and 3,565,910 (along with Donald Elbert), the basic patents for AstroTurf, I was most interested in your article “Artificial Turf and How It Grew” (by Barbara Moran, Spring 2005). I developed the fiber, or ribbon, and Jim developed the process for weaving it into a fabric. Your article was extremely well written, both factual and interestingly worded. It really raised my spirits to read that somebody is making artificial turf into a useful, economically justifiable product, even if it isn’t Monsanto. It was good to read about Ed Milner and see his picture too, as he was my supervisor for some time and a close friend.

There was one understandable slight error, however. When it was found that grass wouldn’t grow in the reduced light in the Astrodome, the problem got wide circulation in the press. Jim Faria thought, correctly as it turned out, that ChemGrass would solve the problem. He flew out to Houston to see Judge Hofheinz on his own, and with no authorization. He returned with a signed contract, totally unauthorized, and handed it to Monsanto management. They were horrified. The product was in the early stages of development. We had just found that our original pigment formulation was not at all resistant to sunlight exposure and would have to be reformulated. We knew not what other problems might be discovered. Yet Hofheinz had already publicly announced that he was having Monsanto’s artificial grass installed in the Astrodome.

Fearing that immediate bad publicity would result from reneging on the contract (authorized or not) and be worse than the hazards of honoring it, management approved the contract. At the time, many products of Chemstrand (by now the Fibers Division of Monsanto) were named Chem-this or -that. To avoid the possibility that one disastrous product would harm the reputations of all the others, the company decided to change the name. Judge Hofheinz generously allowed us to use AstroTurf. After the fact, the actual, and certainly minor, truth could never be admitted.

I realize that your article could not have included such a detail, and I don’t think there would be sufficient interest for a book on the subject. But I thought you might like to know. I thank you very much for your excellent article.

Robert Ted Wright

Counterfeiting At War

I THOROUGHLY ENJOYED the article on the counterfeiting of U.S. currency (“Illegal Tender,” by Jack Kelly, Summer 2005). I had not been aware that Germany had printed counterfeit British currency during World War II in an attempt to “debase the enemy currency,” but I did know that this tactic was used by our own government in Vietnam. I loaded many aircraft with bombs full of counterfeit North Vietnamese currency. Attached to each bomb was a time-delay fuse that would explode in midair and drop the contents (500 pounds of fake currency) on the population below. Each counterfeit bill had a tear-off end with a propaganda message.


Richard E. Thomas

Counterfeiting At War

MY GREAT-GREAT-GRAND- father was a prosperous west Georgia farmer who died in 1854. The detailed inventory of his estate includes “notes on” and “accounts against” individuals for a few amounts as great as $600 but mostly less than $10. The record of disbursements from his estate includes a similarly large number of small payments to individuals. Your description of the fragmented American banking system and the deluge of worthless paper finally explained to me this otherwise puzzling accounting practice. A neighbor’s promise to pay was more reliable than any available currency.


Vern Smith

Coffee Colloquies

REGARDING “NOTES FROM the Field: The Academic Grind” (by Frederic D. Schwarz, Spring 2005), scientists have long been fascinated by coffee. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, published “Of the Excellent Qualities of Coffee and the Art of Making It in the Highest Perfection” in Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1812. It, and many other delightful papers, are collected in But the Crackling Is Superb: An Anthology on Food and Drink by Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society , published by the Institute of Physics in 1988.


Howard L. Davidson


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