Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Robert Furman’s Interview

Robert Furman served as General Leslie Groves’ assistant on the building of the Pentagon and the Manhattan Project. As Chief of Foreign Intelligence in the Manhattan Project, he coordinated and was a part of the Alsos Mission, conducting epsionage missions across Europe to interrogate Italian and German scientists, locate uranium, and determine how far the Nazis had proceeded with their atomic bomb project. Furman also accompanied half of Little Boy’s uranium ore across the Pacific to Tinian aboard the doomed USS Indianapolis. After the war, Furman was sent on a special mission to Japan to investigate whether any efforts had been made by the Japanese to develop a nuclear weapon. Furman recalls General Leslie Groves’ determination and the scientists’ frustration over his emphasis on secrecy.

Date of Interview:
February 20, 2008
Location of the Interview:


Robert Furman: Robert Furman. F-U-R-M-A-N. I was an assistant to General Groves in the Manhattan District, in his Twenty-First Street offices here in Northwest. And I joined him in late autumn of ‘43 and left him right after the war—right after the end of the war.

Cindy Kelly: Can we—just to—no one’s going to hear what I say, so. And don’t feel that I’m interrupting you because the beauty of editing is we can cut and paste things.

Furman: Sure.

Kelly: But I think it’d be nice to just get a little bit—if you can tell us in what year you were born and, you know, something about your education and so forth leading up to—

Furman: I was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and went to Trenton High School, which was an excellent high school. Went to Princeton, got a degree in civil engineering, got out in 1937. Einstein was on the campus at that time, used to see his hair flying around all over the place. 

Princeton was a refuge at that time for a lot of people that were out of work; a lot of students’ fathers were out of work and they went to college to kill the time. And eventually, as the economy picked up, their fathers went back into their manufacturing businesses and they were all very active again. 

But during that particular time of depression we were all kind of penniless. It cost about one thousand dollars for everything at Princeton at that time. Today it approaches forty to fifty thousand. We got along quite well and we could—we earned extra money. And I helped run a new sandwich shop just off campus and I ran the theater. They had a great big theater downtown right in Princeton, a magnificent place where they brought Broadway hits. And I had the programs to print and the ushers to get there, and managed in this way to perhaps pay three-quarters of my Princeton expenses.  

After the war I went to work, and wasn’t too successful convincing the Pennsylvania Railroad to make me a vice-president. So they had me out with a maintenance crowd.  I went on to work for the FHA [Federal Housing Administration], and finally Turner Construction Company. Turner is a big construction company out of New York, and well-known even today.  

The war came along in 1940. I was drafted in—well, I was asked to join and I came in as a second lieutenant at Fort Dix. And I—the draft occurred and we processed all the people from several states through Fort Dix, put them in uniforms, and sent them off to training camps.   Wasn’t long before I got transferred to Washington, where I picked up—I was employed by the same people who eventually had charge of building all the camps and hospitals and airfields in the United States, and the Pentagon. And I went over.

I became one of the five subordinate officers to Colonel [Clarence] Renshaw, who was the boss of the Pentagon job. The Army supervised the forty or fifty architects and a great big team of general contractors in the building of the Pentagon. And our job was to try to stay on top of all that. When the Pentagon was finished, General Groves picked me up and I went into the Manhattan District, which is his atom bomb project, very quiet, very secretive. And everything was so secretive that it was five or ten years after the war that I began telling people what I really should have told them at the outset to get the job done.  

After the war, I picked up—I went into the construction business on my own, worked at that for fifty years, built about 800 buildings. Most of them are still standing.  If one of them is leaning, we go prop it up, you know, and try to keep it from collapsing. We quit that just recently and I still have paperwork that I do as a result of that work, that general contracting work. But at times we had as many as 250 people on the payroll. Most of the time it was more or less seventy or eighty. We built churches and hospitals and gas stations and whatever came along; schools, lots of schools. Still have a lot of friends out there that I hear from occasionally.  

Now I’m retired. I moved into a retirement center in Frederick [Maryland], where they provide me with everything I need, and I work about a twelve or fifteen-hour week. The rest of the time I’m playing tennis if I can, and here I am today talking with you people here who are really running the world while I’m just sitting out there doing nothing. That’s a brief history.

Kelly: That’s great. I love the way you’ve begun this little story. Could you kind of tell us that in those words? I love the “Love and War.”  Your little piece. You describe it, “Love and War.” Could you say that? Just the—

Furman: Love and war, it doesn’t mix. I can tell you that from experience because, at the very beginning of the war, I got engaged. And that lady—girl suffered greatly, and finally, well, we—because I went into the Manhattan District, and I couldn’t tell her what I was doing or where I was. I traveled everywhere. Finally that broke up and I waited ‘til I was—waited another six or eight years before I got married. 

But the war was a, for many people, a stressing, a very stressful point. Many of the men overseas stayed overseas five years without seeing their wife or their children. Both of them—often forgotten. They never intended—they didn’t anticipate, I should say, that such—that there’d be such a division in their lives. But we got through it. We managed.

General Groves brought me in to try to calm down the scientists who he had working on this project to develop the bomb. The scientists wouldn’t concentrate on their work. They were scared that the Germans were years ahead of us and would bomb us at no—almost immediately. So I had—my job was to work with them and try to bring them information that would calm them down and get them back in their laboratories and at their desks. This meant—and I had to work with the scientists and take them with me, occasionally, overseas.

This meant that I had to struggle between the immense power that the Army had, and the money they had, to get this project done by scientists who were not related to them at all, and didn’t really see the need to have an army doing anything. They could do it all by themselves. There was tremendous friction between the two elements. But, in spite of that, the job got done, mainly because General Groves, at the top, worked so well with Oppenheimer. And it was a tough job for him to do.

I went overseas, the first time, to meet with the British, who had all the intelligence on what was going on on the German side. If there was anything, they knew about it. And we, in America, had no real good intelligence services, so we had to—we relied on the British as a major source. Eventually by—I went around and talked to all the various Army and Army Headquarters and Navy Headquarters to let them know what I wanted to know without telling them what we were doing.

And eventually some reports would drift back to me that they had received. But, for the most part, they were interested in this great major build-up of armaments and military troops and supplies, and they didn’t have much time for intelligence. We did pick up some very interesting information from them. And we picked up information from Du Pont and a lot of the larger corporations who had corporate intelligence services that they kept in touch with around the world. 

Well, I should say that you might say the whole project, the Manhattan Project, was built on fear: fear that the enemy had the bomb, or would have it before we could develop it. And this they knew to be the case, the scientists did, because they were refugees from Germany, a large number of them, and they had studied under the Germans before the war broke out. 

As a result, I knew of forty different German scientists that could be involved in a project that could develop a bomb. And during the rest of the whole time I was there, we were constantly looking for those names to appear in publications or whatever reports we could find. So that we knew if we knew what they were doing, we could better assess as to whether they were on track for developing a bomb. Very serious business.  

Eventually, as the war progressed, General Groves decided to put a mission following the armies in Europe. And it’d be a scientific mission. It would be a mission composed of scientists representing all of the various scientific tracks, and buried into it would be two or three atomic scientists. And this mission would be there to answer questions by the major—by the generals as they went forward, who were constantly receiving threatening reports of devastating weapons which might be thrown against them.

The mission was called the Alsos Mission. It was put together in G2; that’s the Army intelligence department. The name was a mystery name for the whole war. And for ten years after the war nobody could figure out why—where the name came from. Eventually I had to tell them that the colonel that I worked with was a Greek student, and “alsos” is a Greek word for groves, grove of trees. If General Groves had known that, I would have been put up to the firing squad because he didn’t want any secret like that to get known. But it’s sort of an interesting little quirk of how this colonel got the project properly named after all.

Anyway, this scientific mission was very effective, and as the army moved forward it interviewed German scientists—all kinds of scientists, French, Belgian, whatever—and to pick up information as to what the Germans were doing. One of the most important reports they wrote was called the Strasbourg Report, which really told General Groves and President Roosevelt that the project—that they didn’t have a project. They were focusing on rockets and, of course, I must say we focused our attention on Heisenberg, who was the chief scientific atomic scientist in Germany. And we knew that, wherever he would be, that that’s where the project would be.

Later on, when the bomb was ready, General Groves sent me to pick it up in Arizona—New Mexico, rather, at Los Alamos. And I traveled with the bomb, took it all the way over to Tinian on the—first by air to California and then on the [U.S.S.] Indianapolis, the cruiser Indianapolis, to Tinian. And I waited there until the bomb was dropped.

And after that I went into Japan on a special mission that General Groves set up to look at all the universities, all the colleges, factories to see if we could determine what the capacity of the Japanese were, whether they had something going or not. Then I came home, very soon got out, and started my construction business. And that, briefly, is my war story.

And I think that the bomb was—it’s a miracle the bomb was developed. It’s wonderful that we were able to use it to end the war. If it had not occurred—if the bomb had not been dropped and the war had continued, thousands of people would have died on both sides, particularly if we had invaded Japan. We might be talking about a million people in such a terrible invasion process. 

The biggest miracle is, after the war, we have—after sixty years now, we have not had another bomb incident. It’s been lucky and we should direct our attention to every effort to prevent the—any possible occurrence, such as a war which might use nuclear weapons.

I’ll take a breath here.

Kelly: That’s good. That’s great. Do you want to take some—

Furman: Is that what you want to do?

Kelly: What’s that?

Furman: Is that what you wanted?

Kelly: Yes. That was great. It’s not all I want, but it’s a great start. Yes, you’ve got some great stuff in there.

[Water break.]

Furman: The mission to Japan was divided into three parts. There was a medical mission and military mission that went directly to Hiroshima. Another similar group went to Nagasaki…. What’s the other city?

Kelly: Right. Nagasaki.

Furman: Nagasaki, yes. And the third was one I had, which went to the universities and all the factories in Japan and Korea looking for any trace of nuclear action. 

The people in these missions was really composed of those already at Tinian. You know, a tremendous team of technical people, medical people there, and interpreters. So each team had medical people and had interpreters and scientists. And they—Philip Morrison went with me. Phillip Morrison recently died. He was a professor of physics at Cornell, I think, when he died.

But this is the way they covered all the fronts. And those reports are available and they completely tell the story of what was found when these, the Americans, first arrived at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and what I found in the various university towns.

Kelly: What do you recall about what they found? Let’s see, can you start with Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What people’s reactions were as reported to you?

Furman: If you’re talking about what the Japanese people felt about it, it was pretty much—they were pretty much foreclosed from having any other opinion except their—the opinion and direction that the emperor [Hirohito] gave. And one of the things we must not forget—that is, one of the biggest heroes of the war was Hiroshima [misspeak: Hirohito] directly, the emperor of Japan, who had the guts to get on the radio, and call the war off right after the bombings.  

Kelly: Could I interrupt a sec? I think you said Hiroshima. You mean Hirohito, right?

Furman: Yes.

Kelly: Why don’t you start again? Because I think that’s a very nice piece.

Furman: Hirohito, that’s right. One of the things we forget, or are apt to forget, is the tremendous and important role that the emperor of Japan, Hirohito, played in ending the war. He was perhaps the biggest hero of the war, when you think about it, because, opposed by his army, he got up in front of the—got on the radio and called the war off. It wasn’t that easy. 

Now, the people where I went did not complain about the war being over. I can remember that. They did not express complaints about the use of an atomic bomb. The general impression I got was that they needed to get reorganized and back on their feet, and I think that sums it up really. I didn’t experience any great hatred for Americans as we proceeded with the—into the peacetime. And, well, that’s about all I can say about that.

Kelly: Have you, I assume, been in contact with Japanese on and off over the last sixty years? Do you have any impression, have those views changed?  Have you felt that the Japanese—I don’t know. Maybe I’m presuming.  I’m presuming that you’ve had some contact with the Japanese or have some impression. No?

Furman: No, I have not had any. I’ve never traveled in that direction. Got as far as Alaska. 

Kelly: How many weeks after the bombing did you have that mission? How long ago was that?

Furman: Well, the bomb was—the first bomb was August 6th, second bomb about six or eight days later. The mission was formed early in September, we got back to the States in late November, and I got out maybe about the 1st of January or something like that. 

Kelly: So you were in Japan about two months?

Furman: Yes.

Kelly: Yes. Tell us more about your mission, and was it like the Alsos in you’re looking to see whether the Japanese had been developing an atomic bomb? Is that right? Just, again, use your words. No one will hear my question.

Furman: Well, in order to determine whether there was a project or not, we went to the universities, because we knew that if there was a project the scientists had to come from the universities, that this would be a scientific project. Physicists would be involved.

We had the names of about eight Japanese scientists who had studied in Japan—studied in Germany, and were capable of running—possibly capable of running a project if Japan had one. 

So then we went to the big corporations and to look—just to inquire about their facilities and their—went into their research departments, quizzed people, went out into the field, looked at properties, went to Korea.

Don’t forget, if they had a project, we knew it would have to be a tremendous project like our—like Oak Ridge. If somebody showed us a 40,000 foot warehouse and said that was their project, why, we felt pretty safe because, you know, Oak Ridge was a million feet. Our project, half the size of the state of Rhode Island. And we—as far as we knew, nobody could do it any quicker or any faster, although that was one of our fears, that maybe somebody would figure out a way to produce an atomic bomb in a different way than we were doing it.

So that’s about what we did, and we also—particularly in Korea, where they had mineral resources, we checked out all the mines to see if there was an interest in mining uranium, or thorium, radium. That’s where it would all have to start. And we could—from our report—from this, we could make our report back that there was no serious project.

And I think that report has stood up under questioning over the years. Every once in a while someone wants to write an article saying a secret plant was producing atomic bombs. And this we could easily check out and force them to remove the report.

[Tape switch.]

Kelly: I’d like to go back to the Manhattan Project and your working with Groves. Since we’re on the topic, just tell us about playing tennis with Groves and what kind of tennis player he was.

Furman:  Well, he was a good tennis player. General Groves loved to play tennis. And he played at that Army Navy Country Club whenever he could.  But he was very careful to stay out of tournaments and he didn’t want to become—have any attention brought upon him. 

There was a cab driver by the name of Austin Rice, and he and Austin Rice would play. Austin was an extremely good player and would feed the ball to General Groves, who couldn’t move that much, so Austin was very careful and directed most of his shots back to him. 

Occasionally, very rarely, I would get into a game with them. And, because I didn’t—I think he thought he was a much better player than I, and I think he was. His weight held him back of course. He couldn’t get around the court as fast as he should because his weight—he was such a big man. Tennis was his sport and he enjoyed it.

Kelly: Terrific, we heard a lot about that. [Cindy talking about the General Groves exhibit at the State Department.]  Like to go back to one of the things that Stan Norris says is that you were the first atomic intelligence unit?

Furman: Well, General Groves faced this problem with these scientists who had this tremendous fear of the Germans having a bomb well ahead of us, since most of his team of scientists had studied under the Germans and the Germans were still there. And we didn’t have any reports saying that, denying that they weren’t busy and active. 

So until I came on board there wasn’t any effort to try to find out more than they had, more than they knew at that time, find out more about what was going on in Germany. And Groves’ intention was to find out as quickly as possible in order to calm down his scientific team so they keep on the job, not be scared all the time.

So it was a group of scientists that I met with, major people that are involved with the project: Compton, Arthur Compton, in Chicago; [Harold] Urey up in New York; [Ernest] Lawrence out in California; and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. And they fed me some names that I could work with. 

This team of scientists suggested that we, for one thing, that we would go try to get scientific publications out of Germany and let them look at them. Because if the scientists that we knew, I’d say going back to the forty—we knew about forty German scientists were nuclear scientists and would be involved with a project. If they were publishing, this would give us some idea what they were thinking about.  

So, through Switzerland mainly, we obtained scientific reports and I passed them on to this committee. And they read them and made their comments and passed them out among the other scientists, all in an effort to try to calm down the scientists that were there. Also if we found something important we’d be gratified, but we never did. We never found out anything that were negative stuff, negative by the means that the forty scientists that we knew were in any big nuclear bomb project.  

Then the Alsos Mission was another wing of Groves’ effort to obtain information. And as they moved forward we—he got reports back from interviews with the German scientists as armies went through Eastern France and over into Germany. The scientists were picked up and talked, and these reports went to Groves. And we got it out to all the scientists on the project, which gave the project scientists some relief, to know that there probably wasn’t a project going on.   

Now, we didn’t know that the British had broken the code and that the British weren’t willing to tell us that they’d broken the code for fear that this would leak out back to the Germans. So the British themselves were kind of quiet. They passed on information carefully to us to make sure that nothing could be tied back to this fact that they had picked it up off the code break. 

And so, right to the end of the war, there was a gap there that we never knew about. And the British had, of course, their own opinion, well declared to us from the very beginning, that their information was that the Germans had no project. No backup to it at all. And then they were, of course, the British were completely absorbed in their efforts just to stay alive, to survive the bombings and put their troops in the field and win the war.  

So that’s about the atmosphere that we had to work with. 

Kelly: Were there British who actually went into France with you? Were you sort of an Allied team? Was it an American force with some British scientists? I mean, did you work with the British as you were going into France and Germany?

Furman: Yes. We had—the answer is yes. British were right with us on our scientific efforts, our scientific projects. Even had some people in the Alsos Mission occasionally visiting, and we would consult with them when we found out information. They always were very helpful. But you gotta remember their country was being devastated by this war and they were doing all they could just to stay alive.

Kelly:  I recall that it was December 1944 that Joseph Rotblat left the project because he had learned that there was no bomb—some British report or, I don’t know. Does that ring a bell? December ‘44. Was that a time when the British had told us that they had evidence that there was no German effort?

Furman: That doesn’t ring a bell.

Kelly: Yeah, because Alsos went on way beyond that. I thought one of the exciting parts of Stan Norris’s book [Race for the Bomb] was some of the descriptions of some of the situations that you were involved in personally on your mission.  Some ducking bullets.

Furman:  Oh, not much of that. I was never in great peril. We stayed back from the lines fifty miles. One of the interesting things was that General Groves sent me a cable saying that Sir Charles Hambro, head of the Bank of England, was coming over to the Alsos mission for a visit. He also was a big wheel in British government and ran two or three railroads, big cheese. And take care of him.

So Sir Charles appears andI found out immediately that he’d like to get around the battlefields. I think the armies were up north and hadn’t crossed over into Germany yet. One thing he wanted to do was put his feet in the Rhine River. He was a World War One hero, too, soldier. And so we took him out to visit some of the old World War I battlefields which were still visible.  

And we actually went to Strasbourg and he, on a foggy morning, he went down to the Rhine River and put his feet in. It upset us that he would even try because the Germans were on the other side of the river and maybe they could see through the fog and we didn’t want this guy hurt.

And maybe after five days of touring he said to me, he said, “Furman, I want to throw a big dinner in my appreciation of all you’ve done.” And I said, “Fine,” so we went to a French inn. The French didn’t have much food, so we gave the French inn our rations and they cooked up something. 

They got some—the French came up—they went down into one of their cellars and came up through the floor with a choice bottle of whisky or wine or something. There’s going to be a big celebration. We had a great time, great meal and after it was over the bill came in and I gave it to Hambro, and he looked at it and he said, “Furman, I don’t have any money. Will you pay this?”  Now, here’s the head of the Bank of England and I had to pay for it. 

So the next day or the day after we took him back to the airport. It was springtime. I still remember him getting on the plane with five or six daffodils in his hand. Great guy. That was an incident that we all remembered.  

Kelly: That’s great. Let’s see. Actually, you personally were involved in discovering the scientists. I know that John Lansdale writes in his memoirs about coming upon Otto Hahn. Were you with him at that time? Were you part of working with Lansdale on that?

Furman: Yes, I was there. And [Colonel Boris] Pash was there, and they were—

Kelly: Can we start again?

Furman: We are now talking about the armies having moved forward and were able to go to the home of Otto Hahn, a German, a principal German scientist. And Pash, Colonel Pash, who’s head of the military side of the Alsos, and Sam Goudsmit both interviewed him, and I was there too. And it was quite clear that he, at least, he was not involved in any atomic bomb project. And this occurred several times with other scientists as we came upon them. We would—the same people or other people in the mission would interview them and we would write up the reports and send them back to the States.   

One time, General Groves sent a message over that I was to go to the Rhine River as soon as the troops got past—went over the bridge, Nijmegen bridge, and scoop up some water and send it back so they could test it, the theory being. The scientists knew that if there was an atomic plant anywhere on that river, it could be detected in the water, unless they took extreme measures to not dump the radioactive substances back into the river. So we did that.

We set up a project and went north and went out on the bridge and got the water and brought it back to Paris and boxed it up, four or five bottles of it, and sent it to Chicago. But before we put the—sealed the case, we put in two or three bottles of French wine. I wrote on it, “OK, test this too,” meaning, look, have a good French wine.

Well, wasn’t long before we got back a message that the water tested negative, but the wine was positive, “Send more wine!” And we didn’t know how to take that, maybe a joke. Finally I got a message back: “This is not a joke. The wine is radioactive. Send us more wine.” Well, we went back—we traced this wine back to a winery.

We found out that the wine—that the soil there where the wine was grown had had nuclear deposits of uranium or something that was soaked up into the moisture that got into the wine. We did. We got several cases of wine, sent several cases back to the States, kept two or three cases for ourselves to enjoy. That was the end of the wine incident. 

But the wine was radioactive. I bet you today if you went into very carefully tested wines that were on the market today you’d find some that had some radioactivity in it, not enough to be harmful.

Kelly:  Just out of curiosity, was Peer de Silva part of—

Furman: Yes, Peer de Silva.

Kelly: I interviewed Tom Jones. Did you know Tom Jones?

Furman: Sure.

Kelly: Tom Jones. He replaced Peer de Silva at Los Alamos. In a way he talked about his mission from Groves was to calm down the community or the scientists of Los Alamos, especially Oppenheimer, after Peer de Silva had made these allegations that he should be removed after his Communist dealings. Anyway, I interviewed Tom Jones four years ago and he talked about that. I know that after they cleared Oppenheimer again—this is April ’45 or right before that, March, I guess—and Groves was furious because he and Lansdale and Groves and Oppenheimer had to ride a train. They took a train from Pocatello, ID to Chicago or something to kind of, the three of them, cross-examining Oppenheimer with the allegations and come to the bottom of it, basically, again. It’s the same old allegations that had been made before he’d been hired…but it drove Groves crazy so that he sent Peer de Silva as far away as he could.  

Furman: That’s where I met him, Tinian. De Silva was there.

Kelly:  I’m not going to have a big feature on him, but I’ve always been curious.

Furman:  I didn’t [inaudible] around with him. He was always very nice with me, but I didn’t have very much to do with him. I didn’t really have a great deal to do with Lansdale because he was security and had a hell of a big job. I just went off on my project, and we were friendly, but that was about it. Same with [William] Consodine. Consodine was a lawyer. He had another group of projects that he was handling for Groves. Very fine guy.

Kelly: So even within the personal office of Groves you had your independent mission, assignments?

Furman: Yes.  I got my mission from Groves and that was the end of it.

Kelly: Were you told by him not to talk to your colleagues what you were doing?  Was he trying to impose secrecy within the office? Or at least concerned about security? Or were you just so busy?

Furman: No, he had a general rule: you only gave a person what he needed to know to do his job. So we didn’t talk. I didn’t talk to Lansdale and Consodine and others about what I was doing. And they didn’t talk to me either. Of course—no, that’s the way of work.  

There was a high degree of secrecy imposed, which carried into my personal life right after the war. I was very quiet about everything. I remember, when I was building, I told the lumberyard what I thought they wanted to know that I needed. And very often they knew more about what I needed than I did, but there was kind of a communication problem until I kind of broke down and eventually talked and conversed with them.

Secrecy was very important. In fact, the only way the dam was ever—the only way the bomb was developed was because, in my mind, Groves had to back off and allow the scientists to talk among themselves. It was that they needed; the scientists needed the interchange of ideas in order to solve their scientific problems in making the bomb work. 

Kelly: Looking back, do you think that the bomb would, or your efforts—well, obviously there was a huge tension, Groves’ policy with secrecy, and the scientists and their desire for collaboration. And this compromise was made. What price did we pay for the secrecy? Do you think the project would have been better had there been less emphasis on secrecy?

Furman:  It’s hard to answer that question. Things were moving very rapidly, so that it may have been that the policies that Groves had worked quite well in a rapidly moving project. No one could foresee better than the scientists how difficult it would be to keep such tight security on them. 

Then there was this friction between the military and the scientific people. They don’t think alike. So the miracle is that Groves and Oppenheimer kind of worked it out. And things began to get better organized and the inventive mind of the scientists was able to help create the bomb, which we needed. 

Kelly: Can you describe how Groves and Oppenheimer worked together? What are some of the things they did?

Furman: I don’t think I can. I don’t think I know, because I wasn’t in on it.

Kelly: That’s fair. How about within your own sphere? I mean, I think you sort of described how positive and negative—what role did the need to keep secrecy have on your ability to do your job?

Furman: Well, the positive way was that, when I went out and toured the country, asking questions, secrecy helped me because I didn’t have to tell them why I was asking the questions. Therefore, the major secrets of the—about the project were kept.

I don’t know there were any negatives to it, not from my point of view. I think that there’s only—it’s only when the scientists were—that I was involved with the scientists. They didn’t want the secrecy. They would ask questions that maybe I couldn’t answer. 

It sort of worked out well. We kept the secret. Of course, as you know, the Russians and the Germans probably got the information they needed anyway.

Paul Williams: I had a, not question, but maybe something we could talk about. As you know, there was a petition signed—there was some differing ideas about a demonstration bomb, or not dropping the bomb at all. Some of the scientists were not sure about going ahead with the bomb. In some ways it was your report when you reported back to Groves and said that the Germans don’t really have anything serious in the works.

Maybe using the idea in Stan Norris’ book about the conversation you had with Sam Goudsmit where he said something like, “Isn’t it wonderful that the Germans don’t have the bomb? Now we don’t have to use ours,” and you said to him, “But you understand, Sam, that if we have this weapon, that we’re going to use it,” or something like that. I just think that it’s interesting that you reported that the Germans had no bomb but you knew we were going to use it anyway.

Furman: Well, this is what I remember and that is, as we—as the war went on and it became apparent that the Germans would be defeated, Groves turned his attention away from Germany entirely and began to talk about targets in Japan with Stimson and Roosevelt, Truman. And I overheard—maybe I was part of some of the conversations, which targets would be used. We needed two or three, at least two or three.  

So, the use of the bomb turned away from Germany quite quickly, in our favor, but I guess we still were ready to use it in case the Russians got out of control or something like that. It was hard for me to imagine those conditions that existed there at that end of the war. There was great fear that the Russians would just keep on coming.

But they, you know, they tossed around Kyoto as a prime target, and that was…

[Tape switch.]

Furman: Ready? As the Germans—as our armies moved forward into Germany and it seemed that the war would quickly end there, and we’d—why, Groves’ attention for targets for the bomb concentrated. He concentrated his attention on targets in Japan.

And he passed on a list of targets to, well, to Stimson and to General—to Roosevelt, Truman, and they—several of the targets were dismissed, such as Kyoto, and then there was a great problem of trying to find targets because we had bombed so many cities. And we wanted a city that had not been bombed yet, if we could. Gradually they got at least two cities decided upon. Maybe a third, I can’t remember.  

And, of course, we had to wait until August 6th to get that plane up in the air and over in Japan. So there wasn’t any real effort made to bomb in Europe and there was this concentration on targets in Japan, all in an effort, maybe, to end the war.  

Kelly: So what do you think of Truman’s decision to decide to drop the bomb?

Furman: Well, I would say that everybody in the project on the military side wanted to see it dropped. The scientists, I don’t know. But anyway, all you can—history has really shown us that dropping the bomb was the best thing to do to end the war. It ended it almost immediately and that was pretty much pretty solid information on which to base a decision. If you could end the war immediately, it would be worth it to drop the bomb.  

No talk about using the bomb anyway, I mean, just to use the bomb because we had developed it. There was no talk like that that, I recall. If we could have ended the war without dropping the bomb, that would be fine, but that was never an option.

Kelly: It might be helpful. I mean, maybe this is something we can get from other sources, but just how many—the Japanese—the perception of the Japanese as being unwilling to surrender, having had all the battles over island after island that ended in the same kind of severe bombing or they lost a lot of—550,000 people died from our air raids from our conventionally bombing raids from March into August. Do you want to say something that showing that the Japanese didn’t seem to be wavering?

Furman: From where we sat, the Japanese were determined to fight from the very end. They were under the military. The whole country was being directed by the military and the military would not give up. That’s why it was important to remember how important Hirohito’s decision to get on the radio and stop the war, how important that was, because he had to override the military to do it. Now this has all been written up in great detail and I’m sure that you can read about it, but this is very important that we remember that Hirohito’s decision, it was prime to ending the war.  

Kelly: You didn’t mention earlier the Soviets and the role that they played, the fear that Japan had of their entering the war. Do you want to add anything about that?

Furman: I didn’t understand.

Kelly: You had mentioned earlier that Japan was worried about Russia, about the Soviet Union entering the war.

Furman: It’s often discussed just what would have happened if the war had been continued and the Russians were allowed to come into the war against Japan. And everybody feared that, including most of the Americans. We didn’t want to have an endless war in the Pacific. We wanted it over. All we can say is that, by ending the war, the Russians didn’t have that choice. They got all they could that’s—they didn’t actually enter the fight and get more territory.  

Kelly: Can you remember in your discussions, I get the sense that no one expected that this to be—that the war was necessarily going to end after two bombs. There was a third one on the way. And the people assigned at Tinian were assigned for the duration. They thought they’d be there for six more months or whatever. Can you remember what people’s expectations were?

Furman: It’s often discussed just how many bombs could be dropped on Japan. We had two bombs. The third bomb was perhaps three weeks off, and then there were bombs after that. We were lucky that we never had to go beyond that, beyond the two that we dropped. And that’s about—it’s just a piece of luck that we could end the war when we did. 

Kelly: Yes indeed. Let’s see, do you remember being on Tinian Island? You were on Tinian in August. What it was like when the Enola Gay crew returned? Did they return to Tinian? And the feeling of the people, I mean, when did you learn that the bomb had been successful, the first bomb?

Furman: Well, the Enola Gay took off from Tinian with the first bomb and returned. They went into a debriefing session, which many people attended. And we were all quite pleased, at that point, that so far, so good. And it took a second bomb to end the war, but there was no—I don’t think there was any real expectation that the second bomb alone would do it.

We all didn’t know how long we would be in Tinian or in Japan. And great war plans were being—had been developed which would move tremendous numbers of troops into Japan almost immediately. So the end of the war was greatly appreciated. I don’t know whether—I really don’t know if I would be here if it hadn’t ended then.

Kelly: Were you scheduled to go to Japan then?

Furman: We were all scheduled to go wherever we had to go. Everywhere I go, where there’s a war veteran—I find a war veteran with orders—who had orders in his pocket which would take him on the invasion of Japan. Everywhere I go. It was no dream. We were going right on in.  

Kelly: Do those people—and, knowing that you were involved in the project, what do those people say? Do you find people thanking you for your part in the atomic bomb project?

Furman: They may not thank me, but they thank—they were glad the war was over. No war really ever ended like that. And the atomic bomb is such a devastating bomb. 

I want you to read, someday, the report the bombing analyst wrote after visiting targets in Japan that had been bombed. That was his job. After each bombing mission he went to the bombing project and assessed the damage: thirty percent, fifty percent, whatever percent of the city. But when he learned that one bomb at Hiroshima had completely devastated the city—it wasn’t there anymore—he practically went into shock. He had never—in other words, the bombing missions don’t do that; they destroy but not completely. They’re bad, they’re very bad and we lose a lot of planes doing it but the atomic bomb has a force which is almost impossible for us to appreciate. And remember that because we’ve had enough atomic bombs and we hope we don’t have to use anymore—anybody anywhere.

Kelly: Being philosophical about the future, what do you think of the effort to try to eliminate nuclear weapons? Do you think that is something that is attainable, or do you think—what would you say to the next generation about how hard they should try to understand what these weapons can do and why diplomacy is solve the world’s problems?

Furman: Well, there is every reason to try to limit or eliminate—at least limit if not eliminate atomic weapons. But the United States must do its part. It has the disadvantage in that they are asking the world around them not to engage in atomic weapons or weaponry when the United States itself has such a big stockpile of them. So it’s going to be a diplomatic effort on the part of the United States to try to overcome any unwillingness on the parts of other nations to build bombs and we are probably going to have to offer to give away more and more control over our use of the weapon—pile of weapons we have. Very difficult question to answer—no one wants to take a chance. Diplomacy is the only way that we are going to be able to bring peace.

Kelly: You’re right about that. Let’s see. I’m just looking at these questions. I was thinking about going back to your time with the German scientists. Werner Heisenberg is often quoted in the Farm Hall transcripts at how amazed he was that the United States had the bomb. Did you get a sense from your interviews with these German scientists or from being there at the time how surprised they were and unbelieving that the United States had succeeded.

Furman: I don’t think I can answer that question because I never went there to meet them at Farm Hall. The development of the atomic bomb is a difficult venture, therefore it takes a lot of great minds to put one of these bombs together that work. You can create a dirty bomb if you want without too much trouble. A dirty bomb would be one that would often perhaps spread nuclear poisons over a half of a mile. It wouldn’t be the big explosion—the big bomb. And it’s certainly something we have to avoid because it would take years to rehabilitate those areas where bombs like that were exploded. You better ask me another question.

Paul Williams: It be interesting to hear maybe about the experiences—the adventure you had carrying the bomb from—both in the convoy when the Kentai blew up, and also when you were aboard the Indianapolis. You know, basically describe transporting the bomb from Los Alamos to Tinian. You mentioned it already but a couple of those details would be useful.

Furman: One of things I was asked to do was to take the bomb from Los Alamos to Tinian. I went out and received the bomb and I remember the authorities at Los Alamos wanted a receipt that I’d received it. So I signed a receipt for an atomic bomb which is kind of nice to frame. Then they decided it was too secret for me to keep the receipt, and they actually developed a receipt for a receipt that I had just given them. 

Then I took the bomb in a convoy down the mountains. I was in the center jeep with the bomb and then there were a couple of jeeps ahead of me and a couple of jeeps behind. We were on our way to Albuquerque, the air force base there, where we would pick up a couple of planes, three planes. The trip was pretty much without incident except we had a flat tire; this very secret very important project stood by the side of the road while some GI fixed a tire. But we all went on down—makes you think of the picture of the GI with the minesweeper walking ahead down the road and you can see that behind him was seventy-five trucks following this one man with a minesweeper—same thing. 

Anyway, in Albuquerque we had a delay because the planes weren’t ready. Finally, I got on a plane with the bomb. There was a plane ahead of me and one plane behind me and my orders were to make sure that I went with the bomb; wherever it went I was to go. We all had parachutes and we flew without incident to San Francisco and turned the bomb over and took the bomb aboard the Indianapolis which then sailed the Pacific and delivered the bomb to the air force over there, the 509th composite group, that then flew it in to Japan. What I carried was really half the bomb because if I had the whole bomb the thing would blow up at any time under certain circumstances so the other half was flown over. I kind of think the navy wanted to be part of this project so that’s why half of it went on a navy ship and the other part the air force took. Of course the Indianapolis is a story all by itself. Fortunately we got off at Tinian and a few days later the Indianapolis was sunk in the Chinese Sea somewhere, the Yellow Sea.

Kelly: I know it’s an incredible story. I mean that whole story. You must have been glad you were no longer on it. 

Furman: Oh boy.

Kelly: My goodness. Did you get to know the captain?

Furman: Oh yeah, sure.

Kelly: There’s been a lot talked about Morris “Moe” Berg. Did you know him?

Furman: Yes.

Kelly: Can you tell us?

Furman: Moe Berg was a baseball player of some note in the major leagues. And he was recruited by the OSS and became an agent for them and went abroad during World War II. We used to see him occasionally. We ran into him occasionally because he might be in the same spots—same places that we were. I was not part of this cell but apparently Groves decided to see if Heisenberg could be eliminated and that’s another story. Moe Berg was involved in tracking down Heisenberg in Switzerland. But that’s really the end of the story. Probably a good idea that such a plan was not carried out because it would have caused the Germans to see the immediate importance of an atomic bomb and our involvement and our manufacture of the bomb might be more apparent to them. They might have changed their targets.

Kelly: You went to Princeton too?

Furman: Yeah.

Kelly: But you didn’t overlap?

Furman: No. I don’t know what class he was.

Kelly: I read he spoke seven languages or something. Since you were in Europe all those months do you know or did you learn French and German?

Furman: I got so I could speak French. German—no. I was very poor anyway in French and the little bit I knew got me into trouble because as soon as you began to speak French they immediately would not speak English anymore. So yes I studied French and tried to get so I could talk to the French people but it probably would’ve been better if I hadn’t because you really have to be awfully good at it—probably have to live there for a while. Did you study French?

Kelly: Yes I did. And I agree completely. You have to live there to really become fluent. I completely sympathize (laughter). I wanted to have you tell us the story that you told before—but it’s going to be better quality on this—about Mrs. O’Leary having to find a man who some of her Generals could ask questions of?

Furman: Well General Groves had an executive secretary and her name was Jean O’Leary and she sat right outside his office, took all his calls, took all his dictation, and made all his arrangements for him. She was a terrific person; very, very able. But in those days, not like today, women weren’t recognized. And some of these generals would not talk to a woman and they would demand to talk to somebody else. So a call would come in from say, Lucius Clay, General Clay, for General Groves—and I don’t know whether Clay was the one or not, but anyway—she would turn the phone over to me, and I would make notes and then give her the notes and then she would tell me what to say to Clay, see? So there was this problem and it was something which we have gradually overcome over the years but it was quite prevalent then. Not too many women were heads of organizations; not too many women ran companies. Today it’s kind of common. She was a great friend and a good organizer. The General depended upon her completely.

Kelly: I get the sense she really was a dynamo.

[Tape switch.]

Furman: Details—no. I just knew enough to get around the projects and the visits with the scientists. I relied on my basic information on nuclear science to help me understand what they were trying to do. That was, of course, very helpful. The General made a big effort to educate me. He sent some of his top scientists in to talk to me. At one particular time—he asked Dr. Tolman, who was a big scientist from Caltech, to instruct me. So, Dr. Tolman, thinking what he was going to tell me was super-secret—which it was—he had me meet him in Woods Hole up in Connecticut—is that where it is, Connecticut?

Kelly: Massachusetts.

Furman: Massachusetts.  And we went out in the sail boat and then he talked. There was nobody around and he told me everything I should know. But that gives you an idea of how much secrecy there was around here. He wouldn’t talk to me in a place that might be wired or you might be overheard. Great Guy.

Williams: When Groves and some of the scientists first told you about the plan to build the bomb, did you—obviously, you probably deferred to the scientists because they knew more about how it worked than you. But did you think that this was a stupendous idea or did you think it might just work? Were you surprised? 

Furman: No. From the education I had I knew it would work. But what scared everybody was that there might be several other ways it could work too—that we weren’t making all the approaches to the problem possible. In other words, as one scientists said to me, “I really don’t know whether guy couldn’t develop this in a kitchen”. Now that could happen but that gives you the thought that we were at the frontier of scientific knowledge working our way forward and that explains why there were 150 scientists at Los Alamos. We needed all these people working together to focus on a solution and it’s still true today—we can’t handle this stuff with just two or three people in a laboratory. Any time you’re trying to work on an atomic bomb you’ve gotta have a whole cadre of well-trained people; can’t make a mistake.

Kelly: There were bets taken at Trinity as to whether this gadget was going to work or not work, and at that time there were many that though pessimistically that it really wasn’t going to work—that this was a very uncertain, high-stakes gamble that Groves had undertaken. And I think, certainly earlier before Trinity a lot of the companies he tried to recruit or did recruit were skeptical that they’d be able to do this and certainly within time to be of use during the War. Do you want to talk about that?

Furman: Well Trinity was a test project at the desert there at Alamogordo where they tested the second bomb. Don’t forget I was already on my way with the first bomb, which worked on another principle. The first bomb was two highly concentrated enriched uranium balls which were fired together and the critical mass was exceeded and the bomb went off. Now the other bomb was a plutonium bomb. The bomb itself, when I saw it in Tinian, was a great big ball about the size of a basketball, maybe larger, covered with RDX explosives—shaped explosives. And they fired the damn explosives—they fired the explosives, which compressed the plutonium center and the bomb went off. Two different techniques. So maybe the first one was going to work anyway, it was kind of an elementary—they’ll never build another one like it. The second on was the wave of the future; they’re all plutonium bombs now.

Kelly: Can you explain why they went to look at both these two very different types of bombs? Why did Groves pursue both a plutonium-based bomb and a uranium-based bomb?

Furman: I can’t answer that question. I don’t know.

[Phone rings in background.]

Furman: That must be General Groves calling you right now.

Kelly and Furman: [laughter].

Kelly: You’re not supposed to ask that question [imitating Groves].

Furman: Let me just offhand say that as the project developed they found a way to make plutonium. They were already with the first bomb, so they used it. The second bomb with plutonium was easier to make and cheaper. So that’s just an offhand—

Kelly: One of the sort of themes of our exhibit will be the amazing alliance between the government, the military, and academia—and especially in that Groves, through all his connections from his experience in building all the camps and facilities for the army and the Pentagon, he had gotten to know leading companies that he then turned to to help out with the atomic bomb project. He could quickly know that he had confidence in Du Pont, for example, and bring them into the game and so forth and so on. And then also the university connections—I mean I credit Oppenheimer with knowing a lot of the University people but maybe Groves did too, I don’t know. Could you sort of talk about how effective a coalition was put together and how some of that stemmed back to Groves’ work earlier to build all these munitions facilities and so forth?

Furman: Groves was a mover, an earth mover, a big action man, well-organized, and he was able to think in large terms, large projects, that you and I, you know, we’re not able to do. I can’t think about building a plant half the size of Rhode Island. Because of his experience building all the camps and so forth, he got even better than ever in managing tremendous projects. The Manhattan Project is a tremendous project; it built three or four cities, it managed research in six or seven universities, and he had to keep his finger on all of that. He had this ability—which not everybody has—of being an ultra-manager. He got to know everybody—but that isn’t the principle thing. The principle thing was his ability to act in a very decisive way on very, very large projects—hard to find a man like that. He was an extraordinary manager. As a man to work for he was demanding, but most people say he was quite kind to them; he expected results but the relationships we all had with him were good. He didn’t like to waste time. 

He was quite sympathetic if you got into a spot. But mainly he was a pusher—he learned that from Somerville, I guess. General Somerville was his boss prior to the Manhattan Project. Somerville moved on to be head of supply for the army—imagine that job. Somerville was a tremendous mover and shaker to be able to envision a way of supplying eleven million people in the field overseas and munitions contracts. So there was two great engineer leaders there that we were very thankful to have.

Kelly: What is it about General Groves background that might have created such a person? I mean is it something to do that he had, I don’t know, so much confidence in himself? How did you come to understand who he was and how he became who he was? And maybe you have some insight into that?

Furman: It’s a good question and maybe Dick Groves can answer that—the son. I don’t think I could venture—his training was standard, I mean, good training. First he went to the [U.S. Military] Academy, of course, came out high. And the academy schools did teach people how to manage well, be good managers. But he was an extraordinary one.

Kelly: Stan Norris, in his book, talks about Groves as creating really an intelligence of revolution—I mean what he did to create the security unit, an intelligence unit, and this overseas intelligence unit, and counter-intelligence unit—you know he really did all that superbly well. And then the secrecy—his obsession with secrecy meant that he was hugely powerful in that knowledge is power and he was the only one who really knew it. And even in his memoirs, Now It Can Be Told, talks about how he once wanted to go to visit Churchill in England but he had to decline because he realized if he went down so much of the information, you know, it was all in his head. I don’t know, did you ever think about, “Oh gosh, what would happen if General Groves had a mishap or somehow his plane was shot down, what would happen to the project?”

Furman: You know, your question is a good one. But most of us realized that we had a job to do and number two things were moving very rapidly so we didn’t have the luxury of trying to think of “What if Groves died?” or something. Also the war itself was such a tremendous threat to us all that most of us would say we could find another leader if we had to. Don’t forget this was a war time and tremendous dangers existed everywhere.

I remember one of the scientists had a father—one of the nuclear scientists on the project—his father was on the Italian front, an infantry officer. And his father wrote back, he said “This is some pretty horrible stuff I am going through over here.” 

And his son wrote back, “Well just hang in there because I can’t tell you what I’m doing but it’s going to end the war.” 

And his father wrote back “Glad to hear it but is there any chance it could be tomorrow or the next day, I don’t know whether I can last much longer.” 

As a matter of fact, he died. It’s a terrible struggle—war is no fun. I didn’t have to suffer what a lot of people had to go through fighting their way forward, you know.

Kelly: I think that’s all very helpful. It’s so easy to people, who having been involved in the Iraq War, like ninety-nine percent of the American people could forget that all this happened in the middle of the war. You know, they ask, “Should we have dropped the bomb?” as if there was some kind of calm living room debate, you know, there wasn’t a war going on, an abstract issue. It’s not, it wasn’t.

Furman: I also picked up a report—one of my intelligence sources sent me a report that an old lady in France had seen a trainload go by with barrels of chemicals marked “Uranium Oxide.” And they were going past her and she got this intelligence report out and it reached America. I got it. So uranium oxide is uranium, that’s what it is. It’s one of the first products out of a mine; you take it to a factory and they make this oxide. And it came out of France and it seemed to me that Belgian—you know the Belgians had the refineries for it, because the uranium was being mined in the Belgian Congo. So I took it to Groves and I said, “I’m on to something.” 

So he said, “Go up to see [Edgar] Sengier, he’s head of the Belgian Minière, which is a big mining company. See what he says.” 

So I went up to see him and said, “No, this doesn’t mean anything, nothing at all.” His words were, “An elephant could come through that door before I would believe that this had any value.” So I went back and after talking with Groves, I decided I’d go to Europe and organize a search.

So I went over to France and at that time Eisenhower was down on the French coast in a trailer—the big movement had not yet started up the North. Well I’m wrong about that, the movement had gone as far as the Dutch border, but he was still—he had his headquarters here with General Smith there on the French coast. [Lieutenant Colonel Boris] Pash went with me and Pash had Jeeps and men and people who could help and Pash himself was a dynamo. So we went in to see General Smith, the executive officer. While we were there, of course, General Eisenhower comes by to ask Smith to go out to lunch with him, which I guess he did, but not before he gave us the clearance to go up there to look for this stuff.

So we went up there, Pash and a couple of loads of Jeeps—that was the only time I was right up on the firing lines—and there in the warehouse we found this big warehouse full of this U3O8: three parts uranium, eight parts oxygen. And we arranged—the British were with us, we took some British with us—and with the British, we arranged for about twenty airplanes and a convoy of trucks and we took the stuff out of the factory—out of the warehouse. The Germans were right there, I mean they fired at us once, twice maybe. 

The story is that I was still in my Washington uniform—you know everybody else was in combat uniform—and the story was, that the Germans saw me there and they realized that if the Americans are moving their headquarters up that close, they better move back. And so the next day they moved back twenty miles. That’s just a story, but they did move back. And we transported that stuff by air to Britain where it was kept in safety and I guess they used it. 

But later on, I realized that the train was going in two directions. I mean, it was picking up the stuff but it was taking it down into France, lower France. And we went down there, Pash and I, and found it, found a big supply of uranium, same stuff, in a warehouse near Marseille. So we went over to the Navy and loaded all this uranium on a ship and the ship joined a convoy. Before it left I had a radio that I had confiscated somewhere and I put the radio in with everything else. I mention this because the stuff got to America and was put into storage but whoever handled it delivered my radio to my parents. I don’t quite [remember] how that collection—but now I knew that they got it anyway. That’s the sort of thing you had to do.

And you know, I’ll mention this: when Groves got me started almost the same week he got a letter for me introducing me “To whom it may concern” from General Strong. General Strong was G2 of the Army—big shot. It didn’t make any demands, it said “This is Major Furman, he’s on an extremely important secret mission, if there’s any way you can help him, please help him, or drop dead” signed, whatever. And I carried that throughout the war. And of course that’s how I got those damn—the Navy to put that stuff on a ship for me. Anytime I wanted to travel—I didn’t have travel orders—I just took my letter over to air transport command and they gave me a ticket, whatever it was. And I used it everywhere to get into corporate offices, meet with scientists, and it helped a lot. It got us a lot of information.

Kelly: How old were you during the war?

Furman: This was when I was about twenty-eight maybe. I was born in ‘15, so in 1940 I was twenty-five. So he [Groves] picked me up in ’43; yeah, I was about twenty-eight. But I was a very important twenty-eight of course [laughter].

Kelly: Do you think that—

Furman: Most of us were young—most of us. Everybody you worked with—all young people.

Kelly: That’s true. I think the average age at Los Alamos was twenty-five.

Furman: Yeah. I have a portfolio of pictures all labeled with all the people’s names and everything that accumulated when I was on Tinian; picture of the plane, pictures of the huts, the various generals that came over to greet the Enola Gay when it came back. Someday I’ll show them to you. Pretty neat.

Kelly: That’d be great. I think what we can do we’ll come out and see you and bring our scanner and scan them all in. That would be great. And then record your notes about them.

Furman: The beauty of the pictures is that they’re all labeled with the names of the people in the pictures. I’m not in it, I mean I worked with an army photo group in Tinian and they gave me a complete set, gave me two complete sets.

Kelly: Looking back over your long life and all that you’ve accomplished, how do you feel about those years working on the Manhattan Project?

Furman: Well it was an unusual experience. Of course, when you spend fifty years in the building business that’s also an unusual experience, you wonder why you survived that too. Made a lot of life-long friends. I certainly was in the center of things, the center of the war. That’s why, I guess, everybody’s so interested in it; the Pentagon was the central project, now the atomic bomb project—nothing like it.

I ended up the war with thirty shirts; I used to keep shirts in Italy, and in England, as well as over here so I could carry an extra bottle of booze if I had to. With a bottle of whiskey you could get a Jeep for a week. It took me about five years or six years to wear out all those shirts.

Kelly: So you had all these shirts that you then carried around?

Furman: They’re regular uniform shirts. You know, the old khaki shirts.

Kelly: Oh I see you had to have different ones issued when you were in Italy?

Furman: Well I left some shirts there so that I wouldn’t have to carry them the next time I came back. I made five trips to Europe. The first trip, of course, was when Rome fell and we went into Italy to talk to the Italian scientists. That’s where I met Moe Berg for the first time—he was there to for the same reason. Then four other trips to England or France.

Kelly: What did you learn from the Italian effort?

Furman: We learned that they were excluded by the Germans from any important stuff. The two Italian scientists, Dr. Wick and Dr. Amaldi—I remember those two, there was a third one who’s name I can’t remember—but they were not in on anything. So we came away with the feeling that the project could be there, but they [Germans] weren’t including the Italians in the project if there was one. That was, you know, 1944 I guess.

[Tape switch.]

Furman: The Alsos mission was a separate mission that I had a hand in organizing. Vannevar Bush appointed [Samuel] Goudsmit to head up the scientific side. Vannevar Bush was the head of the ORD [Office of Research and Development] and he managed and placed all the scientists during the war—that isn’t all he did but that’s one of his things. So Goudsmit was there and Goudsmit had to have a way of getting around, so the military side of it was handled by Pash, Colonel Pash, who was a very energetic guy, very good officer. 

The day had four or five scientists there all the time and then there were a number of scientists that came and went. We just opened the door and if scientific people wanted come over and sit with us—sit with admission. Fine. But they were there and they were constantly interviewing people covering all the scientific disciplines: rocketry, you know, munitions, whatever. And buried in this mission we had three atomic scientists. I think of two of them right now; I guess Goudsmit was one, Whartenberg from Du Pont was another, and then there was—I’ll think of it in a minute, doesn’t matter. This is the way we hid our interest in another mission, which we didn’t want this mission to be known as the “Atomic Energy-interested” commission. So we set up a multi-discipline mission and buried our people in it. I went over there and spent some time with them and then we had—Lansdale set up an officer in England who would work with the British on intelligence continuously. And that was the effort. Lansdale didn’t come over until the war was almost over and he spent all of his time on security matters here in the States. 

I had a number of meetings with Niels Bohr, the Danish scientist who thought he knew what was going on in Germany and he was approximately right. I met him both in England and in the United States.

Kelly: I have a question on that. In the Hyde Park Memo, there’s a memo that was summing up the meeting that Winston Churchill had with Roosevelt in September of 1944. The memo’s only about three paragraphs, three sentences really. One’s dealing with after the war cooperation and another one that sort of strangely enough deals with Niels Bohr. And Churchill apparently had great distrust of Niels Bohr.

Furman: Oh he did?

Kelly: Yes. And he said we need to track him down, we need to contain him, he’s a big risk—I don’t know. Do you have any sense—did Groves feel that way?

Furman: No. No I hadn’t heard of this before. It surprises me. Niels Bohr came over and gave us a lot of help on the scientific side. He knew pretty much what was going on in Germany, but nobody was sure. Fine man.

Kelly: I was just curious. Did you get to know Leo Szilard in Chicago?

Furman: Szilard, No. I never knew Szilard. I read a lot about him, I think I probably met him once. I read his book—the book that your friend, Will Lanouette—I read his book. Great job. Groves did not like Szilard. I don’t know if I can really—I don’t know enough to talk about it, but just generally.

Kelly: Well what other little stories have we not prompted you to tell that we really should: funny stories or human interest stories or near-escapes? I love many of the stories you’ve told.

Furman: You’ve covered about everything. If I think of some I’ll let you know. I just think that it’s wonderful that you’ve got this interest and are trying to maintain a library of facts about the project so that as we go forward into the future we can work in such a way as to avoid any thought of using nuclear weapons.

Kelly: Could you make another sort of summary statement along those lines that we could use maybe so that you can tell people to take this seriously as we go into the future not to make use of these things?

Furman: Well to sum it all up, the dropping of the atomic bomb started the atomic age. We are in the atomic age now, fifty, sixty years. It is still the biggest thing we have to manage and we hope that we can have leaders in this country who will help—in a world-wide project—help us all live with both the benefits and the great destructive values of being in this atomic times.

Kelly: I assume that you were not so much involved with all the early Cold War efforts to fashion international controls and all that, right? I mean you went on to the private sector, is that right?

Furman: Yeah. I had a choice at the end of the war to either go back and get my doctorate in physics and stay with nuclear work or to start my own construction company. And I decided that I knew best what to do in a construction company, so that’s what I did—although it would have been fascinating to become part of the post-war nuclear efforts. But you know it’s funny I knew so many people in the Manhattan project that I was building for a doctor—a medical building or something—and he said to me, “We’ll have to close this meeting because I’m meeting some very important nuclear scientists.” Of course, he meant by that that I was not up to their level. So I excused myself and on my way out I met the scientists and they were all people I knew and we had a nice talk. My client wasn’t quite sure what to do with me after that.

Kelly: That’s great.

Furman: There was a time, you know, after the war when they would come by to see me. I had a house in Georgetown—I had a chance to visit with them, but that soon tapered off.

Kelly. That’s great. Well you have done a fabulous job.

Furman: Thank you for listening to me.

[End of interview.]

Copyright 2013 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.