On September 21, 1945, the New York Times published a brief item headlined “Atomic Bomb Worker Died From Burns.” Officials at Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb, used against Japan just the month before, were created, revealed that six days earlier a “worker” had died “from burns in an industrial accident.” His name was Harry Daghlian, age 24, identified only as an instructor at Purdue University who had joined the bomb project in November 1943.
That was it. There was no information about the nature of the “industrial accident,” when it had occurred, or why the fatality was being reported five days after the fact. This wire service report would be the only mention of the incident in the American media. Only years later would details of the accident emerge.
Daghlian was, in fact, no mere industrial “worker” but a scientist intimately involved with the bomb project. He had even helped assemble the core of the Trinity bomb. Daghlian worked at what was known as the Omega Site, where technicians experimented with pushing hemispheres of plutonium together, then waited for a chain reaction to begin. The trick, of course, was to not let the chain reaction get out of hand. That was why this row of buildings was built distant from the main facility at Los Alamos.
On the evening of August 21, Harry Daghlian was conducting an experiment at the Omega Site when he dropped a thirteen-pound tungsten brick on top of a cabin that held a sphere of plutonium. This caused neutrons to reflect off the critical mass. The air surrounding the cabin started glowing purple—the effect Daghlian had observed around the mushroom cloud at Trinity. In a panic, Daghlian attempted to control the reaction by tipping over the table, but it refused to move. Finally, with his bare hands, he tore away the bricks surrounding the plutonium, allowing the neutrons to escape. (An incident much like this, with John Cusack in this role, was re-enacted in the film Fat Man and Little Boy.)
Believing he was not seriously injured, Daghlian left the Omega Site, but within hours he felt sick and went to the hospital. During the following days, Daghlian exhibited many of the symptoms of radiation disease then being reported in Japan (and dismissed as “propaganda” by General Groves and others).
The ironies are tragic and profound. Across the globe, thousands of Japanese lay dying from radiation expelled by a bomb produced at Los Alamos, which now had a victim of its own. Anyone interested in studying what the bomb had wrought in Japan only had to visit Daghlian in the hospital. Anyone who doubted the stories of death-by-radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have watched it transpire right at Los Alamos.
Daghlian would hang on for twenty-four days. Then his death would be attributed to “burns” from “an industrial accident.” Suppression of the real cause of death was so complete that one year later, when Daghlian’s former boss, a scientist named Louis Slotin, died after a similar accident, Time magazine referred to Slotin as “the first peacetime victim of nuclear fission,” which was not true.
Once again the government had attempted to obscure the cause of death, but was forced to acknowledge the truth about Slotin after Manhattan Project scientists protested.
Both the Slotin and Daghlian tragedies are explored in Michael Lista’s new book of poems, Bloom, published by Anansi. It adds to this story James Joyce, the Trojan Horse, John Cusack and more.
In just this way, a policy of downplaying the dangers of radiation—what the Manhattan Project officially referred to as its “special hazard”—was established in the United States. (It’s the cornerstone of my new book and e-book, Atomic Cover-Up.) For decades this would have severe implications for workers in the nuclear power and nuclear weapons industries, for residents of communities adjoining those installations, for soldiers and civilians subjected to dangerous fallout from nuclear tests, for American medical patients subjected to fatal radiation experiments.
To really convey the impact of the first atomic bomb, all media coverage should mention America Ground Zero. There we’d find Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin, atomic soldiers and nuclear workers, medical guinea pigs and downwinders—the legacy of Hiroshima.
Gregg Mitchell’s latest book is titled Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki and The Greatest Movie Never Made. He previously wrote Hiroshima in America with Robert Jay Lifton.