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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert Furman

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Interview with Dr. Robert Furman
By Finn Aaserud
At Frederick, Maryland
March 7, 2002

 
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Robert Furman; March 7, 2002

ABSTRACT: Interview concentrates on Furman's efforts during World War II. Furman worked directly under General Leslie Groves to obtain intelligence about a possible German atomic bomb project. The activities included joining physicist Samuel Goudsmit in the ALSOS project in Europe after D-Day. The interview was conducted as part of the interviewer's project to gather information about Danish physicist Niels Bohr's World War II activities.

Transcript

Aaserud:

I should say first that we are in Robert Furman's home. This is the afternoon of 7 March 2002, and I would like to ask you a little bit about your involvement with Niels Bohr in particular during the war.

Furman:

Just cut it. Ill get that tea.

Aaserud:

Well, we got started. We are continuing after you made some nice tea.

Furman:

We moved here about two years ago. This is a retirement village and I'm the only guy that works. The rest of them are all fully retired, but they're so busy with lectures, activities and trips that they are exhausted and that some of them have told me that they have failed retirement. But anyway, glad you can come. I was involved as an officer in General Groves's office, an aide to the General and with a special assignment which came about because although WWII was a big military operation with perhaps eleven million men and women in uniform before it was over. It was equally a scientists' and mathematicians' war. There were so many new weapons being developed and deployed, one being the atomic bomb. Hundreds of physicists and scientists were involved in the atomic bomb project, prominent among them Dr. Niels Bohr. The scientists who worked on the bomb have claimed the Manhattan Project as their war project, so large and complete was their contribution to its success.

Aaserud:

Perhaps you could say a little bit about how you became involved. What was your background ?

Furman:

I'm a civil engineer. General Groves was initially in charge of the big national construction program of camps and facilities of all kinds in America that got America up and ready for the war. He did a great job at that assignment. But when it came to an end, he was made the head of the Manhattan District, the organization that developed the atomic bomb. It so happened that he also was a big tennis player, spent much of his life playing the game. He used to see me playing tennis at the nearby Army & Navy Country Club. I played tennis with him occasionally, but he thought he was much better than I with perhaps good reason. So he, most of the time, excluded me from his games. But occasionally when he was desperate to play, he would let me hit a few balls with him. Prior to that, I was in the construction program that he ran. I was one of the six (6) officers assigned to the construction of the Pentagon, which is the big war facility. He got to know me there.

Aaserud:

When was that?

Furman:

The Pentagon project started in '41 and the Manhattan Project assignment started in August '43. He saw me on the tennis courts on a Thursday and asked me what I was doing. The next thing I knew, it was Monday and I had been reassigned to him.

Aaserud:

What did you do before that?

Furman:

I was one of the military officers at the Pentagon building (overseeing the construction of the Pentagon). I was also given the construction of three (3) military facilities to supervise located in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. Military construction in America eventually came to a close. Just as a note I remember that at the conclusion of the Pentagon construction many hours were spent by General Groves and Colonel Clarence Renshaw, my immediate boss, explaining to Senator Harry Truman why the construction of the Pentagon went from a budget of 35 million to the final cost of perhaps 78 million. Truman was investigating waste. When you think of it, today they're repairing the Pentagon with a construction budget now exceeding a billion dollars. General Groves took me into the Manhattan Project. He explained what the problem was which was to become my assignment. I was going to work directly under him. He gave me a convenient office nearby. He explained to me the difficulties he was having with the scientific staff that had been employed to develop the atomic bomb. The scientists had all been trained (at least a large number of them) in Germany before the war and they knew the capacity of the Germans to do the nuclear scientific work to create atomic energy or a bomb.

Aaserud:

This was shortly after Groves had been assigned?

Furman:

This was in August of '43. The project was well underway. He had a huge staff of scientists, but he couldn't get them to concentrate on the work at hand. They were really very anxious and frightened about the Germans capacity to have an atomic bomb project. The ability and capacity for a successful project were there. He and his scientific associates immediately gave me a list of about 40 to 45 German scientists who were well educated and trained and could be and would very likely be involved in a German project if there was one, Heisenberg being one of the principal scientists who might be the head of such a project. General Groves's plans were to get information to his scientific staff and to make them aware of the Army's interest in doing everything possible to find out what was going on in Germany. To date, no information was coming back to the project from overseas.

In 1943 there was no central agency collecting intelligence. There was no CIA. Intelligence gathering was divided up among the various military forces the Army, the Navy and private corporations such as General Electric and Westinghouse. They all had their own intelligence gathering departments. No reports of any kind were being received.

On the other hand the British had a well organized experienced intelligence organization, a centralized system that worked well for them. I was immediately introduced to their principal people. Remember that in '43 information coming to the British or us on atomic science was almost nil. No one really knew what was going on in Germany, no idea. The scientists suggested one way of determining German scientific interest and activity which was to go to Switzerland or Sweden and pick up recent scientific journals that might be available there. Scientific papers published by any of the 40 or 45 German scientists might indicate what they were working on and thinking about.

Aaserud:

If they were publishing at all.

Furman:

So we did just that. We collected scientific journals and sent them back to a team of project scientists in the U.S. to review. Meantime I was making the rounds of all the various government agencies and major corporations that were collecting information and in the vaguest possible way telling them of our need for information and asking them for help. I couldn't tell them that I was looking for information on a possible atomic bomb, of course. I had to describe my interest to them in broad terms. I left instructions that if anything unusual showed up, to contact me. We got some information coming back, but nothing conclusive.

Eventually the armies went up into Italy and I went to Rome and had interviews with Wick and Amaldi, Italian nuclear physicists (and there was one other whose name escapes me) in an effort to find out what they were doing and who they might have talked to and to get some idea about what was going on in Germany. We concluded that there was nothing going on in Italy and if there was a project in progress in Germany, the Germans hadn't involved any of these three outstanding nuclear physicists. Back in the States one day going to work, I heard on the radio that Dr. Niels Bohr in the middle of the war had escaped to Sweden. When I got to work, I reported what I had heard to the General. He immediately went up in flames at his whole security staff, because they had been told to advise the press not to publish anything about this event. Bohr's escape was supposed to be a secret. As a protection for the project and to help keep the project secret there was a whole list of subjects that the press could not comment on. It wasn't long before I had a chance to talk with Niels Bohr right here in Washington.

Aaserud:

You toured Europe before that, is that right?

Furman:

No, you see, the invasion hadn't occurred as yet. I'd been to England. My memory isn't that clear whether or not I met Dr. Bohr in England. Anyway, in Washington we had two dinners together, he and his son Jim. We dined at the Army Navy Country Club. Jim sat down and played the piano so beautifully. Is he still alive?

Aaserud:

Yes, he is.

Furman:

Where is he now?

Aaserud:

He's at the University of Copenhagen, at the Niels Bohr Institute, where his father was. He got the Nobel Price in physics too.

Furman:

Oh, he did. That's wonderful. That gives you some sort of outline of what I was doing. We eventually set up the Alsos mission under Dr. Samuel Goudsmit and followed the armies through Europe, picking up German scientists and nuclear material as the armies progressed. When we got to Strasbourg, France on the Rhine River and the French/German border, we got enough information together we thought, to give a positive report that the Germans didn't really have a project going. We knew where Dr. Hahn was along with some of the other leading scientists.

Aaserud:

But even before the Alsos mission you were trying to obtain information from Germany.

Furman:

Yes.

Aaserud:

How did you do that before the Alsos mission?

Furman:

I visited the intelligence offices of all the armed forces and the offices of several large corporations. By working through the chiefs or Department Heads, I made it known what I was looking for. There was feed-back, some information to study. On one occasion through intelligence reports so obtained, I picked up from a Navy report that a Frenchman watching a train go by in France reported shipments of U3O8 (Uranium Oxide) going south through France. Immediately I knew that was my target, and very important, so I got on a plane. Of course before I departed, I went up to New York and visited the president of the Belgian conglomerate, Union Minière. He didn(t know anything about it. He told me that the report was impossible; there wasn't U3O8 like that in Belgium, forget it! But we just got on the plane anyway. It wouldn't hurt to check. I met with Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, W. B. Smith. He arranged for us to get to the Belgian-Netherlands border. We traced the train back to a particular warehouse. We arrived just as the Germans retreated to the other side of the warehouse making it possible to enter it. We searched the warehouse and found there about twenty tons of refined ore stored away in barrels or kegs. Just as an aside, it all happened so quickly that I was still in my Washington dress uniform.

Almost immediately after we arrived the Germans retreated ten miles. Jokingly the American military said that I had caused that retreat. They reasoned that the Germans seeing my uniform thought that the Allies were strong, that if they were going to move their headquarters up to where that warehouse was, they'd better get back a bit. General Smith also arranged for twenty DC-1 air transport planes, the same type of plane that we were using for passenger airliners in the States, so that we could move U3O8 to England. In this way we obtained a substantial supply of uranium for the project. Later on I traced that train in the other direction where we found a cache of U3O8 in Marseille. We put that on a transport and shipped it back to the United States.

Aaserud:

When was this visit to Belgium?

Furman:

It was after the invasion, of course. D-day was June '44. So it was probably September '44.

Aaserud:

But before then, for example, Niels Bohr (and other scientists too, perhaps) came to the United States. Before then, Niels Bohr had some knowledge of what was going on in Germany, or at least had this meeting with Heisenberg. Is this something that also went into the equation at the time? To what extent were you briefed by him and to what extent did you get something out of it?

Furman:

Dr. Bohr's bottom line to me was that he believed that the Germans were not involved in a project to create a bomb and he went into some detail. He knew (he thought he knew) where some of the German scientists were. I had a list of the scientists and we went down the list. He thought he knew where some were and for some he didn't know their present whereabouts. Some had gone to Russia. Meanwhile, the British were having a difficult time just holding themselves together. Under the pressure of the war they didn't have any extra time or money to investigate the possibility of a German atomic project. They had come to the conclusion at the time Bohr came to England that there wasn't going to be a German bomb. I went over to England to meet with the British on the possibility of a German atomic project. About the same time General Groves sent over three distinguished scientists who were to try to patch up the scientific relationship between the British and the Americans, which at that time had fallen into disarray.

Aaserud:

This was before D-day?

Furman:

This was back in October '43. At that point the British had not yet become fully involved with the Manhattan Project. The meetings were successful in patching things up and getting the British on board. They eventually sent scientists to the States.

Aaserud:

Bohr was actually in England at that time?

Furman:

He came over to England. The British may have known more about what was going on in Germany than they could tell us. At one point they broke the German code. By breaking the code they may have determined what the priorities were in Germany. For security reasons they couldn't tell everything they had learned. They talked in very guarded language in order to protect their ability to continue to listen to German coded messages.

Aaserud:

Even to American Intelligence?

Furman:

Yes, they couldn't take a chance. There was very valuable information coming to them. So they may have had a better hold on things than we could know. Because of their situation, they didn't have any choice. Considering their limited resources, if there was a 10 percent chance of a German bomb, they had to take it, whereas the Americans didn't have to take a 10 percent chance. That was considered a big risk. Therefore people like me, who were involved in trying to get to the bottom of the question and determining whether there was any German bomb project or not, we had those extra facilities to use to lessen the risk.

Bohr was certainly a wonderful person to be with. He was a very kind man and he spoke softly. Not like in the play (Copenhagen!) He was a very soft-spoken gentleman and he was so willing to give credit to anybody; he didn't take credit for himself.

Aaserud:

That is true. There are many examples of that.

Furman:

He was very kind to me when you think about it. Here I am, just 28 years old; what did I know?

Aaserud:

But it was perhaps difficult too, with regard to intelligence. He wasn't too good at keeping his name secret.

Furman:

No, no (laughing). They had a code name for him. I forgot it. What was it?

Aaserud:

Baker, Nick Baker. Because Oppenheimer always wrote to him as (Uncle Nick) after the war.

Furman:

Really? Project security was very tight. For instance, Groves was trying to find qualified people to help him down at Los Alamos, so he would pick out people he needed. During an interview he was asked but he couldn't tell them where they were going to be sent. Most of them went willingly anyway. But I remember one instance in New York, where a particular scientist was being interviewed. He asked where he might be going. They said, "We just can't tell you." He said, "just for instance, can I hear my favorite radio program there?" And he named his favorite radio show and they said, "No." He said, "In that case, I'm not going." I came out of college with a good background in basic physics (in general physics). The General, of course, who was twenty years older, had come out of college with a very limited amount of modern day physics, especially in terms of physics as it was thought in 1943. So he was very surprised to find out that this great secret of his was no complete secret to me.

Aaserud:

You even knew something about nuclear physics?

Furman:

We were taught that matter and energy were one, all the same — in somewhat greater detail than that. That kind teaching was not in the old texts. So this to Groves was a big secret. He kept a physics book in his safe and he lent it to me. But I always had to put it back in the safe. He didn't realize that I had physics books at home. Regardless, I had to bone up on physics so that I could talk to the scientists that I was working with. I was being instructed by Dr. Vannevar Bush. The scientists were asked to educate me. Dr. Richard Tolman, for instance, took me out in a sailboat from Woods Hole Massachusetts, and when we got far from shore, he looked all around and began educating me in the science behind the nuclear bomb project.

Aaserud:

If I remember correctly, Tolman was the American physicist in England when Bohr came there.

Furman:

Yes. I was over there too. I think, as I now recall, that they met and I met Bohr there. But I didn't... They were busy, of course, so I waited for my interviews with Bohr when I was back in the States.

Aaserud:

Because I think Tolman related the message from Groves to Bohr personally that Groves was interested in his coming.

Furman:

And he agreed at that point.

Aaserud:

There were negotiations about his role, whether he would be part of the British contingent or how that should be worked out.

Furman:

Bohr was not interested in worrying about that. He had to decide whether he would be with the project or not. Generally, you see. That's how I got connected. I stayed with the project to the very end of the war. Eventually when VE-Day occurred, the General assigned me to take half of the Hiroshima bomb over to Tinian. I went over on the USS Cruiser, Indianapolis, and got off in time. Five days later it sank. Then later I escorted a scientific team into Japan and Korea to determine what was going on in the universities, in the mines and the big corporations there, to see if there was evidence of a bomb project. We didn't think that they had the capacity. We could only name eight nuclear Japanese scientists that had been trained in Germany before the war. So we reasoned, you can't organize a big project around eight scientists. The other point of fear in the scientists' mind was that they (our American scientists) were quite sure that they could develop a bomb in three or four different ways. All of our attempts turned out to be successful in varying degrees. But they weren't sure whether somebody else couldn't do it in another much simpler way to exaggerate, perhaps in a kitchen on a small budget and thereby completely surpass our efforts. To accomplish our purposes meanwhile, we were building enormous installations and plants half the side of Rhode Island.

Aaserud:

Were the physicists concerned about that?

Furman:

Yes. They were concerned and to some degree frightened. The scientists were working on the frontier of scientific knowledge. When you read the later reports and books on the development of the atomic bomb, you learn that even with this great team of American scientists, they didn't quite know exactly how the bomb was going to work until near the end.

Aaserud:

There were surprises lurking around every corner.

Furman:

Yes. I've forgotten all of my physics, so I can't get into that. After the war I had to think whether I wanted to go back to get my Master(s degree in physics and stay with nuclear physics. I decided that I really wanted to go into business for myself. So I became a commercial builder.

Aaserud:

Did you actually serve as a communicator between Groves and the physicists?

Furman:

Yes. There was some of that that went on. For instance, Groves on one occasion handed me a letter from a physicist, which he didn't quite understand and said, "Why don't you put this in ordinary language for me?" So I went back to my desk and I restated the letter in military language and sent it back to him. "This is what he is trying to tell you." He then wrote a reply and gave it back to me saying, "Put it back in scientific writing." There were a number of military people who didn't have any idea how to work with scientists. Scientists are different. At the end of the war considering the fact that I had been working with all these scientists, I was afraid that they would all get together with me in New York for a parade down Fifth Avenue. Groves's problem was trying to manage these scientists. They were free thinkers. If you told them to do a job, they might do it. Or they might do something else. I remember Groves tried to organize a meeting in Chicago of all the big brains, but they didn't all turn up on time. One of them just took an extra day or two down in Oak Ridge because he thought he was needed.

Aaserud:

But on the whole it worked surprisingly well.

Furman:

The relationship between the scientists and the military wasn't as great as it could have been. But maybe the relationship was normal, because when you read about how Oppenheimer reorganized the scientists, lifted all the barriers, security more or less went out the window. Maybe not the security necessary to keep foreigners out of the area, but a lessening of security in order for project scientists to communicate, compare ideas and to think of new solutions. That was about the only way Groves could get the final touch.

Aaserud:

And that was accepted in the end by Groves?

Furman:

In the end it was.

Aaserud:

Were you involved in those discussions?

Furman:

No. I didn't go west too much. He was the overall project executive; but, he assigned all of the projects, except Los Alamos and the university sites, to his assistant, General Nichols. I worked out of Groves's office.

Aaserud:

In Washington?

Furman:

In Washington. Things happened which called for me to run errands for him. Assignments that his Chief of Staff, Jean O'Leary, couldn't do because she was a woman, but could expertly direct. Women executives were not as accepted as they are today. She couldn't handle some of the military. Groves would tell me to get in touch with Jean O'Leary who would tell me what he, Groves, wanted done. As a result, I would go over to General Marshall or General Clay with a message or mission.

Aaserud:

So you had a lot to do with her too?

Furman:

Yes. She was a great friend and I often think that she has never given enough credit.

Aaserud:

She must have played a very important role.

Furman:

Yes. She was very intelligent. Groves leaned on her very hard.

Aaserud:

I think it was interesting what you said at the outset about that it was perhaps just as important to reassure the physicists that the Germans wouldn't be successful first as to find out the information itself.

Furman:

Yes.

Aaserud:

So could you say something about how you were able to reassure the physicists in their work?

Furman:

I had to meet with the scientists. None of them knew what if anything the military were doing. The military thought it was their project and that the scientists simply worked on the project. The scientists didn't quite feel that way about it. So throughout the war I was going around all the military people and talking with the scientists. They were giving me the kinds of questions they wanted answered. I would investigate and report back to them. I would meet them at their jobs at the universities. Later on after D-day, and after Alsos got working, I actually sent scientists overseas. I took them off the project, one or two at a time, and put them into Alsos for three or four weeks. At this time I can't remember who they were. This kind of an assignment would be a way of reassuring the scientists about what's going on in the war and making them part of the effort. Alsos was a scientific mission of about forty different scientists (technical, scientific) people selected to cover all the different scientific disciplines. In that group we buried three knowledgeable nuclear scientists. Project scientists would come to Alsos, move with the armies and get the feeling for what the armies were doing. They would then return to the project with a first-hand experience to share. It brought the war closer to the project.

Aaserud:

But by that time it was clear that the Germans were defeated.

Furman:

Well, they and we were still fighting. They were moving back and I don't think any of us ever felt they were really defeated until the end of the war, particularly when you consider the Battle of the Bulge. We were close to victory but then came that shakeup. Where were you?

Aaserud:

I wasn't born.

Furman:

When were you born?

Aaserud:

'48.

Furman:

You missed all the fun.

Aaserud:

Bohr corresponded a lot with his wife, who was in Sweden.

Aaserud:

What I was saying was that Niels Bohr wrote to his wife, Margrethe, during the war. She lived in Sweden and he couldn't say anything about what he was doing, of course. But he did write her once in a while to ask her to find out from the German scientists in Stockholm what they knew about the situation in German physics and the location of German physicists. For example, Lise Meitner corresponded with other scientists in Germany. My question is whether he did that totally on his own or whether that was part of an effort that you were aware of or whether he reported to you on this?

Furman:

I don't have any clear memory of that. I know that we tried to reach Lise Meitner. She was very guarded, as she had to be. We didn't get a great deal of information from her. We did work through the Navy Attache in Stockholm. He had one man who (he's in Arnold Kramish's book, I have forgotten his name) who was a book salesman or publisher in Germany and who visited Sweden. He dropped just enough information to give us a clue as to the fact that there wasn't much going on in Germany. He was also very guarded. That one breakthrough we got, nothing else.

Aaserud:

Did you ever go to Sweden?

Furman:

I never went to Sweden. We followed the heavy water plants in Norway which eventually the American decided to bomb. We followed the shipments of heavy water from Norway.

Aaserud:

I think that the relations to Sweden as far as Bohr was concerned went through Eric Welsh, certainly when he was in England. So Eric Welsh might have been involved in that kind of information gathering too. Perhaps you could say something about your relationship with Welsh and British intelligence in more general terms.

Furman:

Welsh was always in the meetings with me when I was in England. Mr. Perrin and Welsh would meet me together. We were updating each other. Welsh was apparently a trusted British Navy officer. He slurred his words which made me listen very carefully. He also spoke through an unlit cigarette which dangled from his mouth and dropped ashes down all over his blue uniform. I don't know. I had this funny feeling about Welsh. We had to get along with all the British. He was one of those and he was a character.

Aaserud:

How old was he?

Furman:

Maybe thirty-five.

Aaserud:

So it was Perrin and Welsh who briefed you?

Furman:

I tried to work directly with Perrin. The British were very spread out. Perrin must have had three other assignments. So anytime I looked up Perrin, he might at that time be working on some other assignment.