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According to some sources I have read, the third atomic bomb constructed by the US "disappeared w/o a trace" from a warship while en route to Tinian in 1946 or -47 (?).

This was duly corroborated by vice admiral Allis Zacharias, a member of the US Naval Secret Service. As late as early 1948 the US did not possess another bomb.

Is this true or false?

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

closed as off-topic by Mark C. Wallace, jwenting, Ne Mo, John Dallman, congusbongus Mar 16 '17 at 23:31

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    "According to some sources"... What sources? – Thomas Francois Mar 16 '17 at 10:29
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    Note that I am unable to find any evidence of "US Naval Secret Service", nor can I find any record of Allis Zacharias - vice admirals should exist in google. I suspect this question is either fictitious, or based on fictitious references. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 16 '17 at 11:14
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because the question demonstrates no research and refers to non-existent entities. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 16 '17 at 11:15
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    @Fred's answer is excellent; I will retract my close vote if the question is edited based on Fred's answer. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 16 '17 at 11:57
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's silly – Ne Mo Mar 16 '17 at 15:59
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To begin with, there was no Vice Admiral Allis Zacharias. But there was a Captain Ellis Zacharias who did serve as the deputy director of US naval intelligence. More can be read about Captain Ellis Zacharias.

As for the US not having a third nuclear bomb until 1948, this is totally incorrect because the US conducted Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in mid 1946, which involved detonating two nuclear devices.

They were the first nuclear weapon tests since Trinity in July 1945, and the first detonations of nuclear devices since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The purpose of the tests was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on warships.

More information from the Smithsonian Institution about the tests.

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First, I believe the OP is referring to a fourth atomic bomb. There were three constructed and used during the war, though one was a test rig.

  • Trinity, an implosion plutonium bomb used for testing.
  • Little Boy, a gun-type uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
  • Fat Man, an implosion plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

The gun-type uranium design was more conservative, but imploding a plutonium core was more efficient. Future bombs would all have plutonium cores.

Each bomb has a core of fissile material. If you're keeping track, that's two plutonium cores and one uranium core used in WWII. There were no more bombs completed during WWII, but the parts were including more plutonium cores. The most famous of these is the Demon Core.

Since this was the third plutonium core produced, and its fate was uncertain until very recently, I believe this might be the nugget of the claim of a "missing third bomb".


The Demon Core

Officially the Demon Core was HS-5,6;R-2 (plutonium-gallium hemispheres 5 & 6, plus a ring to separate them) and was being tested for use. HS-1,2 were used in Trinity, no ring. HS-3,4;R-1 were used in Fat Man. HS-7;R4 was being prepared (the records don't mention HS-8). So this was the third plutonium core produced.

It had originally been made in anticipation of needing to drop more bombs on Japan, but Truman put a halt to that, and shortly after Japan surrendered. Los Alamos had the parts of a third bomb ready to go, but it was never shipped during the war. They used the core for testing and it was involved in two major accidents that killed two scientists.

On August 21, 1945, Harry Daghlian was conducting experiments with the cores just below critical mass. He slipped and dropped a brick of tungsten carbide into the test assembly making the core briefly super-critical. He quickly pulled the brick away with his bare hand but had already received a lethal dose. He died 25 days later.

The super-critical event would make the core too radioactive for use for some time.

On May 21, 1946, Louis Slotin was again experimenting with the same core by hand. He had lowered the two halves of the core together separated by a screwdriver preventing them from going critical. He could adjust the separation by changing the angle of the screwdriver by hand, a procedure aptly known as "tickling the dragon's tail".

enter image description here

(A reconstruction of Slotin's fatal experiment. No, really! Bare hands and all.)

He slipped and the cores briefly went super-critical before he pulled them apart. Slotin received a lethal dose of radiation and died 9 days later.


The Third Core's Fate

The core was intended to be used at the third test, Charlie, of Operation Crossroads, but again time was needed for its radioactivity to decline after the criticality accident. Charlie test was scheduled for March 1st, 1947, but was cancelled after Baker (the second test) was unexpectedly radioactive and the test site could not be cleaned up in time.

It was not known what became of the Demon Core, the early US nuclear program was very sketchy. Finally in 2016 interviews and searches of the archives revealed the Demon Core was ultimately melted down and reused for another core.


Sources

  • Why was Little Boy dropped before Fat Man? The first atomic bomb used in warfare was an untested design? – bof Mar 19 '17 at 10:35
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    @bof Because it was very simple, and they didn't have much U-235. Little Boy was basically a gun barrel that fired a sub-critical piece of U-235 into a U-235 target to create a super-critical piece of U-235. In contrast implosion bombs are very tricky, it's like a soccer ball of explosives around a hollow plutonium core that all goes off just right to crush the core. So a test was needed. They had the spare plutonium, but not the U-235. It's incredibly expensive and difficult to enrich uranium. They tested all the parts of Little Boy, but there was no all-up test. – Schwern Mar 19 '17 at 18:13
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    See also "A review of Criticality Accidents", Los Alamos National Laboratory, 2000, LA-13638, which contains more details of the Demon Core. – Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Apr 11 '17 at 21:12
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This story likely originates in a confused and sensationalised account of the fate of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35). This ship delivered some of the parts of Little Boy to Tinian, and was sunk four days later, on 30th July 1945, by a Japanese submarine.

Owing to a series of mistakes, nobody took any notice of the ship's failure to arrive at its destination, and the survivors of the sinking were not rescued for four days, by which time the majority had died.

Addendum: An additional Fat Man device would have been ready on August 19th 1945, but General Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project ordered that its core should not be shipped to Tinian.

  • The OP sounds more like he did not understand the story completely. – SMS von der Tann Mar 19 '17 at 0:34

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