Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Africa (6)
But Nichols had only hinted at the horrors. He made no mention to Groueff, for instance, of the 1941 massacre, at Elizabethville (Lubumbashi), of 15 uranium workers, during a strike for higher pay. Amour Maron, the Belgian Governor of Katanga, personally gunned down Léonard Mpoyi, the strike leader.
In any event, Nichols and the MED team nearly missed the boat. Knowledge of Katanga’s unique mineral lode, had long eluded the bomb-makers. That the United States (U.S.) Army eventually obtained the ore, is due largely to another momentous happenstance, across the Atlantic Ocean from Congo.
Uranium is not a rare metal. It’s rather abundant on Earth’s surface. But the bomb-builders didn’t know this. There were, within MED circles, three reputed sources of ore: the Eldorado Mine at Great Bear, in the Canadian Arctic; a deposit at Paradox, Colorado; and Czechoslovakia’s Joachimsthal mines.
Hitler had swallowed up Czechoslovakia; and neither the Big Bear nor the Colorado mines could satisfy the U.S. Army’s rapacious appetite for ore. “They urgently needed a source,” noted Vincent G. Jones, of the Army Center for Military History, “that could provide high-grade uranium on short notice”.
In “Manhattan: The Army And The Bomb,” Jones reported that the Office of Scientific Research and Development S-1 Committee (OSRD—the executive committee of the Manhattan Project) would later discover a solution which had, for nearly two years, been staring MED in the face.
When World War II broke out, in 1939, Union Miniere (UMHK) had closed and flooded the Shinkolobwe mine. But several thousand tonnes of pitchblende ore—previously mined, mainly for radium—lay stockpiled at the site.
Belgium fell to German forces in 1940; and Edgar Sengier, UMHK’s director, feared the colony might follow. Congo was, after all, part of “Mittelafrika”—a swathe of territory, encompassing virtually all of Central Africa, which the fascist “New Order” conceived as a strategic German interest.
Then too, Sengier, a mining engineer, interacted with European scientists, who kept him abreast of current ideas and trends. From British and French physicists, he learned of advances in fission research, and was reportedly advised against letting the Shinkolobwe ore fall into German hands.
Thus Nichols told Groueff, that Sengier “had been following some of the work done by the French scientists before the war, and he knew the importance of the uranium as a possibility. Sengier knew what the hell we were doing”.
The fall of Belgium found the director in America—Union Miniere having abandoned Brussels, for New York, in 1939. From his headquarters-in-exile, Sengier continued to sell Congolese ores through the African Metals Corporation, a UMHK subsidiary.
Along with radium, he also marketed copper, tin and diamonds. The U.S. aircraft industry used Congolese cobalt, in manufacturing engines. Ultimately though, African Metals would be remembered, as the conduit through which uranium flowed from Shinkolobwe to MED.
In 1940, Sengier ordered that 1,250 tonnes of the ore stockpiled at Shinkolobwe, be shipped to New York. He instructed Union Miniere’s processing plant in Olen, near Antwerp, to send its pitchblende to the U.S.A. as well. But the Nazis took Belgium before the Olen ore could be moved out.
German U-boats (submarines), armed with torpedoes, patrolled the Atlantic, off Africa. So the ore was secretly transported via river and rail, from Katanga, to the Angolan port of Lobito—and then shipped to New York.
Wikipedia (relying on The New York Times), says 2,006 drums “were stored in a vegetable oil warehouse…in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island. They were plainly marked ‘Uranium Ore, Product of Belgian Congo’”.
The atom, to use Harrington’s metaphor, was now very much “on the loose”.
To be continued.