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THE ATOMIC HALIFAX SAGA, Pt. I - The Nuclear Family

Updated: May 28

By: Dylan Bowman, HAHS Board Member

December 18, 2023

John D. Hoffman being awarded the Soldier's Medal of Valor, April 14, 1946. From left to right: General Leslie Groves, James Irvin Hoffman (father of John Drake), John Drake Hoffman, Wilmer Austin Hemminger (maternal grandfather of John Drake), and Phil Abelson. Photograph provided by Hoffman Family.

Legacy In any small, American community, the history that can be found there is always important. It is what builds up the very fabric of our country itself, thread by thread, story by story, family by family. However, it is beyond impressive when these small-town individuals, families and threads tie together, even directly into the fabric of famous national history.

About five months ago, I was approached by family friend Don Hentz who stated that he had a friend in Halifax who claimed his "dad worked on the Manhattan project with Robert Oppenheimer." With the new 2023 film Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan on the horizon, I could not be more interested and immediately set in motion plans to visit this individual and hear the story.

Little did I know just how much my mind would be blown by the history resting just 3 miles from my home.

John Drake Hoffman: Origins

Don Hentz's friend was a local Halifax man named Jim Hoffman who lived outside the Northern outskirts of town just off Route 225. Hoffman's father, John Drake Hoffman, had been born in Washington, D.C., on November 26, 1922. He grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and attended Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School. He later entered Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, graduating with a Bachelor's of Science in 1942. Though most of his ties to national history came later in his life, I feel it is more than necessary to first view his early years.

John Drake Hoffman, c. 1924. Photograph provided by the Hoffman Family.

At about the age of 4, John Drake Hoffman was brought up to live with his maternal grandparents in Millersburg, as his mother, Mabel Irene Hemminger, was having serious difficulties with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at that time. His grandfather, Wilmer Hemminger, owned a coal yard in Millersburg at that time, and John played there often.

He was later enrolled in a one-room schoolhouse in Millersburg, where he must have flourished, as he stated that he was "bored with what his grade was learning," so he would listen and retain much of what the upper grades were being taught, and as a result, he skipped two or three grades there. 

As a youth, he developed an intense love of photography and was fascinated by the physics, optics, and chemistry that was involved with that.  Many pictures were taken by him in the Halifax area, of his family farm, other farms in the area, and his broad-shouldered hawk (with which he had many adventures, but that is a story for another time).  He would develop the film and then would enlarge and print his favorite photos, some of which still exist to this day.

Four Generations of the Hoffman Family c. 1923. John Drake is the infant in this photo. Photograph provided by the Hoffman Family.

He also developed a fondness for firecrackers and pyrotechnics, which he enjoyed throughout his lifetime until he passed. As we will later see, his wildest pyro-fantasies would eventually become reality when he witnessed the largest earthbound ‘pyrotechnics’ ever created.

It was at the age of 18 that John Hoffman was enlisted into the military to serve in the conflict of World War II. Because of his education, he was eventually (after some drilling and testing by ranking officials) posted as a Special Engineer Detachment at the Clinton Engineer Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Here, his true journey began.

The United States Army identification card of John Drake Hoffman that he carried and used while at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Document provided by Hoffman Family.

A Secret Scientist

In August 1944, he was one of ten enlisted men to volunteer for a dangerous special assignment. Along with four civilians, they were sent to learn about a prototype liquid thermal diffusion at a uranium enrichment plant at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. This assignment would play a major part in the Manhattan Project's S-50 Project venture (the enrichment of uranium for use in the atomic bomb) and the knowledge gained would be used in the larger production plant that was then under construction at Oak Ridge.

As an enlisted man and scientist of the Manhattan Project, everything about his assignment and workings within the project were top secret. With the potential for press leaks, Communist or Nazi spies, or simple human error, a great deal of caution was a constant and rock-solid term of their cooperation.

What struck me as so spectacular about John Hoffman's interaction in this already incredible story was that he (and his own father as we will later see) was selected (and volunteered) as one of the very first individuals to begin working on the atomic program before it was even fully underway.

At this point in the story, the uranium wasn't being refined; the scientists and workers across America were still being recruited. The very building at which their theories and knowledge would be tested wasn't even built yet. Nonetheless, their work began.

the atomic expolosion........... Coming soon. by me Photograph provided by the Hoffman Family.

To Be Continued...

As I sit back and review this first part to what I would like to don the "Atomic Halifax Saga," I am truly speechless. The amount of history and physical records that are pouring forth from the gracious hands of the Hoffmans staggers me and I am beyond thrilled to bring you the next part in this tale that Halifax seldom knew.

Stay tuned for the upcoming part two in which John Drake Hoffman spearheads many aspects of nuclear research that would eventually be used to help create one of the most important weapons in the history of the world.

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1 Comment

Jim Leaman
Jim Leaman
Dec 19, 2023

Outstanding! I can’t wait to read more. Thank you!

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