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THE ATOMIC HALIFAX SAGA, Pt. II - The Halifaxian Inventor

Updated: Jun 15

By: Dylan Bowman, HAHS Board Member

January 16, 2024

The infamous photographic capturing of "Test Able"as seen from Eneu Island, seconds after the infamous underwater atomic explosion test that took place there (July 1, 1946). Photograph provided by Hoffman Family.

Research and Findings

As the story of Jim Hoffman's father, John Drake Hoffman began to expand, I noted just how much history this local boy had brought home with him. And I couldn't stop with one article. As you are now witnessing, it has parts.

Now at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, (the then-top secret facility housing research and development of a top-secret weapon that would be used against the Axis Powers of World War II), John Hoffman quickly became a prominent figure in the Manhattan Project's overall success (at the hands of hundreds and hundreds of other highly skilled engineers, chemists, physicists and volunteers from many walks of life).

John's greatest task while a part of the Manhattan Project was (as previously mentioned) the research of a prototype liquid thermal diffusion while at a uranium enrichment plant in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. This proved to be not only to be the most important and difficult technical challenge of the entire project, but also one of the most stressful for the the leaders of the Manhattan District.

If the uranium wasn't refined properly or in enough quantity before the Nazis (who were simultaneously working on their own atomic bomb to use against the Allied Powers) finished their weapon, the Allies, and quite possibly the United States, may have lost millions of lives and perhaps even the war itself.

Time was of the essence.

Copy of a confidential visitor permit of John Drake Hoffman to the Philadelphia Naval Research Laboratory (Manhattan District). Used to prevent spying and espionage by enemies of the United States and Allied Powers at the time of the bomb's creation. Document provided by Hoffman Family.

The Inventor

At the hands of John Hoffman and the team around him, many findings were discovered that allowed for the refinery of uranium (U-238 into U-235) into weapons-grade ores that could be used alongside refined plutonium-239 to cause the chain reaction needed to detonate the two bombs in a massive, radioactive explosion.

John himself was responsible for several patented inventions that assisted with the completion of the project, most importantly and famously a method for the rapid removal of light isotope product from liquid thermal diffusion units, a critical step in the refinement of uranium in the project.

According to John Drake's son (brother of Jim Hoffman), Dr. Robert Hoffman, who is a DEVCOM US Army Research Laboratory Research Engineer, "It is highly likely that these improvements provided for a substantial increase in 'UF6' throughput by speeding the process by which the lighter (desired U-235) isotopes were removed and sent for further isotope separation. Note that the patent application wasn't filed until after the war.

His leadership in this aspect of the Manhattan Project undoubtedly assisted the overall success of the mission, allowing for radioactive elements to be refined quicker than they otherwise would have been in using the older method. When I look at this fact, I like to think that, at least in part, a Halifax boy (as he would come to be) helped win the atomic race in World War II against the Nazis.

Several submitted patented designs bearing the mark of inventor John Drake Hoffman. Note that Patents 2,813,598 and 2,413,709 weren't filed until after the war (due to their secret nature during the race to make the atomic bomb in confidential settings). Documents provided by Hoffman Family.

The Two Bombs and the Tests Thereafter

As the war drew to a close, the research and fabrication of the first atomic bomb, under the leadership of Robert J. Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves, was completed. After their use against the Japanese to end World War II, John Drake Hoffman and the rest of their family spread across the country in service to the nation returned home.

But this is far from where their stories ended.

Concerning the atomic tests that came in the years after the war, namely the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests dubbed "Able" and "Baker," John Drake was present at the tests, witnessing the largest man-made explosion in history at the time. Code-named OPERATION CROSSROADS, this became one of the most important, stunning and iconic weapons tests in the history of mankind.

Top: The nuclear mushroom cloud of "Test Able" rising from the waters of Bikini Atoll as seen from Eneu Island, seconds after the infamous underwater atomic explosion test that took place there (July 1, 1946). Photograph provided by Hoffman Family.

Bottom: Photographs of "Test Baker" and the capsized navy ships immediately after the shockwave blast of the explosion (July 25, 1946). Photographs provided by Hoffman Family.

The underwater tests near the Bikini Islands were far more devastating and powerful than the United States government and military expected according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, causing one-third of the lab animals on board the ships to die from the radiation. Eight of the ships were also sunk from the blast, according to a U.S. Navy account, and a massive tsunami with a 94-foot-high wave was triggered. Many of the ships in the navy's stationary fleet were swept over with a colossal radioactive wave from the explosion and sit as metal skeletons of that bygone era to this day (see more stunning info here).

An official letter from the Navy Department thanking John Drake Hoffman for his contributions to the tests "Able" and "Baker" in Operation Crossroads. Document provided by Hoffman Family.

A War Concluded

With John Drake Hoffman and his father returning from their top-secret work on the atomic bomb, a new chapter (both for their lives and history itself) was on the horizon. The Atomic Age had begun and Communism began to rise in the East, staring down freedom and freedom-loving countries with cold contempt.

John Drake was honorably discharged from the military when the war ended and his heroic actions (as we will see in the next issue of this series) were finally declassified. He moved on from the war and the military officially in 1946, but not from science, inventing or his passion for photography, the optical aspects of photography, polymer physics, and theory.

Little did he know what the next chapter held for his life...

Stay tuned for the next issue in this series where one of the most amazing stories that I heard from Jim Hoffman is uncovered concerning his father during the war. Yes, it needed its own article.

A certificate given to John Drake Hoffman for his participation in the Manhattan Project and his contributions to the creation of the first atomic bomb. Note the date of the certificate: the same day that the first atomic bomb used in war (dubbed "Little Boy") was detonated in Hiroshima. Document provided by Hoffman Family.

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