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THE ATOMIC HALIFAX SAGA, Pt. III - A Chemical Catastrophe

Updated: Jun 15

By: Dylan Bowman, HAHS Board Member

May 21, 2024

An eagle-eye view of Facility K-25 in Oak-Ridge, Tennessee, in 1947, where John Drake Hoffman worked with other scientists to perfect and refine uranium and plutonium for the atomic bomb. Photograph by Ed Wescott from the US DOE.

At this point, I was holding actual prints of the first atomic tests in my hands, depicting in pure originality stories from history I had only heard of before. Read about it in books. Seen it pass over the big screen.

I will flat-out admit it: I was ecstatic that this story had come my way. And now, having seen the masterpiece Oppenheimer (2023), it has brought a new level of intrigue and interest to my research in this piece of our history.

Now...time for a story that will knock your socks off.

A Chemical Disaster

On September 2, 1944, a 600 lb. cylinder of highly corrosive uranium hexafluoride ruptured, causing a large explosion at the Philadelphia Navy Yard pilot plant. Nearby steam pipes fractured from the blast, the live steam reacting with the uranium hexafluoride to create hydrofluoric acid, one of the most corrosive and deadly chemicals.

But this is where the story gets REALLY interesting.

John Drake Hoffman, visiting the facility on wartime business, ran from the building with the other scientists. However, it was soon learned that not all laboratory technicians had escaped. With complete disregard for his own life, Hoffman closed his eyes and held his breath, running back into the building, shrouded in a toxic cloud. The poisonous gas had filled a great portion of the building's interior halls, and Hoffman had to use his memory, running his hand along the walls to retrace his steps to rescue any survivors who may be inside.

John Drake was able to retrieve three individuals from the building: Private Arnold Kramish and two civilians, Peter N. Bragg Jr. (a United Naval Research Laboratory chemical engineer) and Douglas P. Meigs (a Fercleve Corporation employee). Bragg and Meigs died from their injuries shortly after being brought outside by Hoffman, but Kramish, Hoffman, and nine others recovered from burns and other injuries.

Kramish would go on to later write that, though it had not been a nuclear detonation (as of an atomic bomb), it "was perhaps then the largest release in history of radioactive materials" (Kramish, A., 1991).

A Hero's Medal

John Drake Hoffman would later receive the Soldier's Medal, the United States Army's highest award for valor in a non-combat situation, for his actions at the Philadelphia Navy Yard that day. It was the only one awarded to a member of the Manhattan District (there were approximately 130,000 workers on the Manhattan Project at its peak).

John Drake was awarded the medal by none other than Manhattan Project Director, General Leslie Groves, who in several photos shown to me by Jim Hoffman can be seen pinning the medal over John Drake's heart and standing with John Drake, his father James Irvin Hoffman, his maternal grandfather Wilmer A. Hemminger (see The Atomic Halifax Saga: Pt. I) and his eventual wife, Barbara Frances Smith (later Hoffman).

(Left) John D. Hoffman standing with Manhattan Project Director General Leslie Groves (left) and his wife Barbara S. Hoffman (right) after receiving the Soldier's Medal of Valor, April 14, 1946. Photograph provided by Hoffman Family.

(Right) John D. Hoffman being awarded the Soldier's Medal of Valor by Manhattan Project Director General Groves, April 14, 1946. Photograph provided by Hoffman Family.

A Friendship Kindled (from Nuclear Steam)

John Drake Hoffman would stay in touch with Kramish, with the two corresponding long after the war had ended. Though both went separate ways and became successful on their own paths, the accident that had brought them together also kindled a nuclear friendship of sorts...made from uranium-rich steam.

The letters that they sent one another concerning the accident, the Manhattan Project, and their experiences years later as professors would survive, giving us a glimpse into the minds of some men who had been there, involved with one of history's most defining moments. It has been an absolute honor thus far to speak with the Hoffman Family and to see the vast archives that they have procured over the years.

Some of the correspondence letters from the decades after the War between Hoffman and Kramish. Notice the mentions of gratitude from Kramish to Hoffman even well into the 1990s for saving his life on that fateful September day in 1944. Documents provided by the Hoffman Family.

But there is still MORE to this amazing saga.

Tune in next time as we finally display in full force the incredible works of John Drake Hoffman's father, James Irvin Hoffman, a scientist of the Manhattan Project without whom the project would have faltered and perhaps even failed, altering history as we know it today.

A citation from Army Headquarters for John Drake Hoffman's receival of the Soldier's Medal. Document provided by the Hoffman Family.


Wikimedia Foundation. (2024, February 12). John D. Hoffman. Wikipedia.

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