This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. On September 2, 1945 Japanese leaders officially surrendered to Allied forces aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan. When word reached the United States, celebrations erupted all across the country. Perhaps nowhere was victory received with more anticipation than in the small community of Los Alamos, New Mexico. For nearly three years, it was there that dozens of men and women had worked to create the weapon that helped end the war — the atomic bomb. The final victory belonged as much to them as it did to the U.S. military. While the primary celebrity was Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, he was not the only one responsible. There was another man who has often been overlooked for his contribution to the effort. Unlike Oppenheimer, he was not a civilian but rather a U.S. Army officer. Still, he had the training and the fortitude to see creation of the bomb through to the end. His name was Leslie R. Groves, Jr. This is the story of how he came to head the mission known as the Manhattan Project.
Throughout his early years, Leslie Groves demonstrated a number of traits that proved beneficial as he later struggled to create the first atomic bomb. He was born in Albany, New York in mid-August 1896 to an army chaplain and grew up on army posts around the country. As a boy, he inherited his father’s strong sense of patriotism, and he vowed to remain dedicated to the U.S. for the rest of his life. It was that vow that led him to set his sights on attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and he refused to let anyone deter him from the objective. Determined to succeed, he took both high school and college classes, but he ultimately earned only slightly above-average grades. While his grades were less than spectacular, he proved he could achieve a goal in a timely manner without completely sacrificing quality. Upon graduation from high school in June 1914, Leslie was nominated as a potential substitute for the appointed cadet, but he was unable to pass the entrance examination. Refusing to give up, he enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and studied science and engineering. In early 1916 he passed West Point’s entrance exam on his second try and entered the academy in June as a plebe in the class of 1920. He soon gained a reputation for his dedication to his studies, and he excelled in all his courses. He stood fourth in his class, graduated two years ahead of schedule in 1918 due to World War I, and chose to enter the Army Corps of Engineers.
After leaving West Point, Lieutenant Groves proved he was not just a skilled engineer but also oblivious to danger. In November 1918 he reported to Camp Andrew A. Humphreys, just outside Washington, D.C., to complete his training. As part of his education, he visited France in June 1919 during the immediate aftermath of World War I and observed the military installations used to supply American forces. He studied the location and purpose of each depot and critically analyzed the time and distance required to move the supplies to the front. He then evaluated if a more efficient system existed. He finished school in June 1920 and spent the next few years overseeing construction projects, including the widening and deepening of the Houston Ship Channel in Galveston, Texas to permit the entrance of larger vessels. In December 1927 he was in Vermont supervising erection of pontoon bridges across raging rivers when one bridge was destroyed. Groves refused to be discouraged and led his men in securing new materials to rebuild the bridge. Two months later, he was standing next to his sergeant when a block of TNT exploded. Though he was bleeding from injuries to his face and hands, Leslie did not panic and took his companion to a nearby hospital, where the man later died. It was not the last time he showed courage in the face of extreme peril. In March 1931 Groves was in Managua, Nicaragua laying out a possible interoceanic canal when a devastating earthquake hit the region. Braving potential landslides, Leslie took charge of restoring the town’s water system. The American ambassador commended him for his efforts, and the Nicaraguan government awarded him the Nicaraguan Presidential Medal of Merit. Undoubtedly, Leslie Groves’ star was on the rise.
Upon returning to the U.S. in the summer of 1931, Groves was posted to the Office of the Chief of Engineers in recognition of his dedicated service. There he came under the influence of Colonel Ernest “Pot” Graves, one of the corps’ preeminent officers. Graves told the young man there were certain qualifications he needed to possess to be a good engineering officer. One of the most important was mental discipline so an officer could employ his intelligence to devise successful solutions to problems. Just as important, however, was an ability to delegate authority to subordinates. As part of this process, Groves learned how to give orders that were simple and direct enough for his men to follow and allowed him to keep the mission on track, no matter how complex it might be. The more time he spent with Graves, the more Leslie came to mirror his mentor’s ability to cut to the heart of the matter in every instance. These traits were vital as Groves assumed a larger role in the department as the 1930s progressed.
As a member of the Corps of Engineers, Leslie Groves was involved in several noteworthy military projects. In early 1932 he was assigned to the Mobile Type Anti-aircraft Searchlight Unit, with instructions to develop a searchlight able to lock onto and track enemy aircraft. He spent the next three years travelling throughout the Northeast and working with scientists and civilian engineers from General Electric and other companies. Remembering Graves’ advice, Groves used his knowledge and skills to enhance the design of the searchlight, and he also personally directed the inspection of each piece of equipment as it was manufactured. Perhaps of utmost importance for his later career, Leslie succeeded in coordinating the efforts of the army and civilians to achieve a functional product. Soon after the job was finished, Groves was assigned to Kansas City, Missouri to join in the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, part of the New Deal’s WPA (Works Project Administration). He reported to the Missouri River Division’s chief engineer and was directed to help dam up the river. As before, Groves drove his subordinates with an iron hand. Claude Chorpening, a West Point classmate who worked beside Leslie at Kansas City, later remembered that “when he decided to get something done, his will was like steel.” It was this very characteristic that endeared the thirty-nine-year-old captain to those above him.
By the late 1930s, Groves had attracted the attention of his superiors. His reputation and success with the Mobile Type Anti-aircraft Searchlight Unit led to his selection to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1935, and following his work on the Fort Peck Dam, he was appointed to the Army War College in Washington, D.C. in early 1938. The college’s commandant, Major General John DeWitt, described Leslie as open-minded to the views of others and able to propose practical ideas. Following his time at the War College, Groves was assigned to the War Department’s General Staff, specifically to the Mobilization Branch. In July 1940 he was assigned as an assistant to Quartermaster General Edmund Gregory, a long-time mentor, with orders to inspect construction of military facilities for new soldiers and report back to Gregory. Promoted to major, Leslie discovered many civilian contractors employed by the Quartermaster Department were the same ones who had served during World War I, and as such, they had not remained attentive to new developments in construction. His reports ultimately led Gregory to promote Groves to colonel and to appoint him head of all domestic army construction projects. As he supervised the work being done, Groves immersed himself in the myriad of projects assigned to him.
As the 1940s dawned, Leslie Groves found himself at the forefront of some of the U.S. Army’s biggest challenges. He oversaw the initial building of the Pentagon, but he was mostly concerned with new training facilities for the growing number of army recruits. To ensure effectiveness, Groves shouldered most of the responsibility himself, employing a small staff of trusted subordinates. As part of his duties, he hired civilian engineers and army personnel to manage each endeavor, and he kept in daily contact with those on site to sort out any problems that arose. If he felt construction was falling behind, he visited those in charge and authorized whatever it took to get the project back on schedule. He also ensured the integrity of the final product remained intact. When he returned to Washington, he recorded his observations in a small pocket notebook next to notations about costs and deadlines. He also rated each contractor according to his performance and ability to follow army regulations. If a contractor failed to meet his expectations, Groves replaced the contractor with a competent one. Although some subordinates found him irascible, his superiors continued to trust him. It is not surprising, therefore, when the military needed an officer to head a top-secret project, they turned to this engineer. The job turned out to be the development of the world’s most powerful weapon — the Manhattan Project.
While initially disappointed with the assignment, Brigadier General Leslie Groves threw all his energy into building the first atomic bomb. Everything he had done before prepared him for the indispensable role he would now play. He chose Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Los Alamos, New Mexico to house the production plants, and he selected Robert Oppenheimer to lead the New Mexico scientists. Over the next three years, he supervised atomic research and continually urged Oppenheimer to move more quickly. It took all his training, experience and focus to keep the project on track. As a military man he knew time was of the essence, and from his understanding of the nature of warfare he recognized it was better to have a less-than-perfect bomb and emerge victorious than it was to develop the perfect weapon and possibly lose the war. Despite countless obstacles, Leslie kept the mission moving ahead, and in July 1945, he quietly informed the American government that the bomb was ready for use. President Harry S. Truman, knowing American lives were at stake, authorized its immediate use. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He remained in charge of America’s nuclear weapons as head of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. He retired from the army in February 1948 and later published an account of the Manhattan Project. Leslie Groves lived out the rest of his life quietly in Washington, D.C. and died in July 1970. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, as befitted an officer of his accomplishments.
World War II was the most devastating war ever, and the race to acquire the means to quickly end the devastation became crucial for all the major players. There was no man more responsible for the United States getting the atomic bomb first than General Leslie Groves. From his refusal to give up his dream of being a West Point cadet, to his relentless drive to achieve success in his most compelling challenge, he proved he was the right man for the job. In war, not everyone can be a George S. Patton thundering across the fields of France and Germany reaping public accolades; some must labor silently behind the scenes to do their part to bring victory. Unknowingly yet methodically, Groves’ whole life prepared him to be exactly the kind of officer needed to transform America into a nuclear power. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer may have been the brains behind the bomb, but Leslie R. Groves was the beating heart.