Leslie Groves

One of the things I remember from his comments, was the incident where someone told General Groves that Heavy Water could only be found in a specific location. General Groves knew – “Heavy water can be made using hydrogen sulfide-water chemical exchange, water distillation, or electrolysis. Hydrogen Sulfide-Water Exchange – In a mixture of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and water at chemical equilibrium, the concentration of deuterium in water is greater than the concentration in H2S”

In September 1942, Groves was appointed to head the Manhattan Project with the rank of Temporary Brigadier General. As project leader, he was in charge of all of the project’s phases, including scientific, technical and process development; construction; production; security and military intelligence of enemy activities; and planning for use of the bomb.

Under General Groves’ direction, atomic research was conducted at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. The main project sites were built at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford. He personally selected J. Robert Oppenheimer as leader of the Los Alamos laboratory, disregarding the latter man’s Communist associations and waiving his security clearance process.

Groves was known for his critical and stubborn attitude, egotism, intelligence, and drive to achieve his goals at all costs. He continued to lead the project until 1947, when atomic energy affairs were turned over to the newly created civilian Atomic Energy Commission.

Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols, district engineer of the Manhattan Engineer District, wrote of Groves: “First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make timely, difficult decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard, or even harder, than he does… if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss, I would pick General Groves.”

Leslie Groves was born in Albany, New York, on August 17, 1896. He attended the University of Washington for one year and then Massachusetts Institute of Technology for two years before entering West Point, from which he graduated in 1918. He was commissioned in the Engineers and took courses at the Engineer’s School, Camp Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir), Virginia, 1918-20 and 1921, with time out for brief service in France during World War I. 

In 1931, Groves was attached to the Office of the Chief of Engineers in Washington and was promoted to Captain in October 1934. In 1936, he graduated from the Command and General Staff School, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and from the Army War College in 1939, after which he was assigned to the General Staff in Washington. He was promoted to Major and Temporary Colonel in July and November 1940 and assigned first to the Office of the Quartermaster General and then to the Office of the Chief of Engineers.

As deputy to the Chief of Construction in 1940 his projects included the building of camps, depots, air bases, munitions plants, hospitals, airplane plants, and the massive Pentagon, which he completed building in less than a year and a half. Groves oversaw a million men and spent $8 billion on Army construction with a peak month in July 1942 of $720 million, the equivalent of fifteen Pentagons. Groves’ proven record of managing complex undertakings made him a logical choice to lead the Manhattan Project.

In September 1942, Groves was placed in charge of the Manhattan Engineer Project, with the rank of Temporary Brigadier General, and under his direction, the basic atomic bomb research was carried out, mainly at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. He was in charge of all phases of the project – scientific, production, security and planning for use of the bomb. Under his direction, project plants were established at Oak Ridge, Hanford and the secluded Los Alamos installation in New Mexico.

Groves was promoted to temporary Major General in 1944, and he continued to head the atomic establishment created during wartime until January 1947. He was then named the Chief of the Army’s Special Weapons Project. Promoted to Lieutenant General (temporary) in January 1948, he retired a month later. From that time until 1961, he worked as Vice President of Sperry Rand Corporation. He also served as president of the West Point alumni association.

Groves died of heart disease on July 13, 1970, and was buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery. His wife, Grace Hulbert Wilson Groves, whom he married on February 10, 1922, is buried with him.

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