From Army Private to Atomic Physicist: Benjamin Bederson Got the Chance of a Lifetime

On March 8, the Brookhaven Veterans Association welcomed experimental physicist Benjamin Bederson to Brookhaven National Laboratory to give a talk, “From Army Private to Atomic Physicist for the Manhattan Project.” 

Bederson, now 94 years old, worked on the Manhattan Project, regarded as one of the most significant government projects in United States military history. It was a research program that developed the atomic bombs used to end World War II. The program was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and well-known physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, at the time, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where the bombs were designed.

Donald Farnam, Benjamin Bederson, and Ed Sierra enlarge

Donald Farnam (left) and Ed Sierra of the Brookhaven Veterans Association (BVA), present a BVA challenge coin to Benjamin Bederson (center).

Bederson began his talk by stating that “chance” plays an important role in all our lives. During the talk, he recounted how he was drafted in 1942, was interviewed and tested at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and before he knew it, he was being driven by a female soldier up and down mountain roads to his newly assigned location — a small barracks in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Initially, he joined other soldiers in morning drills and inspections.  Soon after though, he received his “white badge” security clearance and his journey to LANL and one of history’s turning points —the Manhattan Project — began. 

Bederson shared some of his personal moments by reading excerpts from his diary from that era. On one occasion, he realized he had written something that might be considered classified, so he cleverly used a cigarette butt to eliminate those particular sentences in his diary. Although speaking on a serious subject, Bederson also referenced some of the simpler times, like how he missed his New York City home so much that he kept a stale bagel next to his bedside lamp.

Members of the Brookhaven Veterans Association enlarge

Members of the Brookhaven Veterans Association welcome Benjamin Bederson and his wife Betty to the Lab. Bederson gave a talk on his younger days as a soldier and a member of the Manhattan Project.

Bederson was in the company of extraordinary people, including the future Nobel Prize winner Val Fitch (who did his Nobel-winning research at Brookhaven Lab), and Brookhaven’s Willy Higinbotham, a physicist and key member of the Manhattan Project who helped found the nuclear nonproliferation group, the Federation of American Scientists.  “Willy was considered the electronic guru of the Project,” said Bederson. “He was brilliant.”

In closing, Bederson stated that the ethical debate surrounding the decision to develop and use the atomic bomb will never be resolved.  “It was a difficult time for the United States and the world,” he said. “I am honored to have stood alongside so many extraordinary people who have impacted our world in many positive ways. I believe that the secret of life is to be in the right room at the right time. As such, I became a soldier by draft and a member of the Manhattan Project by chance and I am honored to have served our nation.”

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