Eulogy for Harry K. Daghlian, Jr.It is particularly fitting that we honor the memory of Harry Daghlian, Jr., on Armed Forces Day. Although he was not in the Uniformed Services, he, like so many Americans, served his country with his own special skills and bravery in time of world war.
by Arnold S. Dion, Ph.D.
Flag Pole and Memorial Stone Dedication (Calkins Park, New London, CT)
Armed Forces Day (May 20th, 2000)
Harry's special skill was scientific research and, in 1944, he was transferred from Purdue University to the super-secret atom bomb project - the Manhattan Project - in Los Alamos, New Mexico. With only a Post Office Box address in Santa Fe, friends and family alike could only wonder where he was and what he was doing. What he was doing was deadly serious. On arrival in Los Alamos, he became a member of the “Water Boiler” group headed by the Nobel Prize winner, Enrico Fermi, and, later, participated in the “Dragon Experiments” in Otto Frisch's group. Both of these studies were essential to the development of the uranium-based atom bomb (“Little Boy”), successfully detonated over Hiroshima, Japan.
Harry seemed to be particularly fascinated by the plutonium-based atom bomb, a silvery, nickel-plated sphere, which was tested by hand. Surely, he must have felt a degree of pride as he witnessed the first successful atom bomb test, ironically named “Trinity,” on 16 July, 1945, in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Harry, Louis Slotin and Raemer Schreiber - among others - had tested and assembled the bomb's core on the previous day. In less than a month, this atom bomb (“Fat Man”) would play a crucial role in ending WWII, after the bombing of Nagasaki on 9 August.
Even after Japan's informal surrender on 14 August, 1945, the momentum of atom bomb research continued. So it was, exactly one week later (Tuesday, 21 August), that Harry was experimenting with a plutonium core in the remote laboratory in Omega Canyon, when a brick fell from his hand onto the core. In less than a second, he was fatally irradiated, and he experienced symptoms of radiation sickness almost immediately. Beginning with nausea and blistering, the effects of radiation became more ominous, as damage to blood cells and internal organs became apparent, resulting in his death almost twenty-six days after the accident.
Harry Daghlian, Jr.'s legacy is significant, but shrouded in the secrecy of war-time research and the anonymity of medical reporting. Few people realize, for example, his contributions in developing the atom bomb, or that he was the first fatality resulting from nuclear fission in peacetime. Even more important, were his contributions to medical research, i.e., the first, fully-documented description of acute radiation sickness, which took his life at 24 years of age, as his mother and sister, Helen, tried to comfort him.
In your short life, Harry Daghlian, Jr., we hardly knew you, but this memorial symbolizes our resolve to never forget you.