Written By: Patrick Feng
Since the end of World War II, there has been a significant amount of literature on the Manhattan Project. The effort to develop the atomic bomb led to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of the war against Japan. Relatively little, however, has been written on the key Army engineer who made the project a revolutionary success. Leslie Richard “Dick” Groves, Jr., a career officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, was tasked with assembling the crucial links between government, industry, science, and the military beginning in September 1942, due to his imposing personality, iron will, and remarkable administrative acumen. Groves also had a grasp pertinent scientific principles, as well as a unique ability to choose among technical alternatives to deliver quick results. Most importantly, Groves saw the project and the atomic bomb as the means to end the war.
Born in Albany, New York on 17 August 1896 to Leslie Richard Groves, a Presbyterian Army chaplain, who served with the 14th Infantry for most of his Army career and Gwen Griffith Groves, Leslie, Jr., was the third of four children. Nicknamed Dick, he spent his formative years on various Army posts across the country.
Dick and his siblings were raised by their mother and her sister Jane. Chaplain Groves, though often absent, had great influence on his children, frequently writing letters and urging them to learn their lessons, to be strong, brave, and honest. Before his fifteenth birthday, Dick spent the first of two extended periods of time with his father, the first during the summer of 1911 at Fort Apache, Arizona. It was during this time when he discovered his passion for tennis, which would last throughout his life. Dick then accompanied his father to Fort William Henry Harrison, near Helena, Montana, in December 1911, where he came under the tutelage of then-Lieutenant Edmund B. Gregory, the future Quartermaster General during World War II, who taught a course for enlisted personnel interested in preparing for the entrance examination to the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point. Though only fourteen years old, Dick discussed his interest in gaining admission to West Point with Lieutenant Gregory during his visit to Fort Harrison.
It was also during this time when Dick met his future wife, Grace Hulbert “Boo” Wilson, the daughter of Colonel Richard Hulbert Wilson, commander of the 14th Infantry and friend of Chaplain Groves. When the 14th Infantry was transferred to Fort Lawton near Seattle, Washington in January 1913, Dick remained with his father and attended Queen Anne High School in Seattle while working hard toward achieving entrance to West Point. To enhance his chances, Dick enrolled as a freshman at University of Washington during his senior year at Queen Anne High.
Finishing high school in June 1914, Dick made the first of two attempts to obtain a presidential appointment to USMA but did not score high enough on the entrance examination. As a result, Dick enrolled in the civil engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in September as a means of bettering his chances for the next round of entrance examinations for West Point. His second opportunity came in March 1916. This time he was successful and he arrived at USMA on 15 June. In stark contrast to his mediocre academic performance at University of Washington and MIT, Groves excelled in the highly competitive atmosphere at West Point, ranking fourth in the class of 1920 and holding the rank of cadet first sergeant when the class was graduated early due to the demands of World War I in November 1918. Due to his high standing, he chose a commission in the Corps of Engineers and reported to the Engineer School at Camp Humphreys (present-day Fort Belvoir), Virginia, in December, where he ranked at the top and received an excellent efficiency report. Colonel Virgil L. Peterson, assistant commandant of the Engineer School, noted that, “This officer [Groves] has done the best work in the Engineer School, of the men who graduated in his class at the Military Academy…Lieut. Groves has a very keen mind and should make an excellent officer for any duty pertaining to the Corps of Engineers.”
After graduating from the Engineer School, Groves was assigned to the 7th Engineer Regiment at Camp Gordon, Georgia, where he commanded the regiment’s Company B. After eight months in Georgia, Groves returned to Camp Humphreys in February 1921 to attend the four-month Engineer Basic Officer Course. In June, he was assigned to the 6th Engineers at Camp Lewis, Washington. There, he resumed his courtship of Grace Wilson, who was now a kindergarten teacher in Seattle, and the two were married in February 1922. The couple had two children: Richard Hulbert (named after Grace’s father), born in 1923, and Gwen, born in 1928.
In August 1922, Groves was assigned to the 3d Engineers at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and commanded Company F for two years. He received his first official commendation on a major engineering project for work on the Kahuku-Pupukea Trail, an 11,500-foot mountain trail completed in thirty-seven days.
During his tour in Hawaii, Groves also coached the regimental baseball and football teams and was a member of the 3d’s marksmanship team, where he became an expert in rifle, pistol, and automatic rifle. Groves also became the post tennis singles champion as well as doubles champion with his partner, then Lieutenant Maxwell D. Taylor, future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and lifelong friend. In June 1925, Groves was assigned to Galveston, Texas, as assistant to the district engineer, where he oversaw major construction projects centered on dredging operations in Galveston Bay and improving access to the Houston Ship Channel. Major Julian L. Schley, the Galveston District engineer, who later became Chief of Engineers from 1937 to 1941, thought highly of Groves and considered him his best officer. However, the official history had mixed assessments on Groves, noting particularly his dual nature of being able to get the job done but “lacking qualities that would have endeared him to his fellow workers.”
In October 1927, Groves was assigned to command Company D, 1st Engineer Regiment, at Fort Du Pont, Delaware. Shortly after arriving, Groves and a detachment of the 1st Engineers were sent to Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, in November to assist with flood relief. This period also marked a low point in Groves’s career due to two incidents. The first occurred when a ponton bridge constructed by Groves’s detachment was washed away on the Winooski River, near Burlington, on 1 December 1927. Colonel Frank E. Hopkins, commander of Fort Ethan Allen, charged Groves with negligence and ordered an investigation into the incident. In spite of this, Groves had materials ready for a new bridge, which was completed on 15 December, demonstrating his ability to perform under extreme pressure. The second incident involved the accidental detonation of a block of TNT being used to remove ice from the river to prevent potential damage on the new bridge. The explosives and fuses were surplus from World War I and had deteriorated considerably, making it difficult to discern accurate timing of the fuses. As a result, Groves’s first sergeant was killed and Groves was seriously wounded. A subsequent investigation found no evidence of negligence or misconduct, but Colonel Hopkins requested Groves be replaced, which occurred in March 1928.
Returning to Fort Du Pont in April, Groves continued rehabilitation and spent time with his young family until October 1929, when he was assigned to the 29th Engineer Provisional Battalion and took part in the Inter-Oceanic Canal survey in Nicaragua. Prior to their departure from Nicaragua, Groves and several engineers from the expedition were sent to the capital of Managua following a devastating earthquake on 31 March 1931 to assist U.S. Marines with disaster relief. Groves and the engineer detachment also restored the city’s main water supply, earning them commendations from the U.S. Department of State and Nicaraguan president José M. Moncada.
In July 1931, Groves was appointed to the Office of the Chief of Engineers (OCE) in Washington, DC, to prepare the Corps’ official report on Nicaragua. His posting in Washington was the first of two tours where he would cultivate the crucial connections for his career. One of the most influential was Colonel Ernest “Pot” Graves, a legend in the Corps of Engineers at the time. Graves’s knowledge on the inner workings of Washington had a profound influence on Groves and his major projects in World War II. Graves imparted in Groves the necessity of keeping things simple.
Following completion of the Nicaragua report, Groves was assigned to the Supply Section of the Military Division of OCE, in charge of procurement. The Supply Section was also responsible for research and development related to procurement, which exposed Groves to regular dealings with scientists, civilian engineers, contractors, and corporations—experience that helped a great deal when Groves became the lead for the construction of the Pentagon and the Manhattan Project. During this time, Groves was the project lead on development of the LOCATOR program, which was a mechanism allowing searchlights to lock onto and track incoming planes to allow accurate fire from antiaircraft defenses. Promoted to captain in March 1935, Groves was selected to attend the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
After graduating, Groves was assigned to the Missouri River Division in Kansas City, Missouri, in June 1936, and worked on the Fort Peck hydroelectric dam project. In February 1938, he was selected to attend the Army War College and arrived in Washington in August. In April 1939, Groves was chosen to serve on the War Department General Staff as a staff officer in the G-3 Division, Mobilization Branch, following graduation in June. In August, he was sent to Nicaragua on another canal and highway survey team for three months.
When Groves returned to Washington in December, World War II in Europe was entering its fourth month, prompting the United States to begin mobilization planning. Concurrently, the Quartermaster Corps, now under Major General Edmund P. Gregory, was tasked with organizing the construction of new facilities to meet the demands for mobilizing and training recruits and draftees. However, the head of the Construction Division, Brigadier General Charles D. Hartman, was overwhelmed by the scope of responsibilities, prompting Gregory to requested Groves to be attached as his special assistant. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall approved the request in spite of the objections of the Chief of Engineers, Major General Julian L. Schley, due to territorial squabbles over Army construction between the Corps of Engineers and the Quartermaster Corps. Reporting to Gregory in July 1940, Groves worked eighteen-hour days, seven days a week, and spent the majority of the time traveling from site to site. In November, Groves was promoted to colonel, four months after his promotion to major. Shortly after Groves’s promotion, Hartman was replaced with Brigadier General Brehon B. Somervell, another one of Groves’s major influences and supporters. Groves was designated chief of the Operations Branch as well as assistant chief of the Construction Division.
Under the leadership of Somervell and Groves, the Construction Division was also responsible for establishing munitions industries in conjunction with civilian contractors. Groves received as many as two dozen local and long distance phone calls per day from various project sites reporting on progress and problems, many of which he dealt with personally. Working six days a week in Washington, he would travel to a project site and mediate with on-site staff and engineers on resolutions to keep on schedule. In addition, Groves dealt regularly with politicians who frequently inquired about Army projects in their respective states and districts. Similar to Marshall’s infamous black book on desirable and undesirable officers for command, Groves kept a small notebook on the competencies of major contractors and subcontractors, which would prove vital later on.
In July 1941, Groves was brought on board for the planning and execution of the first of the two most notable projects during this period—the building of the Pentagon, which would become the largest office building in the world and serve as the headquarters of the War Department. At the estimated cost of $31 million, the Pentagon occupied thirty-four acres with over six million square feet of floor space, three times the floor space of the Empire State Building, and two parking lots for over 8,000 cars. Although Groves was appointed the overall supervisor of the project, the actual director of the construction was Captain Clarence Renshaw. After Pearl Harbor, the cost and pace of construction increased by $14.2 million and three work shifts per day. Completed in sixteen months on 15 January 1943, the building contained over 35,000 occupants.
During this time, Dr. Vannevar Bush, the director of the new Office of Scientific Research and Development, submitted a report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending that research and development of a bomb utilizing the concept of atomic fission be led by the Army, specifically the Corps of Engineers, due to its large wartime budget and resources. In June 1942, the Corps chose Colonel James C. Marshall, Syracuse District Engineer, as the head of the new initiative, with Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols as his deputy, and was authorized to form a new district. The primary mission was overseeing the site selection, acquisition, and construction of the necessary facilities, including laboratories, testing sites, and factories that would facilitate the development and production of the atomic bomb. Somervell, now Chief of the Army Service Forces (ASF), Major General Eugene Reybold, Chief of Engineers, and Somervell’s chief of staff, Major General Wilhelm D. Styer, initially named the secret project, now headquartered in New York City, “Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials” or DSM. However, Groves noted that the name would draw too much attention from the press and Congress and suggested that it be named “Manhattan,” keeping with the custom of naming districts for the city in which they are located. In the following months, Groves followed the progress of what became known as the Manhattan Engineer District, or simply the Manhattan Project, requesting updates from Colonel Marshall, who was proving indecisive. Though Reybold was satisfied with Marshall’s progress, in the fall of 1942, Bush proposed to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, that a Military Policy Committee be established with an Army officer chosen to pursue its policies in a vigorous manner.
Somervell and Styer recommended Groves, who was expecting to be deployed overseas. Following a congressional hearing on a military housing bill, Groves met Somervell outside of the hearing room and received his appointment as the new chief of the Manhattan Project in September 1942. Meeting with Styer at the Pentagon, Groves accepted the assignment with a promotion to brigadier general. To avoid attention, he would continue to oversee the completion of the Pentagon.
To increase the pace of the project, Groves met with the War Production Board and Army-Navy Munitions Board to obtain higher priority status to enhance resource acquisition, a constant battle for the next two years. He sent Lieutenant Colonel Nichols to arrange the purchase of 1,200 tons of high-grade uranium ore from Belgian firm Union Miniére, which had mines in both the Belgian Congo and the United States. Groves also oversaw the purchase of the site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the uranium processing plants would be constructed. For the next several months, Groves continued to pick the necessary sites throughout the United States, including Hanford, Washington, site of the plutonium production reactor, in November 1942; Los Alamos, New Mexico, site of the development and production of the bomb, in January 1943; and sites in Canada for production of heavy water.
By spring 1943, construction of the crucial facilities were well underway. Borrowing from methods learned during the mobilization construction in 1940-42, Groves ensured that the facilities could begin operations simultaneously in conjunction to the construction. In addition to directing the enormous construction effort, Groves made critical decisions on the various methods of isotope separation, acquired raw materials, directed the collection of military intelligence on German atomic research efforts, and later helped select the cities in Japan that were chosen as targets for the new weapon. Major William A. Consodine, one of Groves’s staffers, later remarked, “Groves planned the project, ran his own construction, his own science, his own Army, his own State Department and his own Treasury Department.”
Groves also toured various university labs where experiments in atomic theory were being tested, primarily at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), and spoke with the leading scientists at each campus. It was where he met important figures such as Isador Rabi of Columbia, Enrico Fermi of the University of Chicago, and J. Robert Oppenheimer of UC Berkeley, who Groves ultimately chose to lead the overall effort to build and test the atomic bomb at Los Alamos due to his all-around understanding of physics, chemistry, metallurgy, ordnance, and engineering. Oppenheimer’s selection was interesting due to his questionable connection to the Communist Party through his brother, as well as his lack of a Nobel Prize, unlike other scientists in the project. As the project grew in magnitude, Groves was promoted to temporary major general in March 1944.
By July 1945, when Oppenheimer and his team were ready to test the culmination of three years of hard work and research in the successful Trinity test, and the subsequent dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, in early August 1945, Groves was responsible for creating and managing a vast network of factories, laboratories, and mines in thirty-nine states, Canada, and Africa. The Manhattan Project entered into agreements with more than 200 prime contractors, who employed thousands of subcontractors. Approximately 600,000 people worked on the project, which at its peak in mid-1944, employed over 160,000. By October 1945, the project expenditure was approximately $1.8 billion, with ninety percent of funds utilized for construction of plants and production of fissile materials. Less than ten percent was allocated for development and production of the bombs.
Immediately following the bombing of Nagasaki, Secretary Stimson nominated Groves for the Distinguished Service Medal, with the concurrence of General Marshall, which Groves received on 12 September 1945. Although President Harry S. Truman advocated Groves also receive the permanent rank of major general, Marshall noted that only a board of officers could confirm the promotion as the Army began reverting to peacetime allotment of ranks. After the war, he also received the Legion of Merit for his work on the Pentagon.
When responsibility of nuclear power and weapons was transferred to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in January 1947, Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson created the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP) and appointed Groves as chief of AFSWP in February. Groves’s days in the Army, however, were numbered. His authoritarian style and frequent confrontations with Army leadership and AEC members over the direction of atomic policy led to a meeting with Chief of Staff General Dwight D. Eisenhower on 30 January 1948, who presented Groves with a long list of grievances that included charges of arrogance, rudeness, insensitivity, and disregard for protocol. Eisenhower also emphasized that Groves would never have the kind of influence on policy he exercised during the war and, most importantly, would never be Chief of Engineers. In February, Groves decided to retire after twenty-nine years of service. To lessen the blow, members of Congress sponsored a bill authorizing Groves’s promotion to permanent major general and honorary lieutenant general on the retired list, which passed on 24 June 1948.
Shortly after his retirement from the Army in February 1948, Groves accepted a position as vice president of research and development at Remington Rand (later Sperry Rand) in South Norwalk, Connecticut. He retired from the company in August 1961 on his sixty-fifth birthday. He wrote a book on the Manhattan Project, titled Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project, published in 1962. Moving back to Washington in 1964, he continued to distance himself from the public spotlight, with the exception of providing written commentary on publications on the Manhattan Project.
In February 1970, Groves, Vannevar Bush, and James B. Conant were awarded the Atomic Pioneer Award by President Richard M. Nixon for their contributions to nuclear development and research during World War II. The award ceremony marked Groves’s last public appearance, as his health had been deteriorating. He suffered a severe heart attack on 13 July 1970 and died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Following a service at the Fort Myer Old Post Chapel, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery next to his brother Allen. Following his death, newspaper obituaries and editorials summarized Groves’s role in the war most appropriately as the right man in the right job at the right time and that “many thousands of American men are alive today because General Groves’ team won the bomb race.”