Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bahnson, Griggs, World War II Radar, and Nazi Bomb Scientists

How a car accident in 1936 turned physicist, David Tressel Griggs, into WWII radar test pilot who ferried other scientists to the European front to capture Nazi atom bomb scientists.

Here's what I already knew:
Agnew Hunter Bahnson Jr., in a rather indirect manner, provided both the airplane and the test pilot used by MIT's Radiation Lab to test a new WWII technology, radar.  In 1936, Bahnson, who was a resident of a Harvard dormitory, took one of his geophysicist dorm-mates, David Tressel Griggs on a hiking trip through the Caucasus Mountains.  The Caucasus range connects the Black Sea with the Caspian Sea.  Bahnson's and Grigg's hiking trip ended before it even began, however, when Agnew swerved off the road to miss a bicyclist and struck a tree[1].  Griggs narrowly missed losing both of his legs to amputation.

Hunter's father had taken out an insurance policy for the trip.  Grigg's used his payment to purchase a Luscombe airplane.  His injured legs made him ineligible for military duty.  Still wanting to contribute in some way, Griggs piloted his plane for the test runs of the radar system being built at the MIT Radiation Labs.  After the system became operational Griggs traveled with it to Europe and flew along on bombing runs that utilized the system.  During one bombing run Griggs found himself hanging from the bottom of the plane after kicking open a blocked bomb bay door.

Here's What I Found out This Week
Grigg's did more than serve as a radar advisor.  His wartime duties provided Griggs with a rather unique civilian privilege: clearance to fly over wartime Europe.  Griggs made use of this privilege to shuttle scientists for the Alsos mission.  The soldiers and scientists of the Alsos mission, (a predecessor to Operation Paperclip), captured and interrogated German A-bomb scientists.  Samuel Goudsmit--one of the physicists who literally got the electron spin equations half right[2]--was the technical leader of the mission

Griggs would go on to lead his own scientific retrieval mission in Japan[4].  One of his cohorts on the mission was Karl Taylor Compton, brother of Arthur Compton of scattering fame, but who is better known around here for his water based Foucault Pendulum![3]

Here's what else I'd like to know
Why did Bahnson know Griggs at all?  I've found evidence that he attended school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and that he knew about, (or should have known about), the Harvard society of Junior Fellows[5].  I haven't found any evidence yet though that Bahnson was ever a student at Harvard.

How close were Bahnson and Griggs after 1936?  Bahnson mentions Griggs in reference to some of Bahnson's thoughts on anti-gravity.  He seems to mention him as a bit of a bona-fides as he's asking Bryce and Cecile Morette-DeWitt to take the helm of the Institute for Field Physics which Bahnson helped get started at his alma-mater in North Carolina.  Did Bahnson and Griggs sit around swapping gravity theories over brandies and cigars?  Did Griggs feel that any of Bahnson's theories held any water?  I don't know... yet.




4.  Combat Scientists


No comments: