The Atomic Age Quietly Comes to New Orleans
In August 1944 Higgins Industries, under the direction of Andrew Higgins, was dealt a costly blow when a contract for C-46 cargo planes was canceled. This represented a huge loss for Higgins Industries and the city, as the sprawling Michoud plant in eastern New Orleans had been completed specifically to build these cargo planes. The contract cancellation made headlines across the country and caught the attention of the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, which operated the electromagnetic separation plant “Y-12” at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Y-12 plant was responsible for producing uranium to be used in atomic bombs. By the end of the month, Higgins Industries had a contract to make carbon components for Manhattan Project production work.
That fall, roughly 2,500 workers were selected from existing lines at Higgins Industries’ various plants to work on a new line. The workers had to swear an oath of secrecy about the work they would be doing—although as far as they knew, they were making radar and radio parts. Andrew Higgins’s son Frank was put in charge of the operation at the Michoud plant, with a mandate for absolute secrecy: “Our right hand couldn’t know what the left hand was doing,” according to Higgins. Despite the need for secrecy, few security measures were put into place. No armed guards roamed the premises, lest their presence tip off the workers that their work was more than they had been told.
The “vile, dirty and dangerous” work, as Andrew Higgins described it in a press conference, was complicated and changeable: Once the lines were up and running, workers produced parts that met the high standards required. But just after the carbon order was placed with Higgins Industries, another order came in for metal spare parts. Lines had to be added and adjusted to meet the shifting needs of the Tennessee Eastman Corporation.
Working on this these lines were mothers, grandmothers, fathers, and veterans. Nearly all of them had family members in uniform. Some drove 100 miles each day to take their place on the line. Some came on crutches due to physical disabilities. Ten hours a day, six days a week, they took their places on the line. On the carbon line, workers were mostly shielded by protective clothing, but their hands and faces would be blackened by dust by the time they left the plant.
The difficult and dirty work continued over the next year, including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. The demand for parts was continuously increasing. If any of workers questioned the work, they kept their doubts quiet. In the year of production before an atomic bomb was dropped, there were no reported intelligence leaks at Higgins.
“The potentialities of it intrigue the mind of man.”
As the workday came to a close on August 5, 1945, across the world three B-29 planes made their way to the skies over mainland Japan. There it was early morning of August 6, and the world was on the brink of a new era. Americans awoke on August 6 to news of the destruction of Hiroshima, Japan, by a single bomb that was more destructive than anything seen before. With the release of the first atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” dropped from the B-29 Enola Gay, the world had entered the atomic age.
That night Andrew Higgins spoke at a press conference in Chicago. He revealed that the manufacturing process his employees had believed to be routine was in fact work for the Manhattan Project. Although he couldn’t divulge any details about what they had been doing, Higgins was able to make it known that the work at Michoud had helped to build the most powerful weapons in the world. Higgins remarked about the atomic bomb, “The potentialities of it intrigue the mind of man.” He applauded the hard work of the men and women on this most secretive line, calling them “heroes and heroines.”
Unraveling the Mystery
Much of the documentation surrounding the uranium bomb Little Boy was destroyed after the war when it was determined to be less effective than the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. There is little documentation available on Higgins’s involvement with the Manhattan Project. What is known has come from documentation from the National Archives, Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II by Jerry Strahan, and newspaper articles published in 1945 by The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. From this, we know that workers on that dirty, carbon dust–coated line were making parts for the Alpha and Beta tracks at the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge.
The Alpha and Beta tracks were the large calutrons in which uranium 235 (U235), used in the Little Boy bomb, was separated from uranium 238. Through an electromagnetic process, U235 could be isolated and captured. The captured U235 was then carried by a single person to New Mexico via train. Although we know that the parts made at Higgins went into the process, we have not found confirmation of how they were used. The metal spares made also went to the Alpha and Beta tracks, but their exact nature remains a mystery.
The research to understand the exact contributions of Higgins Industries to the Manhattan Project is ongoing. As part of this research the Museum is looking for former Higgins workers who worked on the atomic line. Do you know someone who worked on the atomic line at Higgins? If you worked on the line, or know someone who did, please email research assistant Kali Martin at The National WWII Museum.
Kali Martin earned a BA in International Studies and German at the University of Miami and a Master's in Military and Public History at the University of New Orleans. She began volunteering on the PT-305 restoration project while attending graduate classes and now serves as a crewmember for the floating artifact.