US-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > US-OBITS > 2009-01 > 1232906670
From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [US-OBITS] FURMAN: Robert Ralph 2008
Date: Sun, 25 Jan 2009 18:04:30 -0000
Major Robert Furman
Wartime intelligence officer charged with discovering the true extent of the
German nuclear threat .
Last Updated: 5:02PM GMT 15 Dec 2008
Robert Furman, civil engineer who helped to oversee the construction of the
Pentagon and then played a clandestine role in the Manhattan
Major Robert Furman, who has died aged 93, oversaw the construction of the
Pentagon and played a vital part in the American struggle for nuclear
supremacy when, in 1943, he was ordered to discover how far the Germans had
advanced in developing the atomic bomb.
He began by interviewing scientists on campuses across the United States and
was appointed the personal handler of Niels Bohr, the Nobel prizewinner who
had worked on the understanding of atomic structure and had recently escaped
from occupied Denmark. Furman was particularly impressed by the ability of
Bohr and his associates to play chess without using a board.
Furman's next task was to organise collection of water samples from the
Upper Rhine and Lake Constance to check for evidence of German nuclear
activity. After a failed attempt to kidnap the senior German scientist
Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's former assistant, he sent Moe Berg, a former
baseball player for the Boston Red Sox among others, to hear Heisenberg
address a scientific conference in neutral Switzerland. Berg was given a
pistol to shoot him if he indicated that the Germans were working on a
nuclear bomb and a cyanide capsule for himself in case the assignment
failed. But after hearing Heisenberg's talk, and then dining with him, Berg
reported that he could find no evidence to support such suspicions.
As the Allied armies advanced across Europe, Furman ran Operation
Peppermint, in which he led a team which searched for all existing uranium
stocks, needed for nuclear fission. This involved his coming under German
sniper fire in Belgium. But he eventually found a stockpile of 31 tons near
Toulouse, which was duly dispatched to the United States. He also rounded up
Heisenberg and nine other scientists; they were held at Farm Hall,
Godmanchester, near Cambridge, to ensure that they did not end up in the
When Germany surrendered Furman escorted a large consignment of uranium
aboard the cruiser Indianapolis from the secret Manhattan Project at Los
Alamos, New Mexico, to Tinian island in the Pacific. Four days after the
cargo was discharged the ship was torpedoed, with the loss of 800 sailors'
>From Tinian, Furman watched the B-29 Enola Gay take off to drop the first
atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Later he visited Japan, but he continued to
believe that the two atomic bombs had ensured that the Cold War "remained
The son of a bank teller descended from an immigrant who left Stoke-on-Trent
in the early 18th century, Robert Ralph Furman was born on August 21 1915,
at Trenton, New Jersey. He grew up a keen tennis player. On leaving Trenton
High School he studied Civil Engineering at Princeton, where he joined the
Reserve, then worked for the Pennsylvania railroad and the Turner
construction company in New York.
After being called up in 1940 he was commissioned as an artillery officer
with a horse-drawn unit and transferred to the Quartermaster Corps'
construction division. It was there that he attracted the attention of
Colonel Leslie Groves, who was in charge of constructing the new War
Department building in Washington, to be known as the Pentagon.
Groves appointed Furman the third-ranking supervisor of the project, but he
soon took the major role, with responsibilities that ranged from the
materials used to the 123,000-strong workforce. His duties involved staying
overnight once a week to walk round the whole building, when he would stop
workers on the night shift drinking on the job.
After 17 months the job was finished, and Furman was invited by Groves - who
was by now a major-general and military director of the Manhattan Project -
to become his chief of foreign intelligence.
When Furman left the Army in 1946 he settled at Bethesda, Maryland, and
started a construction business building houses, schools, churches and
offices, including the American embassy in Nicaragua.
He became a pillar of his local community, serving as an active president of
the Rotary Club and becoming a member of the chamber of commerce and of his
local Episcopalian church. He also sang baritone in a barbershop quartet.
For decades his role in the development of the atomic bomb was cloaked in
secrecy, with his name eliminated from so many official documents that he
was known to historians as "the mysterious major".
His neighbours knew him to be a private man who was proud to have served in
the war, but they were astonished when, in his last years, he appeared in a
television programme about the Manhattan Project.
Recognising the growing interest in events that were receding from the
public memory, he agreed to give a conducted tour of his old office in the
Pentagon which, little changed in 60 years, now houses the Bureau of
Verification and Implementation, which tracks arms control measures. Last
December he took part in a seminar at the State Department on the atomic
Robert Furman died on October 14. He married, in 1952, Mary Eddy, who had
worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the war. She survives him
with their son and daughter and two daughters from her previous marriage.
|[US-OBITS] FURMAN: Robert Ralph 2008 by "Peter McCrae" <>|