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Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2005

Sleeping on the bomb

IU physicist Lawrence Langer and the atomic bomb

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Manhattan Project during World War II involved many scientists, but perhaps none was closer to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima than the late Lawrence M. Langer, a former professor of physics at Indiana University Bloomington.

Photo by: IU Home Pages

Physicists Lawrence M. Langer (right) and Daniel W. Miller examine a model of the IU Cyclotron Facility that would be completed in 1974.

Print-Quality Photo

Langer was the first member of the IU Department of Physics to be called upon by the federal government for the war effort. He began in 1941 with the radar project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then switched to sonar detection of submarines, working as a group leader at a Navy laboratory. When Los Alamos National Laboratory was established in New Mexico in 1943, director Robert Oppenheimer recruited Langer to participate in the atomic bomb project as a group leader.

In 1945, Langer was assigned to the U.S. air base at Saipan to prepare for the bombing of Hiroshima. There he supervised trial drops of dummy bombs by the Enola Gay, the plane chosen for the mission, and helped to assemble the bomb itself.

The military commanders felt there was too much danger of a crash on take-off to risk arming the atomic bomb before the Enola Gay was safely airborne. Langer was to arm the bomb after the plane was in the air, but because he was a civilian, the military would not allow him to fly on the bombing mission. So he had to train an Army officer to arm the bomb with a special tool after the Enola Gay had taken off for Hiroshima.

The military police assigned to guard the bomb were curious about what was happening, Langer recalled, and the crucial arming tool was next to the bomb in the bomb bay of the Enola Gay. As an extra security measure on the last night before the bomb was dropped, Langer stayed in the aircraft to keep an eye on everything. As he felt himself growing drowsy in the warm August night, he could find only one place where there was room to lie down -- on top of the 10-foot-long bomb. So he stretched out there and fell asleep. He was jolted awake hours later when preparations began for the bombing run.

After the war, Langer came back to IU Bloomington and turned his attention to problems in nuclear physics. He published a number of major research papers that helped to confirm a theory of beta decay proposed by famed physicist Enrico Fermi, and he was involved in other important experiments as well, such as measuring the mass of the neutrino. Follwing his retirement in 1978, he resided in Bloomington until his death in 2000.

NOTE: This article is based on a 1989 interview with Langer at his home in Bloomington by the writer, Hal Kibbey. For more information, contact Kibbey at 812-855-0074 or