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Friedrich had a hand in history

Hank Friedrich is a familiar face at Eagle Valley Golf Course, where he works as a starter and a ranger. However, during World War II, Friedrich was working as an engineer on The Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Staff Photo by Tom Carothers.

These days, Hank Friedrich is a very familiar face to those playing 18 holes at Eagle Valley Golf Course -- which he helped design -- serving as the course's starter and ranger.

"I'm probably the oldest employee of the city of Woodbury," Friedrich, 89, said.

However, more than six decades ago, Friedrich played a role in helping bring World War II to an end as part of the Manhattan Project -- the codename given to America's effort to develop atomic technologies.

"It has very little to do with what I do here," joked Friedrich, who moved to the area in 1970 and spends his winters working at the Bielenberg Sports Center.

In the early days of the nation's entry into WWII, Friedrich, a Buffalo, N.Y. native and son of German immigrants, left Clarkson College of Technology in Potsdam, N.Y, to enlist in the U.S. Army in Nov. 1942.

While many able-bodied men of the era were ushered into combat service, Friedrich instead found his country more interested in his mind -- and the knowledge of mechanical engineering stored inside.

Within two years, Friedrich found himself stationed in the middle of New Mexico at what is now well-known as the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Yet, in February of 1944, Los Alamos was little more than a small way station in the high desert.

"No one I knew had ever heard of it," Friedrich recalled.

What Friedrich and others involved in the project did was to create the world's first atomic bombs -- the first of which was used on Aug. 6, 1945 on the city of Hiroshima, Japan; the second was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

"I thought, 'What had we done?'" he said. "We killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima, 70,000 in Nagasaki -- I got to thinking, 'Why did I enlist? To beat Germany, to beat Japan and we defeated them. War is war."

The atomic bombings brought a swift end to the war with the declaration of surrender by Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, without the need of a full-scale Allied invasion.

"One month after the first test explosion, the war was over," Friedrich said. "We killed a lot of civilians, but if (the bombings) hadn't happened, we would have had to invade Japan and probably would have lost as many of our GIs."

A war-ending venture began for Friedrich as an unknown man on an unknown mission, but it didn't remain that way for long.

The U.S. Army contingent at the Alamogordo Air Base outside Los Alamos numbered around 200, stationed in dormitories as part of a "special detachment."

The detachment's secret mission put Friedrich and those alongside of him on a collision course with history and it was a journey marked by an assortment of meetings with noteworthy men who would go on to shape the world as we know it today.

Yet, one such encounter had more to do with a bat and a ball than uranium or plutonium.

"We had a softball team there and I was a catcher," he said. "We were one short of having the 10 men that we needed.

"Well, there was this guy hanging around all the time, looked like what you would think of as an Italian barber, wore dungarees -- Levi's -- which weren't all that popular at the time. Well, we needed a pitcher and I asked if he could pitch and he said, 'I think so.' He ended up our pitcher."

That man was physicist Enrico Fermi, frequently referred to as "the father of the atomic bomb."

But could he pitch?

"Oh yeah, he was a good pitcher," Friedrich said.

Another historic meeting for Friedrich occurred in a markedly different way when a dog he kept suddenly took off after a scientist of note.

"We had a wide open- office and I had this cocker spaniel, Duke, that used to stay under my desk," he said. "Well, this one day, he runs out from under my desk and down the hall, barking away.

"By the time I caught up to him, he has this guy in a beat-up overcoat by the pant leg -- tore his pants."

The object of Duke's ire that day? Albert Einstein.

"My boss said, 'Boy, you dog sure knows how to pick people,' and I said, 'Yeah, I wonder who that was," and he said, "You just met Einstein."

The theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate didn't hold a grudge, though, sitting down next to Friedrich at a meeting the next day.

"He said, 'I might as well sit down here with you, Henry,' and we chatted for the next several hours."

While Einstein was only at Los Alamos for two days, Friedrich's dog Duke would go on to become historic in his own right, as he became the first-ever canine to witness a human-engineered nuclear detonation with the Trinity explosion in the wee morning hours of Monday, July 15, 1945.

While Trinity was reported as a "munitions explosion" at an ammunition dump, Friedrich knew exactly what he was witnessing -- even though he wasn't supposed to be looking.

"I was there, my dog was with me, a couple two or three miles from the site," he said. "They gave us the darkest welding goggles you could buy and they said, 'Don't look.' Well, I peeked. I was blinded for two days."

Friedrich said that most on hand that day were pleased at the successful detonation.

"We cheered, cheered that it was a success, because at the time, no one knew if it would work or not," he said. "My initial thoughts were confusion and 'what did I do?'"

While the events of summer 1945 set in motion a number of events that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war on a number of occasions, Friedrich said that he thinks the development of the atomic bomb has helped ensure that No. 2 would indeed be the final World War.

"I really think (what we did) has had a lot to do with the fact that we haven't had World War III, which would be a global atomic war," he said. "I don't think we ever will have a global atomic war."

While he still holds some regrets that atomic energy has not been put to more peaceful uses, he is still proud of his role in the development of what has simply become known as "The bomb."

"I'm proud of what I did," he said. "It was a very small contribution that I made, but it was a contribution."