The Day a Half Ton of Nazi Uranium Entered Portsmouth Harbor
U-234 in Portsmouth Harbor, May 1945(Published May 2008)
As the German U-boat entered Portsmouth Harbor with a cargo of a half ton of Nazi-produced uranium, it eventually became clear that the world would never be the same again. In the short term, this development probably hastened the end of WWII. In time, the capture of U-234 would help propel the U.S. into the space age.
On May 15, 1945, when the U-Boat officially surrendered, V-E Day was only a week old. With Germany knocked out of the greatest global conflict in world history, Japan remained a viable and dangerous foe. Kamikazes continued to rain their suicidal fury upon American warships, and resistance seemed to stiffen as U.S. forces closed in on the Japanese mainland.
Just prior to the Nazi’s unconditional surrender to Allied forces, a German U-Boat departed for Japan with the mission of delivering valuable military secrets to its Axis ally to help prolong the Pacific war. Aboard the 295-foot-long Unterseeboot were German scientists who were among the world’s leaders in nuclear and rocket power technologies. The submarine’s cargo included two disassembled Me-262 jet fighters and 560 kilograms of uranium—an amount even greater than that created by the Manhattan Project and enough to make eight crude atomic bombs.
With the end of hostilities in the European Theater, the Allies sent radio transmissions to all German submarines, instructing them to turn themselves in. U-234 was captured by the USS Sutton, which was trolling the North Atlantic on antisubmarine warfare patrol. Four days later, the U-boat was turned over to the Coast Guard’s cutter, the Argo, which escorted it to Portsmouth where the crew formally surrendered.
U-234 Periscope LensesWhile the matter may never be fully resolved, there is considerable debate about the actual intended use of the nuclear material. Many have speculated that it suggests that the German nuclear program was much more advanced than Allied intelligence had previously suspected. Some have speculated that the uranium might have accompanied Japanese Kamikazes on suicide attacks on major U.S. cities. On the other hand, some scholars suggest that the uranium would have been more likely used in the production of an experimental jet fuel, a theory supported by the disassembled aircraft.
Conventional wisdom holds that the captured uranium was sent to Oak Ridge, Tenn., where it was used in the production of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Indeed, the classified nature of much of the information surrounding the U-234’s capture makes it difficult to determine the exact fate of the uranium oxide. New research confirms that at least a portion of the nuclear raw material was shipped to Oak Ridge but suggests that it would have arrived too late to be used in the weapons used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Wright Museum’s collection includes a pair of periscope lenses from U-234.
While the uranium’s seizure was significant, of greater long-term value were the individuals captured along with the craft. Among them were German civilian scientists who were bound for Japan to help the Axis ally in the development of cutting-edge aviation technologies to be used against their common enemy. These scientists would remain in America and make significant contributions to efforts relating to the development of stealth technologies, jet powered aircraft, and eventually guided missiles.
The collection of the Wright Museum of WWII History includes a pair of lenses from the U-boat’s periscope, which will be on display for the duration of the month of May in the museum and for several months more on the museum’s Web site, http://www.wrightmuseum.org.
The Wright Museum is a non-profit institution devoted to educating learners of all ages. With its nationally-significant collection of fully-operational military vehicles and vast collections relating to the American Home Front, the Wright Museum is a member-supported national treasure located right here in New Hampshire. In the words of filmmaker Ken Burns, “The Wright Museum’s work to preserve and share the stories of the WWII generation is vitally important. I am proud to support its efforts to educate present and future generations about the triumphs and sacrifices of America’s Greatest Generation.”