Foreign Policy Blogs

The Coster-Mullen Files: Part 1

Following my April 8th post, John Coster-Mullen wrote to me in response.  Luckily, he didn’t dislike what I wrote.  In fact, in a series of subsequent exchanges, he has breathlessly and enthusiastically shared with me a whole host of additional information he has obtained and developed in the course of his extensive research on Fat Man, Little Boy and the Trinity Tests.  So, with his permission, I’d like to share all of those goodies in a serialized form.

Here, for your reading enjoyment, is installment #1.

“Dear Ms. Lieberman,

Thank you for your comments regarding my book Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man.  It has now taken me 18 years to research and write it in its numerous iterations.  BTW.  I did get as far as my Junior year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee back in the 1960’s.

I have never had a security clearance or taken a security oath.

I have never mis-represented myself in order to obtain information.

I have never conducted espionage.

I have never paid for information.

Note below that the IAEA has had an earlier edition of my book for several years as well as at least two of the UN Iraq WMD inspectors.

You might be interested in reading these comments made to me several months ago by someone within the NNSA.

“You are well known to the feds!…I am flabbergasted!  I can see why certain people have raised their eyes.  You are a true guts and details historian willing to wade through everything in hopes of finding some fact to add to your picture your building.  What is so marvelous is that not only have you collected the pieces in pictures and writing but you have truly put the puzzle together to rebuild it.  That is an awesome accomplishment!  Yes you do make people nervous including me at times but that doesn’t diminish my total respect for what you have done!….You do make us (NNSA) nervous.  Your perseverance is a marvel.  You may not have an engineering degree but you obviously have a top notch technical mind.  It’s too bad they won’t bring you inside.  You have made a great contribution and could do more on the inside….The powers that be are scared of you and what you did because you were able to collect from unclassified sources.”

Here is a link to a 2005 interview with Harold Agnew where he comments on my book.

We had just spent a week together on Tinian.  We all did book/photo signings in the hotel lobby every afternoon.  At one point, Harold drifted down to my end of the table where I had my book open to my Little Boy drawing.  He started tapping his finger on the drawing and demanded to know “Where did you get this drawing?!”  “Well Dr. Agnew, I made that drawing.”  The look on his face was very telling.  Recovering his composure, he waved his hand over it and said, “How did you know where all this stuff was?”  I gave him a short explanation of my methods (some of which he mis-remembered in the interview) and he concluded, “If I still ran the shop, I’d have you back there in a heartbeat to tell everyone how you did this so if they had to keep something really secret they’d know where to plug the leaks.  This is remarkable!”  The person he told this to at LANL (John Immele) was “Horrified” but wouldn’t do it.  Pity!

In all these years, I have never been approached or contacted by anyone asking me to withhold information.  In fact, the FBI Hazardous Devices Response Unit (HDRU) at Quantico uses it as a textbook.  The New Yorker writer even told me he personally told Condoleezza Rice about me during their last interview session together.  Her sole reaction was “Oh…My…God!!”

Here is my standard book blah, blah.


Thank you for your interest in my book.  It is 417 pages, coil bound, soft cover 8.5 x 11, and provides as many technical details on both Little Boy and Fat Man as I have been able to uncover in well over 18 years of meticulous research along with numerous untold stories of both combat missions.  It contains hundreds of photos and drawings along with over a hundred pages of declassified documents.  Over 100 of these photos and drawings are exclusive to my book.

I’ve poured over thousands of pages of declassified documents and photographs and traveled well in excess of 100,000 miles around the world to inspect, measure, photograph over a dozen different Little Boy and Fat Man weapon casings at nine different museums, attend 509th Composite Group (the atomic bombers) military reunions, and conduct hundreds of hours of interviews with Manhattan Project, 509th Composite Group, and Project Alberta veterans.  In 2001, the surviving members of the 509th Composite Group voted to make me a Permanent Honorary Member of this prestigious group and I’ve attended almost every reunion of this organization since 1994.  I created a full-scale exact replica of Little Boy for permanent display at the Historic Wendover Airfield Museum.  Before final delivery to Wendover, it was signed by all of the surviving members of the 509th at their 2004 reunion in Wichita.  I served as co-chairman for their 2007 reunion in Chicago.

Several people at Sandia National Laboratory used my book as primary source material to generate classified reports regarding Little Boy.  My book was used by NRDC author Robert Norris as the primary source for information on both bombs in his monumental “Racing for the Bomb” biography of General Groves published in 2002.  Excerpts from the book pertaining to the Little Boy safing and arming plugs were used by the Defense (Exhibit K) in the famous case of the United States vs. Butterfields Auctioneers (Case No. 02-2776) and were instrumental in U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston’s 6/14/2002 decision to reject the government’s claim to the plugs.  The book was also used as the main source for Jim Sanborn’s 2003 “Critical Assembly” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in DC.  The book was used by Japanese author Kiyoshi Souwa for his 2003 book “Hiroshima Atomic Bombing, The Meaning To Drop It At 8:15 A.M.”, by English author Stephen Walker for his 2005 book “Shockwave”, and by Richard H. Campbell for his outstanding 2005 book “The Silverplate Bombers.”  I contributed to the November 19, 2005 article in Physics, “The B61-based ‘Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator’” by Andre Gsponer.  Manhattan Project scientist Lawrence Johnston used my book as source material for his August 9, 2006 lecture he presented at Los Alamos “Adventures at Wartime Los Alamos.”  My book was used as a source by Michael Gordin in his 2007 book “Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War”, for the 2009 book “Atomic Awakening” by James Mahaffey, and in 2011 for “The Physics of the Manhattan Project” by Cameron Reed.  My Fat Man cross-section drawing was used in the newly-released “Swords of Armageddon”, Version 2 by Chuck Hansen.  My Little Boy and Fat Man cross-section drawings are currently used as the primary drawings on Wikipedia in their articles on both weapons.  An article about me, “Atomic John”, appeared in the December 15, 2008 issue of The New Yorker.  My Little Boy cross-section drawing was used in 2010 book “The Twilight of the Bombs” by Richard Rhodes.  On 3/30/11, I was the subject of a story on the CNN webpage followed a few days later on 4/3/11 by one in the London Daily Mail.  I have served in an advisory capacity to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, National Atomic Museum (NAM), National Geographic Television, Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum (NASM), and The Children of the Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association (MPHPA).

My book has been purchased by people in all 50 states as well as by people at various DOE facilities such as Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Fermilab (FNAL), Hanford, Lawrence Livermore (LLNL), Los Alamos (LANL), Nevada Test Site, Oak Ridge (ORNL), Pantex, Sandia (SNL), and Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL), along with Aldermaston (AWE-UK’s nuclear site) and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI).  Copies are in the libraries at FNAL, LANL, ORNL, SNL, Aldermaston, and the IAEA/SGIM in Vienna.  In addition, copies have also been purchased by Drexel University, the FBI Hazardous Devices Response Unit (HDRU) at Quantico, Georgetown University, Harvard, Hope College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Marquette University, Miami University, MIT, Naval Post Graduate School, NRDC, Princeton, Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, University of South Carolina, USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson, Waseda University in Tokyo, and Washington and Lee University.  The Deputy Chief of Mission at a prominent embassy in DC also bought a copy along with people both in and out of government from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Dubai, England, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Saipan, South Korea, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Tinian.

I have been interviewed by ABC News, Design News, Landline Magazine on Sirius, Metro International, National Public Radio in Vienna, Austria, Hiroshima TV, Hiroshima Chugoku Shimbun newspaper, radio station TBS eFM in Seoul, Korea, Trucker News, WUWM’s “Lake Effect” radio program, and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  I worked with the BBC in 2003/2004, which produced the 2005 documentary “Hiroshima” pertaining to the bombs.  I delivered a presentation at a Manhattan Project Symposium in Elmira, New York on 6/26/04 and on 8/14/04, along with General Paul Tibbets, at the Wright-Patterson USAF Museum in Ohio.  On April 6, 2005, I was invited to meet with the Hiroshima World Peace Mission delegation at Wendover, Utah.  We inspected the areas where the original test bombs were assembled and uncovered the fragmentary remains of the grounded copper-covered floor used in the Fat Man final explosives assembly building.  In August 2005, I was honored to accept an invitation by the government of Tinian to deliver a series of presentations on the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan to an audience of both US and Japanese veterans.  During the visit to Tinian, I was able to prove conclusively for their government which pit was used to load both combat Little Boy and Fat Man weapons into their respective B-29’s for use on Japan in 1945.  Upon their return from attending this commemoration event, the members of the Hiroshima mission presented a copy of my book to the Mayor of Hiroshima and it now exhibited at the library of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.  In August 2010, I personally presented this museum with an updated copy shortly after first delivering a presentation on Tinian as part of their “Manhattan Project and Tinian Educational Symposium.”  While in Hiroshima, I also took this opportunity to personally donate a copy of my book to their Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF).

In addition to providing archival material, I also appear in the 2007 documentary about this 2005 60th anniversary Tinian event entitled “Echoes from the Apocalypse.”  I worked with PBS for their 2006 program “Dr. Teller’s Very Large Bomb.”  The “Tech Effects” program “Hiroshima” runs on the History Channel and I am listed in the credits.  I worked with filmmaker Jon Else on his 2007 PBS documentary “Wonders are Many” about the making of the opera “Doctor Atomic” where my book was utilized as an important reference during the production of the opera.  In addition, drawings and equations from my book appeared in this opera when it was presented in San Francisco, Amsterdam, Chicago Lyric Opera, New York Met, and London.  I appeared in the “Nagasaki” episode of the Weather Channel’s “How Weather Changed History” program and on 3/9/09, I gave a presentation about my research at the University of Chicago’s prestigious Enrico Fermi Institute.  I appeared in the documentary “Atomic Trucker” shown on the Internet on Motherboard VBS TV.  My Fat Man cross-section drawing was used in the 2009 documentary “Die Bombe” produced by Cinecentrum in Hamburg and subsequently shown on ZDF, German public TV.  In 2010, my Little Boy cross-section drawing was used in the documentary “Countdown to Zero” and I contributed to the National Geographic Television Channel’s documentary “24 Hours After Hiroshima.”  On 2/16/11, I delivered a lecture about my book and research at Fermilab near Chicago.

“I was very much impressed.” — Paul W. Tibbets, Brig. General, USAF, Retired

“What you have now written is the best, I am sure, of any discussion on the subject I have seen.” — Frederick L. Ashworth, Vice Admiral, USN, Retired

“Your book contains the best description of the Nagasaki mission I have ever read.” — Dutch Van Kirk, Enola Gay Navigator

“Your book is outstanding.  Congratulations on an important historical record.” — Morris Jeppson, Enola Gay Electronics Test Officer

“I think your story is excellent.  I don’t recall anything like it before.” — George Caron, Enola Gay Tail Gunner

“I am very favorably impressed by the amount of information you have gathered together and presented in an interesting fashion.” — Norman F. Ramsey, Project Alberta

“You have done a remarkable job.” — Philip Morrison, Manhattan Project Physicist

“Your detailed and unique research is very impressive.” — Henry Linschitz, Manhattan Project Chemist

“Most amazing document…In all first rate…there are drawings in there that are absolutely correct…he’s got everything exactly: dimensions, materials, and things that have been really classified…He’s an amazing guy. I don’t know how he puts this all together…It’s mind boggling to me.” — Harold Agnew, Project Alberta and former Director of Los Alamos

“I really appreciate your time and dedication to a key part of the lab, and the nation’s, history.” — Eric Gerdes, Los Alamos Classified Bomb School and Museum

“All of us in the fast-disappearing Cold War generation, and many of the younger folks who will have to deal with nukes in less-friendly hands, owe you a deep debt of gratitude.” — Thomas C. Reed, former Secretary of the Air Force

“Coster-Mullen lets the reader look over the shoulder of those who assembled the bomb.” — Robert S. Norris, Author of Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man

“He came out of left field and really did something that I think is pretty dazzling.” — Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb

“To suggest that Coster-Mullen is a garden-variety classification freak, however, is like comparing a high-school trumpet player to Miles Davis.” — David Samuels, The New Yorker author of Atomic John





Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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