Early Life

From Camp Upton to Los Alamos

Military Duties at Los Alamos

Atomic Bomb Test

Postwar Studies

Paris and CERN

Hiroshi Suura and the Atomic Bomb

Reflections

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Dr. Hans Courant was born in 1924 in Göttingen, Germany and lived there until he was nine. He had one bother and two sisters. He does not remember much of his life in Germany. He sees his life as beginning when they arrived in New York. He spent six or eight months in Copenhagen before going to the United States. In Germany his family had a nice home and servants. He wanted to be part of the Hitler Youth but his father would not let him. Courant was told by the companion who travelled with his family to New York that on 23 August when they passed the Statue of Liberty, he told the statue good morning. Courant's father was a professor and was concerned with his brother's education. He went to visit the parents of an American he met in Goettingen. The American's name was Robert Oppenheimer and he was later at Los Alamos. The Oppenheimers made arrangements for Courant's brother to attend Fieldston School in New York City. Courant and all of his siblings except his youngest sister attended Fieldston School. The war was on and it was hard on his father. By that time his father was becoming an important person at New York University. He made Courant apply for college. He was accepted into MIT [Annotator's Note: Massachusetts Institute of Technology] during his junior year and dropped out of high school to go to MIT. After one semester at MIT Courant was drafted into the Army.

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Hans Courant does not recall which year that happened [Annotator's Note: when he was drafted]. After reporting in he spent three weeks at what is now Brookhaven Labratory but was then Camp Upton. He was then sent to basic training in Texas and was in training to be an anti-tank gunner. One morning he woke up with a headache. He went to sick call, passed out and was admitted to the hospital. He was diagnosed with spinal meningitis. He spent two months in the hospital after which the Army sent him home for a few weeks. The Army then sent him to a college program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. They would drill in the morning then go to class in the afternoon. About a month after he got to Baylor he was told to pack up and was shipped out to Limy, New Mexico then on to Santa Fe. There, he was told that he would be picked up and taken elsewhere. Courant was taken to Los Alamos where he was assigned to a group working on electronics. He worked in that capacity for the next two years.

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Hans Courant was assigned to a group working on electronics at Los Alamos. He worked in that capacity for the next two years. He built equipment for the physicists. Courant did what he was supposed to do. When he got there there were 30 to 50 Army personnel but by the time he left the Army was playing a bigger role and the special engineer detachment was made up of about 1,000 people. The soldiers did drill in the morning then worked in the afternoon and evening. Courant enjoyed working in the electronics shop. He would work a lot of hours which kept him from having to march in the mornings. The tech area was about a mile up the road from the barracks. It had a fence around it and a guard at the gate. There were a number of technical groups working there. It was good working there because everyone had the same mission. Courant had some family acquaintances that were civilian employees at Los Alamos. They were mathematicians who were friends of Courant's father. Some of them had kids that were not much younger than Courant. There were more civilians working at Los Alamos than military personnel. The military took people who had credentials and when they arrived they were put into their areas of expertise. There was a Pueblo village near Los Alamos and the Native Americans from the village worked at Los Alamos as household help. Courant made a lot of friends in the Army. He was also able to correspond with his family from Los Alamos although all incoming and outgoing mail was censored. Courant did not talk to others about what he was building.

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Everybody knew what they were building there. Hans Courant was at Alamogordo for the bomb test since he had built some of the parts for it. The test was scary. He did not know if the part he made would work. He was 10,000 yards from Ground Zero in an observation post. There were other observation posts closer to Ground Zero but those were underground. Courant was in the observation post with 20 or 30 others. They were told to face Ground Zero. He was given a piece of cardboard with a welder's glass in it to look through. When the bomb went off he felt the warmth of it on his hands almost instantly. He was six miles away so the effects did not reach him right away. It was scary. Courant lay down in the mud. Each of them had a job to do. One man's job was to drop tiny pieces of paper to see if they would be blown around. Doing that, he was able to deduce that the blast had been equivalent to ten kilotons of TNT. That man was Enrico Fermi. Another physicist verified Fermi's assertion. Seeing the blast was scary. At the point Courant realized that the next time a bomb like that went off, people would be the target. After the test they were put on a bus back to Los Alamos. Back at Los Alamos there was a lot of relief but also some concern that they would be killing people. It was a strange mix of concepts. Courant never thought twice about killing the Japanese.

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Hans Courant and the others went back to Los Alamos where he was told that he would be released to go back to college. He went to school at MIT. When he got there he was surprised to see many of the people he knew from Los Alamos. One of those people had been his boss at Los Alamos and was now a graduate student at MIT, Matthew Sands. Courant does not recall any talking after the test went off [Annotator's Note: the Trinity test of the the atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico on 16 July 1945]. He does recall being told not to talk during the pit stops the bus made on the way back to Los Alamos. On 3 October the Alamogordo test site will open to visitors. Courant was in the barracks at Los Alamos when he learned of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. He was happy when he heard the news. When he got to MIT, Courant did many of the same things he had done at Los Alamos only instead of building parts for atomic bombs he was building cosmic ray equipment. Courant stayed with the same group of guys. He spent three or four more years as a graduate student at MIT then went on a fellowship to Paris. There, he continued doing cosmic ray work in Paris for a year. By this time Courant was married and his wife lived with him in Paris. Years later they separated.

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When he left Paris, Hans Courant went to the Berkeley labs. He stayed there for a while then went to CERN [Annotator's Note: CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research] in Switzerland when it was just starting. At CERN, Courant continued doing the same work he had been doing only this time the work was not for war. While at CERN a man from the University of Minnesota approached Courant and offered him a job. Courant left CERN, returned to the United States, and went to work for the university. They were working at CERN to learn more about cosmic rays. It was a subject that interested Courant.

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Hans Courant has never been to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. He has also not returned to Alamogordo but has been back to Los Alamos. When Courant first arrived at the University of Minnesota, he had a colleague who had been in Hiroshima that morning [Annotator's Note: on the morning of 6 August 1945 when the atomic bomb was detonated over the city]. The man was planning to take a train to the capitol to be part of the end of the war. The man ended up with an office near Courant's. His name was Hiroshi Suura. Courant and Suuara became friends. When Suuara contracted throat cancer he returned to Hiroshima for treatment and eventually died there.

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Hans Courant has many fond memories of going skiing on Sundays with his Army buddies while at Los Alamos. One of his buddies later became a physicist and won the Nobel Peace prize. His name was Val Fitch. Courant's girlfriend would go skiing with them. When Courant left Los Alamos he willed his girlfriend to Fitch. Fitch later married her and Courant was the best man. Courant had no life before World War 2. His service during the war does not mean much to him these days. He does like going to Los Alamos. His wife got to see pictures of him there. Working on the atomic bomb was very satisfying. It was important for America to get rid of Hitler [Annotator's Note: German Dictator Adolf Hitler]. It is important for there to be institutions like The National WWII Museum and to teach elements of the war to future generations. Courant is connected with an atomic energy historical agency. Courant looks back at the changes brought about by the development of the atomic bomb as being nothing more than history.

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