NUKLUEDO — Can you solve this 1953 Nuclear Mystery?

“We want to know every step he [US physicist John Archibald Wheeler] had taken, persons with whom he had talked, whether he had gone home after receiving the document, how he had gone to the train, whether he had called anyone, how long he had been at each place, what he did with the document at every step and, in fact, his actions should be traced minute by minute.”

FBI Files

John Archibald Wheeler in the early 1950s. This portrait was also Wheeler’s FBI file photo.

November 29 2020 — In January 1953, US physicist John Archibald Wheeler lost a document on an overnight train from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. Physics professors lose papers every day.  But this one was highly secret. The six-pages document was the blueprint of the first US thermonuclear bomb. Despite a major investigation, it was never recovered. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

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There are of course plenty of interesting stories about the disappearance of this highly secret document.

Today, I would like to focus on the timeline independently of the historical context, the subject and the personalities involved.

The chronological account that follows comes from recently released files, created as part of the FBI’s intensive investigation into what happened to Wheeler and his secret document on that trip.

For the purpose of this post, you can assume that this timeline is exactly correct. [Alex Wellerstein is an assistant professor in science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.]

There is something in this timeline that I have always regarded as highly suspicious.

Perhaps, I have the Mind of a Conspiracy Theorist? Maybe… What do you think? Is there not something that bothers you in this FBI timeline?

  • Tuesday, 6 January 1953, around 1:00pm, Wheeler’s secretary called to make a reservation for two people on a Washington-bound Pullman sleeper train leaving from Philadelphia.

    Around the same time, Wheeler telephoned Jay Berger, a colleague at Princeton, to tell him they would both have business with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington the following day and would be taking the train that night.

  • At 4:50pm Wheeler signed out two documents from his safe in his secretary’s presence. One was the extract of the secret H-bomb history, the other was unrelated classified work. He put the secret history into a white envelope and put both classified documents inside a manila envelope, which he put in his suitcase. He then went home and had dinner.

  • Wheeler was picked up by a taxicab from his house in Princeton at 8:45pm and was taken, along with another passenger, to the Princeton train station. He boarded a train to Princeton Junction.

  • Wheeler arrived at Princeton Junction at 9:01pm and made his way to board a train to Trenton. Berger was on the same train, but he and Wheeler did not see each other. Wheeler later admitted that he was avoiding Berger because he did not want to talk to him. Their train arrived at Trenton by 9:17pm. Wheeler sat in the Trenton station waiting room. He took both documents out of the suitcase, but he did not read the H-bomb history. By 9:29pm, both he and Berger were on a train to Philadelphia, although once again they did not have contact with one another.

  • At 10:06pm Wheeler and Berger’s train arrived in Philadelphia. Berger, according to later interrogation, went for a short walk around the station to find shaving supplies. At 10:10pm, Wheeler boarded car #101 of a Pennsylvania Railroad sleeper car heading to Washington.

  • Wheeler’s ticket assigned him to lower berth 9, second from the end on the right-hand side of the train. Wheeler immediately went to his berth, which was already converted to its sleeping mode. He buttoned the privacy curtains and undressed. In his testimony to the FBI, he said that at that point he sat in bed, removed the H-bomb history from the two envelopes, and read it. His memory of reading it was vivid, for he made notes in the margins in pencil and was later able to reconstruct those notes.

  • Wheeler later said that when he finished a little after 11:00pm, he believed that he replaced the history into its white envelope, put that back inside the manila envelope, put the envelope back in the suitcase, and then wedged the suitcase between himself and the wall. 

  • At 11:30pm, according to the porter on duty, Berger returned. He asked the porter for the passenger list, hoping to connect with Wheeler. He was denied the list per standard Pullman policy. Berger gave up on seeing Wheeler and went to his own assigned bunk, berth 10, not knowing he was directly across from Wheeler. Berger then slept.

  • On Wednesday, 7 January, at 2:43am, the train left Philadelphia. At 5:15am, it arrived at Washington’s Union Station. Wheeler reported waking twice in the night, each time rechecking that his suitcase was undisturbed.

  • At 6:45am the porter, Robert Jones, woke Wheeler at the time Wheeler had earlier specified. Wheeler took his suitcase and walked to the men’s lavatory at the other end of the train. At 6:50am he put his shaving gear and his suitcase, with the manila envelope inside it, on the washstand. An unknown man entered and used the wash basin beside Wheeler. Wheeler left his suitcase on the counter, took the manila envelope with him into the men’s “saloon” (toilet stall), and closed the door. Finding nowhere to put the envelope, he wedged it between some pipes and the wall, just under the window on his right. He used the toilet. He exited the stall, continued washing up—and then realized he had left the envelope wedged against the saloon wall.

  • At that point two other men were using the wash basins and another man was occupying the toilet stall. Not letting decorum get in the way of security, Wheeler climbed on the washstand and attempted to peer through the metal grate on the toilet door. He could not see the envelope, but he could see the other man on the toilet and could see that he was not reading anything. Wheeler watched him until he finished his business and opened the door, at which point Wheeler ran in behind him and grabbed the manila envelope from behind the pipes. It did not seem tampered with.

  • No doubt breathing a sigh of relief—and no doubt seeming odd to his fellow riders—Wheeler continued washing up, shaved, put the envelope and his shaving gear back in his suitcase, and went back to his berth. There he finished dressing. Jones directed him to sit in berth 6, which had been converted into its daytime sitting mode. While waiting for Berger to appear, Wheeler thought to check on the document.

  • At 7:20am, he opened his suitcase and took out the manila envelope. The white envelope, which had contained the secret of the H-bomb, was not inside.

  • Berger left berth 10 at 7:45am and, for the first time on the trip, saw Wheeler, who was in a panic. He had found the porter and was securing his help in searching the train. Berger was assigned the role of watching Wheeler’s bags while Wheeler and Jones went through the dirty linens from Wheeler’s berth and searched the lavatory and the trash. No white envelope. Going through his suitcase again, a deeply distraught Wheeler began tearing up anything that was no longer of value (magazine articles, unclassified correspondence) and strewed them as confetti on the train’s floor.

  • At 7:55am, per railroad regulations, car #101 had to be vacated for the day. Wheeler and Berger left and immediately searched Union Station for the other men who had been in the lavatory. The search was futile. In a depressingly desperate act, they went to the station’s lost-and-found office. Nobody had turned in any documents containing the secret of the H-bomb. Likely contemplating their futures, they ate breakfast at the station, then headed over to the nearby congressional Office Building where the Joint Committee staff were waiting.

  • By 9:30am Wheeler had told the staffers, including Borden, what had happened. They all headed back to car #101, which had since been moved to the railroad yards, to search it again. They found nothing. They secured an official hold on the car so it would not be sent out again and put a lock on the door. Borden was beginning to panic—he had just participated in the loss of the secret of the H-bomb, and had done so while waging a private conspiracy against the AEC. Much more than merely his career was on the line. Mishandling nuclear secrets was legally punishable by jail time, fines, and even, in extreme cases, the death penalty. Around noon, giving into his desperation, Borden did the only other thing he could think of: He called the FBI, told them they had lost a document, and begged for help.

J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious head of the FBI, became directly involved with the investigation.

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He personally wrote letters informing the attorney general and the AEC’s director of security about the investigation, and Hoover’s handwriting is at the bottom of many major FBI documents about the search:

“EXPEDITE. Get after all phases of this. Leave no stone unturned.”

The FBI special agents assigned to the investigation were given almost unlimited resources to uncover the fate of the Wheeler document.

All of their efforts were to no avail. The document was never seen again.


John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues — Physics Today


NUKLUEDO — Can you solve this 1953 Nuclear Mystery?

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