The remarkable life and astonishing times of Dwight Smith Young

Down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, we have the audio tape and transcript of an interview with Dick Young that was done by an unfortunately anonymous high school student back in 1973.

Young was a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Marines during the Pacific island-hopping campaign, including some very heavy combat on Iwo Jima (where he earned two Purple Hearts). Like many of the Youngs, Dick was a polymath. He had been a contractor, a mason, and by 1973, he was serving as the first director of the Kane County Environmental Protection Agency, although he lived here in Oswego in a house he designed himself that features a sod roof.

The interview was a school project, designed to encourage community residents to talk about history in Oswego. For the interviewer, the story really started getting interesting when the discussion reached the Great Depression. In Dick’s matter-of-fact words:

“Between about 1930 and ‘36, as I recall, things were very tight. My father [Dwight Smith Young] worked as a maintenance man at a box factory in Aurora. His field was construction and everything like that dried up. And during the depression he built Route 34 through Oswego and he paved roads. That was his first job after about a year out of a job. I remember picking up hickory nuts and selling those, a bushel of those, and I remember helping with miscellaneous things to bring in a little change. Money would go a long way then as you can probably figure, since we started out for Aurora with 25 cents to do our weekly shopping. And they would buy their groceries with that. Then I don’t believe he got into anything until the end as a maintenance man at the factory. At the onset of World War II he was a physicist also and one of the original developers of the atomic bomb. He was one of the initial group in Chicago. It has been written up in a number of magazines, and then he went down to Los Alamos and was there for the original bomb explosion there and – I might add also, that on his own, he retired briefly and developed a miniature nuclear reactor, and then a few years later when the government got interested in rocketry, they took his individual little miniature reactor, took it and put it in the first rocket in the lab.”

Dwight Smith Young, in a self-portrait working in his darkroom, probably in Wilmington, Illinois. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dwight Smith Young as a young photographer, in a self-portrait working in his darkroom, probably in Wilmington, Illinois, ca. 1914. (Little White School Museum collection)

Which sounds like a pretty wild tale, but the thing is, it’s true. Dwight Young really was a carpenter and contractor, and a professional photographer, too. And he really was working at a box factory in Aurora when he heard about a job opening up at the University of Chicago with a group called the Metallurgical Laboratory. The guy heading up that project was Enrico Fermi, and in reality the “Metallurgical” part was a cover for the very hush-hush project of developing an atomic weapon.

Young got the job after a face-to-face interview with one of the physicists working on the project. When the lab moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico (where it morphed into the Manhattan Project), to continue developing the atom bomb, Young went along as a photographer and general engineering assistant. Because he, too, was one of the polymaths the Young family seems to produce on a regular basis, he apparently absorbed atomic theory through osmosis and actually did become a nuclear physicist, publishing a number of papers and, yes, even developing the first-known breeder reactor as a testbed.

Dwight Smith Young was born Oct. 22, 1892 in Elgin, Illinois, son of Lou C. and Mary Young, members of two of Oswego’s pioneer families.

Within a few years, the family moved back to Oswego, where Dwight attended school and learned the carpentry trade from his father. He, like many of his friends during the era when Oswego only had a two-year high school, went on to East Aurora High, graduating in 1910, already fascinated with photography.

Young enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing flight training in Texas when the war ended.

Young enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing flight training in Texas when the war ended. (Little White School Museum collection)

Young worked at both photography and carpentry with his father, leaving a priceless photographic record of many of the projects Lou Young built, from houses to farm buildings, not to mention a historic collection of Oswego area views created during the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1916, he was in Texas to record the devastation caused by the Galveston hurricane. Heading back to Illinois, he opened a photography studio in Wilmington. There, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing pilot training in Texas when the war ended. Heading back to Illinois, he continued working as a photographer and carpenter.

Which brings us up to the time of the story Dwight’s son Dick told that youthful interviewer back in 1973.

When the first atomic test was set in New Mexico, Young recalled he was not at first interested in viewing it. But then decided to go ahead to see what he could see, walking from Los Alamos to Santa Fe, a 12 hour stroll—not an unusual hike for Young, who enjoyed rambling over the desert countryside. After catching a few hours sleep in a Santa Fe hotel, he was walking into the city plaza when the southern sky suddenly flashed brighter than the sun, which he took as confirmation the project’s success.

Dwight Young, about 1944, in the nuclear lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico while work on the nation's first nuclear weapons was still moving ahead. (Litte White School Museum collection)

Dwight Young, about 1944, in the nuclear lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico while work on the nation’s first nuclear weapons was still moving ahead. (Litlte White School Museum collection)

Young never expressed any doubts about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After all, his three sons were all fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, John flying for the U.S. Army Air Corps; Dick, as noted above, island-hopping with the U.S. Marines; and Stan, fighting as a U.S. Army paratrooper.

After the war, Young continued to work as an atomic researcher, and was present during the world’s second nuclear accident on May 21, 1948. At the demand of Gen. Leslie Groves, the head of the nation’s nuclear program, Dr. Louis Slotin, and a team of scientists and technologists were attempting to accurately measure the critical mass of two hemispheres of fissionable uranium held apart with shims. During that era, things were much more primitive than today. As Slotin pried the two hemispheres apart with a screwdriver, manually removing shims and gaging the result, the wooden assembly slipped, all the shims fell out, and the two hemespheres came together, starting a chain reaction. Although not enough material was there to cause an atomic explosion, there was more than enough material to create a giant burst of gamma rays. Slotin immediately knocked the two hemispheres of radioactive material apart with his hand, probably saving the other technicians and scientists in the room—including Young—from immediate death.

Slotin died of radiation poisoning within nine days. Young, who was standing opposite Slotin at the time, received a heavy, but non-lethal, dose of radiation; Slotin’s body absorbed most of the flash. Hospitalized for observation, Young was released, but forever after blamed Groves’ insistence on test results before proper equipment was available for Slotin’s death. “There was no need to kill Louis Slotin to show that making critical mass measures should be made by remote control,” he wrote in 1975.

Shortly thereafter, Young began working on a breeder reactor of his own design that was to be used to test nuclear theory. He was also busy publishing papers on nuclear physics, still doing photography, and was also deeply involved in archaeology in the Arizona and New Mexico area.

And that brings us to 1953 when Young’s boss, Hugh Paxton, was busy trying to figure out how to promote Young from his technician’s rating to full staff member status. Paxton and his colleagues had come to heavily rely on Young’s expertise in a wide range of subjects critical to the nation’s nuclear program, from nuclear physics itself to more prosaic skills including photography and basic engineering.

As the personnel division noted, Young’s activities in his current grade were “anomalous, in that his activities do not fit the graded series,” since he was engaged in work far above his technician’s grade. With understatement, Paxton added, “On the other hand, his formal education is far short of that generally associated with staff member status.” Because, as Paxton noted to his superiors, Young didn’t have a degree in nuclear physics. In fact, he didn’t have a college degree at all.

In his letter to request Young’s promotion, Paxton noted the Los Alamos team had initially been dismissive of Young’s work on his innovative breeder reactor.

Young lived in this cabin on the Los Alamos reservation in Pajarito Canyon, off and on, for several years.

Young lived in this cabin on the Los Alamos reservation in Pajarito Canyon, off and on, for several years.

“The work received no encouragement because of the nearly unanimous expectation of the rest of us that precision would be inadequate,” Paxton wrote, adding, “Actually, the results are beautiful.”

Young got his promotion becoming probably the only non-degreed physicist ever at Los Alamos and continued to work on the nation’s nuclear programs until his retirement in 1966. After retiring, Young moved to the Texas gulf shore where he experimented with meteorology and engaged in his loves of botany, biology, archaeology, gardening, and cooking. In declining health, probably due in part to the stress on his body caused by that nuclear accident a couple decades before, he came back north to briefly live with his son, John, before dying on Christmas Eve, 1972, the end of a remarkable life.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology

One response to “The remarkable life and astonishing times of Dwight Smith Young

  1. Pingback: Andrew Carnegie and the Oswego Presbyterians’ pipe organ… | historyonthefox

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