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Archive for August 6th, 2015

curious pacts

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The great anniversary, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It all started in the Belgian Congo, over in Africa, when a fellow named Robert Rich Sharp discovered the deposit near a little town called Shinkolobwe.

The Union Minière du Haut Katanga, a Belgian Mining Company, assumed control over the resource and began to refine the material into something useful. It was something unique, this mineral deposit at Shinkolobwe, and the mine was soon producing ore materials that were 65% pure. Other global deposits of the stuff, discovered and exploited later in the 20th century, were considered major finds if they held 5% pure ore, and Shinkolobwe is described as a “freak occurrence in nature” by minerologists. The Belgians owned the Congo, and UHMK held a virtual monopoly on the rare elements found within the colony. Refineries were set up in Shinkolobwe, and both the town and the mine were excised from maps and official mention.

When the Second World War broke out, Belgium fell before the German Blitzkrieg, but the UMHK had already stockpiled some 1,200 metric tonnes of refined ore in the United States. It was stored in New York City, where UMHK had warehoused it on Staten Island, beneath the Bayonne Bridge. On the 18th of September in 1942 – Edgar Sengier, the head of UMHK, had a meeting with United States General Kenneth Nichols.

Nichols purchased the 1,200 tonnes of refined uranium from the Belgian Company, which was already in America and warehoused on Staten Island, and arranged for another 300 tonnes of the stuff to be shipped across the Atlantic from Shinkolobwe for usage by the War Department of the United States. This transaction ultimately caused the death of some 66,000 people, and the maiming of at least 70,000 more, a scant three years later on this day in 1945. Thousands more died on the 9th, but that’s another story.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The military project General Nichols represented was started in 1939, eventually employing more than 130,000 people and costing nearly US $2 billion (about $26 billion in 2015 dollars). There were four known major deposits of the precious ore in 1940: one in Colorado, one in northern Canada, Joachimstal in Czechoslovakia, and Shinkolobwe in the Belgian Congo. Joachimstal was in German hands. The Canadian and American deposits were quickly nationalized, and the Congo mother lode was soon held firmly by British interests.

Across North America, dozens of industrial plants were built and got to work.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

History is full of “what if’s.” What if Charlemagne had refused the title of Holy Roman Emperor? What if John III Sobieski didn’t break the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683? What if Chingis Khan had never invaded the Middle East? What if the Japanese Empire didn’t attack Pearl Harbor and force the United States into the Second World War? One can speculate…

Eventually, the U.S. would have intervened in Europe. Simply put, the English and French owed billions in war debts from the First World War to American banks, and the U.S.A would have been forced to intervene simply to protect its interests. The Pacific was considered an American and British lake back then, and the Phillipines were a de facto American colony in the 1930’s – so it was only a matter of time before the Japanese Empire and the United States would find themselves in one conflict or another.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like the European Powers, the Japanese understood what “total war” meant in the age of industry. Their miraculous conversion, in just one century, from Medieval backwater to industrial superpower had already resulted in Japanese forces utterly dominating and annihilating both German and Russian armies in one sided conflicts. Their naval strength was staggering, and by the 1930’s their armies made short work of capturing the infinite resources of China. Pearl Harbor was meant to be a decapitating blow, clipping the Eagle’s wings.

There are mistakes in history, blunders of epic scale, and Pearl Harbor ranks up there with the Khwarazm Shah telling Chingis Khan to go fuck himself. The America that the Japanese empire attacked wasn’t the one we know today, full of soul searching and unsure of itself – rather it was the country which had produced Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and especially John D. Rockefeller.

It had also produced Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves, whom General Kenneth Nichols worked for.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The ore purchased from the Union Minière du Haut Katanga by General Kenneth Nichols, which was scratched out of the earth in the Belgian Congo’s Shinkolobwe mine and stored in a warehouse on Staten Island, was uranium. The United States of America used that ore to refine and produce Plutonium in a massive industrial complex which it built in just six years. On September 18th, 1942 – the fate of two Japanese cities was sealed when the ore came passed into the hands of the Manhattan Project, which came to fruition on August 6th in 1945.

Seventy years ago today – a device named Little Boy carried that ore, mined from Shinkolobwe and stored in Staten Island, over a city called Hiroshima in Japan.

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Upcoming Tours –

August 8th, 2015
13 Steps Around Dutch Kills – LIC Walking Tour
with Atlas Obscura, click here for details and tickets

Written by Mitch Waxman

August 6, 2015 at 11:30 am

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