"Play it by ear… Don't step on anyone's toes." This was the only guidance given to Colonel Boris T. Pash when he was put in charge of the Alsos Mission. Alsos was a code name for the now de-classified Scientific Intelligence Task Force under the G2, War Department. Its mission was to go into Allied and Nazi-occupied territory in Europe and determine how close Hitler was to building an atomic weapon. The men under Col. Pash's command were not the typical military unit: seventy American scientists; seventeen Allied personnel; and a few officers of the technical services. The task was dangerous, deadly, and vital to the Allied interest in determining the course of the war. According to the Samuel Goudsmit, the Chief Scientist, in his final report dated December 7, 1945, the division of responsibility was key to the mission's success: "The task of the scientists was to analyze and evaluate all available material which led to personalities and locations of interest to scientific intelligence. The task of the military was to plan and execute operations, to secure the personalities and locations indicated by the scientific staff and to enable the scientists to investigate these targets."
The Germans had the upper hand when it came to discovering the technology behind the atomic bomb. As early as 1938, before Hitler invaded Poland, the process of nuclear fission was discovered in Berlin. For the first time, it appeared an atomic weapon was possible, and Nazi Germany seemed to be ahead of the rest of the world. At a secret conference held in Berlin in April 1939, the German government initiated a formal uranium research program and banned the export of uranium to other nations. The German atomic weapons program was well underway five months before President Roosevelt learned of the threat from scientist Albert Einstein. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, they kicked their nuclear weapon research into high gear and as the Nazis pushed their way across Europe, shipments of uranium were shipped back to the German war machine.
By early 1942, America had countered with her own secret atomic weapons program, called the Manhattan Project. But as the war dragged on, fears that the Axis powers were close to completion of an atomic weapon increased. Top nuclear scientists warned the President that the Nazis might have as much as a two-year head start on the technology. The only solution was to find out what the enemy already knew.
In 1943, General George Marshall issued a memo formalizing a plan and establishing the Alsos Missions: "It is proposed to send at the proper time to allied occupied Italy a small group of civilian scientists assisted by the necessary military personnel to conduct these investigations. Scientific personnel will be selected by Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves with the approval of Dr. (Vannevar) Bush and military personnel will be assigned by the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, from personnel available to him....This group would form the nucleus for similar activity in other enemy and enemy-occupied countries when circumstances permit."
Operations inside enemy and enemy-occupied countries posed a particularly difficult problem for Colonel Pash, who was responsible for the operational planning and execution of the Alsos Missions. He later wrote, "Nine of the missions occurred under enemy fire, of which four while in advance of the forward combat units. When the situation assured reasonable safety for the scientists, those concerned were brought up by the Alsos rear echelon so that they could conduct interrogation of the captured enemy scientists and investigate the seized installations." Ironically, since the military members of the Alsos team were often behind enemy lines in search of information, they were not given any details of the Manhattan Project. That way, if they were captured, they could reveal nothing of value to the Germans.
In September 1944, the Alsos Team discovered and seized more than 80 tons of critical material from the French government arsenal in Toulouse, territory loosely held by the French Resistance, and shipped it to the United States without the knowledge of the French government. In a similarly sensitive operation, the Alsos Team participated in what may have been the first operation of the Cold War. Shortly after the cessation of hostilities, the team moved in overnight to a German town that was to be occupied the next morning by the Soviet forces and removed an appreciable amount of the world supply of radium. The Soviets were not informed, but the Chief of Staff of SHAEF authorized the removal as the only means of preventing the radium from passing into Soviet control.
Samuel Goudsmit wrote years later that the Alsos Mission was an unquestionable success. "At the fall of Strasbourg in November 1944, we found irrefutable documentary evidence that Germany did not have atomic weapons and was lagging far behind in research on reactors. This was eight months before our first bomb was tested near Alamagordo. The Mission's success was possible only because we arrived at strategic places at the first possible moment, before documents and other evidence could have disappeared or been tampered with. We also were able to take witnesses by surprise, which made interrogations more relevant than they would have been after delays." In the conclusion of his final report, he wrote: "It is the opinion of the Scientific Chief that the Mission has been highly successful. It has taught us lessons in intelligence procedure which may be of great value in peacetime, too. This fact is of greater importance than the actual scientific information which was collected, the bulk of which was negative… For all members, this Mission has been a unique undertaking, giving the inner satisfaction of having actively contributed to the success of the Allied cause."