Edgar Edouard Bernard Sengier
9 October 1879
|Died||26 July 1963 (aged 83)|
|Alma mater||University of Leuven|
|Occupation||Head of UMHK|
|Known for||Manhattan Project uranium supply|
Sengier is credited with giving the American government access to much of the uranium necessary for the Manhattan Project, much of which was already stored in a Staten Island warehouse due to his foresight to stockpile the ore to prevent it from falling into a possible enemy's hands.
For his actions, he became the first non-American civilian to be awarded the Medal for Merit by the United States government.
Born in Kortrijk in Belgium, Sengier graduated in 1903 as a mining engineer from the University of Leuven and joined the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK) in 1911 as it was beginning to exploit mines in the province of Katanga in the Belgian Congo. The UMHK was owned jointly by the Société Générale de Belgique, a Belgian monopolist investment company, and the government of the Belgian Congo. The Société's activity was, among other things, to mine copper deposits in Katanga.
World War II
In May 1939, Sengier, then director of both the Société Générale and the UMHK, learned about the potential of uranium from English chemist Sir Henry Tizard, who warned him that he held "something which may mean a catastrophe to your country and mine if this material were to fall into the hands of a possible enemy." Shortly thereafter, he was approached by a group of French scientists led by Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who asked whether Sengier would be willing to participate in their efforts to create a uranium fusion bomb. Although he agreed to provide the necessary ore, the project foundered when France was invaded by Germany. Sengier understood that uranium, a by-product that had until then been stored without being used, could become a crucial resource in times of war.
Uranium was discovered as early as 1915 in Shinkolobwe, and extraction began in 1921. Uranium ore from Shinkolobwe was very rich (it contained up to 65% of uranium); in comparison, Canadian ore contained only 0.02%. In September 1940, Sengier ordered that half of the uranium stock available in Africa (about 1,050 tons) be secretly dispatched to New York. At the start of the war, Sengier himself traveled to New York to conduct Union Minière worldwide operations from there. At first, the UMHK's uranium stockpile remained in a Staten Island warehouse.
In September 1942, Lt. Col. Kenneth Nichols met Sengier in his New York office. Nichols had been ordered to find uranium by the head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves. He asked if the Union Minière could supply uranium ore, and Sengier's answer became history: "You can have the ore now. It is in New York, a thousand tons of it. I was waiting for your visit." Nichols had heard of the ore from the State Department and Rosen, but was surprised at the amount: 1200 tons, of which 100 tons was to go to Canada immediately for refining by Eldorado Mining and Refining in Port Hope, Ontario. Nichols and Sengier negotiated a contract, and the Staten Island stockpile was transferred to the US Army. Since Tizard had informed him about uranium's potential a couple of years earlier, Sengier had a pretty good idea why Nichols had shown up to inquire about his ore deposits, something Nichols elaborated on during a 1965 Voices of the Manhattan Project interview by the journalist Stephane Groueff:
He had been following some of the work done by the French scientists before the war, and he knew the importance of the uranium as a possibility. Sengier knew what the hell we were doing. He just said, “I think I know what you’re doing, but you don’t need to tell me. Just assure me it’s for military purposes.”
In his book 1962 book about the Manhattan Project, Now It Can Be Told, Groves wrote that "as a Belgian, Sengier appreciated fully the absolute necessity of an Allied victory." Nichols, when questioned about Sengier's motives, stated:
I think it was partly patriotic, partly commercial. Their main market at that time was radium, and they sold about 300 tons a year of uranium to the ceramics industry for coloring. I think his main interest was probably commercial, to have a radium supply in the US, in case Europe was overrun, as it was. He had shipped some stuff from the Congo to Belgium, which was captured by the Germans and Patton finally rescued it. You can get the story of that from Groves. Shipped a big bulk of it to the US, and stored in Staten Island. I think he realized it had a possible military significance, but also had a commercial significance. He was interested—I think he had some indications from other people that this project was continuing in the US, so I think he was interested in getting it into the right hands.
The Shinkolobwe mine had been closed since 1937 and had fallen into disrepair and flooded. The Army sent a squad from its Corps of Engineers to restore the mine, expand the aerodromes in Léopoldville and Elizabethville, and build a port in Matadi, on the Congo River. The Army also secured the remaining ore (3000 tons) in Shinkolobwe, which was shipped to US. In his 1987 book, The Road to Trinity, Nichols wrote:
Our best source, the Shinkolobwe mine, represented a freak occurrence in nature. It contained a tremendously rich lode of uranium pitchblende. Nothing like it has ever again been found. The ore already in the United States contained 65 percent U3O8, while the pitchblende aboveground in the Congo amounted to a thousand tons of 65 percent ore, and the waste piles of ore contained two thousand tons of 20 percent U3O8. To illustrate the uniqueness of Sengier's stockpile, after the war the MED and the AEC considered ore containing three-tenths of 1 percent as a good find. Without Sengier’s foresight in stockpiling ore in the United States and aboveground in Africa, we simply would not have had the amounts of uranium needed to justify building the large separation plants and the plutonium reactors.
The agreement between the US, UK, and Belgium lasted 10 years and continued after the war. The uranium agreements in part explain Belgium's relative ease in rebuilding its economy after the war, as the country had no debt with the major financial powers.
Sengier was described by author John Gunther in his book Inside Africa as “a tallish man, somewhat portly, with pale skin, white hands, a fringe of shinily white hair, and a short silver mustache clipped with sharp neatness", further stating that he "conveys that pleasant sense of benevolence which comes to an extremely successful man of affairs, after his major work is done.”
Nichols described meeting Sengier for the first time in 1942: "At that time he was in his sixties, and he always impressed me as very white. Sort of a plump man and very sparse hair" and "a very pale face", and that he was "a very abrupt guy", but "just as polite."
Edgar Sengier remained director of the Société Générale and the Union Minière until 1949. He remained on the company's administrative board until 1960, before retiring in Cannes, where he died in 1963.
In 1946, Sengier returned to the United States and was awarded the Medal for Merit for his contribution to the Allied victory by General Groves at a private ceremony in his Washington office, receiving the distinction of becoming the first non-American civilian to be awarded the medal. Due to restrictions on wartime information at the time, the initial citation merely mentioned his "services in supplying material". However, the official statement made note of Sengier's "sound judgment, initiative, resourcefulness and unfailing cooperation" which "contributed greatly to the success of the atomic bomb project". Groves wrote:
It was a distinct pleasure for me after the war to recommend the award of the Medal of Merit, the highest civilian award made by our government, to Edgar Sengier for his great services to the United States, to Belgium and the free world in making available to us adequate supplies of Belgian Congo uranium. It was also my pleasure to present this award at a ceremony in my office in Washington. Security restrictions had not yet been lifted on this phase of the MED operations and the ceremony was private and unpublicized. It has always been a source of regret to me that Sengier’s services, and particularly his foresight, could not receive full public recognition at the time.
Despite official recognition, Sengier was content to remain unknown and successfully went to considerable lengths to preserve his anonymity. According to John Gunther in Inside Africa:
Probably not one American in a hundred thousand has ever heard the name Edgar Sengier, nor is he well known in Europe outside of a limited circle. So far as I know, no photograph of him has ever appeared in an American newspaper or magazine of wide circulation...
Awards and decorations
For his actions, Sengier received many awards:
- Commander of the Order of the Crown
- Grand Officer of the Royal Order of the Lion
- Officer of the Order of Leopold
- Officer of the Order of the African Star
- Recipient of the Silver Medal of Belgian Gratitude
- Commander of the Legion of Honour
- Recipient of the Medal of French Gratitude
- Commander of the Order of the Oak Crown
- Commander of the Order of the Star of Romania
- Commander of the Order of Vasa
- Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- Recipient of the Medal for Merit
- Van der Straeten 1973, p. 431.
- Williams 2016, p. 2.
- Kurgan-van Hentenryk 1996, pp. 543–545.
- Helmreich 1986, p. 7.
- Van der Straeten 1973, p. 433.
- Williams 2016, p. 1.
- Zoellner 2009, p. 45.
- Nichols 1987, p. 45.
- Groueff 1965.
- Groves 1962, p. 117.
- Williams 2016, pp. 1–6.
- Nichols 1987, pp. 44–47.
- Helmreich 1990, pp. 320–351.
- Gunther 1955, p. 678.
- Van der Straeten 1973, p. 437.
- Van der Straeten 1973, pp. 435–437.
- Helmreich 1986, p. 79.
- Gunther 1955, p. 669.
- Vaes & Kerr 1949, pp. 109–120.
- Helmreich 1986, pp. 77–79.
- Groueff, S. (1965), "General Kenneth Nichols's Interview – Part 2", Voices of the Manhattan Project
- Groves, L. (1962). Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project. New York: Harper. ISBN 9780786748228.
- Gunther, J. (1955). Inside Africa. New York: Harper. ISBN 9780836981971.
- Helmreich, J. (1986). Gathering Rare Ores: The Diplomacy of Uranium Acquisition, 1943–1954. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9781400858248.
- Helmreich, J. (1990). "The Negotiation of the Belgian Uranium Export Tax of 1951". Rev. Belge Philol. Hist. 68 (2): 320–351. doi:10.3406/rbph.1990.3713. ISSN 0035-0818.
- Kurgan-van Hentenryk, G. (1996). Dictionnaire des patrons en Belgique: les hommes, les entreprises, les réseaux (in French). Brussels: De Boeck Université. ISBN 9782804115814.
- Nichols, K. (1987). The Road to Trinity. New York: Morrow. ISBN 9780688069100.
- Vaes, J.; Kerr, P. (1949). "Sengierite. A Preliminary Description" (PDF). Am. Mineral. 34 (1–2): 109–120. OSTI 4402142.
- Van der Straeten, E. (1973). "Biographie Belge d'Outre-Mer". Acad. Roy. des Scienc. d'Outre-Mer (in French). VII-A: 429–437.
- Williams, S. (2016). Spies in the Congo: America's Atomic Mission in World War II. New York: Hachette. ISBN 9781610396554.
- Zoellner, T. (2009). Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World. New York: Viking Press. ISBN 9780670020645.