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From Tinian to Albuquerque: Sandia legend Leon Smith passes away at age 92

Leon Smith

But for the toss of a coin, Sandia pioneer Leon Smith would have served as the weaponeer on the Enola Gay on its fateful mission to drop the bomb on Hiroshima that precipitated the end of World War II. Leon, seen here in front of a B-29 at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, died in mid-October at the age of 92. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

At the beginning of his engineering career, Leon Smith was part of the group that carried out the atomic attacks on Japan. In that role, he was totally focused on helping win World War II. And then, for the next half-century, Leon was equally focused on ensuring that the nation’s strategic deterrent helped prevent World War III. In the way he did his work and conducted his life, Leon embodied the very best of Sandia, the best of engineering as a profession, the best of America.

Sandia legend Leon Smith died on Sunday, Oct.14, at age 92. He served the Labs for 41 years, rising into management early and overseeing several critical technologies and decisions in Sandia’s evolution. Technically insightful, Leon was also an effective manager who deliberately emulated Sandia Corp. President Jim McRae in being willing to step in and help people but always turning the problem back to them to solve.

At his memorial service on Oct. 18, more than 200 people came together to share their loss and their “Leon stories.” Themes of patriotism, service, family, and the highest of standards wove through the speakers’  remarks. The breadth of his expertise, his excellence, and his warmth were striking. Sandia

President and Labs Director Paul Hommert spoke at the memorial, emphasizing Leon’s impact on Sandia’s systems engineering. In recognition of Leon’s extensive contributions to the Weapon Intern Program, Paul also announced that Sandia will name a classroom after him.

Joining the Manhattan Engineer District

Leon was pursuing a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin when he was drafted into the US Army in 1943. He was a private in the field artillery until extensive hearing damage caused him to apply for a transfer to the Army Air Forces. He received training in communications at Yale and was commissioned a second lieutenant, then went on to study electronics at Harvard and radar at MIT. Those experiences landed him a special assignment to the Manhattan Engineer District; he was sent to Wendover, Utah, in November 1944 to join the 509th Composite Group and help set up an electrical lab to develop, assemble, and test fuzing systems for the atomic bomb project.

In the summer of 1945, the 509th relocated to the island of Tinian in the far Pacific to continue training and to prepare for the use of Little Boy and Fat Man against Japanese targets. In addition to preparing the weapons for use, a weaponeer was required to go on the flights to connect the bomb to the aircraft wiring system and move it from safe to armed. A coin toss determined that Morris Jeppson would travel on the Enola Gay to Hiroshima; Leon stayed on Iwo Jima with a backup aircraft. Phil Barnes served as weaponeer on Bockscar, which delivered Fat Man over Nagasaki.

After the war’s end, the Los Alamos laboratory wanted Leon’s service as a weaponeer for the Able airdrop shot of Operation Crossroads, the first postwar nuclear tests. Crossroads was a weapon effects test series for the DoD, and Leon needed to leave the Army to participate. Getting a discharge from the military was a slow process at that point, but, as Leon related, General H. H. “Hap” Arnold made a call to Lowry Air Force Base and Leon was “mustered out in record time — about half an hour.”

After the Crossroads series in the summer of 1946, Leon went to Los Alamos, where his wife, Marie, was working. They returned to Wisconsin and Leon completed his degree. He joined Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., living in a rented room while Marie, pregnant with their first child, remained in Wisconsin. He was thus tempted when Los Alamos’s Z Division offered him a higher salary and an available two-bedroom house on Sandia Base in Albuquerque. He joined Sandia on Oct. 8, 1947, assigned to work on firing sets in preparation for the Operation Sandstone nuclear tests the following spring.

By 1951, Leon’s leadership skills were as apparent as his technical savvy, and he was promoted to supervisor of an electrical engineering division. Several electrical systems supervisors formed the Electrical Systems Coordination Group to try to achieve more efficient and consistent designs by sharing information from the systems designed for different weapons. This culminated in Leon’s proposal that the organizational structure for electrical systems be changed, with all coordinated out of one department. In 1956, he was promoted to manager of the electrical systems engineering department, which pulled together arming, firing, fuzing, and, later, command and control.

Led many key Sandia initiatives

Leon retained this strong leadership role throughout his career. In 1961, he was promoted to director of electromechanical component development, which proved thrilling as Sandia pushed to develop permissive action links and intersected with the Kennedy administration’s interest in command and control capabilities. Two years later he transferred to systems development, where he was instrumental in creating an extensive advanced development program in weapon systems, which he then led. Soon, there were 10 advanced systems activities underway, including hardened reentry vehicles, advanced measures for safety and control, and the work leading up to the fuze and warhead for the Poseidon.

Leon led six other directorates before retiring. Along the way, he oversaw the doubling of the satellite program’s size. In his final move before retirement, he took over the monitoring systems directorate. He found the effort to develop techniques to support nuclear treaty monitoring exciting, “because it’s at the edge of advanced electronic technology.”

Leon retired June 30, 1988, but returned a decade later when invited to participate in the Weapon Intern Program established by John Hogan with co-instructor Andy Rogulich (both now retired). On Tinian, Leon had taken advantage of down-time to take pictures and had long since assembled about 70 photographs into a presentation on his wartime experiences. His presentations were always successful and had a wide, welcoming audience both within and outside Sandia. [Readers with access to Sandia’s internal website can type “leon smith tinian” into the searchbox on TechWeb; the first search result links to a version of this presentation.]

Andy, who spoke at Leon’s memorial service, remembers, “Leon was always impressed by how many people wanted to hear his stories about the Manhattan Project. Everyone who had the opportunity to hear him speak commented on how much they benefitted from hearing his message, and how Leon made them understand how important their contribution was to the nuclear weapons mission of the United States.”

According to an obituary published  in the Albuquerque Journal, Leon “had a passion for fine food and wine and enjoyed sharing it with his family and his many friends.” He is survived by Marie, his wife of 71 years, and by several children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Leon, a dedicated patriot throughout his long, eventful, and consequential life, was laid to rest in Santa Fe National Cemetery.