Russian spy lived in Dayton, stole secrets

‘Serendipity’ played part in putting Koval on Manhattan Project.

Nor would neighbors have noticed anything unusual about the tall, polite, bespectacled young man coming and going from his boarding home near Grand and Salem avenues. No accent. No uniform. No furtive or standoffish demeanor.

George Koval, an Iowa-born and -bred communist and a U.S. Army engineer, was a master at blending in — and, as it turns out, a master spy for the Soviet Union. He did just that while working on the Manhattan Project in Dayton for six months in 1945.

Koval is one of the two top Russian spies during World War II credited with stealing secrets that enabled the Soviet Union to enter the nuclear arms race with the United States at least five years ahead of predictions. He died in Moscow in 2006, having narrowly escaped banishment to a gulag for his American roots and his Jewish ancestry.

In a posthumous ceremony in 2007, then Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Koval the nation’s top honor for meritorious service, the gold star for Heroes of the Russian Federation. Even so, Putin referred to him only by his codename of “Delmar.”

Since then, historians and researchers have been able to piece together an incredible tale of deception carried out by Koval — with the help of some plain dumb luck — during his years in the U.S. Army from 1940 to 1945.

Long-time veterans of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, Danny Stillman and Thomas Reed, first detailed Koval’s exploits in a book published in January 2009. Former TIME foreign correspondent Michael Walsh followed with an article in the May 2009 issue of Smithsonian magazine.

“It’s a fantastic story, with serendipity playing a part all along,” said Don Sullenger, a past president of the Mound Museum Association. Sullenger will present a talk on Koval at the Mound Museum on Feb. 24. The Mound Laboratory in Miamisburg is where Dayton’s vital nuclear research continued after the war.

In June 1945, Sgt. Koval, then at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where uranium was being enriched for the Hiroshima bomb, was transferred to Dayton just when scientists here were finalizing the design of the polonium trigger needed to detonate the more advanced Nagasaki bomb.

A month later, on July 16, 1945, the Dayton trigger proved itself by successfully detonating a nuclear device in the desert near Alamogordo, N.M.

Although a chemist and engineer by training, Koval was not directly involved in the research in Dayton. But as a health physicist whose duty was to protect workers from the effects of polonium radiation, he had access to all parts of the top-secret research complex at the old Bonebrake Seminary at First and Euclid streets.

Dayton had four sites devoted to the work of the Manhattan Project, the massive, $4 billion program during World War II to build a nuclear bomb.

The research on the triggers was first done at Monsanto’s original laboratory building at 1515 Nicholas Road, but was soon moved to the old seminary as the project grew.

Project workers were checked and treated for radiation sickness at a third location, the General Electric Supply Warehouse at 601 E. Third St. When production began, the triggers were assembled at a fourth location, Runnymede Playhouse in Oakwood near the intersection of Dixon and Runnymede avenues. Of the four Dayton-area locations, only the warehouse and several storage buildings on the old seminary grounds remain.

Koval was brilliant, having graduated from a Sioux City high school in 1929 at age 15. But as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had fled the brutal persecution of the czar, he was an avowed communist even as a teenager. When his family moved back to Russia in 1932, Koval went with them.

He enrolled in a Moscow technical university, married a fellow student and earned his degree in chemistry in 1939. Then, under the ruse of being drafted into the Soviet army, he disappeared.

Sometime between then and his return to the United States in October 1940, Koval trained as an agent for Russia’s spy agency, at the time called the GRU.

Koval was good-natured and likable — traits that probably helped deflect any suspicion about his activities, Sullenger said. “He could get along with everyone. He was always very helpful and friendly.”

Of the three Dayton Manhattan Project workers still alive when Koval’s spying came to light last year, only Howard DuFour remembered having contact with him, Sullenger said.

DuFour, who died late last year, also recalled that FBI investigators came to Dayton in the 1950s and began asking about Koval. But Dufour “said he wasn’t certain (the FBI) proved he was a spy,” Sullenger said.

Koval’s history of service in the U.S. Army showed an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time — including his arrival in Dayton. After basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., in 1940, Koval trained as an electrical engineer at The Citadel and, after graduating in 1941, was admitted to a new unit, the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), aimed at keeping the Army’s top scientists from going to the front.

In early 1944, with the Allies still bogged down in France, the ASTP was disbanded and its members assigned to the infantry. But, as luck would have it, not Koval. Instead, he and about a dozen other scientists were assigned to The Manhattan Project through something called the Special Engineer Detachment (SED).

After training as a health physicist, Koval found himself with unquestioned access to America’s nuclear secrets at a time when the Manhattan Project had solved all but the final hurdles to building a working, reliable bomb.

Koval’s ideal positioning within the Manhattan Project has led to speculation that he might have been a double agent planted by American forces to spy on other possible spies.

Sullenger said the many questions surrounding Koval and his activities in Dayton in 1945 may not be answered “until a lot more records are opened” related to the Manhattan Project and the ensuing Cold War.

Like Koval himself, some of those answers may have already gone to the grave.

“As far as I know,” Sullenger said, “there’s no one still alive from Dayton who remembers him.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2437 or jdebrosse@Dayton DailyNews.com.

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