Random and the Nuclear Age

by Leslie Dean
February 16, 2022

EMA Frampton, built in 1935 by the Frampton family of Gin Cove, Smith Sound

By June 1942, the Second World War was raging in Europe and the Pacific with the fate of Allied Forces hanging in the balance. Moreover, the possibility of Germany developing a nuclear bomb capability was of the utmost concern because Germany had discovered nuclear fission in 1939. Albert Einstein, the world’s greatest physicist, sounded the alarm for the Allies to respond to this concern. Immediately thereafter the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada commenced the Manhattan Project.

The Manhattan Project was one of the greatest scientific undertakings in human history; an undertaking to develop the atomic bomb. The mineral graphite was critical to demonstrate the production of plutonium from uranium in a nuclear reactor. In the 1920’s, very high-quality graphite deposits had been discovered and assayed in the Saglek Fiord area of central coastal Labrador.

Captain Ralph Smith of Hodge’s Cove

In June 1942, the 139-tonne motor powered schooner EMA Frampton left St. Lawrence with a crew of five, including Captain Ralph Smith of Hodge’s Cove, for Saglek Fiord in conjunction with the most secretive mission undertaken by the Allies during World War II. At St. Lawrence, the EMA Frampton had taken on 15 miners employed by an American company, the St. Lawrence Corporation of Newfoundland, which owned part of the fluorspar deposits near the town. It also took onboard mining equipment, including a bulldozer to reach the known Saglek Fiord graphite deposits located some 7-10 miles inland from the Fiord. In prior secret discussions between the British and American governments, approval had been granted for this undertaking. The only surviving member of this mining crew in 2022 is 97-year-old Augustus (Gus) Etchegary, a noted fisheries advocate, who at the time was 18 years of age and was given permission by his late father, the mill manager at St. Lawrence, to be a member of the mining crew.

Captain Smith giving young Gus Etchegary a haircut on the EMA Frampton, 1942. (Photo courtesy Rosanne Churchill)

Over the June-October period, the St. Lawrence mining crew extracted 15 or more tonnes of graphite from the valuable graphite deposits. The EMA Frampton was used as a base of operations over the mining period and Captain Smith took time to perform barbering duties for the mining crew, including 18-year-old Gus Etchegary. In October 1942, the EMA Frampton returned to St. Lawrence and unloaded its valuable and secretive cargo. Shortly after a transport vessel arrived from Delaware, U. S. A. and took the mined graphite ore back to the United States where it was shipped to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In October of that same year the U.S. Corps of Engineers commenced the acquisition of a large tract of land at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the next phase in the development of the atomic bomb based on the success of the initial phase of the Manhattan Project. By the spring of 1943 a massive construction project was underway, including the construction of a graphite reactor. The purpose of this reactor was to demonstrate the production of plutonium from uranium with the graphite bricks acting as a moderator to reduce the speed of atomic neutrons and allow a nuclear reaction to be sustained. The first plutonium was produced at Oak Ridge in early 1944 and on July 16, 1945, the first atomic test under a secret “Trinity” code was conducted in New Mexico.

The wheelhouse was removed from the EMA Frampton after she went ashore on the Labrador. It is located in Cartwright. (Photo from Captain Harry Stone Collection)

Ironically, the EMA Frampton, built and owned by my grandmother Jessie (Dalton) Dean’s extended family, met its fateful end when it was wrecked at Huntington Island, Labrador on October 30, 1951, while sailing in ballast from Goose Bay, Labrador to St. Julian’s on the Great Northern Peninsula.

Clearly, the vessel and its crew played a critical role in the outcome of the Second World War which ended when Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, after the United States had dropped nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some nine years later, my brother Eli and I took proud possession of a new Raleigh bicycle that was brought from St. John’s to Southport in Kenneth Smith’s schooner, the Hubert G. Smith, captained by Ralph Smith. And some 80 years later, the imprint of the bulldozer trail left by the St. Lawrence graphite mining crew can still be seen on the Labrador landscape. In reflecting on this historical event in his life, Gus Etchegary still chuckles over having entrusted his crop of hair to Captain Ralph Smith on the stern of the EMA Frampton as it lay at anchor in Saglek Fiord in the summer of 1942.