Obituary: UC Davis physicist John A. Jungerman, 92, helped develop first atomic bomb

04/01/2014 6:37 PM

04/01/2014 6:38 PM

John A. Jungerman, a pioneering UC Davis physics professor who worked on the top-secret team that developed the atomic bomb in World War II and witnessed the dramatic first test explosion, died March 28. He was 92.

Wanting to do more for the war effort, Dr. Jungerman considered joining the Navy as a graduate student at UC Berkeley in 1943. A faculty adviser encouraged him instead to work with Ernest Lawrence, who had developed a particle separator called a cyclotron and was leading scientists trying to separate isotopes of uranium-235. The 22-year-old physics student joined the classified Manhattan Project group and was sent to Los Alamos, N.M.

Three weeks before the Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima, Japan, he and two project buddies sneaked off to camp out overnight in the desert after learning the bomb was to be tested. At the appointed hour before dawn on July 16, 1945, nothing happened. They waited a half-hour and began collecting their sleeping bags, thinking they had been misled.

Suddenly, from 20 miles away, the desert lit up like the sun. Dr. Jungerman spun away to protect his eyes from the searing light before turning back to see a mushroom cloud boiling upward into the sky. He ran with his friends to their car and sped off to escape toxic fallout from the first atomic blast, which was codenamed “Trinity.”

On the ride home, his emotions were mixed.

“The first thing was a feeling of pity for the Japanese people, because it was going to be used on them. That was the whole idea at that point,” Dr. Jungerman told The Sacramento Bee in 1995.

“Then there was a sort of dim realization that the world had changed in some way. It was a new age, sort of like the discovery of fire. We had brought a power into the world that wasn’t there before.

“And then there was the thought: ‘Jeez, we made it work.’ ”

Dr. Jungerman was a nuclear physicist at the dawn of the atomic age. After completing his doctorate in physics at UC Berkeley in 1949, he rejoined Lawrence at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory (now the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and worked with Hans Bethe at Cornell University before moving to UC Davis in 1951.

He helped transform the fledgling physics department into a top research center in the 1960s with plans to build a particle accelerator. He received help from his mentor Lawrence, who offered two giant magnets from a surplus cyclotron in Berkeley. They were transported to a campus site next to a hog barn, where the building housing the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory was built around the new machine.

In 2011, the building was named John A. Jungerman Hall in honor of the lab’s founding director.

“He was a pioneer in getting a program going that became world renowned,” retired UC Davis physics professor Paul Brady said.

Dr. Jungerman retired from UC Davis in 1991 but was recalled several times for research or teaching. Although proud that he helped develop the atomic bomb to hasten the end of World War II, he lamented the challenges such weapons pose for international peace and supported arms control.

“Nuclear weapons are probably here to stay,” he said. “People are still in love with those things, and some people say those darn things will eventually get used.”

The son of a University of California farm adviser, Dr. Jungerman was born Dec. 28, 1921, in Modesto. He graduated from Modesto Junior College and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from UC Berkeley in 1943.

He married his wife, Nancy, in 1948, had four children and was a founding member of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Davis. He and his wife joined a group of friends in establishing Glacier Circle, the first self-planned housing development for seniors.

Dr. Jungerman was a pleasant, easygoing man with a down-to-earth manner as a distinguished nuclear physicist who often wore purple socks with sandals. He swam daily until he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia 11 years ago.

“He had tuberculosis as a boy, and his parents told him to take it easy because he was not like other kids,” his wife said. “He took it as a challenge and started swimming in the canal in Modesto to show them he was just as strong as other boys. He led a vigorous life.”

In addition to his wife, Dr. Jungerman is survived by three sons, Mark, Eric and Roger; a daughter, Anne; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. May 23 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis.

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