Nathan Safferstein was barely 21 when circumstances suddenly propelled him from his job as a supermarket manager into the stealth world of a counterintelligence agent on the project that produced the atomic bomb.
A customer at the Connecticut market had told her brother, an Army intelligence commander, about a bright young prospect. Soon, paperwork was filled out, recommendations made.
Since wartime security was paramount, Safferstein listened to phone calls of scientists and engineers in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to make sure no secrets were leaked, and delivered bomb-making uranium and top-secret messages.
Safferstein died Tuesday night at his home in the Bronx after a long illness, his family said. He was 92.
“We had that feeling right from day one that this was the instrument that was going to end this war,” Safferstein said in a 2005 interview conducted by one of his sons, Michael.
Safferstein, a native of Bridgeport, Conn., had been working as a supermarket manager in nearby Fairfield when he was ordered to join about 100 other men in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.
Safferstein’s group disembarked in New Mexico. Two cars took them to a wooded area, where they met Maj. Peer DeSilva, the laboratory’s commander.
“He explained to us for the first time this ultra top-secret mission, that they were working on a bomb that would be able to dig a hole into the ground some 80 to 100 feet deep and perhaps 5, 10 miles long — and that from this point on, you are in the Manhattan Project,” Safferstein recalled.
Most of Safferstein’s activities remained a mystery to his family and friends, including his future bride, Bernice Klein.
Duty later called Safferstein to the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, where U.S. forces had built airfields to launch long-range raids on Japan itself, and in mid-1945 the two bombs from Los Alamos were secretly delivered by Navy ship.
About 12 hours before “Little Boy” was placed aboard the aircraft Enola Gay, a scientist appeared at a Quonset hut on the island of Tinian to make final adjustments.
He “explained the whole function of this bomb,” Safferstein recalled. “And then he left, and here I am alone with ‘Little Boy.’”
Though “extremely proud” to be part of history, Safferstein was not impervious to the ravages of war.
After the bombs were dropped, Safferstein accompanied a team that included U.S. doctors who surveyed the damage in Japan. Deeply moved, he recalled thinking: “Let’s … never have to use it again.”
He said that after the war, Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, another head of the Manhattan Project, urged him to remain in counterintelligence, but he decided on civilian life. He returned to supermarkets, became president of Storecast Corp., a merchandising and marketing company, then started Long Island-based Supercast and its spinoff, In-Store Distributing.