John A. Derry – Colonel, United States Army

17 March 2007:

Early in his career, Jack Derry got used to dealing in code words on top-secret projects. The Army reservist was one of the top military assistants in Washington, D.C., assigned to the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bombs that ended World War II.

Before that, Derry was involved in the Army's buildup of military airfields around the country — including air bases in Sarasota and Venice — following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

During a 25-year career with the Atomic Energy Commission after the war, Derry oversaw the construction and expansion of several facilities around the country for research or production of nuclear weapons. He also supervised the construction of the agency's headquarters in Maryland.

Derry, who moved to Venice, Florida, in retirement in 1978, died Monday at the age of 99. He had been in failing health in recent months, his family said.

Although ethicists and others still disagree over the creation of nuclear weapons that forced an end to World War II, Derry felt it was the lesser of two evils to halt the mounting casualties by the Axis nations.

“He sided with (President) Truman, who felt that with the information available at the time, it was the appropriate thing to do,” said Derry's son, Brian, of Missoula, Montana.

The elder Derry believed that using conventional warfare against Japan would have resulted in “almost inconceivable” casualties by Allied forces, his son added.

Born May 9, 1907, in Ohio, John A. Derry studied electrical engineering and worked for Ohio Bell, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and the Rural Electrification Administration in Washington, D.C., before he was called to duty as a reservist in 1942 and assigned to airfield construction projects.

The following year, he helped facilitate projects known as “X-10” and “Y-12” at the uranium-enrichment facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the Manhattan Project. By 1944, he was chosen to assist Army Commanding General Leslie Groves with the development of the nuclear weapons research and design laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

“I had the full authority to get anything Los Alamos wanted from the Army, Navy or Air Corps,” Derry later wrote.

Derry, a lieutenant colonel later promoted to colonel, went to work for the Atomic Energy Commission upon its creation in 1947.

“The feeling back then was that these weapons of war also had the potential for peace,” his son said. “Atoms for peace was the mantra back then. They were looking at how this technology could benefit the world, and that led to the development of nuclear power reactors.”

By 1954, Derry directed the federal agency's construction and supply division and its 400 employees. He oversaw the construction of gaseous diffusion plants at Paducah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio, accelerator facilities in Batavia, Illinois, and Stanford, California, and additions to the agency's weapons facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

He held that position until he retired in 1972.

His military honors included the Legion of Merit and an Army Commendation ribbon with Oak Leaf Cluster.

In retirement, Derry enjoyed travel and golf and was the first president of the Jacaranda West Country Club homeowners' association.

In addition to his son, Derry, who was twice-widowed, is survived by his third wife, Jane; a daughter, Jody Ferrusi, of Clinton, Maryland; a son, Steve, of Houston; a stepdaughter, Cindy Balkham Cook of Bradenton; four grandsons, two step-granddaughters, and four great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. today at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Venice. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Memorial donations may be made to Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 800 S. Tamiami Trail, Venice, Florida 34285.

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