NEW YORK — 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.
Wartime security being paramount, Safferstein's job was to eavesdrop on phone calls of scientists and engineers in Los Alamos, N.M., to make sure no Manhattan Project secrets were leaked, and deliver bombmaking uranium and top-secret messages. He also scrawled his signature on the first A-bomb, called "Little Boy," dropped by the Enola Gay on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. A second bomb leveled Nagasaki on Aug. 9, and Japan surrendered six days later.
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," the Bridgeport, Conn., native said in a 2005 interview conducted by one of his sons, Michael, along with an oral history project moderator. "In my heart, I know that it saved us from the invasion of Japan and millions of casualties that would have come about."
The National World War II Memorial online registry includes a photo of Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, who ran the top-secret Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Los Alamos, presenting Safferstein with a Bronze Star medal after the war.
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 by its "beautiful people," he recalled thinking: "Let's ... never have to use it again."
He said that after the war, Groves 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.