Lyall Johnson; Atomic Energy Agency Chief

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

Lyall Erskine Johnson, who worked with the atomic bomb project during World War II and then held supervisory roles in the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, died Oct. 8 of kidney failure at Wilson Health Care Center at Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg. He was 92.

After retiring from the Army in 1947, Mr. Johnson helped with the planning and staffing of security for the AEC. He later served as chief of export control and director of materials licensing before becoming director of state and licensees relations.

Mr. Johnson represented the AEC as a member of the Commerce Department's Advisory Committee on Export Policy. He was a U.S. representative on the coordinating committee, under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to establish procedures to deny export of strategic materials and equipment to Soviet bloc destinations during the Cold War. He retired in 1974.

During development of the bomb, nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer stopped by Johnson's Army intelligence office to casually give the name of someone who Oppenheimer said merited scrutiny. That brought to light a mysterious incident that played a major role years later in the revocation of Oppenheimer's security clearance.

Mr. Johnson was born in Birmingham and graduated from high school at 15. In 1934, he began working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, carrying out clerical and public relations duties. He graduated from Columbus School of Law, now part of Catholic University, and was admitted to the D.C. Bar in 1937. He became an FBI agent and served for several years in Maryland, the District and eastern Kentucky.

In 1941, he was drafted into the Army and assigned to the Signal Corps in New Jersey. Later that year, he was appointed a special agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps of the U.S. Military Intelligence Service in Washington. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was transferred to the Presidio in San Francisco, where he carried out counterintelligence activities and later supervised investigations involving Army personnel.

From 1943 to 1945, Mr. Johnson managed counterintelligence and security activities, initially for the atomic bomb research being conducted at the Radiation Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley under the Manhattan Project. He also did supervisory work at Hanford, a military-controlled reservation near Richland, Wash., where plutonium was being produced.

At Hanford, his duties included assuring the safe transportation of Hanford-produced plutonium to Los Alamos, N.M., for use in the test bomb at Alamogordo and the atomic weapon dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, that ended World War II. He retired from the Army with the rank of major.

Mr. Johnson, a former resident of Arlington County and Alexandria, lived in Bethesda for 31 years. He moved to Asbury Village in 1989. For several decades, he enjoyed performances of the Kensington-Garrett Players, the Montgomery Players and the National Symphony Orchestra and productions at Arena Stage.

He coached his sons' childhood baseball team, made most of his car repairs, was a crossword puzzle enthusiast, and studied U.S. history and politics.

His wife of 61 years, Harriet Savige Johnson, died in 2004.

Survivors include three children, Carole Phillips of Annandale and Craig Johnson and Cary Johnson, both of San Francisco; and one grandson.

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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