scorecardWhat it was like to live at the Los Alamos lab site during the Manhattan Project
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What it was like to live at the Los Alamos lab site during the Manhattan Project

Jenny McGrath   

What it was like to live at the Los Alamos lab site during the Manhattan Project
LifeScience9 min read
  • In 1943, hundreds of people converged on a desert in New Mexico to work on the Manhattan Project.
  • Building the atomic bomb required a furious working pace and the utmost secrecy.

Though Los Alamos was just one of many sites dedicated to the Manhattan Project, it was the most remote, and the most secret.

Located in the desert, it has mountain views and vivid sunsets. It's where scientists prepared the bomb for the Trinity Test.

Initially, J. Robert Oppenheimer thought he'd only need a few dozen scientists to complete the job. The number quickly rose, and Los Alamos became a boom town.

By 1945, the population had grown to over 8,000 and included military personnel, engineers, technicians, and scientists' families.

Heading it all was Oppenheimer, an enigmatic figure who inspired loyalty but was difficult to know.

Physicist Abraham Pais wrote, "In all my life I have never known a personality more complex than Robert Oppenheimer," which may explain, he thought, "why different people reacted to him in such extremely varied ways."

Some loved him. Some loathed him.

He personally recruited a number of scientists to come to Los Alamos, which was known as Project Y. It wasn't easy.

"The notion of disappearing into the New Mexico desert for an indeterminate period and under quasi-military auspices disturbed a good many scientists and the families of many more," Oppenheimer later wrote.

But, he said, they knew that their work could determine the outcome of the war and that "this job, if it were achieved, would be a part of history."

Over two dozen Nobel Prize winners, current and future, contributed to the Manhattan Project.

But there were also local people who worked as janitors, construction workers, house cleaners, and child-care workers. They experienced a very different Los Alamos after the scientists' and military's arrival.

The allure of the landscape

Many accounts include nostalgia-tinged reminiscences of the landscape.

The school was located "on a mesa high above the valley, with steep, straight sides streaked with gold and red, with a pale-green top, the color of pine trees covered by the dust that the wind whirls up from the desert below," Laura Fermi, Enrico Fermi's wife, wrote in her autobiography.

Physicist Robert Wilson wrote that he "never tired of that view."

Situated 7,300 feet above sea level and roughly 35 miles from Santa Fe, the Los Alamos site seemed ideal for a secret laboratory. In addition to being isolated, the school was difficult to reach, accessible only by a twisty gravel road.

But there was plenty of space and weather suitable for year-round construction. Thus, it met the criteria stipulated by Gen. Leslie Groves, the project's director.

The government paid $424,971 for the Los Alamos Ranch School and nearly 50,000 acres of surrounding land. It also displaced 32 homesteaders in the surrounding areas who were paid far less for their land.

Constant construction

Compared to the Chicago labs, where some of the work on the Manhattan Project was being done, Los Alamos was starting from scratch.

Its scientists needed to ship in a cyclotron, accelerators, generators and other necessary equipment from various universities. Initially, the theoretical physicists had to set up in a makeshift chicken coop.

John Henry Manley, a physicist, later wondered that if Oppenheimer had known that experiential physics is "really 90% plumbing," if he would've decided to set up the lab at such a secluded site.

Construction was nearly constant to keep up with the influx of people. Trucks rumbled down the roads, and building materials lay heaped in piles around the site, Laura Fermi wrote. She recalled how easy it was to get lost because all the buildings looked alike, painted the same green, and there were no street names.

Over the course of the Manhattan Project, workers would construct over 600 housing units, including dozens of dormitories and barracks for unmarried personnel and the military. There were also dorms for married couples whose jobs weren't as well-paid as the scientists'.

The most coveted houses were originally part of the school. They came to be nicknamed "Bathtub Row" because the newer houses only had showers.

"They were attractive, well-built cottages, far more desirable than any later building," Laura Fermi wrote.

The homes' residents, including Oppenheimer, lent a certain caché to the area, too.

Creating a small city required more than just housing. Schools, courts, stores, a post office, a fire department, and a hospital all eventually appeared. Los Alamos also needed veterinarians for the Military Police's horses, dentists, doctors, and garbage collectors.

The "Technical Area" was a top-secret space that required workers to show a special badge at the guard house. Administrative buildings, labs, and warehouses clustered around a pond where the school's students used to ice skate. All were sequestered behind a chain-link fence.

Physicist McAllister Hull described it as "fences within fences" because the entire site was enclosed.

Secrecy was paramount

Part of adjusting to life at Los Alamos was getting used to all the secrecy. New arrivals were fingerprinted and photographed. They received New Mexico driver's licenses. Their names were listed as numbers, signatures weren't required, and instead of an address, they read, "Special List B."

Both incoming and outgoing mail went through censors. Correspondents had to address letters to P.O. Box 1663. Residents' mail was routed through another town before being sent to friends and family.

Richard Feynman's wife sent him a letter complaining about the censors watching. Officials told him to ask her not to mention censorship. When he did, they returned his letter and said he had to inform her without mentioning censorship himself.

"How in the heck am I going to do it?" he asked them.

The average age of Los Alamos' residents was mid-20s. For the 80 babies born in the project's first year, the same P.O. box number where their mail was sent was also put on their birth certificates.

A poem poked fun at Groves' annoyance at the number of newborns: "He thought you'd be scientific / Instead you're just prolific."

In the early days, physicist Robert Serber delivered an orientation lecture to about 30 people about the project. Carpenters and electricians were hard at work. When Serber mentioned the bomb, Oppenheimer instructed John Manley to tell Serber to say "gadget" in case the workers overheard.

Fatigue and fighting

In their memoirs and interviews, some scientists' wives claimed not to have known what their husbands were working on.

Leon Fisher brought red and green detonator casings home for his child to play with. Phyllis, his wife, used them to trim a Christmas tree. Later, she reflected on the irony of decorating an evergreen, a symbol of renewal, with "messengers of death."

"Ignorance had sanctioned that strange combination," she wrote.

The secrecy, the stress, and the long hours all contributed to a tense atmosphere that could set everyone on edge.

"Rank, housing assignments, the part of town in which one lived, social invitations, administrative assignments, everything became important, occasionally in a childish way," Emile Segré later wrote.

The atmosphere also strained marriages. "In the past, Leon had always patiently described his scientific projects or research to me," Phyllis Fisher wrote. "But this time he made it absolutely clear that I wasn't to ask and, if I did, he wasn't about to answer."

It was especially difficult when their husbands wouldn't come home at night, Ruth Marshak later said. "The Tech Area was a great pit which swallowed our scientist husbands out of sight, almost out of our lives," she wrote.

Someone told Elsie McMillan that the scientists were working on a weapon. It helped, she said, because "I could better understand when my husband left me" and why they all "looked so drawn, so tired, so worried."

A life of 'hectivity'

For Los Alamos's wealthier citizens, the rustic conditions took some adjustment.

Water was always in short supply, and residents were supposed to only shower for a couple of minutes.

Some of the houses had wood-burning stoves that were tricky to get used to. Some preferred to use hot plates, though those wouldn't work during the frequent power outages.

Many other conveniences were lacking, as well. "No mailman, no milkman, no laundryman, no paper boy knocked at our doors," wrote Jane Wilson, the wife of physicist Robert Wilson. "There were no telephones in our homes."

In May 1943, Charlotte Serber, who worked in the secret library, Kitty Oppenheimer, and other wives, coordinated the busing in of indigenous and Hispanic women from the surrounding areas. They cleaned houses and provided childcare for $1.50 per half-day.

As Los Alamos grew, the need for technicians and other personnel increased, and many of the women went to work in labs or administration.

In her book "Land of Nuclear Enchantment: A New Mexican History of the Nuclear Weapons Industry", Lucie Genay notes that residents often felt they'd entered a "devil's bargain… torn between employment issues and the negative effects of the industry."

To relieve some of the pressure, scientists and their families would go on picnics or hikes, ski, or ride horses.

Physicist Edward Teller joked it was like a wildlife reserve for physicists. The number of parties, dances, concerts, and other events were so plentiful that Bernice Brode, wife of physicist Robert Brode, referred to the packed schedule as "hectivity."

One of the women who worked as a "computer," doing computations, Jean Bacher, wrote that "Quiet evenings at home, then, were the exception rather than the rule," and they found much-needed "release in alcohol and fresh air."

Shangri-La

Many memoirs and reminiscences of Los Alamos during this era refer to it as Shangri-La, a kind of mystical utopia in the mountains.

Phyllis Fisher wondered if they were more like the patients in Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain," philosophizing and secluded from the rest of the world.

"As they argued, the countries below their mountain were preparing for World War I, which suddenly exploded all around their sanctuary," Fisher wrote. "Were we doing the same thing?"

The site's residents couldn't shut out the world in August 1945, after the US dropped the atomic bombs, which were tested and assembled at Los Alamos, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 people instantly. Tens of thousands more died from illnesses related to radiation exposure in the decades that followed.

New Mexicans living around the Trinity Test site say they too have suffered ill effects from radiation.

Mary Palvesky is the daughter of Harry Palevsky and Elaine Sammel, who both worked at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. For her book, "Atomic Fragments," Palvesky spoke with some of the Manhattan Project's prominent scientists, including Edward Teller, Robert Wilson, and Joseph Rotblat, about their complicated feelings about the bomb.

Many scientists in the Chicago Met Lab, another location working on the bomb, had signed a petition opposing its use, especially without warning Japan about its destructive power.

But Hans Bethe told Pavlevsky that he felt that demonstrating the bomb beforehand would not have led to the country's surrender. Yet decades later, he also wrote an open letter asking other scientists not to develop, improve, or manufacture any type of weapon of mass destruction.

Using nuclear weapons now, Bethe told Palvesky in 1995, would be entirely different from using them during World War II.

"It would not be the end of the war," he said. "It would be the beginning," and would lead to the destruction of multiple countries.

After the US dropped the bombs, the site became the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Many of the scientists moved away, back to Chicago or Berkeley or New York.

But some former residents couldn't return home. In 1975, security guards accompanied Marcos and Maria Gómez to their former ranch they sold to the US government. It was then a detonator testing ground.

"Both of us cried," they recalled. "We spent some of our best years there."




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