The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Leroy Jackon and Ernest Wende's Interview

Leroy Jackson and Ernest Wende were transferred into the Manhattan District, the branch of the United States Army Corps of Engineers tasked with overseeing the construction of critical Manhattan Project sites, shortly after its formation in 1942. They both lived and worked at Oak Ridge during the war and were closely involved in the design and construction of the site’s thousands of residential units and cafeterias and recreational facilities, as well as the Y-12 and X-25 Plants and the X-10 Graphite Reactor. Their work required close coordination with private architectural and engineering firms, like Stone & Webster and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. They discuss the power structure of Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project, the restrictions imposed on Oak Ridge residents for the maintenance of secrecy, and the compartmentalization of building projects. They also explain the challenges of life in Oak Ridge and how the government had to step in to provide maintenance and services.

General Leslie Groves' Interview - Part 12

In this interview, General Groves discusses the design of the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion plant in Oak Ridge and the dispute with the Tennessee Valley Authority to supply power to the plant. He explains in detail the delivery schedule for enriched uranium and the timeline leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Groves also discusses the organization of security and counterintelligence established during the Manhattan Project and supervised by Colonel John Lansdale.

Leon Love and George Banic's Interview

Leon Love was a metallurgist for the Cook Electronic Company in Chicago, IL, and worked under contract with the Manhattan Engineer District. George Banic worked on high voltage power supplies for the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York, and came to Oak Ridge in March 1944, to help with the Y-12 Plant. In this interview, they describe in detail how the Alpha and Beta calutrons were started, the ionization process, and the variables that affected start-up, such as humidity. They also discuss the failure of a machine in the building and the technical reasons for its failure.

Alexander Langsdorf's Interview

Dr. Alexander Langsdorf was an American physicist who worked under Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago. He helped design the nuclear reactor Chicago Pile-2, following the success of Chicago Pile-1. After the war, Langsdorf become an outspoken opponent of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and helped found the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In this conversation with author Stephane Groueff, Langsdorf describes how he became involved in the Manhattan Project, his decision to stay in Chicago rather than go to Los Alamos, the genius of Enrico Fermi, and the process of designing and building a heavy water nuclear reactor. He discusses the personalities of many of his superiors, including Walter Zinn, Arthur Compton, Norman Hilberry, Samuel Allison, and Fermi.

Peter Galison's Interview

Peter Galison is the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics at Harvard University. The central component of Galison's work involves the exploration of twentieth century physics, including atomic, nuclear, and particle physics. In this interview, Galison discusses the two pillars of twentieth century physics, relativity theory and quantum physics, and how these foundational ideas played a role in the development of the atomic bomb. Galison also explains the basic principles of nuclear fission and the scaling up of this technology into a nuclear production reactor. Finally, Galison explains physics as a closely interconnected set of scientific subcultures based on experimenters, instrument makers, and theorists and how these played a significant role in the Manhattan Project.

General Kenneth Nichols' Interview - Part 2

In the second part of his in-depth interview with journalist Stephane Groueff, General Kenneth Nichols discusses his key role in the Manhattan Project and the chain of command. He explains his relationship with fellow Manhattan Project directors General Leslie R. Groves, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and scientists Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant. Nichols recalls purchasing 1,200 tons of uranium ore from Belgian Edgar Sengier for the project and the challenges of developing a barrier for the gaseous diffusion plant. He also discusses financial accountability and Congressional oversight of the project.

Robert J.S. Brown's Interview

Robert JS Brown was a member of the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos. He worked under Don Hornig on the electrical aspects of detonation for the plutonium bomb. In this interview, Brown discusses how he was recruited into the SED and his experience as an army member at Los Alamos. He also talks about the friends he made at Los Alamos as well as his encounters with famous spies. Brown also gives his opinion on the necessity of having Oppenheimer and Groves run the Manhattan Project.

Bob Carter's Interview

Bob Carter is an American physicist who joined the Manhattan Project first at Purdue and then at Los Alamos. He worked in a group that was assigned to create an operating nuclear reactor that ran on enriched uranium. In this interview, Carter discusses how he came to be interested in physics and wrapped up in the Manhattan Project and nuclear physics instead of being drafted. He also talks about his experience at Los Alamos working on the enriched uranium reactor and how he taught several big name scientists, including Enrico Fermi, how to operate it. Carter also discusses meeting Oppenheimer and seeing the Trinity test unauthorized, as well as his interactions with spies Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall.

The Hiroshima Mission

This broadcast is a dramatic retelling of the Hiroshima mission and the trials the 509th Composite Group faced in the lead up to that mission. The broadcast includes a speech by Colonel Paul Tibbets and a reading of a letter written by Enola Gay co-pilot, Robert Lewis.

Jacob Beser's Lecture

In this lecture at Johns Hopkins University, Jacob Beser talks about his early career in the Air Corps in World War II, as well as how he was recruited to the 509th Composite Air Group. He discusses his personal feelings on the morality of the bombs, as well as the situation that lead President Truman to decide to use the atomic bombs. Beser also answers questions on Los Alamos, the targets for the atomic bombings and the idea of dropping a bomb as a warning to the Japanese government. He discusses the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions and his feelings after the fact. Beser also touches on the Japanese-American internment during World War II, which he considers to be one of the largest blots on American democracy.