The Manhattan Project

Berlyn Brixner's Interview

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BerlynBrixner

Berlyn Brixner worked as a photographer and camera engineer at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. He filmed the Trinity test on motion capture cameras, and recalls the anxious setup of cameras around the site and remembers being "amazed" and "dumbfounded" by the enormous explosion. His work using cameras to photograph the implosion method showed the physicists that they were off track in their calculations, and he captured photographs and films other explosions and the dropping of dummy bombs to help the scientists better understand the science and physics behind them.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
February 22, 1992
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Yvonne Delamater: We are interviewing Berlyn Brixner and thanks so much for coming. Briefly tell me when and where you were born and something about your education and training.

Berlyn Brixner: I was born in El Paso, Texas in May 21, 1911. I went to school, most of my school, there. After high school I went to the College of Mines and Metallurgy, which is also in El Paso. Then for a couple of years I also went to the University of Texas at Austin, but I didn’t get a degree at that time.

Delamater: What were you interested in studying at that time?

Brixner: Well I started out studying to be a chemical engineer, but I soon decided I wouldn’t like to be a chemical engineer. So then I went down to the University of Texas and discovered there were lot of other areas of learning, and I got interested in biology and geology and that sort of thing. But I never took enough courses to graduate.

Delamater: How were you recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos?

Brixner: Well a boyhood friend of mine from El Paso was here and called me up one day, I was in Albuquerque at that time. He said that the U.S. Engineers were running a wartime project and needed a photographer. Would I be interested? I said, “Yes, I would be very interested.” So I said, “I’d like to know more about it, I’m married and have a child and another one on the way. Where would I live and that sort of thing?” So he arranged for me to come up here actually to Los Alamos and I was interviewed by my boss-to-be.

Delamater: When did you come here?

Brixner: July. I was hired on July of 1943.

Delamater: What had been your experience with photography before?

Brixner: Well, I had been an apprentice to a Dr. Waite in El Paso for a period of three years, that was about 1932 to 1935, and then I was offered a job in Albuquerque as photographer. So I came up here. I had been working there as a sort of a documentary photographer, technical photographer for the soil conservation service in their, I guess kind of biology section, where they were dealing with what the land was covered with and erosion and those sort of problems.

Delamater: What were you told about your work at Los Alamos?

Brixner: Well, when I was interviewed by Professor Mack, he pulled out a drawing of a high-speed camera, which he had invented and was having made. He said I was to operate that camera and so that’s really all he told me. I said, “I’d be very interested in doing that.” The camera was to photograph explosions.

Delamater: I want to know more about that camera later. What did you tell your family and friends?

Brixner: Well they said that we weren’t to tell people anything about our work or even where we were, and simply that we had an address U.S. Engineers Box 1663, Santa Fe. And so that was all we were to tell them and that’s what we did.

Delamater: What work did you do here?

Brixner: Well, when I then got on board in July of 1943, the camera was not ready yet out of the shop, so my boss put me to work at the photographic reproduction laboratory.  They had a physicist running that at the time. So I relieved that physicist of that work, and so I was making blueprints and photostats and that sort of thing quickly and getting rid of a big pile of tracings that were there, because this physicist hadn’t been able to do that work very well.  Anyway, I got that all cleared up in the course of a couple of months and then they hired a person to do that work and that relieved me. 

So then the new camera was ready and pretty soon I was working on that and trying to understand it, getting it to operating. Then rather soon I took it out to one of the explosion sites and got it into operation with a physicist who was here, Morris Patapoff by name. And so pretty soon he and I had that camera working beautifully and taking pictures of these explosion experiments that he was studying.

Delamater: You said Professor Mack invented the camera. Did he invent it just specifically for the war effort?

Brixner: Yes and for that particular job, yes. Right. He made that invention after he came here. He came here I think a couple months earlier than I did, maybe three months earlier.  He was amongst the first people to come here.

Delamater: What do you remember about this camera? How was it different and what enabled it to take such high speed pictures?

Brixner: Well the camera was a slit camera or a chronograph type of camera, sort of like these cameras that are used for horse races to photo finish, take the photo finish. And only it had a rotating mirror in it that swept the image of the slit around the film and so it was much faster than the ordinary photo finish cameras. Well that’s really all there was to it. You imaged the object, which was an explosion, to be on the slit of the camera.  Then that image was relayed to the film and that moved along the film so that as light appeared in that slit, it was recorded on the film and in that way the physicist could tell what was going on in the explosion. It worked out beautifully.

Delamater: Did this occur at S Site, these tests, or where did they happen?

Brixner: Well the site we were actually at was at Anchor Ranch. They had a chamber, a concrete building with steel front on it, and we had the cameras inside of that building and the explosions were outside. There was a bulletproof glass window so that the camera was protected from the explosion. We were also protected of course being inside of the chamber.

Delamater: Did the camera work good right away or did it ever give you any problems?

Brixner: Well, it worked pretty well right away.  Of course, I had already been experimenting with the camera to use it before I took it out to the explosion site, so I knew that the rotating mirror, which was driven by a little turbine, was somewhat unstable and didn’t run as smooth as it might have run. But anyway the camera, yes, rather quickly got to working and giving very satisfactory pictures. 

However, the boss of Patapoff didn’t like the pictures we were getting and said we were getting just optical illusions really, photographing optical illusions.  Because the results we got showed that the implosion process, which he was studying, was not what the physicist boss thought the implosion process should be doing.

So we didn’t get very—we kept going ahead, but there wasn’t agreement on the pictures until two or three months later, when a new physicist came and he had a technique for making snapshot photographs in a millionth of a second or a fraction of a millionth of a second of these same experiments. So he and I set up his scheme out on the mesa, actually it’s the South Mesa, the next mesa over. There was nothing there but just a blank field. So we set that up and ran that. I took that picture about two o’clock in the morning. We got them a perfect picture showing that the implosion process was faulty, so then there was never any further trouble from the—Patapoff’s boss. He, I guess, searched to find out what was wrong with his calculations that he thought it should be right. So that worked out beautifully.

Delamater: The camera didn’t lie. You were the one that developed the film and you—

Brixner: Yes, at that time, I developed the film. My boss also had a photographic laboratory, and other people did photography for anybody in the Technical Area that needed photography. And they did it and made the prints and everything so of course I had use of that laboratory to develop these films. So there was no trouble at all. Of course, I was already a photographer, I knew all about how films should be developed, and so there was no problem at all. The films that we used were just like films I had used previously, same type.

Delamater: Who was your boss and what was the name of your group?

Brixner: The group at that time, I think was called E-2 Group and my boss was Professor Julian Ellis Mack. He had been a professor at the University of Wisconsin and joined the project to do this work. Of course, his was mainly optics and spectroscopic studies before the war, so naturally he was doing just what he was useful to doing when he came here. And of course we had many different jobs then by the different groups during the war.

Well anyway, rather quickly, I told Patapoff, I said, “Well, you know how to run this camera now just as well as I do and there’s no point in me being here. You might as well run it yourself.”  

He said, “Fine.” So he took over that job and then that relieved me. 

So I went on to do other jobs. There were lots of jobs to be done at that time. One of them that occurred at that time was the determination of what’s called the ballistic coefficient of the bomb that was to be dropped. We of course by that time, I learned that we were making a bomb and they were already starting to drop dummy bombs for testing purposes and they wanted those bombs photographed as to how they dropped and how they looked from an airplane 30,000 feet up. Which was as high as planes flew at that time.

Photographed all the way down from the time it was dropped out of the bomb bay and then falling until it hit in the ground. They wanted to do that with motion picture cameras and while they had some Navy photographers doing that, they wanted me to learn that. So my boss got me a professional Mitchell motion picture camera and had me learn to use that. I didn’t know anything at all about motion picture photography so I went out to the test site, which was in California at Air Base. So pretty soon I was learning to run motion picture cameras.  I learned of course quite a bit from those Navy photographers. They were rather tight with information, they didn’t give me very much, but they didn’t mind if I stood around and watched them, so I soon saw how to run those cameras.

Delamater: I’ll ask a very dumb question. So you were in the airplane and as the bomb was dropped you took this motion picture?

Brixner: Well, no I was on the ground with a telephoto lens looking up at the airplane and bomb as it dropped, then following it as it came down. And then I had another camera that was just pointed at the target and it was running simultaneously, so there were two cameras running actually at the same time. However, I found a lot of difficulty with that big telephoto lens, which was two and a half feet long, sticking out of the camera and the tripod, and hard to aim it. So at this Air Base I discovered that they had some machine gun turrets mounted on trucks, I don’t know why. But I told my boss, I said, “Why don’t we get one of those to mount the camera on, then I can follow it easily.” So I did that and it worked out perfectly, and then I had really precision following of the bomb as it fell down. 

Of course, the bombs didn’t act as they should when they first drop because the cases were improperly constructed. Our people really didn’t know too much about that. Actually the first one I photographed, after it dropped awhile, it started whirling and threw the tail off of it, completely off. Luckily I was able to follow it and got those pictures nicely so they had the record of just what happened. So pretty soon they made a new design of the bomb case and then more pictures and so on. We continued that for several months actually.  

Well actually, then after awhile I found that job so easy and there were other jobs to be done so my boss assigned another person in the group to do that. He took over that job and so then I didn’t have anything further to do with that. I was doing jobs around the site here.

Delamater: Then what did you do? What were your jobs then?

Brixner: There was always a high-speed photography problem. They had been studying shells as they came out of guns. And they had it at this same Anchor Ranch site, a three-inch gun there, and they wanted that bullet photographed just as it came out of the end of the barrel, just what it looked like and everything. So they put me on that job and I got another high-speed camera that had been invented by Harold Edgerton. Maybe you’ve heard of him, the inventor of the flash cameras that are in common use now. But at that time of course, they weren’t very common.  Anyway, he invented one that could do that job, so I set that up out there and got some nice pictures of that bullet coming out of the gun there.

There was just one job after another of that type of thing.  We also had some high-speed commercial cameras called Fastax Cameras that took about ten thousand pictures per second. And so I was soon learning those and taking pictures of explosions to show how they came apart, not in millionth of a second range but in ten thousandth of a second range. They needed that information also. I was photographing other explosion experiments with that camera for a few months or two. Pretty soon again, someone else, one of our other people learned to use those cameras, and so that relieved me of that job.

Delamater: Up until Trinity, other than the time in California, were you mainly working at Anchor Ranch?

Brixner: Yes, I was working at various projects around here.  See I came in ’43 and then in early ‘44 I got that rotating mirror camera running, and most of ‘44 I spent photographing those dummy bombs. Towards the end, well I turned that job over to someone else. Actually they moved that project to Wendover, Utah but it was the same job. Anyway, other people took that job over. 

We had to start working on the photographing of the explosion, which was scheduled for 1945.  So we had to get Trinity going. We were first locating trying to locate a site to do that.  Some eight sites had been under consideration. A professor from MIT, Kenneth Bainbridge, was in charge of that particular operation. So he had been hunting around for a site, and finally had in the fall of ‘44 just about decided. Let’s see, the closest site was near Cuba, New Mexico, and the most distant one was down in the Gulf of Mexico on some sand islands. Anyway, he settled on a site south of Grants, New Mexico. And so he said he was going down to look it over before final selection and got my boss and my boss wanted me to come along because I was familiar with the country, having lived and traveled over it.

So we went down there and I immediately found a very bad situation there. It was covered with lava flows. Those flows had tunnels under them that were weak. So it would be very unsuitable as a site for roads and hauling over the big bottle, Jumbo, that they thought they might have to use. So I told him that I didn’t think it was very suitable site, and he should go and look at another site that didn’t have any of these disadvantages and was very easy to use. That was what was called Jornada del Muerto, which is southeast of Socorro, New Mexico. It’s a large flat area and it doesn’t have any trees or lava flows or anything on it. So he essentially took one look at that and decided to take that site, use that site. 

So then we started planning on how we would do the photography when the bomb was ready to be exploded. And that was nearly a year, well it was about eight months, before the actual explosions. Seven or eight months.

Delamater: You actually went down eight months before?

Brixner: Oh, yes, right. I went down several times with my boss and we were figuring out where to put camera sites there and a lot of extra experiments were developed that had cameras. He had charge of doing those. Kenneth Bainbridge put him in charge, put my boss in charge of the overall photography at the Trinity Site. So after that developed, my boss put me in charge of the motion picture part of the photography. So I had complete operation of that. I finally got as many as nearly fifty motion picture cameras in operation or ready to operate by the time of the explosion.  We had two sites north of the Zero and two sites west of the Zero, one at 800 and one at 10,000 yards. Those had a lot of cameras in each of the four sites.

Delamater: You really had it well covered during the actual test when you took the motion pictures of it from these various sites.

Brixner: There was also a fifth site about 25,000 yards away. My boss had assigned two GIs to run some aero cameras to take pictures of whatever might happen in the upper atmosphere and record that. So we had that in addition. But I didn’t have anything to do with that operation since it was still cameras.

Delamater: Your motion picture camera, besides actually showing the blast, what information did the scientists and the military gather from those films?

Brixner: Well they got the rather complete record of the explosion from the first 10,000th of a second. I had lot of these Fastax cameras running at the near site until something like a minute or more after the explosion. So we got a complete record with those motion picture cameras of the whole explosion. Everything was there. Something like 100,000 pictures were taken with all those cameras, of course running, you see. The pictures that you may look at, almost all of them are taken from the frames of those motion picture cameras.

Delamater: What about Jack Aeby’s pictures? What differentiates them? They were still pictures, because he developed the film so quickly, or—?

Brixner: Well, Jack Aeby had a camera that he got from, I believe, Enrico Fermi. He was doing still photography for Enrico Fermi and he had that camera. At the last minute, I guess he got permission to photograph the explosion. Now he was south of the explosion, I think at the base camp or somewhere in that vicinity. So he took those pictures. At that time, I didn’t know anything about them even at all. Only later did I know he got a number of nice pictures, still pictures, from that in color. That was with color film.

Delamater: Yours was in black and white?

Brixner: Well, I had some color film also in the movie cameras, 16 millimeter cameras, and they made some satisfactory pictures but nothing particularly spectacular.

Delamater: And you were west and north and he was south?

Brixner: West and north. Aeby’s pictures are almost the same, except it’s just looking from the south instead from the west or north.

Delamater: When the blast was going off, what were you actually doing at that time?

Brixner: Well I was sitting at one of my cameras, motion picture cameras, which was on a panoramic device. I was just sitting there with the camera running. Everything was operated from the central control station. Turned on. So I didn’t have to do anything at the time but just sit there. The camera started running. I had a loud speaker actually and was listening to the countdown, and so I knew when the explosion was to occur. I had arranged a very dense welding glass type of glasses in front of my eyes and I was looking directly at the Zero. I was one of the few people allowed to do that. It was perfectly safe through these welding glasses.  But anyway I was looking right at it, just staring at where it was.

Of course it was nighttime, I couldn’t see anything. But when the explosion went off, that welding glass seemed to just glow white, intense white like the sun. So it just blinded me, so I looked aside to the left, the Oscuras Mountains were at the left, and they were just lit up like daylight then. So I looked at that for a few seconds, and then I looked back through my welding glass and I saw that the terrific explosion had taken place. Just unbelievably large explosion. My camera was just sitting there, but soon the ball of fire was starting to rise and I thought, gee, I better get busy. So abruptly I raised it and photographed the ball of fire as it went up to the stratosphere. I kept photographing it for the next couple of minutes or so.

Delamater: You got over your initial state of being?

Brixner: Yes, I was just so amazed that I was essentially dumbfounded by the explosion. We had had previously what was called a dry run and they piled up a hundred tons of TNT and exploded that to give us a kind of a test with all of our equipment and cameras. That was just nothing compared to this explosion. I knew immediately that the explosion had exceeded the greatest expectations and that essentially we had won the war because that bomb would soon be used on Japan. And it was. That was July 16, I believe, and the war was over in—only about three weeks later.

Delamater: Let’s go back a little bit. There was one other question I thought of about your work there. Things often go wrong with mechanical equipment.  Did all of your equipment, all of your motion picture cameras operate as they were supposed to?

Brixner: Well, no, they didn’t. We had various troubles, it’s true. There was a rainstorm that night. They didn’t even know but what they’d have to postpone the explosion. Well anyway, at all four of our sites, of course, they got rain. In order to put those Fastax cameras at 800 yards from the explosion, I had to make a completely new type of shelter, because by that time it was determined that the explosion would be so large that the shelters that had been originally designed and built would not protect the film or even the cameras, maybe. So I built a steel and lead shelter, two of them actually, in place of those concrete ones and dirt.

Well, those that—the cameras looking up vertically and then mirrors so they would look at the explosion, which was in the distance there. Of course when it rained, that put water on all those windows, so I had to go there and clean off all those windows, get special permission to go there about three o’clock in the morning or four when it stopped raining and clean all those windows off. Also our equipment got wet if we didn’t cover it, because much of it was on top of the 10,000 yards stations. Well my boss apparently didn’t cover the electrical equipment for one of the motion picture cameras I had there for his use, also a panoraming camera, so that camera started but then fizzled and it didn’t run. But almost all the other cameras ran all right. Only about two of the Fastax cameras at the near stations ran and got pictures. All of the more distant cameras worked okay. So, I had a very good record with all those cameras.

I had one person to help me, a technician named Ralph Conrad, who was also a photographer. He and I installed all those fifty-some cameras and got them loaded with film and ready to go for that test. He was a marvelous person to handle everything. We had it all systematically arranged, of course, to do that. My boss was naturally taking care of other photographic operations that were taking place at the same time, getting all that equipment in order.

Delamater: Did you have to actually live at Trinity for a period of time, the Trinity Site?

Brixner: Yes, they had a camp there with the military contingent there, guards and that sort of thing. Also space for the civilians. We lived at the same site and then went out daily to the stations that we were working at. It worked out very well. Of course, I periodically came back to Los Alamos to get equipment and stuff that was being built and bring it down. We had several military technicians also. We worked as a team to get that job done. We were only one of many groups doing experiments there.

Delamater: It was a big effort. When in time did you actually realize the mission of the Manhattan Project? Or how did you figure out the mission of the Manhattan Project?

Brixner: After I got here and was working a while. Of course, I wasn’t cleared immediately, so they wouldn’t tell me anything. But then after a month or two, then they actually told me what they were doing. They had some written material to read, sort of giving the history of the project and everything. From then on I knew what was going on. I became a staff member shortly afterwards, within a month I guess. After I got here, my boss had me made a staff member. When I first came I was just a photographic technician here.

Delamater: Where did you live while in Los Alamos?

Brixner: Well, they had built apartments. They were continually building too, because the project grew steadily. When I first came for an interview here, I guess my boss told me right away that he would have me hired on and said, “Well go over to the housing and get a schedule for someplace to live.” For my wife and I would have two children then. 

So I went over and they said, “Fine.” So they gave me a little map. They said, “Well here are the new apartments. Go out and select what you want, they are practically all available. They are just starting on them.” I went out there. There was really nothing but stakes in the ground and they said, “They are going to put in a four-apartment building at this stake,” and so on.  

I came back and told her, “Fine. I’ll take,” I think it was, “109 B. I’ll take that apartment.” It was nothing but a stake on the ground.

When my wife had a second child and came up here, the apartment was built and we moved in. It was quite satisfactory. For the whole war I lived in that apartment.

Delamater: Do you remember what they called that particular type of apartment?

Brixner: They were Sundt apartments, because the Sundt Construction Co. was the contractor who built them.

Delamater: You mentioned that you worked with some of the military in your group and you had a cooperative working relationship. What else do you remember about either working or social relationships between the military and civilians?

Brixner: Well of course I didn’t, well, hobnob with the military as much because they had to report at their military camp where they lived, you know, where they had bunks and supervisors and so on. So they just came to the Technical Area during the daytime or whenever it was needed. So I didn’t really get to know the military people too much except as they worked with us at various projects. However, I found them very cooperative generally. It was quite satisfactory as far as I was concerned, and I was friendly with a number of them after the war. In fact, I still correspond with at least one of them. Several have died, of course, that I knew so I don’t know what’s happened to them.

Delamater: What was it like to live and work on a military base?

Brixner: It was fine as far as I was concerned. Because we were trying to get the bomb built as fast as possible so, as far as I was concerned, I spent most of my time at the Technical Area, much more than the regular working hours, getting the various jobs done and working on them. We did have some time off, of course, on the weekend. Often I worked at the weekend. My wife had been interested in plays before coming to Los Alamos, so a group of people soon got together and were presenting plays and my wife was among the actresses. Loved that. They used to bring me in for set construction and that sort of thing. So I was kind of a carpenter and painter and what have you to try to get sets made, and we had everything we needed to do those. They made very nice plays. They were enjoyed by everybody. All I can say is that was a very good activity.

Delamater: What plays do you remember your wife starring in?

Brixner: Gosh, I hardly remember the names of those plays.  I can’t for the life of me give you the name of them.

Delamater: What do you remember about social relations during the Manhattan Project?

Brixner: Well they had dancing.  Dancing was also a favorite. Square dancing. The military base commander was particularly interested in square dancing, so he naturally was all for it and was generally the head man there at the square dance. They had plenty of people who were good at music playing, so they had plenty of music. Particularly on the accordion, that was one of the favorites. A fellow by the name of Willy Higinbotham played most of the time. I remember him. I didn’t really know anything about square dance, but then it’s rather easy to learn. So pretty soon I was over there square dancing with my wife and so that happened many times. 

Otherwise I don’t remember too much about entertainment. They had movies of course. They had two movie houses so they were showing all the pictures, and those pictures were free to us. And so sometimes I would see the movies that they were showing, if I had some time off to do that.

Delamater: What did your wife do during the day with her time?

Brixner: She was taking care of the children of course, mainly. I’m rather fuzzy if she had—I think she became a reporter also. I think. She collected news for the weekly news bulletin some. She wasn’t the only person and I don’t know if she did it regularly or not.

Delamater: Those news bulletins make very interesting reading. We have copies of them in the archives. Did you feel isolated

Brixner: Well, no I didn’t. Actually, other people may have felt more than I did. But I told the security people I just couldn’t go to Box 1663 in Santa Fe and not ever see my parents who were in Albuquerque. So I’d have to go down there. They gave me permission to go down. I did drive periodically. Also went to El Paso a time or two, at Christmas particularly when my mother was down there in El Paso. So, I didn’t feel particularly isolated. I had been traveling all over the southwest anyway and roughing it in the photographic work that I did, so that to me there wasn’t any such thing as isolation, so to speak. Anyway I wasn’t very well educated, not used to big cities or anything, so it didn’t bother me in the least bit. I got so interested in the work at Los Alamos that I was just occupied with that. That was number one with me all during the war.

Delamater: I can believe that; you were occupied here. Where were you when you heard of the bombing of Hiroshima, and what was your immediate reaction to the news?

Brixner: I can’t—I’m a little fuzzy now. I think that I was actually away from Los Alamos when that happened. What happened was, we got those motion picture films so General Groves wanted those films in Washington. So he had me bring those films to Washington, the motion picture, the 35 millimeter motion picture, professional films. So I took them right to General Groves there and he turned me over to other people, who took me to the naval motion picture laboratory there. They are the ones who made copies of those films, and then he distributed those to the newsreel people after Hiroshima. So I was returning to Los Alamos when the bomb was dropped I think. I read about it in the newspapers. Of course, I naturally, well it was just what I expected would happen. But it didn’t stop the war immediately, you know. The Japanese still would not give up, and it took a second bomb at Nagasaki before they would stop the war.

Delamater: Were you still away from Los Alamos when Nagasaki happened?

Brixner: No, I think I was back for Nagasaki.  But I didn’t think anything about it except that I felt that the Japanese were being completely unreasonable in not immediately giving up after Hiroshima and that surely they would do it after Nagasaki, and they did. It saved a tremendous number of lives actually, because I think it was estimated that if we didn’t have the bombs, that at least a million lives would be lost. Far less than that of course were lost as a result of having the bomb and stopping the war quickly.

Delamater: After World War II was over and you told people where you had been and what you had worked on, what was their reactions?

Brixner: They seemed to think it was a good idea. They thought it was admirable that we were able to stop the war when it had been going on so long and really didn’t show much sign of stopping until that bomb. So they were pleased with the fact that we invented the bomb and used it to stop the war.

Delamater: What is your most vivid memory of the Manhattan Project?

Brixner: Well of course that explosion of that bomb, which was the culmination of all our work here. It was just amazing and just almost beyond belief, if I hadn’t been there and participated in it.

Delamater: Is there anything else you would like to add about the Trinity experience and your time there?

Brixner: Well it was a very rough going thing. Towards the end there, in working around those shelters, I got a cinder in my eye. And finally it got to hurting so badly, and the doctors there couldn’t seem to find it, what it was. And I couldn’t point to it or, you know, in your eye, you can’t really tell exactly. And I said, “Well, if you can’t find it, I’ve just got to leave and go to Albuquerque and get competent treatment there.” 

So they then brought down an eye doctor and he just took one look at the eye and he said, “Well, there’s the cinder, it’s right on the cornea.” 

So he got a knife out and I said, “Well wait a minute, I’ve got to rest my eye, I can’t even hold it still.” So I shut my eye and rested it for a minute or two, and then I opened it up and he just went like that—Flip!—and that cinder was scraped right off of my eye with that knife blade. Within a very short time, all the soreness went away and I was able—that was just maybe a month before Trinity. It felt very close, I think it was less than a month actually, probably only a couple of weeks before the explosion.

Delamater: What did you feel when the test was coming up? What were you feeling knowing that the test was looming couple of weeks away? What did you feel?

Brixner: I was just so busy getting all our equipment.  I had so many cameras and just one person to help me.  So I was busy all the time getting all those cameras, seeing that they were all in good operating condition, get them located exactly and aimed exactly and all that sort of thing, getting them loaded with film. We couldn’t load the film too early because the tremendous heat down there, terrible heat to leave those films. They really all had to be loaded the day before. We had to test all those cameras. So there was loading and unloading of sample pieces of film. Well, I didn’t even think about anything except my job, really. That’s all.

Delamater: You were busy doing a good job. Is there anything else you’d like to add to this interview that we haven’t covered?

Brixner: Maybe that the reason I’m still here. After the war of course, I had to decide what to do next. I could have been reemployed with the Department of Agriculture, where I had been before the war. But very quickly Commander Bradbury was made the director of the laboratory. He said he thought the laboratory would be a permanent thing, so he was trying to get people to stay, some people, a staff of people. All the top people, of course, would leave and go back to their pre-war jobs, or other jobs that would occur. But anyway he wanted to have a staff here of competent people. And so I asked him if he would like to have me stay as photographer and he said, “Yes.” So I stayed.  

Of course then after the war all those films that I took had to be studied and analyzed by my boss and all the measurements made of them to determine how the explosion progressed and everything. That took him most of the year. So my boss was also here at that time. Naturally I was helping him do that work also during that period. Then any other work for other people in the laboratory. Things were just going down, of course, as quickly as possible. 

So anyway I stayed on and then work began to improve because the Navy decided that they would run an atomic test in the Pacific and so they needed some tests there. And so I ran a series of cameras there much the way I ran them at Trinity to photograph the explosions of their tests there. Then after that, other tests kept coming up. They started testing explosions in Nevada and the Nevada test site. And then there were tests again in the Pacific. New cameras to be invented and built, and I got to do that work. So I stayed here ever since.

Delamater: I was supposed to have asked this next question before. This isn’t supposed to be the end question, I’m sorry. Did working in Los Alamos alter the direction of your life?

Brixner: Yes it did, completely. Because I was just a photographer previously and I had really no expectation of being anything else but a photographer, although I did during the war do photogrammetric engineering. Because photography, even for the Department of Agriculture, went way down, but they had a contract of mapmaking for the U.S. Air Force. So the boss of the cartographic division said, “Why don’t you take this course I’m going to give up at the University of New Mexico, and if you do then, I’ll take you on as a cartographic engineer. We need to do a lot of that work for this Air Force contract.”

So I was doing that just before I came up here. I don’t know, I might have tried to stay in on that after the war. But anyway, it wasn’t a strong idea, so then when I came up here and discovered I could be a camera engineer here at Los Alamos, I decided that was going to be my career for the rest of my life, and it was. And it was highly successful. I made a great success of that. Invented a number of cameras, and then I learned to invent photographic lens for my cameras because I couldn’t buy the kind I needed, so I invented a completely new method, and of course I had the assistance of the scientists here to do that. So everything has worked out beyond my expectations.”

Delamater: This is almost redundant, but given similar circumstances, would you do it again?

Brixner: Absolutely, yes. I think it was the best thing I did in my life.

Delamater: Thanks very much for your interview.