The Manhattan Project

Elsie McMillan's Lecture

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Elsie McMillan was the wife of Nobel Prize winner Edwin McMillan and sister-in-law of another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Lawrence. She came to Los Alamos in 1943 with Edwin and their baby Ann. In this speech, she takes the audience on an imaginary tour of Los Alamos, complete with detailed descriptions of various buildings and their home, today known as the Hans Bethe House. Her speech characterizes what civilian life was like at Los Alamos for the wives of many scientists, including the challenges of shopping with ration cards and dealing with the tight security. She fondly recalls Pascualita, a Pueblo woman who helped her around her home and invited the McMillans to her home in the Pueblo. Elsie dramatically recalls the tension of the Trinity Test, waiting to find out whether the test was a success and that all the scientists were uninjured.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
Unknown
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

[For Edwin McMillan's lecture, which preceded Elsie's, please click here.]

Elsie McMillan: You know, I will tell you a secret. This is the very first time I have shared a platform, let alone shared it with my best beau and a Nobel Prize winner [Edwin McMillan]. I think my greatest difficulty this afternoon is going to be time. Time is of the essence. I have so much I want to tell you. So I am going to ask you if you would close your eyes for a second and if you go with me to June 1st, 1943.

We stayed in a ranch for a month, because the house we were assigned was being used by young bachelor workmen, and we could not move in. We were in plush ranches down in the Nambe Valley.

If you will come with me, get in our car as we go up to our home in Los Alamos. We are starting out. Oh, there’s the Black Mesa. It seems to me like a wonderful sentinel guarding the Indian Pueblos so near. Oh, I like the chamizo and the tumbleweeds going along. Isn’t this wonderful country? And there’s the Pueblo. We’ll skirt by it until we come to the Rio Grande River and the Otowi Bridge. Otowi Corner is a wonderful place. Ed, you told me that’s where Miss [Edith] Warner lives in that little adobe. I hope I can go take us back there. It’s pretty flat still.

Oh, Lord, I’m getting sick. Look at those sheer drops. Oh, I know I should look at that beautiful blue sky and those formations and those little buttes and the mesas. Oh, I’m scared. What do we do if a car comes? This is the most narrow road I’ve ever seen in my life. Oh, the person backs uphill until we reach a place that we can pass? Oh, Lord, this last turn. I’m so glad we’re almost there.

Oh, there’s the guard gate. Sure, I remembered my pass, but you didn’t give me one for the baby. Ann’s only two months old, she doesn’t need it? Oh, I guess not. I’ve got my driver’s license, too, you handed me. It says #32. Of course, there’s no name, because it’s security.

Say Ed, I wonder if that’s true, the story you told me the other night, that Oppie came up to this gate, and he went whizzing through. I know he’s got a lot on his mind, but he just went whizzing through and they shouted at him. He didn’t pay any attention. Finally, they shot at his tires and he backed up, and he pulled down his window and handed a crisp dollar bill to the guard saying, “Sorry, sir.” [Laughter] You young people may not know, in ’43 it was a dollar to go across the Bay Bridge.

Oh, Ed, there’s the stable. Is that where you said we could have horses on maybe Saturday or Sunday, and there’s still some school horses? Oh, golly, I’ve never ridden in my life. Oh, there’s the theater. And we can go for a quarter? Well, I know the Army’s for free, but gee, only a quarter to see the movie? And you tell me on Sunday, they bring in a great big trunk and they pick it up and it turns into an organ? Gosh, I hope our kids can be christened—oh, I mean, kid. Of course we have ideas. Our child can be christened up here.

Oh, Lord, another fence. You did tell me the Technical Area had an extra fence, but I had no idea it was that high. Oh, dear. Well, of course, I know I can’t go in there. I haven’t a white badge or a pink badge or green badge, and I know your white badge lets you go anywhere you want to in there, and know everything. But don’t rub it in; I don’t have one.

Say, that’s the Big House! Now, I understand that used to be the school library, and they used to have some classes in there. Gosh, Ed, I like the [Fuller] Lodge. That’s all got a log front, that’s perfectly wonderful. Oh, the bachelors are living there, and maybe someday we can go out to dinner there?

Oh, there’s the water tower. I remember you said if I ever get lost, look for the water tower. Gosh, what a way to sabotage us, just put a little something in that water. Oh, there’s a man that puts chlorine and checks it every day? That’s good, that’s good. Because you kind of worry. All these rules.

Well, now we turn. Now we’re on Bathtub Road. Butch, do you suppose they really don’t like us, because we’ve got a bathtub and only about eight houses have bathtubs? But shucks, we came so early, that’s the only reason we have a master’s home.

Hey, look at that darn open ditch. Oh, they don’t put lights up at night around it? Oh, Lord. Later, two ladies fell in our ditch. [Laughter] They didn’t like it either. [Laughter]

Oh, this is T-112. Isn’t it attractive? I’ll take you in the kitchen. It was very small. First, I might have bitched a little about it, but then I was very happy, because my husband said if it was a big kitchen, I’d have a “Black Beauty.” That’s what were in most of the places, and that’s what they called the wooden-burning coal stoves. But we didn’t have anything to cook on. Ed, where’s the stove?

“Well, honey, the DC current’s still here, and you see, there’s no room for the coal stove. They’re going to bring in a kerosene stove, butane stove, a three-burner, and if they get the current changed, maybe you’ll have a hotplate. You’ll have to cook over the fireplace.”

Oh. [Laughter] Anyway, Ed, isn’t this a gorgeous living room? Oh, my goodness, what a big fireplace. Sure, I can cook over it. I suppose I’ll have to be most careful over the baby’s formula, and of course things—you tell me—don’t cook fast up here at 7,300 feet. But I’ll work it.

Look at this brick wall. Oh, Ed, look out on that porch. Will you look with me? There’s a lawn and trees, and the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. It’s summer, so the paler green of the trees shows the thunderbird. In winter, it’s snow, and the snow somehow sticks out and you still see that thunderbird.

Here’s our room. I’m sure glad the bed and the mattress came. We haven’t got any bed boards yet. By the way, when we did get the bed board, which wasn’t too long, one night I said to my husband, “Why didn’t you tell me you’re making an atomic bomb?”

He said, “My God! Where did you learn that?” I don’t think he said, “My, God,” but I will. He said, “You know, you could get me fired.”

And I said, “Well, somebody told me.” To this day, and I’m not going to tell something he never told—by the way, I didn’t know he had that cigarette. But I have never told him who told me it was an atomic bomb, and I never will tell you.

But I am very grateful, because here is a good place to tell you that very few of the wives—although many, many worked—very few [knew]. Mrs. Alvarez didn’t. Of course, Kitty did. I did. A few others. But I’m very grateful that I knew it was an atomic bomb, because I could better understand when my husband left me, place unknown. When my husband worked all hours of the day and night, when my husband and other husbands looked so drawn, so tired, so worried, I would partially sleep and get up and cook another meal at 3:00 in the morning.

I guess I’ve left the house too long, but I want you to know there was a room, originally a sun room for our baby. I wanted to particularly tell you that room had windows all around it. It had been a sun porch, because later I will refer to it.

Now, we unpacked and it was awfully messy after the bachelors. Now I want you to go with me, because, gosh, we have to stock a house. I want you to go the commissary. Now, the commissary was great. It’s the only place, you see, that you mustn’t forget your stamps, because we had food stamps and gas stamps just as anyone else. So don’t forget your food stamps. The red stamps, unfortunately in our case, the meat stamps had to be used for our baby’s canned milk. I unfortunately couldn’t nurse, so we didn’t have much fresh meat. The commissary had beautiful meats, and their vegetables were terrible.

We’re stocked up now, and I’m coming home with the baby carriage full of toys. Here is a uniformed officer. He salutes me and he said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Oppenheimer. The baby you left in the bedroom is quite all right.”

I said, “Thank you very much, sir. But I am not Mrs. Oppenheimer, and I didn’t leave a baby in my house.”

He said, “Oh, my God! I’m guarding the wrong house.” [Laughter]

That was soon stopped, because very shortly after that—remember, we’re in the very early days—very shortly after that, a fence went around the Oppenheimer’s home. The guard then must go around the fence. Kitty and I felt very sorry for those guards, because in winter at Los Alamos, you had a very dry cold. We had many times icicles that came from the roof—remember, it’s a one-story house, I’m apt to exaggerate—but icicles came down from the roof of our house to the ground. It was cold, even a dry cold. So Kitty and I would sneak out and leave thermos bottles on our side of the property—we were next-door neighbors—for the guard, and sandwiches. We really felt sorry for these guards, we really did.

Now, I’m going to take you some other place, and I’m going to ask you this time if you’d mind going alone. You just go over to the water tower, and you go a little bit across the way and you come to a small building. Yes, it’s the hospital, the first Los Alamos hospital. I’m having you go alone, because, you see, I’m in bed there. The story is not to make you sorry, but to tell you about that first hospital. There were only two bedrooms. There was a small waiting room. There was a pharmacy. There was an operating room, which at that time was not being used, because they could not yet get the—I see my good friend, Stewart Harrison, who is an M.D. looking at me.

I’m reaching for anesthetic. There was not the proper anesthetic for this height. We had two doctors at that point. We had Dr. James Nolan, who had been a cancer specialist, and he was the doctor for the people who were there. You remember we started with maybe 100 of us only. They didn’t know how big it would get. Then there was Dr. Louis Hempelmann, who was the doctor for the Technical Area. And we had three nurses, we had Pete and Sarah and Peggy. You realize with a two-bedroom hospital, there couldn’t be more than two patients. But even so, the food had to be brought from the lodge over, and it was cold. That’s why I was very grateful that it was a very unusual hospital.

I will tell you that they found me unconscious and I was taken to the hospital when Ed was away. Because of security at that time, we had no help at all. So the baby came to the hospital with me and Verego Mack, our tri-colored cocker [spaniel]. They wondered why my chart read thinner and thinner, and Verego Mack, they should’ve known, was getting fatter and fatter. So that was the hospital.

Oh, here comes Jim [Nolan] now. I wanted you to meet him. Oh, sure, Jim, can I? Gee, he says, I can go in my wheelchair! We’re the whole school committee, you know. We’re so young that we only need a nursery school now. He says I can go in the wheelchair. We picked the site and the building is partly up, and today we’re going to choose the colors for the nursery school, and the little old toilets and stuff. You see, I used to be a nursery school, kindergarten teacher. I guess that’s how they picked me, plus they hate to bring more and more people up. So that’s why.

Oh, I’m glad you’ve seen the hospital with me. You know, later that hospital, long before we left, in March 25th, 1945, Ed and I had the great joy of having our first son born in that hospital. By then, it was quite large. I think there were seven rooms then. Henry Barnett had come up as a pediatrician. Because, you remember, kids, we were like a college campus. Ed and I were sort of the oldsters, and I had my 30th birthday up there. But they were very young.

Now I’m at it. You see, I ramble a bit. I’d like to say I don’t think I shall ever live in a community—I can say it as a wife—where so many brains were. Nor shall I ever live in a community where they expected us to fight. Because we didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have this, we didn’t have that. I don’t think I shall ever live in a community that had such deep roots, that my husband spoke of. No diary. My husband spoke of things like that. Even had I not written the book, it’s in my heart. I shall never forget those days.

Now, I’ve left us in the hospital, haven’t I? I’m awfully sorry, but I do want to say one more thing. That when that baby was born, or any baby at Los Alamos, we immediately got the birth certificate, because that meant the red points. As I told you, we needed those for the milk. I think that my driver’s license says #32. I still have it. But the birth certificates of all babies born there was, place of birth: Box 1663, Sandoval County Rural. My God, was that box ever full of babies. [Laughter]

I’m going to take you from the hospital now, and time is going on. Even by not quite the end of our first year, they began to realize the emotional strain, the feel of, “You’ve got to get that bomb, you’ve got to get it done. Others are working on it. The Germans are working on it. Hurry, hurry, hurry. This is going to end the war, this is going to save our boys’ lives, this is going to save Japanese boys’ lives. Get that damn bomb done.”

We were tired. We were deathly tired. We had parties, yes, once in a while, and I’ve never had so many drinks as there on the few parties. Because you had to let off steam, you had to let off this feeling of your soul, your God, am I doing right. You had to, people.

They soon realized that we should take a week’s trip every ten months or so. There’s only one trip I’m going to take you on a little bit of, because as you will see later, it’s part of your going with me to Los Alamos.

We went with a couple, the Jensens [Dorothy and Ken], whom we lived at the ranch with, to Carlsbad Cavern, which I will not go into. We had on the same trip a very, very wonderful trip from up the pass, from Artesia to Alamogordo. I want you to go up that pass with me, because at the very top, it was winter.

At the very top, in this beautiful snowy pass—fortunately, we always skidded the correct way, or I would not be here this afternoon telling you. [Laughter] We stopped to see the little town of Cloudcroft, and as we slowed the car, it was such a beautiful scene. Out of the woods, the most beautiful majestic wolf came. He stood and he looked at us, just stood and looked. I shall never forget that.

We went on down to spend the night at Alamogordo. There it would be a whole story in itself, kids. But I won’t go into that. The next day we went to the White Sands. We cavorted around the White Sands. We wrote “White Sands” on the sand. We rolled down the hill. We had a wonderful time. So, that was one of our vacations.

As I told you, time is going on, and they soon realized we were getting more and more people, more and more buildings. By now, they were covering up the ditches at night, or at least lighting them up so you didn’t fall in and wreck your clothes or break your ankle. By now, I could go to the commissary and not know some of the people. By now, they had realized that we really needed some help.

The housing office, which had been run so beautifully by Vera Williams, John William’s (physicist) wife—as I told you, many wives worked—it was changed to be the maid service. That’s what it was called, I am quoting. And Vera was sent over to take charge of that. I said we had wonderful times, but there were some women that argued. I won’t go into the arguments of priority, but Vera had a very simple system. The sick person got first priority, the full working wife next, and so on. We were very excited. We were to have one day a week of help.

There was a knock on my door, and Vera Williams came with Pascualita. Pascualita was from San Ildefonso. There we looked at each other, my great big, beautiful Pascualita. She wore loose dresses, she had a thing across here, and her braids had something I think is very popular with young people today, but I don’t think they knew about it. They used pieces of wool, colored wool, in their braids. So did the men. My Pascualita came. We were very fortunate, because she worked for five days a week. But we were her family. So Pascualita, many a Friday, her husband Mr. Pena, would come and sit, and our Ann would sit on his lap and play with his braids.

I will never forget the day Pascualita did not show up. There was a knock at my front door and there was Juanita, her aunt. She said, “Ah, Pascualita no come. She had baby yesterday.” Boy, did I feel guilty. I mean, I know she wore loose dresses, but I had no idea she was pregnant. Well, two days later, there was a knock on the door, and same Juanita. She said, “Ah, we have christening. Baby named for you.”

I said, “Oh, what is the baby called?”

And she gave this long Tewan name. I said, “Oh, but what does it mean in English?”

She said, “Big White Mountain.” [Laughter]

I see my husband’s eyes on me. He always makes me finish the sentence, which spoils my punchline. She says, “Big White Mountain, because Pascualita say, she see Big White Mountain from your window.”

I wanted to tell you one great privilege. We had known the Indians, and we had known them and been to their dances. But because of Pascualita, we had the great privilege of going down to the Pueblo and having lunch with the Penas many times. There were two sides of the Pueblo, the poor side and the rich side. She was from the simpler side, who cared a little more the keeping the old Indian customs. They all cooked their bread in the beehive ovens with their pottery, which you know about, the black San Ildefonso.

So we went there. I will tell you how we went to lunch. We entered one big room. My namesake was in this one room, in a suspended bed like a swing. The other nine children and the wonderful old pock-faced father sat at the table. Clean oil cloth, wonderful chili and salads. There was love in that room. There was intelligence in that room. We again noticed that the Indian children never seemed to need discipline. They have, I think, this closeness to their parents. Their voices, they do not raise to their children.

I will tell you two things that happened that day, two things so very special. They presented our Ann with something Pascualita said was the only one in the world. They presented our little, almost by then two-year-old daughter, a tea set of this black San Ildefonso pottery, which she of course now still has. Little delicate cups and saucers, teapot, cream and sugar, and a plate.

The one other thing that happened that day that brought tears to my eyes, they asked our Ann to join the Indian children in the corn dance. She’s since become a singer, as well as a programmer. She had rhythm. That, for one thing, was lucky.

The other thing was, in all her young life, in almost three years of Los Alamos, we never bought a pair of shoes because the Pena family, their generosity, their love, they made white shoes from the deerskin for Sunday, and brown leather shoes for every day. What a privilege.

 We finally had a Spanish-American help, and her name was Frances Gomez. With very great purpose, said they were Spanish-American, because they were proud of being Americans. So we went there for her twentieth birthday, and the most amazing thing happened. She had all this birthday party and when it came time to eat, the men went in first and we couldn’t touch it until after the men had finished eating. My husband said, “That is the way to live.”

I’m sorry I cannot tell you about Ms. Warner, but I am going back, and with your permission, I am going to read one short chapter from my unpublished book, The Atom and Eve, and the chapter is called, “The Test.”

The summer of 1945, we all felt that a crisis was pending. Nerves were on edge. The seasonal thunderstorms had started. Each afternoon, the heavens would open up. Inwardly, I quaked, as darkness descended. Lightening came in great jags down the sky. Thunder roared in all its fury. I rocked the newborn baby in his carriage, and joked with Ann. My fear of storms and the mounting tension would not be transferred to them.

Our suspicions were justified. Things were moving fast now. There soon would be a test near Alamogordo at White Sands, the very place we had visited with carefree abandon a few years ago. I asked Ed in all innocence what would happen. It seemed an easy question, with a simple answer. Knowing that it was an atomic bomb they were testing should have made me more aware of what would be involved.

It was difficult for Ed to tell me. He finally answered, “There will be about fifty of us present, key workers. What do you think will happen? We ourselves are not absolutely certain what will happen. In spite of calculations, we are going into the unknown. We know that there are three possibilities. One, that we will all be blown to bits, if it is more powerful than we expect. If this happens, you and the world will be immediately told. Two, it may be a complete dud. If this happens, you will also be told. Third, it may as we hope be a success. We pray without loss of any lives. In this case, there will be a broadcast to the world with a plausible explanation for the noise and the tremendous flash of light which will appear in the sky.”

Unknown to most of us, many dedicated men had been setting up the experiment at White Sands for many months. This then was part of the reason our men had disappeared periodically on trips, destination to wives unknown.

Ed continued, “Next week, we will quietly and separately leave the mesa, starting around 2:00 a.m, the cars to reconvene at the test site. In all probability, the zero hour will be about 5:00 a.m. the next morning. If all goes well, I will be home sometime in the early evening of that day. Be sure to look at the baby’s window toward the White Sands. You may see the flash. I’m not certain, but I suspect you will, in spite of the fact you will be several hundred miles away from it. Keep your radio going at a news station. They will broadcast one of the three results.”

That last week in many ways dragged, in many ways it flew on wings. It was hard to behave normally. It was hard not to think. It was hard not to let off steam. We also found it hard not to overindulge in all natural activities of life.

Late one afternoon, Niels Bohr, my brother-in-law Ernest Lawrence, General [Leslie] Groves and Bill Laurence, the only member of the press allowed to attend, arrived at Los Alamos. Ernest came home with Ed for dinner that night. Thank God my sister [Molly Lawrence] did not know where he was or why he had come. It was no surprise to me when he left early. Ed and I also retired, with our alarms set for 2:30 a.m. Ed would leave at 3:15. We did not want to allow much time. I would cook him a hearty breakfast, and hope he could eat it. We did not want to say goodbye.

He had gone now. I was so cold. I was so scared. It seemed long to wait all that day until the early morning of the next, before there would be any hope of news. I had to try to get some more sleep. I had to feed the children when they awoke. I had to walk that mesa and appear my usual vivacious self all the day, the coming daylight hours. For many did not know, and must not suspect. I prayed in that early morning light. I repeated the Lord’s Prayer, especially the phrase, “Thy will be done.”

Somehow, the day passed and the children were tucked in for the night. There was a light tap on my door. There stood Lois Bradbury, my friend and neighbor. She knew. Her husband [Norris Bradbury] was out there, too. She said her children were asleep, and would be all right since she was so close and could check on them every so often. “Please, can’t we stay together this long night?” she said.

We talked of many things: of our men, whom we loved so much, of the children, their futures, of the war with all its horrors. We kept the radio going softly, despite the fact our last word had been that the test would probably be at 5:00 a.m. We dared not turn it off. It became sort of a fascination for both of us that night.

We wondered how the people from the Technical Area, who were keeping watch on the cold Sandia Mountains, were faring. They, too, had given much toward this test. But it was understandable why only a few could actually be on the spot. Those who couldn’t be there had been given official permission to go up the mountain as inconspicuously as possible, to wait for that light in the sky.

Lois and I must have consumed gallons of coffee that night. Shortly before 5:00 a.m. we turned up the radio and went to the back window to silently watch the sky. Nothing but blackness confronted us. We were in Dave’s room. He awakened and wanted a bottle. Lois watched out of the window as I heated the bottle as quickly as possible in the kitchen. It was 5:15, and we began to wonder. Had weather conditions been wrong? Had it been a dud? I sat at the window feeding Ed’s and my baby. Lois stood staring out. There was such quiet in that room.

Suddenly, there was a flash and the whole sky lighted up. The time was 5:32 a.m. The baby didn’t notice. We were too fearful and awed to speak.

The news came. “Flash! The explosive dump at the Alamogordo airfield has exploded. No lives are lost. This explosion is what caused the tremendous sound and the light in the sky. I repeat, for the benefit of many phone calls coming in, the explosives dump at the Alamogordo airfield has exploded. No lives are lost.”

We looked at each other. It was a success. Could we believe the announcement, no lives are lost? They had not said, “No injuries.” We had hours to wait to be absolutely sure. At least it was over with.

Lois went home to grab a few hours of rest before her family might awaken. I, too, crawled into bed, but found I could not sleep. The day dragged on. I tried walking the mesa with the children, but by lunchtime home was where I wanted to be.

The door opened about 6:00 o’clock in the evening. We were in each other’s arms. Then, and only then, did the tears come streaming down my face.

I thank you.