The Manhattan Project

Esequiel Salazar's Interview

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Esequiel Salazar's Interview

Esequiel Salazar worked at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project as a carpenter and a rod-man assisting surveyors for the Robert E. McKee Company. After the war, Salazar deployed as a soldier to occupied Japan and had a long career with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Combined, he and his wife contributed 100 years of service to the Los Alamos laboratory. In this interview, Salazar highlights the essential work of Hispano workers and other laboratory employees during and after the Manhattan Project. He touches on the politics surrounding contractors and labor during Los Alamos’s early years, and shares his thoughts on the Trinity Test and bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also discusses his sons’ work at LANL and Sandia National Laboratories.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
2009
Location of the Interview: 
El Convento
Transcript: 

[Thanks to David Schiferl and Willie Atencio for recording this interview and providing a copy to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. Please note that approximately the first three minutes of the interview are audio only.]

Willie Atencio: Your name?

Esequiel Salazar: Esequiel Salazar.

Atencio: Born where?

Salazar: In Pojoaque.

Atencio: Pojoaque. What was your first experience with the Manhattan Project?

Salazar: First experience was when I got a job with Robert E. McKee [Company]. They used to send this big 6x6 trucks to pick up the workers in Pojoaque and bring them through Española, [inaudible] Pajarito, and into Los Alamos.

Atencio: How old were you when you first worked at Los Alamos, and in what year?

Salazar: Well, I went there when I was very young. I would travel going to Los Ojos de San Antonio with my dad. He had rheumatism, and so we’d go in our wagon. We’d go across Los Alamos through the different valles [valleys], Valle Grande, Valle Toledo, and Valle San Antonio.

They had hot springs there and it was good for the rheumatism for my dad. We stayed there, usually a week, week and a half. We used to come through Los Alamos, and of course the CC camp was working on the roads and the parks and stuff like that. It was an experience for me.

When I started working in Los Alamos, it was the beginning of the Manhattan Project, and one of the big contractors was Robert E. McKee. They gave me and Joe Luján from Nambé jobs as apprentice carpenters. They paid us 56 cents an hour. We used to have to work eight hours, 56 cents an hour. They gave us ten cents extra for working Saturdays.

But, anyway, it was a job and it was an uplift for our family, because my dad was a farmer and he was getting up in age, and it was hard to make ends meet. I would turn over the money that I got every week to my dad, and to help the family. That’s the way I was brought up.

Atencio: Did you make any more than 56 cents an hour while you were at Los Alamos as an apprentice carpenter?

Salazar: Yeah. We got raised up after the apprentice period. We got 86 cents an hour, as they called us helpers, carpenter helpers. I think the carpenters were getting $1.25 an hour.

Atencio: What buildings did you work at?

Salazar: I started as a rod-man for the surveyor when they were surveying the DP Site or TA-21. We had a surveyor by the name of Bundy, and he was very strict and he kept us on the move. We also had some surveyor crews coming in from El Paso. They were Spanish guys and they knew their way around, too. They apparently graduated from college, and they were surveyors. They surveyed the site completely, the first buildings, Building 1, Building 2, 3. 

Building 2, of course, was a special building, because it was a lot of metal in the building. It was also a high building. In those days, they had equipment in the upstairs part of the building. That’s where the people with the gloveboxes and stuff were installed, the gloveboxes and all the testing of plutonium was being done.

Atencio: Did you work at DP Site on the front and see an operation—

Salazar: Yes. The second year that I worked, I worked in Building 1 and 2. Building 1 was connecting the administration building with the warehouses. I had a job there, and as part of my job, I had to empty a little trailer with a weapons carrier. They would put it in this big hole that was behind Building 3.

On the road going to DP Site East, East DP, and there was more buildings there. I didn’t know too much about it, but while emptying that little trailer with contaminated fluids that came out of the test area, you had to use real heavy gloves. You emptied the liquid. Then you hung up your hose behind the little trailer and the weapons carrier and moved it to the front of Building 2. That’s where it was parked.

I worked there, and there was a few other areas that I worked. I worked in Warehouse 10. That’s the warehouse where I used to hand out the gloves, the booties and the stuff that was used by the people working in the two aforementioned buildings.

So I got acquainted with the project. Of course, we didn’t know what they were really doing. It wasn’t up to us. But it was strange materials that we were using.

Atencio: Was there a big concern about health at that time? The health monitor, radiation badges? 

Salazar: No, no, it wasn’t too much there at that time. I think the dosimeters came by maybe a year, year and a half later. They used to use lab coats and extra pants over your regular pants, and then they–

Atencio: Coveralls.

Salazar: Coveralls, and then of course, you had to walk through the counters. If you were high, you had to go to the hospital and get tested. What they would do is they would get a little bit of blood from your ear, or they would check your mouth and get some spit and whatever. I don’t know what they really did.

Atencio: What about security? How was security at that time?

Salazar: Security was, of course, military police, and they checked you going in, going out. I had to make trips going to S-Site. Going to S-Site, you had to go down the canyon. There was no bridge or anything like that. There were about four military police stations where they checked your badge and made sure that they took your name down, badge number.

Then you had so much time, if you were driving a vehicle, to get from one station to the other. In case that you had a problem or something, they would come and look for you in a hurry.

Then going into the exclusion area in S-Site, it was the same situation. You had to go through different MP stations, military police stations, and they would check your badge. By then you had dosimeters. Always they’re very secret, very secure.

Atencio: Were you on the premises when they tested the bomb at Trinity Site?

Salazar: Yeah. I was working at Los Alamos that day that they dropped the bomb in Alamogordo.

Atencio: Was there any reaction among the workers?

Salazar: Oh, yeah. There was a kind of celebration that night. As a matter of fact, they ran the buses to Santa Fe. This fellow that was working with me and I decided to go to Santa Fe to celebrate, and we went in the buses and we had the afternoon off. That’s when we found out that the test in Alamogordo had been successful.

Atencio: What was the reaction after the war ended, after the dropping of the two bombs on Japan? 

Salazar: Well, I happened to be in the service and I went to Japan, and–

Atencio: The reaction at Los Alamos.

Salazar: At Los Alamos?

Atencio: Were you there?

Salazar: Well, yeah. I was there after the bomb was exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The reaction was mixed. There were people that said, “Oh, they shouldn’t have done it,” and the killing of that many people and everything else.

I think that I took a different view, because I was coming of age where I was going to be going to the service. I was very happy for our country, that they had come up with the atomic bomb.

I said, “Well, that saved a lot of American lives,” so I was very, very happy that they had done this. Then I started realizing that we had all been a part of the discovery of the atom and the splitting of the atom, and this powerful bomb was made in Los Alamos. I said, “We did what we had to do, because if the war would have lasted longer. We would have lost a lot more people.” That’s what we were feeling we had accomplished.

I think that we should all take credit for that, because we all took a part in it. I think it’s important that people realize that the scientists couldn’t do their jobs if it wasn’t for the cement workers that are putting the slabs and building their laboratories. Doing what is necessary to get rid of the contaminated fluids and liquids and all the chemicals that were being used.

The janitors, the laborers, the carpenters, everybody took a part in it, and that’s why I am here today. I feel that people should get credit for having taken a part, a very important part, in the Manhattan Project. The scientists couldn’t have done what they did if the people that were backing them up by construction, by maintenance, by keeping the place clean – it was a very contaminated area, and somebody had to continue cleaning.

I was very, very concerned about the credit that the Hispanics and the neighboring workforce, that they be given credit for what they contributed to such an endeavor. This is only right and that’s why I’m speaking today.

Atencio: After you were drafted into the service, you ended up in Japan.

Salazar: Yes.

Atencio: Did that change your view on the dropping of the atomic bomb, being there in Japan?

Salazar: Yes. I saw the real effect that the war was taking on Japan. I was in Tokyo, but we were the army of occupation. I was in the 1st Cavalry Division in Tokyo, and a lot of the guys that went with me into the service were people that worked in Los Alamos, just like I did. They saw the terrible destruction that was done by the bombs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was bad. But, I think it was something that had to be done when they did it.

Atencio: Okay. After you came back from the military, you again went to work at Los Alamos?

Salazar: Yes. I worked first with mail and records, and I did a lot of copying of documents and everything else, secret documents, and putting them in tape. Then, I went into the fire department, and I put about twenty-one years in the fire department.

After that, I transferred to security, and I worked in security until it was time to leave also. I put in my time there. Then I worked in public relations with the laboratory. I became Chief of Security when the Atomic Energy Commission turned in the security force, and turned it to a contractor.

I was the interim security chief, and I started helping them do the transition of the force. I started with 18 people. Then I graduated to 26, then I graduated to 40, then I graduated to 76. 76 was the last figure that I remember I had. Training and getting these people their uniforms and learning their jobs.

Atencio: What contractor was this?

Salazar: Well, it became Mason & Hanger, as the security force replaced the Atomic Energy Commission. AEC used to be the security force, and that’s where I retired from. Then, I went to work, like I say, with the lab in public relations with Ms. [Judy] Liersch, who was the head of that division, division leader.

I had the pleasure of going to represent the lab in the different parts of the state, in schools. We were showing them what the laboratory was doing in those days, because we were doing a lot of work with blood tests and all this kind of stuff. We had a lot of exhibits to take to the state fair. I went to the state fair and demonstrated some of the work that we did at the lab.

Then, both my wife and I went to work in the document control and sanitizing of documents at [Lawrence] Livermore [National Laboratory]. We worked there on a Form B thing. After we got through in Livermore, we went to Washington and we worked at the AEC complex.

There we were doing exactly the same thing. We were sanitizing documents for clearance and things of this nature. So, we were very active in the security part of the laboratory. My wife was a document control officer, and so we did that work for a number of years.

Atencio: How many years total did you work at Los Alamos?

Salazar: I worked 49 years. My wife worked 51.

Atencio: Between you and your wife, you gave a total of 100 years of service.

Salazar: Yes.

Atencio: And, your children, are any of your children continuing to work at Los Alamos and contributing to the project?

Salazar: Yes. All my sons are working there – worked there. Now, one of them is working at Sandia [National Laboratories]. He is Director, Program Director at Sandia, and he is in charge of the shield missiles that are being installed all over the world.

As a matter of fact, he happens to be in Hawaii at this moment that I’m talking about. A lot of work has been done by him in Alaska and Kodiak Island, and that’s where one of our bases is. He travels to the Netherlands, he travels all over.

He works for Sandia, but the other ones work for Los Alamos. They work for the new outfit, but they had worked for the lab. Both husbands and wives work for the lab. We have a history of contributing to these programs. I think that my sons also worked at CMR Building and TA-55. They work with plutonium and uranium, whatever they do there.

It’s been an interesting life. We are happy that we were a part of the Manhattan Project, even to now.

David Schiferl: You started this interview describing your work on the DP Site, DP Road. What did DP stand for? Why did they call it DP?

Salazar: I think it’s something to do with the plutonium site. It’s either degrading it or whatever, the name DP Site.

Schiferl: Before we started the interview, you were talking about Brown & Root and they were trying to destroy unions up here.

Salazar: Yes.

Schiferl: Could you tell us the whole story of how unions got started and Brown & Root’s role in trying to wreck them?

Salazar: When the Manhattan Project first started, we were involved in another conflict, but they had to get the work done for the project. The Manhattan Project needed a lot of work. They needed good roads, they needed a lot of work with the different sites to disperse the sites to areas that were secure in themselves, and maybe getting a gate just in the proper place.

The natural lay of the land was secure enough, where we could secure the different sites. We needed a lot of bulldozer operators, we needed a lot of mechanics, we needed a lot of laborers, we needed carpenters, plumbers. You name it, it was needed and it was demanded at that time.

The nature of this project was time was of the essence. You had to do things whenever some person that says, “Well, I need this type of a building,” and we had to be able to put that kind of a building.

It was a lot of people that were involved, all going the same direction, supposedly. The laborers wanted to belong to the union, and of course, the government had no problem with getting unions in there. They got carpenters’ unions, plumbers’ unions, electricians.

They got the Reynolds Company as the main electrical contractor. Brown & Olds was the plumbing contractor. Robert E. McKee was the building of buildings, laboratories, etc. Sundt [Company] came over and they built the living quarters for the Army and the WACs [Women’s Army Corps] and the nurses. They also built the hospital. So there was a lot of movement.

In those days, they respected the unions and I belonged to the operating engineers’ union. When we had Lowdermilk [Brothers Construction Company] doing the main road, because of the terrain, it was just very difficult to get a road up there. But he managed to do it. Then we came to the top of the mesa and another job had to be let out.

Brown & Root put in for it, and apparently, outbid Lowdermilk. It was on top of the mesa. Then they went ahead and built this road and got it. Then, they got the strip for the airport. There was a conflict between the labor unions and the non-labor contractor. But politics sticks its head there and Brown & Root finished the job. A lot of labor problems resulted. Finally, Brown & Root pulled out and they didn’t bid anymore. 

Well, it’s one of those things, because besides making the roads up to Los Alamos, you still had to make the roads to Pajarito and through El Rancho. All those roads had to go, and they went to contractors. The state had to participate, and once the state participates, that’s a different story. They would get contractors and they would start building the roads.

I remember when we were going to work up at Los Alamos. We were in these flatbed trucks. It was maybe 25, 30 people from the valley that were going through Española. We had to go through the loops. It was a dirt road. We didn’t have blacktops in it. It was something funny. If the driver was a little careless and driving a little too fast, you kind of lose your seat there a little bit.

But it was done well. I think that all-in-all, the Manhattan Project was a great success. I think that the great success comes from the sweat of everybody that’s involved, the laborers, the janitors, the electricians.

It’s something new, you know. Because the amount of electrical power that has to go to certain buildings is different from an ordinary building. Everything was new to us, too, and we all cooperated and did what we had to.

Schiferl: Can you think of any stories that are either especially funny or just memorable or scary that happened during the war, or maybe just afterwards? They don’t have to necessarily be at Los Alamos, but sort of Los Alamos related.

Salazar: Yeah. Related.

Atencio: Related to the culture.

Salazar: The culture.

Atencio: It was totally a different culture when the military came in and the military culture compared to Northern New Mexico culture.

Salazar: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, the thing was that the people that came to work at Los Alamos came from different parts of the country, from different cultures. They came to a very, very small area here in New Mexico, and small communities. 

Needless to say, some of the dances that we had in our community have changed. The GIs would come in and start dancing with the girls and all this stuff. A lot of us didn’t think too much of it, and so consequently, there was a problem there. 

But I think it was the same thing in the roads. I remember going in my dad’s truck, going to El Rancho, and there was a short convoy of trucks going to Los Alamos. This military policeman got very upset at me, because I was going slowly. He shoved me to the side and I had to pull off. They got in and they drove through.

There was nothing you could do. Because even in Pojoaque, they had a couple of MP stations there, just to direct traffic and stuff like that. We found it odd, but we lived through it. The same thing with the dances; the dances would get a little rough, because the GIs were there. It happens in all Army towns.

But, I think that all-in-all, I think everything went well. I think that we should all be proud of the project. I certainly am, and I saw it from the beginning to the end.

Atencio: That’s a lot of information, from before they started DP and some of these other buildings to now. So, you went there, you were about 16, 17?

Salazar: 16.

Atencio: 16. And, that was in 1943, ’44?

Salazar: Well, they started in ’43.

Atencio: ’43.

Salazar: Yeah.

Atencio: Now, this man has seen a lot of changes in Los Alamos, from nothing but barracks there to some of the modern buildings now. I haven’t been to the badge office in a while. It’s no longer in the Ad Building anymore. They have this great big modern building.

Salazar: Yeah.

Atencio: Yeah.

Salazar: Well, you know that one of the first things that had to be installed was the guard station at the bottom of the second mesa, before you got up to the main mesa. They would come down and take us in buses from the main MP station, and then take us into the fenced area. After we were in the fenced area, we’d get off the buses and you’d go there and get your badge. 

In those days, we didn’t use the badge so much as we used the washer. It had the number assigned to you. You’d throw the little washer in a slot, and that was for your laborers. The timekeepers would get your washer in the afternoon and give you eight hours’ credit. But it was hard doing in those days.