The Manhattan Project

Haskell Sheinberg's Interview

Printer-friendly version

Haskell Sheinberg's Interview

Haskell Sheinberg arrived at Los Alamos in late 1944 as part of the Special Engineer Detachment. Sheinberg’s first assignment was to purify plutonium under the direction of Arthur Wahl, one of the co-discoverers of plutonium. Sheinberg discusses the safety procedures the laboratory had in place to protect its workers from the harmful effects of radiation and also recalls attending several of Oppenheimer’s colloquiums regarding the overall progress of the Manhattan Project. He remembers meeting his wife, who worked in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps and received a commendation from Oppenheimer for her technical work, at one of the dances at the Los Alamos recreation hall. Sheinberg had a long and storied career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
July 31, 2013
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: My name is Cindy Kelly, it is Wednesday, July 31st, 2013, and I’m here with Haskell Sheinberg. And the first question to him is, please tell us your name and spell it.

Haskell Sheinberg: My name is Haskell Sheinberg. And the first name is H-A-S-K-E-L-L, last name S-H-E-I-N-B-E-R-G.

Kelly: Perfect. 

Sheinberg: I haven’t lost that much memory anyway.

Kelly: That’s great. Well, talking about memory, why don’t you start by telling us when you were born and where you were born.

Sheinberg: I was born December 12, 1919 in Houston, Texas. And I grew up there and went through college there, Rice University, Rice Institute there, at that time.

Kelly: Tell us a little about your, your boyhood.

Sheinberg: Uneventful.

Kelly: Uneventful.

Sheinberg: Really, it was. I grew up during the Depression era and the main thing we tried to do was, as young boys, we tried to find jobs where we could get just a little bit of money to help with the food and so forth. And my father was a tailor who traded clothes for food with the farmers. And that’s how we got through the depression. And I remember very few incidents of my childhood. My memory is not that good.

Kelly: And so tell us about what did you study when you went to Rice?

Sheinberg: Chemical engineering. And when I went there, it was free. That was the only way I was able to go. And we had to pay twenty-five dollars for every lab fee, for every lab course. But if you didn’t break too much, you got it all back. But we always bought from the next class, the senior, above us.

Kelly: So what made you become interested in chemical engineering?

Sheinberg: Well, in high school, I think we had a class or two in chemistry or in science. And that was sort of intriguing. And so I thought, “Well I’ll try chemical engineering.” It’s a combination of chemistry and engineering and so that’s why I chose that.

Kelly: It was a relatively new discipline at the time, wasn’t it?

Sheinberg:  I guess relatively new, yes, but we had an instructor who had been doing that type of work for many, many years. So we learned, certainly, a lot of the practical aspects of chemical engineering. And, of course, we had some theory. But interestingly the more things we did, the more we learned a little bit. And that was the first instance, I think, when I became acquainted with powders and things we did with screening ores and things like that. That was the initial start of my career in powder metallurgy. Yeah, really it was interesting.

Kelly: So, what did you do after you graduated?

Sheinberg: After I graduated in ’41, jobs were difficult to get for people that were Jews and some of the companies wouldn’t interview us and that sort of thing. So I got a job with a company that was under contract to the Navy making destroyers, where there was no discrimination allowed in federal contracts.

Kelly: I’m sorry, why were you discriminated against?

Sheinberg: Because I was Jewish.

Kelly: Oh.

Sheinberg: Yeah. Anyways, I was there as what was called a Progress Engineer, where I was responsible for making sure that things that had to be done with respect to building and outfitting ships was done on time and everything was ready. This included responsibilities for ship launching and ship outfitting of all kinds to make the ship fully equipped to go out to sea and also doing engineering tests aboard ship at sea. For example, we brought railroad tracks across the ship’s deck and then put a weighted cart on it to try to tilt the ship as much as you could without turning it over. Well, there were specifications you had to meet, how far the ship could tilt. So we had to do tests like that. 

It was an interesting thing, but at that time, the Navy kept on insisting that I get deferments. And my brother was in the first draft and he was in the Army. And I think he was due to get out in February of ’41. But the war started in December. So he was staying in there for three years or more.

And after quite a few deferments with the Navy, I said, “No, I want to go in the Army. My brother is in the Army; I want to go where there’s action.” They wanted me to stay there and supervise shipbuilding, but I said, “No, it’s time.”

So I called the draft board and told them I was giving up my deferment, and then it got me in the Army, and that’s how I ended up in Los Alamos. I went through infantry basic. At the end of that, we were out on bivouac someplace and somebody brought an order saying, “Report to the office tomorrow.” 

I reported to the office and they said, “We were shipping you out.” We didn’t know where at first, but they ended up shipping to Oak Ridge first for a few days and then we were shipped to Los Alamos, in groups of five. 

They would only have five people on a train at one time coming to Los Alamos under sealed orders. We had a fellow, maybe he was a Private First Class, and he had the orders and he was the only one that knew where we were going. 

And we were on a train until we got to Lamy. At Lamy there the Army truck met us and took us into Santa Fe to get passes, I think. And then we were trucked to Los Alamos. So, that’s how I got to Los Alamos.

Kelly: So what do you remember about the train trip?

Sheinberg: It was very long and we made frequent stops because I think other trains must have had priority, but it was long. And I do remember one stop, the fellow who was in charge of the five of us, Tom Mullenkamp, and he already had known that apparently liquor was not allowed in Los Alamos for GIs, so he stopped at one of the stops and bought a bottle of whiskey, Southern Comfort. Yeah, I think was the name of it. And, and that’s about all I remember about the train, it was just boring.

Kelly: So he bought that bottle to share with you?

Sheinberg: He was supposedly going to share that with us. And finally, right before we got off—he knew apparently where we were getting off—and we had a drink. But he kept most of it, of course.

Kelly: So, do you remember anything about Lamy? What your impressions were?

Sheinberg: We had to wait there only a short time, so we didn’t get to really look around in Lamy at all, but it seemed like an isolated place. 

Oak Ridge, we were there only a few days, well, perhaps a week, and there we got a hint that we were going to someplace where there was a special bomb being made. We were not supposed have to have known that, but somehow or other word gets around among the privates.

Kelly: So at Oak Ridge, there was a larger group, it wasn’t just five?

Sheinberg: Oh yeah, because most of the people were staying there. They were working at Oak Ridge gaseous diffusion or other plants in the area. 

Kelly: So there were already tens of thousands of people there? 

Sheinberg: Yeah, that was apparently a good-sized city, although all we got to stay at the post area.

Kelly: Did they keep you isolated from the others, or not entirely?

Sheinberg: Not particularly, I don’t remember those details. I do know this, there was a fellow, a graduate of Texas A&M, who was a lieutenant, and he showed us how to transplant trees. That’s all I remember. That’s all we did there for three, or four, or five days.

Kelly: You transplanted trees?

Sheinberg: Yeah, oh yeah, you have to tag the tree with respect to the sun’s direction and make sure there is big enough soil around the tree. And then make sure you planted it so that it was facing the same direction with respect to the sun, so it wasn’t as big a shock as just planting in any direction. So I learned something there.

Kelly: Well, that’s great, that’s great. That’s a first I’ve heard.

Sheinberg: Yeah, I try to learn from everything.

Kelly: That’s great. Now, do you remember anything about stopping in Santa Fe?

Sheinberg: It was rather brief, but we stopped in Santa Fe at 109 East Palace, as everybody had to, and Dorothy McKibbin was there in charge of the office. And she was a very nice lady and told us that it was going to be a little bit of a drive up there. I think she offered us water or something to drink, I think, and told us we would probably get refreshments when we got there. It was perhaps maybe an hour or two at the most from Santa Fe.

Kelly: Do you remember any of your colleagues? Where they were from?

Sheinberg: I’m trying to think of their names and I can’t at the moment. Tom is the only one; he was from Kentucky. At the moment, I can’t think of the others' names or where they were from.

Kelly: Right, they didn’t turn out to be life-long friends?

Sheinberg: No, but later I made a few good friends in the Army.

Kelly: So what kind of vehicle took you up the Hill?

Sheinberg: It was a truck, and I remember we were riding in the back of the truck, it was maybe four-by-four or four-by-six or whatever they were. I don’t remember for sure.

Kelly: So as you watched the scenery go by, what were your impressions?

Sheinberg: This is totally different than living in the flat lands of Houston; you have mountains and everything and a beautiful sight. I remember we must have gotten there about close to sundown, maybe. The sun was bright until we got close to Los Alamos, but the sun was almost down. And I don’t remember any particular beautiful sunrises like we normally have here. But totally different than anything I’d seen. I’d never been outside of, oh perhaps, 300 miles from Houston or something like that. I had never seen mountains like that. And I still love them. I see them out of my little apartment window, yeah.

Kelly: So, where did they put you up?

Sheinberg: Well, they had barracks built by then, and I was in C-Barracks, if I remember correctly. On either side of the street there were Army barracks, and then there was also WAC barracks a little further to the east of the men’s barracks. 

Anyway, it was barracks life with a kitchen. I shouldn’t mention this, but at mealtime in the evenings, we frequently had power shortages and the lights would go out and then they would come back on and there were all cockroaches on the table eating your food. That part I do remember. 

But in general, it was just Army life without the usual strictness of any Army life, because when I got there, people were working very hard. And there were people working different shifts. And so, the Army couldn’t count on anybody being in the barracks at a specific enough time to have inspections. We had them maybe once every five or six months, so you’d have to clean up a little bit about your bed and your footlocker and things of that nature. We didn’t have any formations. You didn’t have to get up and stand at attention, report in or anything like that, so very informal with respect to the Army.

Kelly: So, what year and month did you arrive?

Sheinberg: Late ’44, and I can’t remember if it was the end of November or first part of December. I remember a foot of snow on the ground, and I was not accustomed to snow very much. We rarely had it in Houston, that’s something I remember from childhood. My older brother and I built sleds on two different winters because we had enough snow in Houston to be pulled on a sled, but no hills to slide down, you just essentially had flat land.

Kelly: So, did you enjoy playing in the snow?

Sheinberg: Well, I didn’t do much playing, but certainly we had a few snowball fights, certainly.

Kelly: That’s fun. And there were some scientists who liked to ski.

Sheinberg: Oh sure, and as well as some of the Army people, too, you know.

Kelly: So what was your assignment?

Sheinberg: Well, the assignment was very interesting. Our first assignment was to work in purifying plutonium. Art Wahl was our group leader and only civilian. He’s one of the co-discoverers of plutonium, as you may remember. And so he told us what we were going to do. There were already other people there, and you were called a military staff member if you had a technical degree before you went in the Army. And so we were military, and we got to know what we were working on and the purpose of our work. 

And there were lectures on security, of course, and also health physics. There was a gentleman, Wright Langham was his name, who showed us slides of people that used to work with painting watches with radium and everything. And he showed us everything that happened to their arms and things like that. Something to scare you—not to scare you—but to make you totally aware of the hazards of working with plutonium. We had that lecture, or two lectures, perhaps, on the hazards prior to getting into the lab and doing any work. 

Of course, Art told us all what to do and what to expect and how careful you had to be. We were working with eight-gram batches. I think we must have gotten a big container from Hanford and it was in the form of plutonium nitrate, a solution. And I guess we got to measure out parts so you could work with small quantities. One reason was that in case you had a spill you didn’t spill a big lot of plutonium. 

It was a complicated process. I remember we had ether extraction and it ended up somehow or another with a solution of plutonium oxalate, which we then heated and converted to plutonium oxide in powder fogfrm. There was more of an interest in powders. And the oxide powder was mixed with iodine and calcium and put in what was called a magnesium oxide [MgO] crucible, which you placed in a strong alloy cylindrical container—a sealed soft copper gasket—and then heated up and an exothermic reaction took place and heated things. You could see the outside of the container getting red hot. Anyway, that reduced essentially the oxide to metal, which sank down through the slag to the bottom of the MgO crucible. And then it went to another section. 

Art Wahl was still in control of several different sections of this same little group and another group took care of taking the plutonium in little buttons. I should have said that prior to doing the mixing with iodine and calcium, we took several batches together to do that operation. So you weren’t working just six—eight grams, but perhaps sixteen or twenty-four or thirty-two, something like that. Anyway, somebody else did that part. I never was familiar with how they were doing the melting. I did that until the end of the war. 

And then a few years later, two years at the most, there was DP Site. This was on D Building in the old Tech Area and then they started building, towards the east, DP West and DP East. D Building production is what it amounted to. 

Now we’re working with 160-gram batches, so it was a totally different thing. So that was my work for perhaps five plus years. And, of course, Art Wahl left and somebody else took over as group leader. And then a third person took over. And I really didn’t appreciate working for him; he wanted people to be yes-men and I didn’t like the idea. Theoretically, we were engineers so we supposedly could do a little thinking on our own. I met my best friend there, Don Shell, who got a little disgusted before I did. And he transferred to Group, what is now MST-6. It used to be CM-6 before that, CMR-6 before that. CM-6, I guess, it was CM-6 at that time.

Kelly: Can you remember what that stands for? Chemical Metallurgical—

Sheinberg: Chemistry and Metallurgy. He [Don] transferred to the powder metallurgy section in CMB-6. And he liked it so well he told me about it and what the work was and everything, and so I applied for a position in that same group. And I remember talking with Jim Taub, who was the group leader. 

And in the discussion, I said, “You know, I like to think and I think I’m a little creative, but if you want a yes-man, I don’t want the job.”

And he said, “I don’t want yes-men in the group. I want people to think and talk to me about it and talk to me about things.” So right away that was a happy solution. This was January of 1950 when I made the transfer, and happy ever since I did that.

Kelly: That’s good.

Sheinberg: That’s been my career, in powder metallurgy as well as ceramics and for any particle technology I played with, everything you could imagine. Instead of just concentrating on plutonium, we worked in powder form with essentially all the elements of the periodic table up to 84, that’s polonium. We did not work with gas except technetium and mercury. I could never get mercury in powder form, so we didn’t work with that. But I worked with all those metals, and very interesting in powder form. 

If you couldn’t buy it, well, we made our own powder. And I also worked with many of the compounds of those elements, with carbide, boride, nitrates, oxides, silicide—you name it—no restrictions at all on material. I played with anything: dirt and diamonds and grass, pine needles. And I even got to play a little bit with moon dust. They wouldn’t let us do what we wanted with it, but we got to at least look at it and measure some of its characteristics, so there were no restrictions on materials. 

So everything was new and challenging because a lot of information was not known on how to process these materials from powder since it’s a solid form, and that sort of thing. That was the most interesting, challenging, stimulating work you ever met. And we had a group leader who trusted us and supported us. And at that time, there weren’t a lot of regulations, paper regulations that the group leaders had to follow, so they had a little more time to go out in the lab and talk to people to see how they were doing. And frequently felt his arm there, “How you doing, chum?” And that sort of thing.

And this was in Sigma Building, which is totally integrated building for making anything. We had a powder metallurgy section, ceramic section, electric chemistry section, plastic section, and foundry section, fabrication section, so we could do anything in that building. And that’s what the group is supposed to do, make anything that you needed primarily for the weapons program. But, you know, we made things for a few other divisions as well. But totally interesting and I’ll never forget those years. So many of the things we did we had never been done before.

I guess I had two regrets about my work. One is that I used to like to work nights and weekends a little bit, and at the expense of being with my family and kids. And the other is that we never had time to do the best job. Everything was rushed because they were testing several bombs in Nevada every month. And we always made critical components for I think almost every device that was tested, including a couple for Livermore [Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory] shots. I’m rambling on about all those things. 

One thing I should have mentioned: Don Shell and I, when we were in D Building—we had moved to DP Site by then—we thought that instead of doing metallurgy, where you melt things and make the plutonium hemispheres and whatnot, we thought you should be able to make things from powder, starting with powders and pressing them and heating them up. And the glove boxes or dry box, as we called them then, were not the best quality. And he and I had the first plutonium hydride fire ever. And so we quit working with trying to do it by powders, because they are extremely active and they can catch fire very easily if exposed to any sort of air, so that happened there.

Kelly: You already had the health physics lecture that showed you there are consequence. What cautions did you take, or precautions did you take in handling the plutonium?

Sheinberg: Well, of course, we always wore rubber latex gloves. And they were scarce because latex was being used for other purposes. We were issued three pair of latex gloves a week and you had to wash them at the end of the day and then let them dry, and then hang them up to dry. Then the next day, you come in and you tested them by blowing up and see if they leaked. And if they didn’t leak, you would use them. If they leaked, then you were allowed another pair of gloves. Anyway, you wore those gloves and we worked inside of glove boxes, which are heavier gloves, and that sort of thing. You lose dexterity working with thick gloves but you had to do that for protection.

Kelly: You were describing that the quantities were very small.

Sheinberg: Oh, not when we got into Sigma Building. Over there we were working with all different elements, you know, including enriched uranium and plutonium. We did not work with polonium, yeah.

Kelly: So your glove box days were post-war? Or was that during the war as well, when you used glove box?

Sheinberg: Most of the time we used hoods, as I recall, rather than glove boxes. Well, we did have some primitive glove boxes. We took all possible precautions and we knew how to clean up with minor spills with a cleaning agent called Vercine, which we used to clean up any small spills. If it was anything large, we called Health Physics and they took care of it; by large, I mean even very small spills. 

And so we were always cautioned about protecting your health and your hands and the rest of you. Even if you got a little scratch, you know, then they would excise around the scratch so you got a wound and if you had a wound then you had to take special precautions, but otherwise they wouldn’t let you go back into the lab. And we had nose swipes toward the end of every day to see how much we were breathing in, and that sort of thing.

Kelly: You weren’t wearing a mask?

Sheinberg: Most of the time if you’re working in the glove box you were not wearing a mask. Otherwise, if you were working in the hood or anything else, definitely you were wearing a mask.

Kelly: Do you know if you or any of your colleagues were ever affected by the work you did adversely?

Sheinberg: Yes, in Sigma Building we worked a lot with beryllium and beryllium oxide and a few, maybe two or three, were sensitive to beryllium. I worked a lot with beryllium and beryllium oxide but I was not sensitive. So they contracted berylliosis. I had a cancer behind my eye, which they attributed to radiation and that sort of thing, so I was slightly affected. But berylliosis is incurable. Cancer is curable, I mean, to some extent. It’s been since 2002, so I’ve adjusted fairly well to that.

Kelly: Yeah, nice.

Sheinberg: And, of course, we had a couple of fatal accidents there. Perhaps you know Louis Slotin? I do remember that there was a fellow by the name of Al[exander van der] Luft in the Army, who was in charge of transporting critical materials. He had gotten a call from Louis Slotin saying, “Come pick up the material, I’m through with it.” And so he got in his car and was driving up to pick up the material, and Slotin called and said, “I decided I want to do another experiment with it.” And so Luft went back, and that’s when the accident happened. I remember a few other people were in the room or in close proximity, Alvin Graves. I can’t remember the others at the moment. 

Alvin’s wife was named “Diz” [Elizabeth] Graves. She was highly regarded and did very good work, extremely good work. And they wanted to increase her salary but they couldn’t figure out a way. And finally somebody said, “Well, we’ll make you a group leader.” And she became a group leader. She was the only person in the group, but that was their way of getting her a salary. She was a wonderful person to be around.

And for a while in one group, CMV-3, they had co-group leaders, Dwayne Vier and Don Martin. This must have been the early ‘50s, maybe at the most. A very unusual thing. Don Martin they thought contracted berylliosis and they sent him to a sanitarium in New York and he was there for quite a while. They finally determined that he did not have burylliosis. 

Now today they have what they call a beryllium proliferation test. They send samples to National Jewish in Denver for analysis. And they take care of all the people who have contracted beryllium. Sometimes you got tested, I don’t remember how frequently, but to see if you had any positive tests, or sometimes you got false positives and retested and that sort of thing.

I do think everybody that I know of and worked with had a high respect for the hazard of the materials that we worked with. We did a lot of things that were really unsafe. I hate to admit it. But we lucked out in most cases. We handled large graphite dies that we took out of the furnace. They were still almost red hot. We would put them on a special cart and carry them through the hallway and burn the paint on either side of the walls, and dumped them into a big die assembly in ice or snow or something. Again, if we had more time, we could have done things safer and better.

Kelly: So one person that we talked about on the phone is Joe Kennedy.

Sheinberg: I don’t know him.

Kelly: He was apparently Art Wahl’s boss.

Sheinberg: Joe Kennedy?

Kelly: Yes.

Sheinberg: Joe Kennedy was our division leader, and Art was a group leader under him. Very capable, and he realized all the things that our group was able to do in Sigma Building.

Are you familiar with Los Alamos University? It existed only for about two years at the most. Right after the war—I think the end of August—Oppenheimer said he wanted a university. And so he appointed a committee. And I think they met September 1st, and two weeks later they already had permission from Cornell and Columbia to accept credit for any course that you took there. And we had the greatest of professors. I took a course in radiochemistry from Wahl and Kennedy and Friedlander. I took a course in modern physics, but I can’t remember who taught it. After about a year or a year and a half, most of the professors wanted to go back to their own jobs or universities, so the school disbanded. 

I gave Alan Carr a copy of the curriculum for the university, a multi-paged curriculum—many interesting courses there. And I subsequently took courses in that—the lab sponsored in metallurgy. I had never had a course in metallurgy, so I took a couple of courses in metallurgy and ceramics and plastics. Oh, and I even took one in patent law, I guess. I had a few patents, and so I was in that.

That’s sort of a summary of what I’ve done. I worked with many different programs. At first it was the weapons; the laboratory was perhaps ninety plus percent weapons work and the rest was biology and other things. And now it’s forty-five percent, but I think we did a good job in supplying anything that was requested. And you ran into all new materials. For example, we made all the components for the second hydrogen weapon. The first one was I think in liquid form, so you couldn’t use it as a weapon. It was cryogenic. The second one used lithium deuteride, enriched deuteride. And we made all of those components. 

Sometimes they needed special parts or portions made up, including a different metal or anything for a detector or tracer works so they could look at things after the detonation. And I remember trying to put rhodium, which is a relatively high melting point metal, I think about 1600 or so. Lithium hydrides were about 850. And I loaded a charge of rhodium and lithium and ended up heating it—hot pressing it actually—into the shape and it came out and by measuring the density, there was very little rhodium left. And we pressed at 850 and how do you get rid of that? 

So I figured I made an error in what I put in there—the weight and so forth. So I had somebody watch me while I weighed things out for the second one. The same thing happened: the rhodium disappeared. We couldn’t figure what it was so I consulted John Farr, F-A-R-R. He was a high temperature chemist in CMV-3. And he played around with it and found out that it was a new class of compounds that he called “rhodnyls,” which was like nickel carbon, only you decompose that and it forms a metal. And he called that “rhodnyls,” a totally different class of material. I don’t know if he ever published on that or not. But there were so many things that we made that were useful for not only weapons, but also other technical experiments and for the different California universities, including measurement of the gravitational constant. We made parts for this assembly, way down deep in the earth.

I met a lot of interesting people from all fields that I was able to work with and make things that were needed: cryogenic refrigerators, you name it. Wonderful people. That was the beauty about it: everybody there was talented, hardworking, and full of ideas and everybody supported everybody else. I’m sure almost everything I had worked on I had somebody helping me in some way or another and interacting with the shops department. I was over there frequently trying to get things done or get it done faster.

The weapons group, until [Norris] Bradbury stopped it, had priority over everything else. And they let you graded V, A, and X priority. Group leaders could sign the A priority and division leaders could sign an X priority. But there was one that upper management was not familiar with, and that was called a PF priority for “personal favor.” If you needed something and somebody could help you with it, you could tell them the urgency of that so you could get things done on time when it was needed. You used that very rarely, but it was used almost throughout the laboratory, I suspect. So I doubt if upper management, knew any of that was going on because division leaders were very high up and they signed X priorities.

After the war, we didn’t have to work weekends so most of the people finished their work on Friday and sometimes they finished early and so they would say, “I’m going to the library,” when they really were going home or something else. All the technical sites had numbers or Greek alphabets or numbers, you know, Beta Site or Gamma Site and so forth. And others were GT Site, named after Gerald Tenny, who was a well-known radiologist before he came to Los Alamos. 

Other sites had different names and people started using them; instead of going to the library, they would say, “I’m going to RM Site.” That’s not listed on any laboratory as being a site. It actually stood for Rocky Mountain Bar in Totave. Before you get to Los Alamos, there’s a little area that has a service station and a couple of houses—that’s Totave, and that’s where the bar was located. And so that was known as RM Site.

Kelly: That’s great. Did you ever go to any of the sites off the Hill? There was Edith Warner’s tea house.

Sheinberg: No, I doubt if many people in the Army were invited to that. No, that’s primarily for civilians.

Kelly: Now, did you go to Trinity Site?

Sheinberg: No, we were still working on purifying material for the next weapon. A lot people went up in the mountains so you could see the shot when it went off. And we couldn’t go; we were awaiting a shipment from Hanford. In those days as soon as something came in from Hanford, you had to get started on it. I think we were playing poker when actually waiting for the next shipment to get in, so we didn’t get to go up there. And we would sit around and wait for the shipment, but we heard relatively soon that the weapon went off.

Kelly: But you knew the test was happening?

Sheinberg: Oh yeah, the military staff and most of the civilian scientists knew. But there were so many in the Army—it was an Army post, PO Box 180, and a good deal of the Army, the Special Engineer Detachment, did not have Q clearances. They didn’t know what they were working on or what the things were for. The shops department and other crafts did not have access to that information. But they contributed so much; things couldn’t have been done without the people in the shops and the crafts and they rarely got credit for their work. And shops department would interact with whoever was designing any sort of component. 

If you were on the ball and you really wanted things done, you interacted closely with the shops to get things done. The physicists would recommend very strict tolerance on dimensions and so forth and the shops department would say well, “We can’t meet that, we can come close.” So you would sort of get together to compromise on what could be done. But the shops department should get a lot of credit for all the work that went into the bomb.

One of the physicists actually—I don’t know many of them that ever worked on any part of the weapon—but George Kistiakowsky was at S-Site and he was in charge of the work going on there. He helped in actually making some of the high explosives that were used. We had one fellow named Kisky, and the other one Kowski, and this was Kistiakowsky [chuckle].

I had some friends—one family, their names were Brooms, and the others were Brushes, and the Brooms and the Brushes were good friends. And we interacted with the Brooms and the Brushes, just little oddities like that I remember. 

All in all, a most satisfying career, and I retired in 1990 officially. But I worked in the five years, I think, full-time, and then ten years part-time. I still interact with people there. They call me up, because a lot of things are the same sort of thing we did many years ago. 

There was one special kind of device—totally different—that we worked on in the ‘80s, and it was the only one that we were not able to succeed at. And it was needed in the 1980s in the mountains. I think in the modern age, we need it even more. So I stewed about it for many, many months and I finally made phone calls trying to get several of the people interested, but I couldn’t describe anything, because everything that I worked on was classified, even the title of the name of the device. So I had to give hints and that was all I could do. And told them the name, at least gave them one clue, the name started with a T. And my division leader at the time, Don Sandstrom, always blamed CMV-6 for the not having a success, but we had to get our material from CMV-3 and that material varied considerably when making small lots. Every batch was different and so we were never able to make the parts. 

I gave that group leader, Don Sandstrom, a call and tried to give him hints. And he could not remember. I couldn’t imagine his forgetting that we had a failure. And so I called Jim Smith. I don’t know if you met him, he’s a lab fellow, also. And I gave him the hints and he couldn’t point—he came up with the name Tarazzo, but that was the name of another device. And finally, he kept talking around with different people. He talked with the present group leader of CMV-6 who knew what it all meant and what the material was and so forth. And so, they called me up to classify me, but my clearance was suspended because of underutilization. You know, you have to use your badge every 90 days. 

So anyway, I went up there where I could talk anything classified that I wanted to. But if I said something, they could not either deny or affirm that that was right or anything because they had clearance and I didn’t, so that would give me clues which I was not entitled to.

Anyways, I had a very nice discussion for a few hours and I also gave them the name of a report where I designed a unique dye assembly. 

Anyway I gave them the name of another classified report that I had written, describing the new type of dye assembly, and referred them to that. Then also a group leader had to leave for another meeting, and I gave one of the other attendees the name of another report, which described in detail how the time pressure and temperature cycles that we used for making different sorts of objects out of the same material so they could what they were up against and with respect to that.

Anyway, it was useful for me. And then, in the afternoon, the new director, [Charles] McMillan, talked to the lab fellows, so I went to that meeting.

Kelly: So it goes on.

Sheinberg: Pardon?

Kelly: So you have had a very, very long and active career.

Sheinberg: Yeah, right. I mentioned this woman who called from the lab for that interview and said, “Describe your most important achievements in your life.” And so I did that. There was a program, 450 people working on a non-weapons program, nuclear rocket propulsion engines called Rover. And I said that next to fathering my two wonderful sons, to my best achievement, working on that program, I invented and developed the process used for making fuel elements for that program. [00:57:00] I consider that my most important achievement, even though it was non-weapons. 

Kelly: That’s marvelous. The Rover is a wonderful thing.

Sheinberg: Yeah, and I think that it turns out now, you know, that the President [Barack Obama] has said, “We’re going to have a manned mission to Mars,” and that they’re now working on very similar types of fuel element materials. So I’ve gotten a few phone calls about that. It’s great to feel needed every now and then, you know.

Kelly: I’m sure it does, yeah. So are there other questions I should ask? What about your career or how about your thoughts looking back? This is sort of a strange time in the course of world history and weapons, in particular. How have your views of nuclear weapons changed over the years?

Sheinberg: Oh, well, you know, when this Cold War started, I supported the fact that I think we should be ahead of the Russians, oh yeah. But after, you know, now they’ve stockpiled so many things. I don’t see the need for any big supply of stockpiled or armed devices like we have now.

I was glad the plutonium device was tested in Trinity worked. I was happy about that. And I was glad that the bombs were used to help end the war, because I felt it saved a large number of American lives, which at that time I valued over other people’s lives. 

I don’t regret having worked on that type of program. But nowadays, I see the need for this particular device, but not having a big stockpile of the others. So that part has changed. And I think practically everybody felt the need that we should stay ahead of the Russians.

There was a lot of opposition to actually dropping the bombs, as you may remember. And supposedly a petition went around in Los Alamos to sign, you know, “Let’s not drop the weapon, let’s do a test.” I didn’t get to see the petition but I heard that it went around. And so I didn’t get a chance to sign it. But I think in general, I felt it was the right thing. 

And so, for example, I don’t know if you’ve read a lot about the part of the history where Einstein and so many major scientists tried to persuade the military not to use it. There’s a book called, Brighter Than a Thousand Sons. In case you haven’t read that, you might look at the rear end of that book and it will tell you about all the opposition to dropping it. One of the possibilities was making a test and have the Japanese witness the testing of a weapon. But, of course, the chances were that—it was a new design, you know. It worked on Trinity. Maybe this one won’t work and maybe something may have been done different, you couldn’t meet the tolerances or something. 

Anyway, so the military, you know, once they have a weapon they feel the need to use it, and I think they persuaded Truman that they should drop them. But have you thought about the Potsdam Declaration, Potsdam meetings? Yeah, okay, so you know that Harry Truman sent the second declaration, and I remember part of that was that the Japanese Governor refused to accept the Postam Declaration, which did not call for unconditional surrender. And he said that “If this is rejected, the Japanese people would face utter destruction and they will see a rain of ruin from the air, which the world has never seen before.” And they refused to accept Truman’s declaration. So there was a total of about nine days in which they had that could have prevented the detonation of dropping of the bomb. So, I blame the Japanese Government. Apparently, the Emperor didn’t make that decision. But, I guess the military primarily did, at least that’s the way I understand the history of the declaration.

One interesting thing about an animal. There was a dog named Timoshenko, he was a Russian wolfhound, and he was the only dog allowed into the Tech Area, main Tech Area. I mentioned that to Alan [Carr], of course, too. Another year or two later, it was after the war, a Great Dane by the name of Cleopatra was allowed into the electric chemistry section of MSC-6.

Kelly: Funny.

Sheinberg: Very minor, little things.

Kelly: That’s great.

Sheinberg: There’s not any significance that I could think of at the moment.

Kelly: That’s funny. Were the dogs mascots?

Sheinberg: They were. They were just allowed to roam, except the one in electric chemistry was primarily just at Sigma Building, you know, always had the tail bandaged because it kept banging it up against things. 

Well, I belong to this small group called Fine Particle Society. And like I say, there are probably only about sixty members at the most throughout the country, all interested in characteristics of powders that they felt were prominent in influencing their products. The coffee makers wanting to get the proper grind for a size powders to maximize flavor extraction, the soap industry wanted to know the right size particles to put in their soaps to make them abrasive and yet not too abrasive. And certainly the pharmaceutical industry, in many respects, wanting to know how to make the powders both so they fill up the dye completely so they can be compressed into good, solid pills—aspirins and that sort of thing. And let’s see, of course, cement industries and, oh my goodness, if I think of a few others.

Kelly: No, that’s good.

Sheinberg: As I think about it more, I’ll tell you.

Kelly: Talk about how your assignment during the Manhattan Project was to look at the powder form of plutonium or something like that.

Sheinberg: Yeah, well that was an alternative way of making things that Don Shell and I thought of doing. Because the powder industry was certainly in full bloom and people were making all sorts of products starting with the powders, rather than casting materials and melting them. And when you melt things, you essentially destroy some of the past history of the materials that you’re melting. In powder metallurgy—making things from powders—you eliminate very little regarding the history of the powders, how they were made, and what their shapes were and that sort of thing. So there were advantages, or we thought there would be. So we got permission.

And then after the war, a little bit more plutonium became available, so you could do experiments. So we got enough to try and make a small pellet out of plutonium by first converting it to the hydride, which, if you have metal and you convert it to the hydride, it forms a powder instead of being a massive ingot. And then you can reduce that back to the metal by heating it up and the hydride decomposes back into metal. So now you’ve made things, oh, with finer grains. 

The tinsel strength and compressor strength and the properties are inversely proportional to the size of the grains. So the finer you can keep the grains, the better the product. So we thought, “That’s a big advantage,” but when we attempted to do this and convert the plutonium to hydride, the glove boxes in which we were working were not very good and enough air got in, so it caused a fire. And that’s one thing you don’t like to have happen in a box or outside of a box. But there wasn’t enough powder, so it only lasted maybe a couple of hours at the most, and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about.

When I went to Sigma Building, we worked quite a bit with uranium and in powder form, also. And we’ve had a few fires, but in those fires, you’re actually using the hoods, if it was not enriched uranium. And you just throw graphite on it and put the fires out readily. So it wasn’t as big a concern with uranium. But plutonium, you just had the one fire, anything bad happens.

Kelly: Wow. Well, I don’t want to get off on this too much, because there were a few things that I wanted to go back to that you mentioned. One, is if you could talk about Oppenheimer a little bit.

Sheinberg: Oppenheimer, I never met personally, but I went to the weekly colloquiums as our work schedule permitted. And at the colloquiums, there were primarily speakers from different groups and divisions stating the projects that they were working on and the progress they were making and the lack of progress due to problems. And always ending up with, “These are my major problems and who can help me?” And, of course, the attitude of Oppenheimer was that you talked to anybody in the laboratory who can help you in your work. 

And so there was a lot of interchange and interdisciplinary interactions with people. So somebody from one discipline might have a totally different outlook on what his problem really was or the origin of his problem. And sometimes it went back to the basic materials they tried, the properties of the materials that they started with, or some way that they are manufacturing. Manufacturing, that’s our little word, making just a few, but how you could do it better or different ideas. 

So people felt free to say things and [01:12:00] what they thought about things. And Oppenheimer was the one, I think, that really inspired all of us to interact with everybody else that we needed to do our job better. And he certainly motivated us and the other good thing was that he trusted everybody, I think, to do their best and to do it honestly and help others. And, of course, be safe; he did stress that. So I think everybody tried to adhere to Oppenheimer’s way that he managed the lab. And I think he really knew what was going on in a good part of the laboratory.

Of course, he couldn’t get around; the laboratory was pretty well spread out, even though it was just the one Technical Area, in the old Technical Area where the city is now. [Julian Ellis] Ed Mack was the head of the photography group for photographing Trinity to see what came out. And Berlyn Brixner was one of the camera operators who took photographs. He had better photographs of the Trinity shot than anybody else, but I can’t remember the name of the fellow who designed the high-speed camera that he used.

Anyway, there were talks about how you do the diagnostics based on the film that they produced. And there are other ways of measuring the yield of weapons, as well. But they talked about their problems in laying out miles and miles of cable going to the explosives and things of that nature, the diagnostic cables. The talks like that were intriguing to me, altogether different fields, but you learned something from everybody that spoke. And all different subjects, like how they are progressing with making high explosives, which were needed for the Fat Man or the Trinity shot.

And I don’t know, it’s always learning experiences. I tell people, “Make everybody your teacher and be both a student and a teacher, because you learn from everybody.” If you’re designing or redesigning a bathroom, you talk to the janitor and find out—everybody’s got ideas on something that they think it is something good in the way you do things. 

But anyways, we had so many challenging things to do and no references. You can’t look up in a book anywhere to see, “Well how do you do this?”  How do you make arsenic cylinders a certain density or pressure or something like that? So it was a totally enjoyable experience in every way, you know, learning experience. So, I tried to mentor some of the new staff, members and technicians.

In Sigma Building, the group leader, Jim Taub, who just passed away—I heard that yesterday—was group leader, I think, for twenty-nine years. And he, again, motivated and trusted us and supported us. 

Kelly: Hmm, well, you might want to mention, since you just brought it up, that the Sigma Building is now has a secure conference room that’s been named. Can you talk about that?

Sheinberg: Well, this was 2005. I was retired and I think still working part time but anyway, one of my close friends, who was also a laboratory fellow, Jim Smith, said “Okay, we’ve got to go to this. It’s going to be an important meeting. You ought to come to that.” 

So I went with him and we were sitting in maybe the middle of the conference room. And it was called a black and blue room, and low and behold, my son, his wife, and the woman I was going with at the time, they walked into the building, into the room under escort. And I could not imagine why they were there, or what they were doing there or anything else. And I exclaimed to Jim, I said, “What are they doing here? How did they—?”

Anyway, it turned out that prior to the time they came in, people were giving reports different from the different sections, you know, maybe taking five or ten minutes on each report. And sort of giving people a flavor of what was going on in their departments or sections. 

And this meeting was crazy. The people would get up and just talk for a minute or two and just sit down. And it was the funniest meeting I had ever attended. And then, the group leader got up and said what was going on and that they were dedicating the conference room to my name. So that’s quite an honor to receive. Anyway, it’s still called that and now there’s a nice plaque on the door.

Oh, the machine shop, before they knew the requirements that they had to have a special kind of plaque, they made a beautiful polished bronze plate about three-quarters of an inch thick, maybe this big—“Sheinberg Conference Room”—beautifully polished and everything, and then that was hung up there for a while. And it turned out that the laboratory rules were that you had to have a sort of three-dimensional plaque instead of just of a sign like that, so I think that plaque is up there now. And that was in the days before I lost the use of this eye. But anyway, it was quite an honor, you know. Supposedly I made a lot of achievements there.

Kelly: Absolutely.

Sheinberg: Yeah, I’ve got quite a few patents and that sort of thing. So I was creative, I think. Oh, yes, I kept a picture of Einstein in my office, underneath of which he says, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” After working for three years on a project, I said to my group leader, I said, “Jim, I think, you know, I’ve worked pretty hard and I think I’ve done a real good job. And I don’t have a lot of knowledge, I don’t claim that, but I have a lot of imagination, can I have a raise?” 

And he took me out of the office and he said, “Go, go to work.” 

Anyway, I did just subsequently get a raise. I think I was quite creative in my youth. Let’s see, I’ve got twenty-six, I think, foreign and domestic patents. Anyway, it was interesting. I wouldn’t change that career work for anybody. But it’s the people that always supported you; rarely did a person complete a big project by himself. It was always with the help of somebody else. And so much talent there and trusting people.

I read someplace that you can do so much if you don’t care who gets the credit. And that was the way people thought about things—they helped everybody and everybody helped each other. And I don’t think you can find that in a laboratory today. And the morale was always high, except for we had one fatality in our group, and that was a sad time. But we’ve had a couple of sad times. One fellow lost two fingers. And in all those years we’re doing the most hazardous of operations in different groups and in different sections in the Sigma Building. So there are many potential hazards and problems, but I think we ended up pretty lucky with respect to injuries and so forth.

Kelly: That’s great. The one other thing that we need to talk about, or I’d like you to talk about is your wife. And first, what her job was, what her background was, and how you met.

Sheinberg: Her background was—

Kelly: All right, tell me her name, please.

Sheinberg: Beatrice Freeman was her name. And she was from New Jersey. And she was in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, which later got changed to Women’s Army Corps. And she did her training in Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, I think it is. And they tested the women psychologically in every way they could to see if they could take an isolated life and all this sort of thing, what they could put up with. And so she was sent to Los Alamos in I think October of ’43. I think in the second detachment of WACs. 

And she worked at first in the ceramic section, making magnesium and other kind of crucibles that they cast uranium or plutonium in and that sort of thing. And she did quite good work. There was one civilian group leader, all the rest were military staff members, Army, and two technicians. My wife and one other woman that was sergeant were the only technicians in the group, and both women and both Women’s Auxiliary Corps. 

And then later she worked with in the enriched uranium foundry, where she was responsible for cleaning and weighing the S-case and machine parts and the chips and so forth because everything had to be accountable to—I think with uranium—a gram, or perhaps a tenth of a gram. I can’t remember now. But she had to keep records on all of that, as well as doing all the cleaning and weighing and so using carbon tetrachloride unfortunately as a solvent, which turned out to be quite hazardous. 

Anyway, she did apparently a good job there. And in Oppenheimer’s letter of commendations that he wrote to her, he specified his awe because of the work that she did with refractory material, the crucible type things, and in the accountability of recordkeeping and operation with certain materials. Because he didn’t mention uranium or plutonium, I think, in any letter that he wrote to all of us, each of us, I should say. So she enjoyed that.

And later, I can’t remember now, but a couple of years later, she transferred to a business group. And she did accounting, I guess, now, not professionally, but the type of accounting that was necessary and I guess ordering and receiving materials and that sort of thing. And then, we were married, I think, five years before—

Kelly: I’m sorry, go ahead. You have to tell me how you met.

Sheinberg: We met on a blind date. And one of her friends and my friends introduced us at the rec hall, and I was not a good dancer and she was a good dancer. So she danced with a lot of men there while I was sitting in the bleachers and watching, being envious of people who could dance, of men who could dance. And we subsequently started dating, if you can call it that there. There was not much to do; go to the movie or go to the rec hall. And anyway, we just fell in love. I think she got discharged a couple of months before I did, in ’46. And she went back to New Jersey. And I got discharged.

I mentioned to you privately that a good friend of mine in the Army went to my home for a couple of weeks and then to his home in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. And then I went back later to New York. Well, Bea and I met in New York. After watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, then I proposed to her. And we got married—and that was March 17th—and we got married the middle of October of that year. We decided to wait a year before we tried to have children. And a year came by, and we weren’t successful for about five years. So we finally ended up having two boys, both born prematurely, but both still okay. And one was born in the old hospital and the new hospital, the one that exists now. 

Sheinberg: Oh, Oppenheimer, and I think most people who knew him called him “Oppie,” but of course, we always referred to him as Mr. Oppenheimer. He issued a dictum saying that only persons with medical degrees shall be referred to as “Doctor.” I think security was one reason; people would get together and talk, they would say “Dr. So-and-so,” so people would maybe get some sort of clues as to what was going on. I think security entered that dictum, but it was adhered to, certainly.

And Oppenheimer, I think, was able to delegate and he certainly motivated everybody. He seemed to be warm and you wanted to do things for him. You wanted to do the best you could for him in every way. And I think he trusted all the people that he had as division leaders and our group leaders. And he got to know a lot about what was going on in a good part of the laboratory. Certainly, of course, he couldn’t take time to go to all parts of the laboratory. But apparently his door was essentially open to all of his division leaders and group leaders. Snd I guess if anybody had a crisis, they could talk to somebody first. I forget who it was. And then if you thought it was serious enough, that the person could go to talk to Oppenheimer.

And the only person you heard mentioned on the loudspeaker system in the administration building was J. J. Gutierrez. You would hear that call, “J. J. Gutierrez, call this number,” maybe every five or ten minutes. And he was in charge of all the custodian work and that sort of thing, so his name was mentioned more than Oppenheimer’s on the loudspeaker system in the main administration building. I’ll never forget that name. I couldn’t imagine who he was. I thought, “Gee, maybe he’s Oppenheimer’s assistant,” you know. It turned out he was head of the custodial work.

You felt so comfortable in the colloquiums every week, if you were able to go there. And you felt like you were in the company of a man who was the right man for the job that he was doing and that he was strictly a people person, as far as I could tell. Well, it was a pleasure to try and do your best.

Kelly: That’s great. One thing, in interpreting the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos that we have been asked to try to keep in mind is to bring out the role of the Hispanics, if you could talk about that.

Sheinberg: Ah, yes. I think the Hispanics did not have a prominent role at the staff level. A good deal of them were technicians. Their wives, well, from the valley, would come up and do custodial work for the civilians in their apartments. But there weren’t many people at all in any sort of position like—I don’t think even group leader, much less division, no Hispanics. 

And there was, of course, some discrimination. How do you say, “Don’t spit on the floor?” I can’t remember now. The sign said this in Spanish, never in English, so that you knew that the signs referred to the Hispanic people. So it’s like expecting them not to have the same manners or do the things the same way as the non-Hispanics. I felt that was discrimination of the worst kind and the few times that I was in the administration building and saw that sign. “Don’t spit on the floor.”

Kelly: Oh, I see, “Don’t spit on the floor” was in Spanish only?

Sheinberg: Only in Spanish, yeah, so I didn’t like that at all. But later they assumed the same kind of staff positions as the non-Hispanics. In fact, as I recall, Pete Miller, who was the assistant, I think was Hispanic [misspoke: African-American]. And quite a few people in the weapons group rose to high positions as Hispanics. Certainly, it doesn’t matter what your background is or anything, it’s what’s up here, in here, that counts and you talents, of course. So there was that discrimination.

And the worst part about it was that it was in the security handbook. So many Hispanics lived off the Hill in the valley, Espanola and the surrounding [area], and they were not allowed to socialize with their families. What you should do sometime if you haven’t read it, is read the security handbook that was passed out. It was very rough on those people who were most of them Hispanic or Indian. And so I think it was quite rough on those people. You’re supposed to avoid as much contact as possible with the families that lived in the valley. I mean, not a husband and wife relation but cousins and aunts and uncles, and that sort of thing.

Kelly: Not for security purposes?

Sheinberg: Pardon?

Kelly: You couldn’t rationalize that directive from a security point of view?

Sheinberg: I don’t think so. So, that was the type of discrimination that I saw there. And I had a boss for ten years, he was a section leader, and he was the only one I ever didn’t really feel good about working for. And later a staff member and I—actually a section leader—found a paper by the subsequent group leader, who said, “He was a technically incompetent psychopathic liar and an embarrassment to the laboratory.” And I agreed with that, except I would have added the word “bigoted,” because if anything went wrong, he blamed it on “the expletive Mexicans.” And I’m sure he did that with—maybe I messed up, “with those so-called Jews.” 

No, that was the roughest ten years I had at the laboratory. But I was tempted several times to look for a different job, but I was in love with my job, I guess, is what it was. And so I stayed there. And then they took him out of the position so he would no longer interact with people, per se. He did expediting and outside work, but he apparently did a good job of that. 

Socially, he was a very nice guy. But he was not the guy for that. When the time came for personnel security every five years, he had listed me as a reference, and I told him I refused to endorse him on a security basis. Because I’d been with him, because he would drink a little too much and he would say things that were classified on several occasions. So I refused to do that. And they asked me why and I said, “I’d rather not say why, but I have it on what I consider valid grounds that he is not the person who should have a high security clearance.”