The Manhattan Project

James Forde's Interview

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James Forde was a lab assistant in the Nash Garage Building, where scientists worked on developing the gaseous diffusion process. Seventeen year-old Forde was the lone African-American in the midst of PhD scientists. When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he immediately realized that his job cleaning pipes was related to the bomb.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
May 2, 2013
Location of the Interview: 
Raleigh
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. Today is Thursday, May 2, 2013. I have with me here James Forde, who is going to try to remember something about his Manhattan Project days in New York City. I am going to start with an easy question, which is to have him tell us his full name and spell it. 

James Forde: Okay. My name is James Forde. That is F-O-R-D-E. It is spelled D-E because it is from the British. My family is from Barbados. If you go to Barbados and you look in the telephone book there will be many Fordes spelled O-R-D-E. You know I am F-O-R-D-E and not the Ford that is related to cars. Is there anything else? 

Kelly: That is a very interesting tidbit you have just mentioned. Tell us about how long your family has been in Barbados and where they came from before that. How did they end up here? 

Forde: I cannot go back beyond Barbados. My mother and father both came from Barbados at the turn of the century, I guess it was. I was born in Brooklyn, New York back in the days when Brooklyn was a very nice place to live in. I went to school. 

Kelly: May I interrupt? Could you tell us what your birth date is? 

Forde: January 23, 1927. I attended the local schools in Brooklyn, Boy’s High in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College. That was an interesting experience because I started in the first grade when I was five, which is very unusual. They had a system of rapid grades, both in the junior high schools and the high schools. I was able to graduate from high school when I was [00:03:00] fifteen and a half. In retrospect, I was a little too young and immature, but I did okay.

Okay. Let’s see. I graduated from high school and started Brooklyn College. In those days if you had a B+ average and you passed the entrance exam for the city colleges, you could go to college free. I do not know why they do not have that system in these days now. It is so expensive to go to college. It is a shame. 

Anyway, I started college when I was fifteen and a half. Then I did one semester and my grades were not too good. I had to stop to help my mother. It was just my mother and myself. My father died when I was five. I had to help my mother. I went to work. I got a job working for a chemical company in Long Island City. I had the title of job assistant. I worked there for a year. Then I was laid off. I cannot remember exactly why. I think they decided to go into another kind of business. 

I was laid off, but I was eligible for unemployment insurance. In those days, and I do not know what it is like now, you go to the unemployment insurance office and they could send you out on jobs that they thought you were qualified for. They sent me to the Union Carbon and Carbide Company. They had an office in Midtown Manhattan. I went there and they hired me. They sent me to what turned out to be what you are now calling the Nash Garage on 132nd Street and Broadway. That was the Manhattan Project. Should I continue? 

I know a little bit of what they were doing there. At the time I was seventeen years old. I was a lab assistant. Lab assistant meant you did cleanup work, and you cleaned the beakers and other materials that the scientists used. The main job that I had was cleaning these tubes in a sulfuric acid bath. I did not know what these tubes were, what they were for, or anything. 

I continued to work there. I had a little vacation. I was in Canada at the time. I saw the headline where we had dropped the bomb. I said, “Oh my God. That is what I was working on.” That was the extent of my knowledge of what it was that we were doing. I still did not know what these tubes were for. In retrospect, and certainly not anything I thought of while I was there, I think those tubes were the laboratory prototypes of the tubes that they used to separate the two components of the uranium-235 and 238. It made me think that the tubes that Cheney saw before he decided to go into the Iraq War were probably the kinds of tubes that I was fiddling around with at the time. Do you want more of my life? 

Kelly: This is excellent. 

Forde: Okay. After they dropped the bomb, most of the scientists were transferred to Los Alamos. The underlings like me were laid off. I got a job working at the Columbia Broadcasting System. I continued my college studies. I was going to school at night. While I worked on the Manhattan Project, I would take the train from 125th Street in Harlem to Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn. It was thirty-seven minutes. I will never forget the exact time. That was my life. The nights that I went to school, the train would stop at the Nostrand Avenue Station. I would take the trolley car to Brooklyn College. That was my life. 

I got a job at CBS, which turned out to be very fortunate because then I could work at CBS in the afternoon and evenings and go to Brooklyn College during the day. I continued my studies that way. 

The job at CBS was originally when CBS had the “Voice of America,” which was a program that they used. They had Portuguese and Spanish announcers. They would beam these programs into South America with the native announcers and stuff. They later lost the contract. The contract went to NBC. At that time, CBS was just beginning to get into television. I got a job working in television at the very beginning. To give you an idea, they would sign on at 5:30 and sign off at 11:00 usually. That would be television. The network consisted of New York, New Haven, Philadelphia and Boston. That was the network when I started. I was there in the beginning. I should have stayed, but I did not. 

I finally graduated from Brooklyn College. I got my degree. I guess I graduated at the class I should have been in if I had started school at the right time. I went to work in New York City as a social worker. At the time I was working on the Manhattan Project, I turned eighteen. I registered for the draft. I am blind in my right eye, just about. They never drafted me during World War II. As I said, I started to work as a social worker and then I was drafted when the Korean War came along. I said, “I am still blind in my right eye.” They said they did not care [chuckle]. I spent two years working for the Army; as a matter of fact, I did not go to Korea. I went to Greenland and to Alaska in those two years. 

After that, I continued my college credits and ended up with a Master’s degree in public administration. I left New York and moved to the Albany/Schenectady area to work for the state. I worked for the Department of Mental Health and Mental Hygiene, really. I held a number of different administrative positions there for about twenty years, I guess. I ended up as a regional director for the mental health facilities in the seven counties north of New York City. We designed a regional network of mental health services for the state of New York. I was that regional director. 

Then I got a calling to go to San Diego. I left New York and went to San Diego. I became the director of health services for the county of San Diego. That lasted for ten years. Then I retired and did some community work. I organized both local and state African-American organizations that focused on healthcare for minorities and the poor. 

Here I am. I moved to Durham, North Carolina five years ago to be close to my older daughter. I have two daughters, three granddaughters and one great-granddaughter. My wife Gail and I married right before I entered the Army. That was sixty-two years ago. I left her home. She did not feel like getting dressed and coming out here. 

That is my life story. I do not know whether the Manhattan Project had any specific impact on my life. It did not lead me to anything. I am very proud that I was part of the effort that ended that war. There is no question about that. I do not know. You know more about what happened than I do. 

Kelly: Let’s see if you can recall any details or give a sense for what it was like to be part of this secret experiment. You said you later figured out the connection, when you were in Canada and news came of the atomic bomb. You said that must have been what you were working on. At the time, what do you remember? Did they say they were not telling you what you were doing? Was secrecy an important part of their message to you? 

Forde: I guess I did not ask many questions, very frankly. I did not ask many questions. I do not recall talking to anybody in any depth about it, except that the people that I did talk to said they did not know. It was either some sort of gas or a bomb. Whatever it was, it was probably going to affect the war and probably end the war. We knew that much. We did not know exactly what it was that we were doing. You can imagine the scientists there were very involved and very dedicated. They were not the type that a seventeen year-old kid is going to chat with. I was just glad to have a job. I did not push that at any length at all. 

Kelly: I have interviewed a couple of colleagues, one of whom you have talked to on the phone, Larry O’Rourke

Forde: He is a great guy. 

Kelly: What memory do you have of other people you were working with, who may have been closer to your age? 

Forde: I knew you were going to ask something like that. I have no memory of anyone close to my age working there, although the scientists were fairly young, as I recall. I think they were probably in their twenties. At the time I was not interested in organizational relationships. As I can figure this out, the Feds must have had a contract with Carbon and Carbide to provide non-scientific help, and a contract with Columbia University to have the scientists. I think the scientists came from Columbia University. I am not sure. I just did not get involved either socially or professionally with anyone. I had my own problems, trying to get to school. I left there in a hurry to get to the train to get to class. 

Kelly: Do you know why you might have been of interest to Union Carbide? Was it because of your lab experience? Did you take chemistry in high school? 

Forde: As I said, the unemployment insurance office sent me there. They probably sent me there because my job description was lab assistant. That was the only other job that I had before there. That is probably why. In a way, I had determined that I was going to be a chemistry major when I went to work for the other company. Just because I was working, I said, “It seems like a good field.” After my first semester, which was not a very creditable one, I passed but barely. I did not think chemistry was my field. If anything, seeing the scientists and knowing that the only way I could have gotten a chemistry degree would have been if I had attended day school—at the time I was only able to attend night school. That is why I decided against it. There was nothing in my experience at the Manhattan Project that led me to anything, as far as a future occupation. 

Kelly: What was that part of New York City like? You have not lived there for a while. You have probably been back. 

Forde: You mean where the Nash Garage was? 

Kelly: Yes. 

Forde: The Nash Garage was kind of isolated. As I recall, it was right near the West Side Highway. It was not in a residential area or anything. I had to walk through the residential area after getting off the subway. It was a kind of dreary industrial-type area, as I recall. 

Kelly: Did you work in the basement or did you work on a higher floor? Do you have any recollection? 

Forde: I really do not recall. 

Kelly: It was just dreary. 

Forde: It was not dreary inside. It was right up against the highway, as I recall. I have not been back.

Kelly: Let’s see. The subways worked the same? They were the same old subways? 

Forde: The same old subways. They are very reliable. As I said, the only names of staff that I remember are a scientist, and I am pretty sure his name was Al Myerson. He is the one name that strikes me that I may have interacted with in some way. The only other person was the man in charge of the glass blowers, Carl Walther. What the glassblowers did was design the different glass tubes, globes, and whatnot that the scientists used. At that time, I learned a little bit about glassblowing. It was amazing to me, what they would do in terms of heating up glass and making it conform to the different configurations. That was a good experience. Unfortunately as I told you Cindy, I do not remember too much. I remember these tubes. I remember it was an acid bath. That was my job. 

Kelly: This was a little more than a year? I am trying to reconstruct this. 

Forde: As near as I can figure, I started there about the summer or fall of 1944. I worked until a couple months after they dropped the bomb. I had enough time to have a vacation. I was eligible for a vacation. That was the period there. 

Kelly: It was on vacation that the news reported the bombing over Hiroshima? 

Forde: Right. 

Kelly: It just clicked? 

Forde: Yes. I knew that was it. I said, “That is it.” I was in on something big and something exciting. I am so proud of it. When I see some of the shots of what the cities looked like and the people that survived and what happened, it is a very scary situation. What is going on now makes it even scarier. 

Kelly: Can you talk a little bit more about what people need to understand about what is going on now? Can they learn? Maybe they have forgotten. Do you think we should teach people more about what happened in World War II and what they are playing with now? 

Forde: It is terrible to me that with all of the resources and all of the brilliant minds that exist in the world, not just in the United States, that we can have so much tension and be on the verge of wars. This situation will continue for at least a century. There are not enough people that are interested in maintaining world peace. People are greedy and self-centered. The politicians do not have a worldview or even a local view of the needs of people. The atomic bomb, I am sure, is somehow going to get into the hands of somebody who does not care. They may drop it or do something in terms of destructive atomic power. That is going to be very devastating. There are people that just do not care. They do not care. I am very concerned about where this country and this world are going to. I say, I have served my time and it is up to my kids. I do not know. 

Kelly: Do you talk about it with your children or their children? 

Forde: As it stands right now, my older daughter lives in Durham. We moved there to be close to her. We talk about it a little bit, but not too much. With my other daughter, she is in Long Island. I do not get to see her too often. We do not talk about things like that too much. We talk about our own family life and stuff.

Kelly: I am interested in your “Voice of America” experience. That was very new at the time. Do you recall what effect that had? Can you look back on it? 

Forde: During that time, I was very interested in continuing my studies. Everything I did revolved around making sure that I could get to school and I could take my courses and so on. The “Voice of America”—you have to realize that I was a kid. The “Voice of America” job that I had was a clerical job. To tell you how far back it goes, I was responsible for running the Ditto machine. Do you know anything about a Ditto machine? That is how far back it goes. 

I used to run the programs. I used to assign the announcers to their shows. I took the programs over to NBC, across Rockefeller Center there. Then when television started, the job that I had was working in the announcer’s booth with the announcer. I would have to record the time of the commercials, the station breaks, and so on. During that time, I was able to go to school during the day, because my job started at like three o’clock and ended at midnight. I was able to go to school during the day. I have a little better recall of what happened in those days than I do the Manhattan Project. 

I know you are here primarily on the Manhattan Project theme. I am very proud to have been part of that. I wish you a lot of success in establishing these national parks. I am really not that clear on how you are going to do this with two national parks, whether it is going to be part of a separate park or—a separate park. I think it deserves recognition. I hope that the legislators will pass it. It does not seem like it is going to be that expensive. It is deserving of some more notice to the public than it gets.