The Manhattan Project

John Mench's Interview

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John Mench's Interview

John Mench was assigned to the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos where he worked as a pattern maker, creating wooden casts for metal work at the site’s foundry. Mench describes what it was like to live in the barracks at Los Alamos and discusses everything from housing and recreation to security and secrecy, including his daughter’s birth certificate, which was marked P.O. Box 1663. Mench also discusses the founding of the Los Alamos Little Theater, where he directed numerous plays that were attended by some of the most famous scientists on the site. He jokingly recounts a date with one of the young WACs, who never invited him to dinner again because he spent the entire date talking about his wife and child. On a more serious note, Mench offers his opinion on the use of the atomic bomb against Japan and the importance of the Manhattan Project in ending the war.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 8, 2003
Location of the Interview: 
Unknown
Transcript: 

Mench: I am John Mench and sixty years ago I was a young man with a wife and a baby girl, a good job in industrial deferment, a brand new home and a mortgage. Inside of a week or two, I had in my hand a ticket to a camp, an Army camp, an industrial deferment that was cancelled. I still had a wife and a baby daughter but they were now living with my wife’s sister, and my home was rented. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the mortgage. And I was on my way to a reception center and there I was given a number to remember—a serial number—and sent to Camp Clayborn, Louisiana. 

I was put into a unit of combat engineers, who had been training for two months and only had two weeks to go before they were to be shipped overseas. I was put in there with only two weeks to go and they had already trained for two months. And so the manual of arms—I stood in line and tired to mimic what they were doing with their rifle. And it was somewhat like a Charlie Chaplin movie, because I had no idea how to do the manual of arms.

I did learn in the two week period I happened to spend with them how to salute officer, how to tell that he was an officer, and to make a bed. I learned also not to roll dice with guys who had been practicing on tight blankets on their cots for years and could roll anything they wanted to.

I was taken out of that unit at the last minute and put in a barracks with a bunch of men who had just come back from a two-year isolation in one of the islands of the Aleutians, and I swear those men were stark raving mad. I could not bring it on myself to stay in the barracks with them, because I didn’t know what might happen to me. They spent all their time playing cards and fighting and cussing and spitting on the floor—it was unbelievable. So I would sleep on the dayroom and complain about not wanting to be in that outfit.

So eventually they took me out and put me in a unit that was training to go overseas to repair ships that were in trouble and had to go on an island so that the ship could put in there and be repaired. And since this was part of the thing I had done in civilian life, I was put in this unit, which in a week or so was abandoned because they decided—I don’t know how they decided this because they were always so screwed up—they finally made a wise decision and turned it over to the Navy and outfitted a ship that would be portable and go fix the ship wherever it happened to be down and—

Cameraman: John, speak toward Cindy.

Mench: So from there I was sent to a civilian foundry in Alexandria, Louisiana, which was about ten miles from the camp, and put to work trying to take an old cast iron foundry, that had never made anything but cast iron stoves for cooking and so forth, and I set up their foundry so they could make parts for tanks. And it took me about three weeks to do this.

With all this moving around and not knowing where I was going to be from this day to the next, confirmed an idea that I had developed earlier: that we would win the war. There was no doubt about it, because the US Army was so screwed up that they didn’t have the slightest idea what they were going to do next, so how could anybody else find out what we were going to do?

So finally my orders came and I was to go to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I would be picked up there. So I went to Knoxville, Tennessee and I was picked up there and taken to Oak Ridge. At Oak Ridge I laid around the barracks for a week or so and decided that I didn’t want to do that, and went into the orderly room and decided I was going to make myself company clerk. So for about two weeks I was the company clerk. And then my orders came again. And every time I traveled in the Army, I traveled alone. And this I couldn’t understand. So I was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee—I’ve already said that.

I was called up to headquarters and taken into an office—a captain’s office—the door was locked behind me. And when I was summing up enough strength to defend my honor, he came over and handed me my orders and told me that this was somewhat hush-hush, because that’s what he had been told. But he didn’t know anything about it. But I was to proceed to Lamy, New Mexico and upon arriving at this destination, call this telephone number. So I asked him where Lamy was and he said, “I haven’t the foggiest idea, it’s someplace in New Mexico is all I know.”

So I went back to the barracks, read the letter—every single word on it—and it said at the top of the letter, “Pre-assigned to Manhattan District.” And I thought to myself, “There they are screwed up again, they’re sending me west and Manhattan is east; they must want me to go around the world to get to Manhattan.” But all this fooling around, all this Army juggling of trying to decide where to put me—was the time they were spending trying to clear me.

And so I arrived after three days on the California Limited, which was extremely limited; it pulled off at every siding to let other trains go by, it stopped at every little town to let people on and off. Finally arrived at Lamy in the evening, went into the little station at Lamy. One man was taking care of the baggage; he was also the ticket salesman. And there was only one man at the station—nothing else within miles of the place except the bar, which was off limits.

So I said “Where’s the telephone?”

He said, “In the corner over there.”

I went over to the telephone. It was one with a crank on it, which I had never used before, and I asked him how to operate it. He said, “Just turn the crank, the operator will ask you for your number, give it to her and it’ll be all right.”

So I did that. I was told to sit in a certain seat in the station—there were only three seats anyway—and somebody would pick me up in a couple hours, which is what happened.

An Army OD station wagon with a sergeant driving pulled in—and by this time it was almost dark—threw my barracks bag in the back of the station wagon and took me to this place called Los Alamos. Put me in a three-man hutment—they were in the process at that time of building the regular barracks. And I stayed overnight there: exhausted, tired, and hungry.

Next morning I woke up to “Lost Almost,” which was the GI name for Los Alamos. And I saw nothing but mud and boardwalks, log buildings, and beautiful scenery.

And security lectures. I found out very shortly that there were three contingencies of the Army here in Los Alamos. There were the MPs, the Military Police, who patrolled the perimeter of the project on horseback and also manned the gates of the various technical areas. And also the ones who patrolled the perimeter of the project brought us, at the barracks, all sorts of game that they would see when they were out patrolling. We had deer and rabbits and turkeys and quail and everything under the sun at our disposal, because they turned out to be hunters as well.

There were the PEDs, or the Post Engineers, and they maintained the buildings in Los Alamos. They were plumbers and electricians, men of that ilk, and carpenters. In fact they paved the roads—they did everything to make Los Alamos a habitable little town. 

The other group was the Special Engineering Detachment, which I belonged to. And they were composed of scientists. Usually young men who had just graduated and received their PhDs would be drafted and immediately sent to Los Alamos, because they needed all the engineers and physicists they could find. Also there were a great number of graduate engineers. And then there were men who had other skills necessary for the development of a bomb. There were fabricators, there were welders, there were toolmakers, there were machinists and there were foundry men and pattern makers—and that’s what I did, I was a pattern maker.

Kelly: Are you going to explain what a pattern maker is?

Mench: A pattern maker—takes about four years apprenticeship to learn the trade and six years of trade school. I was also attending the Carnegie Tech College in Pittsburgh two nights a week studying foundry engineering. At that time, pattern makers were very scarce; it was taught in high schools all throughout the country. It was a trade which is now essentially gone because everything in those days was cast. Welding was not developed to any great extent. Fabricating has taken the place of casting and everything that was cast had to be made out of wood first. And it takes not only a skillful woodworker but an artisan to make a pattern, and there’s a lot of hand carving. And if you could think of the engine block of an automobile, which is cast, and all the little water jackets and things of that sort that are in an engine block—all must be carved out of wood in such a way that it can be lifted out of the sand mold and the mold put back together and the metal poured in to make the engine block. And it’s a very complicated trade and as I said they were very rare.

And so here’s a young man who has completed his apprenticeship, went to tech school for six years—I was studying foundry engineering at Carnegie Tech—and I was eligible for the draft. And so they grabbed me because the place to look for one is in the Pittsburgh area, where the iron and steel industry is in great prevalence. And the only pattern makers used today are where they need rigidity in the bases of machines used to carve metal and mills and lathes and things of that sort. Also in the shipyards, where the propellers for boats—the bronze propellers—are still cast. And in the automobile industry where most cars still have a cast block in them, either iron or aluminum or something of that sort. So there are still pattern makers, but it’s not near the trade it was. It’s the highest paid trade in the middle trades and it’s in the middle trades—all they work with is wood.

The SEDs had a Class A pass, and this means they could pick up their pass and leave the project anytime they wished by signing out—letting the orderly room know where they were going—as long as they weren’t needed at the lab. It’s like having a day off at work, you could leave the project. And the only place—the nearest place anyway—to go was Santa Fe. But after one or two trips to Santa Fe, you didn’t want to go there anymore because in the first place, most of the places that you would like to go, like a night club or a certain restaurant or a place like that, were off limits. Also you were constantly looked at as if, “We don’t like you to be here, we wonder what you’re doing here.”

The people in Santa Fe were not fond of the idea of having soldiers in their midst or even newcomers. So it was not fun to go to Santa Fe; they didn’t have a place where GIs could congregate at all. The people gave you the impression that they just assumed you weren’t there. I think that antagonism against people from Los Alamos still exists to today in some extent among some people, because there’s constantly the business of—we’re kind of contaminating their air, that we’re going to ruin their water supply. There’s a certain antagonism against the people in Los Alamos.

The most wonderful place to go was down to the valley, strangely enough, where quite a few Anglos would invite you to their home for dinner. In fact, the first time I ever enjoyed chili and beans was at the Amsden’s home in Pojoaque. And recently Mrs. Amsden has been made a living treasure in Los Alamos. She’s a wonderful woman and very well deserving of that honor.

Also the old Spanish people in Los Alamos are very gracious. And they would invite you to their home and treat you like a king and give you the most wonderful meal you’ve ever had and show you their orchard and things like that, and be very kind to you, the whole family. And we appreciated and enjoyed that.

We weren’t allowed to have our wives within 100 miles of the project. I did bring my wife into Albuquerque and some other G.I.s brought their wives to Las Vegas. The reason being that if you could count or see the influx of all these young women with children next to some of them coming into a certain area, you could get some idea of the number of military personnel up in this mountain community and make them wonder even more what was going on up there. And for security reasons we were not allowed to have our wives any closer than that. Even the scientists who left Los Alamos had to take on a different name; they weren’t known by their own name, they were assigned a name to use when they were off the hill in the local vicinity.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the barracks life. Our barracks, when completed, held forty men—each one of these barracks—and there were probably eight of them. The Post Engineers had a different area, and they had something like four or five barracks. The MPs had theirs in another area, and they had about four or five barracks. In the barracks there were two potbellied stoves, one at each end of the barracks. And as I mentioned before, when the MPs who were on patrol brought us game, we had a huge pot which sat on top of these potbellied stoves, and constantly kept a critter stew going in the barracks, which could be attacked any time that we want for a meal—always hot. And we’d swiped—well we say swiped, but I think the mess sergeant turned his back, let it happen—we borrowed onions and carrots and potatoes and things and added it to venison and rabbit and turkey and sometimes quail, all put together in the same pot. And all of us imbibed in that stew, it was delicious.

Now the civilians—the scientists with their families and wives and children—lived in apartments that had been built by a contractor by the name of Sundt. And so they were always referred to as the Sundt apartments.

Oh, the civilians lived in some of them apartments and these were sort of the elite of Los Alamos, these were the scientists who had come from various other countries to take part in the development of an atomic bomb. There were scientists actually from all over the world. One of them in particular was a very good friend of mine because he was interested in theater. And he was a delightful man, very brilliant man, but was a comedian all his life and played the part of an absentminded professor everywhere he went and in everything he did, except for his science.

His name was Jim Tuck and I had him in a lot of plays, and Jim looked like he was put together by a committee. And Jim was a gangling 6’3” individual with a big walrus mustache, and he smoked a calabash pipe. And I remember him in “My Fair Lady” playing the part of Pickering, because I had directed many, many live opera shoes in Los Alamos. And Jim had a number in that show that he had to sing and he was not a singer—he knew nothing about music. And the orchestra conductor—who had twenty-six pieces in the pit—had a terrible time trying to get him to do the timing, because he had a number called “She Did It.” And this was a number saying that after all their work with Eliza Doolittle, they had been able to pass her off as a member of the English aristocracy, and she was gloating on the fact that she did it.

So in this number, there is a long, held note and it has to be held for a certain number of beats, and Jim had a tremendous amount of trouble with this particular song. The orchestra leader kept trying to tell him, “Watch my baton and soon as I drop it, then you know that you’re going to cut it off, otherwise hold it [the note] as long as I’m holding my baton up.”  

But Jim couldn’t see the baton with the stage lighting and so forth. And so he said,
“Well let me see what I can come up with,” with his English accent.

So the next time we had a rehearsal, he came in with the equipment that he had made to solve the problem. It consisted of a base on which the conductor would stand and on each side of him was a two by four, eight-foot high, flanking on each side of him. And on the top of the two by four on one side was a red light and on the other side was a green light. And attached to that was a switch which would be held in the hand of the conductor. And so as long as the green light was on, he was supposed to hold the note. And when he was supposed to stop the note, the red light would come on and the green light would go off.

Now our orchestra conductor is in the tuxedo and everything is supposed to be very formal, and here’s these two rough-sawn two by fours on each side of him with lights on top of it and cords hanging down, and his baton in his hand and in the other the switch. And he could not abide that picture, nor could I as the director. And so we told Jim Tuck, “Just sing it anyway you want to,” and got rid of all that equipment. It was a riot in the show when he brought this thing in—everybody just couldn’t believe that Jim would come up with something like that, but that was typical. I digress and I’m sorry. 

The civilians who were not with families or scientists necessarily were in what they called married couples dorms, where they had a little dorm room to themselves and lived there. There were also single men’s dorms and single women’s dorms, and we seemed to be able to get along with that situation.

And I wanted to tell you about the laundry. Now the civilians in their apartments and the people in their dorms had no access to a laundry. Throughout the project there were three laundromats, so to speak. No home in Los Alamos, even up at the time they built the Western Area homes, had washing machines, reason being you couldn’t buy one because they weren’t making them—it was in the middle of a war period. And secondly, the plumbing in these places were not conducive to having one. So everybody had to go to the laundromat regardless of theirs status in life, take their washing to the Laundromat, and stand in line for their turn to go into the laundromat to do their washing.

And this was very pertinent to a fact in our lives, because my wife went to the laundromat one day, stood in line, and while she was standing in line started her labor pains. But being a stubborn Johnny Bull who was born in England, she gritted her teeth, kept her place in line, got her laundry in the washing machine eventually, got her washing done, folded it up, put it in her basket, and called her girlfriend to take her to the hospital because she was going to have our second daughter.

My daughter’s birth certificate says on it—she was born in the Army hospital here in Los Alamos—and it says on her birth certificate that she was born in Post Office Box 1663 in New Mexico, because that’s the only way this place was designated. And everything that came to Los Alamos, whether it was a ten-ton machine or whether it was a postcard, came to Post Office Box 1663. And that’s where my daughter was born, still has her birth certificate.

About the time the scenery started to get old, there was a contingent of WACs assigned to Los Alamos, so we didn’t miss the scenery because we now had something even better to look at. And I must say that when those WACs came into town, all of a sudden, within a very short period of time, the laboratory became a lot more organized then it ever was before. I have to commend those girls, because they did a marvelous job. They took over as clerks, stenographers, secretaries, punch card operators, optometer operators. There were a lot of them who were draftsmen or draftswomen, nurses, and they were a boon to Los Alamos.

I remember once that—I loved to dance and one of the things we could do in Los Alamos they had dances. And they had them at the old Theatre Two, which was one of the theaters here in Los Alamos; we had Theatre One and theater Two and we got to see a lot of movies. And it seemed like John Wayne was in most of them, either as a cowboy or the head of some commando outfit in the war.

But for more entertainment we had dances, which were usually held in Theatre Two. And it was a huge barn-like building and it was used for everything under the sun: we had plays in there, we played basketball in there. The women in the area—married women who did needlework or something—held parties in there for making quilts and things like that. Everything that ever happened in Los Alamos, whether it was a convention or whatever, was held in Theatre Two. And before the WACs got there, the GIs who were in charge of the place and letting it out didn’t do their work very well because we had basketball games which were scheduled right in the middle of the women’s sewing circles. And they were supposed to be in there the same night, and so there would be arguments between the two of them about who was really supposed to have it.

We brought this out in one of the Little Theatre Productions called “Hillsapoppin'” taken away—taken off the Broadway show “Hellzapoppin',” and the basketball team showed up during the time we were having that play.

And while I’m on the play business—the way that got started was, you could only watch so many movies without getting movie happy. So we would send away for plays to dramatists and play services and get scripts, and we would read them and act out scenes. And this was usually attended by a lot of the scientists and many of the GIs and myself because I had already had considerable experience in theater and was very interested in it. And this was the beginning of the first organization in Los Alamos, the Los Alamos Little Theatre. At the end of 1943, we did a play called “Right about Face,” which was the first play ever done in the city of Los Alamos.

This sort of activity knit together the civilian population and the military to a great extent, and this resulted in a more harmonious community between the two of us—it brought us together. And the Los Alamos Little Theatre—which I am probably the only charter member remaining—is still active today, and does anywhere from three to six plays a year.

In the old East Mess Hall, which—in 1970 I was able to convince the county that they should turn it over to us instead of tearing it down, and let us build a theater out of it. So we are still occupying that theater since that time and my name is on that stage on a plaque in the front of it because of being able to get it and built the stage while they were down at Donwant playhouse doindg their summer theater. And I’m very proud of being the only charter member remaining.

There were some other things to do in Los Alamos, which I haven’t mentioned. The dancing that we did was to The Keynotes, which had the big band sound, and they had their dances, as I said, in the Los Alamos Theater Two. They were composed of GIs from all different sections and some civilians who loved music and some of them were union musicians. They were marvelous musicians and they played for all of our dances, and I loved to dance and I attended some of them.

There was one of the young WACs and she was very good dancer and I danced with her quite often. And finally something happened, which made me feel like I was macho, because she asked me to attend Sunday dinner with her at the WAC mess hall which was a great honor. And when you were asked by a WAC to come to Sunday dinner, that meant a lot of things, which I didn’t realize. And I had guys patting me on the back and saying, “Boy you finally made it, I wish one of those girls would ask me to dinner.” And I was congratulated all over the place, shaking my hand and saying, “Congratulations you’re going to the WAC mess hall for Sunday dinner.”

So Sunday came and I showed up for the dinner. And they didn’t eat like we did in big long tables; they had little tables where you could sit and eat alone. So we sat down at this little table and it was the moist delicious dinner I’d had for years. And I proceeded to tell her all about my wife and my little daughter and how cute she was, and I think I spent all the time I was there talking about my wife and daughter. And for some strange reason I was never asked back to dinner at the WAC mess hall. I don’t know why.

We had a commissary in Los Alamos, which was run by the Army, and we had no rationing. We could get anything we wanted—so many of the other things were rationed. And I remember making little boxes and insulating them with cork and putting—freezing a pound of butter, and then putting it in the box, shipping it home, and then they would ship the box back and I would do it again. And also when my wife was in Albuquerque, I could buy big steaks and all sorts of things and take home with me because it was very economical to buy there, and also they had all the things which other people couldn’t get. The butter did arrive most of the time without becoming rancid.

There were a lot of serious moments when the Trinity shot began to come into being. We worked very hard. Some of us worked sixteen hours a day, not because we were paid a lot of money, but because we knew that this could be the end of the war, and we put our heart and soul into getting that bomb prepared. I was always really overcome by the knowledge and disciplines of these famous scientists. I always felt like I was at the bottom looking up. And during the Trinity shot, the concern I could see on their faces frightened me because if they didn’t know what was going on or what was going to happen, why would I know? But it was a success.

There were many things at Trinity that were not a success; one of them was the Sherman tank. Someone had the bright idea that if we lined that tank with lead and run it into ground zero right after the shot, by instrumentation mounted inside the tank, we could get a lot of information that we couldn’t get otherwise because most of us during the shot were nine miles away. And you would be protected—the driver—by this lead lining in there. And so they worked and worked and worked on this, and I got implicated in some ways because we needed some lead castings with strange curves and stuff inside the tank that had to be shaped to fit so that they would stop the radiation, and I got implicated in that part of it. But the shot came, but the Sherman tank just dug itself into the ground because it had so much weight in it couldn’t move. And so it didn’t work at all.

And then this is hearsay, I know it to be true, but I wasn’t in on it: in the very early days they had decided to make the shot, do the shot inside of a steel bottle [Jumbo]—oh I don’t know, some eight to twelve inches thick and quite large—and they were going to put the bomb off inside this tank. They couldn’t find anybody, or at least it was very difficult to find anybody who could make it. And they finally found somebody in the Midwest, I think, that agreed to give it a try and succeeded. And they brought it here to Los Alamos—or at least partway, as I understand it—and along the way they had to have a crew with him so that they could shore up the bridges they had to cross because of its tremendous weight. But it was never used and where it is now I don’t have the slightest idea. Seems to me the only thing you could do with something that size would be to bury it, and I have no idea what they did with it—or even why I brought it up!

Kelly: That’s Jumbo. [The remains of Jumbo can be seen by tourists at the Trinity site today.]

Mench: Jumbo. Yeah. Nevertheless we had developed the bomb from theory to a bomb in a little over two years. I wonder if they could do it today. It seems to me it would take that long today just to do the paperwork. We were driven to get it accomplished, and it seems that we succeeded and we’re honored by the fact that we did. The Army saw fit, or the United States itself saw fit, to issue an accommodation in the form of a Meritorious Citation to the Special Engineering Detachment for their contribution to the development of the bomb.

We had a big ceremony out in front of Fuller Lodge—General Groves was there along with Robert Oppenheimer—in which both of them made a speech. And in Robert Oppenheimer’s speech he made this comment, he said, “You are heroes today, but in a very short time you will be criticized for what you have done here.” And he was very right.

After V-J day, approximately two-thirds of the number of SEDs were declared surplus and needed not to go to work and were waiting for their discharge. The rest of us were offered discharges on the section ten if we would opt to come back and work for the laboratory for an additional six months as civilians. This was to carry us over because at that time there was no way that we could tell—or anybody could tell—whether the project would continue or not. And so that would give them the six months to replace us if it was going to continue. I opted to take the discharge and stay in Los Alamos for that six months, and I’m still here.

This situation, with the men who had been declared surplus and having to wait for their orders, led to party time. And every night in the barracks they had a party where they played card and drank “Tech Area Punch.” For those who don’t know what Tech Area Punch is, in “K-stock”—which was the chemical stock room—you could draw out a gallon of 190-proof grain alcohol. And they cut it with pineapple juice. And this was the drink of people who drank in Los Alamos, at least among the GIs, all during that period. So there was lots of Tech Area Punch, lots of card playing, lots of swearing, lots of singing, lots of noise, lots of hell-raising every night in the barracks.

Now there’s a third of us in that barracks—we’d just take one single barracks, I don’t know whether it happened in all of them but that’s what that happened in our barracks—who had to sleep because they  had to go to work the next day, and that was impossible. And I don’t know whether you remember these little gadgets—I don’t think they make them anymore, maybe they do, but I haven’t seen them for a long time—they were a little gadget where you could unscrew your light bulb and you could screw this gadget in, and you had two slots in it which would take the prong of an electrical plug so that you could operate your radio from your light.

Everybody had a light over their bunk in the barracks and I unscrewed my bulb and screwed this little gadget in—I don’t think they make them anymore, I think OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] decided too many people were getting electrocuted with using them, which is ridiculous—but took a little band of copper, bent it across the two prongs, and stuck it in and made a dead short. And when I got tired of the noise and wanted to go to sleep, I just reached up and turned the switch on my light, which automatically blew out all the fuses in the barracks. And they were in darkness, which prompted them to go somewhere else to party.

This worked for a while, until the orderly room ran out of fuses and started an investigation to see why fuses were burning out all the time. And I retired to my office and slept in my office for the rest of the time until they were shipped out.  If they had found out who did that, I would have been crucified.

I feel that the bomb ended the war; I’m a firm believer in that. I recently had to make a speech at one of the education organizations, which is an organization developed against the people who come around here every year and tell us how we were murderers of innocent women, children, and the men of Japan by dropping atomic bombs on them. And in answer to their condemnation, we organized an educational group. And I was asked to make a speech at one of those, and I did a tremendous amount of research in preparation for that speech and was firmly convinced, if I hadn’t been before, that what we did saved the lives not only of thousands, but of millions of our own men and many millions and millions of men of Japan and women and children of Japan if an invasion had to take place. I am firmly convinced of that. And my efforts counted even one little iota to the development of that bomb. I am damn well pleased. Thank you.

[End.]