The Manhattan Project

Margaret Broderick's Interview

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Margaret “Chickie” Broderick worked on the Manhattan Project as a chemist at MIT. In this interview, she describes the laboratory where she was employed and the secrecy and “tight” security that surrounded the project. She elaborates on the background check procedures required for workers. Broderick also recalls the wartime culture and environment in America, offering insight into military-civilian relations and social life during World War II.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 25, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
Needham
Transcript: 

Nate Weisenberg: My name is Nathaniel Weisenberg. I am here in Needham, Massachusetts with [Margaret] “Chickie” Broderick, recording this oral history interview for the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Monday, April 25, 2016.

My first question for you is where and when were you born?

Margaret Broderick: I was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1921.

Weisenberg: Where in Boston were you born?

Broderick: The Forest Hills Hospital.

Weisenberg: Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up?

Broderick: I grew up in Milton, Massachusetts on Brandon Road and went to public school at Tucker [Elementary] School on Blue Hills Parkway. And then from high school I went to Notre Dame Academy in Roxbury.

Weisenberg: When you were growing up, what were you interested in?

Broderick: I was just glad to be alive and happy. I loved to play tennis and had loads of friends. We always went to the same place in the summer, so the summer became really where we lived.

Weisenberg: Where did you go in the summer?

Broderick: To North Scituate in Massachusetts, south of Boston.

Weisenberg: For people who are not from around here, what was that like? What is there to do there?

Broderick: Well, it was about five roads from the ocean to the end of the little community, and it had a golf course and tennis courts up there. It had the whole ocean down there.

My sister and I would every so often say to my Dad, “You know, we really would like to do something.” I have forgotten what it was. On the harbor, which was about three miles down.

My father would say, “Look, you have the ocean there and tennis and golf up at the top of the hill. I couldn’t go to Boston because my office overlooks the harbor. I would worry about you all day long.”

We would be ten years old and think, “Isn’t he the best father in the whole world?” And he was anyway.

Weisenberg: What did your father do?

Broderick: He was in the lumber business at Atlantic Lumber in Boston.  

Weisenberg: Are there other memories you have about what it was like growing up there?

Broderick: I had a younger sister, eight years younger than I, Jean. She died quite a long time ago. Betty and I are the ones still kicking around. She is older than I am.

Weisenberg: I remember you telling me that you were quite close to Betty, your older sister. She was just a year older than you.

Broderick: Oh, yes. She used to live up on West Newton Hill with her family. We would head out to a wild animal farm or something up in New Hampshire there. We would say we were a group from Saint Paul School, or Saint Paul’s Church in Wellesley. Betty would arrive with her gang and I would arrive with mine. Oh well, we always had a good time.

Weisenberg: Were you interested in chemistry from an early age?

Broderick: Oh, I loved chemistry. I did. I had had three years of chemistry before I got my job. General, organic, and something which I have forgotten.

Weisenberg: Do you remember when the war started, what that was like? What you were doing then?

Broderick: Oh, I was in college in Connecticut.

Weisenberg: Where did you go for college?

Broderick: I first started down in Washington at Trinity College, a girls’ Catholic college. My sister was already there. Betty was the torch of the family.

When I got down there, the nun came and greeted everybody. She got to me and said, “Oh yes, you must be Chickie, Betty’s sister.”

Right then I thought, “This is not going to work.” So a while later I said to my Dad, “I am not going to go back there.”

He said, “What are you going to do?”

I said, “Well, I do not know. I have a couple of friends that go to this little college in Connecticut. I think maybe I will do that.”

He said, “Good for you. That is what you should do.”

So I just left after that year. I was elected president of the class freshman year, but I was out of there. [Laughter] That took care of that. I had been Betty’s sister for a long time.

Weisenberg: When you moved to Connecticut, did you enjoy going to college there?

Broderick: Oh, yes. I liked that. It was a couple of hours from Boston and a couple of hours from New York. I had a nice boyfriend who was in school in New York, so it worked out very well. I never did marry him. Never did even get close to marrying him.

Weisenberg: What was the name of the college in Connecticut?

Broderick: Saint Joseph’s College. It is tremendous now. It was a very small one then, but I get things from it still. It is tremendous, I cannot imagine. I would not probably even like it.

Weisenberg: What year did you graduate?

Broderick: 1943. 

Weisenberg: Around that time, lots of men must have been going into the Army, going off to fight. Do you remember what the climate was? Were people talking about the war? What did it feel like?

Broderick: Yes. When I was a senior in college I had friends, young men who were off to war. Yeah.

Weisenberg: Did they ever write you letters? Did you hear about what they were doing?

Broderick: Not really. No. They were just friends, you know, you meet, and they are fun people.

Weisenberg: What did you do after you graduated from college?

Broderick: I didn’t do anything for a year or so. Then I went to MIT. I don’t know. I just was in there doing chemistry. Then, later they came into the lab I was in and said we were changing and that we were going to do this kind of work, which was practically the same thing. They put a soldier in our lab at all times just to stand around doing nothing. Protecting us, I guess. Then right after all that was declared and everybody knew about it, I felt I could leave.

So, I left and went to Harvard. Excuse me, to Florida, to visit Betty and Charles. I figured I had done my bit and wasn’t going to be doing it anymore. Straight chemistry didn’t interest me.

Weisenberg: How did you get the job at MIT?

Broderick: I walked in and said I was a chemist, and they put me in that little chemistry thing. We were just doing regular chemistry. I didn’t know what we were doing it for. And then they came in and took over the lab, the Army, I guess. I never wondered.

Weisenberg:  So somebody from the Army came and said, “We are changing the kind of work that you are doing.” I guess it sounds like you were still doing similar work, but they just said, “This is an Army project now.”

Broderick: Yes. Oh Lord, my father could not believe it. He and all of his friends kept getting those things you have to fill out, you know, that you are an all right person. My Dad’s friends kept calling him and saying, “Tom, what is going on in your family?”

My sister Betty was at Harvard doing the underwater sound stuff, and all of my Dad’s friends were getting things from them to be cleared. It was a very tight place.

Weisenberg: They were doing sort of security checks on both Betty and on you?

Broderick: Yeah, that is what they were doing. Checking to make sure you were who you were and why and how.

Weisenberg: Was this right when you started the job, or was this once the Army came in?

Broderick: This is when the Army came in.

Weisenberg: Did they ever ask you any of those questions, or were they just asking family members? Did they ever interview you?

Broderick: Oh, I really cannot remember, but they must have been asking each one of us, because my Dad had sent things out to his friends. So it was pretty tight. We in those days were very conscious of war. And you knew if you were doing something like that, you were not about to go out and say, “You know what I am doing?” You did not do that.

Weisenberg: So they did not have to tell you that you shouldn’t do it. You knew not to do that.

Broderick: Oh yeah, you knew it. War was a very big item in our lives at that time. Everybody knew it was going. It was just a tight time.

Weisenberg: Did you know anyone at MIT when you started working there?

Broderick: Yes, one of my good friends. She was doing chemistry at MIT too. I did not know anyone who went to MIT at that time as a student.

Weisenberg: Did you apply for the job there because your friend was also working there?

Broderick: Yes. Priscilla, who lived around the corner from me in Milton, said, “I just walked in.” She was a major in chemistry. She said, “They put me in a lab. They will do that for you. They need people.”  

I said, “They will need them if they want me to be a chemist again!” So I was a chemist.

Weisenberg: Do you remember when you started working at MIT?

Broderick: Oh Lord, 1944 or 1945. I did not go to work right away. Yeah, ‘44 probably.

Weisenberg: Do you remember where at MIT you worked, in which building?

Broderick: In a very old building, in a very old lab. No, I do not know the name of it.

Weisenberg: The building felt very old.

Broderick: Oh, it was old. It was one of the old buildings at MIT and it had a lot of little labs in it. I forgot the name of it. I don’t know if it ever had a name.

We mostly stood up. It was a small lab about as big as this room, but probably not as wide. A nice little refuge from I don’t know what.

Weisenberg: Do you remember, were there other people working in this lab with you?

Broderick: Yes, in the next lab were young men from, good Lord, the Far East.

Weisenberg: Were they from China?

Broderick: China. Yeah. They were from China. They had gotten out just before they closed the gates on the Chinese. They didn’t know when they would get back. They didn’t know whether they ever wanted to get back.

Weisenberg: So they were working in the lab next to yours?

Broderick: Yes. It was full of people like that. They had some Navy people in uniform at all times in another lab. Where they were going, I don’t know.

Weisenberg: Do you ever have a sense of what other people were working on, or was it all very secret?

Broderick: It was mostly quiet. You didn’t talk about it. They didn’t want you to talk about it, as far as we were concerned.

Weisenberg: Do you remember the names of anyone else you worked with?

Broderick: Oh, Lord. I am sure they are written down somewhere, but I never did see much of them afterwards, because they stayed on longer than I did. As soon as I could get out of there, I left.

Weisenberg: Did you ever wonder why there was suddenly a security guard there?

Broderick: Oh, they told us it was for something very important. You did not know what it was, but it was very strict that there would be no talk about it. Yeah, they took good care of that. My mother and father did not know what I was doing. It was just a little piece of it anyway. It was all over the country at that time. You put it all together, you had something.

Weisenberg: Did you know this is a big, national project, or did you just know what was going on at MIT?

Broderick: Oh, I knew it was a big project.

Weisenberg: You could just sort of get that sense. You were not supposed to tell your family what you were working on?

Broderick: No, I wasn’t supposed to. They knew I was working on something secret. You know, it was wartime. Everybody had secrets. It was just the way things worked.

Weisenberg: Do you remember anyone ever visiting the lab that seemed to work for the Manhattan Project? Were there any army officers or scientists?

Broderick: There was one at our lab at all times.

Weisenberg: You had the officer in your lab at all times?

Broderick: Yeah. No, nobody else bothered us.

Weisenberg: He was just standing there the whole time?

Broderick: Yeah. We just were chemists. That is what you did.

Weisenberg: Do you remember what your day would be like? What time would you get in in the morning?

Broderick: I think I probably got in there by nine o’clock. I am not sure of that, though. We were in there until five at night.

Weisenberg: You were coming up from Scituate every day, is that right?

Broderick: Well, in the summer. In the winter I was going to Cohasset, I mean Wellesley, at night. I lived with my parents in Wellesley.

Weisenberg: So during the winter you would stay with your parents in Wellesley?

Broderick: Yeah.

Weisenberg: Was it a bit easier to get to Cambridge from Wellesley?

Broderick: My Dad got me a car, and I had a “C” on it because I was a very important person, so I could get gasoline. See, during the war you could not do those things. They gave me a C plate on my car so I could get gasoline to go back and forth.

Weisenberg: Do you think you got the ability to get gas, the special license plate, because of what you were working on?

Broderick: Yes. You can’t just walk in and say you want it. You have to have a reason for it, you know.

Weisenberg: Do you remember any other special privileges, or anything else that seemed sort of a bit strange? That seemed that you were getting some special things because of what you were doing?

Broderick: Yes, you knew you were a part of a big performance, but you did not know what it was.

Weisenberg:  When did you find out about what you had been working on?

Broderick: When it went off. Of course, it was this high in the papers as we came out of work. I was telling my father about what we were doing. He looked at me and  said, “It is the first time I ever knew a woman could keep a secret.” [Laughter] And we both laughed. I never forgot that. So then it became that you could tell people what you were doing. Everybody was terribly impressed.

Weisenberg: Do you remember what other people’s reactions were once they heard about the project?

Broderick: Oh, they thought it was wonderful that I had done something to stop the war. You see, the whole scene is different. So it happened and it is going to be over. That is different than just doing something. People were glad to hear that it was done and that it was over.

A lot of people now think it was a terrible thing to do, but if you had lived through all of that at the time, you were glad it was over. I was glad it was over. I think most people were happy. It was a terrible thing, but it stopped something that was terrible too. It did not get into Japan, break that up.

Weisenberg: You were telling me a bit earlier about how during the war, they would have officers patrolling the beach at night in Scituate and you could not go out there.

Broderick: Oh, yes. We could not go. After dark, you could not get on the beach. Now, we lived three houses down from the beach. On a nice night, there were stairs down to the beach, but you could not get off of the stairs. Yeah, they had the patrol. Army, I guess it was. I have forgotten whether it was Army or Navy. They patrolled the beaches all along the coast, the south coast. I am sure they did it on the north coast too.

Weisenberg: You had a memory of the men in the dirigibles up above who were also flying around? Could you tell me that story?

Broderick: Oh, heaven sakes. There used to be officers’ training and things going on, and they liked to have groups come and dance with them and ho, ho, ho. So one of the airplane things would come off, and they would patrol the ocean coming into the harbor, into Boston. We would go out at night, and they used come right over where we lived in Scituate. They would go around and give a hoot with their airplane coming over. They would come in and we would go out and wave to them. Was that it? Yeah. As they went by, they would call, “See you at eight tonight” or something. “Come down!”

We had a great time. They didn’t know anybody. They were nice kids. It was a nice thing. Everybody felt very good about doing it, you know, in going, because there they were and they wanted to have a good time. They would come and go dancing and come home and that was that. But it was something different for the kids who were going places. They would go over our house in the morning and the neighborhood would all wave at them. They were good kids. War was different. It was a long time. And you felt as though you were doing something good just to be friends.

Weisenberg: Before, you were telling me about how you would have blackout curtains as well on the house.

Broderick: Oh, on the house facing the ocean. Yes, the side of your house towards the ocean had black curtains on it so there would be no giving anything away there. It was all along the coast, particularly near the big harbors. Boston and New York was crazy. It was just a time in your life you wished you did not have. It was frightening.

Weisenberg: Have your thoughts about the war and being involved in the Manhattan Project – have your thoughts changed about it at all over the years?

Broderick: Yes, it stopped it. That was very important. It had been on long enough. It was terrible, but it stopped something. And it stopped it before we got into Japan, and I think all of that was good. You do not have to have war.

Weisenberg: When did you stop working at MIT?

Broderick: Probably shortly after. I do not remember. I did not work there very long after they dropped the bomb, and the war was about over.

I went to Florida. My sister and her husband were down there. Charles still was in the Navy, and so he was out of Florida at that point. Betty was alone all day. She kept saying, “Oh, come on down. Come on down.”

I would say, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Then Charles wrote and said, “Chickie, will you get down here. Betty’s pregnant. She is alone all day. We have a house down here and I have my car.”

I thought, “Well, I guess I can do that.” I took off to Florida to visit Betty and Charles. I stayed about six to eight weeks, and then he was through, so I came home by train and they brought the car home. They wandered around for a while. So that was fun. Yes, I got to know Charles. I did not know Betty’s husband very well.

Broderick: Oh, we were looking for the Fountain of Youth in St. Petersburg, Betty and I. We just got in. We dropped Charles off in the morning, he didn’t need the car all day. So we just wandered around northern Florida and saw it all. 

So we were searching all around, and we would stop and it wasn’t there. We finally saw this one out back, a lovely green place. We went up there, and it was Our Lady of Fertility. [Laughter] Betty had twelve children and I had ten, and our husbands used to say, “Did you forget to say thank you? Would you like to go back and say thank you?” [Laughter] Oh, well.

Weisenberg: That is a wonderful story.

Broderick: It is a good story, isn’t it. Well, it was true. It was in St. Petersburg. And everybody’s been happy. Betty lived here in West Newton for a long time, Betty and Charles. And they were always together. They have her family, and my family and my parents lived up in Wellesley Hills. So we always got together. It was nice. Then the leather business went kapoof in Boston, and Charles had to leave. They went out to Michigan. So the second half of her family is in Michigan, but her older ones stayed here.

Weisenberg: And they still live around here?

Broderick: The boys, yes. Well, one lived in West Newton. One lives up in the western part of the state, and one lives out on the islands. They are happy here, so they stayed. They had been through college and stayed here, so they just lived here. They go back to Michigan to say hi. It is not that far.

Weisenberg: What did you do after you worked at MIT?

Broderick: Nothing. Oh, I don’t know how long. It wasn’t very long. I was waiting for my husband to get through. He was a surgeon, and he was down in New Orleans for two years getting ready. I have forgotten what they call it.

He started out first outside of New York City somewhere, where he made something like $18 a month to learn. He would come home for Christmas for three days from New Orleans, where he made maybe ten dollars. He did not make any money at all. That went on for about four or five years. Then when he got through there, he was at Children’s [Hospital] and Mass General. Then he became Chief at St. Elizabeth’s [Hospital], and then we were married.

Weisenberg: Did you know him during the war, or did you meet after the war?

Broderick: I married in 1946. He could not go into the war anyway for some reason. I guess they wanted him to continue to be a doctor. Anyway, he finished it and was a great doctor, a very caring doctor.

Weisenberg: That is so important.

Broderick: And we loved children, seeing we had ten! They were and are great. I have a great family. I have pictures of them around somewhere. There is one over there. They are all as great as he is.

Weisenberg: Just one last question for you. Is there anything else you would like to talk about? Anything that I did not ask you that I should have asked you?

Broderick: I do not think so, except that I am a very old lady. I am 94 years old and I am still walking, so I guess I am still doing pretty well. God has been very good to me, and I thank Him.