The Manhattan Project

Matias A. Zamora's Interview

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Matias A. Zamora's Interview

Matias A. Zamora is a retired attorney and judge, and a U.S. Army veteran. In this interview, he reflects on his experiences working as a server at Fuller Lodge at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. He describes his duties at the lodge and remembers seeing famous scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. He also recalls how he heard about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
2009
Location of the Interview: 
El Convento
Transcript: 

[Thanks to David Schiferl and Willie Atencio for recording this interview and providing a copy to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.]

Willie Atencio: Mr. Zamora, when was the first time you heard about Los Alamos? You were a very young boy when Los Alamos started.

Matias Zamora: Yeah. I think it was about a year before – this was 1943 that I was in Los Alamos. I heard that they were building something at Los Alamos and people from northern New Mexico were being hired. At the time, I heard most of it in Albuquerque. I just happened to come back to Mora for a few days, and I heard about it, and I heard that they were employing. So, I came to Santa Fe and applied and was hired.

Atencio: You were interviewed in Santa Fe?

Zamora: Yes. I don’t think the interview was that long. I don’t remember any real session where you might say it was an investigation. I just gave them my background. I had just finished ninth grade at Sacred Heart School in Albuquerque, and was going back to Mora. I had stayed with my sister for two or three years. Somehow or other I got to Santa Fe and I applied for a job, whatever it might have been. A few days later – it wasn’t long, I know – I reported to the famous 109 East Palace. And, from there, transported to Los Alamos. 

Atencio: How did you come to Los Alamos? Did you come by bus or a vehicle—

Zamora: I could be mistaken about this, but it was something like a station wagon. Those old station wagons with the—

Atencio: Driven by the military?

Zamora: I don’t remember. Remember those wooden panels that were on the side? I think there were two other persons in it. We were just driven to Los Alamos at the time, as I remember, past Otowi bridge. It was just either a dirt road or the road was under construction. That hill was a little scary going up.

Atencio: You were assigned to work at the [Fuller] Lodge right away.

Zamora: Yeah, yeah.

Atencio: Do you remember any of your coworkers?

Zamora: I can remember only one. That’s amazing.

Atencio: They were young boys also.

Zamora: Oh, yeah. We were all teenagers. His name was Leo Roybal from Pojoaque. I later represented him; I then became an attorney in time. I saw him a few times. He died about four or five years ago. There was another young man from Mora. First name was Manuel, but I don’t remember his last name.

Atencio: This picture, does this bring back any memories?

Zamora: Not really, because that was—

Atencio: Fuller Lodge— 

Zamora:—that’s Fuller Lodge, and right adjacent to it were some cabins, and that’s where we stayed. For some reason, I don’t think we were forcibly restricted, but most of our—we worked there. I remember walking around Ashley Pond. There wasn’t much activity. Of course, we started at 6:30 and we had breaks during the day, and probably ended about 7:30 at night, working.

Atencio: What did you do for recreation, or was there any type of recreation?

Zamora: I don’t think there was time for recreation. I don’t remember. I remember going to the PX [Post Exchange] and we used to get comics and things like that, and candy, I guess. But I don’t remember anything of recreation, except our walking around the park, or just taking a short walk. It was never a long walk. Everything seemed to be enclosed by barbed wire.

Atencio: What about movies? Did they have movies for the soldiers that you can remember?

Zamora: I don’t remember going to a movie, no.

Atencio: Did you go home on weekends?

Zamora: No.

Atencio: No. 

Zamora: I don’t know why, but I went to Española once, and that was quite an experience. There was a carnival and we were invited by somebody who had a car. We got there and then he left us there. There was very little traffic on the back road to Los Alamos. We hitchhiked to Pojoaque and ended up walking from Pojoaque to Los Alamos. We got here about 5:00 in the morning, I think. At 6:30, we were back at work. There were two of us.

David Schiferl: Just for the tape, how far is it from Pojoaque to Los Alamos when you walked?

Zamora: What would you say, twelve miles?

Atencio: Pojoaque? More like sixteen now.

Zamora: Sixteen miles, yeah. It was a long walk. The traffic, very little traffic. As I remember, all of it was military. I know that when we got to – in that paper, I described it – a gray shack. It was the only way in for foot traffic, into the area. I remember, we were required to take off everything and then we were checked in. We had our identity— 

Atencio: You had your badge.

Zamora: Well, I had a badge or whatever identification was necessary.

Atencio: Which of the scientists do you remember serving, while you were a server there at the lodge?

Zamora: I remember [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. Later on, I saw pictures and because of size, I think another one was [Enrico] Fermi. Because of the hair, I think Teller was there. And, am I mistaken, it was General [Leslie] Groves, right?

Atencio: Yes.

Zamora: Yeah. I remember General Groves. As I described them in that paper, there were three or four tables. It wasn’t any big place, and it was family style. You just put the food in the middle and they served themselves. There were, as I remember, four tables. One was almost totally military. The others were civilians, most of them elderly. I don’t remember any young persons there, but there could have been. There was a military policeman at one end of the table and another one at the other. It was amazing. There wasn’t very much conversation with us. 

Of course, at age 16, I just had no idea what was happening. I knew that it was something important, because they looked impressive. But I didn’t know what was being built or anything.

Atencio: Did they discuss a lot among themselves? Did you hear a lot of shop talk, you might say?

Zamora: Yeah. But, as I remember, I don’t remember them discussing anything scientific. I guess they were prohibited from doing that. Most of it was – they laughed and joked and things like that. But I don’t remember them having a piece of paper and writing something. That just didn’t occur. They were all very polite. Even Teller [Laughter]. If that was Teller.

Atencio: You worked there a short time, there at the lodge?

Zamora: Yeah, just for the summer.

Atencio: For the summer.

Zamora: For the summer, yeah.

Atencio: Do you remember any of the other people that worked there at the lodge? I mean, some of the supervisors or—

Zamora: I remember – I mentioned his name in the paper – Sam Davalos.

Atencio: Oh, yeah, Sam Davalos.

Zamora: Sam Davalos was a young lieutenant. He had one of the rooms in the lodge, on the second floor. Our job started about 6:30 in the morning. I don’t remember if we served breakfast, but we must have. Then, after that, we were required to clean up the kitchen and everything. There were no dishwashers then, so you had to wash everything by hand. Then we cleaned the lodge and the rooms. As I said, Sam Davalos had a beautiful pair of boots, and I used to shine the boots for him. Afterwards, when he’d introduce me, he’d introduce me as “the man that used to shine my boots.”

Atencio: Do you remember a lady that worked there at the lodge, by the last name of [Maria Teofila Ortiz] Lujan? 

Zamora: No.

Atencio: Okay.

Zamora: There weren’t any women when I was there.

Atencio: At that time, which was very early on.

Zamora: No. I think the lady in charge, really directly in charge, was Mrs. Barker, but I’m not sure. I know it starts with a B.

Atencio: After you finished your employment at Los Alamos, did you go back to high school? 

Zamora: Yeah. I went back to Albuquerque. 

Atencio: Then you went to the military?

Zamora: Yeah.

Atencio: You finished high school in Albuquerque.

Zamora: No, I didn’t finish high school. Because of illness, I was a year behind, and so I went into the military after the eleventh grade. I finished my high school.

Atencio: You finished, okay. Did you get a GED test?

Zamora: Yeah.  

Atencio: After the GED test, that enabled you to go into law school?

Zamora: Well, first of all, while in the service, for some reason, I took a test. I can’t remember what they called the test. I say that it was because of the nuns in Mora, the Sisters of Loretto, and they taught us grammar very well. I think that that helped me to score very high on language tests. In the service, I ended up in German school, being fluent in German, and then being fluent in Russian.

When I left the service, I went to Highlands University. I think I’m the only one that has sort of a minor in Russian from Highlands University.

Atencio: After you finished at Highlands, you went to what law school?

Zamora: To Georgetown Law School in Washington.

Atencio: You practiced law in Santa Fe for how many years?

Zamora: For about thirty-six years.

Atencio: Thirty-six years. How many of your children are lawyers?

Zamora: Diego, Monica, Eugene, and I. Three lawyers.

Atencio: Do you consider your stay at Los Alamos to be very formative in your career?

Zamora: Oh, sure.

Atencio: The need for discipline, the military.

Zamora: I suppose so. I never thought of it that way. I know I enjoyed my stay in Los Alamos and—

Atencio: It must have been a good experience.

Zamora: Yeah. It was a good experience.

Atencio: Do you have any questions?

Schiferl: You were at Los Alamos the entire time during the Manhattan Project in the summers?

Zamora: No. Just for a period of three months.

Schiferl: What were your feelings when you heard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the war?

Zamora: I had finished basic training at Fort Hood, and I had volunteered for the paratroopers. I was just waiting at Fort Hood for orders to report to Fort Benning, Georgia. We were kind of impatient. There were about four of us that were supposed to go to Fort Benning. The orders wouldn’t come. We’d just spend our time reading and going to eat and all that. One day, we heard about the bomb, the first time. Of course, it was said that it was developed in Los Alamos. I thought, “God, those men that I served were the ones that were creating it.”

Schiferl: Did you feel some relief to know that you weren’t going to have to go paratrooping—

Zamora: Oh, yeah, yeah. The battle for Japan, we knew that probably 40% wouldn’t come back. Those were the estimates at the time. It was amazing, the patriotism that existed – we were all gung ho to go.

Atencio: You were young and brainwashed and ready to go.

Schiferl: The New Mexico National Guard was in the Bataan Death March.

Zamora: Yes.

Schiferl: Did you have any thoughts about that and sort of the bomb being maybe payback time—

Zamora: No, I don’t think I had thoughts about that. I had a first cousin who went through the march, and survived, came back. I didn’t see him before I went in the service. I had a brother who was at Pearl Harbor. But there were no reservations. I mean, we were in the service and you were going to do what you had to do.

David: There’s kind of an irony that these poor guys in the Bataan Death March, the Japanese made them suffer so. And then the payback comes from New Mexico.

Zamora: Yeah. They were so ill-prepared to go in. It was amazing. My cousin used to tell me that they used brooms to march instead of weapons. I later on got to know and represent General [Charles G.] Sage, who was one of the prisoners of war.