The Manhattan Project

Nick Salazar's Interview

Printer-friendly version

Nick Salazar's Interview

Nick Salazar is a longtime Los Alamos National Laboratory employee and New Mexico State Representative. He has remained close to Los Alamos his entire career, from spending his high school summers as a mess hall attendant during the Manhattan Project to becoming a member of the laboratory’s Board of Governors. In this interview, he discusses his numerous experiences with the laboratory, including his 42-year career as a research scientist and his goal of improving relations between the laboratory and northern New Mexico’s communities. He also recalls traveling to the Savannah River Site as part of Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines’s famous experiment that discovered the neutrino.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
Location of the Interview: 
El Convento

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

Willie Atencio: All right. Mr. Nick Salazar, we want to interview you because we know you remember a lot of things about Los Alamos. Can you first tell us the first time you went to Los Alamos?

Nick Salazar: As an employee?

Atencio: Whichever way. The first time you passed through Los Alamos, or went to Los Alamos, and what were the circumstances?

Salazar: This was the early 1940s. My parents had sheep up in the Valle Grande, and as a consequence, every summer as a student after school I used to go and help my parents and the family in the wooling season. It was kind of interesting to go through where the Fuller Lodge is now located, the Boys Ranch [School].

More than that, I remember bringing the wool down in the wagons. There was a big load, big gunny sacks full of wool. It was so heavy and the road was no good. We were very poor. We had to tie a tree behind the wagon in order to be able to get it down to the canyon. Then from there, we used bring it down to the railroad train, the train there by Santa Clara, and do the same thing with the lambs. I used to bring them there, and they would load them in the train for market. Those were my first encounters. I remember seeing Los Alamos at the time, a real beautiful boy’s ranch.

More to the point of the interview is: back in 1945, I, as a high school student in the summer, was able to get a job at the Manhattan Project. My first job was as a mess attendant. I used to work in the mess hall where all the soldiers, scientists, and staff came to eat. I worked there summers, and then I came back to school. 

I remember taking trips up to Los Alamos at the time, riding the buses, riding the trucks, or in the back of a pickup with a cover over it. One of the things that I have always been kind of afraid of when it comes to the elements was the fumes from the trucks and the vehicles.

One time I got there I was kind of sick, so I decided we were going to stay at the laboratory. They had some so-called Quonset huts, I think they called them at the time. It was a five-room little hut that housed most of us. We stayed there, and we used to get up really early in the morning. Five o’clock in the morning we had to be there at the mess hall to get breakfast and all ready for the soldiers that were there at the time. That was part of my job back in 1945. I still have the documents when I finally left back to school. 

One of the interesting things about the laboratory at the time was the interaction we had with people who lived in Los Alamos. Primarily, the soldiers that used to have dances in the courts. We were allowed to attend dances there. At times we were getting into a little hassle with the soldiers as the dance went on, because most of the girls there were girls from the Valley, and we knew them. Sometimes we would get into a little hassle, because we wanted to dance too, and the soldiers were too many that sometimes there was not enough women around to dance. Those were the early years.

I do remember a lot of the people who were there – [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, General [Leslie] Groves, who was there in the early years during the Manhattan Project. I think it changed quite a bit, because I remember they used to patrol the laboratory on horseback. That was rather interesting because you would see them everywhere.

Of course, as you are going up to the laboratory, you had the East Gate. You had to get across there before you could get into the lab. One of the interesting things was that there was a very narrow road. Every morning – you had to go in the morning – it took you long hours to get out to the laboratory because every vehicle had to be checked, every individual had to be checked for their badges. 

Those were the early years, as much as I remember. I did go back to work as a full-time employee after serving two years in the Air Force, back in 1950. I did not think it changed a little bit. Although a lot of the folks, the most notable scientists, still worked there. People who actually were part of the first atomic bomb, putting it together and seeing the first test and all of that. I still remember them very well. In fact, in later years, we became really good friends, and are serving on various boards and commissions together. It is kind of neat to reflect back on those years.

I finally did some research, nuclear research in search of new powers. But those same scientists that did work on the bomb at the time continued to work in other phases of science. It was very interesting to see them change from what they did before to what they were doing then in later years.

I remember the area pretty well, the Omega Canyon. I think they had the first reactor down in the Omega Canyon as well. I remember going there to take inventory as I was working in the laboratory, taking inventory, and not being very cognizant of the dangers of radiation and things like that and high voltages. But we all learned and we all contributed to the success of the laboratory.

I in fact am still a member of the Board of Governors that run the laboratory. Starting from a dishwasher to now a member of the Board of Governors that runs the laboratory. Rode up the corporate ladder. I am very proud of the contributions I think I made to the laboratory and for others, because I’ve trained a lot of people from the Valley in the various phases of work that needed to be done in the Technical Area. That is pretty much what I can remember in terms unless you have some questions that I can answer.

Atencio: Did you have any co-workers that worked with you at the mess hall?

Salazar: Yes. I remember Bonifacio Maestas from San Juan Pueblo. Pat Gutierrez I think from Velarde. I think he passed on here a while back. It is amazing that all of us, after working there at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, after we all graduated from high school we all left for the service, joined the Air Force. Amazingly enough, some of those individuals retired actually from the U.S. Air Force. I only served two years, and decided to come back, and then my association with the laboratory in 1950.

Atencio: Can you tell us a little bit about any experiences at the PX [Post Exchange]?

Salazar: In terms of?

Atencio: In Los Alamos. Did you go there for recreation?

Salazar: At Los Alamos?

Atencio: Yes, at Los Alamos.

Salazar: Of course, yes. Before work, obviously, you could not do it unless you had a badge. To get a badge, it was very, very difficult. In fact, one experience I had early on was after I got married, I would have my wife come and pick me up at the lab. For some reason or another, her name is Maria Ana, and I have known her as “Anacita” forever. When I had to write clearance for her, I always named her “Anacita.” So obviously, when she got to the gate, they would not let her in, because her name was Maria Ana and not Anacita. 

One of the things we enjoyed – obviously, we were still in high school – was the competing against Los Alamos High School. We always got beat by them. For one reason or another they always had better teams. In terms of recreation – not really, because I am not a golfer – they had the first golf course around here. We used to come to play baseball though, play ball against Los Alamos. I remember [Lou] Pierotti and those guys used to have a softball team, a very good softball team, a five-man softball team could beat anybody. A twenty-ball team, like that. They were that good.

What is interesting is about how Los Alamos has changed since then. Because you used to have a theater there in Central, they had a bowling alley, and Sparky’s—how could anyone ever forget Sparky’s Restaurant? But now all those things are gone and there are offices. It seems to have changed forever, I guess.

Atencio: Do you remember your salary when you first started?

Salazar: Of course, I know. When I first started working there as a mess attendant, I think it was fourteen hundred and twenty dollars a year. It was not very much. But it was amazing how my wife was very frugal at the time, and money was actually worth a lot more apparently. Later on as I signed up with the laboratory as a full employee, I think I started at $1.25 an hour. 

It is amazing enough. Those years, I got married, I was able to build a house because I actually lived on the reservation in San Juan Pueblo. I could not borrow money from anybody and it is amazing how I was able to build a house in about five years. When I built it, I did not owe a penny, because I could not borrow any money. I had to buy materials on credit, and I was able to do all of that and build my house.

Atencio: Do you have any recollections of the housing at Los Alamos when you stayed there? How was the housing?

Salazar: It was very poor housing. Everybody complained about the housing. It was a lot better than most of us had in the Valley anyway. People lived in pretty cramped places, and the only ones who actually lived in better housing were the scientists, the main scientists that came up here. Soldiers lived in regular barracks like anybody else. Some of the families of the workers lived in very poor housing at the time.

There were several families to a complex. There was very little privacy, but they all got along real well, I guess. Obviously, in time, things changed. The government started building separate homes, individual homes, for some of the people who could afford it. Eventually, those apartment complexes were actually sold to individuals and they made improvements on them, of course. Obviously, before then, they could not do it because they all belonged to the federal government and they had to do what they asked.

Atencio: Did you have any idea of what was going on at Los Alamos when you first went there?

Salazar: Not when I first got there.

Atencio: Okay. Did anybody say anything about security? About what was going on?

Salazar: No, no. You know, the interesting part of the whole thing was that you could not talk about Los Alamos. [Post Office Box] 1663 became a real key word when you talked about Los Alamos. I remember when I first got my job, I had to go to Santa Fe and apply to work.

I said, “I am going to work in Los Alamos. Why did you have to apply in Santa Fe?” That was where the recruitment went on. That is where you signed up. Then, I came to find out that you needed a special badge, and scrutiny over your security was very, very, very high. It did not matter whether you were a little guy or a big guy or whatever. Everybody had to go through the same kind of scrutiny in terms of security. That has remained for the laboratory now too.

Atencio: Do you remember anything happening right after Trinity Site? Did anybody talk about the Trinity Test?

Salazar: About?

Atencio: The Trinity Test, the test at the Trinity Site.

Salazar: I do remember about the bomb when it was first tested there in Alamogordo. Everybody was wondering what people were doing in secrecy, and you know, only very few people even knew that something was going on in Alamogordo. Later, I became real good friends with some of the people who took part in the actual getting the bomb together in Alamogordo for the first test. Part of my family that I knew here worked here afterwards, and they used to talk about the hard times and the exciting times at the time. Obviously, nobody knew what it would really mean after the test. What they were testing. Of course, people knew what we got and the whole world has changed ever since.

Atencio: Do you remember what happened after the war ended? Were you on the premises when the war ended? Los Alamos?

Salazar: No, no, I was not. The war ended in 1945.

Atencio: 1945.

Salazar: 1945. I was here towards the end, but that was before the bomb dropped. Other than the fact that we all knew about the bomb then, and we all knew about the destruction it did. If you go back and remember when they declared war in 1941.

Atencio: 1941.

Salazar: 1941. I remember being at my grandmother’s house. The only thing you had was a radio, and we were having lunch. I remember news coming on the radio that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, and we were at war. Of course, my grandmother and my mother and everybody started crying, only because my uncle was at that age of being able to be inducted into the service. He did, and unfortunately, he went through some real hard times. He came back very sick and eventually died. Those are very, very, very hard times.

But I do not remember exactly what happened after the war ended here in Los Alamos. That period is kind of blank. Remember, I came to work at the lab in 1950 as a permanent employee. By then everything had been done.

Atencio: Overall, what are your impressions of the contributions of the people from the Valley for Los Alamos?

Salazar: Well, you know, people had different kinds of jobs: menial jobs; very important jobs; technical jobs. Remember the whole Valley was very poor and had very few highly-educated individuals. As a consequence, it was very hard for the laboratory to recruit individuals who could go into a technical field. But it was amazing that a lot of people learned a lot of technical jobs, on the job training, and became very, very, very good at it. There are some things that some of our people used to be able to do that other people could not do, not even highly-educated. 

I came in at that time in 1950, and learned most of my physics and science and anything I know technically from my employers, my group leader, and my program leader, because we did a lot of experimenting together. But it was a lot of on the job training. I was here at a time when things had changed a lot. I remember in the early years where even the custodians were all men who could probably not do anything else. [They] were driven in and those were the custodians.

As time went on, things got a little more sophisticated, high school individuals, young men, used to get off on the same buses to work as custodians. That has changed a lot. Now for instance, if you want a technical job, you better go to a technical school before you even get in. Obviously if you really want to do some things, you better have a good education, college education.

Atencio: Good. What is your connection with the lab now?

Salazar: Well, my connection with the lab is after forty-two years as a thermonuclear research scientist there, I finally retired in 1991.

I have been in politics for a long time, too. My first office that I ran for was County Commissioner of Rio Arriba County back in 1964. I served from 1964 to 1968 as a County Commissioner. Amazingly enough, the laboratory was generous enough to be able to allow us to serve as well as work at the laboratory. After that, I ran for the [New Mexico] House of Representatives and have been there ever since.

Since I retired from the laboratory, I became a Safety Officer for the various areas in my division. Then after that, I became kind of a consultant, as I have a lot of political connections, I guess. The laboratory used my influence with our congressional delegation for various things. Obviously, funding and the contract at the time with the University of California.

Since then, we have now gone to a private contractor, and I am now a member of the Board of Governors with Bechtel, TRW, the Washington Group, and others as a member of the Board. That run the laboratory not only in Los Alamos, but Lawrence Livermore as well.

Atencio: How many of the lab directors did you know personally?

Salazar: All of them.

Atencio: All of them, okay.

Salazar: I remember General Groves. Not a Director, he was the Army General at the time. I do remember Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer I remember. What is his name? [Norris] Bradbury. Bradbury came. We had [Harold] Agnew and then we had—what was the name of the other guy?

David Schiferl: Kerr.

Atencio: Donald Kerr.

Salazar: Don Kerr. I know them all real well because I communicated a lot with them in terms of my politics, obviously, in the laboratory. Then of course, John Browne, he was kind of a family guy with me, and so was the one that came after. [Misspoke: John Browne succeeded Siegfried Hecker, not Kerr, as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory].

Atencio: Sig Hecker. Hecker.

Salazar: Hecker and I visited each other’s house pretty regularly. We used to eat together all the time. I knew them real well. After Hecker, what is his name?

Atencio: [Peter] Nanos.

Schiferl: Just after Browne, Nanos.

Salazar: How could I forget Nanos? [Laughter] He was here for a short time. A lot of people had some problems with him. I found him to be a very interesting man. I liked Nanos. Now with Stasio [Michael Anastasio], he and I are very good buddies, we both serve on the Board. I know the new guy that came in, the new Deputy Director, pretty well.  

Atencio: Well, I would say you are probably the person that has contributed the most.

Salazar: Well, in terms of public relations and government relations and those kinds of things. Never mind what I did as a research assistant with the scientists there.

However, I think my biggest contribution was the friendship that we developed and the good relations between community and the laboratory. That has always been a sore spot too. I was able to kind of smooth it out and help out. It was many, many, many years. I still do it, because I get along real well with all the tribes, and my son being Governor [of Ohkay Owingeh] for a while, so he and I have a connection as well. I continue to do that. Now for instance as a legislator, I’m able to do things that help the laboratory too, you know.

Whether we like it or not, I think the most important thing that I have been able to do is make the people aware of the fact that without the laboratory, northern New Mexico – because I remember before the laboratory, there was nothing here. After the laboratory, now you can see in the community there are better homes, a lot of cars, televisions and all the things like that. More college graduates, people going to school and graduating.

In terms of socio-economic, that has changed totally around for our Valley. I would hate to see anything that the laboratory—not that the laboratory has not contributed to the world, not only to this country but also to the world, in terms of peace because of what we do here. I find a lot of people thinking otherwise: the bomb, the bomb, the bomb. I think that if anything, the bomb can serve as a deterrent now for peace in the world.

Atencio: Do you have any questions? Any ideas? Somebody that has had so much experience at the lab, technical and also administrative.

Schiferl: Let me stray from the Manhattan Project to a little bit on the H-bomb. The Mike Shot in 1952, I think it was.

Salazar: 1952, yeah.

Schiferl: Can you tell us a little bit about that time?

Salazar: Well, it is amazing that at the time we graduated from the A-bomb to the hydrogen bomb. There was very little discussion on what was going on other than what had actually happened. Remember, too, that we were very involved in thermonuclear research. Our job was to find ways to replace some of the natural resources that we had in terms of the power we need for the future. We were always competing with other laboratories throughout the country.

Amazingly enough, that project has become so big and so expensive, so costly, that it is now a worldwide endeavor, primarily in Italy. No other than the fact that it happened and quite frankly, it is amazing, because it happened right under our nose. We had something to contribute to it too.

I remember at the time is that we were all trying to see how we could heat enough plasma. I had the privilege of going to the Geneva Conference on Atomic Energy, where I think 92 nations were gathered at the time. It is amazing, again. It was at the time where Sputnik had been around the globe. We had that little thing that had gone up and come down. It was really embarrassing there, at Geneva, that we did not have nothing much to brag about. But it is amazing how that spurred this country to become the world leader in space exploration.

Atencio: What year did you go to Geneva?

Salazar: It must have been in 1964 or 1965, I remember. That was an experience and a half to meet so many different scientists from all over the world. Obviously, it was on peaceful atomic energy, so it had nothing to do with the bomb or anything like that, but it had a lot to do with how we were going to find new power sources for the future. The competition was humongous at the time. Anybody who created the plasma here or there. It turned out to be pretty tough. While we were able to achieve it, it is very expensive and takes a long time before we can make it pay off. Eventually, who knows? We might wind up having to do that.

Atencio: Who else from Los Alamos or from this area went to the Geneva Conference?

Salazar: Well, several scientists went. The whole thermonuclear research people here at the laboratory went at the time.

It was such an interesting thing because we had to ship everything we had over here. I mean from the nails to the hammer to putting the things we got over there. It turned out that their power was different and we had to convert everything so we could use our equipment. Vacuum systems, the whole thing, had to go and be packed.

My job at the time was to see that everything got there and to see that everything got back. Of course, after the conference everybody left back home, so it was only myself and another guy who were left there. I had a crew of twenty Italians and Frenchmen, and I did not speak French or Italian. I was in charge of having to see that every piece of equipment got back here. The only thing that did not get back here was a camera, amazingly enough, and about two months later the camera arrived. We took a lot of stuff, but we brought it all back.

Atencio: Did you represent the lab at any other conference overseas?

Salazar: Let me see. Well, yes, I worked at the Savannah River Plant. I was one of the members of the team that was sent there to discover the neutrino. That was an interesting experiment working right at the reactor. I remember we had to do the experiment right next to the reactor to capture the neutrino. We had these humongous tanks filled with liquid.

Amazing now how things have changed in the world. We built a wall with lead bricks. You know how lead now has become so you cannot touch it? We built a big lead wall around where we worked. The one thing that I can remember going into the reactor was what was in the reactor. They would load the reactor and the reactor would be going all the time, but we used to walk around the reactor. There was this humongous pool of water. They had the sources stuck in the water and the pool was blue, pure blue.

The most interesting thing I can remember there on the Savannah River Plant is how they loaded the nuclear rods into a train. They somehow drove in the train and were able to put in the radioactive sources that they delivered apparently to other reactors around the country. Being able to do that and after that, what happened, I do not know. I do not know how they got them over there.

Because of my legislative work, I have been to Nevada various times, because I was the Head of the Materials Waste Management Committee and I visited Las Vegas a lot. I went to Yucca Mountain before they even started the first hole. Later when they had a ton of them, they had various experiments all over the area there. Nobody could ever convince me, and I did not say much, how dry it was and everything else. Everywhere we went where there was a tunnel, there was a leak of water. I remember having those big sources underground and they stuck them in the ground there. Everywhere we went, even at Carlsbad, besides all that salt. I have gone through a lot of compartments there at Carlsbad site. Every once in a while, you saw a little drop of water in the salt. Obviously, you are supposed to have no water there.

I was reading yesterday, or the day before yesterday, about how safe it has been and how people were afraid. It is amazing how it is, that after all of that, so many people are so afraid of anything that is nuclear. We know better, we are better educated, we know safety issues.

When I started working with the laboratory there was no—I am sure you know the fact that there was no environmental regulations, no safety regulations, nothing. I mean you did a job because it had to be done. You did things and tabletop experiments all the time. I remember seeing when the lab came and had the first laser, this guy got a shot in his eye, he wanted to see how the laser worked! Things have changed a little bit and I think that the greatest hamper to research has been the safety and regulations. Obviously, we have to have environmental safety regulations. But it stopped a lot of the research that used to go on all the time. I think it kind of hindered it. We were doing a lot more things before than we did after that. Now you have to be accountable for everything. 

I did the first precious metal inventory at the laboratory way back in the Fifties. I would find pieces, huge chunks of gold; bookends or doorstops, and people did not care. I used to transport these humongous gold spheres, platinum spheres and silver spheres for basically nothing, and nobody checked me.

I do remember one thing: these guys who stole some gold. People stole some gold from CMR [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building]. I think it was Oklahoma City where they decided to stop for the night, and the guy went out on a binge and got drunk and got put in jail. Obviously, in jail, they search you and they found a lot of pieces of gold they had in their pocket. They decided to check the room, and sure enough they found bricks of gold. I was there when they brought him back. But that is how lax things were, and quite frankly, during the Manhattan Project, stories were all around.

People suffered from not being able to buy tires at the time, but employees at the laboratory had tires. They had a big garage. Some people used to say that, by golly, even motors were stolen! I do not know if that is true or not, but things were very lax. Things have turned out for the better I guess. Except for the fact of research, I think research has been hampered in a lot of ways by a lot of restrictions that go on. Scientists should be allowed to do testing. It is easier to do it on the tabletop than trying to cover every possible mistake, because that hinders time.

Schiferl: Let’s go back to the neutrino experiment. That meant you were working with Fred Reines.

Salazar: Fred Reines, Dr. Cowan, Clyde Cowan, and two other guys were there. Marty Warren, I don’t know if you remember Marty Warren. He was one of my best friends. It was very interesting – not only the experiment there. Clyde Cowan – I knew his father. His father used to work in the East Gate lab there. Clyde Cowan told me once, “You know, Nick, the best way to learn is to teach.” After the neutrino experiment, he actually quit and went to teach. Fred Reines, he is still around [misspoke: passed away in 1998]. But there were others. Marty Warren has passed away and some of the guys have passed away.

But coming back, it was the most interesting trip I have taken anywhere around the country, because we had this electronic trailer which was two feet higher than any other trailer, than the regular trailer. Coming back, we had to have an escort, and we had a guy that came in the road and measured every bridge across to see if we could go under it. If not, we had to go hundreds of miles around. From Savannah River, it took us something like seven days to get here, but we did make it. Then we had these humongous tanks full of liquid that could not leak. I guess people have found even smaller particles than the neutrino. But that was very interesting experiment.

We had this guy in a Cadillac, of all things. He was in a Cadillac driving behind us, so we could not drive more than fifteen, twenty miles an hour because of the liquid. Here is a guy who brought a brand-new Cadillac out there on Savannah River driving back at fifteen, twenty miles an hour all the way to Los Alamos.

I was also involved with a big generator that we have now here. I was in charge of clearing the way with the tribes and the roads, the highway department and everything. I remember we came from Espanola with the big generator. I do not remember how many tires that truck had. But we got it up there and they are still working. Now I think they have a contract with the University of Arizona? Florida State University, I think they have a contract with them to research magnetic fields effects, I guess. So I have been in some of the real interesting things that have happened at the laboratory.