The Manhattan Project

Robert J.S. Brown's Interview

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Robert JS Brown was a member of the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos. He worked under Don Hornig on the electrical aspects of detonation for the plutonium bomb. In this interview, Brown discusses how he was recruited into the SED and his experience as an army member at Los Alamos. He also talks about the friends he made at Los Alamos as well as his encounters with famous spies. Brown also gives his opinion on the necessity of having Oppenheimer and Groves run the Manhattan Project.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 3, 2015
Location of the Interview: 
Washington DC

Robert JS Brown: I'm Robert JS Brown.

Robert S. Norris: You are recording this oral history for the Atomic Heritage Foundation on June third, two thousand fifteen in Washington, DC.

Brown: Yes, right.

Robert S. Norris: How did you become involved in the Manhattan Project? Can you tell us about that?

Robert JS Brown: Like most people in the Army it just happened; the Army sent them there and they do not know why. However, like many people about my age I started college in fall of ‘42 and very soon had to go in the Army. I had the great good luck to be sent for nine months to Ohio State in this ISTP program to study electrical engineering. I was then sent to Los Alamos which of course I had never heard of and made very good use of what I had learned in electronics.

Norris: Did you become part of the Special Engineer Detachment?

Brown: I was in the Special Engineering.

Norris: You were in SED.

Brown: The SED, yes.

Norris: Who did you work with at Los Alamos?

Brown: I worked under Don Hornig.

Norris: Under Hornig. What did you do for Dr. Hornig?

Brown: I worked on electrical aspects of detonation for the spherical bomb which involved delivering large amounts of electric power in a very short time very simultaneously to many points around this sphere.

Norris: When did you really know that you were working on an atomic bomb?

Brown: Well, when I first knew at least for sure there was a meeting someplace that involved both the white badge and the blue badge people. The white badge people could be in on all of these things. I was blue badge. And George Kistiakowsky, high up, well, head of the division I was in, dismissed all of the white badge people and told the rest of us what the project was all about.

Norris: Really?

Brown: I do not think he was supposed to.

Norris: So that is when you learned that you were actually working on an atomic bomb?

Brown: Yes it was. I had a clue and then shortly after that I got the white badge.

Norris: And got even more information about what was going on.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Who were some of your colleagues under Dr. Hornig?

Brown: Well, actually I put a list in my pocket of names that I recognized there.

Norris: Good. Did I get the wrong list there?

Brown: No.

Norris: Wrong end of it.

Brown: But in that group a fair list of names. You want me to actually?

Norris: Tell us who they all were.

Brown: I worked under Don Hornig. I also from time to time saw his wife Lilli Hornig. In fact, rode with them up to Colorado skiing one time. Then Keith Henderson was a friend. Tony or J. Anton Hoffman, son of the then famous chemist Joseph Hoffman.

Norris: Really?

Brown: Ben Bederson who is here.

Norris: Yes, I saw him.

Brown: Warren Key, an ensign in the Navy, well, Ying Halvern, the Ying is a nickname. Commander in the Navy Stevenson, Monty Smith, Frank Fortine, John McNamara, another ensign Navy, Marvin Wyman, Rick Condit, and many times he and his wife had me to their place, which taught me how to ski. Art Carson, Dick Beechum and then also his wife Jane, they had me to their place many times. Martin Stearns, Marshall Rugal, he simultaneously went through NYU and what is the other, conservatory. He was a superb pianist. And Gunther Rudinberg, Phil Moon and I’ve also been at their place with his wife. He was from—

Norris: He was British.

Brown: From Birmingham.

Norris: He was from here.

Brown: Don Harms, and I ran into a son or grandson right here at this meeting, John McNamara and George Caplin. Those were in my group. The list has others.

Norris: So you were given a white badge rather than a blue badge.

Brown: Eventually, yes.

Norris: Eventually.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: In what ways did the security of all of this affect you? Was it noticeable? You were told not to say anything to anyone, I suppose.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Did you notice any security people around? In what ways was the secrecy of the project—?

Brown: There were a few times when they came and asked people lots of questions because some letter had been sent. One time they examined all the typewriters in the place to find which one typed something.

Norris: Really?

Brown: However, I was not really aware of the two or three people there who later turned out—I was in the same barracks as I have forgotten the name.

Norris: [Klaus] Fuchs? [Ted] Hall?

Brown: No, in the Army.

Norris: Theodore Hall?

Brown: No.

Unidentified Female: David.

Norris: Greenglass.

Brown: Greenglass, yes, I was a couple bunks away from him.

Norris: No kidding.

Brown: I did not really know him.

Norris: He later turned out to be someone who gave information to Soviet Union.

Brown: But I did not know him. And actually at a party I was introduced to Klaus Fuchs.

Norris: Really? What was your impression, do you remember?

Brown: The main reason I remember the name is how carefully the woman that introduced us pronounced his name. A very serious person but I did not get acquainted.

Norris: He was a pretty good scientist.

Brown: We briefly exchanged a few words but did not know anything about him.

Norris: Do you remember the exact date that you went to Los Alamos? It was nineteen forty—?

Brown: Well, I cannot name the date but it was late February or early March of 1944.

Norris: ‘44. So you were there about a year and a half and then the bomb went off. Where were you when—what about the test bomb at Trinity?

Brown: Well, I am the last one that hooked any wires to it.

Norris: Really?

Brown: My boss Don Hornig was asked by [J. Robert] Oppenheimer to babysit it during the night because of a storm the shot was delayed.

Norris: So you were there during the Trinity explosion, the test explosion and helped prepare it.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: It was successful, of course.

Brown: Yes. We al said, “Thank goodness.”

Norris: All of that hard work went into making it a success. Did you ever run into General [Leslie] Groves or have any contact with him? The Army General.

Brown: Well, the time of the test even shared a restroom. No, I never had any conversation with him.

Norris: What about Oppenheimer?

Brown: Well, I did. In fact, at the time of the test, the test as I mentioned was delayed because of a thunderstorm and hail storm. There was a so-called rehearsal for the test the day before and there was a misfire because there were thousand foot long wires out in the desert and during a thunderstorm it did not surprise anybody that some unwanted signal had come in. So after that misfire Oppenheimer told me that he thought that we should have tested everything to destruction.

Norris: Really?

Brown: He was alarmed that it did not work, that is misfired. I told him that my boss, Don Hornig, had asked not to carry out even the rehearsal during an electrical storm. It was no surprise that things misfired. It turned out that there was a rush to do the test that we did not know about because Truman wanted to know whether it worked or not at the time of this Potsdam conference.

Norris: That is right, that is right. Oppenheimer must have been very nervous, just a bundle of nerves.

Brown: He was worn to a frazzle, yes, and it was sort of evident.

Norris: It was evident even visibly. He had lost weight and smoking and all of these bad habits. So you were there at the test and then, well, you knew that there was going to be the use of the bomb soon afterwards.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Where were you then? You were I suppose back on the hill.

Brown: And listening to the radio because we knew—

Norris: It was coming at some point.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Some of your colleagues probably disappeared.

Brown: Well, some went over there.

Norris: Yes, some went over there, a team, to the island, to help with—

Brown: But I did not.

Norris: You did not; you stayed on the hill. First there was the use of the Hiroshima bomb, uranium bomb and then the second bomb was the fat man bomb which had the implosion.

Brown: And that is the one that I—

Norris: You worked on. Then how soon afterwards did you leave Los Alamos?

Brown: I can be specific, not until February 17th of the next year.

Norris: Of the next year.

Brown: That is the date I was discharged from the Army.

Norris: So you were still the SED at that point?

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Basically you are in the Army.

Brown: I was still in the Army, yes.

Norris: And you were then discharged.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: What did you do afterwards?

Brown: Go back to school.

Norris: You went back to school and got your degree?

Brown: Yes, well, I had started at Cal Tech just before I had to go in the Army. I returned and got a BS there. And then went to Minnesota for graduate work, gauges and physics.

Norris: So you did not even have a college degree?

Brown: Oh no, no.

Norris: When you first were at Los Alamos.

Brown: Did not even finish one year. Except I had an academic year at Ohio State in the Army.

Norris: And you had the ASTP or Army Specialized training program which was a kind of a funnel. It kind of directed intelligent young Army GIs into—

Brown: Yes, sir. All that were in the SED were with me at that ASTP, including Ben Bederson.

Norris: And he went on to be I think a professor at NYU.

Brown: NYU.

Norris: So you eventually got your doctorate at Minnesota.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: And what did you do then for the rest of your career?

Brown: My first job was in research, oil field research with what is now Chevron Oil Company, Standard [Oil] in California. And my entire career within one job.

Norris: And you stayed in that. You raised a family?

Brown: Yes.

Norris: And had children. Did you ever speak about your Los Alamos days?

Brown: Yes.

Norris: They knew about it?

Brown: Yes. I know some people say their parents or something never—

Norris: Never said a word.

Brown: I did not describe classified information about how something worked.

Norris: No, but in general you told them that you had worked on—

Brown: Right, the people I knew or heard.

Norris: I suppose your colleagues at the—what was the name of the place where you worked, Chevron? No, it was—

Brown: They started calling themselves Chevron a while after I started to work. The laboratory was in La Habra, California and I had to be centered there my entire career. It was oil field research as opposed to refinery and chemicals and products and all of that.

Norris: I suppose your colleagues there, they knew you worked on the bomb?

Brown: Oh yes.

Norris: So you were kind of a special person that—

Brown: Well-

Norris: Over the years did you ever see any of your colleagues, SED people, the people that you mentioned before? Did you have any opportunities of visiting Los Alamos, reunions, maybe neighbors that were nearby that you once worked with?

Brown: Well, I had visited Los Alamos a couple of times without seeing anybody that was there during the war. It happened that several people from Minnesota took jobs there after the war. I am still in contact at least with whatever one of those at Los Alamos but that was after the war.

Norris: During the time that you were at Los Alamos and working on the bomb did you always have confidence that it would work? Did you ever feel as though—?

Brown: Not exactly. There are so many things that could go wrong that you worry that one of them might.

Norris: It might not work. So you were very happy after the Trinity test that gave confidence to everybody that things were being done correctly. And of course the Hiroshima bomb did not need to be tested at all but the scientists were very confident that it would work. That was really testimony to how clever or how knowledgeable those people were.

Brown: And what a good job they did.

Norris: And what a good job they did. So the quality of the people beginning with Oppenheimer and other people, well, Hornig and [George] Kistiakowsky and [Hans] Bethe, all of these were very, very smart clever people.

Brown: Well the place was full of not only smart but famous people and a lot of not famous but also smart.

Norris: There were a few Nobel Prize winners already there. A couple of times Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist visited Los Alamos.

Brown: He was there for a while, more than visited.

Norris: Oh, you knew he was there?

Brown: Anyway, I never actually spoke with him but I recall him on the ski slope. He was already sort of old from the viewpoint of a twenty year old.

Norris: But you knew he was around and he would come.

Brown: These people were not called by their real names. Over the paging system he was Dr. Nicholas Baker. And still the NB.

Norris: But then they gave code names. What about Enrico Fermi?

Brown: Well, almost every Saturday night I went to square dance and he and his wife and daughter came to that. I should mention or at least at some time that later the nearby Indian village of San Ildefonso invited the square dance group for a dance evening. We did their dances; they did ours. I took pictures there. I have one of Enrico Fermi being introduced to Maria Martinez.

Norris: Oh, the famous potter.

Brown: Yes, and she was essentially the matriarch of that Indian village.

Norris: She is quite famous. Very famous. So where did you live at Los Alamos?

Brown: Barracks.

Norris: In the barracks?

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Very primitive, I suppose, not very fancy. It was okay.

Brown: They were reasonably warm. There were stoves in there. There were showers.

Norris: And did you ever visit Santa Fe, for example?

Brown: Occasionally yes.

Norris: Occasionally they let you go.

Brown: For instance, at fiesta time, each year which was colorful and fun to visit.

Norris: So there was a social life at Los Alamos in addition to the hard work that you did every day?

Brown: Oh yes.

Norris: Square dancing. And even visiting—it is too bad you did not buy any of the pots of Mrs. Martinez. You would be a wealthy man, a very wealthy man. I see Antiques Roadshow they sometimes have her pots.

Brown: I did one time in a neighboring Canyon make a little effort and climb up to a cave that had been inhabited and found small shards of a pot from very long ago.

Norris: So when you visited Santa Fe was it—you were told not to say anything?

Brown: Oh that is right.

Norris: You were told not to say anything.

Brown: Not any unnecessary conversations, not to say anything.

Norris: That is right. General Groves who was in charge of the whole business was very concerned with security.

Brown: Oh yes.

Norris: And with scientists just talking about this and that. So if you went to Santa Fe there were probably some of these agents.

Brown: Oh yes, I did not know anything about it but yes, I understand there were.

Norris: Keeping an eye on you.

Brown: It makes sense.

Norris: This is a big secret. It was a big secret. It was a big secret.

Brown: You know, the mail was censored in both directions, not just what I sent out but what came in.

Norris: What came in, right.

Brown: They read it to see if it showed having given out any information.

Norris: I know. So you were watched even though you were not aware all the time that you were being watched.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: But there was strict security on all sorts of things. How did you feel after the bomb was used and war came to an end? Was that a sense of accomplishment?

Brown: Yes but you might say relief that nothing went wrong.

Norris: Relief?

Brown: Oppenheimer famously said this thing from the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am destroyer of worlds.” But I think he, too, like almost everybody was immensely relieved that nothing went wrong.

Norris: Absolutely, I know. And so was General Groves saying it.

Brown: Oh my goodness, oh yes.

Norris: And that it has a role in ending the war, a war that had gone on for many, many years and thousands of GIs were in the Pacific.

Brown: That was right.

Norris: Being killed and some of them were perhaps engaged in a forthcoming invasion of Japan. And the bomb prevented all of that.

Brown: It also prevented the corresponding Japanese casualties. There are casualties for the two bomb shots but many people figure that there would have been even more Japanese casualties in an invasion.

Norris: And of course every day the conventional bombing was going on. Curtis LeMay and B29s and conventional bombs were being dropped on Japan.

Brown: Well, the conventional bombing of Tokyo killed as many as one of those nuclear bombs.

Norris: I know. But you did have a sense at the time of I would think having a role in ending a horrible war.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: That is what the bomb helped to do.

Brown: Well, a lot of us on the project had a sense of urgency and all of that without always focusing on killing a bunch of Germans or Japanese, just a sense of urgency and purpose.

Norris: But there was no doubt in your mind that at some point if this thing worked it was going to be used.

Brown: Yes, that is right.

Norris: That was the momentum of the project.

Brown: Yes, that is right.

Norris: General Groves was pushing everybody to work harder and faster and through Oppenheimer.

In the beginning Oppenheimer was viewed as someone—why did they choose him? He has no administrative experience. He is a theoretical physicist. Yet he turned into a charismatic leader.

Brown: Yes, I was about to say exactly that. He did, indeed. He gave some talks and they really got to people.

Norris: Apparently one of the things that he did was to help solve problems but make everybody feel as though they had a part in solving the problem.

Brown: He did that very well.

Norris: He did that very well and I think that is one of the attributes of his leadership and why people thought so highly of him who worked under him. In the beginning he seemed like an odd choice.

Brown: Yes, a lot of people apparently thought so.

Norris: But General Groves thought he is my man, he is the man. Of course he had a background of left this even some political views that were way over there but that did not interfere with his job. I think he was very ambitious and after the war became a famous person on the cover of Time and then got into some trouble with his security clearance. People were after him and you followed all of that after the war and probably felt—how did you feel about all of that, the treatment of Oppenheimer? This was in the early fifty-three.

Brown: I really resented all of that; it wasn’t fair to Oppenheimer.

Norris: It was not fair. He was being mistreated.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: And later we found out that he absolutely was, that people had a vendetta against him. But the people who worked with him, for him, stood up for him for the most part during that terrible trial that he went through which really ruined him. It really destroyed him. Did you ever know Parsons, William Parsons?

Brown: I have seen him around but not—

Norris: He was on the ordinance team there and he was another high person at the laboratory under Oppenheimer.

Brown: I know who he was, I had seen him around but I had never talked with him.

Norris: Well, we have touched upon Fermi and Bohr and all of these quite famous people. Many people after the war got Nobel Prizes. Val Fitch, did you ever know Val?

Brown: Yes, went on outings with him. Yes I knew him.

Norris: He was in SED.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: And later got a Nobel Prize.

Brown: Yes, I know. I visited him in Princeton later. Another person that eventually got one was Fred Reines. He and his wife were civilians. He and his wife had me to dinner many times. He gave some lectures on mathematics of soap bubbles and taught me a little bit of calculus of variations.

Norris: Isn’t he one of the people who talked about the change in the climate?

Brown: I do not know about—

Norris: The amount of carbon that would go into the atmosphere would eventually warm the planet?

Brown: I do not know about his—

Norris: I think he might be one of the people who did that.

Brown: He was also a very good singer. He was in—programs were put on—there were no outside shows coming in.

Norris: So you had to use your talent that was among the laboratory people. In Fuller Lodge, in the big building?

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Is that where you took your meals?

Brown: No, I was in the Army. We had a mess hall, not Fuller Lodge.

Norris: So even though you were in SED working for Hornig you were still just in the Army and kind of a lesser person than the other—

Brown: I suppose.

Norris: So there was some segregation.

Brown: Really the SEDs were treated pretty well by—not looked down on too much by the civilians.

Norris: You were not on the battlefield.

Brown: And we were glad.

Norris: And you should have been glad for that because—

Brown: Yes I was.

Norris: Because they eventually ended the ASTP program later in the war because they did need more infantry people.

Brown: Well, maybe. I do not know just when the program was ended.

Norris: But you were on the front end.

Brown: Early 1944 is when—

Norris: I think later that year they ended the ASTP.

Brown: That is probably—yes.

Norris: Those people who were destined to maybe to get the courses at the different universities, off to the battlefield.

Brown: Yes, I think so.

Norris: I think so. I think you were among the lucky ones.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: And had a good experience eventually as an SED. Did you ever know Arnold Kramish? Kramish, Arnold, he was in SED, too.

Brown: No.

Norris: But I do not think he was—might have been at Los Alamos. Later you found out that some of these people that you had observed committed espionage. You mentioned Fuchs. Did you ever know Theodore Hall?

Brown: No.

Norris: He worked for Rossi, Bruno Rossi.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: He worked under him.

Brown: Well, for a little while I was in an electronics construction group, built some stuff for Rossi.

Norris: In 1950 Fuchs was discovered as a spy, do you remember that?

Brown: Yes. I was not in the Army.

Norris: No, you were long gone, you had started your career and everything. But you sort of—

Brown: I read about it, could not help reading about it, it was everywhere.

Norris: I know, it was all over the newspapers here. At that time he was a German communist who became part of the British team and came to eventually Los Alamos and then went back to England and was discovered to be a spy in England and put into prison.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Did you ever have any contact with Edward Teller?

Brown: Yes, well, one was he gave a quantum mechanics course to just anybody that wanted to come. And even though he is the famous hawk it was notable that when he thought something was interesting or cute he would break into a sort of giggle talking about it. And in this quantum mechanics course he gave a discussion of Showengerdt’s cap. There is a new book out which my son just got for me. It’s about Einstein’s dice and Showengerdt’s cap. But he would tell about that and then break into this giggle.

Norris: Of course he became quite famous as a kind of antagonist to Oppenheimer. What about Richard Feynman? Did you ever—?

Brown: He gave a bunch of talks. I have talked briefly with him just wondering around a couple of times. Then after the war I went back as an undergraduate at Cal Tech and Feynman was there.

Norris: So a lot of people felt it worked, relief, I am going back to Chicago, to Cal Tech, to Berkley, wherever. But some of them stayed and Oppenheimer left and gave over the responsibility to Bradbury, Norris Bradbury.

Brown: Bradbury.

Norris: So at that kind of crucial time what did you see ahead? Was the Soviet Union already kind of a menace? What was this laboratory going to do? Were you going to make more bombs or what? It was kind of ambiguous what direction would be taken after the war. We know what happened. We know that the United States built tens of thousands of nuke elevens and there was a second laboratory at Livermore and so on. But in 1945 and 1946, that time that you were still there, what did the world look like? There was great satisfaction that this horrible war was over.

Brown: That really was the main thing a lot of people felt including me. I did not really know very much about the future and in particular all the problems there would be with the Soviet Union. I just was not all that conscious of that at the time.

Norris: But of course the one big fight right in the fall of ’45 and the beginning of ‘46 is the United States going to leave it in the hands of the Army, the Manhattan Project? Or is it going to be a civilian organization, the Atomic Energy Commission? So there was that really battle about what was going to be done with whatever future atomic energy had. And of course it turned out that it was put in civilian hands.

Brown: I thought that was—

Norris: That was a wise choice. I think everybody did. General Groves was sort of the symbol after the war. We cannot leave it in his hands, he is a military man and he is the Army so we have to go in another direction. I honestly even think that General Groves, he did not want the Army to continue to control it. He had talked about—

Brown: —that very much.

Norris: But there were a group of scientists who organized themselves, you were gone by then I think. You would have gone back to school. But this fight, if you will, which was a policy issue in Washington.

Brown: There was this union of atomic scientists.

Norris: The Federation of Atomic Scientists?

Brown: Yes.

Norris: All of those scientists wanted the civilian and eventually Truman agreed with them, crafted the Atomic Energy Act and so on.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: You knew a lot of classified information.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Was that ever a problem after the war?

Brown: Not really. I did not divulge a lot of that.

Norris: You knew what to say and what not to say.

Brown: Yes. It was not a very big problem.

Norris: It really did not have anything to do with your new job, with your different job.

Brown: That is right.

Norris: So it was history; it was left behind. So we have got a few more minutes here before ten o’clock. So you have come back more than seventy years, wow.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: And seen some of your old friends, Ben and—

Brown: Just one, Ben Bederson. Another one of my best friends was Hans Courant who was on the list here but he has not shown up.

Norris: Turned up, yes, I do not know. So you knew him as well.

Brown: I knew him quite well; I was in a group with him.

Norris: And where do you live now?

Brown: In Pomona, California.

Norris: You came all the way from California.

Brown: I have with me my daughter who is a professor in Claremont of Pomona College and son Eric who was an architect with the University of California Santa Barbara.

Norris: Very good. Well, I am very glad that you made the trip and that you seem—how old are you?

Brown: Ninety.

Norris: You are ninety, wow. So you were a very young man when you—

Brown: I was still in my teens when I arrived, just barely.

Norris: When you arrived at Los Alamos.

Brown: Yes, I was still a teenager.

Norris: Wow.

Brown: I had not thought of it that way but yes.

Norris: That is what you were. Well, there were a lot of young people.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Your SED.

Brown: Oh many of them were just about that age.

Norris: Ones that are here now have to be ninety, ninety-one?

Brown: Yes, that is right.

Norris: Ninety-two? So you seem still in good health. Have you ever written anything about your experience? Have you ever had any oral histories before with—?

Brown: I do not know about oral. I live in a retirement community and quite a while ago a person there assembled material and published a book on what people in that community had done during World War II.

Norris: Wow. That is interesting.

Brown: So the second volume of that has a chapter largely written—

Norris: About you?

Brown: Yes.

Norris: Did you ever go to Oak Ridge?

Brown: Well, when I was being sent from Ohio State to Los Alamos we were first sent to Oak Ridge and stayed there about a week there deciding who goes where. All I knew about Oak Ridge was that there was a lot of mud around and wooden walkways over the mud.

Norris: Terrible place.

Brown: I did not learn anything about—and then some of the people from Ohio State that is the Army stayed at Oak Ridge and worked there.

Norris: Yes, some of the SEDs.

Brown: Yes.

Norris: But you went on to Los Alamos.

Brown: Yes.