The Manhattan Project

Thomas O. Jones' Interview

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Thomas O. Jones volunteered to join the Army before the start of WWII. As the war began to unfold in Europe, Jones was placed in a sub-organization of the Army called the Counterintelligence Corps. Eventually, his work in the Counterintelligence Corps led him to being involved with the Manhattan Project. Jones oversaw many of the operations taking place in places like Chicago, Decatur and Ames, IA. He recounts witnessing three of the five bomb testings during his time working on the nuclear weapons program.
Date of Interview: 
August 9, 2002
Location of the Interview: 

I was in the Army drafted, classified for counter-intelligence work for reasons I will never understand.  I got into that, investigative work as an enlisted man and after about a year I was commissioned also in counter-intelligence work.  I continued there in the 6th service command in Chicago in that kind of work.  One day to my surprise I found myself in the main office of the G-2 part of the service command there.  A man from Washington was due there, an officer, for unspecified reasons.  It happened to be a day on which there was a large meeting elsewhere and a substitute boss man was there, a colonel, and the junior man in the whole place was there, and that was myself.  When the mysterious officer from Washington came in it turned out that he wanted to interview all possible officers with the purpose of recruiting one to represent a new project that was coming up and he wanted a contact point in that office for that project. [inaudible]  

I soon, therefore, found myself interviewing for this man who spoke in very vague terms about a secret new organization which would be growing and they would need more than one man obviously and they would need one office in Chicago for that purpose.  Since there was no one there to interview but myself, he interviewed me.  It seemed that I would do for the purpose. I am sure he was disappointed they only had one candidate, but that’s one of the chances you take when you don’t people ahead of time why you’re coming to see them.  

At any rate, he said he would suggest my name as a contact point.  In the meantime he said he wanted to introduce me to someone that represented that project locally named Compton.  I said “Arthur Compton.”  He said yes.  I knew Arthur Compton’s field and I thought “What is this?”  He took me down there to meet Compton so that I would be able to do my contact-man work down at the university.  On the way down I told him that not many years previously I had been a tent-mate of Arthur Compton Junior at a boys camp in northern Wisconsin.  I had seen him a couple of times, the younger Compton, to at a club a couple of times to swim and have lunch at the grill.  We met Compton and I was introduced to Prof. Compton’s assistant, Prof. Hilberry who for some time was a good friend and a valuable contact down there.  I was told that the officer from Wash had left a top secret letter for the local Chicago service command information saying, “This new contact person is going to be around and he is representing a very high priority contact.  Take good care of him and give him all the help he needs.  An office will eventually be set up and he’ll be full time and have this office under his supervision.”  

That came true.  It happened and business picked-up.  I stayed with them full time.  Presently there were many other goings on in several states represented by this office, a large Chrysler plant in Detroit, two Aliss Chalmers plants in Milwaukee, Mallinckrodt Chemical in St. Louis and another big plant in Decatur, IL and also a large research program in Ames, IO.  This grew into many thousands of employees and something like six locations, so I had small branch offices all over the Midwest with a huge number of employees in the general business, except in the research programs, of constructing large programs on twenty-four hour constructing schedules for the general purpose of supplying to Oak Ridge and Hanford the equipment and materials they needed in order to do their job so that the necessary products could be amassed and finally go to Los Alamos, into making the actual weapons.

That went on for a couple of years and was a thriving organization.  We kept in touch with Washington and Oak Ridge.  Much later I was sitting in the office, by then I had all of our plants going, bear in mind I was not presiding over these plants for all purposes but just for the security aspects of what they needed.  Another call came from the man who had recruited me initially and he said, “Tom, Peer De Silva has taken another position and we want you to succeed him, can you be out there next Thursday?”  

And I said, “Yes sir.”  In the Army they like you to say that.  He was leaving promptly.  That made me the intelligence officer at Los Alamos.  With not so many individual manufacturing plants but there was plenty going on at Los Alamos and among those things was the bomb test which was just a few months away and I learned with dismay that this would be a major event with a very high TNT equivalent blast.  

My role in that situation was to see whether this bomb went “pfump” or whether it took half of the state of NM into the air and perhaps into flights around the world.  The technical work was proceeding well and it seemed that it would be done on time.  That was not my job.  My role in that situation was to see that whatever happened, nobody noticed.  In the meantime we had various other problems and personnel security clearance situation and high personnel problems. 

This was a critical time in the history of the project and it was necessary to see that security and anything else did not impede.  I had particular contacts with Robert Oppenheimer.  He was having some misgivings at the time, one of my charges was to see that things went smoothly there.  I am glad to say that we became good friends.  Things went smoothly on that score.  It was a very busy time and we had some luck.  It turns out a few things naturally happened. 

Some people saw this test, which was early.  I viewed this situation from the top of the Hilton Hotel in Albuquerque and had people circled around the test site as far down as El Paso and Amarillo, TX, so that we were in touch during the interval before the test and immediately after getting calls from the situation seeing if anything unusual had occurred in which case we would be in a very good position from a communications stand point. We were in touch with the test site itself where there were many VIP spectators as well as some of the Los Alamos’s staff people. 

General Groves called me to see how things are going and to tell me that it worked—which we all already knew because the initial flash of white light from the explosion was brilliant, followed by the immense red condition of the sky and took quite a while to subside.  The General wanted me to go over the Kirkland air force base.  He said, “You already have a stop order on all air traffic in a certain area.  You are hereby instructed to continue to keep all traffic out of that area until further notice.”  But without having shaved recently, I told him to keep traffic out.  I think he wondered who I was a little bit, but luckily I had my intelligence credentials with me. 

I stayed with that situation and Oppenheimer and other left, of course a few weeks after the surrender of Japan.  And we were naturally involved with that.  And traffic between Los Alamos and Wendover field…I stayed in the army after that to take part in the Manhattan Project’s part in the first peaceful atomic bomb tests in Kwajalein in the Pacific.  We had laboratory ships and that sort of thing, largely with Los Alamos people.  So I went out for that occasion and stayed in the Army for that long which means that I saw three of the first five bomb blasts and found it very interesting. After the Bikini test I returned to home and was discharged from the army and returned to civilian life.

Well the thing to know is we developed and put into action a new type of weapon of unprecedented qualities and we know also the results of research and development did not stop there.  The weapon was unbelievably more powerful than the model-T models that we used and this kind of thing can go on indefinitely in taking different directions.  This means it is increasingly imperative that we understand that in my particular case I believe we have here a force going that has the capability of ending the human race’s time of living on this planet, particularly if we get that sort of weapon in the new type of attack that featured September 11th—the terror approach.  It has derived from the atomic bomb program and has taken all kinds of new twists and turns.  It will require a realization and an alertness on which we have not kept up the techniques which we should have.  And it will be important to take care of our lack and to see the public opinion realizes the importance of this and the delicacy of the diplomatic and other work that has to go along with this.