The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Hal Behl's Interview

Hal Behl and his wife, Reggie, an art teacher, arrived in Oak Ridge in 1945. A member of the Special Engineer Detachment, Behl served as Assistant Supervisor in an Engineering Department laboratory at the K-25 plant. He focused mainly on designing and building laboratory, process, health physics, and quality assurance equipment. In this interview, Behl describes everyday life at Oak Ridge and his experiences renting various rooms around the “Secret City.” He also discusses how his Manhattan Project work helped lead to his postwar career in aerospace and weapon system technology.

Elsie McMillan's Lecture

Elsie McMillan was the wife of Nobel Prize winner Edwin McMillan and sister-in-law of another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Lawrence. She came to Los Alamos in 1943 with Edwin and their baby Ann. In this speech, she takes the audience on an imaginary tour of Los Alamos, complete with detailed descriptions of various buildings and their home, today known as the Hans Bethe House. Her speech characterizes what civilian life was like at Los Alamos for the wives of many scientists, including the challenges of shopping with ration cards and dealing with the tight security. She fondly recalls Pascualita, a Pueblo woman who helped her around her home and invited the McMillans to her home in the Pueblo. Elsie dramatically recalls the tension of the Trinity Test, waiting to find out whether the test was a success and that all the scientists were uninjured.

Edwin McMillan's Lecture

Edwin and Elsie McMillan were among the first people to arrive at Los Alamos. Edwin, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was involved in the initial selection of Los Alamos. In this lecture, Edwin describes visiting Jemez Springs and Los Alamos when he, Oppenheimer, and General Groves were deciding on the site for the weapons laboratory. McMillan also discusses his involvement in implosion research, the gun program, and recruiting scientists including Richard Feynman to the project at Princeton University. He also remembers requisitioning Harvard's cyclotron for the Manhattan Project.

Harold Cherniss's Interview - Part 1

Harold Cherniss was an American classicist. He initially met J. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley in 1929, and they reconnected after the war in Berkeley and later at the Institute for Advanced Study. In this interview, Cherniss reflects on his friendship with Oppenheimer and his experience with others who knew him. Among other subjects, he discusses Oppenheimer’s personality, intellectualism, friendships, and political leanings. He recalls Oppenheimer’s interest in literature, especially French poetry. Cherniss explains how and why Oppenheimer became interested in studying Sanskrit – because Oppie loved a challenge.

Baldwin Sawyer's Interview

Dr. Baldwin Sawyer was a metallurgist who worked at the Chicago Met Lab during the Manhattan Project. He got involved with the Manhattan Project through his father Charles Baldwin Sawyer, who conducted important research into beryllium. In this interview, Sawyer recounts his experiences during the war. He describes the challenges of developing the uranium canning process for the reactors at Hanford, the project’s sense of urgency, and the boardinghouse he lived in on the South Side of Chicago. He also explains his postwar work with quartz and the pioneering research he conducted into silicon at Bell Laboratories.

Geoffrey Chew's Interview

Geoffrey Chew was an undergraduate studying physics at George Washington University when he assisted Washington Post journalist (and future children’s novelist) Jean Craighead in writing an article on atomic weapons. His professor, George Gamow, recommended that Chew join Edward Teller’s team at Los Alamos. At Los Alamos, Chew witnessed the Trinity Test from a nearby mountain and worked on Teller’s ideas for developing the hydrogen bomb. In graduate school, Chew was supervised by Enrico Fermi. In this interview, Chew recounts his unique entrance to the Manhattan Project and his relationship with Edward Teller. He also recalls an incident when Fermi had trouble playing a game at a party, his conversation with an intelligence man on the Craighead article, and serving as John von Neumann’s “human computer.” Finally, Chew discusses his current research on the Big Bang.

Robert Bacher's Interview - Part 2

In 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer recruited American physicist Robert Bacher to join the Manhattan Project as head of the experimental physics division at Los Alamos. Bacher went on to direct the bomb physics division at Los Alamos from 1944 to 1945, helping oversee the design of the implosion bomb, known as “Fat Man,” that was dropped on Nagasaki. In this interview, Bacher recalls how the Los Alamos laboratory was forced to shift gears from the gun-type design for the plutonium bomb to the implosion-type method. He also describes his post-war service as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Robert R. Wilson's Interview

Robert R. Wilson was an American physicist. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where he first met Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer recruited Wilson and his entire group at Princeton to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos on the cyclotron. After arriving at Los Alamos in 1944, Wilson became head of the Research Division. In this interview, Wilson reflects on his time working with Oppie, including his personality, political views, and Oppenheimer’s unwillingness to engage him on the moral implications of building the bomb. He discusses Oppenheimer’s controversial security hearing and recalls how it affected Oppenheimer. Wilson recalls how he and other scientists fought against Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce in retaliation for Strauss’s role in the hearing.

Joseph Papalia's Interview

Joseph Papalia is an official historian of the 509th Composite Group, the US Army Air Force unit created specifically for dropping atomic bombs. Papalia, who served in the Air Force in the 1950s, became interested in the 509th later in his life. He began attending 509th reunions, held annually, and became friends with many veterans of the group, as well as with other historians who focused on the unit. In this interview, he describes how the reunions have changed as the veterans have grown older or passed away, as well as how they view their role in the atomic bombings and their legacy. He also tells anecdotes about members of the unit, including Colonel Paul Tibbets and Captain Bob Lewis. He shares examples of the 509th memorabilia and artifacts that he has collected over the years.

Marvin Wilkening's Interview (1995)

Marvin Wilkening was a physicist whose work took him through the Grand Circuit of the Manhattan Project: Chicago, Oak Ridge, Hanford, Los Alamos and Trinity. He worked closely with Enrico Fermi and describes his deep respect for Fermi’s intuition. In this interview with a former student, Wilkening discusses his involvement with the Manhattan Project and what his thoughts were when witnessing the Trinity Test. He explains his work during the Trinity Test to estimate what percentage of the fissionable material actually took part in the explosion. He finishes with a discussion of teaching physics.