The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Robert Bacher's Interview - Part 1

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 directed 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 the initial conference of Los Alamos laboratory leadership in 1943 and describes Oppenheimer’s relationships with Enrico Fermi and General Leslie Groves. He recounts how Oppenheimer improved as a lecturer, and remembers the excitement caused in the physics community by the development of quantum mechanics and the discovery of the neutron.

Robert Serber's Interview (1982)

Robert Serber was an American physicist. He was recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer to work on the Manhattan Project. Serber was tasked with explaining the basic principles and goals of the project to all incoming scientific staff. Moving to Los Alamos in 1943, he gave lectures to members of the Manhattan Project about the design and construction of the atomic bomb; these lectures came to be known as the “Los Alamos Primer." In this interview with Martin Sherwin, Serber talks about Oppenheimer and the physics community at Berkeley before the war. He recalls Oppenheimer’s relationships with his graduate students, and his own friendship with Oppie. Serber also gives his thoughts on Oppenheimer’s relationship with Jean Tatlock and Tatlock’s psychological issues.

Dorothy Ritter's Interview

Dorothy Ritter is the daughter of Manhattan Project veteran Francis Oley. Oley worked at the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, TN. His job required him and his family to move from New York to Oak Ridge. Ritter spent several years of her childhood in Oak Ridge. In this interview she reminisces about the simplicity of her life there, and discusses how living and working at Oak Ridge impacted her family. She recalls the strain her father was under during the project, and the house they lived in. She also explains how the excellent teachers she had at Oak Ridge influenced her to become a teacher.

William A. Fowler's Interview

William A. “Willie” Fowler was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Caltech, who knew J. Robert Oppenheimer from before the war. In this interview, he talks about how Oppenheimer and his “school” of students and post-docs would travel each year from the University of California, Berkeley to Caltech, where Oppenheimer had an appointment on the faculty. He describes how Oppenheimer’s theoretical knowledge and perspective supplemented the experimental research being conducted at Caltech, including Fowler’s own. He also talks about the lives and careers of other physicists who interacted with Oppenheimer in Pasadena, including Charles Lauritsen, Richard Tolman, and Robert Millikan. The interview concludes with a discussion of Fowler’s friendship with Frank and Jackie Oppenheimer.

Jack Widowsky's Interview

Jack Widowsky served as the navigator on the B-29 Top Secret at Wendover and Tinian during World War II. He participated in the mission to bomb Hiroshima as the navigator of the Big Stink, which was the backup strike plane on Iwo Jima. He flew as the navigator of the Laggin' Dragon, one of the weather reconnaissance planes, during the mission to Nagasaki. In this interview, he discusses his time in the 509th Composite Group. He begins by narrating his introduction to the 509th after enlisting in the Air Force. He describes the copious travelling he did as he and his crew trained to be a part of the team that would eventually drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two important themes of this interview are the intense security and secrecy the project necessitated, as well as the jovial camaraderie enjoyed by Widowsky and the other members of the 509th.

Stanislaus Ulam's Interview (1979)

Stanislaus Ulam was a Polish-American mathematician. He worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and later helped design the hydrogen bomb. In this interview, he discusses his work at Los Alamos and his relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, John von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, and other scientists. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s varied reputation within the physics community. In particular, Ulam was frustrated by Oppenheimer’s wordiness, which he and some other scientists perceived as pompous and superfluous. Ulam also explains his thoughts on creativity in math and physics, and why he is a proponent of nuclear power.

Kathleen Maxwell's Interview

Kathleen Maxwell was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project for the Kellex Corporation in Jersey City, New Jersey. The only female scientist in her division, she assisted in troubleshooting various operational, technical, and chemical challenges related to uranium enrichment. In this interview, she discusses the details of her work, as well as the long hours and secrecy. Maxwell describes her laboratory’s concerns over the effects of radiation exposure, and recalls that scientists underwent routine screenings, regular check-ups, and even took out extra insurance policies. She also reflects on the decision to drop the atomic bomb and the urgency of the project: “I have never been so absorbed in any one thing in my life.”

David Bohm's Interview

David Bohm was an American theoretical physicist who would later become a citizen of the United Kingdom. After finishing his undergraduate degree at the Pennsylvania State University in 1939, Bohm arrived at the University of California, Berkeley on a seemingly meteoric rise. However, during this same period he became affiliated with the Communist Party, which would ultimately undermine his chances for success in the United States. After being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, he was forced to continue his study of physics in other countries. In this interview, he discusses his time at Berkeley before and during the war and the left-wing movement at Berkeley. He describes his former mentor J. Robert Oppenheimer as a brilliant mind with occasional charisma that made him a strong administrator.

Mildred Goldberger's Interview

Mildred Goldberger was an American mathematician. She worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project. She was married to Marvin “Murph” Goldberger, a physicist who taught at Princeton during J. Robert Oppenheimer’s tenure as Director of the Institute for Advanced Study. In this interview, she gives a glimpse into what life was like in Princeton during the 1950s-60s. She discusses her relationship with the Oppenheimer family during this period and notes the Oppenheimers’ struggles to fit in with the rest of the Princeton community.

Joseph Rotblat's Interview

Joseph Rotblat was a British-naturalized Polish physicist, 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and founder of the Pugwash Conferences. Rotblat and his friend James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, conducted early research on the atomic bomb in England, and both joined the British Mission at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project. Rotblat left the Manhattan Project on grounds of conscience in late 1944 when it became clear Germany was not close to developing an atomic bomb—the only scientist to leave the project for moral reasons. In this interview, he discusses his personal and professional relationships with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, and the Chadwick family. He also provides insight into the intense security measures in place at Los Alamos, as well as the nature of British involvement at the site. Perhaps most intriguing is Roblat’s discussion of his decision to leave Los Alamos, spurred on by his growing concern that the nuclear weapons being created were also meant for the Soviet Union, and his anxiety over a postwar arms race. In a lighter vein, Rotblat also recalls his work as a technical advisor on the 1980 miniseries “Oppenheimer.”

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