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 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.
Esther Floth worked as a secretary for General Leslie Groves during the Manhattan Project in Washington, DC. Her job afforded her the opportunity to meet leading Manhattan Project officials and scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Ernest Lawrence, and others. She went on to work for the Atomic Energy Commission after the war. In this interview, Esther recalls the secrecy of the project, including getting her top-secret clearance, and what everyday life during the war was like. She recounts General Groves’s leadership qualities and how he interacted with her and other Manhattan Project staff. Floth also describes her response to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Oppenheimer’s security trial.
Roy Glauber was just eighteen years old when he was selected to leave his studies at Harvard to join the work of the Los Alamos Laboratory on the Manhattan Project. After the war, he would go on to lead a distinguished academic career, receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005. In this interview, Glauber discusses his interactions with J. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos and later at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He explains why Oppenheimer was so admired by the scientists at Los Alamos and the qualities that made him an excellent director of the Los Alamos laboratory. Glauber also recalls Oppenheimer’s successes and challenges as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, his interactions with other scientists and mathematicians, and how having his security clearance revoked appeared to have broken him.
Lee DuBridge is a prominent American physicist whose work at Caltech, Rochester, and MIT and the Atomic Energy Commission led to interactions with J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, he discusses how the AEC felt about testing the hydrogen bomb in context of the nuclear arms race, explaining why many members of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee were initially against moving ahead with a crash program on the hydrogen bomb. He also explains the confusion over using nuclear weapons tactically versus strategically. DuBridge recalls his efforts to support Oppenheimer during Oppie’s security hearing. Most notably, he remarks that as early as a year before the charges were brought against Oppenheimer, people were aware of trouble brewing for Oppie. DuBridge also remembers a visit he made to NATO headquarters with Oppenheimer, and how warmly Oppie was welcomed.
Norris Bradbury worked as a physicist on the Manhattan Project and served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1945-1970. In this interview, he recalls the challenges of running LANL and how he admired the way J. Robert Oppenheimer had managed it during the war. He explains the decision behind moving ahead with developing the hydrogen bomb, and why Oppenheimer opposed it. Bradbury recalls how the transfer of nuclear weapons control from military to civilian hands went, and how he and his staff interfaced with the Atomic Energy Commission. He also discusses the personality and legacy of Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and Edward Teller.
Louis Hempelmann was the director of the Health Group at Los Alamos. He and his wife Elinor became close friends with J. Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer. In this interview, Hempelmann discusses the lives of Peter and Toni Oppenheimer, Robert and Kitty’s children. He recalls visiting the Oppenheimer home on St. John’s in the Caribbean, and explains that all the Oppenheimer homes were decorated in a rather focused, austere manner. He remembers Oppenheimer’s concern that he was being followed or secretly recorded after the war, as well as Oppie’s incredible ability to speed read. Hempelmann also recalls going horseback riding with Oppie and having dinner at Edith Warner’s home by Otowi Bridge.
Verna Hobson worked as a secretary to J. Robert Oppenheimer during his time as director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Her tenure as secretary coincided with Oppenheimer's security hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In this interview, she discusses the impact of Oppenheimer’s AEC hearing on his life at the Institute. She expresses frustration with the strategy adopted by his legal team, which she felt was far too lax. Hobson recalls how Oppenheimer navigated the often heated internal politics at the Institute, and his relations with the Institute’s professors and fellows including Albert Einstein, Oswald Veblen, and André Weil. She also gives her account of Oppenheimer’s distinctly poetic writing style.
Jean Dow Bacher was born in 1907, and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She married fellow Ann Arbor native and leading Manhattan Project scientist Robert Bacher in 1930. Jean was a “computer” at Los Alamos during the Project. In this interview, she describes the friendship her and her husband shared with the Oppenheimers, and their interactions with other scientists and their families at Los Alamos. Bacher recalls how observers who visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “appalled and stunned” at the destruction there, and explains how J. Robert Oppenheimer and others at Los Alamos tried to come to terms with their work on the bomb. She recounts Oppenheimer’s anxiety about being under surveillance in the lead up to his security hearing. She also recalls Edward Teller’s habit of playing the piano late at night, and shares her impressions of Kitty Oppenheimer.
Haakon Chevalier was a French literature professor, author, and close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer beginning at Berkeley in 1937. In this interview, Chevalier discusses aspects of Oppenheimer’s personal life, including his romantic relationships, hobbies, and religious views. He explains his own involvement in the Communist Party and Oppenheimer’s work on left-wing issues, and gives his thoughts on Oppenheimer’s security trial in 1954. Chevalier recalls first meeting Kitty Oppenheimer, and remembers her as a warm and friendly woman.