The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Hans Bethe's Interview (1982) - Part 2

Hans Bethe was a German-American physicist and Nobel Prize winner who was head of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. He played an important role in the development of the hydrogen fusion bomb. In this interview, Bethe explains why he opposed developing the hydrogen bomb and provides insight into the General Advisory Committee’s decision to pursue it. He also discusses nuclear proliferation, which scientists may have influenced J. Robert Oppenheimer’s thoughts on the hydrogen bomb, and the challenges of developing the H-bomb.

Harry Allen and Robert Van Gemert's Interview

Harry Allen and Robert Van Gemert worked in procurement at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. In this interview, the pair discusses getting ready for the Trinity test, the challenges of using Jumbo, and how materials were transported safely and secretly in and out of Los Alamos. They remember helping to acquire the lead-lined tanks used to transport scientists to the blast zone after the Trinity test. Allen and Van Gemert also discuss the dormitories at Los Alamos, how the Town Council handled problems, and the secrets of PO Box 1663. They recall their interactions with leading scientists including Emilio Segre, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller.

Norris Bradbury's Interview - Part 1

Norris Bradbury was an American physicist and director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1945-1970. During the Manhattan Project, Bradbury directed the implosion field test program and helped prepare the “Gadget” for the Trinity test. In this interview, Bradbury explains why he was selected to work at Los Alamos, and discusses his work on the plutonium implosion bomb. He recalls his interactions with Manhattan Project leaders J. Robert Oppenheimer, George Kistiakowsky, and Admiral Deak Parsons. Bradbury watched over the “Gadget” at the top of the Trinity test tower to ensure that no one “monkeyed” around with it. He remembers his surprise when Oppenheimer picked him to take over as director of the laboratory, and the challenges he had to overcome to keep the lab up and running.

General Kenneth Nichols's Interview - Part 3

General Kenneth Nichols was the District Engineer for the Manhattan Engineering District, and oversaw the design and operation of the Hanford and Oak Ridge sites. He was responsible for securing the initial deals with Stone & Webster and the DuPont Company to develop the industry for the site, and lived for a time with his wife at Oak Ridge. He discusses sabotage and Klaus Fuchs, dealings with the British, and the very start of the Manhattan Project. He recalls some conflict between the scientists and engineers, the importance of industry in the project, and the initial problems with the startup of the B Reactor.

General Paul Tibbets – Reflections on Hiroshima

Colonel (later General) Paul Tibbets was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the “Little Boy” atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In this documentary Tibbets co-produced with the Buckeye Aviation Book Company, “Reflections on Hiroshima,” he recounts his memories of the day the atomic bomb was first used in warfare. Tibbets recalls how he became a pilot, and explains how the Manhattan Project’s “Silverplate” program produced a special version of the B-29 capable of delivering the atomic bomb. He also discusses the target selection process and describes the “odd couple” of J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. He remembers seeing the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima and feeling the shock wave of the blast, and shares his views on the role of morality during war.

Peter Lax's Interview

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Peter Lax fled Nazi persecution and came to America with his family at the age of 15. Drafted into the Army when he was 18, he joined other émigré scientists and mathematicians in Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Lax discusses his work as a member of the Manhattan Project’s Special Engineer Detachment and his mathematical contributions to the challenges of neutron transport, fluid dynamics, and shockwaves. He vividly describes what life was like at Los Alamos and offers keen insights on the revolutionizing development of scientific computing and atomic energy. He also recalls the many contributions of the Hungarian mathematicians and scientists at Los Alamos, who were nicknamed “the Martians.”

Sir Rudolf Peierls's Interview

Sir Rudolf Peierls was a German-born physicist. He worked with Wolfgang Pauli in Switzerland, and moved to England when Hitler rose to power in 1933. In March 1940, Peierls and fellow colleague Otto Frisch co-authored the Frisch-Peierls memorandum, the first technical exposition of a practical atomic weapon. Peierls joined the British Mission and worked on the Manhattan Project in New York and Los Alamos. In this interview, Peierls discusses his work in atomic research and how the Frisch-Peierls memorandum was developed. He recalls going sailing with Oppenheimer, and how the scientists at Los Alamos respected Oppenheimer’s leadership.

Colonel Franklin Matthias's Interview (1965) - Part 2

Colonel Franklin Matthias was the officer-in-charge at the Hanford site. In the second part of his interview with Stephane Groueff, Matthias describes the personalities of the men he worked with, including Enrico Fermi and DuPont’s Granville Read. He recalls a visit by Fermi and Eugene Wigner to Hanford, and explains why Read got along well with General Leslie Groves. Matthias discusses the safety measures at Hanford, and recounts how a Japanese fire balloon temporarily knocked out power to the plant. He also explains how scientists conducted tests on salmon to assess levels of radioactive contamination in the Columbia River.

Walt Grisham's Interview

Walt Grisham grew up on a farm at Hanford in the 1930s. He was serving in the Air Force in England during World War II when his parents were informed that they would need to leave the farm - the site was being requisitioned for the Manhattan Project. Grisham recalls what life was like growing up on a farm during the Great Depression. He remembers picking fruit at the orchards, how neighbor helped neighbor, and the challenges of getting the fruit and produce to market. He talks about what the area and the Columbia River continues to mean to the people who were kicked off the land. He explains the history of Hanford and White Bluffs, and recalls walking across the Columbia River one winter when it was frozen solid.

Bill Hudgins's Interview

William G. (“Bill”) Hudgins spent most of his childhood years in New Mexico. He first heard about a secret wartime laboratory at Los Alamos in 1943, when he was a student at the University of New Mexico. Hudgins joined the Manhattan Project after writing a letter to Dorothy McKibbin. After briefly being called away for Army training, he returned to Los Alamos as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment. In this interview, he recalls interviewing for a job with McKibbin (who asked, “Where did you hear about me?”) and shares his memories of other Manhattan Project figures, including scientist Rebecca Bradford Diven and project historian David Hawkins. He also describes growing up in Santa Fe, and details the geologic and Native American history of the region.