The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Verna Hobson's Interview - Part 2

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 term, 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 Bacher's Interview

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's Interview - Part 2

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.

David Hawkins's Interview - Part 2

David Hawkins served as an administrative aide at the Los Alamos Laboratory in 1943 and as the Manhattan Project's historian in 1945-46. In that role, he had free access to all the top people involved, including project director J. Robert Oppenheimer and physicist Edward Teller. In this interview, he discusses the nature of Communist activity among the intellectual community in Berkeley California—a community that included a number of future Manhattan Project scientists. He describes his experiences working directly under Oppenheimer during his stint at Los Alamos, noting his charisma as well as his hubris. He describes that work; the copious and all-encompassing research that was required from his position as project historian. Finally, he concludes by discussing the years after the war, and his and his wife’s relationships with Clifford and Virginia Durr.

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.

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