The Manhattan Project

Norman Brown's Interview

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Norman Brown was just a sophomore at MIT when he left to work in the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos. There, Norman worked with transuranic elements essential in developing the atomic bomb. Norman discusses working in Los Alamos and shares his opinions about the development of nuclear weapons.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 27, 2002
Location of the Interview: 
Washington
Transcript: 

I was in the SED, the Special Engineer Detachment and I worked in what was then called D-Building and with my college James Gergen I purified all the plutonium that went in the Nagasaki bomb.  That’s what I did.

The purification that we used was purely in the liquid phase. We worked with solutions of plutonium nitrate and put it through a series of chemical processes to get out all the impurities.  But I want to go back because I think more interesting than the chemistry of plutonium is the whole process, the procedures that we went through.  

We received the shipments of plutonium from Hanford and usually they came in one-liter flasks.  It was a dark brown liquid.  And of the two of us, Jim Gergen and I, I was the one who took what was called an aliquot, a tiny, tiny little sample, a microliter of the solution in order to have it analyzed in order to know how much we were signing the receipt for, because we had to sign a receipt for this.  

Hanford lab would specify how much they thought they were sending us and then we would have it analyzed. The analysis, however, was not a chemical analysis, it was a radioassay.  There was a lab that did these radioassays so I would take a tiny sample and send it to these radioassay people and they would send back their analysis of how much plutonium was in that microliter. I would multiply it by the appropriate factor to determine how much plutonium was in the flask and then I would sign a document to that effect. And of course, there was always a discrepancy between what Hanford thought they sent and what we analyzed.  And as far as I could remember the discrepancy always went in one direction.  We always decided that they sent less than they said they sent.  

In the process of all this, I kept a record of what came in, the date it came in, the sample I took, the analysis that we were given and I made a chart, a matrix.  After the sheet was all filled, after all it was a record of shipments of plutonium and the whole project was secret, as you know so I stamped it secret, but I didn’t have clearance to look at secret documents. So then I couldn’t look at it anymore.  

Clearances were determined on the basis, in the Special Engineer Detachment anyway, of whether or not you had a bachelor’s degree.  At the time, I went into the army in 1943, I was a sophomore at MIT, so I did not have a bachelor’s degree, so I did not have a secret clearance, so I could not look at this sheet that I had filled out. 

But there was an office at Los Alamos called the Quantity Control Office. It consisted of two people, one civilian and one GI in the Special Engineer Detachment.  Their duty was to keep track of all the plutonium on the site at Los Alamos to make sure that no critical mass ever accumulated in any one place. They were the people who actually delivered the flasks of plutonium nitrate to what was known as the wet chemistry which is what we did.  

What is important, I suppose, is that weapons of mass destruction should never ever be used.  As a matter of fact, my feeling is that they should all be destroyed. Because they can accomplish nothing except destruction. If one country uses a weapon of mass destruction against another, that second country is going to retaliate and it’s mutual destruction and there is nothing to be gained, the whole thing is pointless. When the project graduated from nuclear bombs to thermonuclear bombs, it was the kind of graduation that never should have taken place.  It’s pointless and all can think of is we have a group of boys with their toys.

We have a very good friend from Japan, who comes to visit us from Tokyo frequently, she was a colleague of my wife’s. And for years I never had the courage to tell her.  And then, once when Jan and I went to Japan to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki and saw the memorials. After that we met with our friend and some of her friend and some of her friends and I finally screwed up my courage to tell her.  I must say I was pleased with the reaction. I found no resentment whatsoever in Japan over the use of the bomb by the United States, none whatsoever.  I am not sure I could have reacted that way.

In the first place, obviously if the weapons are going to exist they should be in the hands of civilians not the military.  I don’t think any time in the history of human kind has a weapon that is available to humans not been used and that’s what makes me afraid about the nuclear weapons that currently exist.

When we were at Los Alamos, this whole concept of strict secrecy is really just false because there wasn’t strict secrecy.  Here I was, a sophomore, I had been in the Army. I had been through the army’s specialized training program.

The first thing I arrived at Los Alamos, my boss who was a civilian, Arthur C. Wall, sat me down and explained the entire project to me, all about transuranic elements and exactly what was intended. What I neglected to say was that I spent one month at Oak Ridge when my Army specialized training program ended and I got a temporary job in the personnel office, just a temporary secretarial job because I typed, I could type very well.  

I learned where all the sites of the project were located around the country and I learned that there was one at MIT and, oh, I wanted to go back to MIT. One day one of the officers came in and I sat with him going over what is known as the Military Occupational Specialties of all the GIs at Oak Ridge because they were going to form a combat unit to fight the Japanese when the Japanese invaded Oak Ridge. So they were looking for people who had some experience with weapons.  So I screwed up my courage and asked him if I could go back to MIT.  He looked at me and he said, “What is your name soldier?”  And I thought, oh what have I done now.  And he said, “I’m sorry but I’ve just signed the orders for you to go to site Y, New Mexico.”  So that’s how I ended up there.  

It was a fascinating experience, I will say that. We all thought that if it succeeded at Trinity, at Alamogordo, a demonstration would be made for the Japanese.  It would not be used as a weapon.  We would demonstrate to them the power of this thing and they would surrender, and needless to say policy was not to demonstrate. And I can understand that because there was no guarantee that it would actually work.  Even though the test had worked at Alamogordo, they were really to a great extent untested weapons.  A demonstration was not held.  The weapon was used. The destruction was horrible, but it did end the war.  

I can remember after the war, when I would walk down the streets of Albuquerque where there was a military hospital of some kind, so there were lots of sailors and soldiers in the city.  Soldiers would come up to me, because by that time we had these shoulder patches that had indicated that we had worked on this project, I had soldiers come up to me and thank me because I had saved them from the Pacific War. So there was some feeling of satisfaction out of it all, but I wished that the main lesson had been that we should destroy them all and not use them anymore.