The Manhattan Project

William Spindel's Interview

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William Spindel's Interview

William Spindel was in the Special Engineer Detachments at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Spindel worked in a group that helped make coatings for the implosion bomb. He recounts witnessing the Trinity Test, which he describes as "the most intimidating minute of my life", and meeting David Greenglass, a notorious Soviet spy.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 27, 2002
Location of the Interview: 
Washington
Transcript: 

I was in the Special Engineer Detachment and I was four-stripe sergeant when I got out of the army in 1946. I worked in a group that was doing primarily coatings for the implosion bomb. I was in the army and I was recruited to be in the Special Engineer Detachment. Of course I was told it was Manhattan Project and since I lived in New York, I thought that was wonderful.

Of course I was first taken down to Oak Ridge for three days to slop around in mud and then I was shipped—I had no idea where we were going and as a matter of fact we asked the sergeant who was taking us, “Should we wear winter or summer uniforms?”

And he said, “Do whatever you want.”

We got off the plane at a nonexistent town of Lamy, NM about eighteen miles from Santa Fe. From there we were put on a bus to this little office in Santa Fe that transferred people and took them up to the hill. We were put in an army truck there and shipped up to the hill, to Los Alamos. Then we lived in small hutments with four men or so for a few days with no inside facilities, no heat or anything. Then we were transferred to barracks at Los Alamos closer to the technical area.

I was working as a chemist. I started out working, testing the purity of plutonium because they thought that if they got it pure enough it would not pre-detonate, it would collapse fast enough. Then it was discovered that there were two other isotopes of plutonium, 239 and 240, that fissioned spontaneously. They didn’t have to be irradiated. That meant that they couldn’t make a bomb with plutonium that way. They ended up making the uranium bomb. The first bomb that was dropped at Hiroshima was made with uranium 235. The bomb at Nagasaki, sometimes called “Fat Man,” was dropped three days later.

I was fortunate enough, though I was not a very high ranking person, to get to the Trinity site to Alamogordo to watch the test of the first implosion bomb. The uranium bomb wasn’t even tested because it was certain that it would work. The plutonium bomb was not sure. It worked and it was the most shocking, enormous explosion that I had ever seen. I was about twenty miles away from the site and we were supposed to keep our eyes closed for the first ten seconds because of ultraviolet radiations and then we were told that it was okay and that we could watch. I was on the ground at Alamogordo and I estimated that at twenty miles away, the explosion travels at the speed of sound would take about a minute to reach me. It was the most intimidating minute I have ever spent.  Seeing the terrible ball, growing and growing, enormous colors. What kind of blast could it be when it finally got to me? Fortunately, obviously, it wasn’t that great because I’m still here.

The reason I went there was because I was a GI, I didn’t have any purpose for being at that site because my work was in the lab. They were worried that if something went wrong, they would have to evacuate the few farmers that were left in the area and so they asked for army personnel that could drive an army truck and that had authorization as a truck driver. That’s how I got to there. We were fortunate that there wasn’t any great fallout, or rain. Only later did we learn that there was fallout for thousands of  miles because the cows, the paper, Eastman Kodak’s paper 1000 miles away actually got irradiated with small amounts of radiation.

I knew David Greenglass at Los Alamos, the machinist. He actually tried to get me to serve as a spy. The line then was, “Don’t you think it’s not fair of us not to share this with our great Russian allies? They’re fighting for us, why aren’t we sharing this information?”  

And I said to him, “Look David, I’m not necessarily against any sharing it with them but nobody elected us to make these decisions. To do it would be espionage and you've got to be crazy to do it.” 

Sam Roberts’ book, The Greenglasses, you know the brother, discusses all of this—not correctly—but discusses it. What really ticks me off is that Greenglass, the spy is now sharing 40% of the royalties from that book by Sam Roberts go to Greenglass.  Suddenly he discovers that he really—he made up a story that his sister actually typed the documents all to protect his wife Ruthie. Just to indicate how well I knew Greenglass: his wife Ruthie had a miscarriage on the couch of my first wife’s apartment in Albuquerque.  Again Sam Roberts book talks about it and talks about Greenglass trying to get me.

The thing I would like future generations to remember, number one: Practically all of the leading scientists on the projectFermi, Hans Betheall of them were people who were Jews actually and were threatened by the Nazis. They came to the United States, of course they had no choice, and I think we should learn from it that having free entry,  accepting immigrants from lots of places and quantity, legally accepting them may well benefit the nation in time of need. Of course that’s certainly what turned out in that project. 

The other thing one can learn, no matter what one does one can’t avoid espionage. With all the secrecy that we tried to have, we had mail going in and out censored, we were not allowed to use telephone—it was still espionage and it would be unrealistic to plan a super-secret project and to think that it was hidden from anybody else.