The Manhattan Project

Winston Dabney's Interview (1992)

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Winston Dabney

Winston Dabney applied to be assigned to the Manhattan Project during his service in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He secured transfer from Camp Claiborne, Louisiana to Los Alamos in early 1944 and shortly after he arrived, Dabney was promoted to Master Sergeant. He was primarily responsible for sending military records to Oak Ridge, organizing payroll, and ordering military supplies.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
January 11, 1992
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Theresa Strottman: We are talking with Winston Dabney and we thank you very much for coming.

Winston Dabney: I’m glad to be here.

Strottman: Briefly to begin could you tell us when and where you were born and something about your early education.

Dabney: I was born in King William County, Virginia on July 17, 1916. And my schooling was in King William County. I attended grade school and high school. Graduated in 1933 at the age of 15. At which time I was a little bit young to try and work. So I stayed, lived with my parents. We had a farm. I helped out on the farm and so forth and drove a school bus.      

And took a few extra high school courses during that period. After a couple of years, I went to work for the Virginia Electric and Power Company in Richmond, Virginia. While working there at night I went to night school. At that time was the Virginia Mechanics Institute. This covered a period of some five or six years and I finally received my certificate in Business Administration and Accounting.

In the meantime I had been transferred from Richmond, Virginia down to North Carolina so I had to commute back to Richmond to finish the night school courses and so forth that I was taking. Shortly after that, after working for the Virginia Electric and Power Company for a period of something like five years, in both Richmond, Virginia and Roanoke Rapids, the Army called me and at that time you go in for a year and then you were going to get out. Well, I thought I was going to be pretty smart and I was going to get my year in and then I’d be back out and we could continue on in my life work with the power company. But that didn’t happen.

Of course after Pearl Harbor they declared a state of war and from that point on I was in the service. I went into the service down in North Carolina at Ft. Bragg. After a short period there I was transferred back to Ft. Belbar, Virginia for the Corps of Engineers. That’s where I received my thirteen weeks of basic training. After that when my unit moved out, they left me sitting in the company orderly room with my barracks bag and no one told me where I was going from there. After an hour, someone came along with a government vehicle and picked me up and took me over to the headquarters company at Ft. Belbar and so I was finally made part of the cadre there for the headquarters company working in the classification section.

Strottman: So you were doing security work initially?

Dabney: Well it was more the assignment of personnel. In other words as the new recruits came in, they had filled out a form of what kind of background they had and what they had done before. From that information then they were assigned a certain job, what we call a special number which indicated that they were suitable for certain types of work and so forth.

Strottman: So you didn’t specifically make the assignments, you made the classifications?

Dabney: I made the classifications and then they would be assigned to different organizations within the Army so far as the type of work that they could do.

Strottman: So you are still in North Carolina doing classifications?

Dabney: No, I was in Virginia at this time at Ft. Belvoir.  Because my home was only 75 miles from Ft Belvoir. But after several years in about ‘42, I (tape blank) ... as a buck sergeant and again I was doing personnel work and so forth down there. We did still the same type of work, it was classifying the soldiers as they came in and so forth for whatever type of work they could do based on their background.

Strottman: You’re not yet with the Corps of Engineers or are you?

Dabney: Yes, when I went into the service, I went into the Corps of Engineers or I was assigned to the Corps of Engineers. So all during this period I was with the Corps of Engineers and took my basic training with the Corps of Engineers. Building pontoon bridges and doing the normal things you do for the basic training period.

Strottman: Do you think they requested you for the Corps of Engineers because you had experience working for a power company?

Dabney: I’m not really sure why they assigned me to the Corps of Engineers. I was glad that they did because it was all interesting work. During basic training, we did some engineering work like building pontoon bridges and various construction type things and so forth, trained us a little bit for the engineering work. But of course my background was primarily administrative and I was in the office from practically from the point I went to the headquarters company at Ft. Belvoir and even after I went down to Camp Clayborn. I was still in the office in the classification section.

Strottman: When and how did you come to Los Alamos?

Dabney: Well that is quite interesting because after being at Camp Clayborn for two years, in the meantime I had gotten promotions and so forth. I was finally made First Sergeant of the Headquarters Company down at Camp Clayborn. Now this Headquarters Company was a company that trained all of the people that came in there in the various, different types of companies, pipeline companies, dump truck companies and engineering companies so that I had quite a variety of personnel with various backgrounds and so forth. At that time we had something like about 300 to 400 cadre for the Headquarters Company in Camp Clayborn.

Strottman: How did you ... did someone come to interview you for the Manhattan Project?

Dabney: Yes, in other words through the classification section someone came down to Clayborn from the Manhattan Project and they interviewed certain type of personnel. I happened to be lucky enough to be interviewed for that. Of course in that interview they wanted to know whether you could be isolated in some place and whether or not you could be without church services, could you not have to go to town so to speak or have any social life to amount to anything. Through that interview, I was selected and put on secret orders. At that time, we went through Oak Ridge, Tennessee not knowing exactly where we were going to be stationed or where we were going. The only thing we knew that it would be part of the Manhattan Project.  Of course, Oak Ridge was one of the largest units at that time.

Strottman: It was kind of like Oak Ridge was a transshipment for you. You never went into the Armed Forces special training school?

Dabney: No, I had had coming up through the ranks pretty much training in just about all the various categories that you could go through in the military as far as I was concerned. And with my background and what have you for the First Sergeant’s job and this type of thing. This was the type of thing they were looking for certain areas of the Manhattan Project. And at Oak Ridge we spent about two or three weeks just being indoctrinated as to kind of what the Manhattan Project consisted of, various locations and so forth and then from there we were put on orders to various places. Some of them went to New York, some of them went to Washington, Hampton [Hanford] project and I for one was sent out to New Mexico, to Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Strottman: Did you travel with a group of people from Oak Ridge?

Dabney: It was one other fellow and myself that came out that came out at that particular time. We came out on what I think was the California Limited. Of course the first part of the trip they didn’t have space for us because we were supposed to have Pullman space and so forth because it was well overnight and this type of thing so we finally after about half way through the trip, we managed to get one Pullman berth and the other fellow wouldn’t sleep with two in one berth so he sat up I think all night in the dining car or someplace and I was lucky enough to get the berth. I guess because of my rank. I thought I’d pull rank on him a little bit.

Strottman: After a few days you’d be desperate.

Dabney: Well, we really didn’t know where we were going, we were thinking that New Mexico was more or less a kind of desert-type country and so forth not realizing that we would be up in the mountains at this altitude. But it didn’t take us long to get acclimated to it because I arrived here on March 31, 1944 and that night it snowed 12 inches. Of course we had just temporary quarters at the other end of town which were what we called little green hutments or green shacks with a little stove. We had to walk from that area clear down to this end of town or to the west end of town to where the Mess Hall and the main orderly room was. It was quite a shock and I happened to be in what I would call summer uniform, it was the khaki type, it wasn’t the wool uniform that you generally get for winter time.

Strottman: So that was very uncomfortable.

Dabney: Well, it was just a little cool. Of course we didn’t have paved streets or anything so you kind of slushed down through the snow and mud and what have you. It was an experience to get started.

Strottman: When you way you were told in Oak Ridge about the Manhattan Project, and about the various sites, were you told what was happening at each site, how they interrelated?

Dabney: No, no they just gave us an idea of the more or less the layout of the Manhattan Project and these various sites were for the purpose of being able to procure people and materials and supplies and this type of thing. They didn’t give us any idea of what we would actually be doing or anything like that. So far as I was concerned, I was just being transferred to another military base. I would be strictly doing military work. Not necessarily any technical work.

Strottman: But you assumed it would be personnel administration?

Dabney: That’s right, I’d be in the personnel end of it. At that time, I was made a Master Sergeant which was a Sergeant Major of the Special Engineer Detachment. We had only about 150 military personnel at that particular time. They were scattered around in different places. We only had one barracks that was completed at that particular time. Our commanding officer had an office in one of the tech areas. Of course you had to be cleared and have special badges and so forth to get into that area. So I couldn’t even get to see my commanding officer.  He had to come out and locate me in order to find out that I was there and what I was doing.

Strottman: When you say there were 150 military personnel, do you mean 150 in the Provisional Engineer Detachment?

Dabney: No, I’m sorry. This was just 150 in the Special Engineer Detachment which I was concerned with.  See, the three organizations here at Los Alamos at that particular time, we had the Provisional Engineers which did the maintenance work and did the boilers that furnished the electricity. They ran a sawmill. They did just that type of work to keep the project going and so forth. Where the special engineers were primarily the military that worked in the tech area. Then of course we had the MP Detachment which did the patrolling and the security around the area and into the various tech areas.

Strottman: I’ve heard other people mention particularly women who had children up here that the orderlies in the hospital were GI’s who brought them their babies and did a lot of work in the hospital. What unit would they have come out of. Would they have been from the MP’s or would they have been assigned from the PED’s, I’m sure they weren’t SED’s. I just wouldn’t imagine.

Dabney: So far as I know there were no SED’s assigned to what I would call the hospital or the medical end of it at all. They would come from the provisional engineers I’m sure. Of course, there was no doubt a shortage of nurses up here at that time.  Most of the doctors were military doctors. The problem that I had was that every now and then I would get some military people in that had not been fully cleared. Of course on that basis, they couldn’t go to work in the tech areas. So I could use them in the orderly room, which is the main room where we have our records and this type of thing for the military people. But this would only last for a very short time until their clearance did come through.

Strottman: Did the FBI do all the clearances or did the military have some part in clearing the personnel, how did that work?

Dabney: I believe the military had a unit that did a lot of clearing. I’m sure that the FBI checked the clearance after they were completed. So far before they were really issued a final clearance to be able to go into the tech areas and various places.

Strottman: If we can back up a little bit, you’re up here without proper uniform and without a clearance.  Did your initial work that you were assigned to do differ from what you eventually were assigned to do?

Dabney: Well the work was pretty much the same because it was keeping a record of all the military that were here. If you are familiar with the military, you have to make morning reports as to sick leave and people on furloughs. Of course, we had no one going on furloughs because for the first twelve months, no one went on furlough unless it was a real emergency where a mother or father passed away or something to that extent. All of our supplies came in from Oak Ridge, they were sent in from Oak Ridge. Of course in a short time we were able to get the winter uniforms to supplement what uniforms we had, the khaki uniforms for the summer uniforms. I had no real cadre organization as such, in other words, our laundry; we used to take to Bruns Hospital.  

Well, I had no one to do this, so I would have to get a 6X, the big Army truck, load the laundry into the truck, take it down to Bruns Hospital, maybe pick up the previous load that had been taken down a week before that, bring that back and do all the manual labor myself which was not exactly what Sergeant Majors are supposed to do. You are supposed to have some help in the orderly room and the cadre and so forth. In other words you have a regular cadre or table of organization I should say to do these various jobs. Takes care of your supply room, make you morning reports and what have you. You are more or less in a supervisory position.

Strottman: Were you doing the laundry say for all the military here on the Hill or just for your unit?

Dabney: I was responsible for just the laundry of the special engineer detachment. This may have been only for a short time like maybe for six weeks or two or three months something like that until I could get a cadre to come in to help me. Another words eventually they assigned me different people for the supplies and truck drivers and what have you. I did have a special vehicle that I used to transport people to the hospital for sick leave and this type of thing.

I used to have to go to Santa Fe to pick up the clothing or the barracks bags that would come in late with the people who were late coming in, they wouldn’t come in with them, somewhere along the line they had failed to take them off the train or something and maybe have to bring them back the next day or something like this. So I used to have to go to Santa Fe to pick up those barracks bags so that the men would have clean clothing. Most of the time, I had noticed that somebody was coming in and so forth or I would get notice from down at 109 E. Palace because everybody cleared through there regardless of military or civilian or what have you. So they would call me from there and say, ‘Well, I have a soldier here that belongs to the Special Engineer Detachment.  What do you want me to do with him?’  Well, I’d say, Hold him there until I can get in to pick him up.’ That way I made quite a few trips to Santa Fe for during the first few months that I was here at Los Alamos.

Strottman: That wasn’t something that the WAC pool would do, the WAC drivers?

Dabney: Well, they would if they happened to be on a trip to Albuquerque picking up somebody or something like that, at times, little bit later on true, that’s true that the WAC drivers would sometimes have to go down and pick them up.

Strottman: You mentioned that you came in March 1944 during the period that you were here, how did the SED unit’s personnel numbers change?

Dabney: It increased considerably. Because shortly after I arrived even though we only had about 150 at that time, the special engineer detachment actually grew like mad because they would send in groups of 25 to 30 or maybe 50 from some of what we call the ASTP classes which were actually college classes that these military people were attending. Of course those people had special training in certain lines, maybe they hadn’t completed their schooling but at least they had several years of schooling in physics or chemistry or engineering or something to that extent. So that we finally grew from that 150, and I might add that part of those were actually in civilian clothes. So I wasn’t sure that they belonged to the Special Engineer Detachment for awhile. Eventually I was able to get them into military uniforms so I knew who belonged to the detachment. But we finally grew to about 1800 men just in the Special Engineer Detachment alone.

Strottman: That’s more than a tenfold increase.

Dabney: That was quite an increase and it was more than you would normally have in any detachment and of course it was later on in the years maybe just prior to the time that the war was over that we were able to get what we call a table organization where we could really break our detachment down into companies and so forth. We finally broke it into two companies. The table of organization tells you how many sergeants you can have, how many corporals, technicians and this type of thing of first class and what have you.

Strottman: But until then it was basically these?

Dabney: After the Special Engineer Detachment grew to such a number, of course. The other problem we had was trying to get housing or barracks built for them as fast as the men were coming in. This was quite a problem. But eventually we did end up in the western part of town. We ended up with barracks that could accommodate the whole Special Engineer Detachment. 

Strottman: And you were basically responsible for making sure each soldier had whatever he needed and also just keeping track of all these people? 

Dabney: That is correct and when you think of 1800 people being scattered over some 75 square miles and trying to keep track of these people, some of them would be working 24 hours a day or longer so that you wouldn’t even see them in the company area and so forth. It got to be quite a chore to really keep up with all these people and sometimes you would have to call out to the Tech Area to see if a certain person was there or if he was still around and what have you. This was one way that we did make contact with the civilian personnel. Because most of your top people in your groups were civilian personnel.

Strottman: And they would be in charge of a group of military SED’s who had training in various scientific areas?

Dabney: Yes, they would yes, in other words maybe six or eight or ten civilians in that particular group and along with that would be maybe six, eight, ten, twelve military depending on what their particular job was and what they had to do or what they had to accomplish. 

Strottman: What were you able to tell your family about, in other words, you had been spirited to Oak Ridge and been told there’s this big project, its secret and that’s its got all these various sites, what in turn as you’re moving around the country were you able to tell them?

Dabney: Well, I wasn’t able to tell my family very much of anything. I don’t think I even wrote to them while I was in Oak Ridge. After I got here I could write to them and tell them that I was at Santa Fe and give them my address which at that time was P.O. Box 1663. Which we had a lot of people living in. But that was about all you could tell them. The fact that you couldn’t write a whole lot, you maybe could write a little about the weather if you had 12 inches of snow, but very little news you could really write home.  Of course, all your mail going out and coming in was censored. So if you wrote anything in there that the security didn’t like, sometimes they would cut it out if it was just a word or half a sentence or something they would cut it out. But most of the time if it was something very, I can’t think of the word.

Strottman: Lengthy or deceptive?

Dabney: Yeah, that would give away the project at all, they would send your letter back to you and tell you to rewrite it and delete that part of it and so forth. It was very hard to really tell your family anything. Of course, in my case, I was still military so I mean, about the only thing that they knew was that I had been transferred to another military post near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Strottman: Do you know who did the censoring of the mail and what office and where it was performed in Los Alamos?

Dabney: Yes, they had a security office division I guess you would say and they had any number of WACs that worked in there. They also had several military men that worked in that. Major DeSilva was in charge of that particular part of the project. They were located in what was then the old headquarters which would be somewhere near the community building or community area around here now. All the mail went through that particular security office. They actually read every letter that went out and they read every letter that came in because if somebody wrote in something that would give away the project, information on the project and so forth, then they would cut it out of your letter and then they would investigate to see how those particular people had found out that information and what was going on and so forth. So it was pretty closely guarded so far as the security was concerned.

Strottman: And Major DeSilva was Corps of Engineer’s office. The security wasn’t within the MP’s, it was held tightly by the Corps of Engineers.

Dabney: Yes, it was part of the Corps of Engineers. It was the office or division, so to speak, within the Corps of Engineers up here. You see the Corps of Engineers covered a lot more than just here at Los Alamos. I mean, they had Corps of Engineers all over the United States as far as this was concerned for construction and overseas, too. So it was a wide division so far as the Corps of Engineers was concerned. Because they were responsible like overseas for building pontoon bridges and running pipelines and just anything that needed to be done in that respect.

Strottman: When did you realize what the mission or goal of the Manhattan Project was?

Dabney: Well, not being in the Tech Area, being strictly military and so forth, I never really knew what the goal was. I went with one of the WACs which worked in the Tech Area and so forth. I had an inkling or an idea that they were working on some kind of weaponry or bombs but so far as knowing what type or what they were doing, I really had no indication until actually after the Trinity shot.

Strottman: Did someone tell you after the Trinity shot or did you go to watch for the blast?

Dabney: Yes, the morning of the scheduled shot and so forth, one of the top scientists which Jean, my wife, worked. Of course, she wasn’t my wife at that time, she was a WAC. But we were pretty close and she got us a ride up to the top of the mountain. We knew approximately what the time would be that the shot would go off and so forth. So by going up to the top of the mountain, we pretty much knew at that point that it was a success. You somewhat knew what it was. I can’t say that I knew it was an atomic bomb, but we knew it was quite an explosion. And it was after we saw the flash, we got back in the car and started back down the mountain and of course, he worked on certain phases of this. So he had estimated approximately how far we could come back down before we would feel the shock wave. We were about two-thirds way back down the mountain and we stopped and got out of the car and we could feel the shock wave at that time.

Strottman: This was Darol Froman?

Dabney: Yes, Darol Froman.  Jean, my wife, now worked with him in one of the sites that did a lot of the research and so forth on what they call the implosion-type operation.

Strottman: Who were your commanding officers?

Dabney: Well, first commanding officer that I had was Cpt. Davalos and he was a Corps of Engineer officer. He was already here at Los Alamos when I arrived. He was the officer that was in charge of the special engineer detachment at that particular time. He had an office in the tech area in kind of the personnel portion of it at that time. It was in a secured area.  So that was one I couldn’t, he had to come out and see me.  I couldn’t get in to see him because I hadn’t gotten all my clearance. I hadn’t gotten my badge and so forth at that particular time when I first arrived. Of course shortly after that I did.

After Cpt. Davalos we had a Major Teal Palmer that came in as a second commander. By the time he came in my estimate would be that we had approximately 1000 men, from 800 to 1000 men by that time. Of course, the military organization was beginning to form and so forth so that we began to have cadre to take care of the supply room. We had a supply officer, which was Cpt. Nelson Baker. We had a mess sergeant and also a Lt. which was in charge of the mess hall, the place we ate in and so forth. So we were beginning to build more or less a military organization at that time. It had a table organization, which allowed us so many different classes of military people, which are the different ranks that you could hold from Private First Class, Corporal, Technician II and Technician III, regular Sergeant, Tech Sergeant and Master Sergeant and so forth.  So the men in the SEDs began to get fairly good ratings as far as their organization was concerned and they were in the Tech Area. They began to be more or less promoted to the various grades that were somewhat similar to what they were doing and this type of thing being in the military.

After Major Teal Palmer, Cpt. Nelson Baker became the commanding officer. Major Palmer was not in too good a health. He was having some difficulties so he was sent, I believe, to Ft. Bliss to the medical center down there. After Baker we had a Cpt. Carroll who had been wounded overseas and he came in. He wanted to make the unit strictly military. He wanted to have roll call in the mornings. Have the men report that everybody was present and accounted for and have exercise in marching and what have you which really threw us into pretty much of a fit of not being strictly military to being military company detachment and so forth. Of course, this was getting onto near the end of the war. He came in, I believe, just prior to the war ended. He had been wounded overseas.

Strottman: It worked for Patton, but it wouldn’t work up here.

Dabney: Right. (laugh) Well, it was just too varied of an organization type thing that we had. The military men were required at a site at 4:00 o’clock in the morning because they were ready to shoot an experiment off of what we would call a shot. We had quite a few of those because they used to rattle our windows and the buildings around here and so forth.

Strottman: We have talked about the different tenors of discipline of the various officers, did these officers ever have anything to do with the civilians?

Dabney: To my knowledge since I was more or less strictly military and what have you, I don’t recall that they had a whole lot of dealings with the civilians. I’m sure it would be like any other organization. There were certain times when it was necessary contact made with certain civilians because in order to check on a military person or something like this you would generally have to go through the primary civilian person that was in charge of the particular group or section.  Or what have you that you wanted to check on this person. 

But other than that, that’s about the main type of contact I know that we had. The officers had their own Officers Club as such because you had officers in the SED or the Special Engineer Detachment. You had officers that were in the Provisional Engineer Detachment and you had officers that were in the WAC Detachment. Also in the Military Police and so forth. So there were a number of officers up here. They did have their own what they called their own Officers Club.  To my knowledge, civilians were not allowed in that Officers Club. It was strictly for military officers. It would be a small unit really, but that’s the way the military operated

Strottman: I gather that the other military units also had clubs for the lower ranks?

Dabney: Yes, we had what we called an NCO Club which was non-commissioned officers and that would be Master Sergeant, Tech Sergeants and on down.  Any ranking non-officer military person could attend these and go to these NCO Clubs.  But no officer would go into the NCO Club.  It came along later nearer to the end of the war.  It was not something when Los Alamos was first started that we had these various organizations and various clubs.

Strottman: There were 1800 SED’s. How many Provisional Engineer Detachment personnel were there?

Dabney: I would guess that there was something, as I recall, 800 to 1000. I don’t know for sure.  The MP’s I don’t think that they were over maybe 300 or 400. I’m not really sure because I had very little connection with their operation so far as the military was concerned. So I wouldn’t really know off hand. Just trying to figure what the total number of military people we had up here at one time was something like 3600. I think that would give you a pretty good idea of how many were in each group.

Strottman: Do you think the Provisional Engineer Group, do you think that grew exponentially like the SEDs did or do you think that more or less stayed the same during 1943 through 1945?

Dabney: They grew quite a bit; they didn’t grow like the SED Detachment. But as the place expanded, as Los Alamos expanded, which it had to do, because they had to build houses and they had to house the civilians and also the military and what have you. The Provisional Engineer Detachment had to furnish firemen that used to fire their boilers in the buildings where they would have maybe 8 or 10 or 12 tenants. They would have one unit that had to be fired to heat the whole building. So the Provisional Engineer Detachment furnished these type of people. Of course there were janitors and various maintenance people that the Provisional Engineer Detachment had to furnish.

Strottman: When you say furnish, we talked to a number of people from particularly the Valley that did . . . . did the Provisional Engineer oversee contracts for civilian labor? Did they hire a lot of people to do those jobs and maybe have a military director of the unit whatever?

Dabney: I’m sure that the Provisional Engineer Detachment had some kind of Supervisory-type means of supervising these people but I just don’t, I can’t recall off hand just how that worked. I think it was a particular section in the Provisional Engineer Detachment that more or less supervised these various people. Whatever job that they were doing, the janitors, the various people like that. 

Strottman: What do you remember about relationships between the military and the civilians? This could be working relationships, social relationships.

Dabney: Well, I feel that the relationship in most cases was fairly close. I don’t recall any instance where there was any real difficulty between what the civilian was doing and what the military was doing and this type of thing. The military to a certain extent was under the control of the civilians. Especially the technicians and the various people that were working out in the tech area and what have you. I know in my particular case, we had a number of very close civilian friends and we used to visit their homes. They would have maybe 6 or 8 military people in for dinner or hamburgers or whatever we had, a little party, just a social evening, so to speak.

Especially Darol Froman which my wife Jean worked with.  We visited his home a number of times. We used to go down to, it used to be an eating place down next to the Rio Grande.  It was called Mrs. Warner’s Home really. She used to feed some of the military people and a lot of civilians and so forth.  Jean and myself had been down several times with some of the civilians, Darol Froman and Al Graves and a few of those people for dinner. Especially Christmas Eve dinner or something like this. Like I say, we had a very, I feel, a very cordial relationship with the civilians.  The ones we had contact with and so forth.

Of course, there were what they call dorm parties which were the dorms were primarily for the civilian single people and so forth and what have you. We used to get invited to those particular parties and have fun with both the civilian and military so far as the group was concerned.

Strottman: You mentioned Edith Warner, how did one make arrangements and was it basically the civilians and the scientists who were encouraged to use that outlet or was it something that you could have just picked up your phone and made a reservation for yourself at Edith Warner’s?

Dabney: No it was a very special occasion so to speak. In other words, no doubt a number of the scientists had had contact with Mrs. Warner, you know though maybe just taking a drive off the Hill or something like that.  And stopping by and chatting with her and so forth. Then she decided that it would be nice if she would put on a dinner for these certain friends that I would call friends that she had or friends that she had made contact with and so forth.  I don’t know that any other scientists or any of them knew her previous to coming here to Los Alamos or anything like that.  It was just one of those things that I think that she felt like it was something that she could do for scientists or anybody else that really wanted to come down. But it was mostly scientists and like I say, a few of the military that went down with a special group of scientists that had dinner there. It would be a small dinner group, I mean she could only accommodate maybe 10 - 12- 15 people would be maximum I would say.

Strottman: It wasn’t something though say the SEDs would be participating in in general?

Dabney: Not unless you were a friend of one of the scientists and so forth, you might, that would be about the only way you’d go down. I don’t know of any time that a group of military went down there to just have dinner and this type of thing. I mean it wasn’t a regular thing. It had to be a special occasion. Course she had to know in advance and I think that probably if people had made the arrangements and so forth got together with other people and of course provided her with some of the provisions for the dinner. In fact, they may have purchased most of the ingredients for the dinner.

She was like everyone else, she was on food stamps [rationing] and what have you. Of course, a lot of the scientists up here, they had food stamps and they could buy at the commissary. But you had to have your food stamps and so forth. I think that’s what they used to do, would be to pool their food stamps and maybe get a turkey because I know in some cases we had a turkey dinner down there like for Christmas Eve and this type of thing.  I think that’s what happened.  They pooled their food stamps and went to the commissary and got most of the ingredients that she needed. But it was fun and it was a delicious dinner.  Delicious meal.

Strottman: Do you remember, say, the menus?  I’m trying to get an idea of the ambiance of these dinners. What else would there have been for dinner?

Dabney: Well, I think you would have primarily the ones I remember, were like a special occasion like Christmas, which would be the turkey dinner. She would probably have sweet potatoes and she used to make the best dressing I think I ever saw in my life. It was real crumbly you know, not gummy or anything like that. You’d have several vegetables, potatoes, and mashed potatoes. It would be a pretty good little feast as compared to what you normally had during the war years, I tell yeah.

Strottman: You had mentioned when we spoke one time before, about just to give us on tape, a perspective on the economics of the period. Could you talk a little bit about say what an SED would have been earning, what you has a sergeant would have been earning and then say what a civilian either graduate student or scientist, married living in a Sundt would have been earning during the Manhattan Project?

Dabney: Well, the military had based on that table of organization, each rank so to speak had a certain salary. That was it, it didn’t make any difference what kind of training you had or anything else. You were paid that salary and that was it. As I recall, of course, I was a Master Sergeant at the time and I think my salary was something like $125 a month. Then the scale went from there on down, like the next level would be a Tech Sergeant, well his grade would be maybe $85 or $90. It would gradually come on down to the Private. The Private would only be making $30 a month. A Corporal would probably be $45.  Maybe a line sergeant or the basic sergeant, three stripe sergeant would be something like $60 a month.

Of course you know, you were furnished food, clothing and what have you. You didn’t have to buy any of your clothing, you didn’t have to pay for your food or anything. The scientists as I recall, I’m a little bit more familiar right after the war, during the war, all salaries were frozen anyway. A lot of the scientists, top scientists up here hadn’t been out of school too long but most of them were making around $300, $325 maybe $350 a month.

I would say that even the director at that time probably was making $500 depending on where he came from and what his salary was before he came here. His salary was not improved any at Los Alamos that I know of, while he was here. I mean, in other words, salaries were frozen and that was it.  If he came here at $500 he stayed at $500 until the war was over. It was awhile after the war before the salaries began to improve which would be what I would call a living wage.

Of course, we had other things to consider, because the rent was fairly cheap. It was based on your salary. But you still had to buy all your food and that you could buy at the commissary which no doubt was a little bit cheaper then you could buy at the regular food market. But you still had your food stamps and this type of thing that you had to have. They were all issued through the commissary officer or the Corps of Engineers, I don’t remember just which, but we did have what we called commissary officer. 

Strottman: Do you have any idea, you were mentioning that maybe a young scientist would have had about $300 a month, $325, somebody like Fermi might have had $500. You could practically name on your fingers who might have had $500. What might have been the salary for someone, say, who worked in the PX, who were civilians?

Dabney: Well, I don’t remember what the minimum wage was, but I’m sure that they were just getting the minimum wage and if I recall correctly it seemed like to me that the minimum wage at that time was something like $1.25 or $1.35 an hour. Of course most of your PX’s were run by military and you only had like waitresses and people to clean up the tables and this type of thing were about the only civilians that worked there.

Strottman: Well I was thinking of the people in charge of meat operations. Bences Gonzales went into the PX during the war.  The people who had run the trading post at the Ranch School. There were a few civilian employees in there.

Dabney: I would imagine that their salaries were fairly low somewhere in the neighborhood of maybe $2 or $3 a hour. I don’t think it would have been much more than that.  But here again, like I say, the PX and the commissary and all of those places were run by military personnel. In other words the meat cutter was a military person. Probably from the Provisional Engineer Detachment.

Strottman: Well, I think Mr. Wilson was a civilian hired from Santa Fe to do meat cutting. So he wasn’t in the military but he was up here. So I was just trying to get -

Dabney: I would imagine that his salary wouldn’t be more than $300 a month, maybe less. But I imagine, I don’t know, but I would think that he would probably be on an hourly basis too. I think along that line, very few people made more than a couple dollars a hour working. Working 6 days a week sometimes 7 and of course I believe they were paid some overtime. I think the standard wage and salary regulations required that they were paid overtime maybe for everything over 40 hours. But you see even that, if they are getting $2 and they had to work overtime and so forth would be time and a half which means that they would probably make around $3 an hour for the overtime work. As I recall, things were very, salaries were very low at Los Alamos from what I knew of them. And then of course like I say for the scientists and this type of thing, because after I got out of service I came to work for the University and I was in personnel and the personnel had a wage and salary section with personnel. That’s what I was working in and that’s what I’m basing my salaries on.

Strottman: I thank you for letting me belabor this because you’re the only person we’ve talked to who seems to have a real sense or even a ... So far you’re the only person we have talked to who really has an idea of salaries and money from that period.  Most people’s memories are, naturally, after all these years, somewhat dim.

Dabney: I can’t imagine that the maids, and see they had a number of maids that were bused up here from down in the valley and so forth. I can’t imagine that those maids made more than $4 or $5 a day if that.  They put in pretty good long hours too. They were more or less paid by the day or half a day, whatever they worked.  I think even after the war and I guess when we were raising children if I recall, we had a very good maid so far as I was concerned.  I think that we paid her something like $5 or $6 for maybe a half a day, maybe even less. So the salaries in that respect were very low, I think, overall.  It was throughout the country, I mean, because the Wage and Salary Administration actually froze wages at the beginning of the war for what they were at that point. So far as I know, very few people if any ever got any raises regardless of what kind of job they went into to what happened to them.

Strottman: And this freeze held even some period after the war?

Dabney: Yeah, it was a short time after the war before they actually released that freeze and then you were able to get a personal increase in salary maybe $25 or $50. Hardly any raise was over $50.

Strottman: How and with whom did you spend your free time with?

Dabney: The military, the group that I ran around with mostly, you know how you kind of pick your friends and so forth, maybe you have 10 or 12 that would like kind of get together for different things. Well, we used to have a lot of picnics when we weren’t working on Sundays and so forth.  We would go to the Mess Hall and say that we had 10 military people and we want to go on a picnic and so forth. What are you having for dinner today. We’ll say fried chicken for instance.  They’d meter out a piece of chicken for each one of us and give us several slices of cheese and some bread and a few things like that. We would take out and have a picnic.  Maybe play some kind of cards or something like this just to pass the time away and chat and what have you.  Relax.

Other times we would go to a friend’s, one of the civilian’s homes or something like this. Like I say, we’d have hamburgers or what have you. Here again most of this came from the Mess Halls. Because between the men’s Mess Hall and the Wacs Mess Hall, we could generally get enough food for whatever group we were planning on and so forth without too much difficulty. Course you could pull rank on them a little bit. I hardly ever had to go through the line in order to get something from the Mess Hall and so forth. I would go early or late and tell them I wanted a steak or what have you; I could generally finagle one. So you made friends with the Mess Hall personnel. They would let you have whatever you needed for a picnic or any type of activity you were getting together with.

Course we did have the movie house which we went to the movies once a week or something like that. Later on we managed to have church service. This was primarily after the war. I guess we had some church service during the war, but not a whole lot. We used to use the old Theater No. 2 for church service and I used to go with Jean which was a Catholic service. They had a little chapel which was more or less a united-type service for anybody who wanted to come regardless of what religion you were; you could be anything. Other than that, you didn’t have a whole lot of time for social gatherings and what have you. They had like I say, they had some of these dorm parties which was maybe on Saturday night. It started 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock at night and run until midnight or 1:00 o’clock. That would be a gathering where you get together and dance and what have you. Then we had the Big Band which would play for us on certain nights if you could get enough people together to have a little dance or what ever. They hardly ever charged you anything. I mean you know, it was just a group of people and it was a good past time for them that they were able to play. They used to like to do it.

Strottman: Did you ever feel isolated up here?

Dabney: Well, you’re isolated to a certain extent. It never really bothered me particularly because like I say I used to make quite a few trips to Santa Fe for barracks bag or to pick up a soldier or what have you and this type of thing.  Course coming from a country farm and the isolation I guess never really bothered me.  But there were people it did, they just couldn’t, they griped about it all the time.  There was nothing to do. They felt like they were boxed in and couldn’t go to do anything they wanted to do. But you could always go hiking; you could always find a group to go on a picnic and this type of thing. That’s what we did more than anything else, I think.

Strottman: Where did you live while you were here during the Manhattan Project. How was it, what was it like?

Dabney: When I first arrived, we lived in little green hutments up where the police station is now. No, excuse me, up where the MerriMac Village is.  Up in that area. We were up there I would say for 3 or 4 weeks until they completed the barracks down at the western end of town. I was in the barracks and of course I was a sergeant major. I had rank and what have you so they built me a little cubicle in the end of the barracks which kind of separated me from the rest of the men. It wasn’t completely sound proof or anything else as far as that’s concerned.  But it did give you a little privacy. So I had that. But normally you lived in the barracks with 100 - 120 other men.  That’s most of the time or for quite awhile we had double deck bunk beds on each side of the barracks. So you can imagine that we had pretty crowded conditions.  Course as they completed more barracks they would spread the men out a little bit more.  It never was completely satisfactory so far as the number of barracks that we had. They always had the double deck beds and it was anywhere from 100 - 120 men in each barracks.

Strottman: Do you think the barracks became social units?

Dabney: To a certain extent. There were always certain little groups that would be together playing cards, or what have you or talking and this type of thing. But with varied backgrounds and the various work that the men were doing, I don’t think any of the barracks really got to be one big social group as far as that’s concerned. Everybody picked a few friends and you stayed more or less with those friends. But the rest of the people would have four or five friends and they would stay in their little area and be at the barracks.  ‘Course you didn’t talk about what you were doing anyway. You couldn’t.  So I don’t feel like the barracks was ever a, what I would call, a one big social group well knitted together. I think they all had their own type of activity and this type of thing. Of course, some few of us would actually be with some of the WACs and what have you.  You couldn’t go anyplace much less you go into the movies or something like that or go up to the PX maybe and have a coke or sundae.  But other than that, that was about it.

Strottman: Where were you when you heard about the bombing of Hiroshima and do you remember your reaction at the time?

Dabney: Well, I was down in the military area.  Because as I recall the information came in I think fairly late in the evening. I think the biggest reaction was the fact that it worked.  The bomb has worked. I think that was about what it was at that particular time. Some other people may have had a greater reaction to it knowing a little bit more about what type of bomb it was and this type of thing. But to me it was just the fact that it had worked.  We knew it was something special. It was not until after the Nagasaki drop that the place went into exotic celebration I would say, I guess. Then of course the big celebration was when they announced that the war was over. I don’t think anybody slept during that night at all.

Strottman: Could you give us your personal memory of the exotic celebration?

Dabney: We had a rec hall down there and of course immediately everybody gathered in the streets and around the rec hall in that particular area and so forth. Its true we had the WAC and I think everybody else as far as that’s concerned probably lot of civilians came down.  It was just a great release of activity for the people. They got the band together and they played. We danced in the rec hall. Being a military post, we weren’t supposed to have alcoholic beverages but it seemed it came out of the woodwork.  You didn’t have any trouble finding it if you wanted it. Everybody just seemed to be delighted that the war was over.  I think it was a great feeling here especially with the people here at Los Alamos that we had had a part in bringing the war to a quick end.

Strottman: Did working in Los Alamos alter the direction of your life?

Dabney: I would say very much so. Because I met my wife here and we were married four days after the war was over or declared to be over. We were married in Santa Fe, we had our reception at the La Fonda Hotel. We had made certain arrangements because at that time, the La Fonda would not furnish anything for us at all.  They said, ‘we’ll let you have a room.’ And that’s about it. So we had arranged for the alcoholic beverages. We had to bring the ice down from Los Alamos. Because we had an ice house here that they used to store ice in and so forth.  We couldn’t even get ice in Santa Fe. There was a group of WACs; one of them had been a caterer.  They went down the night before and took over the kitchen of the La Fonda and we had hors d’oeuvres that you wouldn’t believe. It was just a grand party. The mess sergeant made us a wedding cake that was strictly a pound cake, three layers.  This was taken to Santa Fe and decorated down there at the La Fonda.

Strottman: Sounds like quite an affair.

Dabney: You can’t believe the affair that that turned out to be. The military made us change because they couldn’t get off until the weekend. See, they could get three days passes on Saturday and Sunday and what have you. So they made us change our date till Saturday. I would say we had a real blow-out. Since we were married here and what have you, neither one of us wanted particularly to go back where we had come from before. I would have to go back to Virginia and Jean would go back with me. She was from Chicago at that time. She had been working there before she went into the WACs. So we decided, ‘well, let’s just stay here for a few months and see what’s going to happen.’ Nobody knew at that particular time, if the place would close up or we’d continue on as a laboratory or just what would happen.

I think it changed our lives considerably. After we were married for awhile we had to live in what we called the married couples dormitory which was a one room type place.  We managed to get a hot plate and a few things like that.  I guess some of the civilians somewhere or another got one of these electric ovens for us that we used to cook in and so forth.  We lived in that for I guess for six months or so and we were finally ... See we were married in August and, she got out of the service shortly afterwards and I didn’t get out of service until December. Shortly after December, sometime at the first part of the next year, we were able to get an apartment that we could... Well maybe six months after because for awhile, if somebody civilian were going away for two or three weeks or a month or something, they would let us have their apartment.  We could live in that otherwise we would be in the barracks or someplace else.

After we got our apartment and so forth, things began to settle down a little bit.  ‘Course had GI, what we called GI furniture.  It was furniture that the Lab had, you know, for consultants and people like that coming in and for the civilians that they let them use and so forth. Maybe we paid a little rent on it, I don’t know.  In other words the apartment probably was what they called a furnished apartment.  So we stayed on for a while after that. Neither one of us I think... I think either one of us could have gone back and gotten our jobs back at where we were working before.  I know I could, or rather they promised me I could. I never did check it out, because I was happy here.  I mean I had gotten a job with the Laboratory.  Jean had gotten a job with the Laboratory. So we were both working.  We just figured we would stick it out here for a little while and see what develops.  See if the place was going to continue on after the war or whether it was going to close up. We always said if it closes up we could go wherever we wanted to go after that.  So I think it changed our life radically. We have enjoyed living here at Los Alamos.

Strottman: Given similar circumstances would you work on a Manhattan Project or a secret government project again given war time?

Dabney: Knowing what I know now, I would have no hesitation about working on the Manhattan Project or any kind of war project similar to this so far as I’m concerned.  Even though I wasn’t really involved in the technical end of it, I have no qualms about the effort I put in from my side which was strictly military. I feel like the Manhattan Project did a wonderful job and I feel like it shortened the war by any number of months maybe years.  It’s hard to estimate the number of men’s lives that it may have saved, men’s and women’s as far as it’s concerned.  I’m really proud of what was accomplished.

Strottman: After the war, I realize that you and Jean stayed here but did you do any traveling outside of Los Alamos or outside this area?

Dabney: Right after the war I didn’t even have a vehicle.  In fact, when I went in the service I did have a vehicle back in Virginia, but I left it back there and I never did bring it out in this area. I did go back to Virginia shortly after the war was over just before I was discharged and so forth and took Jean with me and so forth. We were planning on bringing that automobile back with us but unfortunately they had used it during the war and so forth and it had some mechanical problems and so something and it had to be in the garage and so forth so I was unable to bring it back.

 It was several years after that before I was able to obtain an automobile. They used to have lists at the various automobile dealers down in Santa Fe and so forth. We got on every one of those lists that we could get on and we had to put up a $100 deposit on those lists, practically every one of them.  Finally after maybe a year or eighteen months, a friend of mine went back to New Hampshire. She knew a dealer back there that she was very friendly with and so forth. She called me up and said that, ‘We have a 1947 Ford, would you like to have it? I’ll get somebody to drive it out for you.’  Sure, we’ll take it. Because we had been without a vehicle. The only way we could get anyplace would be to go with someone else that happened to have a car.  So that was our first vehicle that we had since the war and that must have been twelve, eighteen months afterwards.

Then of course after I got that one -- short time, maybe a year or so -- some of the other dealers they began to get in more vehicles and they would call you up and say you vehicle is in. Do you still want it?  I had to turn down a few of them.  But I finally sold the Ford and got a Chevy. Then we just kept swapping from there. So we did have wheels so to speak or transportation.  At first we never made any real long trips. If I was going back east, I would go on a train or fly back.  Or if we were going back. Mainly they would be short trips around New Mexico.

Strottman: When you did travel after the war, when you told people where you had been and what you worked on, do you recall what their reactions were? The reactions of the general public to people who had worked on the Manhattan Project?

Dabney: Well I think it was maybe several years before the people realized where Los Alamos was and what Los Alamos was.  Or knew anything about it really. I know back east when we would go back there and we’d tell them we were at Los Alamos, well ‘where’s that in Mexico?’  They thought we were in Mexico or someplace, in a foreign country.

Strottman: This was right after the war?

Dabney: This was right after the war. So you know we tell them we were at Los Alamos. We were where the atomic bomb was developed and so forth. They didn’t seem to care much. You know, they wouldn’t say a whole lot. So that’s where you were hiding out during the war or something like. Give you some smart remark but I just feel like it was eighteen months to 

two years before they realized the significance of what actually went on here at Los Alamos. I’m not sure that very many people know where Los Alamos is yet.

Strottman: What is your most vivid memory of the Manhattan Project?  It could be a continuous memory like coffee in the Mess Hall or it could be a sound that occurred every day or it could be a particular event or some dramatic thing that happened.

Dabney: I guess the most vivid event that I can recall was my marriage in Santa Fe. But I think too, the thing that you kind of remember most during the war and so forth was maybe some of the experiments or some of the shots because these things went on continuously. Experiments, you know, explosions and what have you trying to determine how the best way to do certain things and so forth.  This wasn’t just say one or two during the daytime. You might have half a dozen or more in the daytime but you’d have them during the night. They would be doing them all during the night and so forth.  People during the wartime up here, time so far as day and night made no difference to them. If they got interested and started working on something, if it took 24 hours or 48 hours to complete it, they didn’t leave it, they stayed with it until the job was done.  I think that’s the thing that kind of impressed you more than anything else. Was the way that everybody pitched in to do that job regardless of what it was and everybody worked together. I think you have to consider this when you try to say, ‘Well what do you remember about the Manhattan Project?’ There’s a lot of things you can remember, but some things were just a little bit more impressive than others.

Strottman: Dedication.

Dabney: Dedication of people. 

Strottman: Winston is there anything you would like to add to this interview which hasn’t been covered during our conversation.  Is there something that you think is important that you would like to have on record that hasn’t been covered?

Dabney: I don’t know what else that I could say so far as my time here in Los Alamos. We’ve enjoyed it. We had a happy life here.

Strottman: And it continues.

Dabney: We raised three children. We’re very satisfied the way that they turned out.  

Strottman: Thank you very much.