The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Esther Stenstrom's Interview

Esther Stenstrom's Interview

Esther Stenstrom arrived at Oak Ridge in 1943, after she and her husband were picked to work in the secret city. Strenstrom worked alongside her husband in the engineering department at the Y-12 Plant as a mechanical drawer. She recalls how rationing affected life for civilians living and working in Oak Ridge and how social events offered a respite for the community members.

Helen Jernigan Final Cut

Helen Jernigan's Interview

Helen Jernigan was a young woman when she was offered a job working in the recreational facilities in Oak Ridge. Eventually, she moved on to become editor of the local newspaper, Carbide Courier. Jernigan recalls the nightlife young men and women were encouraged to participate in as a break from life in the secret city.

Ray Smith

Ray Smith's Interview

Ray Smith is the historian at the Y-12 National Security Complex. He provides an overview of the history of Oak Ridge, the uranium enrichment processes undertaken at the Y-12, K-25, and S-50 plants during the Manhattan Project, and how the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs worked. Smith talks about efforts to preserve Oak Ridge’s unique history.

Fred Vaslow Final Cut

Fred Vaslow's Interview

Fred Vaslow, a physical chemist, began working on the Manhattan Project while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. During his time working on the project, Vaslow worked in several of the secret cities, including Los Alamos alongside J. Robert Oppenheimer. Vaslow shares many insights including the general opinion about the bomb among scientists who had contributed to its creation as well as the spreading denigration of Oppenheimer’s character after the bombs were dropped.

Peggy Bowditch's Interview

Peggy Bowditch's Interview

Peggy Bowditch was a young girl when she and her family moved to Los Alamos in 1943. Her father, Rear Admiral William Sterling “Deak” Parsons, was chosen by General Groves to become head of ordnance for the Manhattan Project. The Parsons lived on Bathtub Row, next door to the Oppenheimers. Deak Parsons and his wife were close friends of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, and Parsons had a fatal heart attack in 1953 after learning that Oppenheimer would be stripped of his security clearance for trumped-up security reasons. Bowditch’s babysitter was the infamous spy Klaus Fuchs, and Bowditch herself babysat Peter Oppenheimer on occasion. Bowditch talks about how her father’s lifelong emphasis on careful planning and preparing for the worst must have helped him with arming the Little Boy bomb in flight.

Fay Cunningham

Fay Cunningham's Interview

Fay Cunningham joined the Manhattan Project in 1944 as a metallurgical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cunningham and his team of engineers helped to develop a mechanized process for producing crucibles that were used in the reduction of uranium and plutonium. After the war, Cunningham served as a radiation monitor for the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll during Operation Crossroads. His job was to survey the radiological damage on navy ships that were positioned around the epicenter of the nuclear explosion. Cunningham recalls climbing cargo nets dangling from the bow of a ship while trying to hold on to a fifteen-pound Geiger counter. After Operation Crossroads, Cunningham returned to Michigan State and completed his degree in chemical engineering.

Bob Cantrell's Interview

Robert Cantrell's Interview

Robert Cantrell joined the Manhattan Project in 1943 and worked as an architect for Dr. Walter Zinn’s design group at the University of Chicago. Working from his office in Ryerson Hall, Cantrell helped design a new mechanism for inserting the control rods into the nuclear reactor. He also designed innovative tools for scientists who were working on radioactive materials. Cantrell recalls borrowing a peace of platinum from the New Chem building at Chicago and being reprimanded walking back to his office without an armed escort; he found out that the piece of platinum was worth “about seventy thousand dollars” and that he “had about half of all the available platinum in the country.” After the war, Cantrell continued his career as an architect and helped design buildings for universities across the country.

Tom Scolman's Interview

Tom Scolman's Interview

Tom Scolman arrived in Los Alamos shortly after receiving his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota under renowned physicist Alfred Nier. At Los Alamos, Scolman worked in the Weapons Division where and a team of physicists helped assemble and test explosives that would be used in nuclear devices. After the war, Scolman worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory and presided over hundreds of nuclear tests in the South Pacific, Nevada, and Amchitka. Scolman was also a member of a group that responded to weapons accidents; he recalls several instances where planes carrying nuclear weapons crashed but luckily did not explode.

Priscilla McMillan

Priscilla McMillan's Interview

Priscilla J. McMillan is an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasiana Studies at Harvard University and a former adjunct fellow of the Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. She is the bestselling author of "The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer" and "Marina and Lee." Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where she is a member of the editorial board.

Celia Klemski's Interview

Celia Szapka Klemski's Interview

Celia Szapka Klemski was featured in Denise Kiernan’s “The Girls of Atomic City.” She grew up in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. She worked as a secretary for the State Department in Washington, DC, then was transferred to Manhattan to work on the Manhattan Project, where she enjoyed sightseeing and touring the skyscrapers. Eventually she was transferred to Oak Ridge, where she settled down and married another Manhattan Project worker. She remembers receiving dictation from General Leslie Groves, who told her to call him “GG,” and the ever-present mud in Oak Ridge ruining her nicest pair of shoes.

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