The Manhattan Project

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & HistoryNational Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Anna Mae Gillespie's Interview

Printer-friendly version

AnnaMaeGillespie

Anna Mae Gillespie worked as a matron in the married couples’ dorm at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, and her husband worked as an electrician. She recalls life in the secret city during the war.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
1990s
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Anna Mae Gillespie: I was born in Oklahoma City, not Oklahoma City but Caldwell County, Oklahoma.  We left Oklahoma when I was about seven years old.  I had thirteen brothers and sisters.

Theresa Strottman: That’s a very large family.

Gillespie: Uh ha, and we were poor as Job’s turkey but everybody else was so we didn’t think we was poor.  We had as good as anybody else had.  I had ten brothers and four sisters. But I didn’t let them get the best of me.  They thought that because I was a girl, there were ten of them.  So one time my brother he tore up my letter that I had got from a boyfriend.  I had got to read it but he got it and read it.  I thought I’ll get even with him.  I so—I tore up the funny paper.  But he didn’t even miss it.  So I thought, hum, I didn’t get even with him, I’m still going to have to get even with him so we had pallets and beds outside in the summer time because it was hot there.  So I go along and I stick pins through the comforter or the mattress and when my sister-in-law heard him when he came in and sat down on that bed, “Ooh,” somebody stuck a million common pins in this mattress.  But I didn’t say a word, I pretended that I didn’t hear him.  He never knew I got even with him, but I did.

Strottman: That’s the best kind of revenge.

Gillespie: That’s terrible.

Strottman: Where did you go to school?

Gillespie: I went the first year in Oklahoma and part of the second year.  The first year was a breeze.  Anna Lacy she just loved me.  She treated me like I was one of the family.  But we went to school in a one room and all the grades was in that one room.  We just had one teacher that taught all of us. The next year, I made my grades this time, but the next year, it wasn’t so good.  If you missed a word in reading or writing or spelling, you got a whipping.  So I got several spankings and it kept me so upset and my older sister was seven years older than I was, almost eight and my mother was expecting another baby and she wouldn’t go down and talk to her.   She told me I missed one of my problems in arithmetic, she said, “All right, stay in, you’re going to get another spanking.”  

I said, “Oh, no.” 

And my brother that was four years older and I was seven and he was about eleven.  He stood up and he said, “No, you’re not going to spank her, she gets her lessons at night and my sister helps her, and she has them letter perfect and you got her so scared, you scare her and she then she’s upset.”  

She said, “You stay in and you’re going to get a whipping.”  

He said, “Well, you can whip me but you’re not going to whip her again.”  

So she checked with the others and said, “Did Anna Lacy did have any trouble with Anna Mae last year?”  

They said, ‘No, she just studied her lessons all.”  

She said, “Well I guess its something about me so—” 

But anyway my dad came and had a sale and sold off everything and we left Oklahoma when I was seven.  We put it all in what they call a jitney, and they put pillows down and my mother and my sisters, my older sister and myself and jitney driver sat in the front seat.  The younger ones was in the back seat on those pillows and quilts that was back there. They had a trunk on the back of that that they put the cooking utensils and what dishes.  We had granite dishes or tin dishes, we didn’t have regular dishes cause I guess we broke too many of them.  But now I have all kinds of pretty dishes.”

Strottman: Did your family go to Texas then?

Gillespie: Uh ha, when there was a Texas oil boom there, and that’s where I met my husband.  I married him and we lived together ten years, almost ten.  He found another woman and I was expecting my second child, no my third because my oldest one had died and I went home to get over having the baby when the baby was five weeks old.  He sent me divorce papers to sign.  So I went down into the cellar and I cried and cried.  My brother just older than I came down and he said, “Anna Mae, whatever we have we share with you.”  

And I said, “But I can’t even make a living for my family.”  

He said, “We’ll help you, whatever you need, we’ll do without and we’ll help you.”  

I said, “Gee, that’s sweet of you.”  So I wrote my brother, this brother his wife had died and my mother was keeping their two children.  I said, “Don’t you need a housekeeper and a cook?  I can’t cook much, but I cook steak, eggs and taters.”  He got in his car and came up and got me and his kids and so went down there and stayed about a year and a half and that’s where I met the man that I married there.  So then we moved to McKinney, Texas and that’s where I found out that I was allergic to cigarettes because he smoked.

Strottman: This was a problem for you.  How were you recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, how did you find out about a job on the Manhattan Project?

Gillespie: We started for Washington, D.C.  He heard that was a good place for my health.  He said, “Somewhere in this world Mae can breath.  I mean to find it.”  We got part way on our way, we had to come through Santa Fe.  We blew a tire on our trailer.  So he went to see if they would give him a tire.  

They said, “What type of work do you do?”

He said, “I’m a electrician.” 

They said, “Well, we can’t let you go up there, we need electricians up at Los Alamos.”  They said, “You go up there and you’d be paid good for your work because we need electricians and we can’t let you go, we can’t give you a tire.  But if you’ll go up there, we can give you a tire for—.” 

Then it costs us a dollar a day if we were sick and we’d been to the Los Alamos hospital.  My son was in the hospital, he had tonsillitis and I chocked up with asthma and they said, “Stay here, your husband down wiring for the atomic bomb.  We promised to take care of your family.  So check in here.”  

“But I have to be out and take care of my other two children.  That one’s in the hospital but I have a job to do.”

They said, “Well, we’ll take care of that.”

Strottman: This was a convenient solution for you.

Gillespie: Uh ha, but anyway, one of my neighbors said, “Anna Mae I don’t like to leave down here in this trailer court all by yourself, everybody else was working.”  

I said, “My husband won’t agree for me to go to work.”  

She said, “Well work on it, we don’t want to leave you down there by yourself.”  

When he came home, I said, “What do you think if I get a job and go to work?”  

He said, “What can you do?”  

I said, “I don’t know but I see some that looks as dumb as I do and they got a job, we’ll go up there and see what I can do, see what they need.”

Strottman: Was the trailer court in Santa Fe?

Gillespie: No, it was here in Los Alamos.  There was a building that was used for something else and we put that there and it was right off the block up here at Los Alamos.  And we stayed down there until we could get a place to move into, so then we sold our trailer and we stayed up at Los Alamos then from 1943 until 19 and 50.  But he still was working for contractor and he still drove back and forth from Espanola, we moved down there.  I said, “I like to live up in Los Alamos, I like it up there, I can breath up there.”  

He said, “We’ll work out a way for you to breath down here.”

Strottman: How did you find a job up here in 1943?

Gillespie: They needed help, whatever they could get, whether it was man or woman, they needed all the help that they could get because there was so many jobs and of course the soldiers didn’t work like the commissary and I didn’t know what type of job I could get.  They told me they thought I could get a job, this friend came and she said they are needing matrons.  But at that time, they had already filled all their matron jobs, so I had to start off as maid in the dormitories.  I went home and told my husband, I said, “Well, all I got was a maid’s job.”  

He said, “I don’t want you working as a maid.”  

I said, “It’s not going to hurt me, I’ll learn how to be a matron, learn how to make the beds and I can show the maids how they have to be made.”  I said, “I don’t feel degraded at all.”  So I worked a week and those women down there were all pulling for me to get the matron job, so the first one that came up, that’s why I got my job.

Strottman: What dorm or what building were you a matron in?

Gillespie: First was a men’s dorm, down close to the dining room.  Then they had an opening for one in the married couples dorm.  I think it costs $18 or $21 a month and they had maid service to clean their rooms, they furnished them sheets and they furnished them towels and I was the matron and had the maids working under me then.

Strottman: What were your duties? What was it that you had to do?

Gillespie: I had to make out a chart telling which help, the help how many was there each day and if the people that lived in the dorms made complaints then we had to work that out with the lady that would come around each day to check to see if everything was going all right.

Strottman: Did you say you worked in the married couples dorm?

Gillespie: Uh ah.

Strottman: Who was living there?

Gillespie: Just people that worked.  They either worked days or they’d work nights. But the husband and the wife would both work.

Strottman: Were any of them military or were they just civilians?

Gillespie: No, not in that dorm.

Strottman: So it was all civilian married couples?

Gillespie: Uh ah, un ah.

Strottman: What were the jobs they were doing, do you remember where some of

those people worked.?

Gillespie: Some of them worked at the commissary, some worked at the, in the, happen to recruit other people for Los Alamos, to help up there.

Strottman: What were you able to tell your family and friends when you were up here?

Gillespie: That our box number was—it was Santa Fe, we never put Los Alamos on anything.  Then by going to work for Los Alamos, my daughter could go to school up here and I could work for the government instead of a contractor.  And I had left her at my mother’s, but my son, before I got that job, we had to pay a tutor for our son, he was five years old to go to school.  So I didn’t need to be at home and it was lonesome down there.

Strottman: So it was much better off to be working.  You say that before you got this job, your children couldn’t go to school?

Gillespie: They couldn’t go to school up here, because this was a government school.

Strottman: But after you had the job?

Gillespie: Then they could go to school up here, so I got to bring my son home, he had stayed at my husband’s mother and went to school.  And I said you know he acts like he’s been in a military school, he said, “Yes, sir” and “Yes ma’am.”  He held his shoulders back. His grandmother thought he was about the grandest thing ever happened along and she was just his step-grandmother but she didn’t treat him like he was. She treated him like he was her own.  They didn’t want their son to marry a widow woman with two children but he said, “Mom, they’re not ordinary kids, they’re special.”  And he always treated them like they were special.  Jody was, oh she was jealous of me and my husband, him putting his arm around me and she’d twist and she’d squirm you know.   He’d say, “What’s a matter pig?”  He called her pig.  He said, “Come over here, I love you too.”  Then she smiled and she always treated him like—he’d said, “I don’t like for her to say ‘Kenneth Marvin,’” because that was my first husband’s name. He didn’t like that.  

My son said that he brought his son there after we had moved off the hill and he said, “Mom, I knew everything was all right when Dad took my son with him up to Los Alamos and took him on the tractor with him down home and worked with him.”  My son was in the service and my husband didn’t treat my kids like they were step-kids, he treated them like they were his kids.

Strottman: He was very good to them.  Who was your boss when you were working as a matron?

Gillespie: Let me see if I can think, let’s see there was Lefler and Jean Tinsley and—

Strottman: Thelma Reynolds?

Gillespie: Pardon?

Strottman: Does Thelma Reynolds—

Gillespie: A Thelma Gossett, she come and brought the supplies around that we used all the time and I said Lefler didn’t I?

 Strottman: Yes.

Gillespie: Let me see, seem like, I can’t think of the other guy’s name.

Strottman: Oh, that’s fine.  When you were able to move away from the trip, did you stay in the trailer all the time ?

Gillespie: No, we took the trailer down to some friends’ house down in the valley and sold it.

Strottman: Where did you move then during the Manhattan Project after you got your job, where did you live?

Gillespie: In a log cabin across from the commissary up here.  They moved it off after we moved out.  It was T-10 I believed they called it.

Strottman: Was it an old Ranch School building?

Gillespie: No, I think it was just what the tenants lived in.

Strottman: Were you near the Gonzales family?

Gillespie: Pardon?

Strottman: Do you remember Bences Gonzales?  What was the log cabin like?

Gillespie: It had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and dining room combined. They furnished the furniture for it.  Them my mother came up and lived with me, she lost her husband and she came up.  She said, “Anna Mae, can’t I do that maid work?”  

And I said, “No Mom, you got too many kids, we can all chip in.”  

She said, “Well, I bought my home and I want to pay for it.”  She said, “I only lack three months having it paid for.”  I got her a job and she came and worked for I think seven months or something and they was going to lay her off because somebody else wanted her job, I think, somebody that had authority to take her job.  She cried and she said, “I wanted to pay for my home while I was here.”  I think she made $6 a day and that seemed like a big salary to her.  Of course she stayed at my house and it didn’t cost her anything for room and broad.  The kids would sleep on the divan, they had bunk beds in the back bedroom.  

So one of my friends came and she said, “Why is your mother so upset?”  

And I said, “Well she wants to work till she pays for her home.”  

She said, “How long will that be?”  

I said, “She said three months.”  

She said, “I’ll see what I can do.”  So they let her work until she paid for her home.”

Strottman: That must have been very satisfying for her.

Gillespie: Yes it was and she said that it was like a different world up here because she had five sons in the service all at one time and they all came back.  One was in Peal Harbor when it was bombed, but he came back.  He said he had been out that night and he had just come in to go to bed when the bombs started falling there in Peal Harbor.

Strottman: That is miraculous, stroke of luck that all five came back, that’s wonderful.

Gillespie: I’ve got one granddaughter and two grandsons that’s in the service now.

Strottman: Did they go over to Iraq, to Saudi Arabia?

Gillespie: Yes, one of them did.

Strottman: What do you remember during the Manhattan Project about the relationships between the military and the civilians, did you know any military people?

Gillespie: One soldier worked down at the laundry room, I worked down there part-time and he worked for Lefler and Tinsley and he was complaining all the time until he and his wife divorced and then he come back and married one of the women that worked with me up there.

Strottman: Do you remember anything else about any conflicts perhaps between military and civilians any problems?

Gillespie: No, things was lots cheaper up here than they were anywhere else.

Strottman: Did you find that you could get more food here and better selections?

Gillespie: We didn’t even go off the hill to check to see whether we could or not because well, they had fresh carrots and a few fresh things and plenty of meat and plenty of canned foods.  I’d take my Presto cooker out to the dorm and cook beans and cook stew and things.  When I’d go home at noon, I’d take that and we’d try to get the dishes all washed and all before we went back at noon.

Strottman: For your afternoon’s work?

Gillespie: Uh ha, but it all just seemed like all of us were in a daze and it passed so quick.  I didn’t want to move away from the hill and my husband said, “Well I bought us a home down in the valley,” and he said, “When are you going to move?” 

 “Well when you put it that way, when school is out, cause I don’t want to take the kids out and put them in a different school at the last part,” 

So he said, “Okay, so then I’ll plan for that.”  So he drove back and forth after that and he still worked as a electrician. But when they was going to test the bomb, they asked him if he wanted to be there and see it go off.  And he said, “No, I want to be as far away from it as I can possibly be.”  But he died of cancer of the lungs.

Strottman: You said that he had gone down to Trinity Site, that he had done wiring for the tower.

Gillespie: Yes.

Strottman: Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Gillespie: No, because he wouldn’t discuss it.  He says, “You’re better off for not knowing.”  He said, “When we went down there, we went by Santa Fe and they told us they’d give us thirty minutes to eat something and get back to the truck.  And some of the guys was talking and they was pulled off the bus, they didn’t go all the way down there, because evidently they had said something that was military secrets.”  And they did go check him out at Los Alamos.  They went from Los Alamos, the FBI checking all to see whether he was trustworthy and they went to Dallas, his folks lived in Dallas.  

His mother called and she said, “Junior, your Dad is coming up to see you, get him a pass.”  

I said, “Can you tell me?”  

She said, “No, I’m worried and I’ve got to found out.”  

Cause they had come checking down there you know and he told his mother later, he said, “You didn’t trust your son very much.  The fact that I had done something to have the FBI on my trail, you don’t know what to think when you can’t write anything in a letter.”  Jody got a letter from her friend and she was telling her how to play a game, you use these little macaroni letters.  She put a bunch of those in and wrote in the letter how to play the game.  That was cut out of Jody’s letter whenever she got it. There was no macaroni at all in the envelope.

Strottman: So they were afraid it might be code or something?

Gillespie: A code of some kind and that they were just pretending that it was teenagers, she wasn’t even a teenager, she was about ten or eleven.

Strottman: So security was definitely something of a personal act.

Gillespie: Yes, everybody was, you had to have finger prints taken.  I said, ‘I haven’t done anything.’  They said we have to have this.

Strottman: How did you spend you free time?  What did the family do?

Gillespie: We had movies, it costs about eleven cents to go to a movie and then we had church up here.

Strottman: Did you ever feel isolated when you were here?

Gillespie: I loved it up here, I could breath, (deep breath) it was so nice and my family, I was happy with them.

Strottman: Do you remember where you were when you heard about the Trinity Test, I mean you knew your husband had gone down to work on it somewhat, but do you recall hearing about it after the bomb had exploded?     

Gillespie: Do you mean what had happened over there all of them or do you mean—?       

Strottman: No, I mean the test at Alamogordo, do you recall ...?

Gillespie: Well, my husband thought he was going to stay as far away from it and he came up to Los Alamos before they set it off.  So I didn’t have that to worry because he wasn’t down there at that time.  He told ‘em, they gave him a choice of being there or coming away.  And he said, “I want to be as far as I can git.”   I have no idea what it’s like.  He says, “Your right hand don’t know what your left hand is doing.”  And he was left handed.  If he started a job he had to finish it, nobody else could take over.  

Strottman: Do you have any memory of the excitement in the town or people talking about –?

Gillespie: Oh, yes, Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys came up and played and wewent to a dance and there everybody was smoking and I choked up, so Tex took me home.  They called him Tex, his name was Solomon Edmondson Gillespie, Jr. And I said, “That name and a bad cold would kill anybody.” [Laughs.] 

When my son was born he only had one child.  I said, “Shall we name him Solomon Edmondson Gillespie the Third?” 

And he said, “Oh, no.”   

“Well, what do you want to name him?”  

“John or Jim or something that’s easy to say.”  

So we named him James Edward.

Strottman: So he could be Jim?  Do you remember where you were when you heard about the bombing in Japan, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima?

Gillespie: It seemed like it was a relief.

Strottman: Were you at work or were you at home or—?

Gillespie: I think I was at home because we didn’t have a radio and there was no TVs at that time.

Strottman: You mean you didn’t have a radio in the dorm or you didn’t have a radio?

Gillespie: I don’t remember about that.

Strottman: Do you remember the bombing of Nagasaki as distinct from the bombing of Hiroshima?

Gillespie: Do you know I guess I should have felt bad about for them, but I just thinking of us, and maybe I should have been feeling sorry for those.

Strottman: After the war when you told people where you had been and what you had done, do you remember if they had any reaction to the stories, were people curious about the fact that you had been on Los Alamos?

Gillespie: Well, his baby sister said, “Maybe that was the cause of him having cancer.” 

I said, “I don’t like to believe that.”  I said, “He smoked.”

Strottman: What is your most vivid memory of the Manhattan Project?

Gillespie: I loved it up here.  I could breath, the air seemed so light.  Everybody was friendly.  Whether it was military or whether it was civilians.

Strottman: Given similar circumstances, war time and national emergency, would you work on a secret project again?

Gillespie: Yes.

Strottman: Is there anything you’d like to add to this interview that we hadn’t covered?  Is there something you remember about the Manhattan Project that you’d like to say or you haven’t mentioned?

Gillespie: Well, my daughter was getting married up here, she met a man up here and I didn’t think he was the right guy for her and I didn’t want her to marry him. I said, “Jody, go to college, you can go off to college somewhere and meet somebody else.”  

She said, “Mother, I’m getting married with your permission or without it.”  

I said, “Jody, I don’t think Eddy Matthews is who you should be marrying.”  

She said, “Mom, I’m going to get married.”  

I said, “Okay, then I’ll give my permission.”  So we made the plans for her, Grandma wrote and wanted to know if she would accept her wedding gown. 

She said, “Mom, do I have to?”  

I said, “No Jody.”  

“I wanted us to make my wedding gown.”  

“She considered it an honor for her to offer you her wedding gown.”  

She said, “Well, let me think on it.”  The next morning she came in and she said, ‘Mom, I’d love to wear grandma’s wedding gown.”  So they sent it to her and she wore it.  But they couldn’t—it had come out in the paper that Los Alamos could win wars, crack atoms and win wars but they couldn’t issue a marriage license.  So she had to go to Santa Fe and get her marriage license so she got married in the Baptist Church down in Santa Fe.

Strottman: What year was this?

Gillespie: It was in 19 and 48.

Strottman: So you still couldn’t get a marriage license up here in 1948?

Gillespie: '47 or '48 and I think it was '48.

Strottman: And that was in the newspaper?

Gillespie: Uh ha, I have the clipping and I meant to bring it but Jim was running late on us getting up here so—

Strottman: Oh that’s fine, we can always call you if we want the paper but I think that’s a lovely clipping.  If there’s anything else you would like to add? Or is that about it?

Gillespie: Whenever we moved off, she met another guy up here and she and this husband separated and she married this guy, he’s still up here. His name is Waitefield, Richard Waitefield.  She had to have her back operated on cause she had fallen and he said, “Why didn’t you check with me before you had told ‘em you wanted it.

She said, "It's my back, its my decision." 

Well, he wouldn’t go to see her, he said, “You know I don’t like to go to hospitals.”  

She said, “Well I have to.” She had her back operated on and he divorced her.  Her dad had told her if she’d come to California where he was that he would give her a home.  Well, he never paid anything of her what it costs to put her through school or to raise her or anything so she and her two boys went out there.  

I called her one morning and I said, “Jody, when are you coming back?”  

She said, “Sooner than you think.”  She said, “Marvin has told me that he has sold this house, he didn’t give me the title to it, he sold the house and I would have to get out.”  

“Well, I’m sending you $200 to come home.”  We sent her money to buy a car and so she came back, her and her two boys from California.  I said, “Do you want to move?” We had bought a trailer in the mean time and had it in the yard there at home. I said, “Do you want to move in the trailer?”  

She said, “No thank you, I just want to stay here until I can get my bearings.”  

So Jim said, “Fine, what do you think of Jody going up to Denver where I am and I can see if I can get her a job?”   

I said, “Okay, do you want her boys to stay here?”  

He said, “No, I want her to take her boys with her.”  So she took her boys with her and they just went up there and she married again.” 

Strottman: Thank you very, very much, we appreciate you coming today.

Gillespie: I’ve enjoyed it.