Theresa Strottman: As we start, could you briefly tell me when and where you were born and something about your early education and training?
Bob Porton: I’ll tell you where I was born; when I was born is classified. I was born in Washington D.C. and one of the few people that admit that they were born in the District of Columbia. When I was born in my early days, Washington was a much different place. We lived there until just as I started junior high school we moved to Florida. My dad’s brother had gone down and made a lot of money in the Florida boom and kept writing letters and my dad couldn’t stand it so finally he talked mother into doing so.
We moved to Tampa, Florida and that’s where I grew up. I attended the University of Florida and I’m proud to say that I was the drum major in the fighting gator marching band so when I see the University of Florida on television, I always pay more attention to the band than to the football team. That was my early days. One of the things that has always interested me from the time I was very small was music. So that I started my first dance band on the campus on the University of Florida. Then after I got out of school, I had a dance band in Tampa and we played all over south Florida.
When the war broke out, I felt uncomfortable because Tampa was a highly militarized city with ship building and two big airbases. So I was fortunate enough to get a job working for the Air Corp which later became the Air Force. I worked for the Air Force for three years. When I decided that I should go into the service even though I had a year and a half deferment that the Air Force had put in for me cause they’d sent me to school. I was in supply.
So I went into the service with me and a manila envelope with two recommendations from two generals, a letter from a colonel asking that I be assigned to his base immediately upon induction, no basic training and a letter from my own commanding officer. I was very certain because I was naive that I would go into the Air Force and continue the kind of work I was doing as a civilian.
I was telling a young lady yesterday who was interviewing me that I had a very interesting experience when I went into the Army. We were sent to a place called Starke, Florida and that’s where we were sworn in. There were forty-six civilians, most of them younger than I was. We all stood up. An officer read a statement in which we had pledged allegiance to the county and all that sort of thing. He said, “Now when I finish reading this, I want each of you to take one step forward. When you take that one step forward, you’re in the military service.” We all took one step forward and immediately within two seconds, he says, “Robert Rye Porton.”
I almost collapsed on the floor. I said, “What did I do in the two seconds?”
He said, “Raise your hand. Now all turn around and look him, at this moment, he’s an acting corporal and you will obey him just like you would any officer and you will do what he says and no nonsense.” He says, “You’re going to leave here and go to Ft. McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia to go through the reception center.”
Well when I was in college and was in the marching band, we had ROTC. In those days the University of Florida was an all-male school. Because, I guess, I’d had some military background was the reason. So, I guess I’m one of the few people in the world who became a corporal within two seconds. But I had that bunch of monkeys, for our train trip into Jacksonville and then changing and then going on. Fortunately I got them all to there.
And when we were in the reception center in Ft. McPherson we were given assignments as to what branch of the service we would be assigned to. I was sure that when I got my sheet, it would say Air Force. And I got mine and I looked at it and it said, combat engineers. I didn’t know what to do but I decided what have I got to lose so I appealed and I went before a grizzled old sergeant who had about fourteen stripes on his sleeves and he said, “What’s your problem?’
I said, “I feel like I should be in the Air Force rather than the combat engineers.”
He looked at me and he looked at the record and he says, “How long did you work for the Air Force?”
I said, “Three years.”
He said, “How long have you been a band leader?”
I said, “Oh, twelve or thirteen years band leader.”
He said, “You probably will end up in special services. Dismissed.”
So the next thing I knew that a few days later there was a notice on the bulletin board and there were half a dozen of us and we were sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO for basic training. I have told this story many times that I think Los Alamos is the garden spot of America and Ft. Leonard Wood, MO is the opposite. So when I was in Ft. Leonard Wood, they sent me to clerk school. That was when another officer told me, “You’ll end up in special services when you’re back on.”
So anyway, about that time we were to be completing our training, I had three interviews. The first one was with a young lieutenant who had just returned from combat and had been placed in charge of the clerk school. I was summoned to appear before him and he was very genial and very nice, very pleasant and he said, “How would you like to stay here and teach supply, military supply in the school?”
Theresa Strottman: You were mentioning—
Bob Porton: So when he said that I would be there a year, now this is 1944, I said, “Yes sir.”
Theresa Strottman: He had wanted you to teach in the supply clerk school?
Bob Porton: In Ft. Leonard Wood. He added a little carrot, he said, “You won’t even have to pull KP because we have German POW’s that do all that work.” He said, “Are you interested?”
I said, “Yes sir.”
About a week later I get another call. This was a long, tall, about 6'5" First Lieutenant and he was forming a brand new engineer parts and supply outfit that was going overseas. He said, “With your age and your background, I’ve got an open TO which means that he can form and name all of his staff and everything.” He said, “I would just tell you right now that if you join my outfit I’ll make you my first sergeant. Are you interested?”
I said, “Yes sir.” So I said, “Now I got two offers, how lucky can you get.”
A couple of weeks later I get another call. This one was different. I had to walk two or three blocks to an isolated cabin type structure. There was a Captain. We sat down in a room just the two of us. He said, “There’s an opening for a person of your background and all I can tell you about it is that it’s out in the western part of the United States. The living conditions are very rugged but I can assure you that if you’re there, if you’re sent there, you will be there a long time.” He said, “Are you interested?”
I said, “Yes sir, except I have one question, what kind of an assignment would it be?”
He said, “Well, it would be in recreation. At the moment the chaplain is in charge of recreation so you would be a chaplain’s assistant.”
I said, “Lieutenant, I think maybe you have the wrong man for that kind of work.”
He said, “No, all you would have to do would be to work in recreation and athletics, that sort of thing. Are you interested?”
I said, “Yes sir.”
So now I’m in a quandary.
A few days later the Lieutenant in charge of clerk school saw me again and we had a nice conversation and he said, “Well I just found out that you are either going overseas or to Santa Fe, New Mexico which the Capt. did not mention at all.” He said, “If you’re going overseas I can pull you out immediately and keep you here. If you’re going to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I couldn’t touch you with a ten foot pole but I don’t know why.” To make a long story short on the bulletin board it appeared that there were I think five of us as I recall were told to get all our gear ready that we were going to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Strottman: Do you recall when this was, what year, what month?
Porton: Yes, this was in November of 1944. I had been in the Army at that time about four months.
Strottman: So Los Alamos had been functioning for approximately little over a year, a year and a half approximately before they got a real recreation director.
Porton: They had a recreation director, they had two GI’s that were handling recreation.
The problem was that this was a secret post and you couldn’t get troop strength so they could not install a special services branch which is the normal unit on any military base that handles these kinds of things. So the two GI’s had to work under the post engineering department and do everything. And so that’s why they wanted some help and that’s why I was brought here.
Strottman: Do you remember who the people were who had been handling this, presumably under the chaplain’s supervision?
Porton: Absolutely, very well. One was Tom Fike who has come back for several reunions and unfortunately he passed away last year. After he left the service he completed his schooling and at one time was the city attorney in Phoenix. Tom was a corporal in charge of recreation. The other GI was a guy named Caesar Bango who was an ex-West Virginia coal miner. Tom was a individual who was talented and quite flexible and could do just about everything and Bango was the athletic type. So they worked together as a team.
When I arrived it was quite interesting because—I’ve told this story many times. We got on a train at a place called Newburg, MO near Ft. Leonard Wood and arrived in Kansas City on a Saturday night and the California Limited of the Santa Fe railroad had already departed and so we were forced to stay in the Kansas City area on a Saturday night which was—I did something which I thought of many, many years since when I spent the night in Independence, MO, not knowing that someday, someone very famous on the world scene would be from Independence. But then we left the next morning and I’ve told many visiting groups over the years, I don’t know how many of you people have ever gotten off the train at Lamy, New Mexico but it was quite an experience. So going—
Strottman: Could you for the purposes of this tape, describe your first impressions of New Mexico or of Lamy, how did it impress you?
Porton: When I looked out of the train window and some other GI’s had joined us, we had part of one railroad car, so there were probably a dozen or maybe fourteen. When I got off the train, being an ex-flatlander, I think the highest elevation in the state of Florida is near Tallahassee and its about five hundred feet.
Saw mountains and saw sage brush and saw this isolated place, my first thought when I recall it, I said, “They’ve sent us to outer Siberia. Surely this is not where we’re going to serve.” We got in a dilapidated GI bus and made one stop at Dotty McKibbin’s office at 109 E. Palace in Santa Fe and picked up some papers and then arrived through Espanola, because in those days you had to go through Espanola to get to Los Alamos.
And between Espanola and the cut off, the road had severe dips and those bus drivers would hit those pretty fast. Then we started climbing and I was sitting up in the front seat on the right hand side and I made a very foolish move. I moved asked the driver, because there were no guard rail, how deep is that canyon? He said, “Well, I’ll show you.” He drove the bus right over the edge.
And I remember saying silently to myself, “I don’t know where I’m going and I don’t know where this is but I don’t think I’ll ever try to get off wherever it is.” Then we got up on top and had to pass through as I recall I think three different guard stations. Finally—
Strottman: Do you remember where the guard stations were?
Porton: Yeah, the first, many people don’t realize this, the first one was at the bottom of the hill near the entrance to where EG&G is now. There was a little white shack and there were few pictures of that. Many people think that where Philomena’s place was, was where the guard was. That was later. But it was at the bottom of that hill after you pass, well it’s not Philomena’s any longer but there was a cut-off in the EG&G complex, that was the first one. The second one was, oh, about a mile west of the main guard station. The third one was, oh, about where 15th and Central is in the center of town.”
So the military headquarters was located about where Metzger’s is. That’s where we were sent just to check in before being assigned to a barracks and that sort of thing. I could see all kinds of activity, people moving about both military and civilian. Vehicles—very active place. We were all looking at each other and saying, what is this?
But within several days, two things happened. One was that we were given an orientation lecture and then a security lecture. The officer, I do not recall who it was, but I was very impressed by the security lecture. I made a vow to myself right then and there that as long as I was going to be assigned here, there were two things: one was I was never going to ask any questions and two, I was never going to shoot off my mouth on anything at all because he kept talking about the great need for secrecy. The one thing that he said, “If we are successful in what we are doing, it will shorten the war considerably.” And that was good enough for me.
The second thing that happened was, I was assigned to—see, there were four military units here and that’s another thing that a lot of people don’t realize. There was the Provisional Engineer Detachment who I was assigned to originally and they were the ones that handled maintenance and construction, drove the big caterpillar and big trucks and that sort of thing. Then there was the Military Police who handled all the security. They had the roughest assignment of anybody, especially in the winter time. The third was the detachment of WACs and they handled secretarial and financial. They worked in the offices and post office and that sort of thing. And then the favored ones, the Special Engineer Detachment, the SED’s.
Over the years, ninety percent of the historical records and all publicity centers on the SED’s. Many of these boys had a B.S. degree, some were technicians, some were planning to go on to college after they got out, they were the smart ones. The other three were kind of like a normal military unit, but these boys, they didn’t have to pull KP because they had a mess hall and civilians came in and did all of that. The best thing about being an SED was that the promotion capabilities became much easier.”
Strottman: If I can take us back a moment to the, you mentioned the orientation lectures and the security lecture. Do you recall what they told you in the orientation lecture?
Porton: Mainly that the work was very important to the future of the United States and the free world and that the work that went on here was highly technical and that not to be disturbed. If, I’ll just use a corny phrase, if you hear a big bang and you’d see all kind of strange—The one thing that he kind of winked at us and said, “You’re also probably going to see some very strange looking individuals, civilians and just don’t pay any attention to them and relax.” He told us about the various military units that we were having.
Strottman: You were at this point still part of the PED, Provisional Engineer Detachment?
Porton: When I came, I was assigned to the Provisional Engineers and Tom Fike and Caesar Bango had been in there and the lieutenant in charge of that, called me into his office about the fourth day I was here and he tried his best to persuade me to not go into recreation but to go into supply where I had my background. I said, “Lieutenant, I appreciate your consideration and all of that, but it sounds very interesting to me, because I had always been a sports fan and when I found out that they had a little radio station, radio had always fascinated me, and the one thing that I felt in my own mind, it would be a lot more pleasant and more diversified.” I had some background so that I turned down his kind offer and was able to get way with it.
Strottman: Now when he mentioned Tom Fike and Caesar Bango, were they performing other jobs in addition to the recreation or were they just doing recreation?
Porton: Let me tell you about what we covered and then you’ll realize there was no time in the twenty-four hours when they’d do anything else. Because we had so much under our jurisdiction.
Strottman: Then did you become their boss, was it then the three of you in charge?
Porton: No, Tom Fike was still the boss and I just became a member of the team. Since I had gone to clerk school and they had taught me how to type in a fashion, they had a lot of clerical they wanted me to do. At the end of the first day when the pile of documents was so high, I felt that I just couldn’t do it. I told them that. I had to go back to the hunt and peck. When I tell you what we did, I’m just going to talk now.
Strottman: You were going to tell us what the work of your three man unit in charge of the recreation for Los Alamos was.
Porton: We operated out of a very large building which was located about where the VFW club is today and it was called, Theater No. 2. There are pictures of it in the Science Museum or used to be. I don’t know. This was an all purpose building, it was built originally as a huge warehouse, but in that building, we ran dances on Saturday nights then we had to clean up the place and get some custodians who lived at a barracks next to it in about four o’clock in the morning and get it all ready for church services.
The chaplain did not want his podium on the stage, he wanted it the other way, so they wouldn’t face the stage and there were big huge benches in there that we had to move around. So the next morning had church services. When church was over, we had to turn everything back around because at two o’clock we had Army motion picture services. Then we had colloquiums in there. Then in the winter time we used it as a gymnasium for both civilians and military and my high school boys which I took on later, I’ll tell you about that.
There was a ski hill up at Sawyer’s Hill where the Boy Scout Camp used to be, and we had to make sure that it had a rope tow. Down in the canyon there was an ice skating rink which was about 300 yards west of where the present one is. We’d have to go down in there and keep it in best shape as possible. Where the Western Area is, I had a nine hold golf course and the worst fairways in the entire country and sand greens. Then we ran a radio station.
Strottman: Getting back to the golf course, do you recall water ever running through that area? It was always dry, there were no arroyos?
Porton: It was dry except when you had a heavy snow or a heavy rain, there may have been. I don’t recall any water of any consequence. There were a number of scientists that just loved to play golf and while it left a lot to be desired, it was still something that they enjoyed doing. All of these you see required maintenance and we had about seven or eight custodians who did all kinds of things for us. They had to be supervised.
The radio station, Tom Fike and I operated just during the noon hour. We had forty-five minutes of music at lunch time with Tom and Bob and it was a request program. People would call in and want to hear the kind of music that was played in those days which was about a thousand percent better than what they play today on radio. Then in the evening, we’d come on sometime after five o’clock and civilians would operate it. We started a program on the radio station called music of the masters. It was classical music and it was for the strict benefit of the scientific personnel. That program went on the station for many, many years. We didn’t have funding and many times myself or Tom would have to go to the homes of famous scientists and borrow an album of records and play it on the air that night and return it the next day. The idea of having that plus running dances, motion pictures and everything.
In January of 1945 due to the shortage of teachers, they asked me to head the physical education program at Los Alamos High School. The old Central School which was located near where the United Church across the street from where the United Church is had grades kindergarten through high school. I had thirty-seven boys. I had never done anything like that in my life. The boys I had five days a week, normally P.E. and most schools is like two days. When I took them over, they were not the best disciplined youngsters in the world because so many of their mothers and dads both worked. They used to walk from Central School over to where this big building was and their language would get to the inhabitants and then they would throw pebbles and this sort of thing. Bango had tried to handle them before I arrived. He had much less experience than I did. He let them get away with everything. I had just come out of basic training. So I gave those boys basic training.
The one story that I’ll always remember is there was a young man who used language that was inappropriate. The radio station was located in the building called the Big House which was back where Zia Credit Union is now, just a block away from Fuller Lodge. In the Big House in addition to was the chaplain’s office. The head of the Red Cross and the Mesa Library. So that boys voices could be heard. This one guy just was much louder than the rest. We had size of almost a football field out there to work with. So I would put them through calisthenics even close haul drill and building up their bodies as well as their minds and that sort of thing.
One day he just overdid it. So I started him running around this and said, “Don’t stop running until I tell you.” I went on talking to the rest of the boys. Finally I noticed that he was dragging pretty much, so I stopped him and brought him over. I said, “You ran around that whole place three times. If I ever hear you using that kind of language again, you’re going six times.” He never did again. Well he went on, finished high school, went to college, got a degree and decided to become a teacher. Guess what he taught? Physical Education. He finally gave up teaching and is living in Los Alamos in the construction business here.
A number of years ago when I was still in the Science Museum, he came into my office one day and he said, “Something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about for a long, long time, and I never could get up the courage enough, my life has had its ups and downs, but I just want you to know that next to my parents, you made the greatest influence in my life and changed my direction and taught me right from wrong.” That made it all worthwhile. He’s still here. I’ve used that story many times, particularly talking to students. So what I told in a previous interview is that with both day and night activities and seven days a week, the three of us had very little time off.
Strottman: And you meant your activities were always open to both military and civilian or were only some for both and others separate?
Porton: We treated everybody the same. In other words if some civilian employees or their families wanted to borrow some tennis rackets and balls, we had couple of courts, they would draw them out just like military. We never made any distinction. The dances were all, that were held in Theater No. 2 were open to the public and everybody attended. They took place just about every Saturday night.
That’s again where the good Lord blessed me, sometimes you’re at the right place at the right time. But when I arrived I think a month or maybe two before they had formed a fifteen piece GI dance band up here, the Keynotes. And they had all the instrument slots filled except they needed one individual, they needed a drummer. That’s what I was. So I just lucked out so I became a part of the Keynotes and then we in turn formed a small group called the Sad Sack Six. Sad Sack was a cartoon character something like Beetle Bailey. So in addition to the big dances at Theater No. 2, each of the military units had a private club of their unit—PEDs, WACs and MPs and then the Officers Club, the officers formed this social. They had smaller dances.”
Strottman: Could you tell me where each of the military unit clubs were?”
Porton: Most of them were buildings along Trinity Drive. See, back in those days, Trinity Drive was the only paved street in Los Alamos. All the rest were mud, but good quality mud. The Officers’ Club was about where the County Annex building is. When the military left, I’m getting now after the war, they formed a Hill Top Club and they were down about where Mary Deal’s building is. Then the American Legion was formed here. Most of them were concentrated along Trinity one way or another. They had meetings, each of them had a bar. The one thing that they had was social activities which were dances. They had one club called the Army Navy Club so both the Army personnel and Navel personnel would have a social club where they could meet, dances and this sort of thing. So we played with a smaller group couple of nights a week in addition to the big dances.
One interesting thing about the Keynotes is that in 1945, in September right after the war was over, Santa Fe Fiesta could not find a large dance band to play their annual ball and they hired us. We went down and played. It was one of the first dances we played off of the hill because during the war—we did manage to play a couple of dances in Santa Fe during the latter stages of the war but never saying we were from Los Alamos. But as time went on, see the war was over, they send Tom and I, about a dozen GI’s who had just entered the service and they had no place to put them. So they said sent to Los Alamos. That’s when the radio station went full time. We had operated part time and so it was just—to answer your original question, we had just about all we could do to do everything. We didn’t have a chance to do much else then take care of the recreational and athletic and entertainment needs of the community.
Strottman: Could you say something about the baseball teams. I’ve seen photos where the military teams have marvelous uniforms and all kinds of equipment and then there’s a team I presume its civilians and they are just there in T-shirts and they look like a smaller group. How did these things get organized? Did each military unit have its own baseball team, or how did that work?”
Porton: Well they did, but they had difficulty in raising funds to buy uniforms until the war was over. The dramatic change as soon as the war was over and we had a Special Services Unit sending in an officer. Then we were able to get military help financially. But they would put on raffles and dances of their own and raise money, contributions. There was one baseball field about where Hill Top House is, there was a big one at Urban Park and we ran baseball leagues, we ran softball leagues in addition to the high school activities. We even ran a high school youth center. You name it, we did it. The whole thing in a nutshell was how enthusiastic it was.”
In fact, even at one time, we had a football team of GIs, the Atomic Bombers, and those guys, I never did find out how they got their uniforms and equipment and everything, ‘cause I never asked questions or anything. But we had difficulty and when we put on dances, the colonel would insist that the admission price be very small. I mean you could go to a dance on Saturday night for thirty-five cents. When you had to pay the band, you didn’t make a whole lot.
You go see Army motion pictures, all the latest pictures incidentally, fifteen cents admission. People did things together and I remember in a couple of instances other bases through the military and I never did any investigation would find some deactivated place or someplace and send equipment for the GIs who were up here. Because they needed that. Life here was for the military particularly, even more than the civilians, it was pretty dull. So it was a morale thing. I felt that I answered questions over the years, “Well, you didn’t have anything to do with the scientific endeavor what was your contribution?” Well our contribution was in keeping up morale of both military and civilians and providing all of the things we could possibly do. Little theater groups started, choral society started and we’d help out with props and getting the theater ready. This was a great feeling.”
After the war was over, they finally moved old Theater No. 2 out of here and Waterman moved it to Ojo Caliente where for a number of years it was a school up there. So it was like the community building is now.
Strottman: And is it still up there?
Porton: No, finally just gave out, I think. At least the last time I was up there it was no longer there. But we had to assist the chaplain a lot and he held church services there and there was a second church which was down, oh, somewhere across DP road from the Knights of Columbus Hall down in that area. As I recall, I think I’m right on this, but I’m not positive, I think that was the Catholic Church. It was called Theater No. 1. That was just a church, nothing else.
Strottman: But in military terms it was called theater because that was the kind of building that they put there?
Porton: That’s right and when the chaplain needed help, we had to provide it. And again I remind you that until the war was over, there was just the three of us. I remember going down into the canyon and helping to get the ice skating rink ready and it was about twenty degrees colder down there than it was up on top. They even issued me some kind of winter clothing with a cap and all kinds of things down there. You know you have these custodians and on Saturday night they like to go out and party and it was a very difficult job on Sunday morning getting them out of bed getting them over there to get the work done.
Strottman: What were you able to tell your family about where you were and what you were doing?”
Porton: I think you mentioned all this on the PBS documentary and Carson Mark thought my work there was great. When I got here, when I was in basic training, I would write my mother and tell her, “I went here and I went there. I had a three day pass and went to Chicago with a buddy.”
I got here and so you know, she wrote and said, “Well, where are you and what are you doing?”
I said, “I’m out here in the west, the scenery is beautiful and the weather is just great.”
She wrote back and said, “You didn’t answer my question. What in the world are you doing?”
I said, “I’m out here in the west and the scenery is beautiful and the weather is great.”
I had a problem when I went home on my first furlough. That was in April 1945 and we were still at war. They didn’t prepare me, maybe they did others, well enough and my problem was I went out to the military base where I had worked as a civilian and I went in to visit my colonel. Just without any warning he said, “Well where are you and what are you doing?”
Well fortunately several months prior to that Bruns Hospital in Santa Fe was a military hospital for tubercular military personnel. They had a small little radio station that just played music and news and everything within the building. They had Special Services transcriptions, the Jack Benny Show and then the Benny Goodman and all the big bands everything. So we worked out a deal where they would loan us a group of these, we’d play them on the air and return them. Then I also started dating the first sergeant in the WAC company down at Bruns so I was familiar with Bruns.
He asked me so quickly and I blinked and finally I said, “Oh, I’m assigned to a military hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico and operate a little radio station.”
He said, “Well why didn’t you say that in the first place, what are you trying to do, tell me we got some secret base somewhere.”
So when I went home on my first furlough, I just told all my family, my friends, everybody, “Do me one favor while I’m here, don’t ask me any questions.” If it’s wartime you can get away with it.
The other thing that I remember so well is that after the war was over we were assigned an atomic patch. I got a plaque at home that was given to me and I showed that lady yesterday. When I went home again the war was over. Included in going into maybe a couple of bars to have a beer or just walking down the street, I had several dozen GI’s that would come up and throw their arms around me saying, “Thank God for you fellows, we didn’t have to go and invade Japan.”
In the sixties when I use to give talks to the college students who were against everything and they would talk about Vietnam and then they would talk about the use of the bombs and everything. I use to tell them, “If we were to have had to invade Japan we would have loss probably about three quarters of million lives and some of them would have been your dads and if that had happened, you wouldn’t be here.” But the point was that during the war I just kind of played it cozy. There were a lot of people who thought I was just being smart-alecky.
Strottman: When did you realize what the mission or the goal of the Manhattan Project actually was?
Porton: This may sound strange to a lot of people and I’ve answered that question many times. I knew in generalities what was going on, but not specifically. There were guys in the dance band that worked right in the laboratory. I was fortunate in my estimation that I did not work in the laboratory. I knew it was explosives, I knew it was in the war effort and I knew—when we would have our noon radio program, occasionally two or three high school kids would come over during their lunch break, occasionally several GI’s would come in with requests and everything.
But on the morning of July 16, 1945, Tom and I started the program and at about quarter of twelve scientists started coming in. We just had one small control room and one studio. I got a picture at home of Tom and I and that number of people increased to about forty-five or so, jamming us and Tom and I looked at each other and we said, “Hey boy, something big is happening.” I remember a statement made by my first sergeant that there was a possibility that I may have to go on a mission within two or three weeks on a communications role and then he told me forget it.
So these guys were all around. What we had done is go down to Albuquerque. George Challis who worked for the Laboratory—see, we were operated by the Laboratory. I had gone down there. When we got approval from KOB to broadcast their fifteen minute noon news, many people in Los Alamos couldn’t get radio from the outside because of the many transformers and high electrical lines and equipment. We were allowed to put up an antenna at this Big House. So we brought in state and national news. And the newscaster was Bob Lloyd, I remember that. He’s passed away since then.
He opened his newscast that day with the following, “The commanding officer of the Alamogordo Air Base announced this morning that a huge ammunition dump had blown up on the base, there were no injuries, but people should be told that it was an accident.” All these guys in the studio and everything faces broke out in grins and they hugged each other and that was their first knowledge that it had been successful. There were no communications between Trinity Site and Los Alamos because they didn’t want it to leak out. One of them came over to me and told me what had happened and what it was. I had to say that’s really the first that I really knew what it was.
Strottman: You hadn’t realized that it was atomic energy, you figured some kind of explosive?
Porton: But that was my idea, I could have very easily—when I’d hear conversations even among the band members and everything else. They talked about fishing, they talked about neutron and protons and everything. I just didn’t pay any attention, all I knew is what I was doing here. Because when I had met and I had known certain people like Oppenheimer and Teller and Hans Bethe when I would set up the Theater for colloquium and everything of that nature, I knew it had to be something very, very big and very, very important, but—
Let me put it this way, if I had wanted to I could have found out, but there were several GI’s, I’ve heard, I have nothing to substantiate it, who goofed off either went to Santa Fe and had too much of the juice and shot off their month or said something and they were shipped out, they tell me to some isolated island somewhere. The fun I was having and the good deal I had here, I made up my mind, I made a vow that I would never do anything that would cause me to be eliminated from Los Alamos.
Strottman: Who were your commanding officers? You mentioned a number of officers but here in Los Alamos who was your commanding officer?
Porton: Well, Lt. Doug Huene was the first officer in charge of the PEDs. In August no July 1945 I guess it was, Capt. Davis was head of the SEDs. He came in one day and I was griping like any GI would do. The work load, lack of promotion, KP and all that sort of stuff, and he said, “You want to transfer to the SEDs?”
I said, “You darn right.” Well, Fike thought it was a good idea. Bango was opposed to it because all his buddies were PEDs. But anyway the three of us were transferred to the SEDs. Immediately my life changed, they were treated so much better than the other military units. So Capt. Davis was responsible for that.
There were three Special Services officers that came that I was friends with not only as a GI but also—Lt Jones was the first, Capt. Martin and then a Lt. Trough who was the last one I had. A decision was made—oh, Fike left, he had more points. That’s when I took over everything. When Lt. Trough arrived he was my man. I mean he was just a real regular sort of guy and by this time I had inherited from Fike a living quarters in the basement of Theater No. 2 rather than living in the barracks. It was real nice, it was large and spacious. It was an old building, but down there they had showers and a restroom and everything. I just got out of the noisy barracks and that sort of thing.
They had a meeting in which they said, “Let’s keep the radio station operating, let’s not shut it down after the war was over.” They began a discussion about going on hiring a civilian manager.
Colonel A. W. Betts was the deputy director of the Laboratory. He said, and Trough tells me this. He said, “Why do you want to go out and hire somebody when we have a very capable individual who is running the radio station now and doing an excellent job, everybody knows him, he knows the community and everything.”
They said, “Yes, but he’s in the military.”
He says, “I’ll get him out.”
So Trough came over and I was lying on my bed reading and he said, “How would you like to get out of the Army in a couple of weeks?”
I said, “Who do I have to kill?”
He said, “No, they’ve made a decision.”
The papers that the Colonel Betts started were put in the First Sergeant’s in basket who immediately went on furlough. So they sat there. Then how strange things happen, the good Lord has just blessed me. I acquired enough points to get out on my own. And Colonel Betts and I had a meeting and he said, “How much to you think you should be paid as a civilian?” I mentioned a figure, he mentioned a lower figure and then we ended up right in the middle.
So in July 1946, the Army sent me home to Tampa. The Laboratory hired me in Tampa and brought me back. I had an entire staff of all GIs. But as they all started to get discharged, some of them wanted to come back and I made arrangements for them to come back as civilians.
Strottman: Getting back to the Manhattan Project, did you notice any differences in the way certain officers handled civilian/military relationships? You would have been in the thick of this with the recreation facilities being open to both civilian and military.
Porton: Let me give a generalized answer, I noticed a wide difference of officers when I was in the military, going through basic training. Some of which, you know the saying “An officer and a gentlemen,” and all of that, others were just super. It was the same thing up here.
There were some officers who looked down on the military. There were some officers who were militarized in their thinking and they thought it was disgraceful that these guys couldn’t march properly and couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that. They should get up every morning and have reveille and everything else. There were others who because of the type of work and their interests were in scientific endeavor, were just great. I never really had problems.
I did have one problem with the chaplain. Because after the dance we would have to get all the beer bottles out and to get the odor out we’d have to open up all the doors and in the wintertime too. Then we had the old stoves in there, coal-burning stoves. Many times we had, I had difficulty in getting them relit. He would come in and I’m not going to give any names, he enjoyed Saturday night too. He was very unhappy.
There was one time where he really dressed me up and down sideways and everything and I just had put in eighteen hours and I just went snap. I just said, “Listen here Chaplain, neither you nor any other officer is ever going to say things like that to me and get away with it because the Army doesn’t pay me to take verbal abuse.” That was the last time he ever did it. But I would say, the greatest one as far as I was concerned was Betts, who later became a four star general. We still exchange Christmas. He was an officer and a gentleman. I knew Bradbury slightly, but he was a naval officer. There were several others who I felt were.
But you see the opposition that I had when I joined the Laboratory in establishing a public relations and community relations program was for people who just were scientifically oriented and thought everything in public relations was just unnecessary and undignified. The deputy director of the Laboratory gave me the worst opposition. He didn’t want anything done along those lines. Bradbury outvoted him and then years later he became affiliated, after he retired, this gentleman with the Espanola Valley Hospital and lived down there near the river. I remember him calling me on the phone one day and telling me he was on the board and they were needing funds and they were going to establish a public relations office and they needed somebody with wide experience and he said, “Bob, how would you like to join our organization?”
I was tempted to say, I said, “No, I’m just in work that I enjoy very much and I love Los Alamos, but thank you, but no thank you.” It’s the same thing with military.
Strottman: Getting back to just the Manhattan Project period, do you remember any areas of conflict in your work? Were there any problems between the civilians and the military?
Porton: Not really. There may have been some in the Laboratory, but I wouldn’t have been familiar with that. It’s just like today. There are a lot of unhappy people in the Laboratory. They spout off privately and even if I knew anything I wouldn’t tell you.
I have one story that you said something about trying to inject a little humor in some of the things I say. Will Harrison, who was a reporter and later the editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican, decided he had to get involved in the war effort and he applied and got a job with the Post Engineering office up here. He came up and he had the job of night dispatcher for emergencies. He had an office and he was given one electrician and one plumber for night time emergencies.
He told a story, in fact its even been printed, that he got a call from a very distinguished scientist. This scientist had a heavy accent. He lived in a Sundt apartment which used to be along Trinity Drive. He was furious because the heat was off. It was very cold. Will tried to explain to him that the only two technicians were out on emergency calls. This man was very insistent. Will finally decided, “I guess I better go down there.” So he closed the office, got in his pickup truck and drove down and met this gentleman in the basement. This man was mad, “His family is freezing and something had to be done about it and you better do something about it.” Will who knew nothing about furnaces or heating or electric. Finally he had to just get away from him.
So he walked around in back and within just a short period of time, the furnace came on. Heat began going up and everything. This man was startled and then all of a sudden he said, “Isn’t it wonderful, here I am a scientist and you an engineer, together we are working on this project.” Will didn’t have the heart to tell him that all he did was turn up the thermostat.”
So those things that happen I’m sure there are some officers that did not treat either the military men—I can remember a couple of officers who were disliked by the military. They wanted the boys to be super military and the boys were not interested. I’ve always said about myself, I was one of the luckiest people in the world because I couldn’t have picked a better place to serve my military career than right here. A lot of them felt the same way. This guy was just “Joe Military,” spit and polish. There were others.
The commanding officers, when I came there was a Col. Tyler and he was just a wonderful gentleman. I remember the night he left, they gave him a big party at the Officers Club. I remember him getting up, standing on a chair and bidding farewell you know and said, “That this was the most difficult assignment he had ever had in his life, but not from his GIs but from the civilians.” He said, “There isn’t a man on the face of this earth that could please all those people.” Col. Tyler was followed by Col. Gee and then later the military departed and the AEC came into being. Carroll Tyler was a former Navy captain became head of the project. I know there was some differences involving people where who makes the final decision, the commanding officer or Oppenheimer. The first military commander was Col. Ashbridge. He did not put up with a lot of these people and he just decided, “I’m the boss,” and he was removed. I don’t know if that answers your question or not.
Strottman: Col. Ashbridge had been at the Ranch School, was he gone by the time you got here? Are there any other things you remember about relationships between military and civilians?
Porton: No, except that it seems to me that I was treated and other people were treated the same because I had such a diversified job. People liked the radio station. I didn’t appreciate noncommercial radio because I had little or no background. I had a very interesting beginning. I formed my dance band on the campus of the University of Florida. Our first broadcast over WRUF in Gainesville, Red Barber was the announcer. So I did some broadcasting, but when I came up here it was so different. When we got into panel discussions of having famous scientists sitting around the table and talking about things and things of that nature.
Then when people began to realize that they were going to be here for awhile they seemed to feel that more should be done to make their life a little more pleasant. Some of the officers that were up in the high echelon sensed that and did everything they could—such as Col. Betts—to make decisions that they normally would not make and others were just feisty. I don’t think that any of the differences that you mentioned or asked about were major, because I think that all it would have taken and I’m sure it was on several occasions was Oppie simply to pick up the phone and call General Groves.
You know General Groves is misunderstood, little bit like Edward Teller, they called him names and they didn’t like this and didn’t like that. There were books written over the years. What did he say one time, “It’s the greatest collection of nuts every assembled on the face of the earth.” He really was a good man. He was not a war-oriented type of officer. He was an administrative type officer. There were many decisions I’m sure that he made reluctantly but for the good of the cause.
Maybe you will hear different stories from other people and maybe you would have different from me if I had been involved within the Laboratory. All I know is that over the years, and I’ve been here 47 years now, I’ve always been treated wonderfully both by the Army and by the Laboratory. I’ve appreciated the Laboratory more since I retired then I did when I was there, retain your health and dental and that sort of thing. I never dreamed that I would work as a part time for eight and a half years after retirement, but I’ve often thought that if I had gone into the Air Force which is what I thought I should have done, I would have never been assigned to Los Alamos. Wouldn’t be here today.
One of my very close friends including the guys in the band and others who worked in the Laboratory, most of them seemed to feel that they were treated pretty well. But you know, you don’t have to go back to the Manhattan Project, you can go today and some people feel—My career at the Laboratory wasn’t all peaches and cream.
Strottman: How and with whom did you spend your free time during the Manhattan Project or were you so busy with this round the clock schedule that you essentially had none?
Porton: Well, there were a lot of guys that said, there’s no social life up there. No enough single women. I never found that to be a problem. I made up my mind as hard as I had to work, so because we had a schedule that was so flexible and we could trade. I dated a WAC and one in Santa Fe, one up here. I did find one thing, there were certain people, I can remember three couples vividly, who were so good to the GI’s at Thanksgiving and Christmas and Sundays, you’d be invited to a Sunday dinner. One GI was Italian and he made great spaghetti and they would invite a bunch of us over to their house and everything. My first Christmas here and couple of Thanksgivings, there were certain kinds of civilians that just went out of their way to invite GI’s into their homes for a dinner or something.
But I found that just to get off the Hill and go down to Santa Fe, I used to sit in the lobby of the La Fonda just watching people. I thought it was the strangest collection of human beings that I’d ever seen in my life. The difficulty of coming back from Santa Fe on the last bus was the GI driver who would come back in a very rapid pace and hits those dips. You were wondering if you would—They had a little PX that served food, it was located about where the police station is. You could go in and get a small club steak, French fries, little salad, roll and coffee for eighty-five cents. I said to my family, I made fairly good money with the band more than what the Army was paying me and I guess I spent most of it on food so I wouldn’t have to eat GI food in the Mess Hall. But there was a social life up here.
Strottman: Did you still feel isolated?
Porton: No, I never did really. I guess for a number of years with my band in Florida, I played so many one-nighters. All the members of my band either went to school or had day jobs in addition. It was kind of comfortable to be in a place where I didn’t have to go. I counted my blessings because I had relatives and I had brothers that went into the service and went overseas and went to combat and everything. I didn’t feel isolated. I think because I didn’t have too much time to sit down and brood like I have today. We were always involved in something.
Strottman: You mentioned that you earned more in the band than you were paid by the Army. Do you recall what you were paid?”
Porton: By the Army? I think it was something like thirty dollars a month when I went in. That’s another thing about SEDs because when I went into the SEDs I was a Pfc. and a year and a half later I came out of there, I was a technical sergeant. I have many buddies and friends in Florida that never advanced like that. Some of us in the SEDs would get a promotion every thirty days. That was very unique. That’s probably the only place in the entire military service that that took place.
I don’t remember what we made playing with a band, something like $5. Things were so cheap. When I had a band in Florida, when I told them what I made in a day job, I bought a home and I bought a car, they couldn’t believe it. My dad used to run a food store and when somebody came in and spent five dollars, I would carry a big cardboard box. Now you go in you get a little bag like that.
Isolation may have bothered some of the scientific personnel, but in the historical records and for several years I was the official historian at the Laboratory and got quotes from some people that they formed clubs, they took picnics to Bandelier, they formed bridge clubs and social activities and put on parties at Fuller Lodge and did a lot of things at their initiative to get rid of that [isolation]. I was telling this interviewer yesterday, I said, “There were people, I remember when we operated our first remote broadcast from Fuller Lodge to the Big House which was just about a city block and Otto Frisch played the piano. We ran a wire and we broadcast him from Fuller Lodge.”
Strottman: Which was during the Manhattan Project?
Porton: During the Manhattan Project one of the most popular babysitters was called Klaus Fuchs who was single and seemingly liked kids and seemed to be reliable. Look what he turned out to be.
I just think people made the best of things. Now one of the things that I have been saying now for forty some years is that I tab the scientists who were here as true pioneers. Because a great bulk of them had a very good standard of living, they were affiliated with major universities with the private sector and various types of activity. They had real nice homes and everything and coming here and living in substandard housing and muddy streets and the lack of purchasing ability, we had one small little—like a department store, one service station, one drug store, one shoe repair shop and one jeweler. This sort of thing. They just made the best of things.
It took a certain type of scientist. War time you’ll do anything. We were all together and the main thing that I used to be in the media and I was pro-media, now I’m anti-media. I’ve said and I’ve said it many times, you could never develop a Manhattan Project in the United States today. You could never get away with it and it’s unfortunate. I always used to praise the people of Santa Fe because I know a lot of them down there had a pretty good idea of what was going on up here, but there were no leaks. No leaks in the newspaper or radio or anything else. Because it was the war effort. So I say the general public who views your program that the atomic scientists made many contributions and gave up much to live here during those years. But it’s a tribute in my mind that the percentage of the scientists who served here during the Manhattan Project continued to live in Los Alamos up till today.
Strottman: Where were you when you heard about the bombing of Hiroshima and doyou recall your reaction?”
Porton: We were told to broadcast over the radio that, not the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but when Japan surrendered. When Hiroshima was bombed, I had probably half a dozen scientific personnel tell me privately and then when Nagasaki was bombed that’s when the Japanese surrendered.
We had a false alarm up here, after Nagasaki, that the war was over. So everybody went out and had a party. Then they found out it wasn’t so, but then when it was official, that was the night—well I can’t remember much about it.
I’m told by friends that I went to about fifty homes and had drinks out of fifty different glasses and somebody finally took pity on me and put me in a pick up truck and took me to my barracks. There were two guys that are still here, one is in Albuquerque, he worked for Sandia, Ruddy Velasco was up here and they were in my barracks and they said that when they dumped me there, like we had these coal stoves I was talking about, and I walked around mine about six times before somebody pushed me towards the latrine and then I just fell in my bunk.
That night the colonel decided, “We’re going to have a big blowout.” He told the band to be there and he ordered food and beer and everything. They came to get me about four o’clock and I said, “No way. All I want to do is die peacefully.” Two of the guys in the band just picked me up bodily, disrobed me and put me under the cold shower for about thirty minutes. That was the night that I suffered because every time I’d pedal and that beater hit the base drum, my head just went. That Theater No. 2 that night was jammed to capacity. All courtesy of Col. Tyler.
Internally, I felt when I was told about Hiroshima and then about Nagasaki, since I had heard about Trinity that I was not more knowledgeable. There were still many people of course each year that protest, they used to come to the science museum in August and protest both bombings. Three or four weeks ago, I was very pleased, I got an invitation from X Division, they had a big technical meeting. They had a big banquet in Santa Fe. They invited me to attend. I went down. They used a bus. Harold Agnew was the main speaker. He spoke about the early days of Los Alamos, technically. He was one of the few people that I heard say dozens of times publicly that he felt the drops were justified. They saved the lives of many GI’s and many. I’ve always agreed with him one hundred percent. The Manhattan District served its country very well.
Strottman: What is your most vivid memory of the Manhattan Project? It could be a continuous memory like the coffee in one of the Mess Halls or something or it could be an event, just whatever when somebody mentions Manhattan Project, what do you recall is the most vivid, the thing that impressed you most?
Porton: I think the successful completion of the war of where we were not doing too well. I have asked the question over the years, “Why don’t these protestors jump up and down and protest the bombing of Pearl Harbor?” Since I lived in a military town and had many friends both in the military and civilian and worked at a base, I had to do a lot of flying because we’d get in a new type of aircraft and we were training pilots prior to their going overseas. They would fly me five hundred miles to get three parts to put in airplanes. I felt very close to the military. I used to play with my band on Saturday nights at the big base McDill Air Force Base where General Schwarzkopf recently retired. So I had a very keen feeling toward the military and toward my country.
It really hit me that due to the efforts of all of the people there, civilian and military together, working together as a team that at that time I said we did more than all of the Army, Navy and Marines to stop a very terrible war. I remember we had a social I guess, a bunch of us around Los Alamos at that time, we raised our glasses and said, “Let us hope that there will never be a World War III.” I guess that about sums it up. I felt very proud that we were able to do something without the enemy finding out about it.
Years later, I’ve taken several trips to Trinity Site and I used to pick up little pieces of Trinitite and talk Norris Bradbury into letting me putting them in little plexiglass cubes to give away as souvenirs. I did a lot of reminiscing as I was walking around Trinity Site. Here’s where it all began.
I just always felt that my life changed so much. Where would I have gone to where I would have handled part of the logistics of the visit of John F. Kennedy. Where would I have had the chance to meet Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and getting him in my museum and having him shake my hand and then the Queen of Greece and the King of Belgium and all these kinds of things. To be a part of Los Alamos. I do get irritated when the anti-Los Alamos statements come out of Santa Fe and Tyler Mercia and all the rest. At my age and physical condition and everything, I say, “Put a zipper and keep your blood pressure down.”
Strottman: Well, in all the years you maintained that golf course, you must have inspected it or gone through it many times, you never noticed any dug holes, or did you notice any dug holes for dumping or trash sites that you had to clean up?
Porton: I don’t think there were any out there. The people played golf; I played a little myself a couple of times. But I again I was not scientifically oriented and I wouldn’t have looked for anything and I could have seen something and wouldn’t have paid any attention to it. All I know there were a lot of people that played on that course regularly. Some of them are still here. I am firmly convinced, I knew I had a technical background, I’ve learned an awful lot over the years with my job at the Lab. I do not really feel that there was any concentration of radioactive material or anything that would cause cancer in any form that would have been located at any place in that part of the Western Area and that goes from Trinity all along the circle and back down Sandia and in there. I suppose I could be proved wrong, but I don’t think so.”
I think there has been much ado about nothing. I think scare tactics or something I’ve never believed in. I dislike intensely people who are not qualified but start a rumor or start a program and then all the followers come just like sheep. There are a number of people in this area, in the general area that evidently don’t have very much to do with their time and they enjoy—
I remember one time after I had left the museum and I joined the security division in the last two years of my life and one of my first assignments, we had a group of women that came from Albuquerque and Santa Fe to protest. They were dressed, well I won’t go into that. They brought an Indian drum and the patio was open then, it wasn’t closed like it is now. All they were doing was damning the Laboratory and the scientists and everything else. Of course welcoming them was one of the biggest hypocrites on the face of this earth Edward Grothus. It was a cold day. They were all out there. The only male was a little boy. They went around and did all of that. All of a sudden it started to snow and I just looked up and said, “Thank you Lord.”