The Manhattan Project

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Catherine Dvorak's Interview

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Catherine Dvorak's Interview

Cathy Dvorak’s father, Colonel Clifford Heflin, was selected as the Commanding Officer of Wendover Air Base, overseeing the management of the base as well as the ordnance and ballistics work. Dvorak first learned of her father’s involvement with the Manhattan Project when she was a teenager. Dvorak states that Col. Heflin gave only one interview concerning his work with the Manhattan Project, after his retirement from the Air Force. Dvorak shares stories about Col. Heflin as a family man.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
February 7, 2014
Location of the Interview: 
Alexandria
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly:  Okay, it is Friday, February 7, 2014. We’re here in Alexandria, Virginia. My name is Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. I’m interviewing the daughter of Colonel Heflin, and she is here. Please tell us your name. 

Cathy Dvorak:  Cathy Dvorak. 

Kelly:  And spell it please. 

Dvorak:  D as in David, V as in Victor, O-R-A-K. 

Kelly:  And Cathy, how do you spell it? 

Dvorak:  C, C-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E. 

Kelly:  Great. Terrific. Well done. Okay, what would you like to tell us about your father? 

Dvorak:  My father was Colonel Clifford J. Heflin. He was chosen to be commander of Wendover for the Manhattan Project, dropping the bomb. He was also the head of the Carpetbaggers. He started the Carpetbaggers. He started out with submarines, bombing submarines in the beginning of his career. Then he evolved into Carpetbaggers, and then the Manhattan Project. 

First, I’d like to say I’m the third of four daughters. He also had all female dogs except one. So, he was surrounded by women. My dad put in over thirty-one years as a career officer. We were raised on at least ten bases. We were trying to figure them out the other day, and it was at least ten. 

My mother, her maiden name was O’Neill. I do not know how she met my dad, but my grandfather used to say that she couldn’t have done any better than my dad. So, they got along. She was Catholic Irish and she was a pioneer of––he used to say, my grandfather—farmer. He wanted to be called a farmer, but I always called it a rancher and meatpacker. He emigrated from Canada. The first thing he bought with the little bit of money he had was a cowboy hat. They had a California dam named after him. My father was Protestant Irish. So, his mother would never accept my mother or us, any of the family, because Catholic Irish and Protestant Irish don’t get along. She was that way ‘til the day she died. I met her once. 

Oh, I should say my grandfather only had an eighth grade education and he was able to do all of this. My father finally, when his mother died, became a Catholic, because he wanted to honor his mother until she passed away. 

My father and my mother were married in 1938. Like I said, I don't know how they met, but a funny story: My father was at the bachelor party. He went to the elevator and pressed the button. The door opened, he stepped in. There was no elevator. So, he fell––let’s see––fifty feet. The only thing that saved him is, he kept grabbing the cables. Then he landed at the bottom, and he just prayed all night that no one would get in that elevator and come on down. They were across from a hospital apparently, thank God. When they came to get him, they walked him over to the hospital. He had a broken pelvis. They got married in the hospital. He claims he was never legally married because he was unconscious when she married him. That was it for the bachelor party. 

My experiences––my sisters, older sisters, were two and a half and one when they were at Wendover. I wasn’t born yet. Apparently the family arrived at Wendover in December of ’44. He talked about how they would have the scientists come over for dinner. Well, they never understood what the scientists were talking about, so it was classified, because they spoke another language. Then, he talked about one scientist that never knew how to pair his shoes—he wore different shoes. The other one never knew if it was going to rain, so he would carry an umbrella all the time. These are just some of the things he talked about with the scientists. 

At Wendover, they were doing a buzz bomb—my husband will explain that in a little more detail—buzz bomb testing as a cover-up for what they were really doing. My mother, one day, she saw practically the whole community, civilians, watching the buzz bombing. She ran over to my father’s office, broke in in the middle of a meeting. And she says, “They all know what you're doing.” 

Well, with that everyone froze. My father said, “Well Patsy, what do they know?”

“Well, they’re watching those buzz bombs. They know everything.”

So, he was finally relieved over that one. When she figured out what they were doing, it wasn’t until after the bomb was dropped, and she was vacuuming. She never will forget, she said. I guess she heard it on the radio. She put it all together. She knew exactly what they all were up to. 

The only thing I can say about Tibbets [Brigadier General Paul Tibbets] is that––I think it was at Roswell Air Force Base. We aren’t really sure if it was Roswell, but I think it was, right after Wendover. His son snuck into our quarters, and I was just a baby, and tried to feed me mud until my mom came in and stopped it. 

We also had a dog that we grew up with, which was a dachshund. His name was Mr. Sweeney. Well, none of us girls knew who Mr. Sweeney was, or why he was named Mr. Sweeney. When my husband was doing research, he found out that [Charles] Sweeney was pilot of the Nagasaki air strike. The only thing we can think of is that poor Mr. Sweeney was named after Sweeney. He never confirmed it, but that’s what we think happened. 

And then, how I found out about the Manhattan Project and that my father was involved in it: I heard nothing about it until I was a teenager. My sister and I watched a late-night movie. It was called Above and Beyond. It starred Robert Taylor. It was about the bomb. The next morning we were at breakfast and my father was standing there. We started talking about the movie. That’s when he told us his role in the bomb. We never had heard of it until then. Then, he also mentioned that his crew contacted him when the movie came out. I think it came out in ’52. They criticized it because they said they gave his duties to Tibbets to make it a Hollywood movie, and they were against that and wanted him to do something about it. He said no. He said, “It had to be done, it was done, end of story.” I think we were at breakfast when we were talking about it. Yeah, I think I mentioned that. And, that’s when he came out with it. 

He did one interview his whole life. That, I believe, was in Reno, where he retired. He talked about all of the Manhattan and stuff as much as he could, in a single newspaper interview. He never talked about Wendover with us. I think a lot of the men were that way. You know, “It had to be done, it was done, and we go on with our lives,” because you don’t find many of them talking about it. 

Some of my places that we were based at were––my favorite was Italy. We went to Italy. We loved it there. My father, this isn’t politically correct, but my father had a little MG. He was a big man, and the Italians used to get a kick out of watching him get into his little MG. They never figured out how he did that. Then, he’d go around and throw cherry bombs at the Italians. Not politically correct—just to see them move out of the street. Yeah, not politically correct. But then, that was my dad. 

My other favorite was Randolph, Texas. We just had a lot of fun there. For the first time, they built a school on the base—a high school on the base. Usually you had to go to high schools off base. We had more fun. But then we were transferred, and we had to go to Denver. That time, it was the Vietnam War. That was probably one of my worst assignments, because no one at the high school—and I was a senior—would accept us. They were very cruel to us. They were cruel to the airmen on the base, because we were military. I think people remember how military were treated back then. 

But my father, typical of him––the enlisted men would try to go off base to let off a little steam and have a little fun. Well, Denver was picking them up, arresting them, accusing them of all kinds of things, and bringing them back to the base. They were being attacked by civilians because of the Vietnam War. So he decided to build an enlisted man’s club on base where they could get inexpensive beer, they could do what they wanted, and they didn't have to worry about being criticized. His men always liked him for the things that he did for them. 

Then, we were transferred––well, that was Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado, Denver. So then, our vacations––just to give you an idea of my poor dad. My grandfather owned kind of a resort area up in Shaver’s [Fork] [00:12:15] for the family. We had a dining hall and we had three cabins that we could stay in and then the main house. He’d bring horses up there, and he had his own beach. We just had a lot of fun. It was a private beach, so we didn't have to worry. 

But then my dad decided when we were––I believe it was Reno. We were going to go on a camping trip. He’s going to take his four girls on a camping trip. Well, we got halfway to the mountains. My father had a pillow that he had given me. I think he used it when he had an injury or something. I couldn’t say “pillow,” so I said, “piddle.” We’re half way to the mountains and I said, “I forgot piddle and I can’t sleep without piddle!” So, he had to turn all the way around, come back, and get the pillow. Then we go up there. By that time, it’s pouring rain. He had to set up the tent—no help from any of us. Set up the tent. Pouring rain. 

Then the next day he took a couple of the girls fishing. He had his favorite fishing pole. He didn't know this, but he had settled underneath an eagle’s nest while he was fishing, so he had to protect the girls with his brand-new fishing rod. And of course, he destroyed it. Because none of us would go to the bathroom outside, so he’d have to run us to the gas station to go to the bathroom. Needless to say, that was our last camping trip. Our first and last. 

Another side of my dad: I had polio when I was a toddler. He tried to get me admitted to a hospital, but that was epidemic. Most of the hospital wards were full. So he took me to this one hospital. He says, “I want to admit her.” 

They said, “Number one, she’s a little too young and we’re full.”

He says, “Okay.” So he picked me up and he walked down the hall, found an empty bed, put me in it, and went back to them and said, “She’s admitted. Take care of her. Bye.” Then, he used to fly me around to different hospitals and specialists. 

He was very quiet and he could go for weeks without really talking. He loved to fish and he was in Alaska fishing. He looked over and there was a big––I think it was a brown bear. Are those the real dangerous ones, I think¬? Standing right next to him fishing. So, they went along fishing. My father said he was not going to move with that bear. 

He did a lot of talking with my brother-in-law because he was an Air Force pilot for thirty years. So he let him know a lot of the things. But, like I said, he didn't really talk much about it. Then, he retired in May of 1968. They gave him a general’s retirement. He had run into trouble with Curtis Lemay and he didn't do––I don't know the whole story. My husband knows it, but he didn't do what Curtis wanted him to do because it was a little dishonest. And he wouldn’t do it. So he got blackballed. He was on the general’s list and Lemay said no. So, he never was general, but he was given a general’s retirement. 

I was there. They had review of the troops, a drill team, a flyover. They had the generals that were the chain of command, lieutenant general and major general, and they awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross––service medal, I should say. It’s only awarded to two star generals, and my dad got that. There were a lot of people that were a little upset as to how he was treated. 

Do you have any questions? 

I would talk to him because my sisters really weren’t interested. I was very interested in all of this and history. He and I would talk. That’s how I found out a lot of this stuff. 

Kelly:  So, he was opening up––you mentioned the interview with the newspaper reporter. 

Dvorak:  One time. 

Kelly:  One time. That was after, I presume, he retired? 

Dvorak:  Yeah, he retired in Reno, Nevada, and he gave this one interview. And that was it, for his whole career. 

Kelly:  When did he talk to you? 

Dvorak:  It was bits and pieces. Even my mom, when she mentioned the vacuuming, because I was interested. 

I would ask him questions. When I got to be a teenager, I was reading books about the war. So, I’d go in and ask him something about the war. 

I’ve got to tell you another story that shows him. He’s a big man, in control. And one day he criticized me, yelled at me for something I hadn’t done. So I marched in there. My mom and my sisters couldn’t believe I was going to do this. I marched in and I said, “Dad, I demand an apology before the end of the day.” And I turned around and walked out. And, he gave me an apology. You know, he was honest about it, “Okay, I made a mistake.” 

Kelly:  Are you a chip off the old block?

Dvorak:  I don't know about that. I’m not athletic at all, but I was interested, and I still am in that period of history. It was black and white. We don’t have many of that––these wars anymore that are black and white. The heroes that came out of that war. 

You know, you hear people complaining, “Why was the bomb dropped? We killed a bunch of people.” Do you know how many people would have been killed, our people, if we had invaded Japan? It would have been disaster. 

Anything else? 

Kelly:  So what you just said is a clear statement of how you feel, and that’s how he felt. 

Dvorak:  Uh huh. That’s how he felt and I felt. Yes. 

Kelly:  You say he was a quiet person. 

Dvorak:  Very quiet. He wouldn’t talk for a couple of weeks at times if he got angry or something. My mom never knew what she had done wrong. He never told her. He just would be quiet, and she knew she had done something wrong. But he was a man’s man. He was very good with the men that worked under him. They were his number one priority. 

My husband can probably tell you more about this, but when he was working––the Carpetbaggers. They had to fly these planes––I can’t remember if they were B-29’s. Whatever the plane was, I don't remember. He’ll know––into France, behind the German lines to pick up spies and leave spies off. And, they had to strip these planes because they had to fly at low altitude. He would not let any of them fly these planes until he flew it, flew the first mission, and made sure that it worked. That’s just how he was. 

He was a great man. Many of them were great back then. They just never talked about it, because it had to be done. It was done, and they took care of the job.