The Manhattan Project

Eleanor Roensch's Interview

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ArnoRoensch

Eleanor Roensch worked as a telephone operator in Los Alamos. She remembers a fire breaking out in one of the technical buildings and the concern over coded telegrams, sent by scientists like Rudolf Peierls.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
March 21, 1992
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Theresa Strottman: It’s Saturday March 21, 1992, and it’s approximately 10:20 in the morning.  We are speaking with Jerry Roensch.  We thank you so much for coming this morning.

Eleanor (Jerry) Roensch: My pleasure.

Strottman: To start off the interview, I wonder if you could briefly tell me when and where you were born and a little something about your early education and training.

Roensch: Yes.  I was born in Rochester, New York, which is on Lake Ontario.  My family was a musical family.  Everybody sang.  My father was the conductor of the Knights of Columbus Choral Society and church choirs.  My whole background, my whole family, was interested in singing.  Of course, Rochester, New York, is where Eastman School of Music is located.  So we often went to concerts at Eastman Theater, and , I’m saying this because it turned out that when I came to Los Alamos, I was very much involved in music, as opposed to science.

My education was at the public schools in Rochester.  I followed an academic course, studying the usual classes to go to college and French.  That was my favorite.  When I graduated in 1938 from high school, I went immediately to work in the telephone company as a telephone operator and worked there for five years before I went to the business office, where I worked as a representative.  

That was the first time that I had ever heard of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which meant absolutely nothing to me at the time.  I was a person who had to locate, I was a final bill person.  I had to locate people who had moved and needed to pay their final bill.  And of course, because they had worked for Eastman Kodak, many of them, they had moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

I kept running across Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  I said to my boss, what is this?  Sounds like a small town and why are all these people going to Oak Ridge.  He said, I don’t know.  

I was always interested in education and took some additional courses, post-graduate, in chemistry, but I hated it. 

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

Roensch: Okay, that, my brother, my brother and I were orphans.  Well, we were orphaned in 1940.  My brother was in the Marines.  So I decided to join the WAC and was sent to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.  I came to Los Alamos from Oglethorpe.  In Oglethorpe, we did a lot of—this is my company in Fort Oglethorpe. 

Strottman: We need to get a photo of that later.

Roensch: Fine.  I kept these documents because it told when I came to Los Alamos.  Left Oglethorpe with three other women from different companies around May 27, 1944, and arrived in Lamy in Santa Fe on May 31, 1944. 

Strottman: What were you told you would be doing when you were recruited?  How were you recruited for this?

Roensch: I had an interview with an officer.  I wanted to go overseas.  And on the way to the interview, I found a shiny new penny.  So I had a feeling that was lucky.  The captain told me I would not be going overseas, but that there was essential work to be done.  I was very patriotic, wanted to do whatever I could for the war effort.  And when she told me this would be harder than overseas, because maybe I would not be getting home until the war was over.  I would not be able to tell my family where I was.  That it was important war work.  So I was very happy to go.

Strottman: What were you able to tell your family and friends, or what did you tell them?

Roensch: It’s hard to remember at this point.  But it wasn’t as bad as the officer led me to believe.  Because of course we were able to say we were in Santa Fe.  We were able to say that we were working for the war effort.  I never had any problem with the secrecy of it.  

Strottman: It didn’t create any personal anxiety for you?

Roensch: A few.  When we arrived in Santa Fe and reported to the Bishop building, they told the four of us, “Okay, you better do some shopping now and have lunch.  And someone will pick you up at La Fonda around five o’clock.”  

So we went over to La Fonda, and there were some GIs who saw that we had duffel bags.  They said, “Oh, are you nurses?”  

And we said, “No.”  

So they said, “Uh oh, you better buy all the souvenirs you’re going to buy.  Because you’re going to the Hill.  If you’re nurses, you would go to Bruns Hospital.  But if you’re not nurses, you’re going to the Hill.  You’ll probably never get back here until the war is over.”  So we were a little anxious.

And then when the WAC driver picked us up and crammed us into the back of the official car, and she said, “Well, say goodbye to civilization,” and we started this long drive.  There were very few things to see outside of beautiful mountains.  Then we got to this dusty little, funny little town.  And didn’t look too prepossessing.  And we thought, maybe, we’ll never get back.

Then we went over these bumpy little dips.  It was beautiful, but we kept going farther and farther into nowhere.  Then of course, we got to the gate, and there were guards there.  And we really thought, “That’s where we’re going to stay, forever.”

Strottman: Literally forever?

Roensch: There was anxiety.

Strottman:  I can imagine.  What work were you asked to do here?

Roensch:  Well, the night that we arrived, it was very nice.  Because things here in Los Alamos were much prettier than at Fort Oglethorpe.  And I knew that, we all knew that we were selected for a certain type of work.  But we didn’t know that we had to have clearance.  All of this was being done behind the scenes.  The first night was just getting acquainted.  And the second day was also, probably, a weekend , I can’t remember,  where one of the WACs invited me to go to a lecture at Fuller Lodge.  

The next day, though, I reported to the orderly room, and they said my clearance had not come in yet.  “So what would you rather do?  You can’t just wait.  Would you, Private Stone, like to work at the commissary or the PX?”  

I had never anticipated anything like that.  So I said, “The PX,” which was a great choice.  

I worked at the tech PX, which was right opposite, not exactly across the street, but almost, from the main entrance to the technical area.  I didn’t know how to do anything.  I had a military boss from Arkansas.  He was kind of a sour character.  Then I had two co-workers, teenagers, who were Hispanic.  And they were darling.  They were lovely to me, Linda and Ramon.  They taught me how to make milkshakes, which I didn’t know how to do.  Then around ten o’clock in the morning, here came this mob of people from the technical area.  We were serving coffee, and some of them were delightful, and some of them were rude.  There was one man, big, tall, great, tall man with a mustache and a long pipe.  And he always ordered pie and coffee.  He ordered it that morning.  He ordered it that noon and that afternoon, the next day, the next day.  So I asked who he was.  And his name was James Tuck.  Turned out to be a friend of mine later.  That was my first introduction to a Los Alamos scientist.  I worked at the tech PX for two weeks before my clearance came in.

Strottman: When your clearance came in, what, where were you assigned?

Roensch:  Then I worked in communications, telephone work, which I had done in Rochester.  The telephone office was in A building.  That was the initial building where you came in the Tech Area gate marked right into A building.  Right in the center of the building.

I found it very interesting, if you’re interested, that the telephone directory at work, there wasn’t any directory like there was at home.  The telephone directory , I think I sent a copy of this to you, but this is what it looked like.  This was just typewritten sheets of the people who worked here.  We had to kind of memorize this.  Because nobody called by number.  They always called by name.  And we would say, “Operator,” and there were, I think, three positions.  Three operators could work at the same time.  

We’d plug in and they would say, “Get me Dr. Oppenheimer.”  Or, “Get me Oppie.”  Okay, after the first day, I had memorized all the ones that were called frequently.  

The WACs had their own little list.  This is the list of the WACs.  These were the WACs who worked in Tech Area, with their phone numbers.  And these were the WACs who worked on the post, with their number.  And the post had their own telephone system.   

Strottman: You did not man, you manned the phones only for women in the Tech Area.

Roensch:  We worked in the Tech Area.  But it soon became apparent that there had to be a tie-in between the post and the Tech Area.  Because, while any number of people in the technical area could talk to each other, if one of them wanted to talk to someone on the post, there were only I think three connections that only three people could talk at the same time.  People on the post could talk to each other.  But if they wanted to call someone in the Tech Area, there were only those three tie lines. 

Strottman: And was there a separate crew of WACs then working the post telephones while there was one working the Tech area?  So it was just the three of you doing both, but that the lines were separated, the systems were separated?

Roensch: No, no—that’s right, um hum.  I have some pictures also of the, I don’t know if you want to see them now, this is after the tie over.

Strottman: We can take them later and then they can be used .

Roensch: Fine.  This is a telephone directory that was a little more complete.  This was right after the, the bomb.  And this, I think, I don’t know if this is the kind of material you’re interested in or not.  But this is the little article about how the telephone lines were put up into Los Alamos.  Does that interest you? Okay.  You-all are familiar with the road.  The telephone lines were ordered by General Groves.  He called Mr. Burrows, who was head of the telephone company in Santa Fe.  He said he wanted lines, and he wanted them tomorrow.  This is a copy of the Monitor, which is a telephone company publication.  So it tells the whole story.  Here’s what it looked like.  General Groves and the Santa Fe system.  And how it was impossible, it was impossible to get cable.  This is wartime.  Wartime shortages.  But General Groves insisted, and he had the backing of the country and the military and they had to do it.

So Mr. Burrows was able to get cable.  There was a man named Tobachi, who was the foreman of the crew that installed the telephone poles and the lines from Pojoaque.  They cut off at Pojoaque and went as the crow flies up to Los Alamos, and that’s why it is so remarkable that they could do it.  The whole job was done from one Saturday until the following Thursday.  One day was taken off because the Indians, there were 60 Indians, old men, because the young men were all in the military.  And they dug the holes and put up the telephone poles, took one day off for a feast day.  They did it all in that short time, incredible.

Strottman: Incredible.  When did you realize, you were working in the Tech Area, when did you realize what the mission or goal of the Manhattan Project was?

Roensch: Oh, um, I was working in the Tech Area, but I didn’t really see anyone face-to-face.  Mine was an auditory job.  In fact, some of, Dr. Langham used to call me “The Voice.”  Because I used to page, they liked to have me page a lot.  I didn’t really know, I would see these scientists in the hall, but everyone was new.  Everyone was coming from somewhere else.  No one had the usual contacts that you would have in a town or city.  I would greet people, don’t forget I worked two weeks in the PX.  And I knew just about everybody in town, and they knew me by sight.  I knew them by sight.  I knew all the names of the people, but it didn’t mean anything to me.  I had never heard of Kistiakowosky or Bethe or all these famous scientists that we know now.  So I didn’t know anything about what they were doing.  I knew it was secret.  We also censored calls.  We, the people who—

Strottman: Tell us about that.  How did you do that?  What criteria, you didn’t know what they were—?

Roensch: That’s right, we didn’t.  We had boxes, sort of electronic boxes.  It wasn’t electronic in those days.  But the long distance calls would go through this box.  And then we would sit there and listen to the conversations, and we didn’t know what we were supposed to listen for.  If something sounded kind of peculiar, then we would call someone, and they would follow the conversation.  Most of them were kind of boring, boring conversations.  

Although, we also took telegrams.  There was a man by the name of Peierls—“Piles” we called him – P-e-i-e-r-l-s.  I knew that this was some kind of code.  He sent a telegram and it said, “Baby eats spinach and prospers.  Baby carriage on last legs.  Peierls.”  And that was sent to Chicago.

I knew that that was some sort of code and checked it out, but we sent it.  We got lots of interesting, strange things.  

I didn’t know what the mission of Los Alamos was until shortly before, shortly before the Alamogordo blast when Harold Fishbein, who was a good friend.  We used to share, he and my husband were the best of friends, Arno.  Arno and Hal used to share goodies that came from their parents.  Hal had a box that said something like, “Send a salami to your boy in the Army.”  

He was sharing, and he said, “I’m really concerned.  Because there is something in the offing, and it may not be able to be controlled.”  So we, I, all of us were pretty nervous about what might happen.  But what would you do?  What would you do if you knew that something was going to happen and it might mean the end of the war.  I mean you just, you’re nervous, but you want that to happen.  You want something successful to go on.  We didn’t know if it was a new form of bombs.  We knew that there were a lot of blasts, daily, throughout the base, the town.  So we knew there was something that had to do with explosives.  But we, when we knew about the accident to Daghlian and Slotin, but I’m not a scientist.  And I only knew from Harold that it was something that might be able to be controlled.  So we waited.  Everybody was anticipating what might happen.  It wasn’t the end of the world.  We were very glad that it was successful.

Strottman: Who were your commanding officers?

Roensch: The WAC commanding officer was Lieutenant Helen Mulvihill.  She was a darling.  She was really nice.  After that came many, many other officers.  We had a complement of lieutenants.  Some of them, there was a Lieutenant Bachelder, who was a scientist.  She worked in the lab.  Then we had a Lieutenant Miller, who married Captain Davalos, and I think she still lives in Santa Fe, if she’s still alive.  I have a story about her.

Strottman: If you’d like to tell it now.

Roensch: The WACs, the WAC contingent didn’t have to work or didn’t have rules quite similar to Oglethorpe.  We didn’t have to do KP.  We did have bed check.  We had to fall out in the morning, but we did not have to do calisthenics.  That was something that WACs were supposed to do.  When Lieutenant Miller came, someone got the idea that she should be the one to direct the calisthenics.  We women didn’t think that was such a great idea.  We had to wear these funny little bloomers and striped seersucker fatigues.  We had to do it, though.  It was scheduled.  We were going to do calisthenics in the field next to the WAC barracks, which was, the one I lived in was the last one toward the West Gate.  Right across the street from us is where the special engineers lived.  They had hundreds and hundreds of GIs who were special engineers.

Anyway, this one morning, that was the day that we were going to start calisthenics.  Lieutenant Miller faced all of us.  We had to line up.  We were facing the, the WACs were facing the men’s barracks.  Well, the men never had to do calisthenics.  Lieutenant Miller was, she had her back to them, we were doing these things, these breast development and all of this, and the men were just hooting and hollering and whistling and, I just, they were, some of them were leaning out the windows.  Some of them were running up and down the road and laughing.  We just, well, we did calisthenics two days.  And then Lieutenant Miller said, enough.  So that was her contribution and we loved her for it.

I can’t remember too many of the other WAC officers.  There were quite a few.

Strottman: Do you remember if any of the officers had differences in the way they handled building military relationships?

Roensch: No.  I don’t remember that.  I don’t remember too much about fraternizing with our WAC officers or observing them very much.  I know that there was one WAC officer who inspected us.  She was very rigid and very mean.  I do remember her name, but I’m not going to tell you.  She, we had inspection every Saturday morning.  On Friday night, everybody stayed home and waxed floors.  I have some photographs of that.  We waxed floors.  We ironed our clothes.  We polished our shoes.  We did all those things for Saturday morning.  Then we stood inspection.  This particular officer, who was rather disagreeable, could issue gigs.  Gigs were sort of demerits.  She issued me one, which kept me home that weekend.  This is kind of how we prepared.  This is latrine rumors.  Have you seen these?  A lot of the WACs have them.

Strottman: Your copies are better.

Roensch: This is, we’re hanging around, but she’s washing clothes.  You can see there’s wax and all kinds of things that, you know, we had them.  That lieutenant was really not very nice.  Here we are, cleaning.  

So that was, I can’t remember the relationship between the WAC officers and the civilians.

Strottman: Well, if I ask more general question, what do you remember about relationships between military and the civilians, just in general?

Roensch: Personal?

Strottman: Personal or administrative, whatever comes to your mind, how the civilians and the military got along as a joint venture.

Roensch: Okay.  I told you the first day that I arrived, or the second day, I was invited to a lecture at Fuller Lodge.  This other woman and I were the only military people who attended the lecture.  It was given by Robert House, who was a civilian.  We didn’t really know what department, division, or whatever, people were not supposed to say, I’m a scientist or I run the steam plant or I’m a janitor.  They didn’t tell you what they did.  They just worked at Los Alamos.  This man gave a wonderful lecture about hunting and fishing in Northern New Mexico.  All the civilians that were there were extremely nice and friendly.  We had tea and cookies.  They invited us to come to the next lecture.

I think, as far as I was concerned, relationships were quite good.  I met several civilians early on, Wright Langham, who lived very close to the PX.  Used to come in quite a bit, and I got to be good friends with him.  My husband did, too.  Then there were people that we, civilians we knew through music, Elizabeth Graves, and lots of people who were scientists, but also musicians.  There was very good rapport, I thought.

Also met my first Indian people.  There was a GI who was a special engineer. His name was Popovi Da, whose mother was Maria Martinez.  They pointed him out.  I said, “How do you know he’s Indian?”  Well, he is, you know, but he didn’t look any different from anyone else.

I met an Indian lady who was a maid.  Her name was Marie Suazo.  She’s from Santa Clara.  The Indian maids always wore these lovely shawls that the local people tried to get them to sell, but they wouldn’t.  She was working for Colonel de Silva. One day when I was babysitting for him.  We got well acquainted.  She invited me to Santa Clara.  Later, after I was married, she was still working, and she worked for me.  We remained good friends, years and years.

I think the relationships, from my point of view, which is a personal subjective one, relationships were pretty good.

Strottman: Were you aware of Major de Silva’s position?

Roensch: Yes.  This is my first pass, and he signed it.  The first, oh, I guess the first week that I was working at the PX, I spent some time in the orderly room, and there was a sign-up sheet.  People who would be willing to babysit should sign up there.  I was kind of homesick for my little cousin, who was four years old.  I’d lived with them since my cousin Paulette was born.  I was kind of homesick for her.  So I signed up to babysit, and it happened that I was called by Peer De Silva.  

He lived on this little cutoff road on the way going west from the Tech Area on the left side of the street as you’re going west.  He and his wife had two little girls.  One was just a baby.  After we got acquainted, he told me quite a bit about New York, his wife was from New York, and he was a West Pointer.  He was extremely agreeable and pleasant.  He told me I could invite Arno to join me if I were babysitting.  Sometimes they’d go to Santa Fe for the weekend, and we were allowed to use their dishes and their kitchen.  The only trouble was, we didn’t have any meat, because we didn’t have any ration coupons to buy meat.  But we would go to the PX and buy two hamburgers and tell them, “Don’t cook it.”  We’d go over to Peer De Silva’s house, his apartment, and then we’d cook those two little hamburgers and think we were great.

The De Silva’s introduced Arno and me to Captain Noland, who was a medical doctor, and Ann Noland.  We also babysat for them sometimes.  They had a little boy and a little girl.  They lived near the water tower.

Strottman: I gather de Silva left Los Alamos before the Manhattan Project terminated; he was one of the key people who left.

Roensch: I don’t know.  

Strottman:  How and with whom did you spend your free time, other than Arno?

Roensch: Okay.  I knew you were going to ask me that one, about the free time.  This is a picture of Big House.  Whenever I had free time, I loved to go to Big House, because there was a library there.  There also was a two-sided tufa fireplace.  They had a big swing, like a porch swing, that you could sit in and swing in front of the fireplace.  I sent for my chess set.  I taught Arno how to place chess over there.  It was really lovely.  

And I liked the lodge also.  In free time, I often would go to the lodge, and sometimes people would be playing piano.  I told you, I love music.  So whenever anyone would play piano or bring a musical instrument, that’s what I would like to do is listen to them play.  Sometimes the different civilians who were in charge of church programs would ask Arno and some of his friends to play at church.  Well then, we would have to rehearse at their house and I would hold the music.  We didn’t have any stand.  Sometimes I would have to hum the tunes because the guys didn’t know how it went.

Then other times in free time, we would do things like go to Santa Fe or we would go to Frijoles for a picnic, if we could get a ride.  Or the man I worked for, this sour Arkansas boy, he had to go to Taos to get eggs for the commissary and the PX, and he invited me to go along with him.  Sometimes there would be three or four of us who would cram into this wagon or this big van and go up to Taos and get eggs.  That was a big thrill, you know, taking a ride.  So that’s how we spent our, we hiked a lot.  Arno was part of this band that Fishbine organized.  We did a lot of dances.  I have some pictures of people at the dances, pictures of people on the way to Taos.  

It kind of looks funny, because the Theater Number Two, as you know, was not only a place for dances on Saturday night, but on Sunday that was church.  It had to be cleared out and all the beer cans cleaned up.  It was also the place where they had movies during the week.  Sometimes General Groves, I didn’t like General Groves.  He required that all of us be marched out, we would march out and go to Theater Number Two, this one time, to listen to some important speech that he wanted to give us.  When we all got there, you know, we are all crammed into this theater, there were so many of us.  We had to stand, and we waited and waited and waited.  Finally, General Groves appeared.  He made some important speech, something like, “Be sure to write home to your folks.”

Strottman: What do you remember of the man as a public speaker?

Roensch: General Groves?

Strottman: Yes.

Roensch: I was so, I found him so distasteful that I tried to erase everything I remember about General Groves.  We had to stand inspection by him, too, one time.  Perry Mason would try to, if I were Perry Mason, if you were Perry Mason, you would say, that is irrelevant, immaterial.  But I would like to tell you what he did.  We came back from that inspection, and one of the girls said, “Do you know what that guy did?  He goosed me!”  I just, you know, when they called him Greasy Groves, I found out later that he was called “Greasy” because of his thick, black hair.  This was when he was in West Point.  He used to play football, and real thick, black, they called him “Greasy Groves” because of that.  But we didn’t know that.  We thought it was very apt.  Some of us, not everybody.

Strottman: What, did you ever feel isolated when you were here?

Roensch: That’s a funny question.  Because, yes, I think you have to say you were isolated from your family, from the life of a city, like Santa Fe.  Of, you know, civilized city.  But how could you feel isolated with living, I was a WAC, and I was living in a building with 150 women.  And working in a big complex and doing so many things with so many people.  There were so many organizations, there was church and there was dancing and there was music and singing and hiking.  A lot of these were shared activities.  So, isolated, yes, because you were apart.  And because of the walls, the fences around the community.  But if you, if you were here and you were here to do a job, and it was wartime, and you were working with a large number of other people toward a unified goal.  You didn’t know what the goal was, but it had to do with the end of the war.  You didn’t think about it.  I didn’t think about it.

Strottman: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the barracks you lived in.  You talked a little bit about it, but?

Roensch:  Yes.  The barracks I lived in was rather unusual.  It was an H shaped barracks, with the bunks on the two sides and the latrines and showers in the middle.  That particular barracks had two bathtubs, which we found out later was very unusual.  Because nobody had bathtubs, except Bathtub Row.  That barracks also was rather fun.  Because, being the last barracks, the men used to walk around the back of it and up the side street going up to Tech Area.  It was kind of fun there, because we were, we had a view of the woods and the mountains.  We were the closest to West Gate, which we could walk down, and that was where the little pond was.  It was lovely.  The barracks itself had a little area in front that was meant for the motor pool women, because they had to get up at all hours and sometimes drive all night and sleep during the daytime.  They had a little separate area.  It was a lovely barracks, with waxed floors, with wooden floors.  We had cupboards, which was quite nice.

Strottman: Did you go to Trinity Site?

Roensch: No.  I have never gone to Trinity Site, not even after.

Strottman:  You spoke earlier about speaking with Harold Fishbine before the Trinity Test.  Where were you when you heard the results of the Trinity Test?

Roensch: It was the next day, and I was at work.  It was just something that people were happy about and everyone talked about it.

Strottman: You were in the Tech Area.  Do you remember any comments or the atmosphere?

Roensch: No, I don’t.  I just remember that we were all happy that it was a success.  

Strottman: Where were you when you heard of the bombing of Hiroshima?  Do you remember if you had any reactions to the event at the time?

Roensch:  Yes.  Again, I was at work that day.  The chief of the communications group was Nellie Rushing.  She was a sergeant, and she got this call that said the first atomic bomb had been dropped on, we called it Hiroshima.  That she was to announce this on the loud speaker, on the paging system.  So we were all just shaking, we were so awed by it all.  

So she announced this over the paging system, and that day, I was assigned to paging.  So she asked me, then, “Okay, Jerry, now, you take this announcement, and you call the different orderly rooms and the outlying sites and give them the news.”  So I did.  I started and I called, of course, the WAC orderly room first, and then the SEDs, and then the MPs, and then the provisional engineers.  

I got this answer at one of the orderly rooms.  The guy said, “I’m telling you, the first atomic bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima.”  And he said, “The first what, has been dropped where?  Would you spell that?”  So I guess secrecy was pretty good in some cases.

Strottman: Do you recall the bombing of Nagasaki as a distinctive event?  Do you remember any particular reactions you might have had to that event?

Roensch:  I don’t recall that as well.  The first one, because after Hiroshima, the news was out about Los Alamos.  And you see, at that point, then, people started calling in.  Before that, no families were allowed to know where we were.  Even people in Santa Fe, I mean, they could guess.  But there was such excitement after Hiroshima.  I have a newspaper from the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester the day after Hiroshima.  I have a newspaper from Santa Fe.  All of this news came out, and so people were sending telegrams and making phone calls.  I remember that probably almost all of the GIs got phone calls from their moms saying, “You did it, you made the atomic bomb.  I’m so proud of you, you know.”  So that when Nagasaki, when that news came in, it was kind of lost amid all of the news about opening up what Los Alamos was.

Strottman: After the war, when you told people where you’d been and the project you’d been involved in, do you recall their reactions to you?  And I mean immediately after the war.

Roensch: Immediately after, everyone was very proud.  We were jubilant.  We were really jubilant.  I had, I told you my brother was a Marine.  He was getting ready to be sent to, he was a Marine photographer, aerial photographer.  He was getting ready to be sent to the Pacific, right then.  He, I guess he was ready to go.  But it seemed to me that this saved, I’m personalizing because it was my brother.  But thousands and thousands of American soldiers, Marines, naval people, were spared possible death like the ones that were already in the Pacific, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the farther our men got toward Japan, the fiercer the fighting came and the more the Japanese would be willing to kill themselves, jump off of cliffs.  It seemed to me and to my relatives and to the people that I talked to at that time, right after, that war is awful, war is hell.  

And this was a terrible, it was a terrible show, really, to have dropped a bomb on a whole town.  But don’t forget, the Americans fire bombed Dresden.  Hey, that destroyed the whole town, too.  People at the time, right after the bomb, right after the end of the war, were very grateful.  They were grateful and thankful that the war was over.  And I was, too.

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

Roensch: Definitely.

Strottman: Do you want to elaborate on that?

Roensch: Well, I’m still here.  I never thought I would be an old-timer.  I never expected, really, to stay here, although I love New Mexico and, you know, it’s so beautiful here.  Even now, driving around Los Alamos and the outlying sites, the trees and the mountains and everything is so gorgeous.  Being here and meeting my husband here did alter the rest of my life.  Because we met, we fell in love, we married, we had our family here.  We contributed to the community, I hope we did.

I remember fighting as a community member for the mall, the AEC was going to put a road through the middle of the mall.  The garden clubbers and a lot of the residents didn’t want it.  They wanted to fight it, but nobody wanted to stand up and do it.  They kind of got me to do it.  I was scared to death.  But in the long run, that altered my life, too, because I was able to represent all the groups and do some research and bring in experts and convince the council that the majority of people in Los Alamos did not want the mall destroyed.  So they built another mall somewhere else.  But the original mall, which is like the desirable thing that most towns were aiming for, but Los Alamos already had, still remains.

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

Roensch:  I don’t think I have one.  I think the, the whole, you’re asking Manhattan Project, not Los Alamos?

Strottman:  Manhattan Project specifically, just that brief couple year period.

Roensch:  I really can’t say that I have one vivid memory.  I think the most dramatic memory I have of working was that fire in C shop.  Mary Hansis and I were on duty in the communications.  All of a sudden, it was evening, it was around eight o’clock or so.  And all of a sudden, the lights went out in the Technical Area, and we could smell smoke.  We were in A building.  So I ran out into the hall to, there was a lantern at the entrance.  I knocked someone over, well, you couldn’t see, and people were running everywhere.  Mary had already plugged in a few lines, so the automatic lights of the plug-in would go on.  She got her bearings.  Somebody said, “There’s a fire in C shop.”  Well, we were in A building, then there was B building, then there was C shop.  We knew that there were explosives.  We didn’t know exactly what it was.  But we knew that it was important to get the fire out.  

So Mary called the SED orderly room.  She called the fire department.  She called, Theater Number Two called off a basketball game, said, “Get those guys over here to fight this fire.”  Everybody came running to help.  We stayed, we stayed until things calmed down.  The fire was going all night long, but it was controlled.  I often think that, if Mary, if I had been there alone, I don’t know if I would have had the guts, the, I mean, in the military, you don’t do things on your own.  You don’t think for yourself.  Even in an emergency like that. I probably would have called an officer first to find out what to do.  Not Mary.  She was very resourceful, and she just went ahead.  She was brave.  I think that she’s a heroine.  Because if she had not been so quick about calling men to help, of course, I would have called the fire department.  But I think that she alone was responsible for getting that fire under control quickly.  I think that’s probably the most dramatic memory I have.

Strottman:  Is there anything you would like to add to this interview which we haven’t covered in our conversation?  Earlier you had mentioned something about the ecology, the human ecology of Los Alamos.  Was that during the Manhattan Project, or do you feel longer term?  If you could briefly talk about that.

Roensch: Okay.  I’ll just a say a couple of very brief things.  What I was talking about was the Manhattan Project and the war years as a temporary period of Los Alamos life.  And then, after the war years, the permanent period, and how, when I talk about ecology, I’m talking about human ecology. How people were uprooted, transplanted from everywhere.  There were hardly any people at Los Alamos who had been born in New Mexico.  Almost everyone was from somewhere else.  All of these people in this temporary period were transplanted to a new environment, a beautiful environment.  But it was crazy because it was building, we were working, building laboratories, building barracks, building schools, building everything that was needed for existence.  And how these people, how this kind of related.

The scientists had their Tech Area, which was part of the general community, but the general community was military.  This was really a military base run by the military.  And how all of these interrelated, how they were able to, to bring together, to mesh the scientific personnel and the military personnel, and the Indians, and the Hispanics from neighboring communities.  No one had a pre—no one had their own little clique.  No one had anything to rely on from the past.  They all had to invent new groups based on interests, like music or art or science or hunting and fishing, or romance.  All of this was very new and very flexible and wonderful.  In a way, that was very unusual and momentous time.  

In the, after the permanent period got started, then everything was more, heading toward a normal, civilized community.  But this was a very wonderful time, unusual, temporary time.  Nobody knew that it would last.

Strottman: Thank you so very much for being with us today.

Roensch: Believe me, it’s my pleasure.  I hope I’ve said something useful.  But you have to remember that my remarks are sort of like ethnocentrism, where I was the center of what I observed.  So each one of us will have a different observation.  I hope I didn’t say anything too terrible.

[End.]