The Manhattan Project

Harris Harold Levee's Interview

Printer-friendly version

Harris Harold Levee.mp4

Harris Harold Levee served in the Special Engineering Detachment at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago on the Manhattan Project. At the Met Lab, he worked with Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, who he describes as “not two peas in a pod, one was a pea and one was a string bean.” Levee’s assignments included following up on patents and ensuring strict secrecy was maintained at the laboratory. Levee later worked on construction of nuclear submarines.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 28, 2011
Location of the Interview: 

Harris Harold Levee: My name is Harris Harold Levee, L-e-v-e-e. My birthdate is August 9, 1919. I grew up in Sheepshead Bay doing the—playing a lot of sports, and did go to high school at Brooklyn Technical High School, where I studied to be an engineer. And from Brooklyn Tech, I went to a school called Cooper Union in New York City, which was a school where you had to pass a tremendous examination in order to get into the school because the school was free. All you had to do was pay for your own books. And I never finished there because the war came on. 

But during that time, I was working on, during 1941, when we got December 7, when it blew up, I was working on a power plant, boiler plant with a company called Combustion Engineering. And after Combustion Engineering, I joined a firm who came from Boston called E.B. Badger and Sons. And they were doing an oil refinery for Russia. Russia was in a lot of the United States. And I was the designer for Prussia Restaurants and tanks and towers for oil refineries with a heated bathroom. 

At that time, I got married and had a child. And after we finished the project, I was drafted. I was exempt from getting in the Army because of my position as a designer. But then after leaving Badger, working for Americans Chemical Construction Corporation, I was drafted into the military. I was sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey, and from Fort Dix in New Jersey, I was assigned to the Combat Engineer Corps at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. In Fort Belvoir, I was trained as a combat engineer and learning how to blow up bridges and remove mine fields and all kinds of things related to the combat engineers. 

Well I finished my training, and I had heard that I was on a call list to go somewhere or assigned someplace in spite of the fact that I still had not been on my two weeks of maneuvers like the rest of my company. And by the way, my company eventually hit southern France and so many of them were killed, it is a heartbreaking story. Some of them had not been trained like I had been trained and that is, in a sense, a shame. 

Well I got word that before that I had taken the Army General Classification Test and then some kind of a mechanical aptitude test, and my grades were so high in the—if you will pardon me—in the juniors’ class. And as a result, a Naval officer, I was only a buck private, a Naval officer came down to interview me to see how I would do wherever I was going to go or whatever. And he asked me, “Suppose you cannot contact your family if we send you somewhere, and how will you feel.”

And of course I said to him, “If it is for the good of the United States, obviously it is for my good, and therefore I would be happy to do that.”

Well, my captain gave me the weekend off to go home to see my wife Pearl, and I came back from the weekend and there I was on shipment. They gave me a ticket to go on a train to Chicago, and they said to me that I should remember a telephone number and call that phone number when I get to Chicago and I will get further instructions. Well, I got on the train and landed in Chicago, made the telephone call. Some woman answered the phone and said—I asked for the commanding officer. And I hear her say, “Do we have a commanding officer here?” 

And obviously—I waited a little while and some guy got on the phone and said to me, asked me if I was supposed to meet somebody or anything. And I said, “No, I was supposed to call that number.”

He said, “Well you wait in the Union Station in Chicago and put a newspaper under your left arm and you will be approached.” 

Well an hour or two later, some guy came over to me and said to me, “Are you waiting for somebody to pick you up.”

I said “Yes.”

“Did you have a telephone number?”


“What is the phone number?” 

I told him. He says “Okay, follow me.” 

I said, “What about my barracks bag?” 

He said, “Do not worry about the stuff in the barracks bag, we will pick it up at another time.”

So I came to—I went outside with him and into an automobile, had a chauffeur and he drove down along the Lake Michigan and explained it to me, all about this museum, that museum, the art museum, whatever, but he never said what I was going to do. He never talked about what may or what is the future. He took me to a hotel on the southside of Chicago. And he dropped me off and said, “Just go to the desk and ask for Mr. Bidlack.” I remember his name. 

So I did that, and I went up to this hotel room, and Mr. Bidlack was not there but his wife was there, and she said, “He will be back soon.” 

And then he came back, and he said to me, “I do not know why you are here, except that you must be a scientist or engineer because you are going be assigned to the University of Chicago. At the University of Chicago, you will not be able to wear your uniform, you will have to get civilian clothes.”

Well I did not have any civilian clothes and I called my wife to send me some civilian clothes and somehow she did, some two or three weeks later. And the government was supporting me at the hotel and I was having a ball in Chicago, waiting. 

And eventually I got civilian clothes and I went to the University and the name of the building was the Eckert Hall. And when I got to the building I met the man who was supposed to be my boss or commanding officer or whatever he was. His name was Lt. Colonel Harvard E. Metcalf, and he told me that what I would be doing would be helping the scientists and helping the government make sure that they didn’t steal any secrets, and that we got all the secrets. 

And so I was assigned to an office. And the colonel, in the meanwhile, took me down to what I never heard of before was, a nuclear reactor. This was the first, I understand, atomic reactor to ever go hot, and he took me down to show me. “This is the reactor that we are working on and everybody is doing things related to the reactor. And related to,” he told me, “an atomic bomb. And secrecy has got to be maintained, you cannot tell anybody in your family or anybody any of the—anything that you are doing or what you are working on.” And I remember they assigned me to an office next to a doctor—I forget his name, [Alfred Jeffrey] Dempster, and he was the inventor of the mass spectrographic method of separation of the isotopes. 

And I now remember that he had an assistant, Dr. Ralph Lapp, or he was getting his doctorate at the time. That is what I do recall about that. And during this time, at the University, I worked with somebody who I did not know at the time, he was a—these were Nobel Prize winners, Dr. Enrico Fermi, who was from Italy, and Dr. Leo Szilard, who was from Hungary. And Dr. Fermi, from what I remember, was not a tall man and not heavy and he was very easy to work with, and what I did for him was all kinds of miscellaneous things. I would rather not talk about anything scientific, because I do not know where I stand today. 

And Dr. Szilard was not easy to get along with but my office was alongside of the outside garden at Eckhart Hall. And Dr. Szilard, on his way to the office, used to stop and pick the pods and leaves and whatever he was doing. And he was studying out, as I’d watch him, all of this vegetation. What he was thinking about who knows, he was a genius. And also, what he did with these things, some of these pods he stuck in his pocket to take with him. And of course I never asked him what he was doing, because he was very, very secretive about what he was doing. 

So I have got to tell you about Dr. Enrico Fermi. He was easy to get along with. We got him to sign away his patent rights in a moment. But Dr. Szilard would not sign the patent rights. So I suggested to the colonel, “I tell you what we do. He is going to need money to live. Do not pay him.” And I do not know if this was done or not, but after a few weeks, Dr. Szilard signed his patent papers. And so whether the colonel used my suggestion or not, I cannot say, but I suggested that. And in fact, I must tell you, the thing that I remember most about Dr. Szilard, was the colonel came into the office one time—of course Dr. Szilard never knew my name, we could never talk about it, he never remembered it. Dr. Fermi knew who I was and so on. But Dr. Szilard, maybe it was the language difference, I do not know.

Anyway, the Colonel brought him into my office one time and said, “Hal”—he called me “Hal,” “Dr. Szilard needs some help, would you please help him.” This is one of the things I can talk about. 

Dr. Szilard said to me, “Get a piece of drafting paper and put it on the table,” which I did. And he said to me, “Now I want you to draw what I tell you to do. I want you to draw a line here, a line there, a curve here, a curve here, a circle here,” all kinds of things on the drawing, which I had no inclination what I was doing. 

I said to Dr. Szilard, “Would you mind, Dr. Szilard, if you would tell me what I am going to be doing, and after I finish it will be a much better job because you’re not doing it piecemeal.” 

Dr. Szilard, I can only remember him saying, “No, no, no, no, do not worry about it, just do as I tell you.” That is the way it was. 

And after I didn’t finish anything that I knew, he takes the paper away from me and disappears. And that’s the one thing I can talk about because the state of my mind was, “What has happened?” I believe Dr. Fermi and Szilard must be dead a long time, I have no idea.

And Dr. Fermi and Szilard, they used to go some places that I did not know where Dr. Fermi went. Whether he went out to Hanford and the state of Washington or he went to Oak Ridge or he went Los Alamos. I don’t know where Fermi went, I don’t think he went with Szilard because I am not sure, even though they were co-inventers of the atomic reactor, I don’t think Dr. Szilard and Fermi were friends or something. How they were co-inventors I don’t know. Maybe Szilard in Hungary was working on the nuclear reactor and Fermi in Italy was working on it and they got together here at this particular project. If that is the case, I am sure whoever you talk to must know this better than I am, how they got together. Because they were not two peas in a pod, one was a pea and one was a string bean. But anyway that is the way it was.    

I would like to tell you about how the scientists worked at the University, because we did not have computers in those days. Everything was done on paper or in—because we were at the University, we had big blackboards. And the scientists would get together two, three, a bunch at a time, and do all of this mathematical stuff on the blackboards. Well I only had calculus, I did not know what they were doing. I could not really tell the colonel what they were working on. It was unfortunate, and the colonel of course was not as advanced as I was, so whatever I reported to the colonel—I used to watch them doing what I think I called triple integral, calculus, some kind of special stuff. And unfortunately I could not understand exactly what they were doing, but they were doing very high-class physics. And when I was helping, I was helping on some engineering work and stuff like that. 

I learned when I got to the University that I was in a Special Engineer Detachment, the SED, which I did not know. And I do not know how many we had, but I understand there was eventually around all over the country in places, people sent, from the Engineer Corps to the SED, and there may have been 1,500 to 1,800 of us all around the country. How many we have in the University of Chicago, I did not know them, I only knew maybe fifteen, but there could have been twenty or more at the University. More than that I doubt. 

And there were chemists there. I did not have anything to do with the chemistry, because I did not know about chemistry—well only a little bit, so I did not have work with people like Wigner, who may have been a Nobel Prize winner, I am not sure. And people like that who were in the chemical end of it—I knew the physics end of it, that is what was involved with me. 

One of the assignments that I had to do was to follow-up on what could be patents. And there I had to get information from the various scientists to put on paper, so I did make up patent drawings from what I remember. And the patent drawings, what happened to them I cannot tell you, but I presume the patent drawings went to the colonel and the colonel got them to the patent office or—oh no, we had a guy who was in charge of the colonel. A Naval officer by the name of—just hit me—a Naval officer by the name of Captain Lavender was in Washington, DC. Now I remember, the colonel got the stuff to Captain Lavender and God knows, they probably went to the patent office from Captain Lavender. What Captain Lavender’s job was I do not know, all I know is he was a Naval Captain, which was higher than my Lt. Colonel in the service. Because, as I repeat, we were a combined Naval/Army operation. 

Anyway, oh I wanted to talk about security in the offices. The security was extremely tight. Who was to know that the Russians were getting our information? But anyway, security was tight and the colonel assigned me to a dozen of these safes, file cabinet safes that to make sure that every night that they were secured. So one evening, I have to remember that eleven out of the dozen safes that I had, I closed off and said to my secretary, “I have to leave early, please make sure to close the safe when you leave.” 

The following day the colonel calls me into his office and says I lost my company of men. You’re not even in the service, and you lose a company of men!

I said “Why, what happened?” 

He said, “You left the safe open.” My secretary forgot to close the safe. 

So unfortunately, or fortunately I should say, the colonel got a different officer to be in charge of the closure of the safes every night instead of me. I was sort of like fired from that job. I remember having in the safe was a letter from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt. The letter was very complete, it told the possibilities of making an atomic bomb. And I think that had tremendous influence in letting President Roosevelt start the program. Of course I do not really know but that is what I think. Because Albert Einstein was a great physicist but he was never on the project to my knowledge. 

And so what I am sorry about, is that I did not take a copy of that letter, which would have been illegal at the time, but I sure would have liked to have had a copy of the letter from Albert Einstein. 

In the middle of the summer of 1945, I asked the colonel, “How are we doing on this bomb business?” 

The colonel said of course, “I do not know, but General Groves has been very, very happy of late, so I have got an opinion that it was successful.” And I did not know of course whether we were or not, but I thought that we did some good work and helped the situation. 

Well, in 1945, August 6, we get a call by Dr. Arthur Compton, who was in charge of our project at the University. I do not know that he ever won the Nobel Prize, but anyway, he was in charge and he called us academics. We, who had information and working on the stuff, we were called “academics” at the University. And he called us to the Great Hall at the University of Chicago, and there he made an announcement: we can call up our family and friends, or whoever it was, and tell them what we were doing these couple of years. That we were working on the atomic bomb, because they had just dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan, and it was successful. The Enola Gay I think was the name of the airplane that dropped the bomb. 

And so we had this meeting in the Great Hall. I went back immediately of course. I called Pearl on the telephone, that, “Listen to the radio”—we had no television—“listen to the radio, and you will find out what I have been doing these years and the job I have been working on, because you will hear about the atomic bomb.” 

It was an hour later that Dr. Compton called the academics back to the Great Hall, and he announced, “The University does not want to be known as having anything to do with the bomb, and as a result, please do not call home.”

And everybody said to him, “Forget it, it is too late.” It must have been everybody who was an academic, I do not remember how many there were, but there might have been 100 or fifty or something, and everybody called home to tell whoever they were what they were doing. 

Well on my birthday on August 9, 1945, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki in Japan. And we did not have a meeting with Dr. Compton because there was no reason for that. But I remember the date because it was my birthday. 

Now, during this period, after the bomb was dropped, the civilians formed an organization called the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, the Atomic Scientists of Oak Ridge, the Atomic Scientists of Los Alamos, the Atomic Scientists of Hanford, and so on, maybe even Columbia, I am not sure. And I was not permitted to join the Atomic Scientists because I was in the military. 

Well it so happens that—was amazing is, that in all of these groups, the tremendous percentage of them, ninety percent, was sorry that they had anything to do with the development of a bomb because of the damage and a possibility that the future was just unbelievable that if other people would get the bomb, that it could be used. I, myself, was not of that opinion anyway. I felt that we had saved at least a million American and Japanese lives by dropping the two bombs because they surrendered. The Japanese would never have surrendered, we would eventually have to invade Japan and all of the killings and everything else and the wounding that would have gone with it. 

And so, I still, to this day, feel that we did the right thing by dropping the bomb. That is not the way the scientists who I met at the University of Chicago, felt. There were opposed to it. In fact, this fellow I mentioned earlier, Dr. Ralph Lapp, was one of the supporting people that came to Congress or Senate to oppose the continuation of the development of anything related to the bomb. And we did continue, because after that, I cannot remember who Oppenheimer’s assistant was, but he was major in development of the hydrogen bomb. I do not recall his name right now. And—you do not remember?

Kelly: You mean Edward Teller?

Levee: Yes, what is his name?

Kelly: Edward Teller.

Levee: Oh, that is it, Edward Teller. 

Kelly: Doctor.

Levee: Dr. Edward Teller, who did not like Oppenheimer. Because Oppenheimer, as I understood, was a communist in the early days before the war. Oppenheimer had a bad—did a great job, was a marvelous scientist and a marvelous physicist, and I liked him, but he was a communist and they did not like that, so they made issues about Oppenheimer later on, but I do not remember what the issues were. But Oppenheimer took it on the chin, that I remember. And part of the reason was Dr. Teller was opposed to Oppenheimer, from what I remember. 

During the time, after the bomb drop, I received letters of commendation. The little bit that I did during this period, whatever it was, everybody sent me letters of commendation. I got a letter from President Truman. I lost that letter, I cannot find that letter. But I got a letter from Truman, I got a letter from the Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, from his assistant who was the Undersecretary of War, Robert F. Patterson. And of course General Groves and General Groves’ assistant—Leslie R. Groves and Lt. General Reynolds sent me congratulation letters for supposedly all of the things that I did helping the development of the bomb. The little things I did, they were just little, but I guess everything had a helping hand in the bomb development, that I think. So I presume that so many of the scientists also who had just a little bit, maybe they did not receive letters from these people, but they must have received letters from the Secretary of War and the Undersecretary, I would presume. Not from the military. And somebody who was—K. D. Nichols also sent me a letter of congratulations, and so on, and I felt like I really did a great job because of all these letters that I received.

And by the way, I have to say one thing, go back. I had originally applied to be an Engineering Officer and an Air Cadet at the time. But by that time, when they were ready to take me, I was at the University of Chicago, working on this program. And I was not about to leave the University of Chicago and go and do this because the colonel had said to me I could go away, but he could not guarantee that I am coming back to the University. So I never did any of those things. I cancelled my application for those positions.   

I went back to the University and there was some kind of a statue to Enrico Fermi at the University. And the thing was made to Dr. Enrico Fermi and his staff. So the staff was probably me at the University. And I presume the strange part of this is, that having been there, my daughter several years later was born in Chicago at the Chicago Lying-In Hospital, which—Mrs. Obama was the President of that hospital where my daughter was born. That is just an aside. 

But anyway, after the war I did a lot of engineering. I was doing work around the world as supervising construction and design for electric generating stations. And two of the very important things that I worked on, one was the first air transportable nuclear power plant, was built in Baltimore at the Howard Hughes factory. And I was in charge of to put this thing together and watch that the pieces go into this aircraft and be sent down to Antarctica. For all I know, it might that this nuclear electric generating station is still being used on Antarctica, I have no idea because I was not invited to put it together. 

And then, of course later on, and I do not know if I am talking about the late ‘50’s, I became involved with—in West Milton, New York, in supervising construction. I was on the design somewhat, but supervising construction at the General Electric Plant in West Milton, New York of the first pressurized water submarine reactor and submarine without crews’ quarters. And while I was there, we finished the construction. I had a couple of assistants or a bunch of people working on it, and I had been working for a consulting engineering firm out in New York City, that is how I got on this particular job. 

And the Admiral Hyman Rickover was the head of our nuclear submarine fleet. In fact, they called him the “father” of our submarine fleet, our nuclear submarine fleet. And he was going to come start up this land-based pressurized water submarine when we were ready. And I was worried about it—“May not start, suppose it does not start, and have Hyman Rickover come with—there, that would be horror.” 

So I went to the G. E. General Manager, and I said, “You know, we should start this thing to make sure it works.” 

He said, “We cannot do that. Hyman Rickover has to do that.”

I said “Look, you have got to do this, and I would just—let me start it, if I hear it buzzing, off we turn it.” So I convinced him to start it. And so I went over with whatever assistants we needed. I put on the control rod. The thing worked. I shoved them back home—I did not really shove them, it was all electric operated—and that was it.

Hyman Rickover came to the West Milton New York plant, and he had an assistant with him, some Naval assistant. And he started the nuclear plant, and the door worked, the submarine worked. And after that of course was the beginning of our nuclear submarine fleet, since these work, and so we built them later. 

Hyman Rickover never had the courtesy to introduce himself to me, which really surprised me, because on these major jobs that I have been on, everybody of consequence did introduce themselves. And he did not, but anyway, whatever. 

Some years later I heard that his assistant—whether this is true or not I have no idea. His assistant was a guy named Jimmy Carter who became the President of the United States was on that West Milton job with him. True or not, I do not know, but that is what I was told. 

Any way we did experiment with another kind of nuclear reactor and it did not work out good, so we may have made a submarine or two, but I do not remember that. And that is about what I can remember about the stuff. I did work on a nuclear plant, but not the nuclear part of it, back in South Carolina for this plant. It was a big nuclear generating station. But I had nothing to do with the nuclear portion.