The Manhattan Project

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Helene Suydam's Interview

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Helene Suydam

Helene Suydam and her husband, Jerry, moved into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s house on Bathtub Row in Los Alamos shortly after the Manhattan Project ended in 1947. In this interview, Suydam discusses the history of Los Alamos and the homes built there during the Manhattan Project. She also discusses her relationship with some of the people who remained at the laboratory after the Project, including director Norris Bradbury.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
Unknown
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Helene Suydam: I find this story of how Norris Bradbury came to Los Alamos rather interesting.  He was a graduate student at the University of California in the ‘30s and every student who was a graduate student of Professor [Leonard] Loeb had to join the Navy reserve.  So when the war started all these scientists were activated into the Navy, and about four PhDs ended up at the naval proving ground in Virginia. And the commandant of the proving ground was a retired naval officer who had been passed over and had been called back because of the war. And so he had all these PhDs that he didn’t know what to do with, but Norris was doing a very good job there.

And Captain Parsons was at the proving ground, and when Groves decided they needed a ballistic specialist to study the ballistic characteristics of the bomb, and design the bomb, and have the plane capable of carrying the bomb, Parsons was asked to come to Los Alamos. And once Parsons got here, he asked Norris Bradbury to come. And as you—as everyone knows, when Oppenheimer left they asked Norris to become director. And Norris said, “Well I really want to go back to Stanford and resume my teaching position but I’ll stay for a few months.” And Norris stayed for twenty-five years and I think the laboratory was very lucky to have him.

Now, when I was showing the house where we lived to someone—to a group several years ago—they asked if Oppenheimer, when they had parties at the Oppenheimer home, did they discuss scientific items?

And I said, “I really didn’t know,” but then later I asked someone who knew and I can’t remember who it was but they said, “Oh yes, we did.” 

Oppie would look around and say, “I now declare this a secure area,” and then they would start discussing their problems, which is very logical because the whole town was secure. 

Now backing up a little further in time—in the early days in the summer, Los Alamos went on daylight savings. This was in the ‘50s. Los Alamos went on daylight savings time and the rest of the state did not go on daylight saving time but the laboratory wanted to stay only a two-hour difference with Washington.

The opera had started. I’d gone to the opera for two nights in a row and, as you realize, the opera started at 10 o’clock our time. We got home very late. So I went out one Sunday morning to pick up the Sunday paper and someone was walking by and said, “I used to live in that house.”

And it was Anita Waring. She and her husband, he had been a tutor at the school, lived in the house in the ‘30s, so I naturally said, “Come in and tell me all about it.” 

I learned several rather interesting things.  I never understood why the master houses—the only one that had a dining room was Peggy Pond Church’s house and they had built it themselves. But Ms. Anita Waring said, “We always took our meals with the boys, because we were expecting to have meals with the boys, and the only thing I used my kitchen for was wood working.” 

She had grown up in Santa Fe. She had actually been in Mrs. Pond’s first Girl Scout troop in Santa Fe. Anita Waring had been in this Girl Scout troop and she’d grown up in an old adobe house between the La Fonda Hotel and the cathedral. When I came, that house had become an Indian store, you know, a curio shop.

And then I asked about the heating bit. Well Mr. [Albert J.] Connell, the director of the school, did not like coal. He thought coal was a very bad way of heating so all the houses were heated with wood. Except the cook at the lodge said, “I’m not cooking for sixty or seventy people on a wood stove!” So she got coal. And that’s about it; I guess anything else you’d have to ask me a few questions. What have I forgotten?

Cindy Kelly: What more can you tell us about the Manhattan Project?

Suydam: Well, let me backtrack. The house that we were in and in which Oppenheimer lived was built for May Connell. She was the sister of the director of the school, and he felt that young boys could be raised best by men but he realized maybe they need a little bit of a woman’s influence so he asked his sister to come. She evidently was the first one that said, “I’d like a stone house, I don’t want a log house.” And so they built the house for her.

And it has an extremely nice living room because she was an artist. She had studied in Europe and so they built the living room as a combination living room, dining room, and art studio. And the house was quite small when the Oppenheimer’s moved into it. There was the nice large living room, kitchen, bathroom, small study, and a sleeping porch.  All the master’s houses had sleeping porches, but they got radiators. The boys did not get radiators on their sleeping porches. Their sleeping porches were open but the master’s got radiators and windows so they could close it off when it was snowing.

Well, the Oppenheimer’s wanted a dining room. Mrs. Oppenheimer thought it would be nice to have a dining room. So, during the war years the kitchen was added and the original kitchen was changed into a dining room.

And then at the end of the war the Jettes moved into the house, and they had a young son and so the bedroom and bathroom arrangement was changed. But it’s still rather a small house with a large, nice living room. Anything else?

Kelly: Well in what room did the Oppenheimer’s children sleep in?

Suydam: Well they had only one child then. I think Peter, the older child, had been born but the second child hadn’t been born yet. But when the BBC came and made the television film In the Matter of Robert Oppenheimer, they asked me where they slept and I of course did not know, but I assumed they put the baby in the sleeping porch and they slept in the study. But since Oppie spent most of his time in the laboratory, it probably worked out quite adequately.  

And when the Parsons came, Martha Parsons was used to entertaining large groups and Kitty Oppenheimer did not care for entertaining large groups, so Martha Parsons took care of sort of all the formal entertainment that had to be done with visitors. The Parsons lived in the house that Peggy Pond Church and her husband had built, which was across the street, the two-story house, the only two-story home. And that was the one that had a dining room because they ended up with three children. They started out with a small house and a den so they ended up with a dining room because they had three small children. 

An interesting thing about the Warings—they decided that they would start a younger school down in Nambé, which would feed to Los Alamos Ranch School. And they did this maybe a year or two before the army came in and so that of course wasn’t very successful. And we all think that the laboratory really started in ’43, but the Army came in ‘42 and started doing construction in the late fall.  

And then there is, of course, the story of Sterling Colgate. Someone said, “This can’t be right,” but Sterling likes this story. When Oppenheimer and Groves came up to inspect the school, they sort of drove in kind of quickly and drove out. And then the boys were told that the school would be closing, and it was all very hush, and Sterling said, “Oh well, I know what it is, I recognize that pork pie hat of Oppenheimer, so I know this.” 

And this is another funny story that’s not quite Manhattan Project: Sterling graduated in the last class at the school which was 1943 in January and he went to Cornell until he was eighteen, and then he joined the Merchant Marines. And he was on a ship in the South Pacific and of course the draft board wanted to know where he was and they got in touch with his father and said, “Why hasn’t Sterling reported to the draft board?”

His father said, “Well, he’s out in the South Pacific if you can find him that’s quite alright with us.”

And at the time of the drop of the bomb on Japan he was on a Dutch freighter and he said absolutely no one on that freighter knew a thing about electricity, so he became what they called “The Sparks.” He was in charge of everything that was electric on the ship—and realize he was nineteen or twenty at the time.

And when the captain announced to the crew that the war was over because a bomb had been dropped on Japan, he added the comment, “Mr. Colgate will explain it all to you.” And Sterling said he didn’t even know the Captain knew who he was.  I think that’s a nice story.

Kelly: Didn’t you come here in ‘47?

Suydam: When we came in ’47, we got here in August—this really isn’t good for the rep for the Manhattan Project but the last night we spent in Raton. And we thought, “Well, you know Raton’s a small town—we won’t have any trouble finding a place to stay.”

They were having horse races. We ended up staying in something strange over a drug store because the place was packed and then of course the next morning we drove to Santa Fe, checked in with Dorothy McKibbin, and then came on up to the hill.  And we stayed in the Big House. They started building the western area in 1946, and then they started on the Trinity Site, and went up and around the curve and we had a house assigned to us off of Sandia.

Do I have that straight, I hope? I think so.

Anyway, we had a house assigned to us and it wasn’t going to be ready for a few weeks and we were on the third floor of the Big House which was the boy’s dormitory in the old days and it was now being used for visitors. They offered us an apartment but I thought, “How many days to unpack everything that’s been packed and then repack it when we went to the house in the western area?  That would be a chore.”  

I asked my husband to find out what colors they were painting the inside of the house.  Well it turned out they were painting the walls cream and the trim green which to me did not appeal whatsoever. So Jerry went back and suggested that they paint the trim cream, too. Architects should hire women when they start doing the interior designs. For the western area flooring they were evidently reusing flooring, which was nice because they were nice wood floors. But the company was not refinishing them, so we had to borrow a polisher and we went through about a ton of rags waxing the floors. 

What else? Oh, and then the League of Women’s Voters got involved. When the League actually got involved, before that—I didn’t know this—the two models of the western area houses in the downtown area on Ponderosa were samples. And when they designed those houses they put all the core utilities together. So the sink was on the interior of the kitchen wall instead of underneath the window. They had cabinets under the window and the window was a little high, so the, the League of Women Voters looked at those and said, “Really, I don’t think this is a good design. You should put the sink underneath the window and extend your pipes a little bit.”  

And then the first or the second winter we were here, the gas line still came from Albuquerque and we had a very bad cold spell. It wasn’t as bad as the cold spell in the ‘70s but it was quite cold and the gas went off. We did have fire places, so Zia [Company] would come out every morning, toss out a load of wood and then we’d all dash out and get the wood and have some heat in the house—roughly speaking.

It was not as bad as the cold snap in the ‘70s where we went down to thirty below and the valley went down to forty below. But by that time we had gas, since the gas line came from Farmington over the mountain, and it was the people in Santa Fe who suffered rather than Los Alamos.

Originally the gas line had come through Albuquerque and up to us, and in the ‘40s they had to cut it off to us because they couldn’t keep up the pressure. And in the ‘70s they cut it off north of what is called the Federal oval, or where the post office is in Santa Fe, they cut it off north of that cause they couldn’t keep up the pressure so everybody north of the Federal oval had no gas. Anything else?

Kelly: Well it’s a shame—we really wanted to focus on the Manhattan Project.

Suydam: Yes I know, but I told you we didn’t come till ‘47 and I don’t think I should tell you things that I’ve read, although, a lot of people haven’t read much about Parsons and Parsons was a very bright person. There’s a very interesting book about Parsons.  He was born in Chicago but raised in southern New Mexico. And his father was a lawyer who decided he didn’t want to raise the children in Chicago. He came out, rented a box car, loaded it up—this was in early 1910s, no probably in 1900—and loaded it up with the horse, the cow, the carriage and the household effects.  He settled up near Roswell and then the family came out and joined him.

And Deak Parsons had decided he wanted to go to the Naval Academy, and he was only sixteen, he went for his physical and they said, “You’re too short.”

And he said, “But I’m only sixteen.”

And they took him and he grew to be six foot something or other and he was a very intelligent, bright sort of person.  He had worked with the proximity fuse, which was why he was at Dahlgren [Dahlgren, Virginia on the Potomac River]—this is where they were testing the proximity fuse. And after he had taken it out to the Pacific to convince the gunners that this is better than what they were using, he came back to Dahlgren. And then he was asked to come to Los Alamos.  

Interesting side bit of this—Admiral King was in charge of the proximity fuse and they wanted to use it in Europe towards the end of the war. They were perfectly happy to use it in the Pacific because if it fell anywhere it would fall in the water and the enemy wouldn’t be able to get it. Well King didn’t release it for awhile in the European field because he knew they could get it and then they would copy it.

Someone finally convinced Admiral King that the war was almost over and it would be a great help to the Army so they finally got it. But I’m reading a book on radar, and as someone said, it was radar that won the war and the bomb ended it—which is really quite true. 

Interviewer: Was there some residual attitude in ‘47 that the Manhattan Project was a success?  Was there a residual sort of attitude about it, did it fuse some sort of a—

Suydam: We came from a Navy station and at that time, as soon as the war was over, most of the people wanted to go back to where they were.  They were from university or industry or someplace, but Norris couldn’t start hiring until the McMahon Act was passed.

Once he knew the Laboratory was going to stay then he started hiring. He came to Dahlgren and invited three people to come for interviews and my husband and a friend came out for interviews and my husband came for the job. He’d been working as an electrical engineer during the war and Norris thought he was an electrical engineer. But when he came out for an interview he explained to Norris he was really a theoretical physicist and he really would like to do that. And so that’s how we ended up here and we haven’t left since. 

I must admit, I used to go back to Washington quite often. And in the early days when I would go to a store and buy something and say send it to Los Alamos I always heard a cringe, but no one seemed to notice, so I don’t know what the situation or the attitude was.

My husband spent some time working in England, and he flew over and this was in the ‘50s and we were still very security minded. And at that time the British had an immigration officer aboard the ship, so you went through customs and immigration before you got off the ship. So the man looked at my passport and he kept saying, “Well are you gonna get a job?”

And I said, “No, I’m meeting my husband.”

But I couldn’t say, “He’s working for the British Atomic Energy,” because I didn’t think I was supposed to say that. And people don’t associate the name Los Alamos, even in the ‘50s, so he finally decided to let me ashore, but I thought it was funny. We were quite security minded, and if you knew what was going on it was mostly by osmosis is all I can say.

Kelly: How long was the town a gated town?

Suydam: It was gated up till the laboratory opened on South Mesa and we moved downtown, in ’56.  And Jerry could walk to work on the other side of the pond for about a year, and then the laboratory opened on South Mesa. And of course everybody screamed bloody murder because we were going to get invaded by all these strangers.  

And it was quite funny in the early days with community concerts. Everybody had to have passes. If someone wanted to come up to the concert from Santa Fe they had to go to Dorothy McKibbin and get a pass, and if we had a European group playing for the concert, they had to have security clearance to get in. That was quite involved.  

And then of course when they sold the town that was of course another interesting thing. Oh, and someone talking about the pond, the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] really wanted to fill the pond, it was Jim Tuck and several other people that got up and said “No way are you filling in the pond.” And so they got very active in that.

AEC always wanted to sort of level everything off and make it uniform but the pond was safe which is rather nice.

Kelly: When did they decide to keep the Fuller Lodge and the row houses, but take down almost everything else?

Suydam: I think it was done gradually. When we moved downtown in ‘56 the Sundt duplexes—which were just small one-bedroom houses—and then the quads, all the temporary housing was up. It went down as they built in North community and in Eastern area, but the temporary housing was up for a long, long time.

And that’s an interesting thing, because somebody from the Sundt Company came through our little history museum and said, “You don’t have anything in here about Sundt Company,” and they had really done a great job.

Everybody had done a great job in throwing up the buildings. That was as big a project, getting a physical plant up and the laboratory running. And I understand there were certain tricks on getting additions from the laboratory company, because during the war if it wasn’t too expensive it just sort of went through automatically, so you did little things in pieces.

Kelly: And who built them, who had the responsibility?

Suydam: Well the army hired contractors and carpenters and this sort of thing but then the McKee houses were built by Robert McKee. There was something called Hanford houses that were shipped down here, but some of that could have even been done at the end of the war.

And the Sundts were built by the Sundt company and I’m not sure where their headquarters are but they’re evidently still in business. I think they sent some things to the history museum so that they would have them in the archives, because building the physical plant was as big, in some ways, as getting the laboratory going.

Kelly: Well you’ve been terrific.

Suydam: Thank you.