The Manhattan Project

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Rebecca Bradford Diven's Interview

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Becky Diven

Becky Diven began her work for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in 1944, where she developed a quartz fiber microbalance to weigh extremely small amounts of plutonium. Diven discusses what it was like for women working at the Manhattan Project and talks about workers’ relations with the Pueblos, most of whom worked as maids or janitors.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 8, 2003
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Rebecca Bradford Diven: All right. My name is Rebecca Bradford Diven, but I was mostly known as Becky Bradford Diven.

Cynthia Kelly: Great. Well, tell us about your background and what you were doing before the war.

Diven: Did you want—your outline said you wanted birth dates and where—

Kelly: Okay. Sure.

Diven: I was born in Globa, Arizona, January 6th, 1918. My parents were—my mother was a school teacher, my father was a banker. I went through school in Pasa—we moved to California and I went to schools in Pasadena up through Junior College, and then went first to Berkeley for a year and then to USC for my final year. I graduated with a BS in Science, but it was really—well, sorry, that’s incorrect—a BS in Education, it was physical education as a major and life science as a minor. I never worked in teaching. 

I graduated in June of 1941 and immediately went to a summer job that I’d had for three years as a counselor at an expensive girl’s camp at Echo Lake, which is above Tahoe Lake. I went two weeks pre-camp, four weeks of camp, and two weeks of post-camp. I loved it. I was a lifeguard and a crafts teacher. I could play with the kids. It was as near an ideal job as a person at the very end of the Depression could’ve had. 

Another counselor and I had agreed that in September, we thought we would go to Mexico together and then be there in time for the February session of the University of Mexico, but I needed another hundred dollars to be secure. And to put it mildly, my father spiraled through the ceiling, refused the money, and I said, “That’s all right, I’ll get a job.” 

Well, the job I got was unexpected. It was at California Institute of Technology, in the sub-basement. We were not exactly honest with each other. I didn’t say that I planned to leave in February, and they didn’t tell me I was working on a National Defense Project. So December 7th came along. I went to work, a great big sign on the door: “National Defense Project, No Entrance without Permission.” I was locked in. I couldn’t change. You couldn’t leave work without permission, written permission, to prevent proselytizing during the war. So it wasn’t the time to go to Mexico anyway and I stayed. This job involved quartz fiber work, microfibers, and it was in the sub-basement of the chemistry building working on Linus Pauling invention of a oxygen meter for submarines. I was trained on the job. I had never worked with microfibers. And by close to October of ’43, the oxygen meter had gone into manufacturing to make it on scale for the submarines and I was bored silly. That wasn’t what I wanted so I told my bosses at Caltech that I was going to quit, and told, “You can’t quit. You are locked in.”  

And I said, “But I can quit. I have saved my money. I can live at home for the three months I have to be without employment, and then I’m going to join the Navy, the Army, or Red Cross, whoever will take me.”  

And they said, “Well let us think about that.” And in a little while I was called in and [they] said, “We have a job. We can’t tell you what it is, where it is, but they want you to come and do quartz fiber work.” Well, that sounded kind of strange and then he said, “Well, after you agree to take the job we’ll tell you where it is and what you will be doing.” And I said, “Well, can you tell me, is it for the war effort?”  

“Yes. But we can’t tell you what it is.”

“Well, why?”

“Well, it’s secret. I will only tell you that I don’t approve of it.”  

“Why?” 

 “For moral reasons.”  

“But it is for the war effort?”  

“Yes.”  

Well I thought about that for a while, and said, “Okay, I’ll take it.” Well, what they told me was that—only that it would be an Army base; it would be in the mountains; it would be pine trees. Once I agreed, I had to stay there for the duration of the war. And, I’m sorry, I really don’t remember what the salary was, but for a non-technical person I thought it was very handsome, so I agreed to take it. In due time I received information more about what I would be doing quartz fiber work. To this day I do not know how they knew I did quartz fiber work at Caltech. 

Then I was told, “First you will go to Berkeley and you will report to the top floor of the chemistry building.” And I got up there and was told, “Oh, you’re going to make a microbalance with quartz fibers and you’re going to design the jigs and things to make it.”

I looked at them absolutely appalled. I never designed anything in my life and I had not made a balance. And they said, “Oh, we’re sure you’ll figure it out. We’ll give you all of the help and we’ll expedite things through the machine shop.” I despaired for the war effort if it depended on people like me, but amazingly enough, we did it. I had to learn some math, I had to learn some drafting, and they did help me. After I’d been there two months I wrote the project and said, “I quit. I’ve been here two months, I’ve never been paid, I’m hungry, I don’t have a place to stay anymore, and I’m going home.”  

Well before I left—this had to take a few days, to get the letter—but before I left work, one day there was a man up there with money in his hand. “Your pay check was in Los Alamos [and we were] wondering why you weren’t picking it up.” So I now had money, but no place really to stay because everything was full. There was a housing shortage, so I spent the next month sleeping in beds of project workers who were away on business and I lived out of the suitcase. 

Then everything was through the machine shops and shipped, and I went home to Pasadena for maybe a week, and then I couldn’t get transportation. I told them that I’m ready but I can’t get there, and the train master in Pasadena called and said, “You have a reservation on the train on a given date and just come.” It apparently had been paid for. I later discovered that I had bumped a major account captain from this little roomette, that I was traveling in luxury to Los Alamos, and I was to be met. And so I dressed with care, a little pillbox with a veil, my precious nylons, high heels, and I was ready to go to Los Alamos.

Well, I stood on the platform and waited and waited and finally a WAC [Women’s Army Corps] came up and said, “Are you Becky Diven?” “Yeah.” “Ehh.” And I later discovered they said, “She’s never going to last here.” 

Well, I got to Los Alamos and discovered I was making a microbalance to weigh plutonium. They only had micro amounts—now I should back up and tell you this is in January of 1944, and they only had micro amounts. And, in due time, I made a microbalance. However, nobody had calculated static electricity and every time we were ready to weigh something it slapped up against the wall and broke because of static electricity. So the balance was delayed and delayed and in due time we made a weighing of the total supply of plutonium on a microbalance.

Well, by total of three months I was out of a job because quantities were arriving from Oak Ridge in an amount to use commercial balances. So, they then said, “You aren’t doing the job you were trained for, but we would like you to stay and we will train you to do the work that you will be doing if you will stay. We would like a one month trial for us to decide if you can do the work and you to decide if you want to do it.” So I was in a group in CMR [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research] in the chemistry building. 

Well, plutonium was scarce so they tried to recover it and they would send me very small samples and with a pipette I would put these samples on a platinum disk, dry it very, very carefully, then it would go into a Geiger counter to be counted, and those numbers would then tell the chemist how much plutonium was in that solution. I didn’t know what I was working on, but I was in the lab by myself. Pretty soon I had a person working for me, then another person working for me; eventually they made me a section head with a group of women. Mostly these people were wise that I then trained to do what I had been trained to do. What else do you want?

Kelly: Well, that’s fascinating. So did you continue in this job throughout the war until the end? Did you have that same job for the rest of the war?

Diven: No. Well, yes, I did. For work hours as you had asked, I would do these jobs. Now I never really knew where these solutions came from. It might not have always been recovering, but it could be most anything, and before the Trinity test, I was working eighteen hours a day. One day, I remember all of us were—I had maybe five girls, five women, six of us were in my little dorm room—waiting until the solutions were ready to be analyzed. And somebody from lab would come over and get us because we may as well be listening to books or tapes—we didn’t have tapes—records or something and then when we were called, we would go back to the lab and a car would come and pick all of us up and take us back to the lab. We worked six days a week. I loved it. Anything else?

Kelly: So you lived in the women’s dormitory?

Diven: Correct.

Kelly: There were six in the dorm, in the small dorm?

Diven: It was a small dorm. It was a quadrangle of, at that time, four dorms. That was going to be more than they needed, two women and two men, and we made a quadrangle and at one end was the mess hall. My dorm room, there were twenty people—is that right?—maybe to the dorm. And there were two rooms to one bath and we didn’t have roommates, we had bath mates. Ten upstairs, ten downstairs and the same for the men so two women and two men, and I ate all my meals at the mess hall. 

My room was nine-by-twelve and it had an Army cot, a small old desk and chair, and a closet with no door and no curtains on the window and none on the door. Maid service, all of the linens were furnished, and I bought material and hand-made curtains and a curtain for the closet. There were no hangers and I wrote home and said, “Can you send me some hangers? My bath-mate has loaned me four. She has doubled up her clothes.”

And there was a camaraderie that developed and these people became lifelong friends. I went—the first Christmas I got some money and I bought a little Two Grey Hills rug to put on the floor. I kept pleading with my mother, “Can you find a lamp to hang on the wall?” She couldn’t, but in the baths was a standard sink, toilet with no lid, and a shower, and nobody in their right mind would take a shower without at least a quart of water in case the water went off. And I only soaped what a quart of water would wash. 

And then I wanted a hot plate. I thought, “Where to plug it in?” So the wood shop gave a board that would fit on top of the toilet and we got very used to cooking on the toilet. Sounds strange, but we did it and I still reuse the pressure cooker that I bought at that time because it took twelve hours or more to cook a pot of beans due to the altitude.

Kelly: So how did you meet Ben? Sorry.

[Tape switch.]

Kelly: He’s got the film, so why don’t you start. You were in the Radio Assay group and who was your—

Diven: Oh, all right. I was in a group called—I mean, my job was called Radio Assay and I was in the chemistry building. And I worked first with the balance when Joe Kennedy and Art Wahl were the people who hired me. And I worked with Art Wahl making the balance and weighing the plutonium. After that was through, they trained me in Radio Assay and I was in Charlie Mezza’s group and Herman Ashley was the alternate. And they were the ones I reported to, who trained me, who took care of me.

Kelly: That’s great. And you were telling me that you were one of the very few women who were brought to Los Alamos as a scientist.

Diven: I—excuse me. I wasn’t brought in as a scientist and there were—

Cameraman: Now just a second.  Let’s try that again after the person—hold up and go ahead.

Diven: I was a technician who was trained on the job. There were PhD women, there was one in the dorm that I lived in, but there were no women technicians early on until the WACs came. And then there were WACs in the building, as well as SEDs—who were Special Engineer Detachments—and so I sort of was alone in one end of the chemistry building, but that didn’t make much difference. I put on booties and protective clothes and latex gloves in the lab, and the door was closed. I had worked with the hoods, and I had good training for safety, and what to do, and to explain what I needed. If it was technical, they had to come and tell me what it was and how to do it.

Kelly: What about the wives of the scientists? Did they have any training?

Diven: Many wives. They didn’t have housing, they had to build more dorms very soon, so they tried very hard to use wives as much as possible. So I had three women who were wives, no children, who wanted to work and I trained them on the job just like I had been trained.

Kelly: Now did they enjoy it as much as you did?

Diven: I don’t know that. Most of them were anxious to leave as soon as the war was over. I was kind of unique in that I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

[Pauses for a drink of water.]

Diven: A lightly amusing thing connected with equipment for the dorm, if you’re ever convenient to go back to that.

Kelly: Sure.

Cameraman: Go ahead.

Diven: As far as the equipment, I was telling you we had Army blankets, Army sheets, Army towels, Army washcloths. And it was a little startling when you picked up the washcloth and towel and things and every one said USED, U-S-E-D, United States Engineer Detachment, and we all had great jokes about our “used” linens. The dorm cost $15 a month, including maid service, laundry, and they cleaned the rooms. And the mess hall, I don’t know if I remember what it cost, it must have been maybe $25, I think, a month for three meals a day, and I just had forgotten to include that in the dormitory.

I believe you asked how I met Ben. He was one of those figures that went in and out of the men’s dorm. He frequently visited Elda Anderson, who had a PhD in physics and worked in the area where he did, so I would see him come up to visit her. I never really knew Ben during the war, to give justice there. Then he left and went to college—I mean graduate school—and then came back in 1950 and that’s when I really met him. So it wasn’t a bolt of lightening from the sky or any such exciting thing.

Kelly: Were there many couples in Los Alamos made during the war, I mean you hear [about]?

Diven: Oh yes, there were lots. And you need to understand that single women were scarce, because you had MPs, engineers, single scientists, so there were many more eligible men than there were eligible women. And so there was a steady stream of people getting married and then needing apartments rather than dorm rooms. And it really wasn’t very much of a place to get married, so many of those early marriages were in Dorothy McKibbin’s garden. And much later, in 1951, we also were invited to use Dorothy’s garden for old times’ sake, if we wanted, and we did.

Kelly: Can you tell us about Dorothy McKibbin and who she was?

Diven: Dorothy McKibbin was the lady in charge of 109 East Palace. That’s where everybody went when they arrived—to Dorothy McKibbin—a very warm, generous, smiling woman who immediately put you at ease and said, “I’m so glad to meet you and I hope you love it, and if you need anything, anything at all, let me know.” And she also became a lifelong friend of everybody who ever went through her office.

Kelly: That’s wonderful. What about the balance? You might have seen women who were wives who were encouraged to participate in work, but they also had children. How did people manage that?

Diven: Oh, part of this was a source of the economics. Let me explain that. The wives, they had a maid service. The Army furnished transportation to go through the villages and the Pueblos to pick up day workers, laborers, janitors, Indian women to come up for maid service for apartments, and there was an office maintained. I think it was just called “The Maid Service,” and the maids would report to this office and anybody who really wanted a maid or needed help would go to the service and say they needed it. 

Well, wives who had technical training or wives whose husbands were important and things—needed help at home had children. So the maids would go and help them. I, in the dormitory, had no access to that service because I was female. I could do my own work, or I didn’t need help, and so I couldn’t get a maid. 

And I thought this was really unjust, and I was complaining one day to Juantino, who lived in Tesuque, who was the janitor, and I sure did need somebody to do my ironing and they wouldn’t let me have a maid. And he said, “I will bring my wife to you,” and he said, “She goes to maid service.” And I said, “But if she comes, she will lose her job.” He said, “No, she won’t. I will bring her to you when I come up, then she will go to the maid service and say, ‘I missed the bus this morning,’” and so that—then they would send her someplace. But maid service was a lifesaver to working wives and to me.

Kelly: In addition to having the maids and day laborers from the Pueblos and the Hispanic communities, what other interactions were there between those communities and Los Alamos?

Diven: Oh, I think there was a lot of interaction because the maids became members of scientists’ families and they could keep the same one, if they wanted, every day. I mean, this was something worked out by them, and whenever there was a dance Juan would tell me, “You are invited, you may come to my house in the Pueblo.” Now, transportation for me was a problem; I had no car and there was no public transportation, so I didn’t go a lot but I did go to some of them. Later on I was invited to a home of Indians that I knew on Feasts Day to come and have a meal with them.

Kelly: You mentioned—you got a Two Grey Hills rug [Two Grey Hills is an historic trading post].

Diven: Yes.

Kelly: And where did you get that?

Diven: Oh, this was a Christmas check from my family, $20, you know, this is a different period, long time ago for money. And I found this Two Grey Hills at Packard’s Indian Store on the plaza in Santa Fe. And I don’t know, it covers a door down past the knob and just the widths of what a door would be—that’s where it lives now—but it was on the floor and I paid $20 for this Two Grey Hills. Oh, and Laurencita, who was Juantino’s wife, was a potter in Tesuque and much later after the war, after I was married, I remained friends. And Laurencita would come and whenever she’d need some money she would come up and say, “I have an Indian bowl and I need $30. Could you buy it?” So we have a supply of Indian pottery from Tesuque.

Kelly: That’s great. Let’s see, is there anything else? Women that you particularly admired, or knew, or would think so compartmentalized that you didn’t know any of the women, I don’t know, that may have been—

Diven: I became lifelong friends with Elizabeth Graves, who was married to Elton Graves. And she had a PhD and worked, early on in 1943, outside of the lab, completely independent of the lab. I became fast friends with her and we were lifelong friends. I don’t recall women during the war in D building that I was friends with in the chemistry. I met people—if they were single—in the dormitories, and there were women working in other places.

Kelly: In the mess hall—was that both for men and women or was that segregated?

Diven: I’m sorry—

Kelly: At the mess hall?

Diven: The mess hall was a sort of a fun place in a different way. It was mass—I mean, you know, large cooking. You ate off of a tray, a G.I. tray, you walked down and they plopped whatever you said and the amount you wanted. The tables were long tables with benches, you ate, sat anywhere. 

One day I went in fairly early, looked around, didn’t see anybody I knew, so I sat down [next] to a Spanish-American worker—janitor or laborer or whatnot. He was appalled; in a little bit he got up and moved. I thought he’d be interesting to talk to but I very quickly learned no, I was different, and so I didn’t try that again. But regularly the single people ate at North mess, intermingled; you just sat down at the table and people came. That was the way you met people in other departments: physicists, chemists, medical, hospital, whatever. You ate at the mess hall. Later on as the project grew there was North mess and West mess and the G.I.s ate at West mess or their own mess.

Kelly: So among the different groups, the SED, the WACs, and the G.I.s, and your crew, was there much intermingling?

Diven: Oh yes, all the time. There was no segregation. Nobody cared whether I was a technician or a PhD. Now, I made friends easily, and I talked to the janitors and practiced Spanish and they’d laugh at me. I was invited to the Valley to janitors’ houses but I couldn’t really go because I didn’t have transportation, but other scientists—I knew them just as well as anybody. 

And I was invited to people’s homes for dinner who were not in my group, but other groups. And, because I knew how to ski before I came, I was frequently invited to join a car load of skiers that could have been married or single—mostly men because at that time there were very few women that skied. I had no gasoline coupons to share, so my means of paying was, I could pet sit if they were going to be gone and needed somebody to sit their pets. I frequently would sit a child so the parents could go to the movies. Of the married people who had invited me to go skiing at Christmas, Thanksgiving, any holiday, I always had more invitations to dinner than I could accept.  

And the dormitories incidentally—everybody in my dorm would get together, chip in, and give a dorm party. And because it was dusty, muddy, rainy, snowing, you wore boots and things to work, we always specified formals for the ladies and so we could dress up for something. And then that was a means of inviting payback to people who had invited you to dinner. So we’d have big dorm parties and—I think—well, then the men’s dorms might do that, but I know my dorm—sort of—every four months or so would have a dorm party and we’d have a crew set up and clean up and then we would have punch in which somehow alcohol would magically appear, and we could make punch and different things. There was a commissary so we could get food and handsome snacks and things at our parties.

Kelly: Was there dancing? Did you have dancing?

Diven: Oh yes. Of course it was to records or things like that, but then we wore long dresses and I got a picture or two of people dancing, of ladies in their formals, and, by this time, you just about knew everybody on the hill by name or by face recognition. 

Now people frequently ask me, did I know Oppenheimer? From a distance. But one of my letters home to my mother after the war said, “Oppenheimer stopped by my desk today as he was prowling the halls and he said, “You must have been skiing, you look so healthy and brown. How are things going?” So, as Ben has already told you, he [Oppenheimer] knew people; he knew where they were, he knew your name. How he could have remembered my name I don’t know—probably because I had been, as a dormitory representative, on the early Town Council. 

And, incidentally, Ben had been on the first town council appointed by Oppenheimer, and then I was on it as a dormitory representative. And then, well after the war, I was on it still just as a town representative and a letter home said, “I’ve got to put on shoes and dress up to go to a ladies tea and tell them about town council. If I’d known that, I would have never agreed to run.” What a nice thing.

Kelly: That was great. So was the Town Council Oppenheimer’s idea?

Diven: Originally, I guess.

[Pause for voices in the background.]

For town council, in the very beginning Oppenheimer decided that they needed some representation and he asked people like Ben Diven, as a representative of the dorm, and Jean Baucher, as a representative of housewives.  Bob Wilson was a representative of the scientists and I don’t recall who the others were, but they would have been representatives of the town, and this first meeting was at his house and that was before my time here, in ’44, January of ’44. But not long after my arrival, I was asked if I would be a representative of the dorm on the town council, and these names, I don’t remember who they are now—Jean Baucher was still there, I know. And then later on it was a formal town election. And I no longer—on the last one, ran as a town representative, not as a dorm representative.

[Pause for sound check.]

Kelly: Great. Okay, tell us about that: arrival.

Diven: Well, I was told before I came here that there would be pine trees and it would be in the mountains, but they didn’t say much more than that. So I got off the train in Lamy and I looked around at those scrub pinions and thought, “Honey, you’ve been had! They don’t know a pine tree.” But as the car came up the hill the trees got larger and larger and I thought I’d arrived in heaven. I’d lived in the Ponderosa pines, I was in the mountains, I could go out of my dorm into the trees, hiking. More than once, somebody would bang on my door before breakfast and say, “Wake up! It’s snow. Let’s go skiing!” And I’d jump up and we’d ski, and miss breakfast incidentally, and then I’d get to work in time. I thought that was heaven. Imagine being able to go right out of your dorm room into a place where you could ski or hike in the mountains. That sort of thing, I think, was essential to me—hiking and skiing and being in the mountains. And there were times in which I worked seven days a week, there was none of that.

We were allowed one day a month that did not count against sick leave or vacation to go shopping because you couldn’t buy a thread—a spool of thread—anything on the hill. And if you made the mistake of saying, “I’m going to town,” you left with a long list of purchases for people on the “G-Mind” bus. It went down on sort of a regular schedule, you could get there by the times the stores opened. And then I could get back in half a day and go hiking, whatever, and do the shopping we needed because there was nothing here in ’44. I loved it. I thought it was wonderful—mud, dust, wind, that’s all right.  

I didn’t have proper shoes at this climate and was introduced to a Sears-Roebuck catalog. I didn’t know those things existed and, on my first order, I remember I was giving size and what I wanted and then said, “Anything in my size,” because you know we had rationing, gasoline rationing, leather rationing, and food rationing. Leather was because of Army shoes manufacturing, and that was another means of paying back the one family—Herb and Jeanne Bridge—who were so good to have me to dinner and to take me skiing. 

And they had about a two year old—I don’t remember exactly now—and he outgrew his shoes so fast, and they had no shoes for themselves because of rationing. And I was easy on shoes and almost never used my quota, so I would give them my shoe coupons and that was just heaven for them. 

There were blue points for canned goods, and things that were imported, like pineapple, were very high in points, and red points for meat. But I had to turn in my ration book to the mess hall because I was not using them and apparently it was against regulations to have them, so when I wanted to go shopping I would say, “I need my ration book from the mess sergeant to buy shoes.” And it was illegal to have a coupon without the book, so I would give my friends then the coupon for their son and they would put it in their book, and then when I got back I would turn it back into the mess hall. 

The mess hall sergeant was very good if you were going to go on a picnic someplace. You could go and say, “I would like some meat for a barbeque on a picnic,” and he would give you from the mess hall what you needed for the picnic and he would give you other supplies if you needed it. Or you could have your coupon book to have some canned things if you were going camping, but that wasn’t very practical because canned goods were heavy, but you would use them for whatever you needed at that point, or for dorm parties.

[End.]