Alexandra Levy: All right. We are here on April 23, 2015 with Mr. Rex Edward Keller. So first, can you please say your name and spell it.
Rex Keller: Oh, Rex Edward Keller, R-E-X E-D-W-A-R-D, Keller, K-E-L-L-E-R.
Levy: Can you tell me where and when you were born?
Keller: I was born in Saxton, Missouri, October 10, 1923.
Levy: And you grew up in Missouri?
Keller: Yes, yes, in Dexter, Missouri.
Levy: What kind of an education did you have?
Keller: I had the high school course there. I went a year and one-half to the University of Missouri and left, because I was proposed to be inducted into the military. They gave me tests. So then, I got a job at Los Alamos. My brother [Keaton Keller] had gotten a job there in the chemistry department, [Joseph W.] Kennedy’s Chemistry Division.
Levy: Was your brother a chemist?
Keller: Yes, he was in chemistry. But he changed later to physics after the war.
Levy: What kind of a test did you take into the Special Engineer Detachment?
Keller: To Los Alamos?
Levy: Yes, what kind of a test?
Keller: I did not take any tests, except the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigations] came to town to see if I was a security risk. That is all the test there was to it. I just went in to do various work in the chemistry department. But then I transferred over to Seth Neddermeyer’s physics department.
Levy: To backtrack a little bit, what were you studying at the University of Missouri?
Keller: Just the general Bachelor of Arts degree at that time. I was not in physics or chemistry.
Levy: So do you think your background in physics or chemistry made you a good candidate for the Manhattan Project?
Keller: I do not think so. I think at that time they were just looking for more people. Ralph Nobles and my brother were going to Teachers College [Southeast Missouri State University] at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. And they were calling around to get people interested in physics. Ralph was recommended there, at the physics school. He went to work with Fermi in Chicago in 1942. They opened Los Alamos and Ralph went there with some of the others, from Chicago to Los Alamos, early in 1943.
Then Ralph secured him a job in the chemistry department in the spring of ’43. And then my brother got a job for me after the FBI came to town. I went there in July of 1943.
Levy: How did your brother and Ralph Nobles know each other?
Keller: We grew up together in the same town. All these people grew up in Dexter, more or less. We knew each other, you see.
Levy: Do you think that the teachers in Dexter encouraged their students to go into science? Is it unusual to have so many people from one town, who worked on the Manhattan Project?
Keller: No, I do not think so, particularly. Keaton and Ralph were just that way. And the other fellow that came from Dexter was Andrew Atkins. He was a very good student. He was not in the military, maybe 4F. Of course, Robert Nobles went up. That was Ralph’s brother, older brother. He went to Chicago and worked in ’42. But he stayed in Chicago. He did not go to Los Alamos. That was Robert Nobles. And later on, Bill Nobles, he was younger. Then Ralph got him a job. Then after that, Ralph got his father a job. So that made four Nobles, two Kellers, and one Atkins, totaled up to seven.
Levy: That is great. Were you expecting to be drafted into the military during World War II?
Keller: Yes, I had applied when I was at school–a friend, Jim Sisler, and me. But I could not pass the physical to go in the Air Force. They sent me into a hospital for a physical. I determined there was no use in going in the third semester. I just waited to be drafted. My brother got me a job then, at Los Alamos, when I was waiting to be drafted. The draft situation was fairly erratic. I do not know why, of course.
Levy: What did your brother tell you about the job at Los Alamos?
Keller: As I remember, he said, “They are doing something there about warfare that will be greater than the machine gun.”
Levy: And so that impressed you?
Keller: Somewhat, yes.
Levy: Did you get any training when you were drafted into the Special Engineer Detachment?
Keller: In the SED, no. No, I just did the direct kind of labor. For me, no. I think some did go. I think my brother went into a little program at Los Alamos in some kind of physics or training. They just did that on off-hours, of course.
Levy: Did you have to do any Army training for the SED, or was it straight from Los Alamos into the science?
Keller: Well, they just wanted more people to work. They started the SEDs after I was a civilian, you see. Then I got into the military, and they stamped us SEDs and brought in more people that were in the military. Now, they were all enlisted down there. They brought in one fellow who was a lawyer, [Eugene] Di Sabatino, I think, was his name. They made him a lieutenant. I think it was because he had to sign papers, official papers and stuff. He was not in physics, but they put him in the Tech Area. See, the Tech Area was what we called the main area. The engineering ran the fire department, the PX, and all the housing, and and all that.
They had private contractors in there. And then the MPs–military police–did the policing, you see. Then they moved up on the Hill there behind, to do a lot of the experimental work and the explosives. So they went down in the valleys and they brought more people in the project.
Levy: How did you first arrive at Los Alamos and when did you get there?
Keller: I got there in ’43. There was a shortage of gasoline in the eastern part of the United States because of the German submarines. They were building a pipeline to carry gas back east. But the cars were cheaper. So I went over there in June and bought a new Chevrolet car for one thousand fifty dollars. It had a few miles. And I drove that to Los Alamos.
Levy: What was your first impression of Los Alamos?
Keller: Back then, they did not have the good road up there. They had switchbacks. That was the old style up to that school. They had a little office in Sante Fe. I checked in there. They had a fellow that wanted to go up, so I let him ride in my car up there. They had the big building that was out of lumber [Fuller Lodge]. I got a bed on the second floor upstairs with some others that had just come in. They did not have enough housing at that time. Then I got a room in one of the buildings that they built. Ralph and my brother were over there, close, in another building.
A little innocent thing happened at the other building. They had a little Saturday night party, just a little dancing. [Enrico] Fermi came and, of course, there were not many people. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and General [Leslie] Grove came. We had hunting guns, rifles, and so forth. Ralph was showing Fermi his hunting rifle. Groves saw that. Groves wanted to put an end to civilians having guns on a military post. Oppenheimer talked him into letting us keeping our hunting guns. But that was quite interesting, I thought, that Oppenheimer went to bat for us.
Levy: Did you have any other interactions with Oppenheimer? What was he like?
Keller: Oh, I never talked to him. He was friendly and talked around there. There were maybe thirty to forty people there then, in that little room. He was quite congenial as far as I could tell, friendly, and so forth. At that time, Groves was too. Groves wanted to be fairly strict. But as far as I could tell, really, Groves’s main thing was getting properties together, security, and trying to encourage people to come. But you had to have a lot of supplies, of course. Groves–that was one of his deals of getting equipment, supplies, and construction people.
They had all kinds of construction people that had to go in the Tech Area. Now, Red DeFoley was the head plumber. Later on, they discharged Red DeFoley because he had a union background. There was another fellow that came and he had a bad ankle. The name was Joel Rohm, I think, out of St. Louis. Do you know about opening and shutting the mail, how they did that?
Levy: The censoring of the mail?
Keller: Oh, yes. When you would get mail in, they would open it, read it, seal it back, and put it into your box. When you would send it out, you did not seal it. They would read it and send it out. So I think Joe Rohm had some mail that they did not like, and they fired him.
Levy: You said that the FBI interviewed people about you. Do you know whom they talked to and what kind of questions they asked?
Keller: Well I think you might say–security, reliable, had ever been in trouble, and I guess that is the way the FBI did it. But a neighbor, M. T. Mitten, told me that he gave me a good report to them. I think they asked the principal of the school, T. S. Hill, and maybe someone else.
Levy: Did your parents know where you and your brother were during the war? Did you tell them where you had gone?
Keller: Yes, my mother knew where we were going because she rode down in the car with me. She had never been west. She got a hotel there in Sante Fe. But that is as far as she knew or anything. Then, she went back home, I guess, on a bus. But nobody went there or anything—I read that in the books, but that is not true.
Dick Feynman rode with us down one time in Albuquerque. We drove down in my car. We drove to Albuquerque, and Feynman rode along. I heard his wife was sick down there. You have heard that, I believe you said?
Levy: I think she had tuberculosis.
Keller: Yeah, so he went down with us.
He was very congenial. In the military, the top man, the top goes down. They decide and it goes clear down. Then, in science or medical stuff, you never know who is going to think of the best thing. So Tuesday night, the white badge people had a meeting. You probably know about that.
Tuesday night in the theater, they had an old building; all this was ten-year construction. In that building, they had a theater. But on Tuesday night, they had the MPs around. They had to have a white badge. Now my brother did not quite have a degree, or Nobles. But they just gave them white badges anyway. But they did not me, of course.
They would go. Just about all of them, Fermi and all of them, would sit there and listen to them talking on Tuesday night. And they would discuss. Guys and men would get up and give talks and so forth, because they never knew who would get the next best idea. That is completely different from the military organizations. I think the military people, Groves, it was hard for them to understand that. But Oppenheimer told them it has to be that way.
Now one of the main guys that you hardly hear about was old Seth Neddermyer. He was a nice fellow. He thought of implosion. That is when we were out there; a lot of them did not think that would work because that gun gadget was the first, Hiroshima. They were sure about that. But they did not think maybe that Seth’s implosion would work. We did a lot of testing out there, at what we called K-Site. Kirsch was a good man there. Finally, they ordered this big steel casting. You know about that. But they did not use it.
Levy: Was that Jumbo?
Keller: They had a big steel casting that came out on the railroad and put it down at the Kennedy site, because if the explosives went off and the material didn’t go, then they would have the material all over the countryside. So in the steel casting, the casting would keep the active material in there. My brother said he thought they had him designed to go in and get the material out, and then blow up.
They were so confident in the testing that it would work, so they did not use that steel casting. I heard it was left there. They just went ahead and put it up in the tower, and the thing did work. Beautiful sight, you understand, unless you are too close.
Levy: So when you arrived in Los Alamos, how did you find out what your assignment was going to be? What group were you assigned to?
Keller: In the chemistry is where I worked first. Just what my brother and the others told me. Seemed like a fellow, Wahl, or something was in there.
Levy: Art Wahl?
Keller: I suppose it was. He was chemistry. You have heard of him?
Keller: It seemed like the chemistry guys were good guys. I would do just all kinds of work around to make little trays or boxes for them, and clean up where they take little samples and so forth. Then I would wash the dishes. Now, they had a vat where there was a lot of chemicals. I mean, it would burn through you. They had a place where if you did get–you had aprons. And if you did get the acids on you, you would run and jump on that platform. You did not have to turn on the faucet because when you hit the platform, the spray, the shower would come all over you. The plumbers, of course, they fixed all that.
Levy: When you were working in the chemistry room, were you working with plutonium?
Keller: No, I do not know. That was way above my head.
Levy: Were there any safety accidents while you were there?
Keller: No, I did not see any. There were two fellows who were killed. You knew about that. I did not know them. My brother may have known them.
Levy: How long did you work in the chemistry group for?
Keller: Oh, probably a couple of months.
Levy: Did you know Joseph Kennedy?
Keller: Oh, I had seen him around. He was kind of a tall, thin guy. That is all I remember.
Levy: What was your brother working on in the chemistry group?
Keller: Well, this is all over my head. I helped him one time after I had switched over and got over in Oppie’s group. These explosions and primer cords were all was so fast that an ordinary camera lens could not take it. So I helped strive a fellow in Seth’s group. It was primer cord and some chemicals we put together to blow up that went after the shutter opened and the explosion went or something. Then, the smoke from the explosion would shut the lens of the camera, because the mechanical lens was not fast enough. [Edwin] McMillan figured out a rotating prism or something, I think, that was better than our deal for cameras in those days.
Levy: So after the chemistry group, where did you go?
Keller: I went over to Seth’s deal. But I did not have enough to do or anything down at my level. So I just went and left. Then they put me back, and they drafted me when I quit. Then they put me back at Los Alamos.
Levy: That was when you got drafted into that Special Engineer Detachment?
Keller: Yes, that was where they put you, when you were in the military, yes. They had got that. There was a fellow, I cannot think of his name. When you see pictures of a lot of officers at Los Alamos, that maybe is the MPs or the engineers. There were two Navy guys that were officers in the Tech Area. [William “Deak”] Parsons was one. And I forget that guy. I used to see him around. He was a lieutenant commander. Parsons was a captain. He did the pouring out there at headquarters. The other guy, then after the war, Oppenheimer, he would take director for a long time. I have forgotten his name. But he was Navy.
Levy: Norris Bradbury?
Keller: Yeah, that was him. I used to see him around and talk to him. My brother or something told him that I was away. I had been there but was away in the military, but Bradbury got ahold of the person and had me put back in Los Alamos. He says, “Anybody that has been here has got to stay.” So they just put me back at Los Alamos.
I went back into Seth Neddermyer’s group. He put me back on the hill on that testing, when you blow up the explosives. I would set them up. Then, the guys would do the figuring. But we would have raw metals or uranium, different sizes. It was just the raw metal, real heavy, and nickel colored. Some this big and some smaller than a golf-ball size. I would put them in the center and put the explosives around them and so forth, so they could take pictures when they blew it up.
Levy: Can you talk a little bit about what Seth Neddermyer’s group was trying to do with implosion?
Keller: Some of the guys did not think Seth’s idea would work. Of course, you have got to get all these explosives, primer cord, and electronics to go instantly together. The gun gadget was in sort of a tube, and they would push two pieces of uranium together, 235. They would push them together and it worked. But this implosion had explosives in a circle all around the centerpiece of the core. We had twelve pieces of explosives that they would pour. You had to pieces around that core, metal. I would keep it in my pocket or something. I would put it in there when I was putting it together. Then I would get it all set up.
Then, all the guys that were ready to test it would come. They would start checking the hookups and everything and lead into the control room. I would back up out of the way, way back up. They would blow the whistles. It would blow up. I would see the uranium metal flashing up through the trees and everything. Then I would go back down and get the parts and start another experiment when they got ready.
Levy: So was that with uranium, or was it plutonium for the implosion?
Keller: It was just the raw metal, I think, just the raw metal. They had a bunch of batteries in the container. The gas blew the lid off of it one time, because they wanted a lot of electricity at some time to set all those caps off for the primer cord.
Levy: You were trying to get the explosives to go at just the same time?
Keller: Oh, yes. All the cell pieces had to go at the same time, or you would have a side blow out or something. To compress the center, you had to have all those pieces precise. I guess at first they were really worried that they could hit and mold those pieces and have the high explosives so uniform, that they did that.
Now, for instance, they had a frozen deal down the canyon. They wanted to dig a hole or something for a basement or other. We had Composition B and pentolite as the high explosives. One was an English explosive. So the people dug this hole and put these high-pressure explosives in there. It blew out fast. It did not dig the good hole that they wanted. So they put the old dynamite down in the hole, and the dynamite pushed the ground up like they wanted.
So in the explosives, you see, this is an example. You have to have the proper materials, and then the explosives act a little differently and so forth. You have to have the explosives do the process that you are looking for and what you want done.
They finally got the confidence of taking pictures, and pictures of this explosive and the compression and everything. They finally decided it worked. And, of course, down in Trinity, it did work.
Levy: Can you talk about the Trinity tests, the buildup, and how you witnessed it?
Keller: I have a paper for that. On this deal down south of Trinity, about thirty-five miles, there was a little town or settlement. It was in the Wall Street Journal, I have copies of that, of these people saying a lot of people died from the radiation particles that went down there and they got cancer. Well, up on the hill, I looked at the explosion. They had turned my head around and my eyes opened for that initial flash. And when the flash was over, I turned around.
There were just about one-half dozen of us there, because Groves had decided that maybe the particles would come over there on some people way away. We had two Army trucks, six boys and a jeep. We just had to go somehow, get them, and move them out of there if radiation is over. But the radiation did not come. There was not any wind. They had a Geiger counter, I think, there with the jeep. We had a radio to listen to the countdown to zero.
That was what we were doing. There was no wind. The tremendous heat pushed all the dust particles in the air virtually straight up. They had three mushroom clouds. One maybe was at twenty some odd thousand or fifteen, and then twenty-five, and then about the top one I think was a little above forty thousand, maybe forty-five thousand, the biggest mushroom chopped out, you see, as the heat dissipated. But it took dust and sucked all the dust in around there up in the air. It went straight up. So there was no wind to blow it around, to blow the particles down south thirty-five miles. I just hated somebody to be lying and doing it to the government.
Now Ralph said a rancher up north said that there was some radiation that showed up on his cattle by changing the hair color. They gave him a little money. But Ralph says if anything, the wind was blowing from south to the north. These people who wanted money, of course, and their pictures in the paper, were to the south thirty-five miles.
Ralph, I called him about it. He said, “No, there was no wind.”
I said, “Of course not.”
I wrote and gave that in a paper that I could give to you. I wrote that paper letter to the Wall Street Journal. They would not publish it. I repeated this a month or two later to another. The Wall Street Journal sent me a letter about their process, et cetera. I sent it to that address. They have never published it. It seems to me there are some people in this country in power, of course, that do not want to talk about the atomic bombs.
Levy: So your role at the Trinity site was to see if any radiation came your way, about eighteen miles away?
Keller: Yes. In Ralph’s paper, it may give you details about the different testing that they did. They put balloons, I think, up in the air down there. Ralph was about five and one-half miles away in a trench, and it blew up, and then they got out of there. But they did some ground testing, air testing, and all around.
It was such a tremendous – I think kind of an early white and then a red fireball that went up, of course, and expanded, a very beautiful thing. A tremendous thing, there had never been anything like it on earth. I was really amazed.
A fellow from our group had got me into this group that went down about radiation. [Richard] Conklin, I think was his name. He had a white badge, and he hollered at me, “Come on. We can go down.” They did not want people down there, the media and people might know something was going on. My brother and chemistry group could not go down. I was just fortunate, because we were an experimental group. Now Ralph was in John Manley’s group. Of course, they were in it. Ralph spent two or three months down there getting the site set up.
The fellow that was later director was in Ralph’s group. I think he went on the Hiroshima plane with the bomb. I had his name some place written down in there. He was the director for a time after.
Levy: Harold Agnew?
Levy: That is right. He was on the Hiroshima.
Keller: Yeah, I used to see him around with Ralph. His wife liked to mountain climb with us. We mountain climbed some over Sangre de Cristo. One time when we first got over there, it was about seven, eight thousand feet. It was a Los Alamos man, a woman, and another man. But right away, we recognized [Edward] Teller. Teller had climbed with a bad foot. He was over there climbing around. I was amazed at Teller. We talked to him a bit.
Levy: That is right. He lost part of his foot in a streetcar accident.
Keller: In Hungary, was it not? Yes.
Levy: What was he like to talk to?
Keller: Well, he was very decent, very congenial fellow, yes. He and Oppenheimer got cross wise, as you know about them.
Levy: What was Seth Neddermeyer like as a group leader?
Keller: Oh, he was very good, very friendly and congenial with me. In the military, sometimes, you have this bad in the military and a lot of places in government. You give a person a little power, and they do not know how to handle it. This was bad. They had a name for it in the military. Did you ever hear of brown-nosing? It was so bad, you see. But there was very little of that in Los Alamos.
My immediate boss was named Mueller. I did not brown-nose Mueller, and he did not care much for me. But I knew, you do the work, and they look to see if you do the work. You do not give a big song and dance. But he had never been out among people, I guess, and he wanted that. So you have that all over. People, to get ahead, they play a political game.
But most of the guys at Los Alamos, you did not have that. There were some, of course. But Seth was very good. And he gave me – you see, the SEDs, the civilians gave you the ratings in the military. Civilians promoted you. So he gave me the rating P something or other. I do not know what I was called. The Oppenheimer letter says something about it. But Seth wrote it and then got Oppenheimer to sign it.
They do not understand integrity with these people, was very, very you might say, important or strict. Because who knows when you are talking to someone that knows more than you do. So, they all knew more than I did. You had that type of relationship there, and different from the military. Seth was a very decent fellow.
He asked me there, after the war, to get rid of everything some had left, and everything. I had low points in the military, so they kept me over for a while until June of ’46, really. And oh, I guess in September, Seth asked me to get rid of everything. Well, I took a few little pieces and put in my pocket that I got rid of, because I put them in my pocket as souvenirs. I got rid of the rest. I blew it all up. That is what I did. The K Site was down. But I went and got everything and turned it over to [inaudible] Site, because they still had the wiring for explosives and everything. I got a six by and rolled it over and blew it out. But I kept a few pieces in my pocket to hold.
Keller: In ’48, it was in the paper about the guy at Los Alamos that had souvenirs. The Cold War started. So it was big in the papers. I asked my brother, “What am I going to do with these souvenirs? What should I do?”
“We will throw them away.” So in behind my grandmother’s house, there is a little well. I threw some. He was going to Colorado, and he threw some in the lake. These were heavy and round. So they went down. I threw them in this old well.
A fellow showed up and came in. He wanted to come in and talk, I happened to be there. He came in the house and talked a little bit. He was from the government and so forth, and wanted to know something about things and these souvenirs. I would not say anything. So he asked me to go out in the car. He got out all of his papers again, the FBI, and showed again, and asked again if I had souvenirs.
I finally told him yes, and that I had gotten rid of them since there was a scare on this thing and I had seen in the paper. I threw them in the well. He said, “Can I see the well?”
I said, “Sure.” So I took him around behind the house and showed him the well where I had thrown them.
I do not know. There was a fellow going to Cape, that fellow from Dexter. He may have told around about that I had souvenirs. But I never told that stuff except to who were there, no outsiders. I never talked. Atkins may have done that. I do not know why they would have come to me.
Of course, they told everybody in the papers nobody knew anything about it. So I showed him the hole. So he asked me if I would go up with him to the courthouse. He would get a typewriter and type up my statement. So we went to the courthouse and got out–why there was nobody around. He mooched a typewriter and typed it up. He had me sign it on a page that I got rid of the instrument. But he was careful, I noticed, not to ask me details about the project or the bomb. Just this general souvenir thing was all he put down because even then, they did not want you saying about the bomb.
Levy: What were the souvenirs? Were they explosives?
Keller: The souvenirs, they were little round pieces of metal, a little bit bigger than a golf ball. And we used them sometimes in the core on the explosions. They used different pieces in there. Some were as big as a softball. Then these were about the size that I had, a little bigger than a golf ball. So they were experimenting. I think they were some kind of real heavy metal.
Levy: Not radioactive?
Keller: I do not think so. But I would see them flying through the air when the explosive might get back up behind trees. I think the bigger ones were just raw metal, before it had been refined. That was my guess. But nobody ever said anything.
Levy: Where did the explosive experiments take place in the Tech Area?
Keller: Well, we were up on the Hill, you see. They had this whole place surrounded back on the roads, the MPs. Back on the Hill there, Parsons had his pouring shacks where he would pour the different pieces of the explosives, different shapes. There was another site called C Site, I think, did explosive work. I would go over there with a pickup truck. There is a picture in there, an old GMC pickup. I would gather them up and take them and set them up. But that had to be two or three miles, something like that, back in the hills. It went on up about – most hills were maybe back up in there around ten, twelve, eleven thousand feet.
Los Alamos was about seven thousand feet on the mesa. We were up maybe seventy-five hundred feet or something like that in the hills, back where we could do the explosive work.
Levy: Had you ever worked with explosives before?
Keller: No, nothing except the shotgun.
Levy: Were you nervous when you first started working with explosives?
Keller: No, I figured they knew what they were doing. And they figured out. My brother told me, of course, and Ralph. And when we went down, Cossie and I went down through the K Site, we went down the day before and slept in the back of the truck. We got up in the night and went up on this hill, you see. They drove the jeep up there with the radio and everything. He told me again. I had heard it. But he told me again.
They had figured it out very closely what was going to happen. Then that shows you how smart we had some people. They figured this out very well, how the explosives – what would happen. And the fireball–the initial light, the fireball, and everything. So I was quite impressed that they knew pretty well what they were doing.
Levy: Were people nervous before the Trinity test? Were they afraid it might not work?
Keller: There was some talk of that, of course. But they were, I heard, skeptical of Seth’s idea back the year before. But they began to believe probably it would work. Of course, they did not use that steel casting. But I guess there were quite a few that was anxious about it. Of course, at my level, I just took things as they came.
Levy: Were people happy after the test was successful? Was there a change in mood?
Keller: Yes, oh, yes. I would say out there at the K Site, we did not have much to do then because what we had done had worked, you might say. Then we would sit and talk while they would drop the thing. I remember, I thought maybe if they dropped it in Tokyo Bay, it would not kill so many people. It would still give them a good demonstration of how powerful it was. So there was a discussion about just where they should drop it, et cetera. Yes, there was some of that around.
Levy: How did you find out about the bombing in Hiroshima?
Keller: Well, a lot of the guys, I guess they just talked about it. The news came right back that it worked and everything. I never did see that part. That was in different groups and so on.
Levy: What was the mood at Los Alamos after the bombing at Hiroshima?
Keller: Well, some apprehension about how bad this thing was going to be in the future. I heard some of the guys. More guys were really concerned about it. But on the whole, with the war, most opinions were that it was proper and being successful to end the war and save a lot of, particularly American lives and probably Japanese lives.
Now there at Las Vegas, they have a conference room. I went there two or three times. There was a woman there. There were one or two Japanese people, immigrants or something. But there were maybe one hundred people in the discussions. She got up and she said, “If it had not been for the bomb, I would not be here. My father was a prisoner of war and he was working in a coalmine in Japan. They about had him starved to death. The bomb ended the war and it saved his life. That is how I am here.”
I will tell you, after that, there was no expression negative about the bomb. I talked to her some later then. I think I was the only one there in the bunch that really worked on it. Now a lot of them worked on the testing and heavy metals at Los Alamos later on and so forth. But I think I was the only one there that really worked on the bombs.
At the reunion in ’93 when Teller came, and Ralph says Teller wants to give a talk. And he did. There were maybe fifty of us or so that went over to hear Teller talk, or more. Teller said in just one sentence, “It has not been necessary that we developed thermonuclears.” That has not been in print, now has it? You have not heard of that?
Levy: I am not sure, yeah.
Keller: No, they will not put it in print because of the political situation. The people there did not want—I looked around for expressions on anybody’s face, because he was the guy that pushed it against Oppenheimer and everything. He pushed for it. Here is at least the guy who was honest there, I think, because he saw in the warfare you do not want to tear up the whole city. You want to tear up the military objectives. He did not go into detail at all. He says, “It was not necessary to have built the bigger ones.”
I thought, “Man, he sure has changed!” But at least he saw the military applications and so forth. That is my estimate of it.
But of course, the people that worked and worked for years on all that test site and all of that, that, I am sure, made them feel like, “What were we doing? Here Teller has turned around on us!” And they have never, far as I could find, put that print. But he said it in just one sentence. [Inaudible] will say that he did not, I am sure. But that is the political situation.
Levy: That is very interesting. Did you ever work with George Kistiakowsky?
Keller: No. No, he was a chemist. He was from Princeton. No, I did not. A fellow wrote a book, Ralph gave it to me. He talks about some of the fellows early on back east at Harvard and around Princeton and their ideas. He was in the book quite a bit, about talking and working back east early on, you see, on atomic power and so forth. But Ralph said Kistiakowsky had mentioned that Seth had thought of implosion.
Levy: So when you were at Los Alamos, did you know about any of the other project sites around the country?
Keller: Oh, yeah.
Levy: You did?
Keller: Hanford and Oak Ridge, yeah.
Levy: What did you know about them?
Keller: I knew that they were refining. I did not know the difference between thirty-five and thirty-eight in the places. But in the military, they keep anybody from catching on. They just sent instructions for me to go to Oak Ridge. Then in Oak Ridge, they had it. I stayed there two or three days to go to Los Alamos. I knew where I was going, but I did not tell anybody. The one officer said, “I think you know where you are going.” I did not say a word, because I did, of course. He figured that I knew because it had come through.
My brother talked to his Navy guy. I forget his name. He did the directing to put me back out there. They did not want you to go around, hardly at all. They put the thing around. If you get messed up or something, they got an island in the South Pacific where you could go.
Levy: How did you find out there you were working on an atomic bomb?
Keller: I do not remember. I suppose Ralph or my brother had told me, I guess, at some time. I do not really remember.
Levy: Did the other people in the SED know what they were working on?
Keller: Well, the white badge people did. Oh, yes. Now Conklin was an SED, and he knew. All the white badge guys would see that. That was open for that class of intellects, so to speak, with having to agree or close to agree. They could just go and sit down with Teller and everybody or whoever was there. They could go sit down.
Now, [Hans] Bethe, at one point my brother was telling me, got after Teller. Teller was working on the hydrogen, the thermals. Bethe told him, “Stop doing that. We have got to finish this bomb now that we are working on. Stop and get on to what we are doing, and let that go.” So Bethe got after him to get back on the project right now.
Levy: Did you become friendly with other members in the SED?
Keller: Yes, they had the machinists that were out there. Then the fellow that helped with the pictures, developing the pictures about the compression and everything. And he developed them and then he turned them over. They went on up to Seth, and so forth. We had a little incident that is beside the point. But maybe it will interest you that it goes on.
So many of these books, to me, goes to so much about Groves and said they could not have had the bomb without Groves, and all that. Now, that is nonsense. They had generals lined up by the hundreds. He was good, I will mention that. They had many generals. How many Fermis, Oppenheimers, Bethes, Tellers, or Seths did you have? A few dozen, so to speak, or 100 or something. But I will just make a caustic comment about the fire department, to give you a little idea of the real world.
When my brother and Ralph went there in the spring, the old school had some horses for the students. Down the Hill in back, they had an old barn. Ralph, he could go down there and they could ride the horses maybe on Sunday. We would take the horses away. But this old barn was about to fall down. It was all wood. It was not very big.
It caught on fire, I guess, in maybe ’44, all right. They had a major, captain, or something in the fire department. The big fire department was close to the Tech Area. He had to go put the fire out and he did not have much water, just on the trucks. There were no fire hydrants. They took the water truck, the fire hydrants, and stuff down to put out the old barn fire. Some of the people that had some smarts were exacerbated. They were furious, virtually. What if the Tech Area had caught on fire? No water? It was the engineering department that ran the fire department and so forth.
They got rid of that officer running the fire department, and they got a retired fire chief from, I believe it was Philadelphia, to come and run the fire department. They kept it quiet, though. But a guy in the engineering told my brother what happened.
There was a fellow that was around there then with all of his fire caps and uniform, all civilian. He was appointed, they brought him out to run that fire department because they figured it is too important. You have got to have a real fireman running this fire department. He was over there at the fire department running it then.
Levy: Wow! That is a great story.
Keller: So that shows you, when they had something that they figured had to be done, they did it. They did it. They had two doctors, [Louis] Hemplemann and [James] Nolan there in the little clinic. I went over there a couple of times, civilian. Hemplemann was a civilian doctor and Nolan was a captain in the military. He was a doctor. If you got a little trouble or something like that, you would go over to them.
Levy: Did they have a nice hospital there?
Keller: It was just more like a little clinic. I went in one time and they worked on me a couple times. In the military, they would not do that. But they had nobody who could come in and tell them what to do. They had, I guess, around eight or ten beds in the room. Ample examinations, X-ray, and stuff like that and maybe the beds, eight or ten people. I do not remember.
I knew a gal that worked there for them. Doris, I think, was her name. I do not remember if Doris – she was an SED, I think, or not an SED, a WAC, Women’s Army Corps. Keaton had a WAC working for him in the chemistry building back there. They had blast board machinists, chemistry labs, a building for supplies, and so forth, all in the Tech Area, glass blower, and all kinds of things. If something needed something, they had it supposedly right there.
Keller: The fellow that ran the chemistry lab, where they had all the chemicals and everything electronic, they had all kinds of electronic equipment and so forth. He got lost on a mountain trip one time. They found him.
Levy: Was there much interaction between the SED and civilians on base?
Keller: Oh, they had two mess halls. The engineers ran the mess halls, of course. When I was a civilian, it cost me, I think, thirty dollars a month. I made eighty-five dollars a month. I had a room. I would just walk over to this mess hall and eat. I had a ticket that I paid up. The military could just walk in, and they did not have to pay. When the SEDs and the WACs were down there and civilians would go in there, and SEDs, WACs.
I remember there was a woman. I guess she was a WAC or something. She was a lieutenant. I had talked to her a lot around and stuff. She was small. She said, “When I was working in the mess hall, I could hardly pick up those big pans and wash them or put them in the rack.” I remember her telling me that.
They just had all kinds of people that they let over to the mess hall. Some paid and, of course, the military did not. And sometimes, it was not worth paying for either, I will tell you.
Levy: The food was not very good?
Keller: Sometimes, I remember Christmas in ’44. They just threw the turkey out. It was blue, purple, and stuff. People just threw it away.
Levy: Since you had a car, were you able to travel around to Sante Fe and Albuquerque a bit?
Keller: Yes, we went down there. Dick went down there. He, Ralph, and I would drive around, look around, and knew the area.
Levy: Did you do any shopping or was it mostly just going outdoors and stuff?
Keller: Well we would go climb in the Sangre de Cristo. One time, they got about thirty people. They got a big six by. A whole bunch of us got into that and went over and climbed on the mountain. I got up to over thirteen thousand feet before anybody else was close. I had an enlarged, a big heart, you see. Everybody has got muscle. But in climbing, you got to have heart and a windbag to breathe, the size of muscles. So you cannot stand the altitude. But I had a big heart. I could just go one thousand feet an hour up the side of the mountain, and it did not bother me at all. But after I got older, I could not do that.
Levy: Did you ever go skiing at Los Alamos?
Keller: No. We went back in the hills. We would get a six by. We drove up. A bunch of us would go. A lot of the scientists and so forth would go and civilians. We would drive around some. George Mallinckrodt, after I sold my car, he had a ’40 Mercury. We would ride around with George in his Mercury. That is where that picture was taken, in the snow. We were going to a gunsmith. I think Ackley was his name. But they liked hunting guns and so forth. It was just something to do. We would all ride around. Ralph Nobles sent the picture. We were up high there. We were in George’s car. We would ride around some that way.
Levy: You had mentioned that you had left Los Alamos at one point because you did not have anything to do in Seth’s group.
Keller: With doctor—?
Levy: You said that you had left Los Alamos because you did not have anything to do.
Keller: I just was so bored with it, so to speak. I probably should not have. But I just did. I guess after–hindsight is so good, that they put me back out there.
Levy: Did they know that you were leaving?
Keller: No. Early on, the personnel director, I think it was the name of Hughes out of St. Louis. No, I talked him once in a while. But no one outside of Ralph or my brother, that is about all I told.
Levy: Once you were an SED, did you have to wear a military uniform?
Keller: Yes, we had the uniforms and everything. But in the military back then, you had a work kind of uniform, and we just wore that. We did not use the dress uniform hardly ever, except when you went off base down to Sante Fe or someplace. They had a bus that you could go back and forth all the time. But the SEDs stayed pretty well there. I did too, as an SED. But we just wore the work uniform most all the time. They had a little office. The guys in the military office, they were tech people. You could get a pass once in a while or so forth there. But most of them stayed pretty close.
Levy: Can you talk a little bit about George Mallinckrodt and his company’s role in the project?
Keller: George, I think, was married then. My brother got to know him, and then we flew around. George had the car and I had sold mine. It was something to do. But then after the war, my brother went and got his PhD in physics in St. Louis at Washington University. George and his dad had given a lot of money to Washington University, and I think he gave to Harvard, maybe. You maybe knew about that. I heard he gave a technical building to them way back.
But my brother flew around with George. George had a big house, of course. He had a room where Keaton would stay or visit with him and so forth. Then they had to hand the house over. But George had planes. He had one on the West Coast. They were special planes. They had one in St. Louis. And then they had another one on the East Coast, just in case he got back there and needed the plane. They had a farmhouse out there some place. They would go out there.
George went down to see my brother when he was teaching at Tucson at the university. He had a course in nuclear engineering. The government would send – they had started this thing for submarines. Robert Nobles went out to Idaho and worked there after the war.
So George had some lady with him. He went and got in this little plane in this little airport up close to where my brother lived. And my brother said, “I knew George had to get back in a special plane that would take off easy.” But he said, “He did not come back far enough to the runway and took off and went over and hit the John Deere building.” My brother said he ran down there. It threw George out through the windshield onto the building. But the woman in there had been pushed up against the dash. My brother got up there and got her back. The plane was burning then, and she was getting burnt badly. He got burnt a little bit. But he got it back and got her out a ways. And then the plane blew up.
So after that, George gave him money, everything he wanted and everything. With that kind of money, you never know who is a friend of theirs or a friend of the money. But they never tell it. They are always friendly to everybody. But they do not tell it. But then Keaton was a family member, because he could tell, he would go in on it and everything. So he would have Keaton go around with him. He liked schools and stuff. And he asked Keaton if he would tell George that, “If you bring the family name to shame, I will disown him. You tell George that.” But I do not think Keaton ever got up the nerve to tell George. So he was virtually considered their – since he had risked his life to help him, he was a real friend, you see.
Levy: Was George at Los Alamos?
Keller: Oh, yeah. He is in the picture in this car. He had a four door ’40 Mercury we would ride around in. Yes, that is where we got to know him.
Levy: What was he doing at Los Alamos? Was he also in the SED?
Keller: No. No, he was married. He was older. See, if you were of a low age at Los Alamos as a civilian, they put you in the military. Keaton and Ralph were above that age, so they did not put them in. George was older then. I think he had an apartment, and I think his wife was there. Bill Nobles, he is still, I think, in Albuquerque. Now, he was younger. His dad got a job there, and he got an apartment. His dad and his mother had an apartment. Bill was there as a civilian. He had to go into the military. He got his uniform and everything. He went right back into his bed and ate his mother’s cooking for the rest of the war. And the uniform, of course, because he was in the military. I never heard of that one before.
Levy: What was the security like at Los Alamos?
Keller: Well to a degree, it is what they do not want to talk about. Because that back side, you could walk in and out of that. They had a fence there, but that was guarded up behind the Hill. But all of those ravines, the big fences out in the front, the gates, and the MPs, we could just walk over the fence and do a little hunting and stuff on Sunday. But they had all that back road that they had guards out there, of course. And they developed it more as time went on.
But we could check out trucks, cars, pickups, and things. They had a motor pool they worked on down at the lower end there towards the gate. But they had all kinds of services, just one PX that I know of.
The food was so bad. I got a job there later on in the evening to do the cooking. I got a friend, an SED, a job because we got a lot better food than the mess hall. They had an ice cream counter that closed in the evening, but we opened it up for us. We would take turns cooking and eating. We worked there for a while. They paid a little bit of money. But a good part of it was just being able to get the food that you wanted.
Levy: Did you know any of the men who were later discovered to be spies, like David Greenglass?
Keller: No, I did not. I did not. I do not know if [Klaus] Fuchs was in that mess hall where my brother was, maybe. But I do not know that he knew him. I do not know that he knew him.
Levy: What kind of a work a schedule did you have?
Keller: Oh, we were working five days a week. And some guys, they had the answer to something and would maybe go back Sunday and do something in the pen. A lot of times; they would have a car pickup there at the SED place, which we had to go out. A lot of them just walked up to the Tech Area. But we would just ride out in a car. I had a ’40 Ford, and I had the GMC pickup that they would get sometimes.
Ogle, Bill Ogle, he stayed on in Los Alamos. A lot of them left. But he went down to the South Pacific and worked on the thermals down there. He would drive a ’41 four-door Chevy back a lot of times. We would ride around. We had a ride out there a couple of miles.
Levy: How did you feel when you left Los Alamos in ’46?
Keller: Well, I figured I had to get out and get busy to make a living. That is about all I know. That was the big concern at my age. I was about maybe twenty-two years old then.
Of course, I was glad to have the war over. A friend of ours that we grew up with, he became a doctor later. He and I roomed up in Missouri at the university together. He got into the Marines. They had people up at the university talking to you to sign up in their department, and he signed up for the Marines. They told him he could stay in school longer. He got in not to save the United States. He said he would do the Pacific, a lieutenant or something.
In Iwo Jima, I believe it was, he was hit with a fragment in the leg. But he had healed up. He told my brother when he found out that he worked on the bomb, he says, “I am sure glad because you guys probably saved my life. We were scheduled to attack Japan.” He said, “That probably saved my life.”
Levy: Do you think your work on the Manhattan Project affected your later career?
Keller: No, I just worked mostly for myself. So I do not think it did.
Levy: Well what did you end up doing as your career?
Keller: Well, mostly farming. But I just got interested there where I grew up and my mother was a schoolteacher. She had passed away. I just built them a library and gave them a library. They furnished the ground, anyway. Then I had a friend there, Kenny. He got his posthumous. He was killed in Vietnam. And Kenny’s sister, they awarded a Congressional Medal to him. They talked to me about building a little memorial over the library ground, and I would go ahead.
Then I got thinking. Then I built that memorial there to all the guys at Dexter that were killed in war starting with the World War I and coming all the way up to Vietnam. There were about twenty-four names on there. Three of them, I knew one real well that was killed in Germany, outside. He was shot down in a plane. And the Volkssturm caught him out twenty-three miles from Munich and killed him. I put up that memorial with the names of the guys that were killed.
Levy: Was the war constantly on people’s minds at Los Alamos?
Keller: I think it was a general feeling. “We have to do it. We surely will get it done for the war.” There was a little talk. But some of the guys, do you know who Mr. Baker was?
Levy: Oh, he was [Niels] Bohr.
Keller: Yeah. So I think most of them kind of thought we were headed to Germany. I agreed, Germany did not do a lot of the work because they had so much to do militarily in Europe. And, of course, I think they made a big mistake of thinking England would give up. They spent a lot on bombing England. I think that was a big mistake for them, was England.
Levy: What was the housing like at Los Alamos?
Keller: Oh, it was what they call “ten-year construction.” They had the old school buildings for the top guys. There were a few of those for housing. And I remember Oppenheimer’s wife had that nice little new Chevrolet. And she had a convertible, a ’41 Cadillac convertible. But then they were building apartments. Some, I think two stories. Then they would have two or three apartments per building. They had dormitories, so to speak, for guys. And I was in one of those as a civilian. Then they had dormitories, more or less, for the women. Then down where the SEDs, of course, there was a mess hall. The WACs were over across the road. But they built houses after the war there.
They got in a hurry and they made a big mistake, which they do not talk about, I guess. They built flat roofs in New Mexico and they put green lumber up there. And when the green lumber died, it shrunk, and it sunk down. Then when it rained, it would have water on the roof. So they had to redo the roofs.
Levy: Have you been back to Los Alamos since ’46?
Keller: I came through there a couple–three years ago. A fellow went out. I had a house out in Carefree, Arizona. He went out with me from Dexter. I went up and showed him the Grand Canyon. And then came through the backside, on that back road through Los Alamos. I had to ask the fire station how to get out of there, it was built up so. I was there in ’54 to visit George Nobles. And a friend, Sisler, the pilot, and his dad, they had an airplane. We rode out in about ’48. They had not been in Los Alamos. I went with them and three others. Nobles drove us up. We landed there in Sante Fe, and they drove us up. We looked around. Then I had visited there with Nobles in ’54, I think, and went on west.
I retired from farming in Arizona and California, built a house and sold it, and sold it to a fellow behind me that had a big house. He wanted another one, my neighbor Phil Wrigley. I sold my house to Phil. He was in the chewing gum business.
Levy: Did you find that the security affected the way the work was done at all negatively, the fact that you could not continue working?
Keller: No, some of the guys would let us discuss it. They had never been trying to hand it in. It was more of what you would see as a personal matter that they would get a little bit perturbed about it. I do not think it was a necessary item. And I do not think that it was negative, so to speak. We went up there. We would cross that bridge from Sante Fe to Pojoaque. The bridge then came down. And you went up Espanola and came around the long way to get up there.
When I first drove up there, there was not much of a road. It was sandy washes, if you are familiar. It is a creek that does not run very much during the year. And they just ablated it out because it was sandy, you see. They ablated it out for a road going up there. Then they went in the switchbacks to get up there. Later, they put up a long road. But when I first went up, it was just switchbacks up there. But they still had an MP gate.
Levy: So looking back, how do you feel about working on the Manhattan Project?
Keller: It is quite interesting. I think it is quite interesting. I have some notes here that I made about ideas. I do not know if I have skipped anything or you have in the talk that might be of interest.
Levy: If you would like to share anything else?
Keller: No, I just have some notes here. I do not know that we have time. I wrote down names of different people. Of course, my brother had a picture in a paper out there one time at Fuller Lodge for a reading there. But I had it and I lost the paper that they put out there. I talked about the mail.
It was very interesting. I lived a great experience. I will try to look up that letter that I sent the Wall Street Journal. That will give you some information on Ralph and our experience and ideas about the Trinity site.
Ralph was down there at the Trinity site for nearly three months. His brother Bill worked down there for a fellow that came out of Europe, a physicist. I, of course, am always impressed by Fermi that came out when I was working out there. You would have never have guessed that most guys that I heard about thought he was the top man, just real easygoing, no bluster, no puffed up or anything. But a guy on the top that way does not have to put on, because there he is.
I am just trying to think of anything. That is all. A few of us were there at the Las Vegas Test Site Museum. [Dwight D.] Eisenhower’s granddaughter and I got to talking. She said she was Eisenhower’s granddaughter, a real tall women.
Keller: I talked to her some about the bomb, the experience, and so forth. But they still have people there. They had a group one time that was there from Japan that came. We could go through the museum.
I have a friend that her husband was the test site meteorologist. When the wind was blowing the wrong way toward Vegas, they would not shoot. He would tell them, “You cannot shoot because the wind is wrong.” He passed away with cancer, little Phil. But his wife volunteers down there at the test site.