The Manhattan Project

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Robert Holmberg's Interview

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Robert Holmberg's Interview

Robert Holmberg began working on the Manhattan Project at the Chicago Met Lab and at Ames Laboratory in Iowa. He was then drafted into the Special Engineer Detachment and sent to Oak Ridge. He describes his life at Oak Ridge, where he met his wife and settled down, and recalls what he and his colleagues thought of General Leslie Groves at the time.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 22, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Robert Holmberg: I’m Robert W. Holmberg, H-O-L-M-B-E-R-G, Bob Holmberg. And I like to tell people I’ve never had an honest job. I’ve worked for the Manhattan Project or its predecessors all my life. I’m an Iowan by birth; Fort Dodge, Iowa. As a little boy I was interested in chemistry. I went to college and got my degree at Ames, Iowa. Iowa State College then, it is Iowa State University now.

Got on the project rather indirectly. There was a big time operator that came down from a place we had never heard of, called the Metallurgical Laboratories at the University of Chicago, that interviewed a group of—this was wartime, in ’43, that this interview occurred.

And couldn’t tell us what they were doing, but it had to do with energy and it was going to revolutionize the world. Wasn’t hard to put two and two together. I mean, we talk a lot about security, but in both Collier’s magazine and The Saturday Evening Post, and many other places, there had been articles on fission. 

So I said, “That sounds like a fun job to have,” and I put in my application. Of course, I used professors as my references, and by-and-by one of them came by to me and said, “Well, Bob, we’re doing the same thing here. Why don’t you come to work for us?” Well, that was better than going off to the wilds of Chicago, so I did, and I got offered a job there. I was still in school, though, so I decided to learn a little bit about atomic energy or radioactivity and things.

And I would go to the library, and there weren’t a lot of references. There were a few books there, and every time I found one in the card catalog and asked for the book, I found that it was in the bindery. Of course, that reinforced my belief I’d basically became a spy. [Laughter.] I didn’t know a lot of the technology of what was going on, but I knew what was going on. And so that’s how I got started.

I worked at Ames for just a short time as a civilian. I was just twenty-one years old, and they couldn’t defer me any longer. And they said, “Bob, we’re going to draft you, but you’ll be back here within a month.” And that was a little frightening, because they were drafting people for everything at that time. And I remember standing on my tiptoes—I’m rather tall, but I stood on my tiptoes when they measured me so I would be over six foot five, so they couldn’t take me to the Navy.

It was finally—I guess it was in Leavenworth, Kansas, where they got my uniform, and I was waiting around, and they finally started yelling for me, “You’re shipping out!” And there I saw on my papers for the first time that I was going to Louisiana, but attached unassigned to the Manhattan District Corps of Engineers. And so I knew they had found me. 

I had a very rugged four days of basic training in Louisiana. Captain didn’t like me. I forgot to salute him, and I kept asking him when I was going to get orders to ship out. And finally these orders came, and it bothered them a little because they sent me, just alone, on the nicest train trip I’ve ever taken, from Louisiana to Chicago. And I left there on Thanksgiving Day. And what they didn’t like about it, it said, “You’re not going anywhere; you’re just going to Chicago, and call a phone number.” 

I said, “That’s okay.” [Laughter.] And so they washed their hands of me. 

But traveling alone, I remember—this was in wartime; the trains were crowded. But I had first class tickets. I had a little a berth all the way to St. Louis. And then the crowning thing was this chair car from—this was daytime—from St. Louis to Chicago. Chair car had enormous picture windows and swivel chair.

And I sat there and looked and, down at the other end of the car, there was an old biddy of a woman, probably thirty-five years old, and she and I shared this chair car. And I got up once to look into the next car and they were hanging from the rafters: GIs and people, things like that. This all was very important.

Well, I got to Chicago. And the reason I had to go through Chicago and couldn’t go back to Ames is, I had to wire home for my mother to send me civilian clothes. And so eventually these clothes came. And I took a train to Ames and I went back and started working again on the project, but I was a private in the Army at that time. Quite a reduction in pay, [laughter], but it was better being a private in a laboratory than a private in a war zone, where everybody was going at that time. 

Make a long story short, I worked there for a short time. There was some sort of cutback of personnel and they reenlisted us into the regular Army, and they sent us to Oak Ridge. And so I came to Oak Ridge, and at that time I was assigned to work in the Castle on the Hill. This is the place that is now the DOE. [Department of Energy] headquarters. And I got in a division. It was a research division, and we took care of all of the paperwork and technical papers of all of the project.

And it was in what we call “God’s Wing” of the Castle on the Hill. This was the wing where Colonel [Kenneth] Nichols had his offices. We were down the hall a ways from them. It was the wing where [General Leslie R.] Groves came bumbling in with great—[laughter]. You know, we always laughed at him. He was a little overweight and he was overbearing too. But we only laughed behind his back.

Eventually one of my supervisors there got a job. His name was Jerry Coe, and he became a division director of the chemistry division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It was Clinton Labs then. And I told Jerry I needed a job so I could get out of the Army. I needed a job in—a defense-related job so I could get out of the Army. And he offered me a job.

I got there, I got to work, just after the test bomb had been dropped, and it was just a little bit before they dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so it was kind of a heady time. And after that, it was very quick. The war ended and all the people, top people, taking new jobs. And I ended up really without any supervision, [laughter], and finally got a job at the lab.

I was a very young chemist and started out at the lab with a BS. In those days—they probably wouldn’t hire me as technician nowadays, but in those days they hired me as a research chemist. I started out working in plutonium chemistry, of all things. I’ve always said that plutonium chemistry is a—plutonium’s a nice safe element to work with because you can always detect it on your hands by counters and things like that. It doesn’t sneak up on you.

Well, I’ve been there all my life. I’ve forgotten, of course—one of my Army experiences:  I was spending the afternoon in the PX one day and a buddy of mine came and said, “I’ve got a date for you.” Well, I didn’t really want a date, [laughter], and I wasn’t very well-dressed, and I probably had a little too much beer. But he dragged me off and we got in this car, and that’s where I met Reba.

It wasn’t a very good experience because it was kind of dark. Reba and some friend, a friend of hers had just come back from a wedding, and so they were overdressed and I was underdressed, [laughter], and I wasn’t quite sure which one of them was my date. But that began a long romance that we have finally ended up in getting married. We’ve had four children and ten grandchildren. And we’ve lived in Oak Ridge all the time.

Reba Holmberg: You forgot to say that, while we were raising those kids, you went on to get your PhD.

Robert Holmerg: Yes. I forgot that too. Yes.

There was some contention in our family. It became apparent, you know, at the lab that, with a Bachelor’s degree, I couldn’t pursue science at the level I wanted to without an advanced degree. So I’d started taking courses from the University of Tennessee. And over many years—I really took very little time off work, and actually did my thesis work at the lab, and so I finally got my PhD in physical chemistry I guess in 1960, I think it was.

Cindy Kelly: That’s great. Seeing as you were right down the hall from Colonel Nichols, can you tell us a little bit about him?

Holmberg: I didn’t—I hardly knew the man. He was, you know, he was—

Kelly: Can you refer to the person? Because they won’t hear my question.

Holmberg: I hardly knew Colonel Nichols. He was behind a barricaded door. We were at the head of the stairs there. And we knew him, we saw him walk in. He looked like a fairly—he was fairly young in those days, probably thirty, forty, or fifty. And a very busy man, so we didn’t know him.

We knew when [General] Groves came because our office doors were open, we could see him, and secretaries and everybody would talk. I actually have a kind of—I have a memento of General Groves. The first publication of the release of information, of scientific information, about the project was the so-called Smyth Report. And of course I was working in the research division there. I got one, and got Leslie Groves to autograph it. And I still have that, so I’m kind of proud of that.

Kelly: Can you describe again what he—what the common folks’ impression was of Groves? “They said General Groves,” you know, “We thought of General Groves—”

Holmberg: He was overweight, he was always overweight, and he was a general. And he would, you know—expected doors to open for him. And I remember once he bumbled into our building, and they had a little swinging gate where a secretary would buzz you in, and he bumped into that and, [laughter], you know, things like that.

We had kind of a negative attitude about him, thought he was kind of bumbling. I think this was entirely wrong; I think he was actually a very good administrator, but he was a general and expected to be treated like one. Basically, civilians didn’t always do this properly.

Even though I was in the Army, I never considered myself, you know, Army. We were in an outfit called the SED, the Special Engineer Detachment. And it was a group, roughly 1000 in Oak Ridge, I was in it, and Ames too, of scientists and engineers, young ones, that were drafted and sent to Oak Ridge or the other plants somewhere. And they worked in the labs, but they were Army people. 

Kelly: That’s great. Let’s see, you talked about your first date. 

Holmberg: [Laughter.] Yes.

Kelly: That’s good. Let’s see, what else can you tell us about life in the Manhattan Project? Where you lived—did you live in a barracks?

Holmberg: We started in a barracks area. The barracks area is an area of Oak Ridge very near where downtown is now. It had a very poor cafeteria, it had a PX, and some low buildings and barracks for our—things like that. We weren’t there very long because, towards the end of the war, dormitories were being vacated. And so they sent us to a dormitory out in the west end of Oak Ridge, where we stayed.

And they tried to make soldiers out of us there. We all worked in the plants, and they tried to make soldiers out of us there again, which we resented. They wanted us to become a marching group for some sort of celebration celebrating the end of the war, and so they had dragged, you know, everybody out of the plants on a Thursday afternoon to march up and down the streets and things like that. This was not what we liked to do, and we goofed off a lot in doing this. So I, particularly, wasn’t a very good soldier.

Kelly: That was true generally of the SED?

Holmberg: Yes.

Kelly: Do you remember Groves speaking at the end of the whole war to the collected SED?

Holmberg: I think I was there, yes. I don’t remember anything about it, though.

Kelly: Someone else remembered that he said, you know—it was just before Christmas—he said, “Write home. Don’t forget, even if you just put your name on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope. I want you boys to write home.” Does that sound familiar?

Holmberg: No. In this whole story of the Manhattan Project, there’s a lot of business about security, and we shouldn’t know anything. I belong to a different group of people, the scientific community.

I remember when I first got to Ames, we would have weekly seminars in which Frank Spedding, who was the head of the Ames Laboratory, would tell us what was going on at site X and Y and W, which were Oak Ridge and Hanford and Los Alamos, and things like that. And so we knew all of the general directions of the project.

We were all cleared for this kind of work. We were scientists, so they had expected us to know some of this kind of stuff, even though we weren’t compartmentalized when I was there.

Kelly: How did that change in Oak Ridge?

Holmberg: I went to the Clinton Labs, and it changed a little but not very much. The work we were doing, even when I got there right at the end of the war, was—after the Smyth Report, it was generally declassified. We had secret notebooks, but all of the kind of work we did was supposedly declassifiable.

We weren’t involved in the technology of making weapons like you might have been at Y-12, or the technology of separating uranium like you might have been doing at K-25. We were involved with reactors and the chemistry of the heavy elements and things like that. 

Kelly: So were you actually at X-10?

Holmberg: Yes.

Kelly: Yes, okay. Did you—but you weren’t there—I mean, the reactor, I guess, got started up in—early as ’43, right?

Holmberg: No. I did not get to X-10 until somewhere around July 1945, after the war was over.  While I was in the Army, I was at the Castle on the Hill in Oak Ridge or at Ames.

Kelly: Well, anything else that I haven’t asked about that you shouldn’t leave before you tell us? [Laughter.] Any funny stories or, kind of ironies or observations about, you know, more about the secrecy or the security, or living in a town that was gated and guarded?

Holmberg: No, it was a lovely—like my wife said, it was a lovely town to live in. We were all—guys were all young. So like when I joined the lab, we had very—the very senior people that were in charge of us were old men of about thirty. And so it was basically a youthful group. A few older people, but not very many. And it was a youthful group, and it was a wonderful place to live, I mean. 

Kelly: So, I mean, looking back, how do you feel about having been part of the Manhattan Project?

Holmberg: I delight in it. It was a—you know, like so many things, it was an almost accidental choice, and never regretted it. 

Kelly: Was it an opportunity that changed the course of your life? Would you say that?

Holmberg: Yes. Yes, I mean, when I was about to graduate, of course, I was worried about a job, and I had no idea where I was going to find a job in chemistry and things like that until I was interviewed by this guy from the Manhattan District, or from the Met Labs. And then I got on the project, and I never really left it.

I guess when the war ended, when I started to work at the lab, it was my intention to quit and go to a college to get my PhD. But I kept fiddling around, and we got married, and it was—never got that off the ball. And I took courses; the University of Tennessee had graduate courses in Oak Ridge for a long time, and I took courses and finally got an—accumulated enough courses that they said, “Bob, you better do something about this.” And so I started seriously working for my PhD.