The Manhattan Project

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Robert Howes Jr.'s Interview

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Robert Howes Jr.'s Interview

Robert I. (“Bob”) Howes Jr. is an American physicist. He was a young child when his father, Robert Ingersoll Howes, was recruited to work as a scientist on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. In this interview, Howes shares snapshots of daily life in the Los Alamos community from the perspective of a child. He also describes some of the interaction between the Manhattan Project and local Pueblos and recalls the misadventures of the family dog.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 12, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
Santa Fe

Cindy Kelly: OK. I’m Cindy Kelly. I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s Wednesday, October 12, 2016. I’m with Robert Howes. Bob, can you say your full name and spell it for us?

Robert Howes: Okay. It’s Robert I. Howes, and I better put Junior. And it’s H-o-w-e-s.

Kelly: Tell us when you were born and where.

Howes: I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 3rd, 1941. My parents at that time lived in the Arroyo Chamisa area of Santa Fe. Then in 1943, my father was recruited up to Los Alamos. I’m not sure the exact date. Most times were around April to August because the apartment complexes were not finished until—they started work on them in March of 1943. I was essentially under two years old when I first came to Los Alamos. Although I did finally graduate in 1959 from school there, so I spent my entire childhood in Los Alamos.

I kind of classify what do I remember during the Manhattan Project, and not an awful lot. I remember at one point that my parents got a call in the night, and they said there was a fire at the Tech Area. I remember them being very, very worried. It turns out that was early 1945. I’ve looked it up. Richard Rhodes’s Making of the Atomic Bomb mentions it. It was in the machine shop where my father was director. Obviously, they were very worried because that was the height of the project. It could have been very serious—I do remember that.

I remember playing outside, and we were in the old Sundt apartments, very close to where the tech lab was. There was a security fence and Jeeps drove around the road, what is now Canyon Road in Los Alamos. I remember, possibly our second dog, or a dog running across the road and being hit by a Jeep. The Jeep ran over its head. The dog got up and ran away. It was a very dusty dirt road. Nobody was injured.

One of the other things I remember is there were a lot of children in Los Alamos, and so they decided to have a school bus. I remember the school bus, the first time it drove down the street, it opened the door and kids got out like hamsters all over the place. Nobody was expecting them not to be civilized. Cars had to screech to stop and everything, and after that the parents got together and tried to make rules for such things like this.

The only other thing I can remember that was not pure hearsay was a girl in my neighborhood, about my age or so, died of leukemia. So the parents all had to explain to everybody that she had passed and was very sick with a blood disease.

Now the hearsay is more fun. We moved into Los Alamos and one of the things my parents had acquired as a wedding present, about three or four years ago, was a large dog named Chispa. Now Chispa was half German Shepherd, half wolf and half coyote. It was very large. One of the first things Chispa apparently did is knock a man named Nicholas Baker —that was the code name for Niels Bohr—off his bicycle. In Santa Fe Chispa had never seen a bicycle!

At one point, my mother came home, and I was sticking a safety pin into Chispa. Chispa was whining, and she asked why and I said, “Well, the doctor said the shot I got was good. So, I’m giving a shot to Chispa.” And Chispa just whined.

Another story—and this is more my sister remembers my parents telling us—is that Chispa also was one of the few dogs in 1943 up on the Hill. Most people had not come from Santa Fe. They had come from New York or wherever—Chicago. So all the soldiers at mess would bring Chispa bones, which was great. One time they brought a white-wrapped, kind of very large bone. My mother looked at it, and it looked like an uncooked steak. A few minutes later, the sergeant or whatever from the mess said, “Did you look at that?”

She said, “Yes.”

And he says, “Well, unfortunately, that was a steak meant for General [Leslie] Groves.”

He looked at them and said, “Enjoy.”

So Chispa had got General Groves’ steak.

My father was an avid hunter. In fact, he came to New Mexico, and for 22 years he hunted deer down near Magdalena, New Mexico, near Socorro. Every year he was successful. Once he was loading up the car at 4:00 a.m. in the morning in front of the Sundt apartments when security showed up. Here he is carrying rifles around. 

They kind of said, “What are you doing? Who are you? Can somebody in the house identify you?”

So he said, “Well, yes, but my wife and son are still asleep in there. Do you want me to wake them up? They’ll be unhappy.” So they let him go.

We lived in the Sundt apartments. Quads, they were called. One of the other members, sort of tenants, in the quad Sundt apartments, was Enrico Fermi. He was the one who kept the very erratic furnaces going during the wintertime. It’s always said he was both an experimentalist and a theorist, and the experimentalist kept that going.

About 1946 or 1947, new houses were built for us and we moved out there. For a child it was a great place to be. It was very secure. You could go any place you wanted to and could play in the canyons, where security would watch out for—they knew the kids would sneak under the fences into the canyons. They would just keep an eye out, and so made sure they were all right when they snuck back and such.

I think that’s all I can remember, per se. Oh, the only other thing with my father and the deer was he was very successful in getting a large buck, mule deer bucks with lots of horns. He would trade them with Santa Clara Pueblo; give them so they could use them in their deer dance. The result, for Halloween, they would give me official real war paint I could wear for Halloween.

Kelly: So, there was a nice camaraderie between at least some people on the Hill and the Pueblos?

Howes: Yes. Well, many people up there had maids. Now this was later when—in the Western Area— I think this was probably a little more after the Manhattan Project. I don’t think people in the Sundt quads had maids. Then later on, there was a lot of employment for, as I understand, the Pueblo women in that. They obviously visited. Many scientists collected pots— there were a lot of people who still probably have Maria [Montoya] pots, or blankets, and such things like that. There was a bus that came up, I’ve been told, every day from the Pueblo for the people to work up there.

But Los Alamos was a closed society in the sense it was a company town. You could not own your own home, and you had to work at Los Alamos as a scientist, essentially, to be employed. Hence many of the construction workers lived in White Rock, and initially some people lived in camps in Bandelier before there was housing for them.

Eventually, in about 1956 or 1957, my father really wanted to own his own home. So we moved off the hill to an old place in Nambé, which had no water, light, or electricity, and we started from there. It was a 300-year-old house. From there on, we both commuted up to Los Alamos until the end of his career, until I graduated and went off to college. I think that’s about it, what I remember.

Kelly: That’s interesting. Was your mother working or did she stay home with you?

Howes: She was a homemaker. She did do a little substituting at one point. I guess my sister and I screamed loud enough, and she went back, she stopped it. It was kind of interesting that many of our teachers going through grade school and high school would work for a while as teachers, and then they would take a break and they would work for the Lab, get tired of that and go back. I realize now that’s probably for teachers a very good thing to do. You take a break from teaching.

We had really some very sharp teachers. Of course, it was a government-run facility at that time. As a matter of fact, two people I knew at one point broke into the school and stole some things. They didn’t realize that was a federal crime, and the FBI tracked them down because they wore brand new tennis shoes on a waxed floor. So their feet were traced right out—and they had fingerprints or something like this. But it was a federal crime. The government ran the school in Los Alamos.

Again until, I think, in the late ‘50s or ‘60s, you could not own your own home. In fact, that was a funny thing. When they did allow people to own their own home, they thought everybody would build in Santa Fe pueblo style. But nope, they built in Cape Cod style; they built in Georgia manor style. Wherever they were from, they built the house in that style, very rarely adobe. It just shows you the variety in Los Alamos that came there and worked there.

Kelly: Do you have any sense that when the war ended that the population decreased because people left? What was it like when the war ended?

Howes: There was a discussion, obviously. My parents, I know, discussed. People around the neighborhood did leave, or some did. A lot stayed. My father’s older brother was an engineer for General Electric in California, and I know they considered, but they really liked Santa Fe. Of course, they had come to Santa Fe in 1936, and so they spent a good, you know, six, seven years in the area. They were happy to stay even though I think the job got more and more trying as years went on.

My father finally retired in 1973, under the RIF program, Reduction in Force program. He was happy because the University of California ran Los Alamos during the war and such and after. So all the retirement benefits were based on living in California versus living in Nambé or Santa Fe. They were very happy with their retirement income, you know, living in Santa Fe. People from California still come here and are very happy at the lower cost of living.

Kelly: Did you find that many people who moved away came back in retirement?

Howes: I think some did. Of course after the war, I guess a lot of academics went back to their universities and then they would come back later. One that comes to mind is [John] Manley. I forget his first name, but he had two daughters about my age. They went away after the war, I think, to the University of Washington or something, and then came back to Los Alamos to work for a while. I would go skiing with his daughters up in Taos. Los Alamos had a ski run, Taos had a ski run, Santa Fe had a ski run, so it was a very good place to learn to ski and extremely inexpensive.

Kelly: Do you recall any classmates who were Hispanic or Native American, Pueblos?

Howes: Hispanic, in high school. Of course, by that time I think people who were contractors or what they called “Zia”who did maintenance and that—lived in a trailer park across the mesa from Los Alamos. Yeah, there were quite a few Hispanics. I don’t remember because some of them—they were generally smaller and they were deceptive when they like played football, because they were extremely tough. As far as knowing individuals, the Spanish at that time, or particularly Native Americans, I think must’ve gone to schools, Indian school or whatever because I don’t recall any. Most of the people that I ran around with were, you know, children of people employed at Los Alamos—you know, scientists and such. I just can’t remember any.

Kelly: A few minutes ago you showed me your pass. 

Howes: Right.

Kelly: Tell us about that.

Howes: Everybody at Los Alamos, regardless what age, had to have a pass to show going in and out of Los Alamos—at least during the war and for a considerable time after the war—because it was a restricted city. We laugh because the picture, the first picture shows me about six inches below the four-foot line, so I must’ve been about three or four, I think, when that was taken. So there’s a gradual progression in that. I do remember showing the pass to get out of Los Alamos. Again, for kids, it was a great place. A great place to bicycle, whatever. 

Kelly: What was the population?

Howes: I think between 7,000 and 13,000. I remember the figure of 13,000 eventually.

Initially, I guess everybody walked to work, and a lot of people still did even when we lived in the Western Area. It was possible to walk across—they built a bridge across the canyon to where the administrative buildings of Los Alamos are now. It was a very healthy setting. Since my father liked to hunt and do things like this, he would often take other scientists with him to hunt and fish because he was familiar with the area.

Like many people, he came out because he had a spot of tuberculosis. In fact, my mother was in the Sunmount Sanitarium in Santa Fe originally. He then got a job working for the Indian Service and then the Corps of Civil Engineers building dams. Every once in a while he’d drive by and say, “Oh, I helped build and design that dam.” One of the ones that, if you ever drive through Tesuque Village, there are two kind of fishing ponds and there have been for years and years—they may be dried up now. He would say, “I helped design those two.”

Eventually he got a job working for—I always called breeze burners—those oil field services that made oil burner lights and heating for oil burners. He thought that was much better than a gas burner. In fact, as late as 1995 he had one in the shop because he said it kept you better warmed.

He was able to, knowing the territory, take people around a little bit. I think Oppenheimer did the same thing—he knew the area.

Kelly: Do you remember trips into Santa Fe?

Howes: Not really. Occasionally. I remember my mother telling about when Los Alamos had a lot of switchbacks in this dirt road when they came up there. Because she knew people like Dr. Frank Mera of Sunmount Sanitarium. Her other good friend was Mike [Miguel] Otero, who was the son of the first territorial governor of New Mexico. My parents would go down and see him. My mother occasionally would drive down for some reason to Santa Fe, and they would give her a good stiff drink of Scotch and send her back up to Los Alamos to survive the switchbacks. 

Mike Otero’s wife was Katherine Stinson Otero. Her brothers were the Stinson brothers. At some point in 1936 and so on, my mother also was taken up in planes with open floorboards where you could look down at the ground.

That also reminds me of one other remembrance, and that is Los Alamos airport was small. You could ride a small plane in, but one time a large kind of bomber type aircraft had to land there and got stuck in the mud. Everybody could hear it coming in for a landing all over Los Alamos. I guess they probably emptied out everything to make it light enough to take off again, but it was a mistake that they brought the plane in. It was not meant for very large runways and such. That must have been right after the war.