The Manhattan Project

Victor Kumin's Interview

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Victor Kumin was a young scientist when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. In September of that year, he was transferred to Los Alamos, where he was a member of the Special Engineer Detachment (SED). In this interview, courtesy of the Story Preservation Initiative, Kumin discusses his time as a Chemistry student at Harvard and joining the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He recalls the secrecy of the project and how he felt about the decision to use the atomic bombs.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
May 15, 2012
Location of the Interview: 
New Hampshire
Transcript: 

Intro to Recording:

Narrator: Today is the 15th of May, 2012. This recording is of Victor Kumin, and it is being made at his home in Warner, New Hampshire.

Early Years at Harvard and Woods Hole:

Victor Kumin: My career at Los Alamos really did begin with my career at Harvard, as a major in chemistry. Whether my decision to major in chemistry turns out to be a good decision really requires the rest of my life. I spent almost three years at Harvard, taking all the courses required for a chemistry major. But when the war started, it became obvious that everybody in college was going to be conscripted, and anybody that was able to serve as a soldier. The chance of my surviving the war was going to be very, very small. Philosophically, I decided I wasn’t going to survive anyway.

At the end of three years, I decided I had to do something constructive for the war effort, so I took a leave of absence and went to work in a munitions factory in Rockland, Massachusetts, which was manufacturing ground magnesium for flares and things of that type—tracer bullets and tracer shells. At the end of about three months, I got my head in order, and I came back to school and went back to finish my studies. I finished them in three and a half years and graduated in January of 1943.

My advisor was a professor of physical chemistry, Ebright Wilson Jr. He was very enamored of my abilities and tried to push me fairly deep into the more difficult courses, which I resisted, my main reasons being that my abilities didn’t seem to lie completely in that direction. So I really didn’t comply with many of his recommendations on courses, but took all the requirements, anyway. At the end of that period, in one of my advisor sessions with him, I indicated to him that I was going to try to join the Naval Air Corps. It was a very romantic idea at the time, and I was just a young kid, twenty-two, twenty-three years old. His response to me was, Victor, do you want to be a dead hero, or do you want to be a significant contributor to the war effort? He said, if I were you, I would choose the latter.

He offered me an opportunity to join him on the staff of a laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which was being established by the group that he was working with at Harvard, on the development of systems of understanding underwater explosions, but they couldn’t begin to have information on large detonations, because of the limitations of the campus. So they were able to lease space in the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute building, about three floors of a four-floor building. I agreed to come down and try it out. I did spend about a year and a half there. I went immediately after graduation. This was in late January of 1943.

When I arrived there, I was assigned initially to the explosive casting operation, which took place in a very primitive setup, on an island, about three-quarters of a mile directly across Woods Hole Channel, Nonamesset Island. There, along with a partner, I was able to prepare these explosive charges that were being used in experiments. Once I had gotten some experience with handling explosives, I was then brought back and put on a team that was to go out into the harbor and detonate ten to twenty pounds of explosives and follow the underwater shockwave effects of these explosives and detonation effects, by attaching gauges of various kinds, through an underwater submersion system. We operated from rafts in the area around Woods Hole.

Ultimately, on one occasion, I had to operate at forty-four depths to satisfy a physicist who was working with us at Cornell University on some of the theories of underwater detonations. But I continued to do that work for about a little more than a year, actually. Then my draft board, in the Town of Brookline, Massachusetts, which is where my home was, assigned me a 1A tag, which meant that I was going to be called. The laboratory officials, Wilson and others of the laboratory, who had significant input into policies of the U.S. Government, got to Leonard Carmichael, who was a former president of Tufts University, and who was at that time head of the draft system in the United States. With all the attempts that they made, they were unable to prevent my being drafted into the army.

Transfer to Los Alamos:

So, in June of 1944, I was drafted into the army as an infantryman. What happened was, I thought that I would be sent to some sort of a technical facility, where my knowledge could have been put to use. But the army, being what the army is, and bureaucratic institutions of that kind, sent me first to Fort Devens, to get acclimated and to get outfitted, and then, after a three-day horrible trip by train, to Anniston, Alabama, where I was to begin my training for infantry service. During that period, of course, I was sure that I was just going to be cannon fodder and was never going to emerge from Europe alive.

But I managed to steel myself through the training program and became physically more fit than I’d ever been in the rest of my life, actually. In the last two weeks of my training down there, which was roughly sixteen weeks, we were out on maneuvers with live ammunition, to teach us some military behavior, both offensive and defensive. I got called into a wooden building, which was adjacent to the area that we were working in, and I was given an oral examination in physical chemistry by a civilian, in the presence of military personnel. And they had explained that the purpose of it was to see whether or not my training in chemistry was sufficient to satisfy their requirements for reassignment to a very secret enterprise that was being undertaken by the U.S. Government. That was all they would tell me. Then I had the exam. At the end of the exam, they very quickly said, well, you’ve been away from it too long, and thank you very much for your assistance, and I got returned to the field. But at that point, I had already applied to officer training school for either chemical warfare or infantry.

Then, a few days before the end of this training period, I got called in again, away from all the rest of the troops, and told to pack my duds. We were living in tents at the time in the field. I was driven alone back to the barracks, and then I was told by the first sergeant, who was the person in charge of the company I was in, that I was going to be transferred. So, I went into the office in the morning and picked up my orders, which he said were sealed. They were in a manila envelope, and I was given a railroad ticket to Santa Fe, New Mexico, from Anniston, Alabama. I, along with one other person, in a 75,000-person facility, [we] were joined in our trip from Anniston, Alabama, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I was told that I wasn’t to open the orders, I wasn’t to ask any further questions, I wasn’t to discuss it with anybody, I wasn’t to tell anybody where I was going, or where I had been. It took us about three days, maybe four. There were no food facilities on the train, so they would stop every once in a while in time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Each time we would stop for food, somebody would slide up to me and say, “Hi, soldier, how are you, and where are you going, and where have you been?” We, of course, wouldn’t answer—wouldn’t give them any information. But that happened two or three times. When we got to Santa Fe itself, we were told to go to something called 108 or 110 East Palace Street in Santa Fe, which is on the main square. And what that was, was a little storefront, USO type of facility, run by what’s known as the AWVS, the American Women’s Volunteer Service. The instructions were that there was a public telephone booth outside, and I was to go to that telephone and call this number. When I called the number, a male voice answered the telephone—“Sergeant Dabney”—and I said, “What the hell is this all about?”

Then he said, “Soldier, keep your mouth shut and go inside and have a cup of coffee and wait there, and we will send a car to pick you up.”

Secrecy of Their Work:

An hour or so later, a station wagon showed up with two soldiers, a male and a female. The male was Sergeant Dabney. He picked both of us up and drove us the forty miles to Los Alamos. The two of us, of course, had been discussing where the hell we were going, and what his background was. His background was in metallurgy, and mine was in chemistry.

We decided that we were going to some kind of a rocket development facility. Well, we were entirely wrong, of course. The station wagon started to climb, from probably about eight hundred feet in elevation in Santa Fe to about seven thousand feet at Los Alamos. We were deposited in our respective barracks, and I was told that the following morning I was to go to this certain building for an interview with Doctor Kistiakowsky. That’s all I was told.

When I got to this technical building, Doctor Kistiakowsky came in, and he greeted me. Doctor Kistiakowsky was a physical chemist, a professor of physical chemistry at Harvard. I had met him at Woods Hole, because during this early part of the war, he was the head of something called National Defense Research Commission, with headquarters in Bruceton, Pennsylvania. He was an expert in detonations, or rapid explosions—let’s put it that way. He explained to me that I was going to be working under a man named Commander Bradbury.

Well, Bradbury explained that I was to be in a certain group, led by a fellow named Koski, and Koski was one of my colleagues in this group of military personnel, known as the Special Engineer Detachment. This is what we were assigned to, as part of the Corps of Engineers, bureaucratically. We had identification as members of what’s known as the SED. When I was assigned initially, through Kistiakowsky and Bradbury, to the work that I was to do, I was told that I was not to ask any questions about what this was for. They did not tell me what this was for, and we were told by others in the army that we were to address our colleagues by first names. Last names were not being used. However, army personnel being what they are, it took me about a week to find out what this was all about. And at the end of a week, I knew that an atomic bomb was under development.

You have to understand that the attitude, which many of us had toward the development, was very similar to the attitude that Oppenheimer himself had. When it was time to arrange for the tests at Alamogordo, the results of all our efforts, when they had the ability to assemble one particular instrument, he explained in colloquiums, which I was permitted to attend, because I came to Los Alamos as a graduate in chemistry, from Harvard University, and a certain number of people were allowed to attend the colloquiums. Oppenheimer had, in his plan for directing the scientific effort, the notion that various elements of the project should be explained briefly to those who are working on very narrow areas of the project, so that there would be a more complete understanding of what they were doing and why. He said, at that particular time, when they were about to arrange for the test at Alamogordo, there are many of us here that hope and pray that his project will prove to be impossible. However, if this test fails, we will come back and work twice as hard to make it work the next time.

So you see how schizophrenic the attitudes were. You have to understand that most of us understood that when these weapons were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they would result in mass executions—and, ultimately, it caused the death of about a quarter of a million people in Hiroshima and about a quarter of a million people in Nagasaki. That all didn’t take place instantly but over a period of years, as a result of the development of radiation disease. The philosophical aspects of this, of course, were always foremost in many of our minds. Some people who were working at Los Alamos, of course—my colleagues—had a different perspective. They were willing to do absolutely anything in order to win the war. If this included killing a lot of Japanese, that was too bad.

The whole question of whether the decision was a wise one by Truman or not remains in dispute. The conventional wisdom these days is that it was the wrong decision. There were efforts made to have the weapon detonated as an exhibition to the Japanese, to show them what could happen to them if they didn’t surrender, but Truman decided not to use it as an exhibition, but decided to use it directly on one of the cities. The decision was made to use it a second time, when they didn’t surrender after the first.

But what has gone on subsequently, historically, is what Oppenheimer feared most. Of course, he spent the latter years of his life, after he left Los Alamos, working to prevent this kind of thing from happening. He was very fearful of the eventual impact of the development of this weapon on international relations and on the lives of millions of people. Fortunately, no weapons have been detonated since that time. One can argue that what happened is really the best preventive defense against the use, subsequently, of another episode. However, what we’re going through right now with Iran should be a warning that, even though it hasn’t happened yet, it could happen. What they’re developing, what they’re trying to develop, of course, is the type of weapon that was used at Hiroshima. It’s quite obvious from the news reports, with the use of a cylinder and so on. It’s essentially known as the gun method, called “Little Boy” in the vernacular. The one that was used in Nagasaki was called “Fat Man.”

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

It was a young man’s game. A young man’s technology. So the brilliance of the young people, between the ages of twenty to thirty-five, probably accounted for virtually all of the scientists that were at work, at least at Los Alamos. I can’t speak for the other facilities. There were a number of other facilities, of course, throughout the country. There was, of course, the huge facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and another one in the state of Washington. But these were more or less manufacturing facilities, not research facilities. Of course, there were laboratories everywhere throughout the country, at Berkeley and Columbia, and the University of Chicago, and Lord knows how many other places there were. There were, remember, about 125,000 people who were actively engaged in developing the technology.

When the war was over in August, most of the civilian scientists that were associated with the development of the weapon withdrew from Los Alamos and returned to the universities. Most of them came from universities, of course. They just returned to the universities, in order to be in time for the next fall. But the army decided that the equivalent of what is today called the Defense Department—at that time it was the Department of the Army—decided to continue to manufacture these atomic bombs and just stockpile them.

I refused to cooperate, and I was threatened with court-martial if I didn’t cooperate and continue to do my work at their discretion. So, ultimately, I was transferred out of that. I was not court- martialed, but I was transferred out of that particular group and reassigned to an office job, until I could get enough points to be discharged from the army, which took place on June 6, 1946. I had gone into the Army on D-Day, June 6, 1944. That’s the whole story.