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Stories about living in secret cities erased from the map and working on a top-secret project to make an atomic bomb are now available in video and transcripts on the Internet. “Voices of the Manhattan Project” is a new website with a variety of oral histories, which provide new insights into this history.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Los Alamos Historical Society are launching a new website on the 70th anniversary of Gen. Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s search for a site for a research laboratory.
Stirling Colgate was a senior at the Los Alamos Boys Ranch School when Oppenheimer visited there. According to his oral history, Colgate recognized the man in the porkpie hat right away and suspected what might be in store for the isolated mesa. Colgate thought Los Alamos was “a crazy place to do any war thing.” The rest is history.
The collection of nearly 30 oral histories is just the beginning. AHF and LAHS hope to add some 200 from their collections and perhaps many more from organizations at the other Manhattan Project sites and elsewhere. Eventually, the site should provide a rich tapestry of people and perspectives on one of the most significant developments in modern history.
The Manhattan Project was a great human collaboration. Participants included recent immigrants who fled anti-Semitism in Europe, young men and women straight from high school or college and numerous Hispanics, Native Americans and African-Americans. Some 125,000 people worked in secret locations in communities developed by the government for the sole purpose of the project. Most surprisingly, very few knew that they were working on an atomic bomb.
“Voices of the Manhattan Project” captures the stories of Manhattan Project veterans and their families. Together AHF and LAHS have collected hundreds of oral histories over the years. The initial interviews range from Jack Aeby, who took the only color photograph of the first atomic bomb test at Trinity; to Donald Trauger, who worked with Harold Urey and
John Dunning at Columbia University on uranium enrichment; and young scientists such as Becky Diven who worked on designing the bomb at the Los Alamos scientific laboratory.
These interviews highlight the many challenges of the Manhattan Project from living in isolated secret cities to solving complex problems with slide rules, the “high-speed computers” of the day.
The interviews offer a variety of perspectives on the project. Some Native Americans discuss the government’s displacement of the tribes from their ancestral lands in Hanford, WA. In others, Pueblo Indians in New Mexico talk about the impact of the government project on their ancestral traditions and economy. Some interviews are just fun, talking about how the young people blew off steam by hiking and skiing in Los Alamos, dancing and bowling in Oak Ridge and engaging in a meatball mess hall battle in Hanford.
On the docket of the 112th Congress during the lame duck session is legislation to establish a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The prospect of creating a park at the three major sites of Los Alamos, Hanford, Wash. and Oak Ridge, Tenn. has galvanized interest nationwide in the Manhattan Project and its legacy.