A trip down memory lane: Thanksgiving 1943

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By The Staff

Marguerite “Marge” Schreiber was the wife of Raemer Schreiber, a Manhattan Project physicist who rose to become deputy director of what was then Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

Marge herself served on the school board, joined the first League of Women Voters in Los Alamos, was appointed to the Los Alamos Charter Commission in 1949, founded the Girl Scouts in Los Alamos, and participated in the Los Alamos Garden Club.  

She was a busy lady, even in retirement, but when the Monitor called to ask her about her early Thanksgiving experiences in Los Alamos, she responded with warmth and delight. 

Raemer died in 1998, and Marge followed in 2008. But the memories Marge described in this article—published in the Monitor’s June 6, 1993, “Manhattan Project Reunion: Los Alamos at Its 50th Year”—still paint a vivid picture of the determination and creativity that characterized the people who built our community.  

Her memories are well worth repeating as Los Alamos County marks its 60th anniversary. 

Marguerite Schreiber recalled it fondly, even though she didn’t even have a stove then. 

“We arrived on Nov. 3,” she told the Monitor. “It was cold and cloudy, and it had snowed. It was muddy. There was no grass. It was all mud and Army buildings.” 

Raemer and Marguerite Schreiber were both from Oregon, but they had been living in Indiana, where he had completed his Ph.D. at Purdue in 1941 and begun teaching. 

In the early 1940s, Mrs. Schreiber said, “Marshal Holloway was out looking for a cyclotron which was adequate to do some experimental work. We had a big cyclotron at Purdue … It was in the basement of the physics building with only one entrance—which could be guarded. That was a natural. So, for a year, Schreib and Holloway and (L.D.P. “Perce”) King, and Charles Baker worked on the cyclotron at Purdue.

“And then, as the project moved toward a finish after about a year, all of them were asked whether they’d like to come out and work on the Manhattan Project here. At first we didn’t know much about it, and nobody would tell us much.” 

But, she said, “We were in the backlog of the war effort at Purdue, and they were told that things were really going on out here. They could have been drafted, but they were in the upper age bracket—and they were able to contribute more out here.” 

She said her husband came first and left a car in Santa Fe. Then they went to Oregon to visit relatives briefly before the move. 

They took the train from Oregon to Santa Fe. 

“That was no easy thing to do,” she recalled. “They were moving troops all the time on the West Coast. My brother-in-law knew someone who was important enough to get us on the train along with the soldier boys, or we would never have made it.”

When they reached Santa Fe, they picked up their car and drove to Los Alamos, entering through a guard gate located about where the first stop light is now as you drive into town.

She said she had a few doubts when she got her first glimpse of their new home, but their friends from Purdue had arrived first and were there to greet them. 

“I think if we’d come in all by ourselves with our little 13-month-old girl,” she said, “it would have been pretty grim, but they had dinner ready for us.” 

When Thanksgiving arrived, they still didn’t have any furniture—not even a stove—because the Mayflower truck driver bringing their goods had stopped in Colorado to have his own holiday dinner. 

“I tried very hard to exhibit a Christian spirit,” she said, but it was difficult. 

She couldn’t remember the exact details of that first Thanksgiving, but she managed to feed her own family and several neighbors. 

“We had a gorgeous big commissary,” she said. “I don’t remember turkeys; I remember chicken—but then we had a small family.” 

They lived with the Kings and Holloways and a “Cmdr. Birch and his family” in a four-family apartment building located about where the northeast corner of the Los Cerros Apartments complex stands now on Trinity Drive. The Schreibers and Birches lived upstairs; the Kings and Holloways downstairs. 

The only address for the building was “T-118.” 

“There were no street names,” Mrs. Schreiber recalled. “Nothing was delivered, so it didn’t matter unless you called the Fire Department.” 

The apartment “was very nice,” she said, with a fireplace and hardwood floors, “But the stoves were most peculiar … We all called them ‘black beauties,’ and they were horrendous kerosene creatures…. 

“We had to prime those crazy stoves with kerosene and pull some kind of a string, and it would roar. It just scared me to death. Nobody used them. 

“The only black market item I ever got, to my knowledge, was an electric roaster. We sent $30 to a post office number in Minnesota. We waited a while, and a package came, and it was a roaster with three pans … We cooked with that and a two-burner hot plate all through the war years.” 

She said she was certain that King ate with them that first Thanksgiving because Mrs. King’s mother was ill, and she took their children and went home to visit. 

Such a trip took special permission. 

“We never had relatives come to visit,” Mrs. Schreiber remembered. “No one could come in, and we could not go home unless there was a special dispensation.” 

The Schreibers’ relatives knew only their mailing address—the famous P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe that served the entire Los Alamos community. 

“There was no talking about where we were,” she said. “There were no questions asked. We just said flatly that we couldn’t say, so nobody asked us.” 

For many years, the streets were dirt that turned to mud in the winter. Mrs. Schreiber remembered vividly what it was like to hang up clothes in a muddy back yard. 

“I used to wear galoshes,” she said. “One day I got firmly anchored (while) pinning up a sheet and stepped out of my boot … It was most upsetting.” 

By the Schreibers’ second Thanksgiving in Los Alamos, things were a little more settled. 

Raemer Schreiber became acquainted with a number of “Special Engineering Detachment” soldiers working with him at Omega Site, and he invited them for Thanksgiving dinner. 

“I think I must have had about 18 young GIs (that second Thanksgiving),” she said. “I fed all of them from the big roaster and the two-burner hot plate. 

“They were certainly nice boys. Most of them were homesick. Quite a few of them had small children of their own, but couldn’t bring them here. By that time, we had our second daughter. They loved the little girls and were gentle and sweet with them.” 

“I’ll tell you,” she concluded, “there was a wonderful spirit here in those days. There wasn’t any gracious living, but there was lots of friendliness.” 

When Raemer Schreiber died in 1998,  his life’s work merited an extensive obituary in the New York Times. Marguerite Schreiber was honored as a “Living Treasure of Los Alamos” in the spring of 2007.  

Today, Paula Dransfield, the Schreibers’ oldest daughter, lives in Santa Fe. Their second daughter, Sara, who was born during the early days in Los Alamos, now lives in Corvallis, Ore.