Voices of the Manhattan Project echo into history

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By Arin McKenna

The proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park still has some Congressional hurdles to overcome, but its supporters are doing what they can to make that history more accessible now.

To that end, the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Los Alamos Historical Society partnered to create “Voices of the Manhattan Project,” a public archive of oral histories collected from Manhattan Project veterans and their families.
A collection of 71 videotaped oral histories recorded between 1991 and 1992 forms the foundation of the Los Alamos contribution. That project was underwritten by the Los Alamos Historical Society with grants from the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities and the Los Alamos Lodgers Tax Board.

Historical Society staff, led by Theresa Strottman, conducted the interviews with the help of Dohn Chapman, who was director of PAC-8 at the time.

Strottman has since moved to Silver City, but project volunteer Yvonne Delamater, who managed scheduling and conducted several of the interviews, remembers the project vividly.

“It was a very important project, to get their memories of what it was like in Los Alamos before they passed on. And many of them have passed on,” Delamater said.

“It was a very splendid project to be a very small part of. It was the pinnacle of my volunteering experience. Now when I go into the Los Alamos Bank and see the Living Treasures or see the wall of people who took part in the project at the Bradbury Museum, I remember interviewing some of them.”

According to Rebecca Collinsworth, who manages the Historical Society archives, it has taken nearly 20 years to raise enough money to have all the interviews transcribed. Collinsworth has read nearly every interview.

The grants required the society to interview a broad spectrum of subjects.

“We have a mix of military, maids, a few scientists and technicians, a Pueblo artist, children, wives, former Ranch School people who stayed after the school closed and members of Valley Hispanic communities,” Collinsworth said. 

“A small set of these people interviewed witnessed the Trinity Test in July 1945 and we used quotes from their interviews in our 1995 exhibit commemorating the end of WWII. Visitors to the museum in the summer of 1995 found their stories riveting and stayed longer than usual reading the first person accounts.”

Those interviews were also used to create a one-hour program called “Remembering Los Alamos,” which is no longer available.

“There was some big band music recorded into that video, and the rights to that music are no longer available, so we cannot reproduce that video,” said Heather McClenahan, executive director for the Historical Society.

“It’s really a shame, because it was a wonderful production and it really had some good information.” Experts have determined that the music cannot be removed without erasing the voices.

“But because of new technologies, what we are able to do now is to take those same 71 video oral histories and put them on the web for everybody to have access to,” McClenahan said.

Since both the historical society and the Atomic Heritage Foundation have collections of oral histories, they decided to partner on the project.

Grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Kerr Foundation, and the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust provided the funds to digitize all the interviews and create the website manhattanprojectvoices.org.

PAC-8 was hired to digitize the Los Alamos interviews, a process that is still ongoing. As each interview is completed it is uploaded to the website, so new interviews are available every week. McClenahan said the plan is to eventually include interviews from the Oak Ridge, Tenn. and Hanford, Wash. sites, and to record new interviews as well.

Each interview is available in both digitized and transcript form, which provides a searchable data base.

“The idea when we created this website was to have transcripts that were searchable as well as the videos, so that you can watch them as well as read them,” McClenahan said. “So if you want to find somebody talking about Richard Feynman, you can key in Feynman and that will show up in the transcript and you can go to where it was in the video. It’s just a really great tool for researchers.”

According to McClenahan, the website has had more than 3,000 unique users since it went up at the beginning of November.

“The feedback we’ve received on Facebook and a few emails have been very positive. People are very excited about it,” McClenahan said.

McClenahan also provided an update on the Manhattan Project Historical Park.

“The last we heard from the folks on the ground in Washington, there was some hope that the legislation might get attached to the fiscal cliff legislation, but that is looking less and less likely at this point. So it’s looking like we’re going to go into the next Congress and we’ll kind of have to start the whole process over again.

“But it’s not too bad because we’re not starting from zero; we’re starting from higher than that this time.”

Although Sen. Jeff Bingaman is retiring, senator-elect Martin Heinrich will take his place on the Senate Committee for Energy and Natural Resources and Sen. Tom Udall will be on the Appropriations Committee. Rep. Doc Hastings from Washington State, who sponsored the bill in the House, remains chair of House Natural Resources Committee.

“So we still have people in good places, we still have a lot of support, and there’s just been a ton of publicity coming out about it recently. So I’m hoping very soon into the next Congress we’ll get some movement on the legislation,” McClenahan said.

Correction to Update

Theresa Strottman is retired from Western NM University and now lives in Santa Fe, NM!