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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Sgt. Gertrude Funk McLay worked in Communications and Information with the Women’s Army Corps at Los Alamos in 1943. She was one of the the telephone switchboard operators. 

She died in 1978 in Augusta, GA.  

The following piece was provided by her nephew, Dan Peterson for Events that Shaped the Nation by Rick Phalen about how his family found out his aunt had worked on the Manhattan Project: 

  The atomic bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki! It all happened so quickly. World War II was almost into its sixth year and predictions were so negative that it almost made you sick to think of it: It would take at least three more years to end the war in the Pacific, and it would cost over one million American lives. Instead, World War II was over in a matter of days. No invasion of Japan was necessary. The atomic bomb saw to that.

     The first time most Americans heard of its existence was on August 6, 1945, just after ‘The Thin Man’ had blown Hiroshima off the face of the Earth. Three days later, a second bomb fell on Nagasaki, which also disappeared in seconds. Three days later, Japan sued for peace. Two days later, August 14, was V-J Day, and World War II was history. It had taken one week and one day.

    While every American was in the dark regarding the development, experimentation and planned use of the atomic bomb, I was given a sliver of a clue. But, I was just nine years old and didn’t pick up on the signals that were ever so clear. Had I been just a little older, I might have read the message that was being sent by, of all people, my Aunt Trudy. As it was, I wasn’t able to sort it all out until I heard the news about Hiroshima, saw those newsreels of its awesome destruction, and saw the mushroom-shaped cloud that told me this was no ordinary bomb, no ordinary explosion, but was something else altogether.

     In that moment, I knew I wasn’t like other Americans, who felt somewhat detached from the whole thing. Why shouldn’t they have felt that way? Wasn’t this a weapon that was developed by other people? Didn’t all this take place halfway around the world? Why not feel safely removed from all that, a spectator of Hell on Earth? About the only feelings I shared with those people were the ones that revolved around the relief that the war was over and that our servicemen would soon be coming home. I could relate to that, as I had one uncle in Europe, a veteran of D-Day, and two others in the Pacific, one a Navy survivor of Kamikaze attacks, the other a survivor of numerous Banzai charges.

         My Aunt Trudy was the fourth of that family, my mother’s brothers and sisters, in the Armed Forces: She had joined the WACs in 1942. That was the last my Mother heard of her for over eighteen months, which was strange, considering that they were as close as any two sisters have ever been.  Our first indication that Trudy was into something unusual came when two Secret Service men came to our house to ask a long series of questions about her, when they referred to her as “Sgt. Gertrude McLay.” Shortly after this unnerving experience, my mother began to receive mail from Trudy, all heavily censored. This was a second sign: Why is her mail over 50% censored when she is stateside and Uncle JD’s mail, from Europe, is barely censored, at all? These things just did not add up. Or did they add up, but we just couldn’t figure it out?

     My mother wrote to her brother, my Uncle J.D., to ask him about the heavy censoring. He said it was a mystery to him, but asked if there was a postmark on the envelope. My mother wrote back and told him the letters came from Los Alamos, New Mexico. He came back with the answer that was clue number three, saying:  “There is an old munitions dump down there.”  My mother began putting all of this information together. Her first conclusion: Her sister Trude was working on something Top Secret that involved experimentation in explosives. What we learned later was that, after her enlistment, training and rapid promotion, she had been screened and cleared for assignment in 1943 to Los Alamos, a priority-one location, where the United States Army, under the command of Gen. Leslie Groves, was developing the atomic bomb and where they would conduct its first test at Alamogordo. This was the Manhattan Project, the single most Top Secret operation in U. S. military history.

     Aunt Trudy had one of the most highly sensitive positions on the base, as she was the telephone switchboard operator, placed there not only because she could handle the mechanical end of the job but also because of her educational background and complete trustworthiness. She handled all incoming and outgoing calls when she was on shift. No one else touched those lines during her hours on duty. Her work put Aunt Trudy in contact with the most powerful men in the world on a daily basis. A typical call was something like this: “Dr. [Robert] Oppenheimer? One moment, please. President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt on the line. Go ahead.” Later the President was Harry S. Truman, but the procedure never changed. She needed no help to piece together what was happening. It was all clear to her, and she understood that all this was beyond anyone’s imagination.

     If she had any doubt as to the power and danger of what was going on, that was swept away the day that almost became Doomsday for Los Alamos.  
Canadian scientist Dr. Louis Slotin was conducting experiments when he saw two components were going to collide. He knew that, if this happened, there would be nuclear fission, and the first atomic explosion in history would reduce Los Alamos and every living thing within it to a fiery ball of atoms in a millionth of a second. He knew he had to stop this collision but, knowing his subject, he understood that contact with such heavily radioactive material would cost him his life. He never hesitated, using his hands to stop the movement of the components and avoid their becoming ‘colliders.’

     As soon as he told his colleagues what had happened, they put him in a lead-lined room especially prepared for just such an eventuality. He knew this was fatal, as did everyone on the base. Still, the command went out: Call President Roosevelt and see what could be done. Aunt Trudy put through the call. His direct order: Call in every top burn specialist in the United States, take every effort to save this man’s life. Aunt Trudy then located and called the burn specialist.The physicians asked for volunteers among the nurses to enter the lead-lined room. One volunteered and would die of radiation exposure, along with Slotin. The doctors had no hope for Slotin’s life but they hoped to learn something from this ordeal. They were overwhelmed. While ordinary burns burn from the outside, this was the opposite. The blood turned to water and worked its way out. All now understood what would happen when the atomic bomb fell.

       Not long after that incident, which shook Aunt Trudy to her soul, she was given her only furlough of the duration and came back home to see her family in Chicago and visit us in suburban Evanston. We were advised that our telephone would be ‘under surveillance,’ a sophisticated way of saying our line would be ‘tapped’ during the day of her visit to us. This was my mother’s fourth indication that Aunt Trudy was into something big.  I understood I was not to use the telephone that day. It’s not hard to imagine the total security that surrounded her furlough. The Army took no chances that she might carry out anything that might compromise the project, either intentionally or otherwise. Their method left nothing to chance.   We’ve all heard the term ‘strip search.’ Well, this went beyond that, and then some. Shortly before her departure, she was led to a room where she stripped to the skin and was then body searched.

     She then went, in the nude, to another room, where she was given duplicates of every single thing she had left behind in the first room: uniform, underwear, hose, shoes, change purse, combs, hair pins, lipstick, makeup, driver’s license, identification, keys, fountain pen, and money. She carried most of this in a shoulder bag purse. For some reason, this purse caught my mother’s attention. It was the first of its kind she had seen. Up until then, women carried ‘clutch’ hand purses or ‘loop’ arm bags. My mother’s curiosity was heightened with this observation. Aunt Trudy would later tell us the Secret Service personnel tracked her every step, convinced at least two agents were following her at all times. Never the same two. In relays. Two were on her flight to Chicago, two more would take over. Etc.

       When she came to our house, they had her marked well. Shortly after her arrival there was a phone call. The caller asked for Sergeant McLay. Her answers were, to say the least, cryptic: “Yes. No. Two hours.  About 5:30. No.  Nothing. No one. Goodbye.” At this point, my Mother decided to see if she could find out what this was about and asked: “What sort of assignment do you have in the WACs, Trude?” They were seated in the kitchen, having coffee, when this question was put. I was close by, in the dining room, playing with something or other. As a rule, like most 9-year olds, I never paid attention when adults conversed but, as with most young boys, anything to do with the military interested me. I turned to hear what my favorite aunt was about to say. Her answer hit my mother harder than any punch by any heavyweight boxer. She said, “I’m sorry, Lill, I can’t tell you that.”

    I was just a kid but I understood that one sister had said to another that the conversation was over. I was as stunned as my mother. I knew how close these two women were; that there were no secrets between them, that this was the all-time sister-to-sister bond. My mother nodded as she digested Aunt Trudy’s answer.  Trudy knew she’d hurt my mom, so she tried to soften the blow a little. She asked, “Lillian, just what do you think I’m doing?”  My mother, having taken mental notes on all of this for some time, never hesitated. She said, “I think you are working on a terrible, terrible weapon.”  My Aunt Trudy, the world’s happiest person, the lady that had read Bambi to me as a toddler, broke down and cried.  

     Like any other youngster, I didn’t think grown-ups cried. I was disoriented by the whole thing. My mom. My Aunt.The Army. The War. A weapon. It was all too unreal for me. What in the world was going on? Whatever, these two women quickly recomposed themselves and, before I knew it, Aunt Trudy was on her way back to Los Alamos, having left still another clue. She had to be back because the U.S. Army was ready to test the atomic bomb on open ground for the first time. This came on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, in the Tularosa Valley, below New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains. It went off without a hitch, but the biggest sound may not have been the explosion itself, but that of a lot of breath being let out by a lot of scientists who were not at all certain that the world might not come to an end at that moment.  

     The problem involved the concept of ‘chain reaction.’ Would there be a ‘chain reaction’ or wold this be an explosion like any other? If there was a ‘chain reaction,’ would it stop or would it go on indefinitely? No one could be 100% certain of this. Our computers were not ready for this type of solution. They are today, but this was 1945 and computer science was in its infancy. Here were the greatest scientists in the world, unable to give a clear answer or a scientifically based opinion on the biggest of questions. To resolve the matter, they called in the greatest brain: Albert Einstein. His would be the voice that counted. Everyone at Los Alamos knew full well why he’d been brought in, and all were holding their breath while he pondered his answer, and even after he gave it. His thinking was that there would be no chain reaction, that it would be an explosion like any other, only bigger, and that it would be confined to
the limits imposed by its component weight.

     In great secrecy the test was conducted. Einstein guessed right, which is why the world is still here today. Shortly after that, the first atomic bombs — there were only two according to reliable sources, as there was not enough material on hand at the time to produce more — were flown, in sections, to Tinian Island, just 1800 miles south of Japan in the western Pacific Ocean. At that point highly qualified military men debated where the first of these weapons should fall.    That decision — in part based on weather conditions, in part that it involved so little flying time over land, in part because it was not a primary military target and thus had slightly less anti-aircraft protection — went to the port city of Hiroshima.
  
   Col. Paul Tibbets, Jr., piloted his B-20 Super Fortress, the Enola Gay, off the long runway on Tinian in the early dawn of August 6, 1945, and headed
for his target, Aloi Bridge, in the heart of Japan’s eighth-largest city. The atomic bomb, just 28″ around, about the circumference of a basketball, and just ten feet long, but weighing 9,000 pounds, was let go from a height of some 32,000 feet. It detonated 660 yards above ground, and its epicenter was just 300 yards from Aloi Bridge. Four seconds later, 100,000 of Hiroshima’s 300,000 people were dead and the 200,000 survivors were not much better off.   

      My father, who knew nothing about Aunt Trudy’s visit that day in July, was the one who brought the news. Coming home from his shift with the Evanston Police Department, he came in and said, “We dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.” Not the ‘atomic bomb.’ Not the ‘A-Bomb.’ It was the ‘atom bomb.’ as he and so many others would call it in the days that followed. No one had heard of Hiroshima before that day, but nobody had to tell us it was a Japanese city — it had a Japanese ring to it, rhyming almost perfectly with the name of a Pacific island of Japan’s that we knew all too well, Iwo Jima. At the moment my dad told us what had happened, I understood. I looked at my mom and she had that look that told me that she, too, had put it all together in that fraction of a second.   The mystery was no longer a mystery to us.  

 

Gertrude McLay's Timeline
1943 Worked at Los Alamos as a telephone switchboard operator.
1978 Died in Augusta, GA

Gertude McLay's medals

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