Mary Brennan lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She and her husband, Curtiss, moved next door to Dorothy McKibbin, “the Gatekeeper to Los Alamos.” In this interview, Mary discusses her memories of Dorothy, how Dorothy ended up in New Mexico, and Dorothy’s relationship to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. In addition, she explains the specificities of the house and how it was a social destination for members of the project. The Brennans are the current owners of McKibbin’s house and still reside next door.
Jennet Conant is an author who has written extensively on the Manhattan Project and some of its most prominent figures. Some of her books include “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington” and “Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist.” In this interview, Conant describes some of the stories she writes about in her book “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos.” Specifically, she focuses on the life of Dorothy McKibbin, the “Gatekeeper to Los Alamos,” and her contributions to the Los Alamos laboratory during the war. She also discusses the Trinity Site, Klaus Fuchs’s espionage, and the stresses the Manhattan Project put on relationships between scientists and their families.
William G. (“Bill”) Hudgins spent most of his childhood years in New Mexico. He first heard about a secret wartime laboratory at Los Alamos in 1943, when he was a student at the University of New Mexico. Hudgins joined the Manhattan Project after writing a letter to Dorothy McKibbin. After briefly being called away for Army training, he returned to Los Alamos as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment. In this interview, he recalls interviewing for a job with McKibbin (who asked, “Where did you hear about me?”) and shares his memories of other Manhattan Project figures, including scientist Rebecca Bradford Diven and project historian David Hawkins. He also describes growing up in Santa Fe, and details the geologic and Native American history of the region.
Louis Rosen, a native New Yorker and the son of Polish immigrants, was personally selected to work on the Manhattan project in Los Alamos while a graduate student in physics. Once in Los Alamos, Rosen was assigned to Edwin McMillan’s group, where he worked on implosion technology. Rosen remained in Los Alamos after the war ended and was considered the father of the Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility. Rosen describes some of the struggles he faced in his early life and explains how he and his brother were able to save up enough money to attend college, the first members of their family to do so. Rosen recalls his encounter with Dorothy McKibbin when he first arrived in Santa Fe and describes the housing that was available to scientists who worked at Los Alamos. Finally, Rosen explains some of the scientific discoveries made after the Manhattan Project and offers valuable insight on the nature of science during the height of the Cold War.
Haskell Sheinberg arrived at Los Alamos in late 1944 as part of the Special Engineer Detachment. Sheinberg’s first assignment was to purify plutonium under the direction of Arthur Wahl, one of the co-discoverers of plutonium. Sheinberg discusses the safety procedures the laboratory had in place to protect its workers from the harmful effects of radiation and also recalls attending several of Oppenheimer’s colloquiums regarding the overall progress of the Manhattan Project. He remembers meeting his wife, who worked in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps and received a commendation from Oppenheimer for her technical work, at one of the dances at the Los Alamos recreation hall. Sheinberg had a long and storied career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Dimas Chavez was a young child when he moved to Los Alamos with his family for his father to work for the Zia Company on the Manhattan Project. He recalls his struggle to learn English, and the support of his parents and members of the Los Alamos community to help him become fluent. He lived in a small house by Bathtub Row, and sold newspapers to J. Robert Oppenheimer. Social activities included watching wrestling matches, concerts, and riding inner tubes on the Rio Grande. Chavez unwittingly turned down an opportunity to watch the Trinity test.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Lilli Hornig and her family immigrated to the United States from Berlin after her father was threatened with imprisonment in a concentration camp. She was a young chemist when her husband, Don Hornig, was personally asked by George Kistiakowsky to come to Los Alamos to work on a secret project. At first she worked on plutonium chemistry, but after concern was raised that plutonium could cause “reproductive damage” for women, she began working for the explosives group. A witness to the Trinity test, she recalls the vivid colors of the blast. Lilli signed the Los Alamos scientists’ petition to have a demonstration of the bomb’s destruction rather than dropping it on Japan.
Jay Wechsler, who enlisted in the Army in 1943 and spent several months at Oak Ridge working as an Army construction engineer, was suddenly transferred to Los Alamos in the winter of ‘43 where he began working directly with Otto Frisch. Wechsler helped Frisch work on a large fission chamber that Frisch had originally designed in Denmark and later shipped to the United States. He recalls Frisch’s brilliant intellect and knack for solving problems, and discusses their long-lasting friendship over the years. Wechsler also discusses his role as an explosives expert at Beta Site, testing what would later become the implosion system for the plutonium bomb. Wechsler also recounts details of Trinity Test and discusses his opinion on the use of the atomic bomb on Japan and the lasting impact of atomic weapons. After the war, Wechsler continued his weapons work for the government throughout the Cold War.