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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Phillip Broughton’s Interview

Phillip Broughton is a health physicist and Deputy Laser Safety Officer at the University of California, Berkeley. In this interview, he describes how he became a health physicist and the kind of work he does at Berkeley. He provides an overview of the buildings at Berkeley where Manhattan Project scientists worked during the war, and discusses some of the key scientists such as Glenn Seaborg. Broughton also recounts experiences from the year he spent working at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, where in addition to serving as the science cryogenics handler, he also became the Station’s bartender.

William J. Wilcox, Jr.’s Interview (2005)

Bill Wilcox was an original resident of Oak Ridge, TN, and served as the Official Historian for the City of Oak Ridge, TN. A chemistry graduate from Washington & Lee University in 1943, he was hired by the Tennessee Eastman Company on a secret project in an unknown location he and his friends nicknamed “Dogpatch.” He worked with uranium, which was referred to only by its codename “Tuballoy.” Wilcox worked at Y-12 for five years and then at K-25 for 20 years, retiring as Technical Director for Union Carbide Nuclear Division. Wilcox actively promoted preservation of the “Secret City” history through the Oak Ridge Heritage & Preservation Association and by founding the Partnership for K-25 Preservation. He also published several books on Oak Ridge, including a history of Y-12 and “Opening the Gates of the Secret City.”

John Manley’s Interview (1985) – Part 2

John Manley was a nuclear physicist who worked for the Manhattan Project from its early days. In this interview with Martin Sherwin, Manley recalls being impressed by George Kennan and Omar Bradley’s testimony before the Atomic Energy Commission. He also discusses the contributions to the project and personalities of General Kenneth Nichols, General Leslie Groves, and Peer de Silva. He also explains the founding of Los Alamos and and reflects on Oppenheimer’s transition into the “great administrator.”

Elsie McMillan’s Lecture

Elsie McMillan was the wife of Nobel Prize winner Edwin McMillan and sister-in-law of another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Lawrence. She came to Los Alamos in 1943 with Edwin and their baby Ann. In this speech, she takes the audience on an imaginary tour of Los Alamos, complete with detailed descriptions of various buildings and their home, today known as the Hans Bethe House. Her speech characterizes what civilian life was like at Los Alamos for the wives of many scientists, including the challenges of shopping with ration cards and dealing with the tight security. She fondly recalls Pascualita, a Pueblo woman who helped her around her home and invited the McMillans to her home in the Pueblo. Elsie dramatically recalls the tension of the Trinity Test, waiting to find out whether the test was a success and that all the scientists were uninjured.

Edwin McMillan’s Lecture

Edwin and Elsie McMillan were among the first people to arrive at Los Alamos. Edwin, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was involved in the initial selection of Los Alamos. In this lecture, Edwin describes visiting Jemez Springs and Los Alamos when he, Oppenheimer, and General Groves were deciding on the site for the weapons laboratory. McMillan also discusses his involvement in implosion research, the gun program, and recruiting scientists including Richard Feynman to the project at Princeton University. He also remembers requisitioning Harvard’s cyclotron for the Manhattan Project.

Harold Cherniss’s Interview – Part 1

Harold Cherniss was an American classicist. He initially met J. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley in 1929, and they reconnected after the war in Berkeley and later at the Institute for Advanced Study. In this interview, Cherniss reflects on his friendship with Oppenheimer and his experience with others who knew him. Among other subjects, he discusses Oppenheimer’s personality, intellectualism, friendships, and political leanings. He recalls Oppenheimer’s interest in literature, especially French poetry. Cherniss explains how and why Oppenheimer became interested in studying Sanskrit – because Oppie loved a challenge.

Robert R. Wilson’s Interview

Robert R. Wilson was an American physicist. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where he first met Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer recruited Wilson and his entire group at Princeton to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos on the cyclotron. After arriving at Los Alamos in 1944, Wilson became head of the Research Division. In this interview, Wilson reflects on his time working with Oppie, including his personality, political views, and Oppenheimer’s unwillingness to engage him on the moral implications of building the bomb. He discusses Oppenheimer’s controversial security hearing and recalls how it affected Oppenheimer. Wilson recalls how he and other scientists fought against Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce in retaliation for Strauss’s role in the hearing.

Esther Floth’s Interview

Esther Floth worked as a secretary for General Leslie Groves during the Manhattan Project in Washington, DC. Her job afforded her the opportunity to meet leading Manhattan Project officials and scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Ernest Lawrence, and others. She went on to work for the Atomic Energy Commission after the war. In this interview, Esther recalls the secrecy of the project, including getting her top-secret clearance, and what everyday life during the war was like. She recounts General Groves’s leadership qualities and how he interacted with her and other Manhattan Project staff. Floth also describes her response to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Oppenheimer’s security trial.

Donald Ross’s Interview

Donald Ross worked on the Manhattan Project at the University of California-Berkeley and the Y-12 Plant for Tennessee Eastman. In this interview, Ross discusses supervising “Calutron girls” at Y-12. He explains how the electromagnetic separation process for separating uranium isotopes work, and recalls the tight security at Oak Ridge. Ross also describes the social life at Oak Ridge, meeting his wife, and the terrible food in the mess halls. He discusses his views on dropping the bomb on Japan and how his thoughts have changed over time.

Theodore Rockwell’s Interview (2005)

Theodore “Ted” Rockwell was born in Chicago in 1923. As a graduate student at Princeton University, Ted was recruited to work as an engineer at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, TN in late 1943. Rockwell was assigned to the “Tiger Team” at Oak Ridge, which responded to problems that arose in the Y-12 Plant. After the war, Rockwell continued his career in nuclear technology, becoming Technical Director for Admiral Hyman Rickover. In this interview, Ted explains how the electromagnetic separation process of the calutrons worked at the Y-12 Plant and how the gaseous diffusion process at the K-25 Plant worked. He discusses his duties in the Manhattan Project and his work with Admiral Rickover in the years after the war. He also explains why he thinks safety concerns over nuclear reactors, nuclear waste, and radiation are usually blown out of proportion.