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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Kathleen Maxwell’s Interview

Kathleen Maxwell was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project for the Kellex Corporation in Jersey City, New Jersey. The only female scientist in her division, she assisted in troubleshooting various operational, technical, and chemical challenges related to uranium enrichment. In this interview, she discusses the details of her work, as well as the long hours and secrecy. Maxwell describes her laboratory’s concerns over the effects of radiation exposure, and recalls that scientists underwent routine screenings, regular check-ups, and even took out extra insurance policies. She also reflects on the decision to drop the atomic bomb and the urgency of the project: “I have never been so absorbed in any one thing in my life.”

Tom Gary’s Interview – Part 2

Tom Gary was a military engineer during World War II. In his interview, he discusses how he began working at the age of nineteen, dropping out of high school just two months before graduation to support his family. He worked on the railroads for a decade before applying to become an Army first lieutenant. After earning the position, he was deployed to France, and sent back to the United States following the end of the war. He then became the head of design for DuPont. Gary also helped design the plants at Hanford and Oak Ridge.

John Manley’s Interview (1965) – Part 1

John Manley was a nuclear physicist who originally worked in John Dunning’s group at Columbia. In his interview, he describes how he later moved to Los Alamos, where he was in charge of a group making measurements for the reflector on the bomb. He also served as secretary of the general advisory committee until he left Los Alamos. He recalls recruiting experimental physicists to come to Los Alamos, and working with Seth Neddermeyer, Hans Bethe, and other scientists.

Harold Fidler’s Interview

Harold Fidler was an Army major and a civil engineer for the Corps of Engineers. Fidler began working at the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley with Ernest O. Lawrence in the early stages of the Manhattan Project. Fiddler was responsible for sending weekly reports on the progress that scientists were making to Colonel James C. Marshall, who oversaw the Manhattan Project during its initial stages. Fiddler also ensured that the laboratory received the materials that it needed. In his interview, he discusses what it was like to work under Lawrence, along with the secrecy surrounding the cyclotron and General Groves’ frequent visits.

Gilbert Church’s Interview

Gilbert P. Church was a civil engineer and Project Manager at the Hanford site during the Manhattan Project. In 1943, the DuPont Company selected Church to lead their Manhattan Project efforts. Church, along with Major Franklin T. Matthias and A.E.S. Hall, surveyed sites in Washington, Oregon, California, and California before choosing Hanford as the site for the world’s first full-scale nuclear production reactor. In this interview, Church describes the challenges faced throughout the project, such as creating a community for up to 45,000 builders, training and providing for these individuals, and completing one of the largest construction projects of the era within tight time constraints.

Percival Keith’s Interview

Percival Keith was the head of the Kellex Corporation. In his interview, he discusses the recruitment of top scientists and engineers, including George Watts, Manson Benedict, and Ludwig Skog. He was tasked with constructing the gaseous diffusion plant for uranium isotope separation. Keith focuses on the decision to abandon the flat barrier design for the tube model, and how doing so was instrumental in finishing the project.

Robert S. Norris’ Interview (2013)

In this interview, Robert S. Norris traces the chronology of the Manhattan Project from its inception in 1942 through the early years of the Cold War. Dr. Norris, author of “Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man,” talks about the crucial role of General Groves, whose energy and determination impelled the Project forward at an incredibly quick pace. Norris also discusses the controversial decision to drop the bomb on Japan and the Soviet atomic program that developed shortly after the end of World War II.

Esther Stenstrom’s Interview

Esther Stenstrom arrived at Oak Ridge in 1943, after she and her husband were picked to work in the secret city. Strenstrom worked alongside her husband in the engineering department at the Y-12 Plant as a mechanical drawer. She recalls how rationing affected life for civilians living and working in Oak Ridge and how social events offered a respite for the community members.

Fred Vaslow’s Interview

Fred Vaslow, a physical chemist, began working on the Manhattan Project while a graduate student at the University of Chicago. During his time working on the project, Vaslow worked in several of the secret cities, including Los Alamos alongside J. Robert Oppenheimer. Vaslow shares many insights including the general opinion about the bomb among scientists who had contributed to its creation as well as the spreading denigration of Oppenheimer’s character after the bombs were dropped.