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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Alfred Zeltmann’s Interview

Al Zeltmann grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After being drafted into the Army during World War II, he was assigned to the Special Engineer Detachment and arrived at Los Alamos in 1944. After the war, he stayed at Los Alamos, and worked as a physical chemist at the Los Alamos laboratory for nearly 40 years. In this interview, he recalls his Manhattan Project work, including on the “RaLa” experiments with Gerhart Friedlander, and describes the relationship between the military and civilians on “The Hill.” He also remembers receiving some unusual instructions from a mail censor after his wife complained he “wasn’t very warm” in his letters.

Jennet Conant’s Interview

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.

Jenny Kimball’s Interview

Jenny Kimball is the Chairman of the Board of the La Fonda on the Plaza hotel, which is the oldest hotel site in the United States. In this interview, she discusses the rich history of La Fonda, from its establishment in the 1600s through its development as part of the famous Harvey hotel chain to its award-winning status today. She describes the role of the Harvey family in branding the hotel, and the important work of Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, who designed La Fonda and other iconic Harvey hotels. She also explains her involvement in the hotel and her efforts to showcase La Fonda’s architectural and cultural history. Kimball describes the process of restoring the interior of La Fonda, and the work of artists and others to make the rooms match what they looked like in earlier decades. She concludes by talking about La Fonda’s role as a watering hole for Manhattan Project scientists working in Los Alamos.

Julie Melton’s Interview

Julie Melton is an author and expert on civil society, development, and democratization. She is the daughter of Manhattan Project historian David Hawkins and Frances Hawkins, the founder of the nursery school at Los Alamos. During the Manhattan Project, her family lived in the same four-family house as Victor and Ellen Weisskopf, who became some of their closest friends. In this interview, she shares her childhood memories of Los Alamos and anecdotes about prominent Manhattan Project scientists. She also describes her parents’ involvement in the Communist Party at Berkeley, where her father met J. Robert Oppenheimer. She concludes with a brief reflection on the frustrations of being a woman at Los Alamos.

Geoffrey Chew’s Interview

Geoffrey Chew was an undergraduate studying physics at George Washington University when he assisted Washington Post journalist (and future children’s novelist) Jean Craighead in writing an article on atomic weapons. His professor, George Gamow, recommended that Chew join Edward Teller’s team at Los Alamos. At Los Alamos, Chew witnessed the Trinity Test from a nearby mountain and worked on Teller’s ideas for developing the hydrogen bomb. In graduate school, Chew was supervised by Enrico Fermi. In this interview, Chew recounts his unique entrance to the Manhattan Project and his relationship with Edward Teller. He also recalls an incident when Fermi had trouble playing a game at a party, his conversation with an intelligence man on the Craighead article, and serving as John von Neumann’s “human computer.” Finally, Chew discusses his current research on the Big Bang.

John Mench’s Interview

John Mench was assigned to the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos where he worked as a pattern maker, creating wooden casts for metal work at the site’s foundry. Mench describes what it was like to live in the barracks at Los Alamos and discusses everything from housing and recreation to security and secrecy, including his daughter’s birth certificate, which was marked P.O. Box 1663. Mench also discusses the founding of the Los Alamos Little Theater, where he directed numerous plays that were attended by some of the most famous scientists on the site. He jokingly recounts a date with one of the young WACs, who never invited him to dinner again because he spent the entire date talking about his wife and child. On a more serious note, Mench offers his opinion on the use of the atomic bomb against Japan and the importance of the Manhattan Project in ending the war.

Dorothy McKibbin’s Interview (1965)

Dorothy McKibbin was responsible for welcoming new recruits to the Manhattan Project. Known by many as the “gatekeeper” to Los Alamos, McKibbin ran the Santa Fe office at 109 East Palace for the Los Alamos National Laboratory during World War II. She checked in the many scientists who came through Santa Fe on their way to work on the development of the atomic bomb, issuing passes and briefing them about life in the Manhattan Project. In this interview, McKibbin recalls the strict security measures in place in Santa Fe and Los Alamos and also discusses Klaus Fuchs. She also speaks about day-to-day life at Santa Fe, including the women who came to work on the Manhattan Project.

William Lowe’s Interview

William Lowe was studying chemical and metallurgical engineering when World War II began. A member of the Special Engineering Detachment, he arrived in Los Alamos and began assisting chemist Arthur Wahl. Lowe recalls working with Wahl on the process for purifying the plutonium for the Gadget and the bombs, and talks about the safety procedures they used to minimize risk of radiation exposure. Lowe later worked on building new reactors, laboratories, and other support facilities at Hanford. He worked in the nuclear power industry for many years and shares his experience of being in the control room during the Three Mile Island incident.

Haskell Sheinberg’s Interview

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.

Robert Schwerin’s Interview

Robert Schwerin arrived at Los Alamos in June of 1945 and worked as a security guard for the Manhattan Project, often guarding plutonium. He provided security detail for the “black” government vehicles carrying the precious plutonium from the railway stations in New Mexico to Los Alamos and offers valuable insight into the Army’s emphasis on secrecy and security. He also recalls his brief encounter with General Leslie Groves, to whom he hand-delivered a top-secret message regarding the 1947 nuclear tests in the South Pacific.