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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

John D. Smith

John Smith arrived in Hanford after graduating from Ohio State in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Smith worked for General Electric at the 300 area where he manufactured uranium fuel elements for the production reactors. Smith describes the canning method that was used during the Manhattan Project; though the process was boring, Smith recounts several instances of horseplay that he and his coworkers took part in to lighten the mood.


Raymond Sheline’s Interview (2009)

Raymond Sheline was a chemist at Columbia University and a member of the Special Engineer Detachment at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos. After graduating from college in 1942, Sheline received a telegram from Harold Urey inviting him to join the Manhattan Project at Columbia. His group at the university focused on resolving problems caused by corrosion during the gaseous diffusion process. After being drafted into the Army, Sheline was sent to Oak Ridge and Los Alamos as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment. At Los Alamos, he contributed to work on the trigger for the plutonium bomb. In this interview, Sheline discusses his early life and educational background. He describes memories from growing up in Ohio and from his time studying Chemistry at Bethany College. He also explains his time in the U.S. Army and how he came to work with the SED. Sheline then recalls how he met his wife Yvonne. Lastly, Sheline discusses his life after earning his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, including briefly working in Germany, working at the University of Chicago, how his career began at Florida State University, and his time researching in Copenhagen.

Virginia Ballard’s Interview

Virginia Ballard was born in Charleston, West Virginia. Her parents immigrated to the US from Scotland. In 1944, Ballard’s family moved to Richland, Washington where her father worked for DuPont. After attending college, Ballard went to work for GE and Exxon Nuclear. Her last job before retirement was as executive secretary to the manager for Siemens. Ballard had two children – Bruce and Diane – with her husband Del. In this interview, Ballard discusses her family’s relocation to Richland and her experience living there as a teenager. In particular, she talks about the high school she attended and recreational activities for teenagers at the time. Ballard also describes the town of Richland and its economy. She explains social and economic changes that occurred before, during, and after the war. Commenting on the secrecy of the scientific activity going on at Richland, Ballard shares that the dropping of the bomb came as a surprise to residents of Richland, but their reactions were positive and they expressed great pride in the work of their fellow residents. She hopes that the Hanford area and B Reactor will be preserved as an important historical site.

Avner Cohen’s Interview

Avner Cohen is an Israeli-American historian and a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. His 1998 book, Israel and the Bomb, is the definitive historical work to date on the Israeli nuclear program. In this interview, Cohen discusses his professional background and the difficult process of writing about the development of nuclear weapons in Israel. He explains the policy of opacity or amimut regarding the nuclear program, as well as the role of the United States and France in supporting the program. Cohen describes the origin of Israel’s nuclear weapons development, including the influence of the Manhattan Project; how Israel’s nascent nuclear program may have played a role in the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; and the 1979 Vela Incident. Cohen also discusses Franco-Israeli nuclear cooperation and the development of the French nuclear program.

Thomas Mason’s Interview

Thomas (Thom) Mason is the President and CEO of Triad National Security, LLC and the director designate of Los Alamos National Laboratory. A condensed matter physicist, he previously served as the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 2007-2017, and as Senior Vice President for Global Laboratory Operations at Battelle. In this interview, Mason describes some of the major scientific projects at Oak Ridge from the Manhattan Project to today, including the Spallation Neutron Source, nuclear reactor development, scientific computing, and nuclear nonproliferation efforts. He also explains why he believes that the science done at universities and national laboratories creates “a fertile ground” for innovation.

Dieter Gruen’s Interview (2018)

Dieter Gruen worked in the Chemical Research Division at the Y-12 Plant during the Manhattan Project. In this interview, he discusses his childhood in Walldorf, Germany, and how his family’s life changed as the Nazis came to power. Gruen discusses how he came to the U.S. in 1937, and his school experiences both in Little Rock, Arkansas, and at the University of Chicago. He explains how his work at Oak Ridge led him to devote his career to science and innovation. He also spends time sharing his feelings about his involvement with the Manhattan Project. Gruen discusses his views regarding climate change, and how nations can work together to resolve it.

Harris Mayer’s Interview

Harris Mayer is an American physicist. A student of both Edward Teller and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, he worked at Columbia University during the Manhattan Project. He moved to Los Alamos in 1947 to work at the Los Alamos laboratory, and his early work contributed to the development of the hydrogen bomb. In this interview, Mayer discusses his close friendships with other scientists and his work on the Operation Greenhouse nuclear tests. He shares stories about Teller, Frederick Reines, and Richard Feynman, and recalls attempting to mediate the conflict between Teller and Hans Bethe.

Victor Kumin’s Interview

Victor Kumin was a young scientist when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. In September of that year, he was transferred to Los Alamos, where he was a member of the Special Engineer Detachment (SED). In this interview, courtesy of the Story Preservation Initiative, Kumin discusses his time as a Chemistry student at Harvard and joining the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He recalls the secrecy of the project and how he felt about the decision to use the atomic bombs.

D.M. Ellett’s Interview

D. M. Ellett is a mechanical engineer who joined the Manhattan Project after the end of World War II. He was a member of Z Division, which was assigned to Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1945. In the interview, Ellett recalls his arrival in Albuquerque and shares stories from his long career at Sandia (today, Sandia National Laboratories). He describes his years as a docent at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, and recalls witnessing a nuclear test in Nevada.

Peter Malmgren’s Interview

Peter Malmgren, an oral historian and cabinet maker, is the author of “Los Alamos Revisited: A Workers’ History,” which uses oral histories to tell the story of Los Alamos National Laboratory from the perspectives of the people who helped build and maintain it. Malmgren has been a resident of Chimayo, New Mexico since 1971. In this interview, he discusses some of the oral histories from his book and what he has learned about Los Alamos in the process. Malmgren describes interviewees’ perspectives on discrimination, health and safety, and working conditions. He also describes how the interviews have informed his own views of the Los Alamos laboratory.