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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Donald Ames’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Donald Ames describes his experience living and working under Glenn Seaborg at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratories as a G.I. in World War II. He later directed the McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratories.

Date of Interview:
June 18, 2005
Location of the Interview:


Cynthia Kelly: So Don, why don’t you tell us your name and spell it?

Donald Ames: My name is Donald Ames, D-O-N-A-L-D A-M-E-S.

Kelly: Okay, and you should look at me instead of the camera. That’s better. Why don’t you tell us about where you were before the war and how you came to work on the Manhattan Project?

Ames: Okay, I was a farm boy. I went to the University of Wisconsin, where I earned my way through school. Of course, the tuition was only $32 a semester.

Then, in 1941, after December 7th, the university went on speed time, and they gave us the opportunity to stay in school, but we had to take one-year courses in twelve weeks. And we had to take three of those courses in order to stay in school, and we would be classified “1AS.” So I finished up my…

Kelly: Can you explain what “1AS” is?

Ames: “1A” was to be drafted right away and “1AS” was a student, One-A-Student. I finished my work up in December of 1943, and then I took the first job offered me because my draft board said, “You won’t be drafted until March.” So I took a job at Atlantic Refining in Philadelphia, at the junction of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. And I was there for three months, or close to three months.

And then I got my draft notice, went down to Penn Square, where the draft board was. And I was standing in line with about at least two hundred people, two hundred other men. And a man came down the sidewalk, a G.I., hollering a name, and I didn’t pay that much attention but my friend, who was standing with me, said, “Hey, that’s your name. Wonder what they want you for.” And so I raised my hand and he said, “Come with me.” 

So I went with him to a room there inside City Hall, and they swore me in as a member of the Enlisted Reserve Corps. They gave me a ticket to go to the University of Chicago, or actually, a ticket to Chicago on the Pennsylvania Railroad, and money for the trip, and told me to call this phone number when I got into Chicago.

When I arrived in Chicago I called the phone number. It was on a Saturday at night. I called the phone number. They told me to stay in the YMCA downtown. I stayed there. And on Monday morning, I was told to report to the Armory on Cottage Grove Avenue between 53rd and 54th Street, which I did.

When I got there they said, “Oh yes, we’ve been expecting you.” And I waited about a few minutes and there was a G.I. and he said, “We have a person coming over from New Chem to get you.” New Chem turned out to be a building that the University of Chicago had built on their tennis courts for this project, for the metallurgical labs. I got there and the fellow that came to get me, the courier, was a man that I had known in graduate—he was as a graduate student when I was an undergraduate. So it was an old person from the University of Wisconsin.

So I went in—I was escorted into the laboratory and they said, “Oh, you’ve been cleared.” Now I was born in Canada, but I’d already been cleared. And so I went in and a professor that had taught me as a freshman interviewed me and told me about what the metallurgical lab was about and what they were trying to build. 

And first I was assigned to one man and then he was promoted. And I was assigned then to Carr Kindman, and then I was assigned the job of measuring the absorption coefficients of the plutonium valence states, getting ready to determine which valence state could be extracted by organic liquids. So that’s what I worked on. I worked on that and then I was assigned other things, like measuring the half-life of plutonium-240, and also finding out what the half-life of radium was, so that the Radium Corporation of America could get off Groves’ back, because they were accusing Groves of storing radium against them.

See, they had the uranium ore that Groves bought for the project. It was located in Long Island in a warehouse there—I’ve forgotten the number of tons. And he bought it, with the idea of using only the uranium and giving the radium back to the Radium Corporation. Why they wanted the radium was, in hospitals, before the piles, they used radium to generate radon—its [radium’s] daughter is radon—and then they would—it’s a gas, so you can pump it off the radium and you can get the daughters of that, which are beta and gamma emitters, and you can use those for irradiating people with cancer. And that’s what was done early on. So what I did was, I determined the half-life of radium, and I also developed a rapid method for measuring the radium concentration in solutions. 

And I was a G.I. I was inducted into the Army because I was just barely 21; I was inducted into the Army in July. And I was sent to Camp Claiborne to learn basic training and I got none. I got “kitchen police.” And that’s what I got for four weeks until they finally found my orders and sent me back to the University of Chicago to the Met Labs there, which I started working again on the same things that I’d been working on before as a civilian.

And I stayed in the—I had difficulty because I was only given $21 a month, minus $7.50, plus $65 a month. And then that was for subsistence, and you couldn’t live in Chicago. I couldn’t rent any apartments, so I was a member of an organization called Gamma Alpha and I went to the faculty member and asked him to let me be steward of the house. I invited several other GIs in there.

In the wintertime, we couldn’t afford coal, so we had a hot water system. We drained the water out of everything, and drained the water out of the bathrooms, except for one. And we used that. And we heated water on the kitchen stove with gas and used that for shaving and washing in the morning. And I convinced the university athletic department to let me use their showers, all the G.I.s using the showers.

And we convinced one Chinese restaurant to give us food at thirty percent of the price after seven-thirty, so we could buy food cheap. And we got the rest of the food from the U.S.O. [United Service Organizations], and when we ran out of money, which we—and we couldn’t go downtown in Chicago all the time because of our work.

They expected us to work from seven-forty-five until five o’clock, and then from seven o’clock until ten or ten-thirty or eleven o’clock at night. And I worked for—my boss was a PhD and I was low man on the totem pole, so I did what nobody else wanted to do or any other dirty assignments I got. And one of the assignments I got was picking up the notebooks at the end of the day and putting them and storing them in a safe place in the files. I had to do that every night before I went home.

Kelly: You mentioned two things. One was sleeping in Dr. Denton PJs?

Ames: Yeah well, in the winter time, we had a—I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an organization where they have a sleeping dorm or not. But this was a dormitory and we could heat the rooms, which didn’t contain beds. We could heat the rooms with electric heaters. And then what we did was, I had a pair of Dr. Denton’s—well, I had several pairs. And I wore those and I also wore socks on my feet and then I had a stocking cap on my head and I got into a sleeping bag and then I had a big comforter that went over me, a big quilt, and so we could effectively—I had earmuffs, so I could sleep outside and that’s what I had to do because there wasn’t any other way. Where was I going to go?

And I didn’t have to pay any rent, so I could use that money for food. And it was not easy to live there. But when I ran out of money there was a bookstore down on 57th Street. And I’d go down there and they knew me, and they would bring out hot water and there were crackers on the table and there was a bottle of ketchup. So I’d make ketchup soup and have that with crackers. So that’s what I had sometimes for subsistence.

Kelly: You told me that Arthur Holly Compton was replaced by someone who took…

Ames: Farrington Daniels. He took pity on us. Yes he did.

Kelly: Start that again.

Ames: Well, Farrington Daniels was a professor at Wisconsin, and I had known him because I had him as an instructor in physical chemistry. And he taught me how to write reports. And he saw that the G.I.s were not being paid enough to subsist in Chicago, and he and his wife were very gracious and had me to dinner several times, as did a couple other people from Wisconsin, some other professors that I knew.

And he wanted to know how I made it. Well, I told him what I had. And I didn’t feel that I was being discriminated against. I mean, I felt that here, I was a G.I., and I was doing what I was trained to do. Some of these other guys were trained not to do this, they were trained in other fields, but they were carrying guns. And so I thought I was doing all right. 

My boss always asked me every three months, “How are you getting along?” And I told him, “Well, I make it. I’m still living.” And he wanted to know, “How do you eat?” “Well,” I said, “I get along that way.” And so Farrington Daniels saw to it that when the next group—see, there were two groups of enlisted reserve people. Ones that were not twenty-two, they were drafted in June of 1944. Then the next group that was drafted was those who were drafted in July—no, early in 1945, before the Trinity shot. The Federal Draft Board said that anybody who was under twenty-nine would be drafted. And so that’s what happened.

Now those people, they never had to go to Basic [Training]. What they did, Daniels had arranged so that when they were drafted, they were sent to a draft center, which happened to be Fort Sheraton right there in Chicago. And they went up there on a Saturday and they were inducted. And they came back as T-4s. And T-4, of course, a salary of T-4, you could get along very well in Chicago with a salary of a T-4.

[Talking before the cameraman gives the go ahead.]

Kelly: Can you tell me about Glenn Seaborg and his discovery of plutonium? 

Ames: Well yeah, he discovered it. Well, he didn’t, I mean his graduate student and his post-doc, his graduate student, Art Wahl, who I knew very well, and Joe Kennedy, who I knew casually, worked with Seaborg. And they bombarded uranium with neutrons and that produced uranium-239—it was 238, produced 239—then that decayed by beta emission to neptunium-239, which also decays by beta emission to plutonium-239. And guys by the name of [Philip] Abelson and [Emilio] Segrè had discovered neptunium, and so Seaborg just pushed it further, just asked them to push it further, and he got plutonium.

And then of course the assignment for the Met Labs was given to Compton, even though Seaborg was at California. And Seaborg had to move to Chicago to be head of that organization. And he married [Ernest] Lawrence’s secretary. And now Seaborg, as far as Seaborg, well I’ll be brutally frank. He had a high ego. Really high ego.

He had two secretaries. One secretary was for the laboratory, for his activities in the laboratory. The other secretary was to take notes on whatever Glenn Seaborg did. And there are four volumes for his four years. He started in ’42, ’43, ’44 and ’45: four volumes of notes. And those notes—the people on the project, who were on the project the years that the book represented, got copies of those notes.

Then three authors—or three men from Battelle [Press] took the notes and condensed them in a book. So the book is there, and it’s called G.T. Seaborg’s Journal Notes. And you can get it from Battelle. And they picked out certain aspects of the project to put in that book. And so it’s just a thick book, about three and a half inches thick.

Now, as far as his treatment of the people. Being from the University of California, he worked for G. N. [Gilbert Newton] Lewis out there on acids and bases. That’s how he got his PhD. He did not work on radioactivity, but he was entranced by the work that was going on with [Ernest] Lawrence’s cyclotron. And that’s how he got into radioactivity. There was a guy out there, a physicist by the name of J. [John] J. Livingood, who taught him radioactivity and what the cyclotron could do. 

And now his treatment of people. He was typical of the people from the University of California and their schools and some of the Eastern schools like Princeton and Harvard and M.I.T. They have a tendency to feel that people trained in the Midwest are second-class people. And so his favorites in the laboratories were people that were trained at California or in the Eastern schools. And he gave short-shrift to the people from the Midwestern universities. And so sort of the mundane jobs were assigned to those, the people from the Midwest. 

Now you have to remember that, in Seaborg’s group, there were very, very few technicians, very few. The lowest grades were the bachelor’s people, and that’s all I had, was a bachelor’s degree. Now I was Phi Beta Kappa and I had gone through school in three years. And with this section, I think I was qualified. And, since that time, I have a PhD and I was director of a laboratory with seventy PhDs.

And we turned out a lot of things, such as the helicopter with no tail rotor, the laser that’s in the airborne laser lab, a lot of the stealth work that is now done. And I worked on [Project] Gemini. I’m responsible for the ’76# mission of Gemini where the two Geminis met in space. And I also did—responsible for the catalyst that’s used on aircraft to get rid of the ozone. And I did other things, like I built a quantitative NMR [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance] spectrometer, which got rid of the frothing from detergents. I worked on the structures of that. So, there are other things I did too.

And the Manhattan Project was a real experience for me. I learned a lot of things. And I learned what kind of management I would be, or what I thought was good management and what was bad management. And I felt that, if you have a person, you should know what that person was doing and you should encourage him. I never got any encouragement from Seaborg. Another guy and I, we were assigned the job of measuring plutonium-240. That’s just a neutron capture of plutonium-239.


Copyright 2012 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.