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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Felix DePaula’s Interview (2008)

Manhattan Project Locations:

Felix DePaula was an Army private stationed at the Trinity Site and Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. After the war, DePaula stayed at Los Alamos, and worked for the Zia Company there. In this interview, DePaula talks about life at Trinity Site, especially the isolation and the entertainment he and his fellow soldiers would come up with to pass the time. He describes the rodeos the military police would help set up. DePaula also witnessed the Trinity test, and talks about the feeling among the troops after seeing the detonation. He also recalls the high security at the gates to Los Alamos.

Date of Interview:
December 29, 2008
Location of the Interview:


[Thanks to David Schiferl and Willie Atencio for recording this interview and providing a copy to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.]

David Schiferl: Tell us how you got here.

Felix DePaula: Well, let me start with being inducted into the service in 1944, October of ’44, into the Corps of Engineers at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Then from there, I was sent to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and I spent a couple of months in the wintertime at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Then, all of a sudden, we were interviewed to come out to the wonderful state of New Mexico with the nice, warm climate in January. They painted a rosy, rosy picture. I think the officer interviewing us did not know one thing about New Mexico himself.

Well, I accepted it, and the next thing I knew we were getting on a train. We had our duffel bag. We had our OD [olive drab] clothing on it. We had our field helmet, the steel helmet. We had our gas masks over our shoulder, and this was all to identify the group coming out to New Mexico. I believe our first stop from Washington, D.C., was Chicago. We still had to wear all this gear, and someone met us in Chicago and took us to another train. I think we went on down from there.

I think we went to Kansas City and the same thing happened. Someone met us there and we had our OD clothing on and all. Then we were on our way to New Mexico, to Lamy. Someone had told us that “My gosh, you guys are going to die of the heat with those OD clothes on,” because they were pretty heavy winter clothes. We stripped our OD clothes off and put our khakis on.

When we arrived at Lamy, there was a foot of snow on the ground. And right off the bat, we were in the train station there, changing back to our OD clothes. We were picked up there by some sort of a limousine, which carried about eight or ten people. We were ushered up to Los Alamos. We got up here in the dark. We didn’t know too much about it. We entered the barracks, which didn’t have any bedding in it or anything. We had to trample through a foot of snow up here. It was not anything like the picture we were drawn in our first interview.

The next morning, we got up. It was quite an experience for me to look down into the valley and see a cloud cover, looking on top of the clouds. I mean this is something unheard of in New York. Then I worked at the service station and we did other odd-man jobs up here.

It might have been the first part of March that we were sent down to Trinity Site. When we got down there, we were in for a big, big surprise. Because we got in the barracks, woke up the next morning, went to shower and the water was so, I guess, alkaline that you could not get any suds out of the soap. You just couldn’t. The soap just stayed on your body and then your hair. The MPs [Military Police] that were down there before us were just waiting for us to take the shower, which we did with the others when they came down. It was a learning experience. You had to use special hard-water soaps to be able to clean yourself.

And then we started our working down at the camp site. There were three other fellows and myself that were kind of a help to anyone that needed help down there: the plumbers, the electricians, the carpenters, and so on. Whenever they needed someone, they would call on us to help them. We did what we were told to do down there not knowing anything about the camp.

Then we found out that we were restricted to the camp. We could not leave it in any way whatsoever unless you were on your deathbed. A few people did get sick and then sent back up to Los Alamos, but they cured them in twenty-four hours’ time. They were sent back to the camp. It was kind of a hard life at the beginning, because here you are in the States and you are restricted to a small camp that is just like being in some sort of a prison. Of course, we had a run of the vast plains that occupied the area around the camp. We made good work of our time off.

We would put in eight and ten hour days at that camp, building the posts and rails that carried all of the wire equipment to the different bunkers and different distances from ground zero. Of course, we did not know what ground zero was at the time. The few people that did know were up here in Los Alamos. We were just constructing things for them. It was quite an experience. We made good with our time, even though we were restricted. We set up a baseball field. The MPs had horses. They would have polo games using broomsticks as the polo club and all. We got together real well because we all understood the problem that we had down there.

Of course, I go back to Lieutenant [Harold C.] Bush. They could never have picked a better man to go ahead and be in charge of that camp. He knew the problems that he was going to run into with men being restricted, especially when we have got a half a dozen fellows that had been in the South Pacific for three years, and they were sent to Trinity Site. And here they are thinking coming back to the States they didn’t have to worry about any restrictions of any sort, and now they are restricted to a small camp a half a mile or a mile in radius at the most. They were a little bit upset with that. But in time, every one of us learned that we had to do what we were doing. Like I say, if it wasn’t for Lieutenant Bush being the man he was and as close as he was to us, it would have made it a lot harder for us.

Finally, we were given different jobs down there. Every so often, one of us would have to take on the duty of cleaning the camp up. That’s where I accumulated some pictures from our photographer. Of course, none of them are restricted, but he did get himself in trouble for having some restricted pictures later on after the bomb was dropped and all.

We were out in the field and I happened to come across a crow’s nest with a couple of young crows. I latched on to them. They became my buddies. I’ve got pictures of those crows on my shoulder and walking around the camp. Other people went into town and come back with a couple of dogs. One fellow went ahead and had a trained hawk down there. Marvin Davis was his name. I’ve met Marvin several times in the last thirty years or so. Marvin has a very, very good mind. He could almost recall every day down there at Trinity Site. He was quite an important man to some of the people that interviewed him here.

It turned out that we enjoyed ourselves down there even though we were restricted. When it came time after the bomb was dropped, we finally realized what we were doing down at the camp, and that all of the hardships we had at the camp and the loneliness and all that, was worth every day of it. Our biggest problem down there was Friday afternoon, when all of the so-called scientists and people that worked with the Special Engineers at Los Alamos would leave at noon in the government vehicles and go back to Los Alamos. They would come back Monday morning. They had the freedom of the weekends and we were restricted on our weekends. That was not a very easy task, to go ahead and watch them leave. Us knowing that we couldn’t go anywhere.

Well, it turned out that when we were fine. When the bomb was dropped, Lieutenant Bush got all of us. He gave us all a recommendation of some sort, which I have with me. He got us all a thirty-day furlough, which was pretty nice. Because when I got back home to my home in Brooklyn, New York, I was one of the few GIs in the neighborhood that was home at the time. I had the freedom of the theaters. They’d let me in free. I got several dinners. People just gave you free meals.

I have several pictures of the parties that they set up after the war because there were five brothers in my—six of us in my family, and five of us were in the service. We were very fortunate that all five of us came through the war. Four of my brothers spent their time overseas and I spent my time here in the States.

When we were discharged from—to show you how we enjoyed our life down there—they gave us a choice of staying down at Trinity Site and maintaining the camp, or we could go to Kirtland Air Force Base and be stationed there, or we would come back to Los Alamos. There were so many that wanted to stay down there at the camp that they had to pick straws. The shortest straws would stay down there and the rest of them would pick their choice of Kirtland or Los Alamos. I chose Los Alamos. Then I came back up here.

But it’s amazing how people can entertain themselves when they are restricted like we were. The horses were a big part of our life down there. Then out in the desert there were some stray cattle that were left over from acquiring that land down there. There were some mules down there. We corralled and brought them in, and we had our own little rodeo. Some of the fellows trying to ride those wild mules. You can see we entertained ourselves real well. We had one corner with rattlesnakes that the MPs would run into almost every day down there. In fact, one place even had a few scorpions in it. Of course, we had some “Do Not Enter” signs or “Enter at Your Own Risk” and all that. They made sure that we wouldn’t get hurt.

The hardest part was at the beginning, going from the hard-water stage to the soft-water stage. That came about with us having a tanker on a truck. It held something like a 700 or 800 or 900-gallon tank on it. We would go into Socorro, fill it with water, and then come back and empty it into our water tower. I think we had to make that trip two or three times a week to supply us with the water needed for the mess hall and the latrines.

Then one of the biggest advances we also got – we acquired a swamp cooler for our kitchen, because it was so hot in the summertime that you could hardly bear to go into the hot kitchen and mess hall and eat. You would be perspiring. Well, they got us a great big swamp cooler. It’s amazing how much of a difference that made. Little things like that just made life a little bit more bearable for us.

We had access to all the Jeeps and trucks. In the evening, we would take off and go into the desert and watch the herds of antelope and deer and other animals. I mean there is not much more you can do when you are restricted like we were. At the end, it turned out to be one of the nicest places that I spent in the service. I didn’t regret one minute later on.

The night of the dropping of the bomb was a different story all together. We were all woken up and had to get out of our barracks and put our helmets on and our clothes and all. We were sitting behind a high bunker of dirt that was built out there. We were told the direction that the explosion is going to go off at, and we were given some welders’ goggles with shields to look at the blast, but we couldn’t look at the—they told us not to look at the blast until after we knew the bomb had been detonated. They never even used the word “bomb.” They just said after the “detonation” and all.

When it went off, the whole canyon that we were in lit up like it was daytime. That’s how tremendous it was. Now, I have never been involved with any kind of explosives in my life except firecrackers at home. It really didn’t impress me too much. I was still an 18-year-old boy that did not know much about life.

But we had a 35-year-old man whose last name was Borden. We used to call him “Pop” Borden. That man dealt with explosives in upstate New York where they would blast out tree trunks from the ground and work on roads. He had some kind of an idea of what an explosion could be like. I recall three days after the explosion, he was still like in a semi-trance, and telling everyone that was the awfulest thing he had ever experienced in his life. He said, “I don’t know how anything could ever survive for miles around with an explosion like that.” He really had an idea of the tremendous disaster that could be caused by detonating the bomb.

Life down there was pretty hard. I will admit that. It was pretty hard because of the isolation, but we made good work of our time. We worked hard. I remember one incident where General [Leslie R.] Groves came down on the weekend. He wanted to know what we were doing Sunday afternoon, just milling around not doing much.

Lieutenant Bush said, “Well, the boys have been working six days, some of them putting in ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day. I just give them Sunday off.”

He said, “That doesn’t go down here. I want these men working seven days a week.”

We didn’t have an awful lot of love for General Groves, but we didn’t know his impact on the Manhattan Project. He was really running the project. He kind of initiated the Dumbo [misspoke: Jumbo], which was this massive, massive steel tank that they had to have built in one of the states. I wouldn’t know the name of the company that built it. But they had a massive truck with about sixty-four wheels on it, and a platform and the wheels seemed to me like they were at least three feet high. It was a big, massive thing. They had to move that cross country.

His idea was to go ahead and set the bomb off inside that massive steel tank, but I think some of the scientists, [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and [Enrico] Fermi and some of the others, told him that they didn’t think that the steel tank was going to hold up. They were right. They finally set it off on the side close to the explosion. It took the explosion, but I think it did break in half because there is still half of it down there at Trinity Site now. I think the other half is off in a field somewhere.

Even though it was a little bit hard at times and a little bit lonely at times, we did make very good work of our time. We found ways of entertaining ourselves. They moved in a little 8-millimeter movie camera. After two or three months down there, we were able to get movies twice a week. We had a fair supply of beer and soda pop. We had a day room that they set up for us with a pool table. Lieutenant Bush did as much as he could to go ahead and make life a little bit more bearable down there.

All in all, when I look back at it – and in fact right after the explosion – we all felt a little bit of pride in the fact that we did have some little thing to do with ending of the war, because it did not take too much longer and the war was over with Japan. That seems to be a little bit of the life down there. I am sure other people have some other stories.

We have got some very interesting stories. One of them I don’t want to repeat, but it has something to do with a snake and a bunch of people in line going to the mess room. One of these days, I suspect I will get myself in trouble over it, but it’s written up in some of the books that I have been interviewed in. We all made the best of it. We all made the best of it. We had a wonderful bunch of fellows down there that treated each with respect, and tried to make life about as easy as it could be made in an area like that.

We have to remember that we were in the middle of a desert there and the camp only covered about—one mile was the size of the camp. I believe we had something like 40 or 50 MPs at the beginning and 40 or 50 engineers at the beginning. I think in the final days of the explosion, we had maybe about 400 people down there. That made it very hard on the personnel down there because they were not equipped to really take care of that many people. Some of the barracks were makeshift for them.

Then, of course, we started realizing that it was a little bit bigger than just a camp down there. We were working on some kind of a project that was quite important for the country. I think there was a lot of pride built up amongst the men that were down there. You could see that we enjoyed it, because I think it was about a third of us that stayed down at the camp and got discharged from Trinity Site. At least I believe they were discharged. Maybe they were forced to go to some other camp and discharged somewhere else, but about a third of them wanted to stay down there.

Well, let’s face it. You didn’t have to stand up for any revelry. You didn’t have to put on airs with nice, clean clothes. You could walk around in skivvies if you wanted to. The meals were very good. We did have good meals. We had two wonderful cooks down there and a Mess Sergeant. They made sure that the food that we had was very good. It was quite an experience. I look back at it with probably a lot of pride. Maybe, I don’t know. But when I talk with people about our service experience, mine always goes back to Trinity Site.

Up here in Los Alamos, it was a lot different. That’s why I came back here instead of going to Kirtland. I knew more people up here than I did anywhere else, probably more than I knew back home. It was a young camp. In 1946, I believe the average age up here was probably around 35. It was really a young, young group of people up here. It was a very nice place to stay and live. We enjoyed Los Alamos tremendously.

Then, as it got bigger, things started changing. It became probably one of the best cities in the United States. I don’t think there are many cities that can compare with Los Alamos today, but it was a growing experience. At one time, they were talking about disbanding it and just doing away with Los Alamos, but then they realized the importance of Los Alamos and the technical people they had up here. I think it was through Senator [Clinton] Anderson and Senator [Joseph] Montoya that Los Alamos stayed on and is exactly what it is today. It’s world renowned.

I enjoyed every minute in Los Alamos, met my wife here. We married up here and then moved down into the Valley in 1954. Got to know the people in the Valley in Española real well and stayed there until the present day. I suspect I’ll live my life out in Española, but I just can’t say too much about the eight months that I spent down there at Trinity Site. It was a very, very good experience for me. I enjoyed it. It turns out that I enjoyed that stay in the service more than any of my other places in the service. I think that’s just a little bit of it. I mean a lot of other things went on, but it gives you some general idea.

The loneliness was the thing that people down there couldn’t—especially the poor fellows that came in from overseas after spending three years over in the South Pacific and all, then coming back and being restricted.

I will recall one night now. Most of us down there had no experience with any kind of bombings of any sort. One night we were all sitting around in our barracks, playing cards and doing different things. All of a sudden, there was a whistling sound and a few of these boys from overseas jumped off their seats and actually got underneath one of the bed bunks.

We were bombed. It seemed like Kirtland Air Force Base had a bombing range over in the desert somewhere. The pilot of the practice run saw the lights from our camp and mistook that for the bombing range, and he dropped a half a dozen bombs on the campsite. It wasn’t very—I think it was something they said later on—it was five pounds of black powder or something like that. It was just supposed to hit the ground and make some sort of a flash, but we didn’t realize what they were going through when they fell to the floor and crawled under the bed, the bunks, until we heard the explosions outside the camp.

None of them hit the camp. But I think there were some explosions that might have been maybe 200 or 300 feet from the camp. That was one of the things that happened down there that was quite exciting.  Of course, Lieutenant Bush put a stop to that immediately. Boy, some people had to answer to him what in the world was going on. Of course, that was the first and last time that ever happened.

There were some things like that that happened down there that would go ahead and break the loneliness. Of course, we talked about the bomb for two or three days after that. Those poor fellows that experienced the bombs, they could hear that whistling and I am sure that whistling brought back a lot of memories for them. They let us know that you hear stuff like that in your lifetime and you just never, never forget it.

That was just one of the incidents. There were other things that happened that were kind of enjoyable. We had some incidents with the wild mules down there and the rodeos that we would have to break up our time. But all in all, it was a great experience. I guess I am little bit proud of having spent my time down there. I think the same with all the other fellows that are down there.

That’s about it. I can’t say an awful lot more about Los Alamos because I spent most of my time at Trinity. I can’t really talk too much about Los Alamos because it was just like any Army camp, except that you had to have permission to come in and out of the gate.

The one thing I will remember that scared the living daylights out of me was when we made the trip up to Los Alamos on the bus. There are still remnants of the old road. I don’t know if you know where it is, Willie. I am sure you do. Right at the big turn, to the left you can still see the road going. Well, the buses could not negotiate that turn. What they had to do was pull up to the turn and then back down and then go up the turn. Well, that was fine in the dark, but when we saw what they had to do in the daytime, it really scared the daylights out of us.

But those that were driving the bus were so used to it, they knew just how to go about it and negotiate the turn without any problems. Do you mean to say that we have to back up and look over the end of that canyon? It only lasted for a few minutes. Then we realized that they made hundreds of trips. Then they built a new road and that made things much, much nicer and easier for access to Los Alamos.

I remember an incident that happened where some Army officer was coming through Santa Fe and he heard about the Hill. I don’t know what his rank was, but it was fairly high. I think much higher than a captain, something of that sort. He wanted to come up and investigate what was going on in this camp up here. He got to the Main Gate and this private with the MPs went out to him and asked him for his identification and his badge to be able to come in.

He told the MP, “I don’t need that. I am an officer. I can go into any camp without any problems.”

Well, the poor private, here he is talking to this high-ranking officer and telling him, “I can’t let you come in unless you get cleared in here.”

Apparently, that officer really read the riot act to him. The young boy finally got on the phone and called his commander and told him. He said, “I’ve got an officer out here that wants to come in and he doesn’t have a clearance.”

They said, “Just hold him there a few minutes.” I don’t know what the wording was exactly, but it had to be something like that.

His superior went down with a couple of the MPs and of course they had their guns with them and all. They didn’t show them, I am sure. He ushered that officer away and told him that if he didn’t turn around and leave, he would have to suffer the consequences.

Then he turned around to the private and he said, “You did a very good job, sergeant.” They promoted that private to a sergeant immediately– he couldn’t believe. The next day, he’s walking around with sergeant stripes. Some things like that did happen.

If you left the Main Gate, you had to come in the Main Gate. Now, if you left by the Bandelier Gate out in the North Community, you had to come in that gate, too. Because your badge was at those gates. They didn’t want to be running badges back and forth. My brother and his wife came out to visit me. We went out the back gate. We left the badges there. We tried to come in the front gate and they wouldn’t let me in. I had to backtrack all the way around Bandelier and all to get to the back gate to be able to get back into the camp.

There were many things that happened up here that made life very bearable. Los Alamos was a very, very nice place. I enjoyed every minute of it here. Then of course, like I said, I moved down to the Valley and made that my home. I enjoyed the Valley until this day. So now I leave everything up to you fellows. If you have got some questions, I’ll be glad to answer them if I can, but that was just a little bit of life at Trinity Site.

Schiferl: Well, you left two threads to follow. One is you talked about the mule rodeos down at Trinity Site. You said there were some amusing events. So maybe you could tell us if you remember any of those specific events with the rodeo that were funny?

DePaula: We had a couple of innovative GIs down there that could think of crazy things like that. They went out, and I don’t know how in the world they corralled three or four of those mules—they were wild donkeys—but they did. They weren’t easy to catch. They brought them back into the camp and that’s when they thought it would be fun to go ahead and see if you could ride them.

I didn’t ride them because I just wasn’t that brave a person. But some of the bigger boys tried getting on it. We had one person with us, whose name was [Bert] Sigler. He was an ex-fighter before he got into the service. He was a big, big man, but as gentle as could be, nicest person in the world. They got Sigler. I am sure that Sigler must have been a very muscular man; I am sure he was pushing 200 pounds.

I remember him getting on one of those mules. He couldn’t stay on that mule’s back when they let that mule go. They held the mule. Then they would let him go. We had some sort of a corral there. They let them go. He came off that mule in a very short time! Other people tried to ride it. I don’t know if anyone ever rode one of those mules.

But we did set up a baseball field. We had our games with the Special Engineers up in Los Alamos against the people that went down at Trinity Site. We had our two teams. Then, of course, on Sunday the MPs would put on their show with the polo matches using the broomsticks for the clubs and all. Things like this just kept on going on.

Then out at the McDonald Ranch, they had a water tank that—oh, if I remember, it was probably about 15 feet wide, maybe, by 25 feet long, something like that. We had it filled with water. We would go up. We had our own swimming hole, too. So that made life a little bit better, except that the water was so hard that when you came out, it dried on your body and you were scratching and itching all over. We had to get back into camp to take a shower with the clean water.

We just kept doing things to occupy our time. Like I was saying, Lieutenant Bush was only too happy to let us have as much freedom as we could have. In the evenings, we could take the vehicles and go out and look at the animals, or chase them or whatever we wanted to do. We were able to play cards. Payday, he allowed the fellows to go ahead and gamble down there, if they wanted to gamble their paycheck. He didn’t object to it in any way. He did as much as he could, possibly. He got the 8-millimeter camera there. He got movies for us. He did as much as he could to go ahead and break the monotony of being down there.

In fact, there were incidents where some fellows went into town, or they made a trip to Los Alamos and they came back. They brought some whiskey with them. He allowed men to go ahead and have a little bit of whiskey on the campground. He made sure that there was beer if we wanted it. He did everything he could possibly do. He made life a lot more bearable for us.

I am sure he told all of his subordinates that things were going to happen down there. People were going to get a little bit out of hand and maybe people would get a little bit short tempered, and just have to learn to go ahead and live with it. I am sure that happened several times. I don’t know of any times that had happened, but I am sure it did. But that was kind of entertainment we could do. We just couldn’t do much more.

Like I said, we made pets of some of the animals we could bring in. We had a little old wire hair terrier there, a little dog that would go out in the field. One day, he got tangled up with a porcupine and came in with several quills in his face. He was in bad shape. Our medic down there—I can’t remember his name, another very nice person. He sat there and cut every one of those quills out of that poor dog’s face. Well, that was the last time that dog ever had any quills. He learned then how to attack a porcupine if he encountered them.

Yeah, there were a couple of other dogs that people had. Dogs seemed to be a man’s best friend down there. In fact, I think Marvin Davis had his dog. He had raised from a pup down there. When he was discharged, he took it home with him. They became a big part of our lives down there.

The crows—they were just a joy for everyone because they would fly around camp. All you would have to do is have a little bit of raw meat, and they would come right on your arm and go ahead and eat it. I would walk around with them on my shoulders and all. Everyone seemed to enjoy them. Then of course, we had an incident where someone happened to step on one one day, walking around the barracks or running around, and broke its wing. We had to kill it.

The other one was killed in a very, very nasty way that I hate to even repeat. Whoever did it to him—we know who did it to him, but we let it go as just part of life down there. But we did lose both of them. One of them by accident and one of them from a person that considered crows to be the nastiest birds in the world.

But entertainment, it’s surprising. After our experience down there, I believe that people that are in jails and all that find ways to entertain themselves even in jail. Of course, you just have to. You just have to go ahead and occupy your time with some other interest other than just sitting on a bunk and looking up at the stars and all. I mean, well, that was it. It was just a great experience. All of us except for a few had no idea what in the world we were doing down there. No idea in the world. We just did what we were told to do and that was it.

There were other things that happened with me that I wouldn’t want to happen with the person from overseas. Now Captain [Samuel] Davalos was another man that was probably somewhat like General Groves. He demanded a lot more from us.

I know he demanded something from one of the men that came in from overseas. He gave them two or three jobs to do. That man just came back. It was something quite funny for us, but I wouldn’t repeat it here, about what had happened. He walked away from Captain Davalos and left him standing there with his mouth open.

They would sit there and tell us some of the problems they ran into in their experience in the South Pacific. They were quite interesting to talk to, those men. Life just went on and like I say, when it was over with, it turned out to be quite a nice experience for us.

Well, I will go through the snake story. My friend and I—I keep looking at those barracks and I know—we were coming out of the barracks going to lunch in the mess hall. There was a snake right in front of the steps.

Well, I had a pole, about an eight-foot pole with a kind of a steel end on it. When I would go walking off into the desert, I took that pole with me because there were snakes all over the place. I grabbed the pole, and I lifted underneath that snake’s belly and I gave it a whip.

Now, I didn’t realize that I am going to throw it off somewhere. If I had thrown it left, it would have gone out in the desert, but I whipped it right. It went over the buildings. My friend and I went around and there was a commotion going on. It turned out that that snake had landed and hit one of the soldiers that was in the mess hall line. There was a big commotion about that. My friend and I didn’t dare tell anyone what had happened.

The story goes that it must have been a hawk or an eagle or something flying over with a snake, and it dropped out of its claws and happened to land there. Some of the people knew about it. We sure kept it quiet because I think that boy that it hit or landed on or—I don’t know, but it did hit him—I think if he had found out what we did, we would still be running across that desert with him chasing us.

We had another incident that wasn’t very pleasant. We almost lost two men. They decided to go ahead and take one of the Jeeps—it was on the weekend—they decided to take a Jeep and go for a ride. By this time, it was probably June or July. It was very, very hot out, very hot. Their Jeep broke down on them.

Now, if they had used their head, they would have stayed with the Jeep because there are MPs patrolling the road all the time. Well, the country is flat enough to where they could see the camp up there, and they thought they could make it across the desert and walk to camp because it couldn’t have been too far. But they didn’t realize, not having any water or anything, six miles or seven miles in the desert is a long, long ways to go.

Well, the MPs found the pickup, or the Jeep, whatever they were driving. They didn’t find the fellows, so they could tell that they took off across the desert and tried to walk to camp. They could have stayed on the road. They could have stayed with the pickup and everything would have been fine. It might have been hot wherever they were, but it was better than—so we took off on foot, several of us, made a great big line and just walked across the desert.

We found one of them was laying underneath a yucca plant in the shade. They took care of him real well. They could see the other boy had a yucca stick with his T-shirt on it and he was kind of waving it in the air. They got him. But if they didn’t find that pickup or Jeep or whatever it was that they were driving, and didn’t go out looking for those two boys, we might have lost them. I don’t know if we would have or not, because they still had a few miles to go before they could get to the camp. They just didn’t. They panicked and didn’t use their judgment. That’s all.

But it taught every one of us a lesson. Stay with your vehicle. Don’t try to cut cross country, especially in the hot weather like that was. That had to be June or July that they were trying to get across that desert. That was probably the worst incident we had down there where we possibly could have lost a couple of our friends.

There were other things that happened within the eight or nine miles. I am sure that most of the fellows—I have only seen a little bit of it. A lot of the other fellows saw a lot of other things that they could go ahead and talk about. We had a great, great crew of men.

The only time we did get out of camp, Captain Bush—it was Easter Sunday. He thought all of the boys would like to go ahead and go to church on Easter Sunday, because we did not have any church services there. We did not have a chaplain of any sort down there. He allowed us to go to church in Socorro, but we had to go ahead and dress up with our khakis and look halfway neat, not walking around in shorts and old clothes and all.

He had all of us that wanted to go. That was one of the times that most of us got out of camp. Of course, some of the fellows didn’t care to go, but we were looking for any kind of an excuse to go out. I would make it a point to talk with the water truck whenever it was going into Socorro to get water. If they didn’t have a copilot with them, because two people had to be on the truck at all times, I would be willing to go ahead and go in with them. I got to go in with the water tank a couple of times, and so did some of the other fellows. Anything to go ahead and break the monotony of the camp. There were probably several other things that happened that made life a lot more enjoyable down there. That was about it.

Willie Atencio: I would just like to complement the story that you said about the Army officer going up to Los Alamos.

Schiferl: Yes.

Atencio: I have heard this story that this Army general who had property in the Española Valley—he had an orchard. His name was General Charles Corlett.

DePaula: Oh, Corlett. Oh yes.

Atencio: General Charles Corlett. He was an aide to General Eisenhower. Somehow, he made his way back to the Valley. He found out that there was something going on in Los Alamos, so he decided he wanted to go find out. He is the officer that went up there trying to get in, trying to find out what was going on in Los Alamos. We have been told that he was not allowed to go into the camp. So security was very, very tight, even for a general that didn’t have any business there, to enter Los Alamos.

DePaula: I knew he was a high-ranking officer. Now, this even confirms more or less what I was saying.

Atencio: General Corlett had an orchard there in the Santo Niño area of the Española Valley and as a result, we have Corlett Road.

DePaula: That’s right.

Atencio: That’s the way it is.

Schiferl: Thank you.

DePaula: It must have been pretty shocking to that GI when his commanding officer said, “You did a very good job, Sergeant.”

Atencio: There is a lot of history here.

DePaula: Yeah, these things happened all the time. We were lucky to be there and hear the story. Now, probably lots of people never even heard that incident. But a few of us did because we knew the serviceman that was on duty. The next day he was walking around with sergeant’s stripes on. When he told us the whole story—but here Willie went ahead and gave us the name of the officer and all, which makes it even more interesting.

The coming in and out of the camp was not easy. It just wasn’t easy. I am sure there were several people detained at the Main Gate because they did not have—now, it was easy enough to get into camp if you had someone that would verify that you knew someone in town and all that. It was very easy to get a pass for them and a permit, because my brother and his wife—when I told them they were coming up here, they were on their honeymoon at the time and they were coming by—it was no problem to go ahead and get them clearance to come in. But I had to go down to the gate and sign the pass for them to come in. I was responsible for them. Then they would be with me all the time and then when they left, I had to check them out.

They didn’t make it impossible, but they made it a little bit of a difficulty, because they didn’t want people coming in and out of the camp at will. Well that proved it. If you did not have anyone—I am sure the General, if he went through the proper channels, he probably could have gotten into the camp. But he took it upon his rank to go ahead and say, “I can go in anyplace I want.” Well, he found out that he couldn’t.

We had an incident happen in Trinity Site which was quite interesting. It seemed like this one rancher several miles from our camp—a rancher can have two or three hundred head of cattle and he knows he’s got two hundred or three hundred. If one of them is missing, he knows that one is missing. Well, one of his animals went missing, one of his steers or cow was missing.

I believe it was a Sunday afternoon because we were all in camp at the time. Here comes this man on horseback into camp. You would swear he was Gary Cooper, because he had his rifle in his saddlebag and all. I guess that was just normal for when they went out. But he came into camp and as soon as that happened, of course, half a dozen MPs were there to stop him. They had their guns and all.

I believe Lieutenant Bush went out to greet him and wanted to know what was going on. The man told us. He said one of his animals was missing. “I don’t know if you people in this camp got it or what happened to it, but I do want you to know that I don’t want to catch any of you people on my ranch again, or you are going to suffer the consequences.”

Lieutenant Bush apologized to him and told him that he didn’t think that we had anything to do with that missing animal. He didn’t really convince the owner of that other ranch, but they just told him he would have to turn around and leave. They followed him out of the camp. It wasn’t just a ten-minute walk. It was several hours before they got him to where he came through the fence and left the camp. Then they turned around and came back.

But that was one of the incidents that happened that I remember. Then, of course, my little snake deal and there were other things on that. I think they scared many of the GIs. The MPs were always teasing people like myself. They would have a bull snake, which is a harmless snake. They would have me jumping all over the place by throwing it at my feet. But that was life down there. It was quite an experience. I think I could sit here and probably repeat and think of other things that might have happened. Then I went to work with the warehouse up at Los Alamos.

We had a boy from Texas, a Mexican boy. I say Mexican. I don’t know if he was from Mexico or if he was Spanish, but he knew the language real well. And he worked—I don’t know if you ever heard of the King Ranch in Texas, but it’s a tremendously big ranch. He worked at that ranch. Then he was drafted in the service. They drafted him up here. His name was Pablo, I believe.

His job was to travel around to all of these small communities, clear on up into the Taos area, and clear on down into south of Santa Fe. All of these little communities, recruiting people to come up to Los Alamos to work. So he would set up a meeting probably at the local churches because that’s where most people met, and tell them about Los Alamos and tell them that there was plenty of work up there. All they had to do was come and apply for a job up there and be admitted.

Of course, they scrutinized some of them because some of them had some—but that was Pablo’s job, his main job. I had the occasion to go ahead and go to one of the communities with him on one of his trips. In fact, I may have gone on more than one because we became very close friends. That was strictly Pablo’s job. He would get in the government vehicle and take off and go up into churches and go up into Ojo Sarco and go to Peñasco.

He knew every little town around here and probably all of those people from those communities knew him. Because now they didn’t have to go several hundred miles from their home to work – that’s what they did in those days. Most of the men worked up in Colorado and Northern New Mexico and Southern New Mexico. Then they would come back with their families in the wintertime and all. Now they had a place to go to work and make a living and stay at home and be able to take care of their little farms. I am sure it was a great big boost to the economy in the Valley. In fact, I know the economy of the Valley improved because of Los Alamos. I am sure Santa Fe did, too. But he had a very interesting job and complete run of a vehicle.

Atencio: Does this picture bring back any memories. It’s a picture of the area.

DePaula: Well—

Atencio: Did you ever lived in any of these apartments? Did you ever work in any of these places?

DePaula: Well, of course, we worked in—let’s see where, the main take off was right here. I believe it was T building. GMX-4 had some rooms up in that area where we would meet in the morning before we went out to the site. But most of my time was spent over at the GMX site out of town. I forget the name of it, but it was GMX-6 anyway. Then in ’53, they built a new site for us down in Ancho Canyon. I don’t see that anywhere. But my hard work was right in this building. Well, let’s see. Maybe I am wrong. Gamma, that’s the building. I’m sorry. That’s where we had our office, here in the Gamma building.

I know this is quite an old picture because of the wooden tower that was the water supply for the area. I am looking over here. These buildings—I am looking for the mess hall. Well, our mess hall was down on this end. There is the commissary there. That was the post office. But our mess hall was down on this end. Then the SED mess hall was back in this area.

Schiferl: Was your mess hall the building that became the Los Alamos Little Theater?

DePaula: To tell you the truth, I don’t know if that was ever a mess hall. I know it was our own—well, no, we had two theaters up here. Maybe it was a mess hall to begin with and then they made it into a dance hall. We used to have our weekly Saturday night dances at that building. But the original camp could not have covered much more area than that. I mean there had to be a little bit more in this direction. Now, this is coming into—

Atencio: This is coming in from the east. This is Ashley Pond.

DePaula: Yeah, that’s coming from the east. This was the Northern Area. Oh no, Northern Area is back there where they had the corrals and the horses. They still had horse mesa out there. This was the Western Area. They didn’t have too much in the Western Area then, but that pretty much covered Los Alamos. Now, let’s see, Willie, did they have the bridge coming across here?

Atencio: That’s not even in the picture.

DePaula: That’s not in the picture, see, so this is quite an old picture.

Atencio: 1946.

DePaula: Has it got the date on it, ’46? Oh, yeah. In fact, there was probably nothing out there in the Western Area. All the living was down in this area here. These buildings were apartments, weren’t they?

Atencio: I think those are—

DePaula: Administration buildings.

Atencio: This is all office buildings.

DePaula: Those were all office buildings.

Atencio: This was the Tech Area. The Tech Area was behind the fence.

DePaula: There were homes back in here, I am sure, where some people lived. It’s pretty interesting to talk to some of the  older scientists and the buildings they lived in up here. They didn’t have much in the way of real fancy quarters. They were all old type, cramped quarters for them, but it is pretty decent. I haven’t seen that picture. I think it pretty much covers Los Alamos at the time. Because I guess—see, I was discharged in July of ’46.

Atencio: You were discharged at Los Alamos?

DePaula: Actually, discharged at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Then I came back up here because the Zia Company had already taken over by then. I was working in the warehouse at the time. Of course, they told me that my job was waiting for me as a civilian. So that’s why I came back. I came back with the idea of just staying up here six months or so and then going back East, but the longer I stayed—

Atencio: The more you liked it?

DePaula: The more I liked it and the less money I had to go back home. [Laughter] In ’49, I caused some problems. I decided I was going to leave the Zia Company.  At that time, I had an apartment up here. I had a clearance into the Tech Area. The group leader at GMX Division, Frank Willig, was looking for some people. I had everything they needed. I had a place to live. I had the Q clearance. I was looking to get into the Laboratory. They hired me with no experience whatsoever. They figured they could teach me something on the job. That’s when I stayed.

Copyright 2017 Willie Atencio and David Schiferl. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.