Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Harold Agnew’s Interview (1992)

Harold Agnew worked on the Manhattan Project at various locations and served as the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1970-1979. Agnew was flying above Hiroshima as a scientific observer when the bomb was dropped, and remembers “having the blast hit the airplane after the flash, the very bright flash.” He worked on the Chicago Pile-1 with Enrico Fermi, whom he calls “absolutely amazing.” He recalls how Oppenheimer’s penchant for treating everyone equally and General Leslie Groves’ incredible managing skills influenced camaraderie and the speed of the project. He defends dropping the bombs on Japan as saving many American, Japanese, and Chinese lives.

Date of Interview:
November 20, 1992
Location of the Interview:


Theresa Strottman: We are talking with Harold Agnew who has worked here [at Los Alamos] during the Manhattan Project and later was Lab Director. And we thank you very much for coming today. Our first question is if you could briefly tell us when and where you were born and something about your education and training.

Harold Agnew: I was born in Denver, Colorado in 1921.  Went to the Denver public schools, South Denver High School.  Then went to the University of Denver.  Left the University of Denver in January of 1942. I had enough credits so that I could still graduate in June.  And joined what wasn’t called the Manhattan Project but was sent to Chicago and worked there for a while.  Went up to Columbia part time with Fermi. I was assigned to Fermi at Chicago. After the war I went back to the University of Chicago with Fermi and got my doctorate in physics there.

Theresa Strottman: How were you recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos?

Harold Agnew: It was shortly after Pearl Harbor and my wife and I had signed up and had taken the physicals to do pilot training.  The professor of physics there, whose name was Joyce Stearns, had been a student of Compton‘s and the way the project was put together was that each of the centers that had something to do with nuclear energy started calling back their graduate students who at that time then were professors. Those professors were told if they had any students that could read and write, they should talk them into coming back with them. So I was recruited through Joyce Stearns who had been a student of Compton at the University of Chicago. I went back in January of 1942 with him instead of doing the pilot training, which he told me I shouldn’t do. I should go with him, it was more important. That’s how we got started in this business.

Strottman: Is there anything you wanted to add to that?

Agnew: No, that’s how we got involved at the beginning.  My wife, she came in May—I came in January to Chicago—and became the director’s secretary. Oppie sort of took a liking to her, I would say, and when he started the project here, he asked if she could come and I got to come, too. It was sort of that simple.

Strottman: I see. There was this in a sense substituted for any draft certification?

Agnew: Those of us who had been recruited, who had technical background, Oppie arranged that we would be deferred. We had to go take the normal physical and we all had draft cards and numbers and all the rest. He was able to convince I guess General Groves that at least the original gang of us were deferred.

Strottman: So you came here as civilians?

Agnew: As civilians.

Strottman: What were you told about your work in Los Alamos before you came?

Agnew: Well, I had been in the project for over a year before we came at Chicago and I mentioned at Columbia. I was at the CP-1 [Chicago Pile-1] when we brought in the first chain reaction, so I knew what we were going to be doing. We were going to develop some sort of a weapon. I’m not sure I really understood that at the time.  So there was no indoctrination or anything, it was just a matter of coming here.

Strottman: What were you allowed to tell your family and friends who you left?

Agnew: Really nothing other than we were leaving Chicago and were going to another place. And because of the war and security we couldn’t tell them where we were. And we had a post office box and they could send us mail back and forth.

Strottman: When and how did you physically get to Los Alamos?

Agnew: I came by train and I came here—I would say that it was March of ’43, somewhere in March of ’43.  We got off at Lamy and went to 109 East Palace and rode up on a truck. 

What we had done before that—my wife had been involved in this. When we knew we were going to come, a person who had worked very closely with Oppie in putting the thing together was John Manley. And John Manley had come from the University of Illinois and he had an accelerator there, Cockcroft-Walton. And it was decided that that machine would be brought here.

A group of us, a man named Bernie Waldman who had been at Notre Dame and myself and Beverly and some other people I can’t remember who they were, went to the University of Illinois. We took the machine apart.  Beverly cataloged all the parts and made all the manifests and arranged for all the shipping and everything. That’s when we finished shipping everything, then I went back to Chicago and got on the train and came out here. By the time I got here, some of our stuff was here so I just rode up on the trucks with part of our accelerator.  Many trucks later, we had all the parts and we spent several months putting it back together again.

Strottman: Is that the principle work that you did here or was that just the initial work?

Agnew: That was the initial work that I did.  We measured cross-sections of all kinds of materials for use in design of the bomb. It was sort of like a pre-runner of what today is the Physics Division.

Strottman: At the Lab?

Agnew: All of that research was under a man named Bob Bacher. Beverly had come first, sort of working with Oppenheimer and Priscilla Greene, later Priscilla Duffield.  And then Oppie got a person to be in charge of all research and it was Ed Condon, who was with the Bureau of Standards. He only lasted about two weeks. Then they put Bob Bacher in so for the rest of the war, Beverly was Bob Bacher’s secretary.

Strottman: At some point I gathered that you went to Tinian, even prior to the Trinity test?

Agnew: Oh, yes, we left here in either May or June of ’45 with our equipment to get ready. We were just there waiting. Then on July 16th or whatever day it was there, we heard that that test had been successful.

Strottman: I understood from Harlow Russ that Tinian had a significant population on the island even when the base was established.

Agnew: Oh yes, Tinian had been one of the major airfields from which Japan had been bombed. We had two major airfields, the north field where we were had over 400 B-29s, and the south field had an equal number, and in between there was a very large Navy field. So the Seabees had come in there and built up a very large complex. It was a major naval base, not as big as Guam at that time.  It was a major player in the war in the Pacific. They had been there for quite a while.

Strottman: I gathered also from Harlow there was a native population and a Japanese population on the island even as you were doing your work there.  

Agnew: That’s right. There was a—I would call it a concentration camp for the natives, who for some reason were called “Gooks.” I don’t know what nationality they really were. In addition to those people who sort of lived behind barbed wire, there were presumably Japanese soldiers still living in the caves. You may remember that as many as twenty years after the war, every once in awhile, a Japanese on some island comes walking out not, knowing that the war was over. We had presumably people in the caves on the islands. Right off our island of Tinian was an island called Rhoda. It still had Japanese on it.

Strottman: Do you have any idea of the number of people who weren’t involved in the military who would have been on the island?

Agnew: Do you mean in our group?

Strottman: No, on Tinian.  I’m meaning non-U.S. military.

Agnew: I have no idea.  I have no ideal what the native population, if you want to call them that, or the Japanese in hiding.  Have no idea.

Strottman: Do you have any ideal of the military population?

Agnew: It was very large, for 400 airplanes on one base and a crew is ten, the ground crew is probably five, so fifteen times 400, you got 6,000 at least just for the one field, plus all the maintenance people that do the transportation, the fueling, the cooks and all the rest. That’s just for one field, and there were three major fields.  So there were clearly several tens of thousands on that island.”

Strottman: In what way was your work on Tinian continuous of the work you did in Los Alamos, or did you shift to a completely different type job?

Agnew: We shifted to a completely type thing. What happened was that when the time drew close when we thought we’d have enough material for a bomb, it was Luis Alvarez who convinced Oppenheimer that this was quite an event, or could be quite an event.  It might not work and it might work very well. But we had no idea how well it would work. Why didn’t we devise an experiment so we could determine the yield? Somehow I heard about this and went running up to Luis and volunteered and said, I wanted to get in the war.

It was a little difficult on my parents, all my friends. Their parents knew where their kids were, either in the Army, Navy, Marines. They kept asking my parents where I was and they would say, they didn’t know where I was. So it sounded like I was a draft dodger, although I don’t think there were very many of those in those days. Because we really hated the Japanese in particular. But I wanted to get involved in the war. I think Luis Alvarez had the same real objective. He wanted to get involved.

We devised this particular experiment, which is completely different from what I had been doing. And it took about six months of real hard work to put all the systems together, check out the systems, did a lot of flight tests, lot of drop tests over Albuquerque, over Wendover, Utah.  

Finally we were shipped out. We went up to Wendover, and went in one door and they took all our clothes off of us and dressed us in Army clothes, and we went out the other door. I remember the first shock we had was someone saluted us. We were officers and we didn’t know quite what to do. So we had to go learn how to salute. We were only there one day and the next day we shipped out.

Strottman: This test you are talking about was a test you and Luis Alvarez had designed to do in the Pacific?

Agnew: That’s right, we were going to measure the yield in the Pacific.

Strottman: This was completely different technology than the barrage balloons, burning cables and things we used at Trinity to judge yield?

Agnew: Nothing like that, because you see Trinity, you were there. We had to do everything remotely from the air. We had to do everything in the way of testing remotely from the air; we had no ground stations. We had hoped to test out our equipment at Trinity but the weather precluded our airplanes from flying close enough to do anything.  So we had no previous information on whether our devices would work or not.

Strottman: Were you devices basically radiation detectors?

Agnew: No, we measured blast. We had condenser microphones, which had been adapted to measure the pulse, the magnitude of the pulse and duration of the pulse. The shock wave from the blast. This impinged on this microphone and then the microphone, through a particular circuitry, converted this into a current, which we recorded on regular gun cameras. We just had rigged up so we could do this.  Then we had the gun camera film and when we returned to base, we developed the film and analyzed it.

Theory had been worked out primarily by Bill Penny, United Kingdom.  From that we eventually worked out the yield. But there was quite a team of us working on it.  Again Bernie Waldman was part of our team.  A man named Larry Johnston.  Luis, myself, there was another person. I think it was Ken Cooperberg but he had a brother and I may have them mixed up. But one of those individuals I think also was with us. There was a third person who was involved, but on the actual flight it was Johnston, myself and Luis.

Strottman: You were distinct from Project Alberta, or were you considered part of it?

Agnew: I don’t know what Project Alberta is, I don’t know the new terminology.

Strottman: Harlow Russ was assigned to Project Alberta, which I believe was the preparation and delivery of the bomb.

Agnew: Well, we were all part of one group. There was no distinction. From my standpoint, there was no name, we came from Site Y and went to Tinian. We went in and watched the guys working to put the HE components together.  But we had our own equipment that we had to install on the airplanes which we were busy doing.

See, once the bomb was assembled, and uploaded into the bomb bay, the rest of the Los Alamos crew was done. Where at that time, our work just began.

Strottman: The next question on my list is, when did you realize the mission or goal of the Manhattan Project? And I gather from what you said, you had realized about the nuclear energy but I got an impression from the way you phrased it that you weren’t quite sure what they were going to do with it.  You assumed it was a weapon but you—

Agnew: It wasn’t clear to me and I had really no appreciation of the magnitude in it until late on in the project. I understood fully what we were doing at Chicago—the concept of a self-sustaining chain reaction being controlled. But I really didn’t appreciate the fact that we were going to get material from Oak Ridge and we were going to get material from Hanford. Instead of depending on delayed fission reactions, we were going to go into now we call prompt critical in explosive systems. I don’t know, it was some time I would say in 1944 after I had been here maybe for six months, that I think I understood what we were trying to do.

At that time, the concept was very simple. That’s why all the Navy was here. We were going to take two pieces fissile material, put them in a gun barrel and shove them together. Seemed very straightforward. It wasn’t until Fermi started worrying about the possibility that the plutonium from the reactor would be different from plutonium that came from an accelerator. Then as a result of some experiments by Segrè and his colleagues, we determined that we could not use the reactor plutonium in a gun assembly. That started the whole implosion emphasis, which by the way Seth Neddermeyer had tried to push way before but he really got nowhere. It wasn’t until we got information from the British on some systems they had developed using different burn velocity of explosives to make lenses, and that’s how it all came to be. Otherwise, I think we’d still be fooling around with primacord, which just didn’t work.

Strottman: If we can switch gears a little bit from the scientific and professional work, could you describe where you lived and what you thought of it?

Agnew: I thought it was great. We had just gotten married in May of ’42 and we were both from Colorado. I personally did not like Chicago. Also working on the pile, I didn’t like that, it was very dirty work. Dirty in the sense of graphite, like being a coal miner.  We had a one-room apartment and that was different too. When we came out here, first we actually lived in a little cottage near this building. We ate here in Fuller Lodge.  We eventually were assigned to a building, T-107C was the number of it.

Our neighbors, it was a quadruplex and upstairs—we were one apartment upstairs and Hans Bethe was our neighbor on the other side upstairs.  A man named Al Hanson was right below us, University of Illinois. I can’t remember the name of the person who was under the Bethes. Here we were back in what was Colorado-like terrain to me and I just thought it was wonderful here. I liked all the people. We enjoyed it very much.

We worked sometimes I’d say a six-day week. Work was really fun. The whole thing, there were no holds barred, no paperwork so to speak, at least for us, the technical people. Everybody was treated equally. There were no peasants or no wrong side of the tracks. Oppie mixed everybody up, that’s why we got to live next to one of the best people, Hans Bethe.

The Bathtub Row people, Oppie had a Bathtub Row house, McMillan had one but the rest were military. I personally interacted very little with any of the military who were assigned here. Subsequent to following the war, I had very close relationships with some of those people who stayed in the field. Living here was just great. It was outdoors. We had rationing and everything just the way people did in the cities. We had food stamps that you were allotted but one advantage was, if you had the stamps, the stuff was in the commissary.

Whereas I understand it in the rest of the nation, in many of the cities, even though you may have had a sugar stamp to get five pounds a pound or whatever it was, the store may not have it. Or toilet paper or whatever. Here at least if you had the stamps—but we saved—kids today don’t understand. We saved grease from bacon or any lard and saved it in tin cans and brought it into the commissary and they weighed it and they would give you stamped credit for buying meat. This is the way it was. If you eventually got a car, but to get a tire, even a retread, you had to go before a board and explain why you only had three tires and needed another one. There was very close allotment. What would happen is that everybody had these books for meat, sugar, basic ingredients and a lot of the bachelors, you’d invite them over to the house and then you would use those stamps to buy some meat. So you all could have a big steak. Otherwise, they would eat in the dorm and they didn’t need to use their food stamps in the dorm, or you didn’t need food stamps in a restaurant.

We had a young man who lived with us because the house we had had two bedrooms. If you had an extra bedroom, somebody was assigned to live with you. This person was Bill Bright. He’s passed on. Then when our child was born and he got kicked out and we got the room back.

I thought the living here was great. I certainly loved the mountains, although I live in California now, I do not care much for the ocean, it doesn’t turn me on. I don’t like the ocean.

Strottman: Beaches are not your particular—

Agnew: No, I prefer the mountains and hunting and fishing.  I struck up in the very beginning a close acquaintance with I called him, Po, Tony Martinez, Popovi Da, who was Maria’s son. I guess he was the youngest son. We just got along fine together and we would picnic together with Beverly and his wife, Anita, and our little kids. The first deer I ever shot was with Po and that really made us part of the family of the region.

It was great. It was probably the best years of our life. Never had any worries, never made any money. We didn’t need any money.

Strottman: Did Po work with you?

Agnew: Yes, Po was a machinist in John Williams’ division.  But Po had been drafted so Po was an SED. At least he wore a uniform. I don’t know if he lived up here or how it worked. But Po was a machinist or technician in the group shop with the Van de Graaff group, which was run by John Williams.

Strottman: You said that you didn’t remember really socializing with the military very much. What do you remember about relationships between the military and the civilians?  Obviously, people made individual friendships but I gather the perception is as you say, in general there was not much mixing.

Agnew: No, there wasn’t much mixing at the—well, we had a couple of SEDs assigned to our group. Of course we worked very closely with them and they would come over for dinner or lunch, dinner primarily, once in a while. They were part of the family, so to speak. The military, there was a colonel, they kept changing, the post commander, whatever you want to call it. There was quite a few military people here. But the military hierarchy, I would say, captains and above, sort of only fraternized with people on Bathtub Row and Oppie. But they were just different in the sense that the taste of most technical scientific were more eclectic than the military people were. I’m not saying this in a denigrating way, their interests were strictly professional what their jobs were to run the post and they had no technical background. You didn’t talk work anyway outside of the Lab area.

I personally had essentially no interaction with any of the military officers. Now Beverly did because being in Oppie’s office or Bacher’s office, those people would come in so she knew them.  Once in a while there would be a dance where some of the post people would be invited—the senior military people. But normally when we would have our Lab parties or something, they weren’t there. The only reason I got to come was because Beverly would usually get invited because she was part of the director’s office so to speak. I was very lucky.

Strottman: You had access to all levels.

Agnew: Right. And one thing was certainly true. All the senior people here were academicians. They felt very comfortable working with students. In a sense, had the war not interrupted, I had a fellowship to go to Yale. I was going to get my doctorate at Yale. I was just at the age group that they were used to taking care, fraternizing with on most campuses. Not quite “Mr. Chips” attitude. It was not usual for them to fraternize, include in their activities, people who had had a bachelor degree, so to speak, and would have been their students or lab assistants or whatever. It worked out very well for people in my category. And clearly among themselves since professors were always visiting each other or knew somebody. It was a very collegial, very good working.

You see some of the movies that go on about bickering. I never really saw or witnessed any of that bickering. Even the Teller episodes, I didn’t experience that  Some of the movies—I knew Kitty Oppenheimer fairly well because I had a bad radiation exposure at Chicago, so they were checking my blood quite often. Eleanor Hempelmann sort of ran the hematology lab. Kitty Oppenheimer worked there. I guess she had a background in biology. She worked in the lab. So I would see her a lot. I found her to be very nice.  Not the way some of these TV things showed her. She smoked a lot. That didn’t bother me, a lot of people smoked in those days. I didn’t find her looking down on anybody. She seemed fine to me. I think we went to a party at their house maybe twice at most, maybe three times. They had a very small house. Oppie was always very nice to everybody.

Strottman: We did an interview with Severo Gonzales, one of the sons of Bence Gonzales, who had been the cook for the Ranch School.

Agnew: Ben used to run the little store; he was a great guy.

Strottman: Severo remembers Kitty Oppenheimer very fondly. He respected her because she took very good care of her horses.

Agnew: This business that I’ve seen on TV making her out to be bitchy or whatever, or catty, I never sensed that. Now maybe other people did, but I certainly didn’t, but I guess scriptwriters always have to have villains. But I didn’t sense that. She clearly, along with Oppie, they were very high-strung, they weren’t—.

Fermi was the exact opposite. Fermi was clearly smarter than Oppie, no question about it. Fermi was really absolutely amazing. But he came to our house once in Denver, and my parents were all excited and everything. He and Laura and the kids came, and after it was all over my mother said, “He’s just like anybody else.” That was the way Fermi was.  Whereas Oppie you could sense he was very tight usually, very high-strung, tense and not relaxed the way Fermi was.

I lived with Fermi. Beverly and I after the war, we couldn’t get housing and we had a young daughter, and they just took us in. We lived with them at the University in their home. We lived with them maybe three to four months. Just like Mom and Pop, no problems. We helped around the house, Beverly helped with the cooking and cleaning. We got to know them very well. I just got back from a conference at Cornell where Nella, his daughter, was there. She drove all the way from Ithaca to Syracuse to pick us up in the car. She said she just wanted to see us again.

Fermi was really smart. Fermi would tell me stories about most people didn’t really understand things; Oppie was one of them. He was very clear on that. He thought very highly of Teller. It was very interesting to me that the person he thought extremely of was Teller. He thought Teller was very, very bright.

Strottman: So that in the sense of retrospect, the way the legend has developed is not exactly how their personalities—

Agnew: I don’t think it is at all. It really has me baffled, because really one of the heroes of the whole project was really Groves. Groves picked the people, Groves made the decisions, Groves started Hanford, he did Oak Ridge. People were against having Oppie. Groves picked Oppie. How he knew to pick Oppie or how he heard of him, I don’t know.  Groves backed Oppie. Clearly went by the way that Oppie wanted to run the place, which was not the military way at all. Groves did not have this panache, this pizazz. The porkpie hat, the Robin’s egg blue convertible, and a lot of money, or presumed lot of money. All that went together, and Oppie was the darling. Groves physically was rumpled-looking. He spent, I would say, the whole three or four years riding on trains.  So he looked a little disheveled at times.  But for pure management genius, and sticking his neck out and getting the funds and picking the right people and knowing when to do what, Groves put it all together.

But there was an old story at Cal Tech: there was a professor there named Millikan.  I think he was the one that discovered the positron. Every once in awhile, you don’t see it very often now, but when you drive on the highway, there’s a rock and painted on it says “Jesus Saves.” Every once in a while, some students would get up there and write, “Yes, but Millikan gets the credit.”  In this place, a real cult, Oppie-worshippers, so to speak. “The Oppenheimer Memorial Lectures,” and all this. Which is fine.

But when you think about it, Oppenheimer was here three years at most. Bradbury picked this place up at the bottom. Oppie, the world was his oyster. He got Fermi, Szilard, Weisskopf, Bethe, everybody in the world. He could call upon them. Poor Norris picked this thing up when everybody had left the ship and he stuck with it for twenty-five years.

Oppie, you know, opposed the development of the thermonuclear work. Which if we hadn’t done it as far as the Soviets, they actually had a deliverable weapon before we did.  I don’t know what the fate of the world would have been under Stalin and company had we not pursued that endeavor, which Oppie violently opposed. Oppie was very good to me, he was very good to Beverly, but as far as the real heroes of the whole project during the war, it was Groves and subsequently it was Bradbury who kept this thing going for twenty-five years.  How he did it, how he was able to hang in there and do what he did for twenty-five years, especially at the beginning when one didn’t know what he was going to, how he was able to recruit people and keep his senses, to me is extremely admirable.”

Strottman: I thoroughly agree with you. I’ve also heard, getting back to General Groves, perhaps as you say, Oppenheimer had tremendous style. I’ve heard I. I. Rabi in his talk mentioned that General Groves was not a good public speaker. In fact, he had difficulty speaking. He tended to mix words.

Agnew: Could be, I’ve never heard Groves speak except at the end of the war, we got an E Award or some such thing during those days and he gave a little introductory speech.  But that was all, and he probably read it. He had no pizazz. He was an extremely good engineer. He built the Pentagon. One strange thing he had done before he got the Pentagon job, he was in charge of taking the railroad that used to run from Colorado down to Santa Fe, taking that out and moving it up to Alaska. He had cut off his own transport. Had he known he was going to be here, it would have made life a lot simpler.

Although actually from Santa Fe to here wasn’t the bad part, coming up the hill was the bad part. As I drive up to Los Alamos now, no appreciation of what the road was during the war. It was a single lane, dirt road. In Pojoaque, if there were rains, the thing would flood and you couldn’t get across and you had to go through Espanola. Then a lot of our equipment was too heavy to come across the bridge, the Otowi Bridge. It was quite different, but it was fun.

Maybe some of the wives or families who had come from the east, who had been chairmen of departments and had big houses and all the rest, and maids—although we did have good help from San Ildefonso and Santa Clara and San Juan—I think some of them just didn’t get the respect which they felt they deserved and which they had had on their own little Ivy campuses. Here everybody was equal. There was no question about it. There were no special privileges for anybody. That was my tribute to Oppie, who understood that’s the way it worked.

Of course the more competent the people were, the less need they had for pecking order.   That’s why I guess Fermi could have cared less on anything. He was not insecure. Most of the people here, the real talent, Bethe, Weisskopf, Manley, John Williams, Bacher were very self-secure. They treated everybody equally.

To me it was just a wonderful place, wonderful experience. I personally have been very happy to have been associated with it and I like the way it turned out. I had a lot of friends that got killed during the war in Germany and in Japan and I must say, I have no regrets for anything we did. I think the Japanese have been playing Hiroshima for all its worth. I noticed now that we are doing something about Pearl Harbor, at least some of the news media are starting to, since it’s the 50th anniversary. To me we have been on the defensive for many years with regard to Hiroshima and I don’t think we should be.

Strottman: You presumably would feel the same about Nagasaki also?

Agnew: Oh, yeah, there is no difference to me. It’s not a copout, but we say that by ending the war so quickly, and it’s certainly true, we saved a lot of lives. Saved a lot of our lives, and then of course we need to be saying saved a lot of Japanese lives. Saved a lot of Chinese lives too. They were losing about 30,000 a week. The Japanese were just butchering them starting in Nanking in 1937. But really, I wasn’t interested. My objective was not saving lives, although that was clearly a prime factor as far as President Truman was concerned. But it was just to beat those bastards—that’s all.

I’m really angry because in New Mexico in particular, our National Guard unit unfortunately was on maneuvers in the Philippines just as the war broke out. So they were all in the Bataan Death March. All of the New Mexico National Guard people were in the Bataan Death March. If you look at the records for prisoners of war, if you were a prisoner of war of Germany, your survival rate was better than ninety percent. If you were a prisoner of war of the Japanese, it was less than twenty-five percent. They were pretty mean to prisoners of war.

If you want to have this sink in, go to Hong Kong on Christmas day. See, it fell on Christmas Day in 1941, and they still commemorate that especially in a hospital there where the Japanese came in and killed everybody, killed all the patients, all the doctors, and all the nurses, chopped them all up and piled them in the middle of the entry hall. So a lot of people in Hong Kong have not forgotten that. Even today if you talk to senior Chinese people, they will say to us, “Your enemy isn’t Soviet Union,” this is before Glasnost and all the rest, “your problem is not the Soviet Union. We—China—our problem is not the Soviet Union, our problem is Japan.”

Today you get this from senior people. They are still very much concerned about Japan.  Now they are eating our lunch economically, I guess, today. If they can’t win one way. I saw in this morning’s TV an item with regard to some land on the main island of Hawaii where native Hawaiians are being evicted, because presumably it’s the Japanese Mafioso has acquired this land some way and are kicking these people off, native Hawaiians. This one older Hawaiian lady really went out after the Japanese. She said, “They couldn’t do it to us during the war and now they are trying to take our land away this way.” She had not forgotten.

People who are really most concerned today, who have not forgotten Nanking in particular, what had happened, are the Chinese. They are deathly concerned with the Japanese and what may happen, and so are the Koreans. The Koreans had many, many years under Japanese control. That’s why they wear that Japanese dress for the women. The dress they wear has a very high bodice, which makes it look as if they’re pregnant. That was the reason for that, they adopted this style for a defense. I gather that when the Japanese ran Korea, they were unmerciful the way they treated the Koreans.”

Strottman: I was going to ask you if you remember where you were when you heard of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Agnew: I was over Hiroshima.

Strottman: In the plane.

Agnew: In the plane, measuring the yield. I was over Hiroshima at the time the bomb went off and we were measuring the yield. Alvarez, Johnston and myself.

Strottman: Alvarez did some drawings of—I had presumed they were Trinity Test. So was he at both?

Agnew: Luis may have been at Trinity, although I’m not sure. He may have been at Trinity, although it seems to me I remember his being with us when we got the news of Trinity. But I’m just not sure. All of us were at a precursor of Trinity. I think maybe he was at a precursor of Trinity, where we set off some high explosive. But I don’t think he was there on July 16th. I think Luis was there for the 500 ton [test] or whatever it was—high explosive precursor that we did at Trinity. I was not, I was overseas. But I really don’t believe he was there, but he might have been. I just don’t remember. That’s fifty years ago.

Strottman: After the war, when you told people where you had been and what you had done, do you remember what their reactions were? In a sense you had been living in a very closed society.

Agnew: At least in the Denver area where we had friends, they thought it was great. No problems. Big splash in the Denver Post, I remember that. Had Beverly’s picture, my picture. It said this is where we had been. Beverly had been president of the Women’s Student Body at the University and president of her sorority and all that sort of stuff. So she was big man on campus in 1942. I had been president of the senior class. We had grown up in Denver and gone through the public schools so we had a lot of friends in Denver. It was a big news item for the Denver Post—I think it was.

Strottman: Did working in Los Alamos—it must have obviously—but if you can give us an indication of how it altered the direction of your life.

Agnew: Well, I think it set it. Because I was going to go to Yale. I don’t know what I was going to study, what field. Probably would have been physics or chemistry. Actually I had my degree in chemistry.  Probably would have been physical chemistry. But getting involved in this in January of ’42, it sort of set the stage and then clearly the opportunity to go with Fermi meant you went into some nuclear-oriented field and as soon as I got my degree, he wanted me to stay there as a postdoc, I guess, in Chicago. But I didn’t like Chicago. I still didn’t like Chicago.”

We hurried back here.  We stayed here until about 1961. Then I was asked to be a scientific writer to the NATO with Supreme Allied Commander, it was [Lauris] Norstad then. It was a chance to go to France and live for three years, so we packed up the family and went to France. As soon as that was over, I came back and stayed until I retired in 1979, I guess it was.

Strottman: So I presume given similar circumstances you would do it again?

Agnew: I have no regrets. This was a great place, still is a great place. I just hope they don’t get bureaucratized by the Washington environment. People there seem to forget what the real objective of a national lab is and want to control things more and more.  Want more accounting so to speak. I don’t think that’s very good in the long run. Maybe it will turn around.

Strottman: One of the SEDs we interviewed made the point that you could never do a big project like the Manhattan Project today because the paperwork and administration would kill you.

Agnew: That’s right.

Strottman: As you said, General Groves—what you needed, you got.

Agnew: That’s right. If you needed something you got it. He had complete trust I think in Oppie, who would ask him for money or whatever he needed and priorities on materials, and he got it. That’s all there was to it. Also the people in Washington who were Groves’ boss essentially gave him a blank check on priorities. And he used it very wisely. He could have blown the whole thing by asking for things he didn’t need, but he played it right close to where it should have been. No extravagant purchases. If you needed something, you knew why you needed it and you got it and you got it right away.

Well, today you couldn’t do anything between OSHA or interveners or EPA or you name it. Right now or recently there has been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks talking about how we contaminated this or did that. Well, I think we did very minimal of that.  Safety was always an issue with what we were doing. We had very minimal loss of life or injury, when you consider the hazard with which we were confronting. We were working with materials that had never been on earth before, at least in man’s hands. Didn’t know anything about plutonium, metallurgy, how to machine it.

Whole technology, it’s like going from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age in a year. It was incredible what people did. That’s because they had real talent and absolute support from Oppie and General Groves primarily. Without Groves in getting the priorities, and getting the materials, we never could have done it in the time. You have to remember, in those days, the Empire State Building was built in a year. It would take a century to build it; you can’t do it now. It’s unfortunate, there’s no reason for all this paperwork. It just makes jobs for people. But there is no reason for the number of auditors that the Lab has, it just creates suspicion, and once you start doing this, then people to protect themselves are more interested in creating a paper trail to protect themselves. It’s just easier to do that than to do the job and then have to run the risk of spending the rest of your career being harassed or being in courts or being chastised for doing what you did, which you did in belief that you were doing the right thing and doing it honestly.”

Strottman: What is your most vivid memory of the Manhattan Project?

Agnew: There were many things. Maybe bringing in the first chain reaction was an exciting event, although I just stood there. Clearly being in the airplane and having the blast hit the airplane after the flash, the very bright flash. And worrying about whether we were going to get home or not, ‘cause I had seen a lot of guys take off from Tinian and not come home.

And then I guess just the general camaraderie of all the people and the wonderful people that we met and we interacted with.  It was just a wonderful environment. It was really an academic environment with people all pulling in the same direction with the same objective.  No arguments over who was right and who was wrong.

Things were pretty straightforward, except for I’d say early on, Neddermeyer’s desire to do implosions, which wasn’t really supported very well because of the, again, I would say the Navy military they were going to do gun, and they knew what they were going to do. And that changed when plutonium-240 was found to be a culprit that would preclude that particular option. Plutonium-240 would have been a culprit that precluded the option of using it in a simple gun assembly.

Strottman: Getting back to—you had mentioned early the railroad, and I know years later you served in the New Mexico State Senate. Do you remember Horace DeVargas?

Agnew: Oh sure.  Horace from Rio Arriba County. He was our senate majority leader, I believe.

Strottman: One time, I remember Horace telling me that he felt that the Chili Line having been ripped up and moved was one of the greatest tragedies or one of the worst things that happened. And he felt it was particularly ironic because he felt that it would have been very useful during the Manhattan Project and he felt that dovetailing was just so close, it really irked him. He can tell you exactly where everything went.

Agnew: It was very ironic especially since the guy who took it out was the guy that would have needed it most later on. It could have been a great tourist attraction. I don’t know really how much traffic came from up north down to Santa Fe with the main line of the Santa Fe Railroad just south of Santa Fe now. They had a good spur that came up into Santa Fe then. But it clearly affected somewhat the economy, I would say, of northern New Mexico and the Valley, but I really don’t think it was a big deal. It was probably was losing money anyway.

Strottman: Is there anything that I have not mentioned or that we haven’t covered in this interview that you would like to add?

Agnew: No, I can’t think of anything, there probably is. If you ask questions I’ll answer them, but I don’t see anything.

Strottman: Well we thank you very much. We had a wonderful interview.


Copyright 2013 The Los Alamos Historical Society. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Los Alamos Historical Society.