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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Isabel Torres’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Isabel Torres worked at Los Alamos during and after the Manhattan Project. She commuted from the neighboring community of Santa Cruz, first by truck, then by bus. She worked in the administration office and as a classified mail messenger. In this interview, Torres remembers how her job granted her access to different areas of the laboratory. She mentions interactions with soldiers and prominent scientists, including Edward Teller. She also describes working at S-Site as a technician, and recalls the poor condition of the roads.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 2022
Location of the Interview:


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

Willie Atencio: Can you tell us about your parents and where they lived? 

Isabel Torres: You want the names of them too?

Atencio: Yes, please. 

Torres: My father’s name was Manuel Antonio Vigil, and my mother’s name was Carmelita Esquivel Vigil.

Atencio: You lived in the community of Santa Cruz? 

Torres: Of Santa Cruz.

Atencio: You lived in Santa Cruz, okay. 

Torres: My Dad was living in Santo Niño. I believe my mother was from La Puebla. 

Atencio: Okay. 

Torres: We lived in the community of Santa Cruz.

Atencio: You went to school at Santa Cruz with the Dominican sisters.

Torres: Yes, I did.

Atencio: What were the circumstances that you went to work at Los Alamos, and what year?

Torres: Let me see. Dad died in 1942, and I must have gone to work in 1943 or 1944 to help my mother out financially. My dad got killed in a car accident in 1942.

Atencio: How did you get to Los Alamos? Did you go up there and apply for a job?

Torres: No, no. [Inaudible] Quintana was working over there, and she knew that I wanted a job. That I wanted to work. She was the one that referred me over there. In fact, I took her place, because she was a messenger then. They put her as some kind of a clerk, and they hired me in her place.

Atencio: How did you get to work?

Torres: We used to get to work on those big Army trucks with the canvas over them.

Atencio: Who used to drive the trucks? Were the soldiers—? 

Torres: The soldiers. Then they changed it. From those trucks they changed to the buses.

Atencio: Okay. Did the people complain about going in a truck to work?

Torres: No, I don’t think so. We were all so happy to be working.

Atencio: No complaints.

Torres: I don’t remember.

Atencio: Do you remember how much money you were paid?

Torres: Yes, I do. $100 a month.

Atencio: $100 per month. 

Torres: We worked six days a week, eight hours.

Atencio: Who were the bus drivers that used to drive from the community of Santa Cruz to Los Alamos?

Torres: After the soldiers stopped driving, one of our drivers was Ramon Romero.

Atencio: Ramon Romero.  

Torres: And another one was Miguel Gomez.

Atencio: Was it a happy experience going to work on the bus?

Torres: Oh, yes. It was different, going in the bus then going in those big trucks.

Atencio: Were there ever any accidents along the road? Bus accidents?

Torres: There was one that I can remember which I was involved in. Ramon Romero was driving it. We were coming home, and they had orders that the buses were not to pass each other. This one time, the bus from Santa Fe was passing us and side-swept us. Ramon pulled out, trying to get away from it. He got out of the highway and he was going to hit a utility post. So he turned too much, and we flipped over to avoid hitting the utility.

Atencio: Was anybody hurt during that bus accident? 

Torres: There were minor.

Atencio: Minor accidents? Minor injuries?

Torres: Minor, yeah.

Atencio: What department did you work for at Los Alamos? 

Torres: I guess it was the administration, because it was mail and records.

Atencio: Mail room. Was that a very big section, or it was a small section?

Torres: When I started, it was just a small section.

Atencio: How many people worked in that section?

Torres: We were maybe about ten.

Atencio: Ten people.

Torres: Maybe.

Atencio: Do you remember who the supervisor was, and other coworkers?

Torres: I remember one coworker. It was later on. Max Trujillo from Las Vegas, who was also a messenger. 

Atencio: Okay.

Torres: There was a Josephine Taylor. I believe she was a secretary. And Major White, I believe.

Atencio: Major White. He was in charge.

Torres: Uh-huh.

Atencio: Your job was to take mail throughout Los Alamos? 

Torres: No, my job was to pick up the mail for the U.S. Engineers. At that time, I was working for the U.S. Engineers. I would take the mail from the post office to our office, and then I would sort it out and put it in the cubby holes. I would deliver some of it. Some, the soldiers would come and pick it up from the cubby holes, when it was a long-distance area. 

Atencio: The soldiers would pick up.

Torres: Uh-huh. Then from our office, from the main office, I would pick up all the outgoing mail. I would get it ready to take it to the post office, and walk over to the post office with it.

Atencio: Did you get to see many of the scientists?

Torres: Yes.

Atencio: In the process of delivering the mail, did you see many scientists and many of the high-ranking Army officers?

Torres: Yes, I did.

Atencio: Okay. Tell us who you—

Torres: If I remember their names. [Norris] Bradbury was one. [Edward] Teller was another one.

Atencio: Did you ever see General [Leslie] Groves? 

Torres: Yes, I did. He wasn’t there very often, but he would come.

Atencio: Bradbury, Teller. What about [Robert] Oppenheimer? You got to see Oppenheimer?

Torres: Yes.

Atencio: What did you think of some of these scientists? Were they very friendly? Were they very serious?

Torres: As far as I was concerned, they were too much to themselves. But they were nice.

Atencio: Friendly?

Torres: Especially Teller.

Atencio: Did these scientists try to talk to the other people as they brought in the mail?

Torres: No, I don’t think so.

Atencio: Okay. They were very busy people and very private.

Torres: Yeah.

Atencio: At one point or another, did you go throughout the Tech Area? 

Torres: Oh, yes. I used—

Atencio: Do you remember some of these buildings? Did you go into the Tech Area, into some of the laboratories?

Torres: I used to go to S Building, and I used to go to the Health Building. I used to go to all the buildings.

Atencio: All those areas are something you’re very familiar with.

Torres: This was after. When I was working with the U.S. Engineers and the Atomic Energy Commission, no. I was just strictly in the administration building for them. When I started working for the Lab, then is when I got to visit all the—when I was working for the U.S. Engineers, I would only go to the administration office in the Tech Area.

Atencio: Okay.

Torres: That’s as far as I would go. But afterwards, when I started working with the Lab, then I had access to go to all the buildings, into all the areas. I was classified to go to all the areas. 

Atencio: Did you ever go to S-Site? How did you get to S-Site?

Torres: [mimics driving]

Atencio: First of all, how did you get around the Tech Area? Did you walk or did you have a vehicle?

Torres: I started out by walking. I would go from our office to the Tech Area, to the administration at the Tech Area, walking. Afterwards, they gave me a bike, and I would go all around the area there on the bike. Then, later, they gave me a jeep. 

Atencio: How long did it take to get to S-Site from this area? How were the roads?

Torres: Ooh, they were awful.

Atencio: There was no bridge, so you had to go down the canyon.

Torres: I had to go down the canyon and up.

Atencio: How many times a day did you have to go?

Torres: When I was working with the laboratory, that is, when I was using vehicles, I could only make one round in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Atencio: To S-Site.

Torres: To all the sites. 

Atencio: Oh, all the sites. 

Torres: S-Site, everything.

Atencio: Did you ever have situations where there was a lot of snow, that it was very hard to travel?

Torres: Yes.

Atencio: How did you manage to travel when there was a lot of snow and get the mail delivered?

Torres: I would have to wait until the snow would stop falling, and wait until one of the plows or one of the trucks that would clear the road a little. I would follow them.

Atencio: But the mail always got delivered.

Torres: Yes.

Atencio: Yes, okay. Now, did anybody that rode on the bus from the area know what was going on at Los Alamos? Did they—?

Torres: I don’t think so. No, no. At least I didn’t.

Atencio: Nobody knew, and nobody questioned.

Torres: No. We just went about our work and that was it.

Atencio: Nobody had any idea of what was going on?

Torres: I never heard anyone mention it.

Atencio: Who else from the Santa Cruz area worked up there with you or rode the bus?

Torres: Later on?

Atencio: Yes.

Torres: There was Mary, my sister.

Atencio: Mary Montoya. You were Vigil then.

Torres: Uh-huh. Teresina Quintana, and [inaudible]. Who else? 

Atencio: Okay. Obviously, there were no young boys going to work at Los Alamos. Where were the young boys?

Torres: In the Army.

Atencio: In the Army. Do you remember if you were able to go to the commissary or the PX [Post Exchange] and buy things? Was that a privilege?

Torres: Yes, it was. We were allowed to eat there and we were allowed to buy a few groceries.

Atencio: At one time, a lot of things were rationed, and people could not get things that were rationed. Could you get things at Los Alamos?

Torres: Yes, we could get sugar.

Atencio: What else could you get that was rationed? Butter?

Torres: Butter? Well, actually, we never needed butter, because we made our own. But I guess other people could get it. We would only get the things that we didn’t have ourselves. Coffee.

Atencio: What about the soldiers? Were they very cordial? Were they easy to work with? 

Torres: Yes, they were. 

Atencio: Did you have to work with the soldiers and the scientists and the technicians?

Torres: They were very nice. In fact, when I was driving my bike to the post office or when I would deliver the mail to the fire station, the soldiers were always washing their fire trucks. So, they would wash my bike.

Atencio: Were the firemen soldiers, or they were—?

Torres: Yes. They were soldiers, yes. 

Atencio: Did you ever live in Los Alamos?

Torres: For a short period of time when I was working for the laboratory, I was chosen to be what they called a technician learner. We were working at S-Site. There were six of us girls there, and we were supposed to stay in one barrack, all six of us together. Just like if we were in the service.

Atencio: You were working at S-Site as the—

Torres: At that time.

Atencio: A technical field. What kind of work did you do at S-Site? Were you familiar with the whole process at S-Site, or you just did a certain amount?

Torres: All I can tell you is that we were soldering.

Atencio: Solder, you used to solder.

Torres: And put some white powder in some little caps. But I didn’t stay too long in that job, because my mother needed me here at home. 

Atencio: Short time.

Torres: Yeah. So, I had to stop and give up that job and go back to messenger, so I could come home at night. 

Atencio: I see. But you had to stay there.

Torres: Yes. We could only come down to the Valley once a week, and with special permission.

Atencio: Is this for security reasons? You were working on something that was critical and they didn’t want you to be away from Los Alamos?

Torres: I guess, I guess. Of course, we weren’t supposed to say what we were doing.

Atencio: Do you remember some of the other people that worked at S-Site at the time? 

Torres: Ofélia Bustos, Lena Bustos. Who were the other ones? I think Carmelita Lujan was one. I don’t remember who the other ones were.

Atencio: By this time, was the road to S-Site any better?

Torres: Oh, yes.

Atencio: At the beginning, it was very hard. Just a dirt road.

Torres: Just a dirt road. 

Atencio: And later it was improved.

Torres: Yes.

Atencio: Black top or gravel?

Torres: I don’t remember.

Atencio: Since you had to drop out of school to go and work at Los Alamos, when did you get your GED test?

Torres: My GED test, I think it was 1960-something.

Atencio: Oh, okay. So, you did get your GED test.

Torres: Yeah.

Atencio: When you were at Los Alamos and they had the Trinity Test, do you remember anything? What was the reaction? Do you remember about the Trinity Test in Socorro?

Torres: In Socorro.

Atencio: When the people went down there and the test happened.

Torres: My reaction was, “I guess that’s what we were doing.”

Atencio: Yeah. That’s when you found out a little bit more of what you were doing. When the war ended, were you at Los Alamos, and how did people react?

Torres: I was there, yes.

Atencio: Do you remember if the people were happy?

Torres: Yes, yes, they were. There was a lot of screaming and yelling and hugging.

Atencio: Were the soldiers extremely—did the soldiers celebrate a lot when the war ended?

Torres: I don’t remember that. 

Atencio: You don’t remember that. You probably came home. 

Torres: I came home.

Atencio: You came home.

Torres: And, let them—

Atencio: —the celebration went on.

Torres: Yeah.

Atencio: Were you happy to have worked at Los Alamos? Was it a good experience?

Torres: Yes, it was a good experience.

Atencio: Then after you left Los Alamos, you worked with the alcoholics program, as a counselor?

Torres: After I left Los Alamos, we were in business for a while. Then we closed business and went to Santa Fe. Then is when I became an alcoholic counselor, family counselor.

Atencio: Do any of your children or grandchildren work at Los Alamos now?

Torres: No, not now. In fact, no, my only daughter never worked at Los Alamos.

Anyway, when I first started going over there, the roads over here to Los Alamos was bad. We used to go through that snake, what they used to call the snake curve. Then years later on, they fixed this other way.

Atencio: Yeah, okay. Later. Now, is this what the buses looked like back over here?

Torres: Something like it, yeah.

Atencio: That color.

Torres: Yeah, the GI color, everything was GI color.

Atencio: Do you remember your Z number, or your badge?

Torres: Oh, my God, no.

Atencio: Oh, no.

Torres: All I know is that I was cleared to all the areas.

Atencio: So, we’re going to try to get your original badge so we can put it in the story.

Torres: Great. When I was working for the laboratory, I was cleared for all the areas.

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