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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Jack Aeby’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Jack Aeby was one of the first civilian employees on the Manhattan Project, and captured the only color photograph of the Trinity test. He worked in many areas, starting with transporting people from Lamy to 109 E. Palace Avenue in Santa Fe and then on up the Hill. He was put in charge of the chemical stockroom. Aeby moved to P-5 (Physics Group 5) with Emilio Segrè and Owen Chamberlain. He reactivated the Los Alamos Ranch School’s Boy Scout Troop 22 on demand of the school superintendent. He discusses working with Emilio Segrè at Los Alamos, and how his famous photo of the Trinity test came about.

Date of Interview:
August 1, 2003
Location of the Interview:


Jack Aeby's photograph of the Trinity test—the only color photograph of the test.

Kelly: Talk about the Manhattan Project and what it was like to be part of it. So if you could start by telling your name and when and where you were born and your education and how you came to be involved.

Aeby: Fine. I was born in Mount City, Missouri. My name is Jack Aeby, it hasn’t changed with history or marriage or any other thing, some people’s do. It was a small town, about 1400 people now, it was 1200 people when I was there, so it’s grown, wow, that’s a lot, what, twenty percent or so. It was a small farming community; my dad was a merchant at a grocery store, I worked for him there.

Friends of mine went to the University of Nebraska from there and that’s where I went to school, followed ‘em in whatever year that was I graduated from high school in 1941. Went immediately to the University of Nebraska.  

The war caught up with us and I was summoned when I got greetings and went off for a physical to find that I had tuberculosis and they didn’t want me in the Army. So I went to the local doctor and he says, “Oh we’ll have you fixed up in no time and then the Army will take you.” 

Well I wasn’t terribly interested [chuckle] in that process, but in the meantime, almost immediately upon that finding a friend of mine was delivering a car to his family from my own city to California. And I thought, well it’s time I did something for this war, maybe I could go build liberty ships or something in California, so I jumped in the car with him, helped with the driving, went toward California.

And on the way through Albuquerque, we stopped at my brother’s house for overnight and my cousin was there who had applied for an unknown job in the hills up above Santa Fe in New Mexico. And she had a spare application, I just filled it out and put it in and by the time I reached California they were trying to get a hold of me by phone and wanted me to come back immediately and go to work. I said, “No I can’t do that but I’ll be back after a bit,” and did. And that’s what happened and how I got into Los Alamos.  

I think what excited them was that I had worked for the physics department at the University of Nebraska. They didn’t know that that job was only in the stock room issuing supplies and equipment to undergraduate students for their laboratory work, but that’s beside the point [chuckle]. It said “Physics” and the people who were recruiting or looking for help up there, certainly that’s all they do [laughter], they didn’t know about physics or what it entailed.  

Worked there for 3 years, mostly for Emilio Segrè—well he is of that team, Amaldi, D’Agostino, Fermi, and Segrè. He always made a big point of that, he was the youngest member of that Italian team that discovered the slow neutron and its uses in this kind of work. They got a patent on that, by the way, which was fairly interesting in as much as their boss, the Italians, sued the US of A government after the war and won their suit. They each got, I think it was $150,000, whatever they did to buy that, the rights to use that in atomic bombs which they’d already done, but after the fact was kind of nice. 

Fermi had won the Nobel Prize before he got here and that’s how he got here. He was headed for Denmark to receive it and took that opportunity to escape the clutches of the Nazis who were becoming very strong in Italy and their anti-Semitism was strong along with them, so he took his family to Denmark to receive the Nobel Prizeand kept going—never turned back I think is the word.  

Segrè came along later and he still didn’t have his papers when I worked for him in Los Alamos. He wasn’t a citizen yet. He later got a Nobel Prize, he and Chamberlain, another member of our group there at Los Alamos, for their work on the anti-proton, but these are interesting things to physicists only I think, so you can just toss them out.

Oh what do we do there—we were mostly filling out the details of the atomic chart and working on isotopes and examining them to see if they might be potential fissionable materials, that kind of thing. So we made—largely was chemistry making small samples of each of these elements as they came along and counting neutrons that came off of them after they were struck with slow neutrons and see if any of them produced two at the same—as well as the fission products to see if they actually fissioned.

I developed technical equipment to do that—fission chambers and fission counters, this kind of thing. That was part of our work, so what we did for our test of the nuclear weapon when it came along was the same sort of thing. We had fission detectors and neutron detectors and stuff which we flew from balloons and had buried at various distances from the blasts. Our task was to determine the yield of the weapon from these various technical procedures and parameters, namely how many fissions were produced.  

I wasn’t a photographer, that wasn’t my job, except I did carry a camera ever since high school almost daily and of course I couldn’t anywhere around Los Alamos. But Segrè decided he wanted a photo history of what the group was doing, so he got me appointed official photographer for the group and I used most of the time his camera, but I took mine so I could carry it all the time—he was using his own. Anyway, but when we went to the Trinity site for these ideas he negotiated with the Director and with the security services—got my official appointment as a photographer and one of the few people who had a camera at Trinity. 

I finagled a roll of—not Kodachrome, oh it was the German photo outfit, a 100 foot length of color film, which offloaded into a cartridge or several cartridges, and carried it at Trinity. Film was hard to come by during the war, certainly color film, so that worked fine. By the time I got around to the actual test itself I only had 4 exposures left on the film I had taken down there, so I had to hoard it very carefully, and that was a serious error because that was the most interesting part. 

But the night of the detonation I moved out away from the area in which we were sitting and out to where the lights of the community area were in front of me, used—turned a chair backwards and I’d carry it out there and sat in it using that as a tripod, aimed the camera at the detonation point, which was roughly 6,000 yards away. I don’t know how many miles that was, about three I think. At any rate, I opened the shutter all the way as it was not clear we were going to get any kind of yield or detonation out of this experimental device—that’s what it was, it wasn’t a bomb or any such, it was a chunk of material surrounded by high explosives.

Well anyhow, I opened the shutter wide—the full way, full stop—and put the shutter on bulb and held it open. It was black out, just head of the detonation, and when it went off it became clear that it was a good yield. I released the shutter, it closed, I cranked the exposure down to where it was reasonable, about 1,000 per second, and fired the other three shots in rapid succession. The middle one, by luck, turned out to be just about the right exposure—the other two were useable but not as clear or in focus, all this good stuff.  

The picture was good enough that they wanted—that the word got out that I had it before any of the other—film I developed, film myself. And in those days that process was rather lengthy—I don’t know, your photographers might know that—the inane set color procedure and whatever, it was very complicated and time consuming. I borrowed Doc Romano’s laboratory and developed them myself and they were just hanging there like any other drying and it became clear that the last three pictures were okay and the middle one was a pretty good exposure. 

And somehow the theoretical division got wind of that and they confiscated the photo for a time. And they actually did one of the first yield measurements by measuring the width of the fireball and estimated time of when that was made and they could back calculate something resembling a good estimate of the yield. It turned out to be in agreement with the other estimates they had. I think they had to take an average of all the measurements they had because they were pretty crude in those days.

It wasn’t long after that General Groves, who wasn’t anywhere around, said he wanted that picture. Well, he got it [chuckle]. So it was published fairly widely once the secrecy was off and they could at least announce that they had then bombed Japan and it became public knowledge that such a weapon existed. 

So then they started publishing that picture as what happened at Trinity under the auspices of the US Army photo, so my credits didn’t stop or start til later on. I was interviewed by a couple newspapers and they finally started giving me credit. 

That’s where that is and that’s what I did and this is only the most important event in my life. There were other things, yes I carried water as it were, dug ditches, moved sand, ran around our bunkers and this kind of thing, but that isn’t terribly interesting.

Kelly: You did those things to get ready for the Trinity device.

Aeby: Yeah, oh yeah. Actually there’s a lot of, the full coverage I had of this is all in the historical museum archives, there’s—I don’t know—and also some Bikini shots that I took over there as an official photographer, working for Berlyn Brixter. Is he on your interview list?

Kelly: He’s not on our list.  I wasn’t able to reach him.

Aeby: He’s not well. But he—there were a number of pictures I took also of thirty-five millimeter color shots that are in the archives at the laboratory, but the museum has all of the ones that I had in my possession for one reason or another.

Kelly: So did you, going back to Emilio Segrè, what kind of work did you do wiyj him, what was his responsibility?

Aeby: I didn’t—I really supported all the other—the really physicists with the PhDs and all that good stuff. Actually only two—no, I don’t guess hardly anybody was, Segrè had a PhD, at that term, you know or professor’s title at that time. And I was essentially a counting technician. 

I did the work of taking the samples, putting them in a machine and observing them. We were looking for things like one event per month so our gadgetry had to sit there and be carefully cared for over a long period, so we had twenty or thirty different counting instruments loaded with samples that is counted over a long period of time. We had other things that we were counting for a short period of time, shorter lived isotopes, but most of them of interest disintegrated very slowly.

Kelly: So where did you live? You were a single man at the time. 

Aeby: Yes.

Kelly: And so what were the accommodations? 

Aeby: Lived in a dormitory.  I was also a volunteer. I had volunteered for a scout master of the group up there and they actually promoted it and founded a group. We couldn’t reveal the names of our board or anything to the scout office; it was hard to negotiate terms with them, to be called a scout troop. 

However, there was one at the old ranch school, and we kind of just kind of followed in their footsteps and they—the Boy Scout offices looked the other way and says, “Okay go ahead and we’ll accept this, you just give us a number and say you’ve got three board members,” or something like this. We did that, but the reason I bring it up is that our dormitory caught fire one time during the war and I we got there all the Boy Scouts were sitting out in front of my stuff. They had gotten out of the dormitory, but other people didn’t fare so well.

Kelly: Boy Scouts to the rescue.

Aeby: Yup. Well, they always came over after school, sat around the dorm, until I got there later on in the evening, it was more like a boys club for them. They had no other place to be, no official meeting house and that kind of thing. That was handy.

Kelly: How many boys did you have?

Aeby: A dozen or so, thirteen. We had every boy that was of school age. We even invented, I think it’s called Cub Scouts—we didn’t invent Cub Scouts, we invented the “Buds” which were pre-Cub Scout age. So we had from twelve years or whatever, six years, seven, eight years old. Whatever boy wanted to be in, he got in.

Kelly: So did you have uniforms?

Aeby: Oh yeah, the Boy Scouts had uniforms. Nobody ever really had one. A few did.  Not very many.

Kelly: Was Emilio Segrè’s son in that troop?

Aeby: No. His son was not up there. I don’t know quite why. I just don’t know.

Kelly: I read his son’s account of his father’s—

Aeby: At least he wasn’t at the beginning, I don’t know whether he maybe came a little later. But all the technical personnel that I knew, virtually all of them split as soon as they could, soon as Trinity was over they were making plans to get out and did, they needed to get back to their colleges very quickly. I stayed six more months to go to Bikini. I registered at the University of California on the way back from Bikini and then returned briefly to Los Alamos to pick up my stuff and go back to Berkeley.

Kelly: What degree did you pursue?

Aeby: Well, I pursued chemistry for a time, gave up on that, my interests changed to psychology. I got the degree in psychology because I was almost instant there with the credits I had. But then I continued to do physics from then on, health physics more specifically. It was kind of a combination of the two.

Kelly: So you went back to Los Alamos after?

Aeby: Right, not intentionally, I was just, you know, the only job I’d passed the exam for psychological social order and stuff in the state of California and that didn’t pan out.  They gave real veterans too much preference that I would have better scores on the test, but then the four or five or a dozen points or whatever they got for being for being a veteran would put me down on the list far enough that the 120 people they needed for a job or whatever they were doing—I didn’t quite make it.

Kelly: So you’re participation in the Manhattan Project did not count as service to the country as a veteran?

Aeby: Not unless you were a veteran, there were plenty of veterans there.

Kelly: But if you were in the military you would have gotten, if you were an SED…

Aeby: Oh yeah, that was their assignment. They went there under orders and they lived in military barracks, not in where I was talking about in the dormitories.

Kelly: Was there a lot of exchange between, you know, let’s say your group of civilian employees and the military SED and…

Aeby: Yeah, you didn’t hardly ever know the difference, you didn’t know who was who, which was in and wasn’t. I think Segrè to this day thinks I was in the SED as a matter of fact. He certainly knew better because he signed a lot of papers to get me transferred to his group early on. I don’t know why, but by the time he got around to writing his memoirs—he’d written them, most of them, quite a lot earlier actually—he got that confused and stayed with it [Laughter]. Which was okay by me, I didn’t care. As a matter of fact, there are some records to the effect I keep getting mail from the military that’s offering me insurance and that kind of thing.

Actually, when we went to Bikini, we were assigned rank in the military or in the Navy. We went as commanders or above, which was an interesting rank. It had to be done that way because the civilians couldn’t travel at that time on naval vessels—it was still close enough to the war that they hadn’t relaxed that restriction. I don’t know that, whether that was an all-time rule in the Navy or not. I know it isn’t anymore, but it was then.

Kelly: How hard did you and your colleagues work during the Manhattan Project, I mean, six-day schedule, how was your schedule like?

Aeby: The schedule was very loose, but people worked many hours a day. They were impressed, I think, by the leadership and the importance of what they were doing, and they did. There wasn’t any such thing as an eight-hour day, most of us who had, like, the counting equipment had to be started early in the morning and even though it ran twenty-four hours a day it had to be checked and serviced periodically and even come over late at night and check it. We didn’t punch any time clocks, which I think the government got their dollars worth out of us for the hours…

Kelly: Was there a sense of motivation cause you were trying to race against Hitler and trying to make sure these things were ready to help out in the Pacific wars?

Aeby: There was some pressure of course to get done by—there wasn’t any deadlines or any such like this except with a man like General Groves somewhere in the background always. It was like the big eye in the sky, “Hey, you aren’t doing enough” or I don’t know—there was that feeling that you could do more and you should do more.

Kelly: You mentioned General Groves, did you ever hear him speak or—

Aeby: Oh yeah. Often.

Kelly: Tell me how he came across?

Aeby: Upon various occasions, he came across like a strong leader, ambitious, and in a word: a bumptious ass upon occasion. But that’s personal opinion and I assure there are others.

Kelly: I get the sense from talking to people that he was often sort of the butt of some jokes.

Aeby: Oh yes, often.  

Kelly: Can you remember any?

Aeby: No I don’t remember any specific jokes, but there was some comic strip character that was—oh I know, it was one of those generals in Al Capp’s cartoons of L’il Abner. That nickname kind of got applied to General Groves as—I don’t even remember who the General was who was famous for his round hats such and such and the retreat from such and such.

Kelly: What about Oppenheimer, what was the feeling about what kind of person and leader he was?

Aeby: I don’t know. He was more—it just seemed like he was—“effete” is the word, more of a poet or an artist than a scientist, yet he was very technically astute. He was very good at what he did, that’s all I’ll say. And I think you needed some kind of a buffer like him between the military and the scientific community. He could absorb all those directives as punches and then soften them when he offered a directive to his staff and employees and he did a good job. That’s all there is to it.

Kelly: How did he treat the leaders like Segrè in terms of giving them authority to run their groups and…?

Aeby: He really understood that that’s what he needed to do. They had what is known, well I don’t know—there were group meetings, group leader meetings, periodically, and they would kick around the ideas and say we should do this and assign various parts of it. People would volunteer for them because their group is doing that kind of thing and, as I understood it, it was very much up to the group leader how he did what he did and how he got there. That worked and with that group of people—I don’t know that it would always work with all sorts of groups, but with, certainly university professors and technical people that had their own laboratories and this kind of thing, it certainly did well.

Kelly: Were there prima donnas among the group of these highly talented and intense scientists?

Aeby: Absolutely. We had one or two in our own group, actually. I don’t know, it’s like any group: there are some, are going to be puffed up with their own important and some that are going to be not so puffed up, that’s about it. There’s just a whole scale of individuals that are entered into this. Scientists aren’t any different than other people in terms of their emotional approach to things, except they are a little more—well they probably aren’t even more directed to than say an artist, who is devoted to his art and is very—looks kind of narrow from the outside, but most of the technical people I knew were broad in the sense that they were musicians of some sort or they read poetry or like Oppenheimer read classics, like the Hindu classics, and this kind of thing. People with college education seem to get broadened in the process no matter how narrow their interests may have been started with.

Kelly: A fascinating group.

Aeby: Yes, it was.

Kelly: Let’s see.

Cameraman: Tell you what, let’s change…

[Tape switches.]

Kelly: Okay, you’re back. I don’t know if you could comment. Did you know Ernest Lawrence?

Aeby: Well I worked for him at Berkeley after the war but during the war I didn’t know him, I knew of him.

Kelly: I get the sense that he was a very optimistic person, lots of energy and enthusiasm.

Aeby: That’s true. He was.

Kelly: Maybe sense of, what Lawrence was.

Aeby: Let’s see. I’ll add—it’s a student job. I was essentially a janitor in the chemistry laboratory, or the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory as it was known as in Berkeley. And I only had passing contact with Lawrence so I can’t talk much about him. He was okay as an individual.

Kelly: Looking back on your own experience in the Manhattan Project was it sort of a galvanizing experience for you as a person, as an individual? How did it change the rest of your life, if it did?

Aeby: Well, quite a bit. It made serious changes. The one change that I guess is as impressive as any is there I was, a young buck going to school, meeting these people who were simply authors of the textbooks that I was using and Nobel Prize winners and this kind of thing and that I would never equal that experience ever again. And I think the impression I got was, why mess around with chemistry, I’m ever going to equal that ever, that experience or equal their accomplishments. So it was easy to switch in directions in which I had more interest, or at least I thought I did, back at Berkeley. 

And switching back to a technical career not long after that when I found it difficult to find anything to do as a psychologist, I found that very easy and then resumed study of chemistry and whatnot through various sources, some at the University of New Mexico and other coursework in various places, specifically in health physics and health chemistry. And that’s where my career rested, even after leaving Los Alamos.

I worked on cleanup activities for the company I worked for, Aberwine Incorporated, I had the contract to go around and survey formerly utilized sites of the Manhattan District. And there are some thirty-one sites over the United States that we went to on occasion, surveyed them carefully with soil samples, air samples and this kind of thing. And I was in the chemistry side of it more there than anywhere else, radiochemistry and helping to determine that—what kind of cleanup was necessary in these areas.

Kelly: I’m also interested in your stepping up to be the Boy Scout leader. Can you sort of comment how you’re part of the new community and there’s no existing institutions, that everyone had to pitch in and try to make the community work.

Aeby: Yeah, that was a part of it. I volunteered myself for the job. I left it unclear that that’s the route that really happened. When Los Alamos was established on the grounds of a little boy’s school, that boy’s school was patterned after the Boy Scouts of America. Mr. Kyle, its director, insisted that all the boys that come there—mostly problem children from the east—wear Boy Scout uniforms all around: shorts, long socks, the real uniform just like they had in those days, year-round. You’d see them in the old pictures if you go the museum you’ll see some of them skiing with shorts on, short pants.

And they did a lot of hiking and one of the first people I met up there was a man named Bences Gonzalez and he was with the Ranch School during its heyday and its former years, actually. And he was the director of—well, not director—he was the camp cook, let’s put it that way. The camp cook, quartermaster, he did everything for them. And he had three sons and he lamented that there wasn’t any Boy Scout movement there. And so I thought, well maybe we ought to get one going.

So we lived in the big house—which was the resident—the school’s resident building before they got the dormitories built. And it had a library for the boys’ use and all of them were Boy Scout books and bird books and this kind of thing. And I had been a Boy Scout and one of the last things was—that my scout master, when handing me the Eagle badge, says, “Well. this is not the end of your Boy Scout career, it is the beginning. If anybody ever calls on you to do any Boy Scout work, you’re supposed to do it.” This is essentially it and I unfortunately remembered that so I had to go ahead and do that and did what I needed to do to reestablish the old Ranch School’s old Boys Scout troop, Troop 22. And it’s still that, they had to do some finagling after the war to get that assigned to that troop, but that number is still with them I think. 

Well, we couldn’t seem to leave out anybody regardless of the age cause we had Boys Scouts in our group [chuckle]—one of Ben’s sons was twenty years old, I think. And by the way, some of those might be of interest to interview. Severo Gonzalez lives in Espanola. Ramon lives in Colorado but visits Espanola quite often. And they could give you a good idea what the Ranch School looked like before the laboratory got there and then both of them worked for the laboratory after it was established. So they would be interesting to interview.

So anyhow we had all the ages—any boy in school really got into our group one way or another. Not all of them, one or two, but anybody that did was welcome. And we hiked and we camped and this kind of thing. 

There’s one interesting point in our camping trips. We took a four day pack trip just after the Trinity event got over and I’d returned to Los Alamos and so okay now there’s time—I could resume the Boy Scout work. So we organized a four day pack trip with Bences, camp cook and all the boys and we had four pack animals and so on. So we took off across the Rio Grande and that region and stayed out four days. 

And we came back over the mountains and into the general area of the S-site area— you’re familiar with that area, okay. We were coming over the trails, the Quemazon trail that ended down in that area. And low and behold the end of the war occurred just as we topped that hill and came down through the woods. And [George] Kistiakowsky decided to celebrate by setting off all the scrap TNT he had out there at the S-site—“KABOOM, KABOOM, KABOOM.” 

And pack animals don’t care for that kind of thing, so our pack animals said, “Oh, this way,” scattering equipment all the way through the woods and we finally caught up with them and quieted down and we could get the horses back together and most of our equipment and come on back to town. And the boys asked me what happened and I said, “Well, I don’t know, but I suspect the war ended while we were out.” That was what it was.

Kelly: That’s a great story.

Aeby: That connects the Boy Scouts to the atomic bomb. [Laughter]

Kelly: Really good. That’s a great story.  That’s really good.  I’ll use that one I’m sure.  Good, can you think of any other funny stories?

Aeby: Oh, no, [chuckle] there may be others that occur to me, but right now I can’t think of one.

Kelly: What interaction was there—you now live in Espanola—what interaction was there from Los Alamos to the surrounding communities, the Hispanic communities and the Pueblos? 

Aeby: Well it was—during the war it was very cordial really. My boss Segrè was just learning English and he spoke a lot of Italian but he could talk to the Spanish people who spoke mostly Spanish and they talked back and forth and with just a little effort they could understand each other pretty well. So he was in charge [chuckle] of some of the things that we did. 

Segrè would just get fed up with how work was going. “Ah, heck let’s go fishing,” and the whole group got up and got their fishing equipment and take a car of some sort and go off into—we went to Jemez Springs is what I remember. I’ve got several pictures of that with Segrè standing over a rock fly fishing and Chamberlain and all the other guys in the group doing one thing and another. But this was how easy it was, it doesn’t say how difficult things were, but if things weren’t going well there were ways of doing something about it: either work harder to get it straightened out or take a little time off and think it through, or something like this.

Kelly: That’s great, I like that story too. That’s a good one.  I guess there were a number of, you say the relationships were very cordial, how about with San Ildefonso? Did you go to feast day?

Aeby: Oh yeah, very good, one of the—Maria the potter had—her son worked at Los Alamos in a physics group and we got along very well. He was really quite a good physicist among other things. But we were invited to the Pueblos for feast days, this kind of thing, and everybody went, I mean that could at the time it occurred. Transportation was difficult, so if you couldn’t get there with a friend or—they didn’t provide buses or any such, and I didn’t own a car, very few people did.

Kelly: Did you ever go to Edith Warner’s tea house?

Aeby: I was there, but not at the time while the other people were.  I knew where she was and I knew what she was up to and all this good thing…

Kelly: Well, I don’t know I think, we’ve got some great stories from you.

Aeby: Okay, good.

Kelly: This has been very, very helpful.

Aeby: If there was anything in there that is not on the tape on Los Alamos, feel free to use that tape to fill in.

Kelly: Yeah, definitely, that’s great. Tom, can you think of anything?

Cameraman: Other sites, another side?

Aeby: Well, what I know of and I certainly learned after the fact—not during the war—all we knew is that there were uranium sources in mostly, that was—some of it captured from Germans in Holland and spirited out, some it shipped in directly from Africa, some from Czechoslovakia, and those had to go someplace. Well they came in to New Jersey, and were offloaded there in box cars and shipped off to Middlesex in New Jersey. These I learned later. This was one of the sites we cleaned up, the Middlesex site, where the ore was essentially high-graded. They ran it through, it was roasted, kind of, to make it easy to break up, and then the parts of it that were most active was put in one pile and parts that were not so active were put in another pile.  

The interesting thing was that the citizens of Middlesex saw that as a nice source of driveway coating material. And they hauled it away and built their driveways out of the lesser pile of stuff which was just sitting there. The rest of it went into barrels and was shipped off to processing sites such as Oak Ridge and Hanford—well, Hanford’s later. And the Oak Ridge fractions went to Hanford to build the reactors, and then the product from Hanford came back to Oak Ridge for separation.

There were many sites, most of them right around the New York area and New Jersey area. Others built up after the Manhattan District was out of it and the Atomic Energy Commission took over. But there were thirty-one sites—for instance, the material that depleted uranium, as they called, it after it was separated, that’s just the U-238, was not of much use for anything except bullets, so they shipped it to Fernald. Is that Idaho or Iowa, I don’t know where Fernald?

Kelly: Ohio.

Aeby: Fernald, where it was developed as to—it was made in shells for anti-tank use and other—it was much heavier than lead so it had a greater penetrating power. It’s that simple, it’s a weight matter—their guns could throw more weight and do more damage. Oh, the other interesting thing, it was pyrorific, and if it penetrates the tank. now you’ve got fire flying around inside, so it’s a fairly impressive weapon. Oh, let’s see what else, that doesn’t describe thirty-one of the sites.

Cameraman: Did you have a knowledge when you were in Los Alamos of what else was going on. Was there talk of maybe what the weapon was or were you pretty compartmentalized? Did you care what the other groups were doing?

Aeby: There were lots of jokes about that. I mean, the security tried to say, “Well you can’t use the word uranium,” [chuckle], this kind of thing, so the guys would print “Uranium” up on a placard and carry it around, just to defy security. And boys played games with security, various sorts. 

We found a hole in the fence one time wide enough to accommodate a six by six truck so we deliberately went out through that hole and back in through the guard station a half a dozen times in a matter of a couple hours. Now they had a record there of this vehicle—its license plate and all this good thing—coming into the laboratory six times, never going out, these kinds of things.

One time down in Pajarito Canyon we found a guard asleep. It’s was where we had our counting site—that’s all away from electrical interference and other things that might disturb it and it was all a battery operated site. But they had two cabins, they were all full service cabins, they were used down there. One of them, the security, the guards—there wasn’t security there, there was G.I.s, military guards, watched the site.

We came down there one day and the guard was propped up against the outside of the fence, sound asleep. His rifle was sitting there beside him and we waited there for awhile, he didn’t come over and inspect our badges and such, so we had work to do, we went on in, did the job, got all done and came out, he was still sound asleep. So I wonder, maybe he’s not all right, I better go up and check, maybe he’s sick or something. Well, he was really just passed out, probably from overindulgence in alcohol, but at any rate I extracted a couple of shells from his gun and set the gun back down. See now, they were very restrictive—they had to account for every piece of ammunition they drew. We pocketed the shells and drove off [chuckle]. I don’t ever know what happened to that poor guy but I hope he learned something from it.

Another time the guards shot a bear down there—highly illegally—but it happened to be a mother bear and the cub was still wandering around at that same site. And they decided that he would make a great mascot for their baseball and basketball team because it was—so they had it treed, it wouldn’t come down from a tree, so we agreed if they could get it we’d haul it back to the lab for them. So they did—they lassoed it and got it out of the tree and then tied it in the back of our carry-all. And so we had to sit hunched forward because the bear, he was loosely tied back there and he could put one paw over the seat and swipe at us up in front [chuckle]. We got him up to Los Alamos and they did keep him for a little while, but the game department got wind of it and made him turn him loose.  

Cameraman: Did you know, getting back to the knowledge because everything was pretty compartmentalized and some people have told us they had a pretty good idea of what was being buil,t even though they didn’t know the whole picture and some people said I didn’t care, you know. How did you approach that, did you know?

Aeby: I knew, but I don’t know when I knew. That’s one of the things that our presidents generally use—when did they know? That makes a difference somehow in how you tell the story, but I really am not sure. I had a pretty good idea early on and I don’t know whether somebody told me about it or whether I just deduced it from what was going on. 

That wasn’t the part of the secret—the real secret was, could it be done it? And that was when the cat was out of the bag, is when it was obvious it could be done because they did it and it went off.  That was when the Russians took an interest in it and the Germans who had said, well it can’t be done, and so on. Both Hitler and Stalin blew the chance. They had the information there when they questioned about it, as a matter of fact it all started in Germany.

Cameraman: Now let’s see, was there some sort of indoctrination meeting or something? When you first got out there, and they, what did they tell you about what you were doing? They had to tell you something.

Aeby: Well, I don’t really—somehow I missed all that if it happened. When I first—they processed the application they wanted me to come there. I got there pretty early and I was there way ahead of any security clearance. S they didn’t want to have somebody on the payroll who wasn’t doing anything so I got the job of driving the taxi between Lamy railroad station and Los Alamos. 

So the people I met were Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi—but you see they didn’t have those names. It was Nicholas Baker and so on; they had a code name of some kind. I knew who they were, I knew why they were there by the time I got there and this was before I ever was cleared to be in Los Alamos. You don’t meet those people [chuckle] and not know that there’s something involving “atomic,” or the nucleus of the atom is involved. You also know right away if you’ve had high school physics, and it’s a lot of energy in there someplace, and somebody going to try figure out a way to get it out. So that really couldn’t have been a secret, it wasn’t, that’s all.

Kelly: Back to the Trinity test, when you were setting up your camera on the back of a chair, did you take cover yourself, did you have a…

Aeby: No, all I had was welder’s goggles. As a matter of fact, one of the lenses was cracked, and so I saw a line for a few minutes after the blast.

Cameraman: Was there any discussion before that about the radiation? Were you assured that you were far enough away? At that time nobody really had a sense of what the radiation damage did to the body.

Aeby: That’s more or less true. They had a pretty good idea. Look, Appleman was the guy at the head of what later became known as health physics. He was in charge of all that kind of thing, and we all wore film badges and dosimeters and stuff. But nobody was really quite aware of what the dosage might be from the blast itself, but they were certainly aware that the ground around it was going to be contaminated.  

As a matter of fact, after the blast—a couple of weeks after—one of our jobs was to go down and mine the crater, cause the idea was that there were probably enough neutrons there to produce some very interesting isotopes. So we mined all that nice surface material—that glassy stuff that was formed as much as we could—and we mined a truckload of barrels of that. I suspect it was a couple of tons actually, of material. We went down with shovels and put it in. We were all wearing film badges, which got blacker than the ace of spades, I’m sure. But we did it, and I hauled it out and they stored it in a bunker down there, and the Army later just bulldozed it under I think. But they did indeed find a couple of isotopes that hadn’t been known before—the chemists did

Cameraman: They called that stuff Trinitite, right?

Aeby: The Trinititee’s what they called it, because that it the Trinity site and it formed this glassy material on top.

Cameraman: But that’s what happened, I know there’s a shed that sort of covers the ground where they left some.

Aeby: Right. 

Cameraman: That was the reason for getting it all out of there.

Aeby: That was the reason we had. We didn’t take near the total area of what it was; we just got enough for a ton or two. They didn’t have any—if there were only say a few grams per ton, you needed to get a lot of tons in order to get enough for a measurable sample. And remember, Mrs. Curie and her tons of stuff to discover, radium, it was the same kind of thing, you had to just keep concentrating until you had enough to measure.


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