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Lydia Martinez’s Interview (2009)

Manhattan Project Locations:

Lydia Martinez, from the neighboring community of El Rancho, worked at Los Alamos in various jobs during and after the Manhattan Project. She first worked as a baby-sitter and housekeeper for families such as the Fermis, Tellers, and Critchfields. She was also a junior technician in the X-7 group. After the war, she remained at Los Alamos National Laboratory, working in various units and finally retiring as a property administrative specialist. In this interview, she remembers her duties at Los Alamos and what it was like to be one of the younger women who worked there. She describes how she continued to keep ties with various families over the years, and recalls how she received the Laboratory’s Distinguished Performance Award.

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: Lydia, where are you from? Where were you born?

Lydia Martinez: I was born in El Rancho, close to San Ildefonso Pueblo.

Atencio: When was the first time you went to Los Alamos?

Martinez: I would have gone there in 1943. I worked as a babysitter, and I also cleaned some houses. I remember the Fermis. I worked with them. They had a daughter named Nella and [a son named] Giulio, and I became friends with them. They were a lot younger. They lived right across from the [Carroll “Red” and Helen] Gordons in a Sundt apartment. They were just right across the hall from the Gordons.

Atencio: Then you returned to high school? To finish high school?

Martinez: Then I went back to McCurdy School, and in the summers I worked. I was older then and I worked at the lab. And then I went—well, I worked at South Mesa, and we worked with the soldiers and WACs [Women’s Army Corps], working with explosives. I was a junior technician.

In September, when it was time to go back to school, I went back to McCurdy. Later on, I went on to York College. After I came back from York College, I worked in the Zia housing office. The MPs were leaving about that time, and we processed 300 civilian guards that day.

I was at the lab for 42 years fulltime. I worked there three days a week as a lab associate. Now I’m retired, but I have many fond memories of the very early days at Los Alamos. 

When we homesteaded, we would plant a lot of corn and squash. We had a cistern that held the water. We got the drinking water from the canyon where they have a skating rink now. When the government took over the ranches at Los Alamos, my brother and my dad went to pick up their crop, and they were approached by an MP on horseback. He stopped them and checked to see what they were doing up there, what they had in the truck. And that’s it.

Atencio: When you first went to work at Los Alamos – who interviewed you and what were the circumstances that you went to work at Los Alamos?

Martinez: Okay. I remember I talked to Irma Shuler.

Atencio: Did Irma Shuler come to El Rancho?

Martinez: No. I went up to her office. Then, I went to get my badge and I was badged by a WAC. She said, “What does Irma Shuler think she is doing?”

I never really knew why, but I went for an interview to go to work in another group and the man that interviewed me said, “I see you started working at the lab before you were of age.” That’s what the WAC was complaining about, my age. Going to work before I was of age to be there.

Atencio: When you first went to work at Los Alamos, how did you get to work at Los Alamos? 

Martinez: Okay. We went in Army trucks.

Atencio: Okay.

Martinez: They would come in the morning and pick us up. If I knew the soldier driving the truck, he would stop at our house first and pick me and my sister up. But if we didn’t know the soldier, we would have to ride in the back, which was a very bumpy ride.

Atencio: The trucks were driven by Army— 

Martinez: By the military, the MPs.

Atencio: MPs would drive the trucks.

Martinez: Yes.

Atencio: And they would take people from El Rancho to Los Alamos to work.

Martinez: Yes.

Atencio: Where were you assigned when you first went to work at Los Alamos?

Martinez: Well, they had the housing office close to where Fuller Lodge is. All the maids would go there, and they had people that drove us to the different homes. We never knew where we were going to work, so we were all over the Hill working for the different scientists.

Atencio: In their homes.

Martinez: In their homes, yes. I did a lot of babysitting. I babysat for the Tellers, and who else. The Gordons, the Critchfields, yeah.

Atencio: After you were a fulltime employee at the lab, then you worked as a technician.

Martinez: I worked as a junior technician, yes.

Atencio: What was the group number then?

Martinez: As I remember, it was X-7.

Atencio: X-7.

Martinez: Now they have another X Division, but it was X-7 as I remember. We worked with the military, WACs, soldiers. I worked with explosives. My job was to be at a microscope, measuring the diameter of some wires that were soldered on these plugs that would go into a detonator that would later be filled with explosives. I had little boxes, color-coded – the microscope was color-coded – so it was easy just to look and see what diameter and just put it in a box.

Then one time a soldier went on furlough, and they assigned me to do his work, which was working in a building quite far from the main building. I washed some, they called it PETN [Pentaerythritol tetranitrate], as I remember. Then I would put it in an oven and bake it, take it out, sift it, put it in little jars. When he came back, he took over his job and I went back to my microscope. 

Atencio: While you worked in the technical division, did you have any idea what the work was all about? The end result? Did you know anything about—?

Martinez: We had no idea. I know when I was living with the Gordons, Dr. [Enrico] Fermi came over to their house to borrow their alarm clock, and that’s probably when they had that test at Trinity sites over in Alamogordo.

Atencio: Were the people curious about—?

Martinez: Nobody was curious.

Atencio: Nobody was curious.

Martinez: We weren’t curious at all.

Atencio: People—

Martinez: We were just glad to have jobs up there. So, no.

Atencio: Okay. Now after Trinity site, did anybody say anything or do anything different? After the test at Trinity?

Martinez: No. They didn’t do anything different that I remember.

Atencio: What happened when the war ended? Were the soldiers very happy? Were the citizens very happy?

Martinez: I think people were so excited and happy that security wasn’t very good that night. People were just very, very happy. They just ran out yelling and just very happy. That’s what I remember.

Atencio: At that time, did you realize what your efforts had done to build the bomb that ended the war?

Martinez: At that time, yes, we did.

Atencio: People were told that—

Martinez: We contributed a lot. My father was in charge of the boilers and he had a crew stoking the fires in the Sundt apartments—well, all over the Hill. Then my sister lived with the Hawkins. She also worked at the lab and probably knew a lot more scientists than I did, because she lived with the Hawkins and they would entertain a lot. Then she got to meet them, and later on they would come to her house and she would fix dinner for them, the Ulams, the Marks, and the Hawkins that I remember. But she has a lot more stories to tell than I do, because she was older. 

Atencio: During the time that you were working at the lab, after you commuted by Army truck to Los Alamos, how did you get to Los Alamos?

Martinez: They had buses. Each little community had a bus that people from the valley would drive. Senobio Lujan was our driver, and we would get up there to what is now a restaurant. The MP would get on the bus and write our badge numbers. At one time, we were only allowed to come home once a month. That’s why we lived on the Hill. One time this lady from Chimayo was caught coming home more than once a month, and she was reprimanded for it. So they were pretty strict. 

Atencio: What about the road to Los Alamos? What are your recollections of the road to Los Alamos?

Martinez: Okay. When we homesteaded, we would go up in a wagon pulled by horses. My dad also had a pickup, but it was very dangerous. The road was very, very bad. Then later on, when we went by bus, I guess the roads were a little better then. But I remember this man from El Rancho was working on the roads, and his equipment turned over and he was killed. Steve Berriedo was his name.

Atencio: Did you see big changes in Los Alamos after the war ended?

Martinez: Yes, we did. I think people were a little more relaxed. It seemed like people moved around more, transferring from one group to another, which wasn’t done that I know of while we were working on the war effort. It was different.

The sergeant that I worked for, William McDonald, is still on the Hill. I haven’t seen him for 60 years, I don’t think, but I would like to meet him. I hear that he works for a church at Los Alamos. He’s very active in a church there, but I’ve never tried to contact him. I probably will one of these days before we get any older.

Atencio: Okay. You continued working at Los Alamos.

Martinez: I continued working at Los Alamos. I worked in SP, supply and property, and I worked in W-1 for 18 years, down in the canyon. Where they have the Ice House, where they stored weapons. I got to go in the Ice House, but when I went they covered everything with black cloths, so I never got to see anything, although we would type the reports about the different shots. 

Then from W-1 I went to work for Frank Harlow in T-3, the fluid dynamics group. From T-3 I went to the X Division office and worked in the division office as secretary. Then, I went on to Property Management and I retired as property administrative specialist when I retired in 1989.

Atencio: What big award were you given while you were working at Los Alamos? 

Martinez: Oh, I got a Distinguished Performance Award. We moved 200 offices. I had to have the computer lines, the telephone lines, the open ports, the closed ports and everything operational by the time the scientists moved back in their offices. That was one of the reasons I got the Distinguished Performance Award.

Atencio: What are your thoughts on Los Alamos? Did you enjoy Los Alamos, and did the people from northern New Mexico benefit from Los Alamos?

Martinez: Oh, we benefited a lot. Because if we hadn’t worked there our retirements would be very poor, because the jobs were not that available in those days. My memories of the lab are very good. The people treated me the best I have been treated. They were really, really good to me, because when I started, I was pretty young, didn’t have a lot of experience in office work and I got a lot of training there. I did well there. I feel I did well.

Atencio: Your children, did they benefit from you working at Los Alamos? They were able to get an education?

Martinez: My daughter worked in one of the health groups one summer with—I don’t remember what group, but it pertained—she was going to college and they had her calling the poison center about different chemicals that she was working with. She could talk to this fellow that said, “I will research it and call you back.”

As it turned out, when she went back to UNM [University of New Mexico], she did some work at the poison center, which is where he worked, and later they got married. He’s a physician at Lovelace in Albuquerque. My daughter is the pharmacy manager at Smith’s, located right across from American Furniture.

My son works for the Los Alamos County. He’s a pipe fitter foreman, and he learned a lot too. He started as a meter reader and now he is a pipe fitter’s foreman. He will be retiring at the age of 44 in March. But he also did benefit from our working up there.

Atencio: Your sisters also worked at Los Alamos during the war and up until retirement.

Martinez: Frances Quintana worked at the lab. She started a lot earlier than I did, and she knew a lot more people. Then Viola Salazar, my sister, worked at the report library for many years. We were all there over 40 years. The lab was very good to us.

Atencio: When you were living up here during the war, what would a typical day have been like, when you get up in the morning?

Martinez: When I worked for the Gordons before I went to the lab, she had had a baby and I would take care of Bobby. I would wash clothes for them. I didn’t know much about cooking. I cooked a meal, and Mr. Gordon decided that we would eat our meals out the rest of the time until she came home from the hospital. Now I talked to Liane, their baby at the time, and she lives in New Jersey. She’s a nurse, and she has good memories at Los Alamos also. Bobby, her son, is in California. He owns his own company; it’s a computer company. 

Then after I lived with the Gordons, when I was working at the lab, it wasn’t very far. I would walk to the Tech Area and take the bus from there. The bus picked us up there by the badge office, right across from the Tech Area. The Tech Area was here at the badge office, so the buses would stop there and take us to the sites. Then we’d work all day. Sometimes we had to work nights.

We used to have parties at Anchor Ranch, wild parties. I was pretty young. We’d drive in jeeps up there. It was a lot of fun. But Sergeant McDonald was always very protective of me, because I was probably one of the youngest working there. 

Atencio: Were there many good places to shop at Los Alamos? You had the PX [Post Exchange]; you had the commissary.

Martinez: Well, the older women—I remember there was a lot of Indian women from the Pueblo that would buy a lot of groceries and we’d be on the bus with all those grocery bags. Then they had one store where you could buy coats and things like that, some clothes. Not very many places to shop.

Of course, we didn’t have the time. We worked a lot, and not much time to shop. My mother used to do my shopping when I needed clothes, because I couldn’t really get away that much.

Atencio: What about recreation at Los Alamos? Did they have theaters? Did they have dances?

Martinez: Yeah, at the theater, they would have dances and we’d go. The soldiers would all dance with us, and so it was nice. That’s the only thing—and they had the movies. I hardly ever went to the movies. 

Atencio: Did you ever hear of the soldiers coming through the valley to the different dances?

Martinez: They would come here to Espanola, and the 4-Fers would chase them away, they’d beat them up, and they’d go back to Los Alamos. Because they had the dances at Riverside Hall where the Block’s Mortuary is.

Atencio: Did any of the soldiers marry local girls?

Martinez: A lot of them did. [Inaudible] and Jimmy Bridge. Those are some I remember.

Atencio: Did some of the soldiers marry girls from the Pueblos?

Martinez: I never knew of any, but they probably did.  Oh, I think Virginia from Santa Clara, she married a soldier. I don’t remember her last name. Do you know her? She was a famous potter. Ebelacker, yeah. I think her husband had been a soldier. Those are the only ones I remember.

Atencio: Well, that’s a lot of information.

David Schiferl: What, could you tell us maybe one or two of the funniest things or scariest things that happened to you during the war at Los Alamos, just one or two?

Martinez: Funniest.

Schiferl: Funny or scary or unusual.

Martinez: No, I didn’t experience anything like that.

Schiferl: What was it like working with PETN? How much did they tell you about PETN?

Martinez: Oh, well, it was interesting. I got to see where they processed it when I was washing it with some solution, baking it, sifting it, and then I saw when they put it in the detonators. They had like a shield for the one that did it, and she would put the PETN and then lower this thing that would press the PETN. That’s what I remember. 

Then we would have safety meetings on Fridays, and we would sit outside on the steps and they would—some of it was above our heads, the technical part. But we talked a lot about safety. So, that’s all I have to say, I guess.

Schiferl: Did you know about the Louis Slotin accident when that happened? Were you aware of it?

Martinez: Yes.

Schiferl: Did they tell you much about that?

Martinez: Yes. I don’t know a lot about it, but I heard about it. Then there were people from the valley like [Candalario] Esquibel that was killed at S-Site.

Atencio: Yeah, that happened after the war.

Martinez: After, yeah.

Atencio: After the war.

Martinez: And, then [Cecil] Kelley. I guess—

Schiferl: Kelley was around the late ‘50s, right. 

Martinez: Yeah. 

Atencio: 1958. I studied that criticality accident at DP-West. Most of the people from the valley, when they first went to Los Alamos, where did they work? Did they work for the contractors? Who did the contractors hire originally? Robert E. McKee? The Lowdermilk Brothers?

Martinez: Yeah, some of them worked, but a lot of them were over the Zia Company. I know Mr. [H. Frank] Brown was head of it, and he had worked in Mexico, spoke fluent Spanish, and they had a daughter named Frances. They called her Pancha, Panchita. Then I think the man that was head of personnel was Mr. Hibbetts, yeah.

I guess the Lowdermilks or the McKees lived there at El Rancho, some of them. My uncle had a little café, so they would pack lunches for them, and a lot of them worked up there. Bus drivers, janitors, and the people that took care of the maintenance of the buildings, a lot of people from Vegas and Colorado, were working up there as maintenance personnel.

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