[Thanks to David Schiferl and Willie Atencio for recording this interview and providing a copy to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.]
Willie Atencio: Mr. John Wickersham, we’re trying to interview you and get information from you, because you were at Los Alamos. You were there while the bomb was being developed.
John Wickersham: Oh, yeah. But I don’t know nothing about that.
Atencio: Your first name, ma’am?
Margaret (Marge) Wickersham: I’m Margaret.
Atencio: Margaret. And your maiden name?
Marge: Hibner was my maiden name.
Atencio: What were the circumstances that you were sent to Los Alamos by the military?
John: Well, I took my basic training in Fort Custer, Michigan. They put us on a troop train and said we was going to Alaska somewhere, Iceland or something. Anyway, we went down to Mineral Wells, Texas, and we took a six weeks toughen-up deal with the infantry down there.
Then one night at midnight, they woke us up and we got on a troop train, and twelve days later, we landed in Santa Fe. If I could have known how to get out of there, I’d have left. I didn’t see nothing here. Then they took us to Los Alamos. The road was, you couldn’t get up there unless you backed up in them 6×6 trucks to get around the curve. That was in 1943.
Atencio: Did the road go something like this, coming up the hill?
John: Well, not that good even, no. It seemed to me a lot crookeder than that.
Marge: More switchback.
John: Yeah. There was a lot of switchbacks on it.
Marge: What year was this taken?
John: This was made in ‘45, when Lowdermilk [Brothers Construction Company] was building, remodeling that road.
Atencio: When the military arrived in Los Alamos, was there anything there? Did they have any buildings?
John: Oh, yeah, it had buildings there. See, it started in ’42, according to what I hear. [M. M.] Sundt [Construction Company] was a contractor up there at that time.
Atencio: Sundt construction, Sundt construction.
John: Yeah. I don’t know much about what the buildings was or anything, because I was always out at Anchor Ranch and guard duty. We was on two out, two and four off for twenty-four hours, and then we had twenty-four hours off, and then we went back for another hitch.
All I can remember about that is it was cold and a lot of snow back then. I was just a kid and that was the second time I had ever been away from home. Then they made Anchor Ranch and got it going, and then they made that place down in the canyon, Omega Canyon. Then, finally, they was moving off the main part of that place up there in town.
Atencio: You did a lot of guard duty as a military–
John: All over the place.
Atencio: All over the place.
John: Spent some nights with Oppenheimer, and that general, [Leslie] Groves, when he come up there, we had to guard his house, too. Then I got in with riding horses up in the mountains for a week at a time, and camping out, because we were looking for spies. I guess that’s what we were doing. We never did see nobody.
Atencio: You went riding on horseback, and you’d take pack horses and you go to the perimeter.
John: Yeah. Coming out for a week at a time. Finally got tired of that, so went back to guard duty.
Atencio: What trails did you have to travel on?
John: Well, I don’t know, all over.
Atencio: All over.
John: We would just start down by the cemetery. There wasn’t no cemetery then. And go back up and come out around by Bandelier and down by White Rock and back in. We was looking for spies, I guess, that’s what they said anyway.
Atencio: You say you never really saw anybody.
John: We never seen nobody that I know of.
Atencio: Did you ever run into any people that were looking for cows or sheep or anything like that?
John: I don’t remember if we did, but, you know, it’s a long time ago. I think I done that for about six months, and then I get tired of that and went back to the police. We guarded the Tech Area therein town, and Omega and out at Anchor Ranch. Of course, they didn’t have too much there then, like they got after the war was over. That’s about all I know about or remember. Do you remember anything?
Marge: Honey, I wasn’t in the service.
Atencio: Were you there at Los Alamos at that time also?
Marge: Well, I worked for a while at Los Alamos. He whistled at me one night and said, “Little girl, let me ride your bike.” I let him ride my bike and two months later, we got married.
Atencio: Where were you working at Los Alamos?
Marge: I went up as a maid, and I worked in one of the barrack-like places, the dorms.
John: Well, it was down there where the WACs [Women’s Army Corps] or the women part of the Army, you know.
Marge: No, I worked in a man’s dormitory.
John: Oh, did you?
Marge: Yeah. Then, I asked for a transfer and I worked at the commissary. By that time, our first child was born, and then I went back—we lost that child.
Atencio: Can you tell us about when you were working at the commissary. Were some things rationed? You remember the–
Marge: Yes, I remember in the valley they were. But it’s funny, I don’t remember them rationing at Los Alamos.
John: I don’t think they had that up there.
Atencio: Everything the people could get, buy anything they wanted.
Marge: But only military people were there and people that worked there. You couldn’t go through the gate without a pass. You had to have a pass.
Atencio: So, the military could buy anything they wanted.
Atencio: The military could buy anything they wanted at the commissary.
John: The civilians could, too.
Marge: And the civilians could, too.
John: That worked there, you know.
Atencio: The people that worked there.
Marge: Yeah, as far as I know, because I never remember taking any stamps or pieces of paper for whatever they needed.
John: They had a lot of barracks at that time. They had the barracks there and they rented. The people lived in little rooms for a long time, well, as long as I was there.
Marge: But those barracks were for civilians, like your scientists, and whoever worked at the lab. Now, like me, I wasn’t allowed to live in the barracks, because I wasn’t important. I mean, that’s the way life is.
Atencio: You worked at the commissary. Was that very interesting, dealing with the scientists and their wives?
Marge: You know, mostly women came in, because it was during the day. Of course, the men would be at work. Those were the days women didn’t work much. There weren’t a lot of women working.
Atencio: Did you meet a lot of the scientists’ wives?
Marge: I have no idea who I waited on. Whoever was in line to be—I was a cashier.
Atencio: Were people very courteous and very patient while you worked at the commissary?
Marge: Most of them were very nice, most of them.
Atencio: Were there many children at Los Alamos going with their mothers?
Marge: If there was, they didn’t come in. That’s all I remember there. I don’t remember if schools were up there at that time or not. Now, this would have been about in 1944.
John: Yeah, it would have been.
Marge: It was early on.
Atencio: Going back to the horse patrol, you patrolled the area on horseback. Where did they keep the horses?
John: Well, down there by our barracks. It’s not on this picture at all. We had the barracks there and we had a stable about where – what’s that guy that’s got that body shop up there, Knecht.
Atencio: Knecht, okay.
John: About right in there, there was a stable. Then we spent our off days taking care of the horses and cleaning out the barn and all that kind of stuff, doing what they told us to.
Atencio: How many people were involved with taking care of the horses? Was it–
John: Oh, everybody took care of his own horse.
Atencio: Everybody had an assigned horse.
John: At the time, I imagine there was probably a squad leader. I wasn’t a squad leader. During basic, I was, but there would be about, I’d say ten or twelve, maybe fourteen guys in a squad, see, when I was taking basic training. I imagine that’s about how many horses we rode, our share. Then the other people that rode the second week, had the same amount of horses.
Atencio: Do you remember who your supervisors were?
John: Well, the only supervisor I remember is Lieutenant Wells.
Atencio: Lieutenant Wells.
John: Yeah, he was a pretty good guy. The rest of them wasn’t. We had some sergeants that wasn’t too good, and corporals and stuff like that, lieutenants, captains.
Atencio: You don’t remember who the captain was?
John: No. I only met him one time.
Atencio: Did any of the people like being on this horse patrol duty?
John: Well, I think so, or they wouldn’t have done it.
Atencio: Did they volunteer for this duty?
John: Yeah. You could get in there if you wanted to get in there. I was raised on a farm, so I kind of liked the animals a little bit. We rode them a lot of miles.
Atencio: Did you have very good equipment, like tents and things like that? [Inaudible]
John: Yeah, pup tents, we had pup tents. That’s a piece of cloth, you could get a half and another guy’s got a half and they make a tent about this wide, about this high. You crawl in there and sleep.
Atencio: All winter?
John: Yeah, winter and all.
Atencio: Even during the winter, you had to stay out overnight.
Atencio: Was it pretty cold in some places?
John: Well, I imagine it was quite a bit below zero. Of course, they had more snow. I worked up there a little while afterwards, after I got out. I think it was, what, 1946.
Marge: When you got out?
John: Yeah. Or was it 1947. I don’t know, but anyway, I worked up there for [inaudible] Brothers building roads for a while. There was a lot more snow up there then than there is now. I worked up there for the last nine years for Zia Company before I retired.
Atencio: Did you work for Lowdermilk Brothers?
John: Oh, yeah. I worked for about everybody in the state. I was a heavy-duty mechanic. I learned that the last year at the Navy, back in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, learned how to—I liked it, so I just got into it here.
Atencio: Did you see a lot of wildlife while you were out patrolling the area?
John: Well, I seen lots of turkeys and a few deer. Then at the time there wasn’t no elk here, I don’t think. I never did see one until later years.
Atencio: Did you see any bear?
John: Yeah, there was some bear. One night I shot at one. I know that’s what it was. I didn’t hit it, but shooting in the dark. That got me in trouble for shooting a gun out there. I had to go talk to the next to the head man and write a letter on it and all that kind of stuff.
I seen some eyes out there and I had a dog – we had dogs up there to carry on some of the places. I had a dog at that time, and I turned the dog loose and he run off out through there barking. I seen these eyes. We didn’t have no lights them days out there at night.
He was barking and I see them eyes, so I fired a shot and it run off, whatever it was. It could have been anything. But I shouldn’t never done it. I should have let him—they didn’t like that too well
Atencio: People are very interested about all this perimeter surveillance.
John: Oh, yeah, they was. They had a lot of FBI men up there. When we sent our mail out, we left the envelopes open when we wrote a letter. Because it was checked through before it went on home, wherever you was writing to. You would get in trouble if you said anything in town, because you don’t know who’s sitting close to you. They had lots of FBI men at that time.
Atencio: Did the FBI men ever go out with you on the patrols?
John: No, not that I know of.
Atencio: Did you have to give a report after you came back–
John: Oh, yeah.
Atencio: Who did you have to report to?
John: We had a sergeant and a lieutenant sometimes. They took care of all the paperwork. We were just there in case they needed help.
Atencio: Do you have any questions at this point?
David Schiferl: Yeah. Some of the Los Alamos kids would go under the fence and get out. Some described doing that. Did you ever encounter things like that?
John: I never did.
Schiferl: They were pretty clever then, or lucky.
John: I don’t think there was too many kids – little kids or medium-sized – very many at any time there. I don’t remember a lot of them.
Schiferl: One of them mentioned seeing prisoners. She said that–do you know about that?
John: They had a stockade up there. It would hold about three or four men. It was big as this room, maybe.
Schiferl: Where was that? Where was the stockade?
John: Well, there’s a gate there about, oh – I don’t remember just exactly where it was at. On the main street that went through town. There was a gate and you had to have a pass to get through it, see. That’s where it was at, right there, by that Main Gate up in the area.
Schiferl: What kind of prisoners were these?
John: Well, it’s just ones that messed up there.
John: Went over the hill or something.
Marge: Tell them the rest.
John: Oh, I ain’t going to tell them that I got drunk and went to sleep on guard duty, and they throwed me in there for thirty days or sixty days. [Laughter]
Atencio: Was there a lot of drinking among the military here? Because people were so bored.
John: I imagine ten gallons an hour. There was a lot of drinking, a lot of beer. Beer was ten cents a can. They called it “GI beer.” It was three percent or eighteen percent or something. That’s where I learned how to drink.
But, that night, I went to sleep. They court-martialed me and they court-martialed a guy that had shot another guy [Frederick Galbraith] accidentally, another soldier. He was cleaning his rifle and the guy was on a bunk three or four bunks away. I don’t know what happened exactly, but anyway, it hit him in the leg, the bullet did. Lowdermilk was working on that road. They couldn’t get him to the hospital in Santa Fe, so he [Galbraith] died.
Atencio: Was this another solider?
Schiferl: What year was that?
John: That must have been in 1944 [misspoke: 1943]. I don’t know for sure. But, anyway, they court-martialed him, too, and gave him six months in stockade. Somehow, they made a mistake court-martialing him. He only stayed about a week or two or three and he got back out.
The night I got picked up for asleep, I’d been up to PX [Post Exchange] because I wasn’t on guard duty until 10:00 drinking beer. They come and got me and put me out there in a place where it was warm, see. Naturally, I’m going to sleep. Ain’t no other way out. And that’s what I got.
Atencio: How many of the soldiers stayed to work at Los Alamos once they were discharged?
John: They must have been over 100. I never did know how many exactly, but there were three or four barracks full. The mess hall used to be down around where it connects with that, down in there somewhere. See, we were fenced off. The Army and a lot of workers were fenced off from going up there. They had a PX down there where we were at, and they had a PX up in the other end, up there close to Bishop’s Lodge. Ain’t that what it is? Best I can remember.
Atencio: So there were two PXs at Los Alamos.
Atencio: What about the mess halls? Can you tell us about the mess halls?
John: We had our own mess hall. But the people that were working there, they had mess halls, too, that they could eat at. It was different from our mess hall.
Atencio: Was the food expensive, or the food very good?
John: Well, I never paid any attention to that, because I come up through the Depression, and you would eat what you could find.
Atencio: The soldiers were treated pretty good.
John: Well, there was plenty to eat of whatever it was. They used to have a mess there they’d call shit on a shingle–
John: –that they had for breakfast. That was a little gravy with a little beef in it. Well, that’s what they called it.
Atencio: Yeah, sure.
Schiferl: I’m glad you said it the way you said it.
Atencio: If you were a member of the military [inaudible]—
John: When I first seen that place, if I’d known how to come back out of it, I’d have left.
Atencio: Los Alamos was pretty depressing when you first got there?
Atencio: It got pretty depressing.
John: Well, that was the end of the world out there. In Santa Fe, there wasn’t nothing down there either. Española, there wasn’t nothing but nine bars down here, and maybe a grocery store or two, not much.
Marge: Well, there wasn’t any of Riverside, or very little of Riverside. Most of the town was in Española.
John: It was a strange place, but I got to where I liked it.
Atencio: Okay. Most of the activity in Española was around [inaudible], right.
Atencio: Okay. That was the main drag right down there. Now, they had a dance hall close by.
John: Oh, they had a dance hall, yeah, down there where that–
Atencio: Across from the Rio Grande Café.
John: All on this side of the river there, where that barrel outfit’s at.
Atencio: Okay. Did the soldiers come down to dance in Española?
John: Yeah, oh, yeah, they come down here. In Santa Fe, they had a dance hall or two.
Atencio: Was it very exciting when the soldiers came to dance in Española? Were there any fights with the local people?
John: Oh, there was always fights when you get a lot of people, you know. There’s always that. Especially, you know, soldiers and what they called the 4-F or whatever it was. They’d say something and there, it was on.
It was a lot different than it is now. Nobody got killed like they do now, you know, and there wasn’t no drugs at that time like it is now. But it was quite a place.
Atencio: Was there a lot of recreation in Los Alamos? Did they have a lot of recreation for the soldiers in Los Alamos?
John: Not that I know of. They had a movie theater about where one of them banks is at, up there.
Atencio: Did they bring some of the latest films to show? Did they have the latest films for the soldiers?
John: I don’t know – I never went. I don’t think I ever went to a movie up there.
Atencio: Where were you discharged?
John: I took a discharge up there and signed up for another year there, too.
Marge: This is only because he thought he would get out earlier if he re-enlisted.
John: Well, that’s kind of the story, but it didn’t work out that way.
Marge: It didn’t work out that way at all.
Atencio: How many years total did you serve?
John: Well, I think about forty-something months, but I don’t remember exactly.
John: Yeah, maybe forty-six or something like that.
Atencio: After you got discharged, you stayed in the area.
John: Yeah. I’d already married her, see, and–
Atencio: You were from Española.
Atencio: Where in Española did you live?
Marge: We lived in the Fairview area.
Atencio: Fairview. When you went to work at Los Alamos, how did you commute to Los Alamos?
Marge: Well, they had a bus that came around. Now, whether it was military or not, I don’t know.
Atencio: Was it an Army bus that came by?
Marge: A bus came and picked us up and brought us home. People were poor here, and not very many people had transportation. It was either picking the people up or else they didn’t go to work.
Atencio: Okay. Was it quite an adventure going to Los Alamos on a bus? How were the roads?
Marge: I am still scared to death of that road to this day. And it has not improved.
John: Oh, it’s improved a lot from back then. [Laughter] It was just a one-way street then.
Atencio: Okay. Do you remember any of the bus drivers?
Marge: No. Well, the bus that I was on was always the same driver. Because he had the same route, you know, he would have picked up the people.
Atencio: He picked up people in the Fairview area.
Marge: And El Llano. I don’t know where else.
John: They had a lot of buses coming down there.
Marge: Yeah. They had buses that went up as far as Alcalde, because I know one of the women that I worked with was from Alcalde, and she came on the bus.
Schiferl: Do you remember her name?
Marge: I do not, I’m sorry.
John: I tell you, it was quite a deal.
Atencio: You have seen a lot of changes for the Española area after the coming of Los Alamos.
Marge: My people came in 1932. At that time, it was farm area. Yes, Los Alamos has been a blessing to the people of the valley.
John: Oh, yeah.
Marge: Most of the homes – not all of them, of course – but so many of them were just your little three-room adobe houses with often a number of children. Those men went to work at Los Alamos and built lovely homes for the families. They got cars. It was a good time.
John: It was kind of a bare place when I first got to Española. It wasn’t–
Marge: It really was a rural community. I remember one night, a fellow stopped me on the road to ask if we knew if there was any place to buy chicken or rabbits, you know, for the mess hall up there. Of course, I didn’t know anybody with chickens or rabbits.
Atencio: Do you remember a lot of apple orchards in Española?
John: Oh, yeah.
Marge: Absolutely. Beautiful, beautiful orchards. Wonderful smells in the springtime with the apples blooming. When I was in high school, we picked apples after school for our spending money.
Atencio: Who did you pick apples for? Do you remember what farmers had them?
Marge: Mostly for Bud Whitney and Charlie Peterson. Both of them we did.
Atencio: Do you remember a man by the name of [Charles H.] Corlett?
John: Corlett, yeah.
Atencio: Can you tell us about General Corlett?
Marge: Yes. But, see, they lived on this side of town, and they lived over kind of towards Santa Cruz, in that area. We lived farther up in Fairview.
Atencio: Did you ever work for General Corlett?
Atencio: Did you know of anybody that worked for him?
Marge: No, but I knew somebody that knew him.
Atencio: All right. Can you tell us about that?
Marge: Dorothy Thomas, because they would have them over. I was a maid at that time for Dorothy, and they would have them over now and then for a meal.
Atencio: Do you remember when General Eisenhower came to visit the Corletts?
Marge: No, no. They weren’t our friends. I just saw them, actually, one time through Dorothy.
Atencio: After the Army started sending buses down here, Army buses, how did people commute to Los Alamos?
Marge: There weren’t cars, so people commuted by bus.
Atencio: By bus.
Marge: It was a boys’ school. Of course, we weren’t involved with the boys’ school at all, not as a community. When I was a kid, I remember my Granddad taking us up to Los Alamos for a picnic one time. He had an old International truck, and we rode in the back.
There were seven in our family, and then, of course, there was his family and my aunt’s family. It was a wonderful day. Then, when they had to back up, you know, before they could go straighter, sometimes several times, to get around a curve.
John: Boy, that road was sharp.
Marge: It was not an ideal road.
Schiferl: Do you remember the first atomic test and what happened afterwards?
Marge: Well, of course, we knew. We could hear from the valley the explosions at Los Alamos. We accepted it; we didn’t think anything about it. We didn’t even think what they were doing or anything. But, I remember, of course, when they took the bomb down to White Sands and set it off there.
They had a little newspaper at Los Alamos that was kind of interesting. I can’t remember what its name was. Finally, when they knew that they were making the bomb, they had these little figures jumping up and down saying, “Hurray, hurray, we finally know what they’re doing at Los Alamos.”
Atencio: After the test at Alamogordo, or at Trinity Site, did people say anything?
Marge: I have no idea.
Atencio: Okay. Can you tell us what happened after the war ended?
John: After the war?
Marge: After the war ended.
Atencio: Were there a lot of big celebrations at Los Alamos?
John: Oh, yeah. More drinking whiskey up there than the help could haul. At that time, everybody had a bottle. They had made this bomb go off. Then it seemed like they just kind of floated away, the whole outfit, for a while there after that.
They had brought a bunch of soldiers that had been overseas and other places up there. They had to have a place for them somewhere until they could get rid of them. They probably doubled the GIs, and then they had a bunch of engineer, Army engineer boys down in the science section down there, too.
Then I left there. I don’t remember when it was. In the fall, I think, wasn’t it?
Marge: I don’t remember, honey.
John: But it was a great thing. Man, they had a big—everybody just so happy as happy, you know, up there then. But you didn’t hear much. Then they got rid of [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, I believe it was, by that time.
Atencio: So, by 1946, everything started changing.
John: Oh, yeah.
Atencio: Lots of big changes. You came to live in the valley.
John: Oh, yeah.
Atencio: What part of the valley did you live in?
John: We lived in Fairview for some time, didn’t we? Then, we lived up in El Llano for a little bit, up thataway, and then we bought the place we’ve got now. We’re in La Puebla.
Atencio: La Puebla.
John: That’s where we’ve been the rest of our–
Atencio: Then you worked–
John: I worked for everybody.
Atencio: Everybody, all the different contractors.
John: Oh, yeah.
Marge: Well, there was many years that he worked in general contracting, like roads and dams that would have been away from Los Alamos.
Atencio: Do you remember a fellow by the name of Elbert Lowdermilk?
John: Lowdermilk. Oh, yeah, I worked for Elbert a lot.
Atencio: What did you think of Elbert Lowdermilk?
John: He was a wonderful guy. He was a funny guy, you know. He would be out there on the job, and he would come by and gather up everything and lay out stuff, like a pipeline. Pick up all the pieces, and he would take them back to the shop. Then he would wonder where you was at.
Atencio: Do you remember Elbert Lowdermilk’s daughter?
John: Oh, yeah.
John: Yeah. Elberta, I don’t know much about her. She married a guy by the name of Honstein.
Atencio: Did you ever see her wander around with her father while he was checking the job? Did she go with him?
John: I never did see her on the job. See, they lived here, Elbert and his wife lived here. She still lives, I think – they got a horse farm up here, the daughter has. They own most of that Standard Gas and Conoco here in town now.
Marge: They did anyway.
John: Roy Honstein, he got started in the gas business, but the old man, he was a bookkeeper for the company at the time he married Elbert’s daughter. He got in there and the old man helped him out, I know, to get started. Because back then, you didn’t make enough money to do too much.
Atencio: Do you remember the yard that Lowdermilk had there on the White Rock point?
Atencio: Okay. Did you ever work at that yard?
John: Yeah, I hauled cement. I run a cement mixer for him for a while. They was good people to work for. Then I worked up there when we was making some streets back over on Barranca Mesa, a long time ago, back in that area. For [inaudible] Brothers, a contractor out of Albuquerque. I just worked for about everybody in the state. In fact, out of California and Twin Mountain out of California.
Atencio: Did you ever work at the maintenance yard Lowdermilk had in Fairview?
John: No, never did.
Atencio: Do you know that he had a maintenance yard?
John: Oh, yeah.
Atencio: He had a construction yard at White Rock.
John: Yeah. He had a big shop up there.
Marge: You worked for him while that–
John: Yeah, but I was driving a truck then. I worked up [inaudible] job while they were still there, years ago [inaudible]. I worked for a lot of people. Can’t remember them all.
Marge: But his last years, he worked at Los Alamos.
Atencio: Did you work for the Zia Company?
John: Yeah. I retired from the Zia Company. I’ve been retired about twenty-five years.
Marge: A long time.
Atencio: Who did you work for at Zia Company?
John: I worked in the heavy equipment shop as a mechanic on heavy equipment.
Atencio: Can you think of anything else?
Schiferl: Well, either one of you can answer this. What’s the funniest thing, maybe a couple of really funny things, that happened to you at Los Alamos?
John: I guess the funniest thing is the story Johnny Martinez, our son-in-law, told. He was there going to test some things they’d made to put bombs in, the hulls or whatever they was going to put it in. And, the [inaudible] man told him, “Just leave your cameras there and we’ll just stand here,” because that ain’t supposed to take much pressure to push it off. He walked off down in the cave there, where they had a tunnel.
When they put that shot off, they went back up there, they didn’t have no cameras. They all blowed up on the side of the mountain. There was around – I seen the picture of the thing – it was a round ball about that big and had some holes in it and they was putting that explosion in there. I guess that’s about the funniest thing. He said, “If I’d have stayed up there, I wouldn’t have been alive no longer.” He’s a great guy, that kid is.