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Max Gittler’s Interview

Max Gittler was working on his degree in mechanical engineering at NYU when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. He was sent to Oak Ridge, where he enjoyed the social activities, especially bowling. He and three other soldiers had the job of driving radioactive material from Oak Ridge to other Manhattan Project sites around the country, including Dayton, Chicago, Santa Fe (they were not allowed into Los Alamos), and the University of California-Berkeley. Although the radioactive material was encased in a small lead pot, it weighed nearly three thousand pounds. Gittler and the soldiers had to take turns driving in the truck with the material, so they would not be exposed to the radiation for too long.

Date of Interview:
December 28, 2012
Location of the Interview:


Alexandra Levy: All right, we are here on December 28, 2012 with Max Gittler. Please say your name and spell it.

Max Gittler: Max Gittler, M-a-x G-i-t-t-l-e-r.

Levy: Where are you from?

Gittler: New York, New York City, the Bronx.

Levy: So how did you become involved in the Manhattan Project?

Gittler: I was going to school, college, studying mechanical engineering. I had two deferments and the third one did not arrive, so I was drafted. I was sent to Camp Croft, South Carolina for basic training. That was the same place my father was sent to twenty-five years before. I finished my basic training. I was scheduled to go overseas in the infantry, my orders were changed, and I was sent to a place called Oak Ridge in Tennessee. 

Levy: Why do you think you were selected to go to Oak Ridge?

Gittler: Why what?

Levy: Why do you think you were selected to go to Oak Ridge?

Gittler: I have no idea. 

Levy: Did you have a background in engineering?

Gittler: Yes, I had three years of engineering, and that is right, almost all of my fellow soldiers were in the same condition. All had three years of engineering.

Levy: So when did you arrive at Oak Ridge?

Gittler: I cannot give you the date.

Levy: What were you assigned to do when you first arrived there?

Gittler: Well, we lived in barracks. What was I supposed to do? 

Levy: Did you work at X-10, the reactor?

Gittler: X-10, yes. That was a building with the pile in it. 

Levy: Did you do any work on the pile, or did you get to see it?

Gittler: We did most of our activity on the balcony, the second level. We saw the sluggers going into the—being pushed into the pile. We saw the water protection when it was shoved out of the pile in the back. 

Levy: What kind of safety procedures did they have in place there?

Gittler: What kind of what?

Levy: Safety procedures. Safety.

Gittler: Safety. I had a badge and two devices. One was just photographic film, and the other was—I do not know what the other one was. They were checked every night for exposure to radiation. And apparently, it did a very good job. I have four children. 

Levy: You felt safe.

Gittler: Yes.

Levy: What was it like going from New York to Oak Ridge, Tennessee?

Gittler: It is another world. At that time, Oak Ridge was a tiny town, one restaurant and very few stores. It built up very rapidly and became a fully functioning small town. We used to enjoy the meals over there instead of the Army mess. We spent a lot of time in town. 

Levy: What was the social life there like?

Gittler: We were considered very special, especially by the girls. Our uniforms were an indication of high-level. You never had to travel anywhere, the thumb always worked. The first car that came along would stop anything for a soldier. We met girls, we went to nearby mountains—it was a resort—and we had an active social life.

Levy: Did you go bowling?

Gittler: Bowling, yes, yes, that was one of my favorites. I am a fairly decent bowler. Yes, we had teams and had the bowling alleys in the town. 

Levy: Was Oak Ridge segregated?

Gittler: Was what?

Levy: Was Oak Ridge segregated?

Gittler: No.

Levy: No.

Gittler: No.

Levy: Did you ever experience any anti-Semitism when you were in the Army?

Gittler: Let me give you a fine example. Highest Jewish holiday, we were relieved of our duties. We were made to clean the latrines. 

Levy: Did you ever go inside the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge? The mile-long one.

Gittler: Yes, yes I did happen to go into that. It was impressive in its length and the fact that the GIs there rode bicycles to go from one instrument station to the next. They were about a hundred yards apart. I found out that the building was a mile long. 

Levy: Did you know what the purpose of the plants at Oak Ridge were for?

Gittler: In the indoctrination, they indicated that if a piece of the United States would disappear, you would know that some of the work at Oak Ridge was responsible. 

Levy: So you knew it was very serious and could be dangerous.

Gittler: Yes.

Levy: How did you feel about that?

Gittler: Well, it did not bother me physically. I felt comfortable with the precautions that they were taken and the concern for our safety. 

Levy: Did you know that it was involved in a bomb?

Gittler: Yes.

Levy: Did they tell you that explicitly or did you guess that?

Gittler: Well, the reference to elimination of a good piece of the United States indicated that it was a bomb. 

Levy: You were selected to help transport material. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Gittler: Yes. There was a group of us, four GIs, and it was our job to transport material to Los Alamos, to Santa Fe actually. I mean, it was through Los Alamos.

There was a lot of work involved in the mechanics of the transportation. Originally, it was four men. We drove through from Oak Ridge to Santa Fe. After a while it was changed to “Pony Express.” One group would go down to Texarkana, I think and spend the night there. The second crew would bring the product down, and the first crew would carry it to New Mexico.

Levy: What was it that you were transporting?

Gittler: Something that was very very active, radioactive. It kept changing as we went along. We had instruments in the compartment in the car to give us the level of radiation we were receiving. We could determine the time that our radiation had been enough and we had to leave the truck and go into the car. That was a rotation. You stayed in the truck, monitored the radiation you were receiving until it reached the level at which you had to remove yourself and go back to the car.

Levy: How long then would you have to stay away from the radioactive materials for?

Gittler: How long?

Levy: How long did you need to stay away from the radioactive material for? A few hours? A day?

Gittler: Half a day.

Levy: The radioactive material was in the truck?

Gittler: No, it was in a lead pot on the bed of the truck. It was estimated at about three thousand pounds of lead. And when we stopped for gas, the attendants would notice that the springs were almost fully compressed. There was this only relatively small pot on the truck. We gave them no explanation for that. 

Levy: Did you have any weapons on you to protect the—?

Gittler: No, no weapons, no.

Levy: Were you ever advised of what to do in case of any incidents?

Gittler: Not specifically. I mean, we were selected because of our technical training and we knew enough in the event of an emergency or spillage to make sure that the area was cleared and that no people were in contact with what we were carrying. 

Levy: What were you most worried about during the transport? Were you concerned about being stopped or getting into an accident?

Gittler: An accident was always a concern. In fact, we had a weekly run to the University of Chicago to Enrico Fermi, and one winter day we skidded. We were traveling in the van, not a truck, a van, and the container was embedded in a crate, like a shipping crate. We skidded on the road. The crate flew out the back and skidded on the road. And fortunately, there was very little traffic. We were able to recover it, and the four of us were able to lift it up and get it on the bed of the van again and then put it back in place. 

Levy: Did that weigh three thousand pounds? Was that very hard to move?

Gittler: Yes, yes. It traveled quite a way on the ice, it slid. The van whipped around, the back doors opened, and it flew out.

Levy: But you were able to—all four of you were able to get it back on.

Gittler: We were able to get it back on. There was no traffic, there were no bystanders. It was not an attraction to travelers.

Levy: Where else did you traveled to?

Gittler: We traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to a private residence. For that trip we wore civilian clothes, we carried guns, shoulder holsters, and after we left the compound we put on Tennessee plates.  We found to this very high-class residential district, and we backed into the garage of one of the residences grouped in a circle. Inside was a laboratory. There was no furniture, nobody lived there. It was an entire laboratory for polonium, I think. 

Levy: Do you know why there was so much security on that trip particularly?

Gittler: Not really. I cannot believe the adjoining houses were not aware of what was going on, they were so close and they would see a truck come up. Of course, it had Tennessee plates, it was a civilian truck, but nobody lived there, there was no contact with neighbors. I am sure there were suspicions. 

Levy: Did you ever deliver to Berkeley or Hanford?

Gittler: We went to University of California. We did not go to Hanford. Where else did we go? We had a weekly run to Chicago, I told you that. 

Levy: Did you have any special deliveries to Los Alamos?

Gittler: No. 

Levy: Like right before the Trinity test?

Gittler: We went to Santa Fe. 

Levy: Or Santa Fe.

Gittler: “Los Alamos” was a word we did not know. 

Levy: Did you have any idea what was going on at these different sites?

Gittler: We were intrigued by the level of radiation that was increased as we traveled. I knew it was going down the periodic table, and we knew it was hot, thermally and in radiation terms. 

Levy: Do you know what the material was?

Gittler: No, we did not know what it was. 

Levy: Did you find out after the war what it was?

Gittler: No. We knew it was a high energy, and we surmised—scuttlebutt amongst the people involved—that it was used as a trigger to start the—I cannot think of the word now. 

Levy: The bomb, or the explosion?

Gittler: Start the—it is a continuous chain reaction.

Levy: The chain reaction.

Gittler: Chain reaction, yeah.

Levy: Okay. Did you know about the Trinity test?

Gittler: Trinity?

Levy: Test, the first test.

Gittler: No, no, was not aware of that. 

Levy: Did you deliver anything to Santa Fe before the Trinity test?

Gittler: Yes, yes. We did know about it, we did know about it. Yes. 

Levy: Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Gittler: Wel, it was in the desert, it was New Mexico and it was apparently very successful. That is about all we knew. Very powerful. 

Levy: I believe you had mentioned that you had done a delivery at Santa Fe soon before the test. You had done a delivery to Santa Fe before the test.

Gittler: Oh yes, soon before the test, yes. We assumed what we brought was involved in the test. 

Levy: How did you find out about the bomb being dropped on Japan?

Gittler: From the paper.

Levy: Were you in Oak Ridge at the time?

Gittler: Was I—?

Levy: Were you in Oak Ridge at the time?

Gittler: Yes.

Levy: What was your reaction?

Gittler: I thought it was wonderful. I was aware of the progress of the war and we knew—taking island by island from the Japanese. We knew that the bomb saved many lives. 

Levy: Was there a big celebration at Oak Ridge that night, do you remember?

Gittler: No, no. Well, you say Oak Ridge—we were in barracks outside of Oak Ridge, that was our home. I do not remember any spontaneous celebration.

Levy: What were the barracks like?

Gittler: Typical Army. I cannot remember how many, but at least twenty-four beds, a common latrine inside. 

Levy: Was it the same four soldiers who would always do the transports?

Gittler: Yes, there were four of us, and they come from the four corners of the country: California, Minnesota, New York, and Louisiana.

Levy: Did you stay friends with them after the war?

Gittler: No, no, no. We were very friendly, you know, work. The fellow who lived in Louisiana had a plantation and we gorged on watermelon every time we passed by. We had really nothing in common except the job we were doing. 

Levy: Did you have any contact with any of the top scientists or personnel in the Manhattan Project?

Gittler: No. The office we had was the one right next to Niels Bohr and I never saw him but I knew that was his office. 

Levy: Was that at Oak Ridge?

Gittler: That was at Oak Ridge, well, in X-10.

Levy: In X-10.

Gittler: It was his outside [inaudible].

Levy: So what was it like to be in a city like Oak Ridge that no one knew about? Could you tell your family where you were?

Gittler: Yeah, yeah, they knew where we were. It didn’t mean anything to them. Oak Ridge was a town in Tennessee. 

Levy: They just knew you were involved in the war.

Gittler: That’s it. 

Levy: Did you tell them afterwards what work you had done, or were you supposed to keep it a secret?

Gittler: Well, how far afterwards?

Levy: When did you tell your family about your work?

Gittler: When I was home on leave. Never wrote letters or telegrams or anything like that. I told them about how I felt, social activities, and what life was like, but nothing about the bomb.

Levy: Did you stay on at Oak Ridge after the war ended?

Gittler: I stayed on, yes. I was able to get a civil service job until I was ready to go back to college and finish my last year. 

Levy: What did you end up doing in college and afterwards?

Gittler: What did I—?

Levy: What did you end up doing as a career? Did you become an engineer?

Gittler: Yes, yes, I finished—I graduated as a mechanical engineer. I had always been interested in aeronautics and I wanted to be an aeronautics engineer. It was one of the reasons I went to NYU—they had a wind tunnel, one of the few schools that had a special wind tunnel. I heard that all the airplane companies on the west coast were laying off engineers so I switched to mechanical from aeronautical. 

Levy: What did you do as an aeronautical engineer?

Gittler: I never was an aeronautical engineer.

Levy: Oh, you never were. As a mechanical engineer, later on, what did you do?

Gittler: I was involved in launching satellites for communication between the United States and England. 

Levy: That is very cool. How did your work on the Manhattan Project affect your career afterwards, after the war was over?

Gittler: I think it gave me a broader base of viewpoint I would not have had if I had skipped that part of my career. 

Levy: During the long drives that you had, what did you and the other soldiers do to stay amused? Did you talk or listen to the radio?

Gittler: I think we listened to the radio. We were required to drive at thirty-five miles per hour.

Levy: Was that because of the material you were carrying?

Gittler: What?

Levy: Was that because of the material you were carrying?

Gittler: No, no. Not to attract attention and because that was the regulation at the time. There is nothing like driving across Texas when it was undeveloped and there were no lights and after a while you had to concentrate, you lose a sense of where you are. You feel like you are floating. There are no landmarks, no gas stations. That was the toughest part. 

Levy: You would listen to the radio. Anything else you can remember? To stave off boredom.

Gittler: No. We did not sing to each other. 

Levy: Were you relieved when you did not have to do those drives anymore?

Gittler: Were what?

Levy: Were you relieved when you did not have to do the drives anymore?

Gittler: I did not mind the driving. I thought I was a good driver and I enjoyed that part of it. The rest came with the procedures. I finished driving, I rested. 

Levy: You liked seeing the country?

Gittler: I liked seeing the country, yes, yes. I like the different aspects, especially of the south. The south was very segregated at that time. It was white water fountains and black water fountains. 

Levy: That must have been strange for you, coming from New York.

Gittler: That’s right. 

Levy: What were other major differences that you remember?

Gittler: It was the towns we went to were as far away from the activity in New York City as you could possibly get. 

Levy: Was the war the first time you left New York?

Gittler: Yes.

Levy: So it must have been a lot for you to take in.

Gittler: Yes, yes it was. 

Levy: Did anything especially impress you that you remember? Anything you liked or disliked about your travels?

Gittler: I do not want to be boastful, but I did not have a high regard for the places we saw. 

Levy: Because they were rundown or segregated?

Gittler: They were rural and they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, but it was a far cry from New York City.

Levy: Were you glad to go back to New York then, after the war?

Gittler: Oh yes, yes. I also realized New York has its limitations and we were able to travel quite a bit. Well, I say “we,” I have not even brought up the fact that I got married. That happened long after the war. 

Levy: You met your wife after the war, then?

Gittler: Yes.

Levy: Do you have any other funny or amusing stories about your time on the Manhattan Project that you would like to share?

Gittler: When this idea of transporting radioactive material first started, the first choice was to take Army cots and put them in the truck. Did not go over so well, because you could not stay in bed. The bouncing knocked you out. We had a lot of variations on how best to accommodate that travel, two people sleeping. I think we wound up with station wagons for the people who were sleeping. It was very tight but it was protected and it was bearable. Of course, when we went to the pony express, we only went halfway. That made it a lot simpler. 

Levy: Did you use the same truck each time for the material?

Gittler: Yes.

Levy: How did that truck hold up after all those miles and the heavy, heavy material?

Gittler: Well, it was not heavy material to the truck. I mean, it was designed for that load. What was unusual though was pointed out to us so many times, is a relatively small container sitting in the middle of the two and a half ton truck and bringing the springs down beyond what you would normally expect. 

Levy: Was the material, do you know, was it uranium? Was that what you were transporting?

Gittler: No, no. we knew the container was lead but we did not know what was in it. 

Levy: Okay.

Gittler: In fact, someone said, “What was in it was the size of your pinky nail.” 

Levy: You do not know what it was?

Gittler: No, I do not know what it was. 

Levy: They never debriefed you on that?

Gittler: I never knew what it was when we started and what it was when we finished, because it was very different. 

Levy: Did you ever want to find out? Or you just knew it was for the war and that was enough?

Gittler: It was not my job.

Levy: When you tell—after the war, when you told people that you were involved with the Manhattan Project, what was their usual reaction?

Gittler: The majority of them did not know what the Manhattan Project was. Where I work, someone was aware of it, he was in the Air Force but he understood what the Manhattan Project was. He and I have a mutual handshake that means something to both of us. The Manhattan Project is just a name. 

Levy: Are you proud of your role in the Manhattan Project?

Gittler: Yes.

Levy: Can you explain a little more?

Gittler: I got a certificate from the Secretary of War thanking me for my contribution and reducing the time spent in the war, shortening the war, because of what we did. 

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