Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Norman Brown’s Interview (2005)

Manhattan Project Locations:

Not long after completing his sophomore year at MIT, Norman Brown was recruited into the Manhattan Project. First stationed at Oak Ridge, he was deployed with the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos. Brown helped process the plutonium that was used in the Trinity test and in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. He discusses barracks life, security at Los Alamos, and his impressions of J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. He also recounts his efforts to witness the Trinity test and a visit to the memorials at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Date of Interview:
August 9, 2005
Location of the Interview:


Norman Brown: My name is Norman L. Brown. Brown is spelled as Brown is usually spelled, without an E.

Cindy Kelly: Great, okay. Why don’t you start by telling us how you became part of the Manhattan Project?

Brown: I was a sophomore at MIT. I was talked into enlisting in what was called then the Enlisted Reserve Corps with the promise that we would be allowed to finish our bachelor’s degree education and then go into Officer Candidate School in whatever field we wished – all of which was a lie. At the end of my sophomore year, I was called up, went into infantry basic training at Camp Fannin, Texas. And at the end of the ninety-day cycle—many of us had been to college. We were asked if we wanted to go into the Army Specialized Training Program. I did. I went to the University of New Hampshire to study electrical engineering. Went to the University of New Hampshire in September of 1943.

In June of ’43, the Battle of the Bulge was requiring manpower. Most of the students at New Hampshire were taken out and sent to Europe for the Battle of the Bulge. Seven of us were saved. We went down to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute to continue our courses in the Army Specialized Training Program. 

While I was there, I heard from a friend that there was a technical project of some sort in Manhattan. I wrote to one of my chemistry professors at MIT to ask if he knew anything about it and he did not. However, somewhere around the beginning of September of ’40 – let me get my dates right – ’44, a couple of officers came around who it turned out were recruiting for the Manhattan Project.

When I was called in for the interview, I was asked if I was interested in a technical program that the Army was running, where at the end of the day, as they said, we had to leave our work at the bench. We were not going to be permitted to discuss it with anyone. I said that indeed I was interested.

As I was leaving the room, one of the officers called me and said, “Soldier.”

I turned around and I said, “Yes, sir?” 

He said, “You realize if you do this, you will not be carrying a gun.”

Well, I managed to keep a straight face. I said, “Yes. I realize it.”

Subsequently, I was sent down to Oak Ridge. We arrived there in the fall of ’44. It was rainy. It was muddy. Where we were, there were no sidewalks. We were just in the mud. The first morning after I arrived, we fell out in formation because the sergeant in charge was going to set us to digging drainage ditches here and there. But the first thing he asked was if anyone knew how to type. Well, of course, I did know how to type. And so I raised my hand. I ended up being assigned to headquarters at Oak Ridge as a GI. I was typing and filing. The rest of the personnel, aside from the commanding officer, a male, were women civilians and Women’s Army Corps.

In the course of my one month, I think, staying there at Oak Ridge and filing and various documents, in spite of the fact that I had no security clearance, I discovered where all the sites were for the Manhattan Project. I had no idea what they were doing. But I knew that there was as site at Hanford, Washington, which I think was called Site X and a site in New Mexico called Site Y. And there was a site at MIT. That really rang a bell with me, because I had been a student at MIT.

One day an officer came in to go through the 5×8 punch cards, which were used in the days before computers, to look at the military occupation specialties of all the GI’s at Oak Ridge. The purpose for this was to find those who had weapons experience, because they were going to form a battalion of these soldiers to repel the expected Japanese invasion of Oak Ridge. So this officer sat at a desk and I sat opposite of him on the other side of the desk. And we were going through these 5×8 cards.

I finally screwed up my courage to ask him if there was any possibility of my being assigned to MIT.

He said, “What is your name, soldier?”

I thought, “Oh, now what have I done?”

He looked up and thought for a minute. He said, “Oh, I am sorry. I just signed your orders to go to New Mexico.”

So I ended up going to New Mexico, which is another long story about the train trip. 

Kelly: Okay, great. So why don’t you start by talking about the security at Oak Ridge was supposedly very tight.

Brown: Well when I arrived at Oak Ridge, I knew nothing at all about what was going on or any security precautions. But when I was assigned to the personnel office, even though I had no security clearance, I apparently became privy to all of the information about where all the sites of the Manhattan Project were. I do not recall that any of the documents that I was filing had any security notations on them. But they may very well have had because, after all, they revealed where all of the Manhattan Projects were going on. 

But other than that, I knew nothing about security at Oak Ridge. I did not run into any security problems until I got to Los Alamos, where I realized that security was ostensibly very tight.

I had no idea what was involved at Los Alamos and did not learn until long after I arrived, or shortly after I arrived, I should say. When I arrived at Los Alamos, my first interview was with a personnel officer who asked me about my background and where I had been. I told him that I had been a student at MIT, a sophomore went into the Army. And in the Army Specialized Training Program I had studied electrical engineering. But I was really interested in chemical engineering. When I said MIT, he mentioned that there was a man who taught at MIT who was there at Los Alamos. And when he mentioned his name, Frank Pittman, I recognized the name and said that Frank had been an instructor of mine at Los Alamos [misspoke: MIT].

He took me to see Frank Pittman who, after an interesting conversation, took me down to see Art Wahl, who was in charge of what was called the Wet Chemistry Section of the Chemistry and Metallurgic Division at Los Alamos in D Building. And Art took me into his group. And the second day that I was there, if I remember correctly, he sat me down at a desk in the hallway outside of laboratory and explained the entire project to me. He explained about transuranic elements, of which I had not heard, of course, at that time because it was all secret. And he explained about fission. He explained about what they were trying to produce.

All this time, bear in mind, I had no clearance whatsoever. Eventually, I got what was called a confidential clearance. I think the badge was colored green that identified the stay of my clearance, because the criterion for a secret clearance was a bachelor’s degree. Since I did not have a bachelor’s degree, I did not have secret clearance.

Ostensibly, security at Los Alamos was very tight. However, in actual practice that was not that tight. This was primarily because even though the Army wanted to require tight security, the civilians were doing the work and they did not care much about the security. Which is why I suppose Art felt completely comfortable explaining everything to me.

In the course of my activities there, if I needed to see a secret document for some reason or other in connection with my work, I simply asked somebody who had secret clearance to get the documents out of the files for me. Then I read it, gave it back to him, and he put it back in the files. So the tight security was in theory, but not necessarily in practice.

Kelly: How did the military’s emphasis on security, if it had been strictly enforced – how would that have affected your work performance? 

Brown: Well if it had been strictly enforced, I would not have been able to do the work that I was doing because I was purifying plutonium. This whole process required some access to some of the technical papers that had been published about the chemistry of plutonium. I would not have been able to do that, nor would my colleague. I guess Jim Gergen – he and I were doing the purification. I think Jim had already graduated and had a bachelor’s degree. So I think he had a secret clearance. But I certainly did not. I could not have been involved in purifying the plutonium if the security regulations had been strictly enforced. 

That is another interesting topic because when the shipments of plutonium came in from Hanford, they were received by Frank Pittman and the one GI on his staff who constituted what was called Quantity Control. These two people had to keep track of where every gram of plutonium was on the project, so that there would be no chance that a critical mass of plutonium could be collected in any particular laboratory.

So Frank and his GI, Al Luft, received the plutonium shipments from Hanford. They came to me with the receipt that I had to sign, acknowledging that I had received a certain amount of plutonium that Hanford claimed was in the flask of plutonium nitrate that we got. Then I took a tiny microliter sample and sent it to radio assay. I think Becky Bradford [Diven] was in charge of it at the time. They analyzed it by measuring the alpha particle emission. Knowing the specific radioactivity of plutonium, they could back calculate to how much plutonium was there. And then I back calculated how much plutonium was in the flask.

There was always less plutonium in the flask than Hanford had claimed was there. But I had had to sign a receipt for what Hanford said was there. I kept records of all of the shipments of plutonium that came in: the date they came in, the amount that Hanford said was in it, the amount that I removed for analysis, the result of the analysis, the calculation of what was actually in the flask, the discrepancy, the amount that we ended up purifying. Because we measured what came out of the purification process, which was eventually a powder that went to the dry chemistry group for further processing.

I kept this all on a chart. Since it contained the entire record of shipments of plutonium into Los Alamos, when I was finished with the chart, when each page of the chart was filled up, I had to stamp it secret. And then, of course, I could not look at it because I did not have secret clearance. But I accumulated all these charts. They eventually went into the archives. I have no idea where they are now or if they still exist.

The security clearance, as I say, was in theory what the Army wanted. But in practice, it just was not followed when it was not necessary. Let us put it that way.

Kelly: That is good. Let me see. Let us look at the photographs for a minute. I know this may seem like we are jumping around.

Brown: That is all right. I can shed you light on all of this.

Kelly: Let us start with this side, yourself and the chief. Just talk about if any stories come to mind or talk about times – help the viewer understand what is going on here.

Brown: Well all the GIs were assigned to barracks. The civilians, of course, lived in apartments or houses depending on their importance. And transportation was mostly by bus or by foot. But for some reason or other, I was fortunate enough to have access to a jeep. And I drove the jeep every chance I could get in order to avoid walking. One of the things that I learned while driving the jeep was how to shift gears without using the clutch. So I enjoyed doing that.

My colleagues and I lived in the barracks in double bunks. I can remember the names of some of them, but not all of them. They worked in the same group that I did, but I cannot remember what all of them did. I can remember what Jim Gergen did because he and I were the two people to purify plutonium. Two of the other colleagues in that group were John Setzer and Thomas Upchurch. I remember Bill Lowe, I think, who still lives in this area here in Arlington in Virginia and who ended up, if I remember correctly, in some kind of nuclear consulting activity. I am not quite sure. I visited Art Wahl, who was my boss at Los Alamos, two years ago. He caught me up to date with what some of these people were doing. 

Kelly: How did most of your colleagues come to Los Alamos?

Brown: I do not actually know how most of my GI colleagues came to Los Alamos. They were recruited in one way or another, but I cannot remember whether or not they shared their stories with me. And if they did, I have forgotten. I do not know.

Kelly: Can you talk about this and try to describe – was it collaborative? Was the D Building—?

Brown: All of the work that we were doing that processed the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb and for the Alamogordo test was done in the D Building, in a small glass apparatus that Jim Gergen and I built with Art Wahl’s supervision. It was enclosed in a glass enclosure that was not unlike a very small telephone booth, with all the apparatus inside this glass enclosure. So it was protected from spilling, protected from breakage – that if anything broke or spilled it would be contained within this glass telephone booth.

All of the operations were done remotely so that we did not have to put our hands inside the booth in order to do the manipulations. The operations were essentially reacting the plutonium with various reagents, forming precipitates and filtering the precipitates, and then redissolving them with other reagents and forming precipitates and filtering. Then eventually we came out with this white powder that I may have mentioned before that went to the dry chemistry group.

After the two bombs, the two plutonium bombs, were detonated, provisions were made. Preparations were made to construct a large building where large reactors would be installed so that large quantities of plutonium could be made. They could not be made in this little laboratory apparatus that we had, although we succeeded in making enough for the Alamogordo test and for the Nagasaki bomb. 

The building that was being built to house this large-scale equipment was out on the mesa. It was called DP Site. I suppose for the D Building and plutonium – I do not know where the designation DP came from. It was a large structure that was factory-like. It was going to contain large reactors and large stirring rods to stir the soup while it was being processed. I do remember that because of the potential corrosive nature of the chemicals, instead of glass stirring rods, which they could not use because of the size, they were planning to use titanium – tantalum, excuse me, tantalum stirring rods. And a large crate containing a huge bar of tantalum – as I recall it was about two or three inches in diameter and it must have been at least 12 feet long. It was going to be fabricated in these stirring rods. It was sitting outside our laboratory in the hallway.

I subsequently learned, from people in the electronics division, that the large scale vacuum tubes that they were trying to order for building high power electronic equipment could not be manufactured by the manufacturers of this equipment because they could not get any tantalum. All of the tantalum had been requisitioned by Los Alamos, and it was sitting on the floor outside our laboratories.

The chemical engineers who were responsible for this and for the design of the air exhaust system in this building had never built anything like this before, never designed anything like this before. I can remember the story that when the exhaust fans in the DP Building were first turned on, the ducts that were installed could not handle the fans. And the ducts all collapsed. So everything had to be redesigned and rebuilt.

Kelly: You described that telephone booth with the remotely handled plutonium. Who designed that equipment? How did this come about?

Brown: I think most of the equipment that we used for the purification in our laboratory was probably designed by Art Wahl, because he and Joseph Kennedy were the two graduate students of [Glenn] Seaborg who had first identified plutonium from a cyclotron bombardment of the target. I think it was uranium. I am not certain at this point what the target was, but they identified it. Then, of course, Art separated it by chemical means. So he was the one person, I think, in the project who had the most experience with chemical properties of plutonium. He must have designed this apparatus and Jim and I built it. 

Kelly: I just want to make sure we – this photo and its history?

Brown: After the Nagasaki bomb was dropped, of course there was, I think, an airplane that accompanied the Enola Gay [misspoke: Bockscar] that took photographs. There came a time shortly after that that the motion picture that they took was shown to a group of us at Los Alamos. We were sitting in this auditorium watching this film on the screen when all of the sudden the film broke. Of course, there were no lights in the room. As soon as the film broke, we could hear large quantities of film coming off the reel and going on to the floor. There was a scrabbling all along the floor and all of the GIs in there were tearing chunks of the film off.

Eventually, the lights went on. Of course, everybody was all innocent and sitting back in their seats pocketing these pieces of film. Eventually, some of the pieces of film, since they were positive, they had to be made into negatives. And then they had to be printed again. We all received prints of parts of that Nagasaki explosion.

Kelly: Great. Maybe you can talk about photographs – the one first with General Groves?

Brown: Is there a date on the back of that?

Kelly: That is October 16, 1945.

Brown: Oh, okay. In the fall of ’45, after all of the news about the Manhattan Project had been released, Los Alamos received what was known as the E for Excellence Award. And there was a ceremony at which this E – I think it was accompanied by a flag that had an E on it, if I remember correctly – was presented. General Groves received this as I remember. He must have given a short statement. I cannot remember what he said, but subsequently, Dr. Oppenheimer spoke to us about it. 

In addition to that, I have to mention that the entire Army contingent at Los Alamos received a Meritorious Service award.  I subsequently learned that although we had never been told, we had received a previous Meritorious Service citation. But we had never been told about it for some reason. I do not know why.

When we received this award, we permitted to wear on the sleeves of our uniform a golden wreath. The citation that accompanied the award was that we were receiving this award because of our low venereal disease rate, our low rate of being absent without leave, and the fact that we kept our barracks and equipment in very good condition.

The interesting thing about the barracks being kept in good condition that I would like to describe is that sometime after the fall of 1945, there was a water shortage at Los Alamos. We subsequently learned that the water shortage was caused by the fact that somebody had opened a drain valve at the reservoir up in the mountains and drained the reservoir. So we really had a critical water shortage. Water was being trucked in by big tanker trucks from the Rio Grande. It was muddy. It was full of silt. It was awful.

But during this water shortage, an order came out that we had to scrub our barracks floors. We had to wash all the windows. We were not permitted to take showers and we were not permitted to waste water. But nevertheless, we had to scrub the floors, wash the windows, and keep the barracks in very good condition.

Well, there was also a notice that came out that said that it had come to the attention of certain officers that certain enlisted men were wasting water. And if any enlisted man was caught wasting water, he would be court martialed.

During this time, an officer came into our barracks one day for an inspection. He noted that we were not sleeping head to foot. He stood there in the middle of the barracks for five minutes and lectured us, saying that we had to change our bunks around so that we would sleep head to foot, because they were really worried about the sanitary conditions of the GIs. They were not concerned with the fact that we could not take showers or the toilets did not run. But they were really concerned about the fact that we were not sleeping head to foot in the barracks. Do not ask.

Kelly: How did you feel about the reasons you were given this Meritorious Service award?

Brown: When we were given the Meritorious Service award, we were somewhat distressed at the reasons, because there was no acknowledgment whatsoever of what the members of the Special Engineer Detachment had done.

After the presentation of the award, Oppenheimer gave a little speech – which I described in one of the letters to my father – took a little of the sting out of it. Because he expressed his appreciation of what the SED, the Special Engineer Detachment, had done in terms of all the technical work that was achieved at the project.

Kelly: Can you summarize for people who do not know what the Special Engineer Detachment is or did? Can you talk about it and start with the Special Engineer Detachment?

Brown: The Special Engineer Detachment was a group of soldiers, all men as I realized recently. It did not occur to me at the time. But they were all men. A group of soldiers who were scientists either having had graduate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, or some college education. In my case, I had two years of college. I did not have the bachelor’s degree yet. But we were all doing scientific and technical work. In our case, it constituted really research of some kind because we were experimenting with chemical methods of purifying plutonium. 

So the entire SED or Special Engineer Detachment constituted what was called in the press “science soldiers” – or “soldier scientists” I guess it was, the expression “soldier scientists.” However, it did not give us any special status when discharge from the Army was concerned because General Groves, at one point, made a statement that he did not consider the SED as anything special. And as a consequence, he was not going to make any efforts to have us discharged sooner rather than later.

Brown: Those of us in the SED, or at least in some parts of the SED, did not have too many opportunities to deal with Dr. Oppenheimer, or “Oppie” as everybody called him. But he did come around to our laboratory occasionally. We all liked him very much. He was a wonderful speaker. He was a sensitive man. And whenever he spoke to us, we really enjoyed listening to him.

General Groves, on the other hand, was roundly hated by all of the enlisted men. I have no idea how the officers regarded him. But the enlisted men certainly did not like him. He came to our lab one day to the D Building for an inspection. He came to our lab, and we all gathered out in the hallway to be there. I had in my hand a flask containing sulfuric acid that I was using to clean the flask. When he came around, I was certainly tempted to drop that flask at his feet. But I did not. I restrained myself. His only comment to Art Wahl, who was this wonderful civilian who was head of our group was, “You are the man who lost a gram of plutonium.” Then he turned around and walked away.

The gram of plutonium that he was referring to was, I believe, the amount of plutonium that Jim Gergen and I discovered in a graduated cylinder that was graduated in milliliters that we found sitting on a shelf. It had a brown liquid in it. We had no idea what it was. We were cleaning up the lab one day and discovered this. So I took a tiny sample of it and sent it to Becky Bradford for analysis, for radio assay. It turned out that there was a gram of plutonium in that. That apparently had been the missing gram of plutonium that had not been noticed by the quantity control people.

In 1945, the Special Engineer Detachment and the WAC, the Women’s Army Corps Detachment, lined up outside the War Department Theatre because we were going to be addressed by General Groves. The WACs went in first. We were all standing out there in the snow, of course. When they came out, we asked them, of course, “What had happened?”

They said that after they sat down, General Groves was introduced to them by the commandant of the post at Los Alamos.

Groves stood there and said to them, “Girls, take a good look because this is probably the closest you will ever come to seeing a general.” According to the WACs, that was the extent of his statement to them.

When we filed in, we sat down. The commandant of the post said to us, “Men, I want to introduce you to our common commander, Major General Leslie R. Groves.”

Then Groves came up and he stood there. Groves was a very fat man. I do not know how many of you have seen photographs of him, but he was a very fat man. He stood there. He said to us and I quote his talk in its entirety. “Men, write home for Christmas. Even if you put your name on a slip of paper and put it in an envelope, write home for Christmas. Thank you.” And that was General Groves’ speech to the Special Engineer Detachment at Christmastime in 1945.                                

Kelly: Can you contrast that with what Oppenheimer said? Did he speak at the same time or another time?

Brown: No.

Kelly: No, okay.

Brown: That was strictly Groves.

Kelly: Talk about the association of Los Alamos scientists.

Brown: Okay.

Kelly: And how you all felt about dropping the bomb.

Brown: Well, we will go back to how we felt about dropping the bomb, when the time came after the Alamogordo test for the bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. I guess Hiroshima is the way it is pronounced. In any event, most of us felt that—

Kelly: Why don’t you start again?

Brown: Okay. Most of us at Los Alamos felt that the nuclear weapon should not be used in war first, that it should be demonstrated to the Japanese before it was used. This, of course, was after VE Day. So there was no question about using it in Europe. But the powers that be decided that they were going to use this weapon.

So the first one went to Hiroshima. Although we were distressed, most of us, at the fact that it had been used, we were, in a sense, relieved that the results of our efforts had finally been used. And relieved that the news of the work at the Manhattan Project was now public, so we felt freer to talk. Censorship was not eliminated until – I do not remember. I think it was sometime in September or October when censorship was lifted. That was the first time that I was able to seal my letters home. Because prior to that time, all of the letters that went out of Los Alamos had to be opened because they were read by censors.

But shortly after the Nagasaki bomb was dropped, the civilians, primarily civilians of Los Alamos, the civilian scientists, formed an association called the Association of Los Alamos Scientists or ALAS, or ALAS as the case may be. Many of us soldiers, many of the SED, joined ALAS. On several occasions, Oppenheimer spoke before this group.

His speeches were always very moving. He was a very erudite, sensitive, introspective, philosophical scientist, theoretical physicist. His speeches were superb. I can remember the speech on November 2, in particular, in 1945 that he gave, a very long speech. After he was through, there was a full half-minute of silence before anybody applauded. They were so moved by what he had to say. He was concerned about the condition of the world. He was concerned about war. He felt that the only way to eliminate the further use of nuclear weapons was to eliminate war, which, of course, was a very sensible attitude.

General Groves on the other hand – as I discovered as I was going through my records – was quoted in the newspaper as wanting to be relieved of this tremendous responsibility that he had. He claimed that he was the only person in the world who knew where all the nuclear weapons were kept. Well, of course, there were not any nuclear weapons by that time. They were all used up. But that is beside the point.

He claimed that he was the only person in the world who knew where they were all kept. He wanted to be relieved of this responsibility. He also felt that the country, the United States, was deteriorating, and would continue to deteriorate because there was nobody in the position of authority that was willing to take responsibility. That was our wonderful General Groves.

Kelly: That was terrific. I want to catch something of the flavor of La Fonda and the pheasant shoot and so forth. So just talk about all of your experiences.

Brown: We did not get furloughs. At least I did not get a furlough until after August of ’45. One of my colleagues, Clarence Hagan, Cal Hagan as we called him, came from North Dakota. When he got his furlough in – I believe it was September – he went back to North Dakota. He and his father went pheasant hunting. They shot quite a few pheasant. His father shipped several pheasant down to Cal who, I guess, had to go to the airport to receive it at the airport in Albuquerque. He shipped them down in dry ice. Cal took them to the chef at La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe to ask if he would be willing to cook these pheasants for our dinner. The chef was absolutely delighted and said, “Of course.”

So when the dinner was ready, we all went down. There was a large group of us. I cannot remember. We went down to La Fonda into the dining room. We were all seated around a very large round table. These roasted pheasants came out. My recollection is that they were on platters under a glass cover. So it was really very elegant. We had wild rice and – I do not know – a sundry of other vegetables. We had an absolutely elegant dinner. We really enjoyed it. It was the first time I had ever smoked a cigar. The cigar just went absolutely well with that dinner.

A week or two later, some more pheasants came down from North Dakota. Five of us went down for another pheasant dinner. This time, the chef cooked the pheasant and served them with wild rice and other vegetables. We had wine. It was just another elegant dinner.

For those of us who had to eat at the mess hall normally, I cannot describe how elegant this dinner of roasted pheasant was. When it was all over, we received a bill. The entire bill for all of us, including the wine, was $7.50. It was courtesy of the chef. He apparently was so delighted at the opportunity of cooking something different in wartime that he just ended up giving us this miniscule bill. It was wonderful.

I might go back to what the food was like in the mess hall in terms of what our Army life was like. The mess hall food was cooked mostly by Mexicans and Indians, who were the cooks. There came a time in my career there that I had some intestinal problems. I went into the hospital for a series of x-rays for gastrointestinal analyses. The doctors could not find anything. And finally, as I was being discharged, the doctor there, Louis Hemplemann, said, “Try not to eat any spicy food.”

I laughed and said, “All of our food is spicy because, after all, it is being cooked by people who are accustomed to spicy food.”

So he looked at me and said, “Do not add any extra spices.”

But not only was the food spicy, but I realized, after I read some of my letters home, something that I had forgotten and probably had deliberately forgotten. The conditions of cleanliness in the mess hall left something to be desired. This description came at about the same time that the officer was telling us that he was concerned with our sanitary living conditions in the barracks.

I described the situation in the mess hall as being filled with cockroaches. We frequently had to kick cockroaches off the table to keep them out of our food.

Kelly: Good story.

Brown: The food in the mess hall left something to be desired. I remember writing home to my father giving him two typical menus that we had variations of several times a week. One was beans, and then cooked corn and then a cornstarch pudding. And the other one was beans – oh, and potatoes, fried potatoes. The second menu was beans, French fried potatoes for variety, cooked corn, and some unidentifiable cornstarch pudding.

The other thing I noted in one of my letters was I asked my father if he had ever had the pleasure of drinking coffee from a soup bowl. I said, “Because this is what we have to do because we have no cups.”

In addition, I noted that until just a few weeks before I wrote that letter, we had no silverware. The only way we could get anything with which to eat was if we got in line very early and we could get a knife. Then we could eat some of our food with the knife. As a consequence of all of this, most of the money that I got in my pay I spent at the PX for full meals, or for malted milks and candy to fill up.

Kelly: Did you lose weight on this diet? Were people hungry all the time?

Brown: I was hungry all the time, yeah. Yeah. I will tell you when I lost weight. When I went into the Army for basic training, I weighed 118. With all the wonderful food they fed us and all the exercise and whatnot, when I came out of basic training three months later, I weighed 112.

Kelly: Why don’t you talk about Alamogordo and how you saw that explosion, briefly?

Brown: When the test at Alamogordo – or I guess we referred to it as Trinity because the name of the ranch where this was taking place was the Trinity Ranch. The test, when it was coming up, it was well known to everybody. So much for security. Jim Gergen and I went to Art Wahl to ask him if we could possibly be sent down to Alamogordo to witness this. He said he was really sorry, but it was impossible because he could not think of any excuse that would get us there. After all, all we were doing was purifying plutonium. We were chemists, and we had nothing to do with the actual test.

Well, we knew when it was supposed to take place. It was something like five o’clock in the morning. So Jim and I hiked out to the factory, the DP Site that had been constructed by that time, climbed up on the roof, spread out blankets, and took an alarm clock so that we could be up when the thing was supposed to go off. Because we figured if we looked south, we were going to be able to see the flash.

The alarm clock went off. We got up. Everything was dark. We waited, and we waited, and we waited for about one-half hour or more and nothing happened. We thought, “Well, it is a dud.” So we packed up our blankets and the alarm clock and climbed down from the roof.

We were walking back along the road to our barracks. We must have been going west, as I recall, on this road. Every time we came to an intersection, we looked south down the street. At one point, we came to an intersection and looked south, and we saw what looked like a sunrise in the south. Of course, the sun does not rise in the south. So we knew then that the test had been conducted and it had been successful. 

We subsequently learned that the delay had been caused by weather. They were waiting for a thunderstorm to disappear. Of course, the news reports or other reports from Los Alamos indicate that during this thunderstorm, Don Hornig had to climb the tower and babysit the device. Everybody was afraid that lightning might hit the tower and start things going. But Don apparently did not seem concerned. And, of course, the storm passed. Somebody telephoned up to him and said, “Okay Don, you can come down now.” Of course, he went into the bunker, which was many thousands of yards away. And they set off the explosion.

Kelly: How did you feel about the success of Alamogordo?

Brown: Well we were all very elated that this device that everybody had worked on worked. The Alamogordo thing, of course, was a plutonium bomb, whereas the Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb. Jim and I had not worked on the uranium bomb. We did not know anything about it. I do not remember who was doing the purification of that, but we certainly were not.

We were elated that our efforts succeeded. But then we began to be concerned about, as I may have stated before, the use of the bomb in war on people. We really preferred a demonstration similar to the one at Alamogordo be conducted for the Japanese. But, of course, that was not done.

Kelly: How did you feel, you and the others, once you learned of the devastation of the Hiroshima bomb?

Brown: We did not really know much about the devastation until long after the bomb had been dropped. None of that news came back to Los Alamos, as I recall. I left Los Alamos in February of ’46. But, of course, by then everybody knew what had taken place. But I do not remember any news of that devastation penetrating Los Alamos. It must have, but I have no recollection of it whatsoever.

Subsequently, when I learned about it, of course, I was devastated. I visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the 1990s and went to the memorials. The one in Hiroshima was particularly moving. And what impressed me most about that, besides all the photographs and evidence that we could see on the ground of the devastation, was the fact that the main burden of the exhibits of the museum in Hiroshima was an anti-war message. It was not any resentment toward the United States for having dropped it. It was an anti-war message.

The Nagasaki memorial was not as impressive as the one at Hiroshima, as I recall. I think it was also, at the time that we saw it, under some kind of reconstruction. And maybe that accounts for it.

During that trip to Japan, my wife and I met subsequently with a good friend of ours, a Japanese colleague of my wife’s at the World Resources Institute. I had never told her about my role at Los Alamos, and I was reluctant to tell her. But we met her and some of her colleagues, some of whom were in the Japanese Parliament, the Diet, one night at a hotel and told her about our visits to the two memorials. And then I told her what I had done. I was really afraid it was going to destroy our relationship. But it did not because she felt the same way that the curators at Hiroshima felt.

First of all, the Japanese had started this. And second of all, it ended the war. For some reason or other, I still do not understand. They did not resent the fact that we had done this. Of course, there are some people who do, mostly the people who suffered the horrible casualties at both cities.

But basically, as far as I can tell, there is not any significant amount of resentment towards the United States. There is a lingering resentment, probably in Japan and certainly in Asia, at the fact that these weapons were used only on Asians and were not used on Europeans. VE Day had occurred. It was May something, May 8, I believe. I cannot remember exactly what.

As I think back on it, I do not think that the United States government would have used an atomic weapon in Europe, period, because of the fact that most of our civilization here in the United States is European based. There were all of these cultural icons in Europe and all of the buildings that were part of our inheritance, so to speak, from the European immigrants. I really doubt that such a weapon would ever have been used in Europe. But apparently, it was used in Asia. And many Asians still resent it.

Kelly: Do you think that the Manhattan Project history and some of the properties ought to be preserved?

Brown: I do think that the history of the Manhattan Project is something that should not be forgotten. I know there are two organizations, the Atomic Heritage Foundation and one other organization, that are devoted to preserving some of the history. I do think that the buildings in the Technical Area, to the extent that they are not contaminated, some of the old buildings, should be preserved if at all possible. It would be nice if the National Park Service took over some of this activity.

But the last time I visited Los Alamos, which was three years ago, the Technical Area, of course, was totally out of bounds to anybody who was not working there. So I never got to see the old building in which I worked in. I never got to see any of the old buildings. I assumed that they are still within the inside of the fence that surrounds the Technical Area. But I do not see why those old buildings that are not being used anymore cannot be made available to the public. I think it would be a very good idea.

Copyright 2015 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.