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Peggy Bowditch’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Peggy Bowditch was a young girl when she and her family moved to Los Alamos in 1943. Her father, Rear Admiral William Sterling “Deak” Parsons, was chosen by General Groves to become head of ordnance for the Manhattan Project. The Parsons lived on Bathtub Row, next door to the Oppenheimers. Deak Parsons and his wife were close friends of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, and Parsons had a fatal heart attack in 1953 after learning that Oppenheimer would be stripped of his security clearance for trumped-up security reasons. Bowditch’s babysitter was the infamous spy Klaus Fuchs, and Bowditch herself babysat Peter Oppenheimer on occasion. Bowditch talks about how her father’s lifelong emphasis on careful planning and preparing for the worst must have helped him with arming the Little Boy bomb in flight.

Date of Interview:
November 7, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and today is Thursday, November 7, 2013, and I have with me Margaret Parsons Bowditch. And my first question to her is to tell me her name and spell it.

Peggy Bowditch: Peggy Bowditch, that is B-o-w-d-i-t-c-h.

Kelly: Thank you. And can you tell me something about who you are, when you were born and where you were born?

Bowditch: I was born in Washington, D.C. in 1934. And, my father was in the Navy, so we moved here and there, and I remember living in California and Virginia, and then New Mexico. And, when we first arrived in New Mexico, I thought it was the worst dump I had ever seen. [Laughs] Having moved from Tidewater, Virginia, with lots of vegetation and tons of water, I could not believe the dust and the lack of plants, and the tiny amount of water, even in something that was called the Rio Grande. But, over the years, that came to be the favorite place of all the places I have ever lived. 

We go back from time to time, more to Santa Fe than Los Alamos. And we had our children and grandchildren join us in Santa Fe for our fiftieth wedding anniversary a few years ago. But it took me time to warm up to Los Alamos. Shall I tell you about where we lived there?

Kelly: Sure. First, tell us how old you were and what brought your family to Los Alamos.

Bowditch: I was eight when we moved there, and just short of eleven when we left after the war. My father had worked on the proximity fuse. Although he was a regular Navy officer, he had worked in science, from the beginning of World War II on. And General Groves picked him and he meshed with Oppenheimer, so he became the head of ordnance at Los Alamos.

Kelly: I do not think you have mentioned his name. Can you tell us his name?

Bowditch: He was Captain, Navy Captain William Sterling Parsons, and later, after the bomb was dropped he became quickly Commodore and then Rear Admiral.

Kelly: Can you spell his middle name, I am not sure.

Bowditch: Sterling, as in sterling silver.

Kelly: And then he has a nickname, what was that?

Bowditch: Deke. At the Naval Academy, where he was Class of 1922, they gave everybody nicknames. And since his last name was Parsons, “deacon” and “parsons,” and deacon was shortened to Deke, which can be spelled D-e-k-e or D-e-a-c, depending. 

Kelly: Great. That is helpful. And, then your mother, tell us about her a little bit.

Bowditch: Well, she was a many-generation Navy kid. Her father and grandfather had both been admirals, and she was used to moving and taking charge. She was a natural athlete. She loved anything to do with athletics, skiing, riding, you name it. And, you know, you just picked up and moved.

Kelly: And, what was her maiden name?

Bowditch: Cluverius.

Kelly: Okay, and her first name?

Bowditch: Martha.

Kelly: Okay, maybe you could say it together.

Bowditch: Martha Cluverius.

Kelly: And, how do you spell that?

Bowditch: M-a-r-t-h-a C-l-u-v-e-r-i-u-s. And, her grandfather was Admiral Sampson, who was a big deal in the Spanish American War. So, she was a take-charge type. My father was a more quiet, intellectual type. Mother was a doer; he was a thinker. I had a younger sister who was full of spunk. I was shy, painfully shy, but I was good at eavesdropping and remembering what I heard.

Kelly: Ooh. Okay, tell us now, when did you arrive, what time of year and what year was that?

Bowditch: June of ’43. That switchback road up the mesa was terrifying because the trucks that were going up—since so much was under construction, the trucks had a lower gear than the cars. So, they would slow further and further down and the car would start to stall, and you were on the edge of this drop. But my mother, she could handle that. 

We got up there, and I think this has been written about, but when we got to the first gate to come in, the guards thought they had a spy, because my father announced that he was Captain Parsons, which was true of a Navy captain. But it was an Army base and they expected somebody who was a captain to be wearing the appropriate stuff. And, they were very excited that they had caught this spy. Well, it was [laughs] just the difference of service.

We had a very nice house. I think it was probably the biggest house on Bathtub Row. Los Alamos had been a boys’ school and there was Fuller Lodge in the center, and then I cannot remember the number of houses on Bathtub Row. We were down at the end, and we had the distinction of having two bathtubs, and that got us in a bit of trouble once. 

Because there were only showers in all the Army construction and there was a soldier being released from the hospital. But the nurse told him that he would need to take baths. And he said, “Well, where?” 

And, she said, “Oh, Mrs. Parson wouldn’t mind.” 

The trouble is, she did not tell my mother [laughs] and Mother arrived home to find this poor soldier in the bathtub [laughs], which I am sure embarrassed him more than it embarrassed her.

And, we lived next door to the Oppenheimers, and at times, I guess there were times of great security. We would have somebody patrolling our house or the Oppenheimer’s house, or two walking around together. But that was kind of hit or miss, I am sure dependent on something that was going on. But my mother forgot her pass once, and the guard would not let her in her house. 

It was a magical place to live. I mean, you had no fear. At first, the Army thought that patrolling it with horses would do, but the horses that they got were from Kentucky and the terrain and Kentucky horses did not match. So they were left with all these stables. The horses left, but the stables remained and the stable help remained, so they opened the stables to anybody who wanted to keep a horse there. So that was great. My mother had a horse. They bought me, well, they bought my sister and me a small horse, and my mother thought she had—she seemed a little sway-backed. And, they said, “Oh, she has a hay belly.” Well, she was carrying a foal, so that was very exciting.

After school, several days a week, my mother would ride over and my horse would be with her, she would have the reins, and then I would hop on and off we would go. She rode a lot with Kitty Oppenheimer. They were a good pair, quite different, but they both loved riding. I think Kitty liked the fact that my mother was a take-charge type and willing to give parties. 

So, there were a lot of visiting firemen that came. Often I would be passing hors d’oeuvres at cocktail parties, and I remember one night I was told, “Shh, shh, someone named Nicholas Baker is here.” But that was the codename for Niels Bohr, so I just listened for a while and I got both names, and I daresay I passed him cheese and crackers, but I do not remember anything about that. 

And, after some party, probably a dinner party, somebody gave me a taste of that liqueur, Orange Curacao. I was maybe nine. And then I was alone one Sunday. I opted out of a picnic at Bandelier; I wanted to read. I was a studious little nerd of a kid, and I thought, “Gee, I’d like some more of that Orange Curacao.” Well, it was a locked liquor closet, but I looked at it. I did not know where the key was, but I saw that there were two silver drawers above it. So, I simply removed the drawers and reached it until I pulled the right thing out. And, when my parents got home, my mother was appalled that I had been drinking at age nine. My father was delighted, because it showed I had figured out how to get the liquor. 

Another time that it was apparent that my father favored brains over good behavior: the famous English physicist, Sir James Chadwick, was at Los Alamos. And Chadwick had twin daughters, aged 21, who had been evacuated from England. And it turned out that my father, who went to Washington fairly often, would be taking the same train west as these two British twins. So, Sir James asked Dad to watch out for them. Well, British twins of 21 do not want some old guy watching out for them. But, the last morning, as they were getting up toward Lamy, which is the station for Santa Fe, he sat with them at breakfast, and they ordered two eggs boiled precisely three minutes each. So, my father explained the physics of the fact that three-minute eggs at that altitude would be practically raw. They listened to his explanation, turned to the waiter, and said, “Two eggs, boiled precisely three minutes.” And the waiter translated that into soft boiled eggs. So, when Daddy told us the story, I was appalled that people would be so rude. What upset my father was that Sir James would have two such stupid daughters, who could not understand a physics lecture. [Laughs]. 

There were a lot of interesting people. My best friend at Los Alamos was named Joanna Jorgensen. She was, I believe, from Nebraska, a couple of years older than I was. But we had a great time going around together, and by day our object would be to find courting couples somewhere in the woodland area. [Laughs] And, by night, we would just be out walking. But I think there is some connection between math, physics, science, and music, because practically every night you would hear a quartet playing, four scientists getting together in a chamber group, having a marvelous time. 

So, it really was a fascinating place to grow up. My father, who was in his forties then, early forties, was about the oldest person there. And, the younger ones kept having babies, so there were a great many babies born at Los Alamos, and I think that the birthplace of record was a P.O. Box. And, the school was very good. I mean, you cannot get scientists to come and have a junkie school, so it was fun. But, I do remember there were IQ tests given at the school, and this was something I picked up at a cocktail party. Everybody was shocked the child who tested highest on the IQ test was the daughter of the man who shoveled coal into the furnace in the morning, Laurencita Gonzales. [Laughs] Go figure. I have often wondered what happened to Laurencita. 

I told you about the horses. And each day, after the hired crew of—well, we called them Indians then, from the local pueblo—would be carefully checked out. The daily help that could clean, and then the men who did work, they would be carefully checked off at 4:30 or 5:00 and bussed down to the pueblo. But, at night, we had first-run movies for ten cents apiece. And, here in the first row of the movies, were all the Indians who had been checked out. They would ride their ponies up, scale the mesa, just to see the movies. They were not spying. 

A spy there under our very roof was our babysitter, Klaus Fuchs. He would come and take care of my sister and me, and since we were five and eight, we did not need much looking after. But we had a piano in the house and he loved to play the piano, so that was our babysitter. Then, when I got a little older, I was actually Peter Oppenheimer’s babysitter. I mean, you should not really trust a ten-year-old to babysit, but you know, with a guard walking around outside, what could go wrong?

Kelly: So, what do you remember of that? What kind of little boy was Peter?

Bowditch: I never had any trouble with him. I do not remember his sister, Toni, maybe later. But we were pretty close to the Oppenheimers. 

And the thing that impressed me, chicken pox was going around. And, Oppie had been so carefully brought up, he had never had chicken pox. So he got it as an adult and he was really sick. Bu, even though he felt like nothing, he would still go to work as soon as he was no longer contagious. 

I reveled in the fact that I could stay out of school with chicken pox, and about the first day I had chicken pox, I was lying in bed listening to the radio. My mother was out riding, probably, and they broke into the radio programming to say that President Roosevelt had died. And then they immediately went back to their previous scheduled program, which seems odd under the circumstances. But, I am pretty sure that is what happened, and when my mother walked in, I said, “Mother, Mother, I heard on the radio that Roosevelt had died.” 

And she said, “Oh, nonsense. You have a fever, you probably imagined it.”

I kept trying to tell people that Roosevelt had died, but nobody believed me. 

So the next day she had an all-day ride planned with Kitty Oppenheimer, and she said, “Are you sure I should go?” And I had planned a whole day of listening to soap operas and things. I was absolutely infuriated when all the programming was about Roosevelt. [Laughs] No soap operas, and when I finally went back to school, having gotten hooked on soap operas, I asked my mother if she would listen and tell me what happened. She gave me a look as if that were beneath contempt. So that was not her thing.

Oh, we had two dogs while we were there, and one tomcat. In those days, I think nobody thought of neutering and spaying, that came later. And, our tomcat was a marmalade guy, and he appeared to be the father of every litter. And, one day we got a telephone call from a woman who said, “We’ve had a first. We have a litter of kittens, and Taffy could not have been the father. They’re different colors.” So, my mother went over to see the litter and she turned one of the kittens over and it had an orange stomach. [Laughs] Taffy got around.

After the war, we certainly continued our friendship with the Oppenheimers and went up to Princeton, oh, it is hard to remember how often. But the friendship continued and it was fun to go and visit them. And I remember I was struggling with my geometry homework, and Kitty Oppenheimer was the one who helped me [Laughs]. 

And then in December of ’53 my father heard at a cocktail party that Oppie had been separated from his Q clearance, and he was so upset that he came home and began a heart attack, which he checked with the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was his idea of where you go. And it did not sound as if he had a heart attack. The next morning, Mother took him to Bethesda Hospital and he died, a week after his 52nd birthday. 

And, of course, Oppie did lose his security clearance. And years later, when he was reinstated by being given the Fermi Award, just after, well, fifty years ago, just after JFK was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson chose to present him with the Fermi Award. And, Mother went to the gathering, and of course, there were many, many scientists, people she had known. And, all of a sudden, a Secret Service man came into the room with, I do not know, a hundred or so people, and said, “Is Mrs. Parsons here?” 

And, she thought, “Oh, god, what have I done?” 

And, because of the friendship, they wanted her to come in and be with them when—the Johnsons in the family quarters, and then they took her in for the award presentation. And, there is a new book, and there she is in the background with the Oppenheimers as he got the award. And I had three little kids then and we were watching on television, and there was their grandmother up there in the limelight.

But she continued to go and visit the Oppenheimers after my father died. And one day they said, “We’re going over to the George School in Bucks County,” where Peter was a student. I guess he was a boarder. And, I suppose everybody who was at this picnic was aware that Oppenheimer was somebody special and kept kind of looking at him. 

And, Mother said she was really embarrassed, because Oppie got up from the table, and he said, “Martha, I’ve brought your very favorite thing.” And, Mother looked surprised. And he said, “A Heineken’s beer.” Well, at the Quaker school picnic, that is not exactly the drink of choice. But it was lovely thing to have done. 

Any questions, follow-ups?

Kelly: No, these are great stories. I want to ask about everybody and everything. [Laughs] Well, let us start back with what it was like to live on Bathtub Row. I mean, were you one of the only children there?

Bowditch: Oh, no, no. I think, it is hard for me to remember. The Bradburys were just up the way. They were on Bathtub Row, and Lois Bradbury, when I first knew her, had two boys, James and John. And, then when the third child was imminent, one of the scientists at a party said, “Well, you’ve got to keep with the J’s, so how about Jesus or Jemez?” So, it turned out to be, I believe, David. [Laughs] 

But everybody had young children on Bathtub Row. The younger unmarried ones were living elsewhere in, well, pretty miserable housing. I mean, we had an asparagus bed, a fenced-in vegetable garden. We had quite a nice place. 

Kelly: So, what special occasions do you remember? Did you ever go down to Otowi Bridge?

Bowditch: Oh, yeah. No, not to have dinner there. I mean, if I had been, as far as I can remember, a really well-behaved child for a year, I would be taken to Santa Fe to the San Ildefonso, no, sorry that was the pueblo, to La Fonda for lunch. That was the big deal. 

Kelly: So, that happened when you were a good girl for a whole year?

Bowditch: I was a nerd, I was boringly good. I do not think my sister ever got taken. [Laughs] Because she was more adventurous and naughty.

Kelly: So, what kind of adventures did she—

Bowditch: Oh, god, you know, all you had to say was, “Do not jump off that,” and she would do it. She fell off our horse early on, so I was the rider, and she was not. But, you know, I remember we were going to some kind of potluck supper at school, and my mother had made deviled eggs. So, of course, my sister, and I am sure this was an accident, she stepped in the deviled eggs. [Laughs] So, that made life a little difficult for her. 

I did try to cook at Los Alamos. Our mother was not a cook, and I would get a cookbook and my sister would be the lookout, you know. When Mother came home, she did not want to catch us messing up the kitchen. But I would try to make, I cannot remember whether it was brownies or fudge, probably brownies, because they had to rise. And, you know, following the Joy of Cooking, which was not written for that altitude, I made the worst mess. I mean, even my sister and I could not eat it. And, when she’d would call out that Mother was coming, I would quickly ditch the pan of failed brownies on a lilac bush outside the back door, and then quickly clean it up. And since Mother did not come in the kitchen first thing, we had time to clean up. But, years later when I went back to the house, I think it was twelve years later, I checked the health of the lilac, and apparently it liked my cooking, [Laughs] even though it was inedible. 

But, fairly often, and it is hard for me to remember how often, although there was rationing, you could go to Fuller Lodge and have a very good dinner, roast beef. I mean, we did not suffer the way the rest of the—I think they wanted the scientists to be well fed. I cannot remember whether that dinner at Fuller Lodge was open to everybody or not. 

General Groves would show up now and then, and he was a terrific administrator. I mean, he got the Pentagon built, and he was head of the Manhattan Project, but he was basically, I would describe his personality as bully. And there was an Army colonel, maybe, Whitney Ashbridge, who was, I think he was a graduate of West Point, and a very nice fellow, but Groves was a regular Army officer and Ashbridge was maybe engineering duty only. So Groves looked down on him. And one morning at inspection time, he and Groves were marching along, the soldiers were coming by, and Groves saw a piece of trash blowing and ordered Ashbridge to pick up the trash in front of the troops, which was really demeaning. I remember my father talking about what a nasty thing that was. 

After the war, my parents would still see and they would play tennis with Groves and his daughter [Gwen Groves Robinson]. Groves was the kind of tennis player who did cuts and nasty shots. His daughter, Gwen, she was a good player. But, I remember General Groves asking me, he said, “Would you like me to send your father back to Los Alamos?” 

Well, since I loved it, “Oh, yes, yes, yes.” Of course, he was just fooling, just, you know, typical bully type, taking advantage of a kid’s enthusiasm.

I do not think I have anything more.

Kelly: Tell me about the relationship between your father and Groves. They had worked together before the war?

Bowditch: I do not think so. I think Groves asked Vannevar Bush for his suggestion. First, of course, being an Army base, they wanted an Army ordnance expert, but Bush said, “The guy you need is Parsons.” Well, Groves was more interested in somebody who could do the job than somebody. And my father ended up with quite a few people from Dahlgren, which was a Navy base, because he knew their capabilities. And [Frederick] Ashworth was Navy, [Norris] Bradbury he brought from Dahlgren. And the trouble was the Army and the Navy ranks do not match up. So my father, when he went off the base, was required to have a driver with security clearance. He would call for a driver and he would say, “This is Captain Parsons.” 

And, the guy at the other end, at the motor pool, would say, “No cars for captains,” because—[laughs] so eventually that would get worked out. 

I remember one hair-raising trip. There was a security driver, he had the right clearance, but he did not know how to drive properly. So, we got through the guardhouse and the minute we were out of sight, my father said, “Son, you sit here. I’ll drive.” [Laughs] 

But since my father’s family lived in New Mexico, we would go with permission to Albuquerque for Thanksgiving once or twice. And there was a lot of social life. There was square dancing, and I think Bernice Brode was behind some of the exchanges. They had square dances and they would invite the Indians from the San Ildefonso pueblo to come up and observe the square dances. And then we would be invited to go down there and see their dances. 

So, a lot was going on, and one night I came home from a dance and got violently ill. Apparently, I had been bitten by a black widow spider playing outside, and I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. That is pretty, when you are ten, that is a big deal, and of course, my parents feared for my life. But, I just thought, “Hey, this is exciting.” And, you know, I recovered in a day or two. But that was their best guess about what had happened.

There was a pool at Los Alamos, a pond, and a child about my age drowned in the pond. So they built a wonderful swimming pool and we had lessons and could do that. But, mostly for me, it was riding, and I just lived at the stable. I mean, waiting for the horse to produce the foal. But being the nerd I was, when it was eight o’clock, I had to go home, and the foal was born at nine o’clock. [Laughs] So, I missed it. But that was fun. 

And probably my judgments of adults were skewed, because there was a famous scientist, George Kistiakowsky, and he had a very nasty horse. So I assumed he was a nasty man [laughs], probably not so. The people who rode just—I have forgotten whether you paid nine or eighteen dollars a month to keep a horse there. And practically every horse had its own stable boy. And when my horse’s foal turned out to be male, we named him for our stable boy, Charlie, who was a delightful guy.

Kelly: Were these stable boys? Where did they come from?

Bowditch: They were Army. I think maybe they had come from Kentucky, but they adjusted better to Los Alamos than the horses that they brought from Kentucky. 

And, I guess, I just did not know what was going on, nor did my mother. My father came and went. He went to Washington quite often. And Groves, I do not know whether he was nervous. For some reason, he was nervous about air transport, so you always travelled by train. That was considered safe, and of course, the trains were pretty nice then. I never got to leave Los Alamos, except to go to Albuquerque or Santa Fe. But, who cared to leave? It was paradise. And, in my years there, I never saw a rattlesnake. I understand there are some there.

Kelly: Did you feel that you were living, you know, in a highly secure and military-run place? Were you aware as a child of this?

Bowditch: Since we had moved there from Dahlgren, where there was a guardhouse and gates, it seemed normal to me. There was the inner sanctum called the Technical Area, where the men worked, andI hooted with superiority when my sister couldn’t say it properly as she called it “the technic malaria”. But, you know, you just felt safe, but I had felt safe in other places. 

And when my father left for the test and then to go to drop the bomb, you know, it was just another absence. And, there were many sort of false V-J Days, the rumors would go around that the Japanese had surrendered, not so. I do not remember that—well, we were more interested in V-J Day than VE Day. But I vaguely remember hearing my father had been on the mission, and you know, “So can I ride today, Mom?” kind of thing. 

And, because he died so young, I never really talked to him much about it. The one thing I learned later, there was a physics lab named for him at Johns Hopkins and I got a tape of the dedication. And he described the Hiroshima run as a typical Parsons job. My father was every possible, well, worst-case scenario planning. And everything went like clockwork, partly because of the planning, and partly because of luck. And then I realized that that must be in some way a genetic trait, because when I am going someplace, I plan it all carefully, worst-case scenario, and I think, “Yeah, he was dropping the first atomic bomb. I am just going to do errands.” But, if you are genetically made up that way that is the way you behave. 

I did see Oppenheimer once fairly late in his life. I was working at Harvard after I graduated from college, and Oppie came to give lectures. I think it must have been 1957, and, of course, he was mobbed. The theater was—they had to broadcast it to other buildings. But my mother had said I had to go speak to him afterward. And, still being shy, I was a little, but, you know, being a nerd, you do what your mother has told you. So, after this jam-packed lecture, I went up and he was surrounded by, you know, the top physicists in the inner circle and then many concentric circles. And I stood on the outside, and since I look exactly like my mother, he looked through all these people and he said, “Is it Peggy?” And, the multitudes parted, and we had a sort of cryptic conversation about Los Alamos and people.

And physics students followed me out of the lecture. “Who is this woman?” So, that was fun. And, I could call my mother and tell her that I had spoken to Oppie. But that was the last time I saw him. And, he was just, well, he was God to the physicists and to the people who knew him just casually, like me.

Kelly: So stories are that if Kitty was not disposed to be the host for a party, that it really fell to your mother and your parents to be the host. How did this work and what were those parties like?

Bowditch: Well, as long as I did not spill the hors d’oeuvres I was passing, I think my parents’ parties were more staid. Those were the parties for visiting firemen, like Niels Bohr and everybody behaved. But, I think, you know, the scientists worked so hard all week and you worked Saturdays. And then Saturday nights, the parties without visiting firemen, which were not held at our house, were pretty heavy drinking, you know, fun, and a way to relax the tension. I never heard of anybody being described as an alcoholic, but there were plenty of heavy drinkers. But, that was just maybe Saturday night. But I was not passing any hors d’oeuvres at those parties.

Kelly: Were you allowed to be part of it, or on the premises?

Bowditch: Well, just when the parties were at our house. I mean, I was ten years old. 

After the war was over, we moved to Washington, and the hardest part of leaving Los Alamos was being told I had to take my beloved mare, Dolly, out and show off her paces to prospective buyers. That is pretty tough on a ten-year-old. You know, there is no way you can take a horse to Washington. And my mother had a rule. You traveled with your dogs, you found homes for cats and horses, so that was the way it was. 

And it is impossible to imagine what a beautiful place it was, once I got used to the lack of vines and that kind of thing. Every time we go to Santa Fe, we take the back road through that giant—have you ever been to Valle Grande? I mean, that has to be one of the most spectacular places. And, a few years ago, I am a big PBS fan, and I just automatically turn on public television, and there was a wonderful, I would say it was no more than half an hour long documentary called “Sky Island,” about Valle Grande and maybe a little bit about Bandelier. But it was narrated by Meryl Streep and a Native American, and it was beautifully done. 

But, I think part of the reason that that is such a special spot is that it is probably the highest point in the land, and it somehow catches precipitation as the air rises. Because, being a horticultural teacher, that is one of the few places where there was truly a three-layered vegetation, trees, shrubs and grasses, not close together the way they are in the East, but much more so than other places out there. And that to me made it very special. 

We went over there once, and now they have cattle grazing there. When I was a kid, I am certain it was sheep, because we went once and it was during sheep shearing. An, I was horrified because they would nick the sheep and the wool would be bloody, and that, for a ten-year-old, you do not forget that. But, it would be an all-day ride to get over there, and that would be something special. 

Kelly: On horseback?

Bowditch: Um hmm. And Mother and Kitty would sometimes see mountain lions over there, and then we would go to various festivals, Indian things. And I was always terrified. There were some Indians who had obviously had a little too much to drink and would come up, and my mother, that, you know, she could handle anything. My father was always working, so he was not part of that. 

But, it is hard to imagine a better place to grow up than Los Alamos. Moving to Washington later was a big comedown, yeah, city, schools were not as good, that kind of thing.

Kelly: What about the Hispanic community that surrounds Los Alamos? We understand many of them worked in the lab.

Bowditch: Yeah, well, there were, well Laurencita Gonzales, whom I mentioned as having the highest IQ in the school. And there was a boy, I think his name was Roberto Sandoval, and he was offended, or his mother, was when he was referred to as a Mexican. “Spanish-American” was the preferred designation, so I caught onto that. And, boys, I was a pretty good student and boys were, you know, there is the—girls grow up faster than boys. And I could not believe some of the stupid things boys did. Somebody invited me, I cannot remember, one of the scientist’s sons, invited me to come over for glass blowing. It was boring, and he ended up cutting him, a little place on his wrist and putting a piece of glass under. And, I thought, “How can these”—you know, I thought boys were next to subhuman. I mean, why did they do such dumb things? Sort of like my sister, always putting her foot in the deviled eggs or something. 

But some were nice, the Bradbury boys were very nice, and there was a Sim Allison I used to play with, and Joanna. It was a nice group of kids, but riding was my chief—riding and doing school work and a little gardening. Riding in ambulances.

Kelly: Yes. So, you mentioned later on in your life you had met Oppenheimer when he was speaking at Harvard. How much did you interact with him when you were a child, other than serving hors d’oeuvres and you were babysitting?

Bowditch: Oh, you know, he would come over to our house, we would go there. But much more memorable are the times we went to Princeton, because then it would just be the Oppies and us, and me trying to do my geometry homework.

Kelly: That is great.

Bowditch: And I think Kitty came down, they came down to Washington once, and Mother and Kitty and I went out to lunch. And then Kitty said she had to do some shopping, so we went with her and I was absolutely astounded. Because our family is fairly well-fleshed, and as I remember, Kitty could only buy size 5 underwear, and we had bigger underwear, so that stuck in my mind. 

Kitty, you know, this was the beginning of the sort of McCarthy era, and I think Kitty felt guilty because she had been a communist, and she said to my mother, “Do you think they are down on Robert because he is Jewish?” Well, I do not think that could possibly have been the case, but the fact that his brother was communist and Kitty had been a communist. She wanted to find some other reason, which is perfectly human.

I once asked Lois Bradbury, when I was an adult. In fact, we had a child who had graduated from college in Colorado and we went down to show him New Mexico after graduation. And, we went to call on the Bradburys, and I said to Lois, “Why is she always portrayed as such an unpleasant person? That was not my memory of Kitty at all.” 

And, Lois said, “That’s easy. She respected your mother, she liked your mother. She was completely different with your mother than she was with other women.” Although, I understand from reading a book, she would have brief friendships with people and then drop them. But that was not the case with my mother. I do not think she was a natural mother, and I gather she drank too much. But it was hard on wives, because husbands worked so hard, and you know, luckily Kitty had riding.

Kelly: Sounds like your mother was also very energetic and engaged, so she took well to the isolation and your husband being—

Bowditch: Oh, yeah. She was used, I mean, from the time she was a kid, she had grown up on Navy bases and having a husband or a father who was away a lot of the time. So it was a natural. I do remember, and I cannot be sure just who this was, but I suspect that since Ashworth was the weaponeer on the Nagasaki flight, it had to have been his wife. And she heard that Ashworth, that my father had decided he would be the weaponeer on the first and Ashworth on the second. And, this woman, whom I knew, but not well, came over one night and she burst into tears, asking my father to change his mind and not send her husband on this dangerous mission. Well, an adult bursting into tears. I did not know adults cried, I mean. So, that made a big impression on me, and of course that flight was fraught with peril for various reasons. 

And Ellen Bradbury was even thinking of making a movie on that flight, because it was so interesting, because it did not go like clockwork, and you know, barely made it back. It was really the one that you would like to see a movie about, because so much happened. I think one of the planes, as Ellen said, one of the planes that was supposed to rendezvous at a certain altitude got the altitude wrong and circled and circled. Meantime, the other planes were using up fuel circling at the stated altitude, and finally, the plane that had gotten it wrong figured the others had not made it, turned, headed home, eventually broke radio silence and said the other planes had never arrived. Therefore, it was assumed that they had gone down at sea. 

So, did Ellen tell you this? 

Kelly: Yeah.

Bowditch: Good, because I thought that was fascinating story, and they landed practically on fumes at the end, and were not expected back. 

Kelly: She was right to be worried.

Bowditch: Yeah, right.

Kelly: Indeed. Did your father ever talk about being the weaponeer on Enola Gay?

Bowditch: Well, the thing that amused me, he armed the bomb in flight and my father literally could not fix a leaking faucet. So, you know, the irony of his doing that. 

And, then he brought home two fuses, a green and a red one that he had taken out. And then General Groves came out to take my mother out to dinner when she was a widow, and he said, “Oh, I want to take those and have them catalogued.” Well, of course, that was the last we ever saw of those, and I daresay that was right, they belonged in a museum. But when I went down to see the, right at the Smithsonian, the Enola Gay, sure enough, there were some things like that. So I wrote a little note saying those matched up with my recollection, slipped it in the suggestion box, which probably went in a circular file, because I never heard anything more about it.

And, then we went out at the huge museum outside Washington and saw the—I mean, I am afraid I always sort of pooh-poohed Tibbett’s role, because he spent the rest of his career on the basis of having been the pilot. On the other hand, when I saw the Enola Gay, that was one impressive plane, and he must have been the best of the best. But, I always thought, well, they were the delivery crew, not the bomb people. And, you know, he was speaking in Philadelphia once and I certainly was not going to go and hear that, and pay to hear him. So, scientists, I certainly respected, and once I saw the Enola Gay, I had more respect. And, I guess the B-29s were not that safe either, so it really was, it was something. I will give him his due, at last, now that he is dead. I wonder if there are any of the people who were on that mission who are still alive? 

Kelly: One, Dutch Van Kirk, is the only one.

Bowditch: He was the navigator, or what was he?

Kelly: I am sorry?

Bowditch: Was he the navigator?

Kelly: I think so, yeah.

Bowditch: Okay.

Kelly: Let us see. Oh, I guess your father also was in a small plane to be the scientific observer at the Trinity test?

Bowditch: Um hmm. He never talked about that. I mean, he, well, it was the old “loose lips sink ships.” 

And one ironic thing, I went to the Post Office one day and they were taking down posters and replacing them with some other war poster. And I asked if I could have one, and I put it over my bed. And, I can still remember what it said. “Wipe that Jap off the map.” 

AndI thought, “Gee, prophetic.” I mean, you know, in those days all you cared about was ending the war, and I have heard Japanese people say that it was a good thing that we dropped the atomic bombs, because that saved Japanese lives, and certainly American. But, I, you know, I have mixed feelings about that. We are the only country in the world that ever used atomic weapons. So I fit  right in at a Quaker retirement home.

Kelly: That is great. I guess your father did not talk much, so you did not have a sense of how he felt about his participation on the Manhattan Project?

Bowditch: No, I do not think he ever regretted having worked on it. And one time as a little kid, I said, you know, I was maybe eleven, I said, “Well, how did the atomic bomb work?” So, we got out physics books and we went through them. [Laughs] It went over my head pretty quickly. 

Another time I asked him how to play chess, and he did not want to sit down and do something elementary. He got out the Encyclopedia Britannica and they had all the moves of the world chess championship of the year, the latest year the Encyclopedia Britannica had been published, the one we had. And, he said, “Now, you do this and I do this,” and I was infuriated at the end. And, he said, “Oh, I won.” [Laughs] 

And, I thought, “At least he could have given me the winning.” So, that was my first and only chess game. How to kill a kid’s interest in one easy step. 

But, he took everything we asked seriously. And, my mother was forever trying to teach us how to play games. My sister was a better athlete than I was, but, horseback riding was about all I mastered, and then flower shows in later life.

Kelly: Tell me about, you mentioned on the phone, Sunday picnics at the Bandelier National, what is now Bandelier National Monument.

Bowditch: Oh, yeah, we used to go, we would pack a lunch and go off in the Jeep, not always to Bandelier. But the trouble was my mother would take a New York Times along to use as fire fuel starter. We would pick up some—my sister and I would be sent to find some sticks and things. The trouble was my father, although we had already read the New York Times, before she burned it, he would have to reread it, which infuriated my mother. And we would have hot dogs or hamburgers or something like that. 

And the strange thing was that, the two things that were his Bibles, the Encyclopedia Britannica and the New York Times. After the drop on Hiroshima, the New York Times published his picture, only they got, they asked the Navy for a picture and it was the wrong William S. Parsons. [Laughs] So, here his—my mother found that highly amusing.

Kelly: Did he? How did he find that?

Bowditch: Oh, I do not really remember. I knew, you know, in those days mothers had the responsibility of raising children. And with hardworking fathers, that was a natural. And I daresay there were a fair number of working women at Los Alamos, but most I knew were housewives, and they were the mothers of my friends.

Kelly: So was Lois Bradbury a good friend of your family?

Bowditch: Yeah, I think because they had known each other in Dahlgren, Virginia, and my father had gotten Norris Bradbury to come, yeah. But, I would say probably her closest friend was Kitty, because of the riding. I mean, if my mother was not hitting a ball or skiing, she wanted to be on a horse. Luckily I was good at riding.

Kelly: Did Peter ride, or was he too little?

Bowditch: He was too little, I think. And, Kitty was, she was not a natural mother. I mean, you know, the kids stayed with babysitters and she would go off. And, I daresay my mother was, she was perfectly intelligent, but no intellectual. I think Kitty was probably more intellectual than Mother, but, that is not a barrier when you are on horseback. 

And, let us see, anything else I can remember about the—well, going to see my friends in the Army apartments. They did not have it—those apartments were not very nice places to live, and it must have been a struggle to cook and all that. But, I was, you know, I was not aware of that. Who worries about that at age ten? 

Kelly: So how many children were in the school at your age? You were a little older than the other kids born, obviously.

Bowditch: Yeah, I was in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, and all I remember was these boys, who were not paying attention. They did not, you know, they did not study for the spelling tests, and that kind of thing. We certainly had one class. I believe there was a high school, but I do not know. 

I left in sixth grade, and because there were no houses available in Washington, we lived in Worcester, Mass, for three months. So, I had three months in Los Alamos, three months in Worcester, and then three months in Washington, at the end of sixth grade. And that leaves great gaps in your education when you keep changing schools. I have yet to study grammar any place. It was either the thing they had just finished studying when I arrived, and were about to study when I left. So, it is, but, you certainly, I think, get an education living in different parts of the world, and hearing that, you know, you are not worth much if you cannot understand why eggs are not cooked [laughs] after boiling three minutes at seven thousand—some hundred feet altitude.

Kelly: Oh, you had mentioned, oh, no, you did talk about that, sorry. Any more comments on Klaus Fuchs?

Bowditch: All I remember was the man simply came and played the piano all evening. My sister and I could get up to all sorts of stuff upstairs, but I really have very little recollection of him, except that he was there. And my parents felt comfortable going off with him playing the piano.

Kelly: Who played the piano in your family?

Bowditch: I did a bit, but the piano came with the house, I am pretty sure. We would not have moved a piano out from Virginia.

Kelly: Now, I was reading the notes that Katrina Mason had made on you and then other children. She talked about John Bradbury, who talked about the stress, the pressure, the urgency of the project was sort of passed down to the kids, I mean, you get the sense of that. Could you comment that?

Bowditch: I never felt that.

Kelly: Okay. Could you—actually, no one is going to hear my questions, so they might not. So, maybe you could say—

Bowditch: Well, he may have been more in tune with things. I certainly was much more in tune with daily life and I—my father came and went so much that I just accepted that. And, I think perhaps the closest I came to sensing stress was when Oppie had to go to work despite the fact that he was just starting to recover from chicken pox. That seemed a little strange, when I had a long time at home, listening to soap operas, this poor man had to go to work. I mean, the injustice of the thing. I do not know whether I figured Oppie would have been enjoyed listening to soap operas or not. [Laughs] 

But, I did not even know why they were called soap operas. It was because they were for housewives, and the advertisements were for soap, Oxydol and things like that, so that is why they were called “the soaps.” I am not, you know, I am a PBS listener now. I do not do series.

Kelly: Gosh, I think we have done a great job.

Alex Levy: Can I ask a question?

Kelly: Yes, please, Alex.

Levy: What about Oppenheimer made your father respect him so much?

Bowditch: Oh, I think the fact that he was such a serious scientist and also a good administrator, which nobody knew, you know, when he was hired. Who knew he would be a good administrator. He was also a wonderful role model, an inspiration for the other scientists, which certainly helped with things. It was hard to know, since my father was rather a quiet person and did not ever share emotions. I guess I am relatively clueless, as my children would say, and even my grandchildren.

Kelly: But your father and Oppenheimer had a very close relationship, is that correct?

Bowditch: Um hmm, yeah, and I guess my father in some ways was Oppie’s deputy, so they talked a lot. And, I am sure there were disagreements about how to proceed with this, that and the other, and they probably talked over things. And  I knew the Fermi’s. I mean, for years, every time a famous scientist’s name appeared, I thought, “Oh, I knew him.” 

Kelly: So do you have any recollection about the Fermi’s? 

Bowditch: Well, I remember Laura Fermi, but I do not think they lived on Bathtub Row, for some reason. You know, Bathtub Row went to the people who came first, and Fermi was at the University of Chicago, so he maybe came later. Certainly, he was a very highly respected scientist. But, it just seemed that mostly, you knew the people on Bathtub Row and the people who had children your age. That was the natural, and your parent’s friends. 

And, as I say, the only social life I saw among adults was the cocktail party circuit for the visiting firemen that my mother would do. She was not much of a cook, I cannot imagine what she served, but I think drink was more important than food at those things. And, of course, I do not know whether this has been written about, but the effect of alcohol at that altitude, it hits you much faster if you are not used to drinking there. So, visiting firemen would be disarmed quickly with a few drinks.

Kelly: When you use the expression “visiting firemen”, what are you—? [Note: refers to influential visitors.]

Bowditch: Well, somebody like Niels Bohr, who was not there. It is hard for me to remember just why we gave those cocktail parties. The Niels Bohr one sticks out in my mind, and figuring out the liquor closet kind of thing. But my mother, you know, having this military background, she was a natural to organize things.

Kelly: So how did she communicate with folks when there was time for a cocktail party? Did they send notes around, was it done at work?

Bowditch: I have no idea.

Kelly: Did you have a telephone?

Bowditch: Oh, yeah, um hmm.

Kelly: Was it a party line, where you could—

Bowditch: I do not remember that it was.

Kelly: Individual phone line?

Bowditch: We had party lines in Maine, but I do not, I think that was my first experience with a party line. 

And once my mother was permitted to go and visit her father back in Massachusetts. And my sister and I both wore braids, and she said, “Can you braid the girls’ hair?” 

And, my father said, “Yes.” [Laughs] And, she laughed, and he said, “I guess it was knitting I knew, not braiding.” [Laughs] So, I do not know who braided our hair, but pigtails were the way to go. 

And we had some really nice teachers. I think the school was set up by a Chicago, I do not know whether it was a private school, the lab school, something like that, but they sent a whole batch of teachers and they had built a nice—instead of the junkie apartments and Quonset huts, we had a nice school. 

Kelly: And where was the school located?

Bowditch: Well, I do not know, I just walked there every day, and then usually rode after school. So my mother could come. One of the dogs would sometimes come with us on the rides. And I hung around the stables a lot. The stable boys were extremely friendly and pleasant, and the horses, except for Kistiakowsky’s, were friendly and pleasant. 

Kelly: So, Kistiakowsky’s horse was, was it different from the other horses?

Bowditch: Well, the explanation given was that he had been castrated late in life, so [laughs] he was either angry about it or still had those take charge. You stayed away from him. And mares with foals, he would not be very nice to the foals, so I suspect that is as good of an explanation as any. But Kisty liked him.

Kelly: I don’t know. Alex, do you have any questions you would like to ask?

Levy: Could you maybe talk a little bit about your father, how your father became such as expert in ordnance? Do you know anything about that?

Bowditch: Well, he was a regular line officer in the Navy, and eventually had a cruiser division, but he was a very bright guy. And the science over the literature. I think he taught that at the post-graduate school at Annapolis when he and my mother first met. And, certainly, when they needed someone to work on the proximity fuse and he was at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, you were ordered to go up. And he drove to Washington every day, which was no mean feat in those days. So, I saw very little of him, and then because of that, he was picked for Los Alamos. And, when he died, he was Deputy Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, so it all sort of came together. 

Kelly: That is great. So, do you think we have covered everything?

Bowditch: Certainly, everything I could think of.

Kelly: You have done a wonderful job, just charming stories. This is great.

Bowditch: Well, anecdotes.

Kelly: Yeah, no, this is nice. It helps create a nice portrait of Los Alamos.

Bowditch: And, I was, you know, a month or so short of my eleventh birthday when we left, so it— I think your memories are skewed a bit, but I remember a lot. I asked my sister if she would be interested, and she said, no, it was too early in her life. She would not remember stepping on the deviled eggs, I am sure. [Laughs] She has blocked that out.

Kelly: That is great.

Camerman: Now, you had said the V-J, right, so Victory in Japan was a big day, right, for you? Now, were you aware of what your dad’s involvement was? Like, how long after?

Bowditch: I guess my mother told me, but it was matter-of-factly. But, V-J Day was, you know, first all these false VJ- Days, and then finally the real one, and fireworks, I mean that, that was it. I probably still had “Wipe that Jap off the ap” on the wall behind my bed. But, you know, when you are a kid, you are so involved in your own life, you do not, sort of, and you—what your mother says goes and your father comes and goes.

So I do remember when he went to the test at Bikini after World War II was over. I have forgotten when the Bikini tests were, and we were in Maine that summer. And we did not have a telephone, but we went to the little store that was a short way away, and there was a telegram. And the poor man at the store knew our family well, and the ranking Naval officer, I guess, at the Bikini test was Admiral Blandy. And the telegraph operator who sent the telegram that the poor man had to hand to my mother, it said, “Flying East with Blondie.” [Laughs] And, you know, my mother thought nothing of it, she figured out what it was. But the poor man just—he was so embarrassed. He thought my father was flying east with a bimbo. I remember his embarrassment, you know, nice Maine guy having to deliver this awful news.

[End of interview.]

Copyright 2014 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.