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Ralph Gates’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

In this interview, Ralph Gates discusses how he volunteered to join the Army on his 18th birthday, how was he was recruited into the SED, and how he came to Los Alamos. Gates discusses studying electrical engineering in New York, so that he would be prepared for work at Los Alamos. He talks about his work casting shape charges and the social life at Los Alamos. Gates largely enjoyed his time at Los Alamos, but often regretted that he could not take a more direct part in the war. He also delves into his feelings about the Second World War and the decision to drop the bomb.

Date of Interview:
April 4, 2015
Location of the Interview:


Wendy Steinle: Good morning, Ralph. I’m Wendy Steinle, as you know, and I am really pleased to be your friend and to have the opportunity to interview you this morning. Just for the record, will you start by stating and spelling your name, and then tell us the date?

Ralph Gates:  Well, thanks, Wendy. My name is Ralph Gates, but I am—it’s Ralph Pillsbury Gates and I am a junior. It’s R-a-l-p-h, Pillsbury is P-i-l-l-s-b-u-r-y, and Gates is G-a-t-e-s.

Steinle: What is today’s date?

Gates: This is the 4th of April in 2015.

Steinle: Great, thank you. Well, let’s get started. Tell me a little bit about your childhood, where did you grow up, what kinds of things did you like to do?

Gates: Well, I was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, which was a very small town at the time, probably 160,000 people. I think it’s now well over two million. But, it was an outdoor community for me, I lived out of doors. Of course, we had no air conditioning back then, but we went out in the country and went swimming in the creeks and rivers all the time. I went to camp and I loved to hike and loved to look for Indian artifacts and all that sort of stuff that little kids were interested in. Went to Boy Scout camp, went to YMCA camp and just lived out of doors.

Steinle: How fun. So, when it came time to think about college, what did you want to study, and why?

Gates: Well, I didn’t think about college. I thought first of all I wanted to be a baseball player. My favorite was Gabby Hartnett, who was cubs for the Chicago Cubs baseball team. I thought I wanted to be Gabby Gates in the football. But, anyway, when I got to thinking about college, it was something that the family expected. My dad had gone to the University of Illinois and then graduated in 1912, before he went into the First World War, of course. He was in chemistry, and I thought, well, that’s probably something I might want to pursue. So, I had in mind all through school that I’d probably go to college and major in chemistry.

Steinle: Okay. Is chemistry what you majored in?

Gates: Well, chemical engineering is what I finally decided. The engineering part, it sounded a little more exciting.

Steinle: So, what year did you start college?

Gates: In June of 1942, when I was 17.

Steinle: Okay. So, the war was already going on at that time.

Gates: Yes.

Steinle: How did you feel about that? Was it hard to decide, enlisting or going to school?

Gates: Well, I couldn’t, theoretically, I couldn’t go in unless, my age, until I was 18 and I wasn’t. But, like everybody else at that time, I was very interested, I wanted to be in the war, there’s no doubt about it. But, I had a chance to start right into college and it was suggested that we continue that while we had the chance. So, I started in engineering school that June, and went all summer and all fall, and I had completed the first year of chemical engineering at Vanderbilt in Nashville when I turned 18 in January of ’43.

On that day, I went down to the draft board to enlist in the Army. I was afraid that if they drafted me, which they certainly would have, that they might put me in the Navy and I didn’t think I could swim well enough if I got in trouble. But, I knew I could dig a foxhole as well as anybody. So, that was a legitimate thought in an 18-year-old’s mind. Besides that, my dad had been in the trenches in France in the First World War and he was in chemical warfare there. As a matter of fact, he was gassed twice in that, and that may have contributed to his early death just six months after, four months after the war started, right after my birthday as a matter of fact.

But, I wanted to get in and they said, “Well, what are you doing now?”

I said, “Well, I just finished my first year of engineering school at Vanderbilt by going summer and winter.”

I think they probably asked something, were you making good grades, or something, and I said yes. They said, “Well, go home and we’ll call you in about five or six days.”

I said, “Well, okay.”

I didn’t think anything about it. I have to tell you, right then I certainly knew nothing about the Manhattan Project, but it was all related in one way or the other I found out later on. Well, they did call me, and they said, “Okay, we’ve got our hooks in you now, but we want to give you what amounts to a special deferment, a two-way deferment for the convenience of the government. We want you to go back to engineering school and stay there until we call you.”

Well, that was a good idea, because now my dad had just died a year before that, and Mother was left with four sons. My oldest brother was already, he was in college, he had finished two years. Soon after that he had volunteered for the Air Force, but didn’t quality enough to fly, so he wound up with other jobs for about three and a half years, one of which was a research project that he did for the U.S. Army in developing what they called frangible bullets. It’s a little sideline here, but they were bullets that could be shot from a 50-calliber machine gun, and hit a target floating through the air, and it would smudge, so they could see where the bullets had gone through. If it was just a regular bullet, it would go through and you won’t know. That’s what he did. Anyway, I thought maybe after they told me, “Wait until we call you,” it might be five or six or seven weeks or something. I didn’t have any idea. But, it turned out to be nearly a year and a half. So, by continuing to go through college summer and winter, the whole year, when they finally called me in the Summer of 1944, I’d now completed three years of engineering school. I was delighted when they said, “We want you now.”

Now, everybody had to go through basic training and I was assigned to go through infantry replacement training. That was very logical at the time, because we had already landed at D-Day and we were going across Europe as fast as we could and they needed bodies. So, infantry replacement training was the thing for me. Now, this was a 16-week course, and I started early in September of ’44. We were supposed to ship overseas, probably the end of January in ’45. But, because in December that year, about the first week in December, the Battle of the Bulge started. All of a sudden, they needed bodies in a hurry, so they cut our 16-week program back down to 12. We were now scheduled to ship over to Europe about the second or third of January in ’45, and that was fine. We were getting through most of our infantry replacement training and learning to kill and be killed, there was no doubt about it. But, to me, it was very much like, maybe by a little advanced Boy Scout camp, because I loved all of it. I loved the hiking, I loved the camping, I loved taking a machine gun apart and putting it back together in the dark. I loved throwing hand grenades and all this stuff. The one thing I didn’t like, we had to march along and be prepared, and suddenly somebody’d say, “Fix bayonets.”

So, we did, took them out, put them in our rifle and then we attacked a bunch of straw dummies, simulating bayonet fights. That was the one thing that made me feel a little uncomfortable.

Steinle: So, I want you to back up for just a minute. You’re in basic training now in your story, but I want you to think back a couple of years before, before the war, and tell me about how you first became aware that things were changing.

Gates: Well, I distinctly remember starting in about 1936, my mother and dad and my, four of us boys spend two weeks every year up in Wisconsin on an island at a camp. It was paradise to get away from Nashville when it was so hot and humid, to live up there. But, it was late in the summer of 1941, before we had started the war. It was our last trip up there before the war started, and coming back, Mother had arrange to have a surprise stay for us, because my dad’s birthday was during this two weeks, the end of July and the first of August, to stay in the famous Stevens Hotel in Chicago. It overlooked Michigan Avenue and there was not the big park out—there was only a park out, it looked all the way out to the ocean. It was a beautiful place, and we had a room up high overlooking all that. It was about 1:00 in the morning that my dad awakened my older brother and me, Daniel and I, and he said, “Come, I want you to come out to the window with me.”

Well, we got up sleepily and went out to the window and he opened it. And, what we heard was dum-de-da-dum-de-da-dum-dum-dum. It was soldiers marching down Michigan Avenue. Now, this was in July before we went, before Pearl Harbor. I remember my dad saying, “It’s only going to be a short time before we are in the war.”

That was the first inkling I had that we might be. Of course, it was just, December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, shortly after that, that we started the war.

Steinle: So then a few years later, you found yourself in basic training.

Gates: Yes.

Steinle: You thought you were going to be in the infantry.

Gates: Yes.

Steinle: Tell me about what happened next.

Gates: Well, we had gone through all this stuff that I thought was a little bit an advanced Boy Scout camp, and I really enjoyed it. I was only 19 years old and pretty athletic, I guess. We were on our final bivouac now, which was between Christmas and New Years of ’44, because we were going to ship out the next week. We were out in Northern Alabama at the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains. They call them mountains out there. They were high enough so we had snow up there. We were camped out for several days, and I had shared my shelter half with three other kids, and we had made a little tent out of us, and we had pine piles to sleep in and all that. But, I remember distinctly, we had two little candles and we used those for warmth. When that tent was closed up like that, and those candles lighted, we were warm as could be in there. All we had was a blanket roll, but snowing outside.

Steinle: How cold was it, about?

Gates: Oh, it was below freezing anyway. I don’t think it was zero or anything like that, but it was probably in the 20s. Well, at about 4:00 in the morning on December 30th, the sergeant came over to my tent and he said, “Gates, you in there?”

I was, “Yes, Sir.”

We spoke very respectfully to sergeants. “Get your stuff together, you got to go back in.”

Well, immediately I was frightened. “What’s going on, Sarge?”

See, my grandfather now was the only male at home. He had what they called loco parentis. My dad had died. I thought something was happening to him, because he was not in good health. The sergeant said, “I don’t know, just do as your told. Get your stuff together, go over to the mess tent, get some coffee. You got to hike back in in the snow.”

“Sarge, that’s 18 miles.”

He said, “I know, we don’t have any transportation for you, do as you’re told.”

So, I went over there wondering what was going on. When I got over there, there were three other guys with the same suggestion, get your stuff together, you’ve been called back in. Well, that made me think a little bit, maybe there wasn’t anything in particular that was calling for an emergency furlough or something. So, we hiked back in in the snow. When we got back in, we were all in separate areas. My company was separate from theirs. There were about 15,000 soldiers in training down there. So, I went into my barracks room there and laid in the 30th and read and wrote letters and got a good night’s sleep. The next day was New Years’ Eve, and I was continuing to write letters. I got bored and I finally went over to the sarge, and I said, “Hey, do you think you can get the lieutenant to give me a pass to go into Aniston, Alabama to the USO tonight for New Years’ Eve?”

I did. I went in and I had a great time, probably too great a time. But, I finally got bed about 6:00 in the morning on New Years’ Day and fell asleep.

But, at about 2:00 that afternoon, all my buddies came back, and the snow had melted and they were a muddy mess and I was sitting on the edge of my cot with a brand new uniform. “Gates, what’s going on? Where you going? What’s happening.”

I didn’t know. I had no idea. “I’m waiting for orders.”

But then is when I get this feeling I had frequently, the hair rising on the back of my neck, because I knew something—these were band of brother, you’ve heard about that. We had spent 12 weeks now, learning to kill and be killed, and you get very close to guys like that. I knew they were going overseas and I probably was not, but I didn’t know for sure. I got worried about a couple of good friends. One of mine, in particular, had played basketball at the same high school where I played basketball. But, I think I was 14th on a squad of 15, so I didn’t play very much. But, he made All-State. He was 6’6, and his name was Bill Boyd. He was the guide on when we marched as a platoon, carrying the colors for us. It was very impressive. Well, I found out later on that he was killed in Belgium, I think it was, about 20 minutes after he got into action. That was the first one of my buddies that I found out was killed. Most of the rest of them survived, went into different places. I kept in touch with a lot of them for years. But, that was something that made the hair stand on the back of my neck.

Steinle: Yeah.

Gates: Well, anyway, about 5:00 that afternoon, I finally got the orders to get on a train in Aniston, Alabama, and there were about six or seven other guys with me. I was given a bunch of orders to carry with me. Yet when we landed in Penn Station in New York, which is where we went, was met by an officer in a van, and he checked the orders out, “Get in.”

Okay, we did, and we went up to the New York University School of Engineering, up in the Bronx. It’s now the Bronx Community College then, but it’s up on a bluff overlooking the East River, and you could see polo grounds from there and other stuff. Anyway, it’s where the Hall of Fame is. The Hall of Fame is an outdoor colonnade with a bunch of busts of favorite pictures of people there.

We were told to move into Gould Hall, and we had a two-room suite there. I went in and saw there were three double-bunks, and there were six desks. Then I began to meet the other five people who were there. My double-bunk mate was Harvey Willard, who just recently died, but he became a very close friend. He was an undergraduate student in physics at MIT. The next person I met was Dick Reed. I think he was an undergraduate student at Harvard in chemistry. The next person I met was Ken Orbin, who was out at Los Alamos with me eventually. He was an undergraduate mechanical engineer from Penn State. Then, there was Lothrup Jordan, Lo Jordan, and I don’t know what school he was in. Then there was Al Smith and Ray Garimoni. These were my roommates. We all were studying something technical, but none of us were studying electrical engineering. But, that’s what we were assigned to do, take up courses in electrical engineering. It was fun. We enjoyed it. It wasn’t that hard, but it was different, and we had a good time. Had no idea what this was about, but that was all part of the plan, eventually, which got some of us into the Manhattan Project. I’ll get into that later.

But, while we were in New York there from early in January until maybe the middle of May or something like that, we had the freedom of New York. We were all in uniform, we were all privates, and we went down to Times Square where all the activity is whenever we had a chance. I remember particularly, on V-E Day, the minute we heard that Germany had surrendered, we cut classes immediately and got on the subway. We got on the subway at 181st and Jerome Avenue exit, and beat it down to Times Square in a hurry, where there were a million people in there. I remember several things during our stay there that evening, a whole contingent of free French sailors went marching down the middle of Times Square, singing La Marseillaise. A little guy climbed up on a war bond sign and he couldn’t get down. So, mounted policemen on horseback had to come through and take him off of there. It was a wonderful time. It was a little after dark that my friend, Dick Reed, and I decided that we wanted to go over to Staten Island and back, to see what it looked like that night when the Statue of Liberty was lighted for the first time since the war started. Believe me, the hair is right up on the back of my neck now.

Steinle: Ralph, you were just talking about V-E Day, and that is such an important point in history. I want you to go back to the moment you heard about the victory in Europe. What were you doing and what did you think?

Gates: We were in classes at New York University, studying electrical engineering. And, were very intent, when all of a sudden somebody came in and said, “Germany has surrendered.”

One of the first things we thought—I’ll have to tell you that we wondered, we’re probably not going to get in the war. That was a mixed feeling. Of course, just going into war makes you a little fearful, but we wanted to be in it. Here we were studying in school, and it looks like the war was ending. Well, it was in Europe, and we were going to miss out on all this. But, that just was a feeling that we had, but we immediately went down to join all the festivities in Times Square, and I mentioned that to you, I think, that one thing I remember so well was the Marseillaise singing by the French sailors marching down the middle of Times Square. The fact that we went out to see the Statue of Liberty lighted that night for the first time. But, other things we did, we were kids, but Harvey Willard, got on one side of Dick Reed, who was, incidentally, a tall, stately Irish kid, handsome as could be. I got on the other side, and he put on dark glasses and then hooked his arms in ours and we walked down with him as if he were blind. What a honky thing to do, but we did it.

Steinle: Did the girls flock?

Gates: When we got to the curbs, we carefully stepped down, make sure that he stepped up. So, we thought many people thought, “Isn’t that wonderful. The guy’s been harmed in the war and he’s back here and his buddies are helping him get around. Isn’t that nice of them,” and all that.

We had a big time of that, but we didn’t feel guilty about it at all, because it was something that kids do.

Steinle: How did your day end, V-E Day, how did it end for you?

Gates: Oh, after we had gone out, it was dark, and we went out to Staten Island and back on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty lighted for the first time since the war started, that’s where the hair goes up on the neck. We had to go back to the barracks, up to Gould Hall at NYU by midnight. We had to be in bed at midnight and the lights were turned out. So, when we went to sleep, my friend, Harvey Willard, had a little radio that he’d made, being from MIT and stuff. Anyway, he turned that on and we listened to the last war stories, the last stories, of news stories. When they finished all that and they signed off, the last thing they did was to ring the cracked Liberty Bell from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. That was a very emotional time. But, we didn’t say a word and we went to sleep after that.

Steinle: Ralph, you mentioned that you wrote a letter home to your mom describing your experience on V-E Day. Can you share a little bit of that?

Gates: I believe this has been the best couple of days in several years. There has been quite a bit of unusual talk over the radio connected with V-E Day celebrations. I’ve heard some rather bitter remarks from particularly gloomy people, civilians or otherwise, who rave and fume at any sort of joyous exposition at this time. Then, on the other hand, there does exist the few who have gone a little too far in considering the war completely over. Only last fall it seemed that nearly everybody that it was all done but the shooting, or the shouting. Remember that confused character, Drew Pearson? That nearly everybody, including only civilians, they thought the war was about over. These very gloomy persons are generally fighting mad with words over the celebration in England, where it does seem to be felt that the war is over. I don’t blame the English people mean this literally. Over there, a man in the street program from London explained the situation and general feeling very satisfactorily. When asked a simple question, “How do you feel today, that the war in Germany is over?”

He replied, “To me, the war is over. There is work to be done, but it’ll be work without bombs for us.”

The bombs were war to him just as much as the relative fighting was. Why should an American fully understand this feeling, when we’ve only felt half of war? The Englishman said to me, not to the British soldiers, to him the war is actually fighting. To us, it is both fighting and war is actual fighting and civilian sacrifice. Their sacrifice is over, at least physically. He considered these last as rather small in comparison. I can’t blame him in the least for these expressions. However, soon perhaps, his idea of war will be the same as ours. Am I right?

Steinle: So, there is was, V-E Day had already happened, and you were thinking you had missed your chance to get into the war. What happened next?

Gates: Very shortly after that, we were all interviewed by a couple of old guys, they were probably 35 years old, but they civilians. I remember thinking, “What are those guys not doing in uniform?”

Here we were, privates at school. But, they interviewed us all, one-by-one, and as a result of that, about half of us were shipped up to Presque Isle, Maine, where they became associated with the Air Corps. Some of them eventually became chief engineers on the B-29, which was the big new plane. The rest of us, including me, were put on a train and we would up in Knoxville, Tennessee, for some reason. Were met by an officer in a van and he took us out of Knoxville, across the countryside. It was open country until all of a sudden, we came to a sign that said, “Oak Ridge, Tennessee.” Looking beyond that, I saw that it was wonderful activity going there.

Now, my home is in Nashville. It was about 200 miles away. I’d never heard of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was nothing but a crossroads back when I was growing up. But, here it was a big, bustling operation for unknown reasons to me. I was only there one night, but that night, I crossed a little bridge to go over to the mess hall to have some Army chow. A guy came across the other way whom I knew. It was Hugh Richardson, who had graduated in chemical engineering the year before me in Vanderbilt. I said, “My gosh, Hugh, what in the world are you doing in this awful place?”

I remember the words I said. Then I remember his words. He said, “I’m dogged if I know.”

He was in uniform. “I know what I do, but I don’t know what I’m doing.

Now, that was the first time I became acquainted with General [Leslie] Groves’ compartmentalization of everything that went on. He didn’t know what he was doing at Oak Ridge.

But, that night, I was only there one night. I had a great time after dinner. All the girls of Oak Ridge, whom you’ve probably read about in some of the recent stories, were having a dance out on the tennis courts. I had a chance to dance with a few of them. I don’t remember any of them, but it was a great night. But, not unfortunately, but nevertheless, the next day, the next morning I was put on a train with about 20 other guys and we were sealed up in a Pullman car in Knoxville. I mean sealed up. We were not out of it or communicated with anybody for about five days. But, the train left Knoxville and it went on up to, I think it was Louisville, Kentucky. We were switched off our Pullman car to another train that took us over to St. Louis, where we were again switched off and connected to probably what was the original Santa Fe Chief. It was heading west. Now, wonderful, we thought, we’re finally going to get into the war before it’s over. We were going to the west to help the invasion of Japan, I guess, is what we thought it was going to be. All our meals were brought in to us. We were not allowed to have any communication until we finally stopped in this desert spot out in New Mexico, Lamy Junction. The Santa Fe railroad did not, and I don’t think it does now, go through Santa Fe, but Lamy was the station stop nearby. I think they detached our Pullman car and left us there and the Santa Fe Chief went on.

Well, I found out later on, in that stay of five days, there was one guy in our group, who was a corporal. We were all privates. He got off the train at certain stops along the way and made a telephone call. Now, the famous one was Corporal Hull, who did this. He was not on our trip, but he had done it also, and he would ring this number and say, “This is Corporal Hull reporting. My shipment is intact and no one has approached us.”

He said, “Therefore, get back on the train,” which we did.

This was the way that they knew no suspicion had been aroused to what these guys were, how they would know that we were technically trained or not, I don’t know. But, nevertheless, that was, they ruled out the thought of any spying or something on that.

Well, when we, when the Pullman car left us there, we waited about 45 minutes until we saw a bus coming across the desert. A guy came in and picked us up and checked our orders. “What’s going on? Where are we going?”

This is first time I heard that, “Shhh, you’ll find out.”

I heard it the next hour and a half about a dozen times, because we wondering what was happening to us. Well, the first thing that happened is, I saw a sign that said, “Santa Fe, New Mexico.” Now, I’d heard of Santa Fe. I had never been there, but maybe there’s a military base around here somewhere. But, we drive right on through it, and if you’re familiar with that, the Rio Grande River goes up through New Mexico. We followed the Rio Grande River a ways up until we came to Espanola, which was the only place that there was a bridge that was large enough to carry a busload of us at high flood stage. We crossed the river and then went back down the other side until we came to a road, a gravel road, and we turned and went up into the mountains. And very shortly came to a wire fence, where we were checked out by guards.

Steinle: So, what happened after you went through the guard gate?

Gates: Well, that was just a wire fence with a gate and two guards. They checked us out and ushered us through. So, we got through that, and then we went a little further and went over a rise, and then we came to a very prominent gate with a big sign up at the top. It said, “The Los Alamos Ranch for Boys.” When I got inside that, being checked in, I didn’t get out until the war was over. That was the first time I’d ever heard of the Los Alamos ranch, and it was the next day that I was rushed in at 8:00 to the tech area and was given a complete story on what we were there for.

Now, that Los Alamos ranch is interesting, because [J. Robert] Oppenheimer had been raised in Manhattan, and he had asthma or something early on. It wasn’t that, but something that his parents sent him out to Los Alamos Ranch for Boys in the mountains of New Mexico for at least one summer. That’s where he realized how isolated this place was, and convinced General Groves a little later on that this is where we ought to keep all these technically trained scientists to figure out how to make the bomb. I’d like to say where we could sequester them and keep them private. That’s a good word these days. But, anyway, the next morning at 8:00 I reported to the tech area and a guy there, I think it was George Kistiakowsky, who was the head of the implosion device, the Fat Man type bomb. He drew this great big circle on a blackboard and said, “This is why you’re here. We’re making a new type of bomb.”

Now, I want you to remember now that we were young kids and had been hearing about two-ton blockbusters being carried by B-17s to bomb Germany and maybe they could carry two at the most, three of these two-ton bombs at a time. But, with enough planes, 50 planes at a time and several sorties, they were able to destroy towns in Germany with as much as, maybe as much as an atomic bomb did.

But, I think of one town in particular, it was Essen, Germany, which meant something to me recently, because there was a couple that—he’s no longer here—they lived near Park City, where I live. He was a German, and had been a teenager and was conscripted by the German army and he studied anti-aircraft. He was sent to the eastern front where the Russians were coming in, and they had the anti-aircraft guns. They were trying to fire up and knock American planes down, and they finally realized they couldn’t reach the height that we were flying, pretty much 40,000 feet at the time. But, this was in the Spring of ’45, and the Russians were marching as fast as they could. They came in on these guys, these German guys, and they said, “We lowered the anti-aircraft guns and filled them full of shrapnel, and fired point blank at the Russians.”

 They said it was a terrible slaughter. They just came, kept coming and dying until we ran out of ammunition. We thought we were going to be killed or sent to Siberia, but they said, “You’re on your own, we can’t do anything with you. We’re heading for Germany, heading for Berlin.”

He eventually went to an American prisoner of war camp and stayed there until after the war was over, and was sent back. They had big trucks come through that had the towns of Germany on them. When Essen came by, he got in that truck with the other Essen guys, and they went across Germany over to Essen. I remember asking did they stop and did you get to add another American Airlines poster or something. He said, “No, we stopped along the farms and the farmers all took care of us.”

“Well, what was it like when you got back to Essen?”

He said, “It was totally destroyed. There was not one building standing. 

I know when his parents were there, “Were your parents okay?”

He said, “Yes, they were still living, but they were living in the basement of one of the houses.”

We started right away in rebuilding Essen.

Now, I’ve got to tell you one more thing about him. Ted Huntsler was his name. About three years ago, at a celebration in November for what we called Armistice Day in the first World War and Veterans’ Day here, our local newspaper had a celebration for World War II veterans in town. There were about eight or ten of us. They had us all there, and I had tried to get Ted to come join us, but about a month before and about this. He said no, he couldn’t do that. He was on the other side of the fence. He wouldn’t do it. But, the day before we had it, I finally convinced him to come, and I went and picked up Ted, brought him into the meeting and we were at the end of the line, where there were eight others talking five minutes or so about their experiences. We were the last two. So, everybody had come through and he hadn’t spoken a word. When it came his turn to talk, I interrupted and said, “I want to introduce you to my new friend, Ted Huntsler.”

They had no idea where he was from. There was a couple of things about him that are similar, he and I. His dad was in the trenches in the first World War, the same as my dad was. We’re probably the youngest two people, which was true. But, there are things separate. When I returned to my home in Nashville after the war was over, it was untouched. It was beautiful, picturesque. When Ted returned to his home, there was not a stone left standing. I remember some of them say, “Was there an earthquake or something like that?” 

Then I said, “I want to introduce you to my friend, Ted Huntsler, who was a German war veteran, who lives there now.

They were all astounded. Ted had tears down his eyes when I said, “He doesn’t think he was on the right side of the fence, but he does want to come.”

Well, of these eight people there, four of them were with the 8th Air Force, and they had bombed Essen to smithereens. This was a very moving time for Ted. He had tears running down his face when he felt accepted by this. Anyway, that was an interesting story.

Now, I’ll get back to what happened in Los Alamos after they’d told me this big bomb they were building, after I had been thinking about two-ton blockbusters being dropped on Japan and doing all of this damage. He said, “We’re building a new type of bomb that’s the equivalent to more than 2,000 tons of TNT in one bomb.”

Well, thinking of that in two-ton blockbusters, I think, in today’s vernacular, I probably would’ve said, “Yeah, right.”

But, I was a 19-year-old smart-aleck, I guess. But, I was assigned then to go out to S site, which is no longer there. It was destroyed in a fire about, yeah, 2000, just 10 or 15 years ago. I was assigned to that to work on casting the high explosive shape charges that surrounded plutonium in the core of the Fat Man bomb, the one that was dropped on Nagasaki.

You probably will recall that we had two types of bombs. The uranium bomb, which was a very simple device, in which cores of uranium were propelled by explosive charges to run into each other, and that was enough to cause compression and create the critical reaction, chain reaction. But, you couldn’t do that with plutonium. Plutonium was something that doesn’t occur naturally, but we’d learn how to make it, and we had, by taking the part of uranium that was not fissionable. There’s 235, which is fissionable and 238 which is not. It’s like 150 parts of the 238, which is not useful, to one part of the 235. You can see why the separation of that to get enough took a lot of centrifuges that we hear about—

Steinle: That was Oak Ridge’s work.

Gates: —in Iran. Well, we had other devices to do it, but it was a big job separating enough 235 to get enough for a bomb. Matter of fact, in the war when we bombed, that was the only uranium 235 bomb they had. The others were made with plutonium, which we took the 238 part that’s not fissionable, and we ran it through a process up at Hanford, Washington, where they bombarded it with neutrons and converted the 235 to 239, which decomposed a little bit into plutonium. Now we had a reasonably total amount of plutonium to do whatever we wanted to.

But, the new bomb, the plutonium, if you tried to use it in the explosive part where you propelled uranium, it could not withstand the propelling charge and it would pre-detonate it before it got together, so they had to develop a whole new system. That led to the big round Fat Man, in which in the center was the plutonium with some other stuff to make it go. Then they surrounded all that with high explosive charges, shape charges, which when they were set off on, I think, 32 different points around the big sphere, the shock wave would come in equally from all of those, and it would compress the plutonium in the middle and cause it to go critical. It did work.

But, the tricky part of this was what I was helping to do. We were casting what they called high explosive lenses, which were necessary to convert the shockwave from the detonation point on the top of the bomb, which was concave like this, like when you put a pebble in the water, it’s concave. You had to turn this out to where it was this so it could compress the plutonium in the middle. That was the unique thing called implosion.

Steinle: Ralph, you were just talking about your job, your primary job was to cast shape charges. Can you just explain how you did that?

Gates: Yes. First of all, we had a sugar kettle like this, what sugar products are melted in, except we put TNT in there and melted it. Now, fortunately, it melted less than the boiling point of water, so we could use hot water to control the temperature in there, but we were also advised that you don’t want this to get overheated. I think someone said it had a, it would detonate itself if it got up to about 220 degrees Fahrenheit or something. Well, we never had any of that trouble. But, just in case we had trouble, S site was on a mesa, a little ways out from where the tech area was. They built great big berms, I guess you call them, around us so that if we had an explosion, all the explosion would go up and not do any collateral damage elsewhere. It was part of the reason for this.

I remember the first night I was in there, the guys who had been there preceding this had developed the protocol for doing this thing without much difficulty. I was a young college kid, I was given a job that they didn’t particular like. After the shift, we had to take high pressure steam and go around and steam the floor to melt any little bits of TNT that might’ve gotten around and down into a sluiceway, where it was collected. Well, they knew this was going to happen, and I was merrily sluicing away and all of a sudden, I got a little bit of this TNT under the heel of my boot and went “bing!” It really scared the daylights of me, but it made all the other guys laugh, and it was fun. But, we never had an accident of any explosion in there.

But, these castings we made were of two kinds. One was just solid TNT, which immediately surrounded the plutonium in the middle. When the shape charge had been converted for this to this, and that was done by what we call lenses. The lens was shaped about like this, and it was all TNT except for a cone in the middle, which was TNT mixed with barium nitrate, I think it was, which slowed down the burning rate, slowed down the explosion rate really. So, when this shock wave started out like this, it got down to the point of this cone, that part slowed down and the outside part continued on so when it got down about here, that shape charge had been converted from this to this. Then below this was all pure TNT once the shape charge was right, and it went in and compressed the plutonium and the other things that were in the center to make it go critical.

Now, I’d just like to say one thing about this plutonium in the middle. When I’ve given my talk, I like to start it out trying to impress people a little bit, I have a grapefruit in my hand. I say, “This is a story of show and tell. I’m going to tell you the story, but this is a show. This thing that you probably think is a grapefruit, it is really a hunk of plutonium in drag. This is a little bit less than 14 pounds of plutonium, that’s all, a little less. This was in the heart of the Nagasaki Fat Man type bomb.”

That’s all that was in there, a mixture of other stuff, but all there was of plutonium. Well, a little less than 14 pounds, and that sounds pretty small to destroy the town of Nagasaki, which it did. But, when the critical mass was reached, and this thing started to explode, it cut off the chain reaction immediately, such that they figure only 1.7 pounds of plutonium was actually converted back into pure energy, according to Einstein’s equation of e=mc2. So, 1.7 pounds of solid material, which was converted to pure energy, was enough to destroy Nagasaki. Because of the other part of it that was not converted to pure energy, the other radiation killed thousands more from radiation after the bomb. But, most people find it quite interesting that something like that was all there was to destroy something.

Steinle: So, you had mentioned that your friend who was at Oak Ridge didn’t know what the purpose of his work was day-to-day, but it sounds like you were given a lot of information about what your day-to-day work was for. Can you clarify? Did you know everything or was there compartmentalization at Los Alamos and some people didn’t know what was going on? Or, what was your level of knowledge?

Gates: Well, essentially, there was no compartmentalization at Los Alamos. That’s why they wanted us young kids who were nothing but laboratory assistants to the famous scientists to know all about everything. That’s why we were electrical, we studied electrical engineering, but we were chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, we had to know the story of why electrical engineering was so important. And, it was extremely important, because this detonation thing, 32 points around this sphere had to go off exactly the same time. That’s why we were studying, but we were all acquainted what the whole overall program was once we got inside the gate of Los Alamos. Oppenheimer would not let Groves do what he first wanted to do, compartmentalize everything. He said, “You can’t compartmentalize these scientists and expect that they’re going to together and create this thing and make it work.”

But, out at Oak Ridge, or even, I think at Hanford as well, they were very compartmentalized, but we were not. I knew what was going on as everybody else did.

Steinle: Did you ever meet Groves or Oppenheimer?

Gates: I never met Groves directly. He was out there to give us a commendation driven talk and something like that, but I didn’t see him there very much. But, Oppenheimer was there all the time. He was the general manager, and I knew him. I think I knew him as Dr. Oppenheimer, but I had no idea of what he had done. I found out later on, I think he was the one that came up with the concept of the black hole, that wonderful thing in physics. But, he was a good manager, and I did meet him, because one day we were having lunch out at S site in our little GI cafeteria out there. In came Dr. and Mrs. Oppenheimer to have lunch with the boys. He was doing a thing a good manager did, he wanted to know how we were doing and congratulate us on what we’re doing. That’s where I had lunch with Oppenheimer.

Steinle: Did you ever come across any people at Los Alamos who were later known to be spies?

Gates: I didn’t, and I certainly thought that the compartments I had been that it was doubtful to me that we had any spies there. But, and when I was, when we were being discharged, there was a discharge counseling, they gave us things we should never say. The word implosion, I remember, was one. You never let that word cross your lips. The implosion concept was totally secret. However, two years later, when I was rooming with my friend, Hugh Richardson, whom I had met at Oak Ridge, and he told me what he had been working on, he found out later on, too. I opened up a copy of Life Magazine. This may have been 1947 or 1948, and there was a total spread, description of this plutonium type bomb, describing it and picturing it, how it worked and everything, all the stuff that I had been told never to let cross my lips. I never had. Anybody asked me what I did, “Oh, I was just a GI doing what I was told,” that’s how I described it, which was true, but nevertheless, I did know.

But, I found out then that Klaus Fuchs and maybe [David] Greenglass and [Julius] Rosenberg, some of the others, but particularly Klaus Fuchs, had given all the information of this implosion type bomb to Russia before we exploded the first one. Before I even knew about it, he knew about it. But, his story is interesting. He was a German, but he was a communist, and that was as bad to Hitler as Jews were, and he felt he had to escape from Germany and he did. I think he went maybe through Denmark, but he wound up in England. He was a prominent physicist, and he worked up there at the Cavendish lab, or something. But, he eventually found his way, wound up as a very respected member of the senior scientists at Los Alamos. The people all loved him. He was a lot of fun. They had tremendous parties and he was a good part of this. Well, all the time, he wanted to make sure that Russia was able to defeat Germany, because he was communist, and this was his thinking, as I understand it, anyway, for giving this information to Russia, to help defeat Germany. But, when they found out two years after the war that he was the spy that had done it, they arrested him and they convicted him of spying in England, and he went to jail, I think, for three or four years. But, he did not get executed like Greenglass and others did.

Steinle: So, based on what you said, you were very clear on the purpose of your work. Can you talk a little bit about what a typical day in the life was like there? How much did you work, what all did you do? Was there anything social going on? Are there any other stories you remember?

Gates: Well, before the war ended, every morning I got up at the barracks, which was at the main location of Los Alamos, and got on the jeep with explosives and rode out to where S site was, checked in and we started our work casting these things. I think for a while, there early, we may have run two shifts doing this. But, maybe it was only one. But, anyway, I was a junior member, and I told you about the job I had of sweeping up the stuff, but also Mr. Popham, who was civilian office manager there, gave me a little job with a 3×5 metal card case, in which there were cards. Every time we had made enough of these castings to complete another bomb, I had another card entry in my little card case. I knew exactly how many bombs we were capable of putting together. Of course, when the war ended, we stopped immediately making them. Because, whoever thought we would ever need to make another bomb that in itself could destroy a whole city. It made no sense. There would never be that again. But, so I knew how many we had made.

Well, I gave this talk to the high school and one of the young ladies there, “When you stopped making them, how many did you have?”

Well, I thought of what she’d been thinking about, everybody at this time has 2,000 bombs or 500 or something. I said, “Well, how many do you think?”


I said, “No, we had made a grand total of seven bombs, that’s all. The first one was uranium. We never made any more of those, and the next six were all this plutonium bomb, with which I worked. We dropped one on, at test, no, we didn’t drop it, we exploded it down in New Mexico to make sure that this type of technique, which was very critical, would work. It did, so the next bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and Japan surrendered. That left four.”

Well, then she said, “What happened to those?”

I said, “I know about two of them, because they were taken several months later down to the South Pacific to test their effects on Navy vessels. One was exploded above the vessels. The other was exploded under water below the vessels. And say, by the way, any of you girls have bikinis?”

Well, that got a lot of titters that this old goat asked you, I think I was 86 or 7 at the time, asking if—well, I said, “I don’t know what you did, but I know your mothers did anyway. I’ll tell you what happened. Those bombs were exploded down at a little group of islands called the Bikini Atolls down in the South Pacific. It was not too long after that a very sharp Frenchman designed the itsy bitsy teensy weensy yellow polka dot bikini. He called it that, because it was so explosive.”

That’s a true story, by the way.

Steinle: Did you ever have any doubt about whether you would be successful?

Gates: I never had any doubts about my part of it in casting these explosives, charges, because they were tested by high-speed X-rays to make sure they were solid and not holes in something like that. We knew they would explode. Now, whether that would cause the chain reaction to start when, that’s what I didn’t know. Well, that’s why we tested it down at Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Steinle: Did you see that test?

Gates: No, I was not one of those sufficiently high up in the hierarchy to go down there.

Steinle: Where were you when they tested the bomb, and did you know or hear anything about it?

Gates: Oh, I knew where it was going. Several of the old-timers who were up there, they climbed up the middle of the night to a high mountain out near Via Grande, near Los Alamos, thinking that they would see the explosion, and they did. It was like a couple of hundred miles away, but it was in the early dawn. It was really still night, and they did see it. But, I was asleep in bed. I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t see that.

Steinle: So, as you said, when you originally enlisted, you were wanting to hit the battlefield, and now you’ve found yourself working on the bomb. How did you feel about not being on the front line?

Gates: It was a little bit unsatisfactory. I wrote a poem that kind of expressed my feelings with some others to help me write this thing. It was written in July after the bomb had been exploded in Alamogordo and we knew it was going to work, but before we had dropped it on Japan. It was in that time that we were musing, here we are on something like this. Nobody knows what we’ve been doing and we aren’t out fighting. What were we really contributing the war effort. I did write a little poem about that, which I’d like to read. It won’t take long.

Steinle: Please share it.

Gates: I called it, “Los Alamos Lament.” It was written in July of 1945, in between that. 

“I’m just a PO Box number. I have no real address.

Although we were selected, I wonder for the best.

We’re not like other people, no one knows what we do.

So, PO Box 180, here’s to you.

They put us on a mountain outside of Santa Fe,

Where the only signs of wildlife are GI bulls at bay.

We’re on a secret mission, and secret work we do.

And, when folks ask us what we do, ‘I don’t know, do you?’

And, when this war is over down from this hill we’ll roam.

We’ll ride down from the Shangri-La right to a veteran’s home.

So, heed my words, you children, of brilliance do not boast,

Or you’ll wind up as we have, up in Los Alamos.”

But, this did express the sentiment. We were not totally satisfied with what we had done. When the war in Europe was over, we thought we were going now finally to get into the action in Japan. But, now here we were doing fun work or work up in the mountains that was very important, but nobody knew what we were doing was important. That made us feel a little bit less important, I guess. So, that was what was in this. We were hesitant about being so happy about that we were there.

Steinle: So, I imagine that may have changed, though. Tell me about—

Gates: Oh, my.

Steinle: —the moment you heard about the bomb being dropped in Japan. Where were you, what were you thinking, what were you feeling?

Gates: We were exuberant, and I can tell you that I had wonderful feelings about the war being over. People have asked me did I think this was the right thing to do, and they think about 50 years later about all the people were killed in the bomb and all that, the terrible stories. Was it the right thing to do? Well, I have an answer for that. When you say right, the converse is wrong, it’s what you’re looking for. But, I don’t look at it that way as a moral thing. I look at it as a mathematical thing. Was it correct or incorrect? That really stops them. It may have been morally wrong to do after all, killing somebody for any reason, according to the Bible its wrong. But, it was mathematically correct, because we save the lives of hundreds of thousands of both Americans and Japanese soldiers. So, that really usually ends that discussion. I hope it does.

But, I was very much happy about this, because of where I lived in Nashville, there were gold star mothers in houses all around us. My mother, with four kids, did not have a gold star at the window, which means somebody had died. Harry Denman, on the immediate left, was a Marine, the toughest guy I had ever known, he survived Guadalcanal, but was killed at the next engagement at Tarawa. Bill Hager across the street landed, I think, at D-Day, was badly injured, but survived. Johnny Ozier, immediate to the right, was on a B-17 run and did not return to base. Johnny Ozier [misspoke identity unknown], who was immediately behind me, incidentally, was a Golden Glove boxer and he tried to get me to be a sparring partner, which lasted one time. But, he was killed at D-Day. And, across the street, three houses down was John Manchester, who was about my age, who turned out as a Navy aviator off a carrier, just like George Bush Sr. was. He didn’t return to his plane, to the carrier. He was lost at sea. It was probably during the engagement at Midway, which was really the turning point in the battle in the Pacific, if you know about that story. But, these five gold-star mothers were all around us, and we didn’t have one in our window. And, that causes a degree of emotions.

Steinle: I want you to think back to the moment that you heard that the bomb worked successfully over Hiroshima. Where you doing and what were you thinking?

Gates: I’d already gone out to S site to continue our work that day. But, we listened to the radio every morning at 8:00 when the shift started. We heard that news that Harry Truman announced a bomb had, a new bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and that started the whole thing. We just exploded with cheering. But, we still were at work. We continued casting the implosion type bombs then and we kept that going until Japan surrendered after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima about two or three days later, when Japan surrendered. That’s when we stopped work. That’s when—but when the first word came about Hiroshima, we were starting to work that day on the shift, in the morning.

Steinle: So, when you heard about Japan’s ultimate surrender, and you knew the war was really over, tell me about that moment.

Gates: Well, that’s when all these thoughts went on about my friends and neighbors, who had been killed. The war was over, and we would never have war again. I wrote a letter home. I’d like to read a little bit, a part about it. That’s when I was able to tell my mother what was going on. Just a second, let me do this. Here that one is. This was August 7. PO Box 180, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Steinle: What year?

Gates: “Dear Mom: Well, at least you know approximately what goes on up here. I guess by now the cat is completely out of the bag. You know of the little yo-yo we’re making. It’s quite a destructive thing as Japan should know. Ever since that day in July 16, when the first bomb was exploded in the desert of Southern New Mexico, everyone here on the hill has known what was coming. You can understand now why such a device was guarded so closely, why not one of us dared mention it off the area and why all of our mail was surrendered. It must certainly be true that there can never be another war. However, I think one side of this subject has been forgotten, or at least slighted. It’s not just because destruction would be universal, but more positive because construction can be worldwide. An accumulation of unlimited power for the good should erase economic reasons for wars. It is not likely that wars could begin for any other reason.”

Then the next day, Russia announced they were joining the war. The second bomb had been dropped next. “This new bomb may sound inhuman, but the relatively few people who have been fortunate enough to have worked on the project and to have known in advance what was up, would be sorely disillusioned if the American people or any part of them should be able to face the fact that this thing will mean peace forever, even with the cost of thousands of Japanese lives. Let us pray it will never be necessary to use any more, even on our enemy. However, if Japan should doubt our intentions and refuse to give unconditional surrender, Japan may well be completely obliterated.”

That was before they did surrender. Fortunately, they did.

Steinle: So—

Gates: What a relief.

Steinle: What a relief. It’s interesting that at that stage in your life and that stage of imminent victory, you felt like there would be no need for wars.

Gates: Right, absolutely.

Steinle: That you had demonstrated might such that no one would need to do that again.

Gates: It was inconceivable that anybody would do that.

Steinle: Fast forward to Ralph Gates today, what would you say, what message do you have for the younger generation today, of maybe what they should be prepared for, or what they should make their priority?

Gates: I would not be critical of them, but I would say that I was very naïve. We thought that we had done something that would bring peace to the world, because such potential destruction was inconceivable. Now, after the war, when Russia had this, they built atomic bombs and we had the Cold War. But, as you look back on the Cold War, in my opinion, there was never a chance that Russia would drop a bomb on us, because we would drop a bomb on them. These guys were atheists. They didn’t have religion telling them that if they dropped a bomb on us, who were infidels, and they might get bombed in retaliation, that’s the way we would go to heaven quickly. You know what I’m referring about. There are evil people in the world, who do things for whatever reason, and there’s nothing worse than having religion be guiding what people do solely. It leads me to tell people today that they should be aware that there are people who could bring about destruction such as this, however inconceivable it may be to us and horrible it would be if people were killed because of their religion, because they wouldn’t convert to some other religion.

That, clearly, can happen. When we have the statement being made just in the last four or five days by the head of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, who worked for the Supreme Dictator there, Khomeini, when he said, “During these negotiations that are going now, there is one thing that’s utterly not negotiable.”

That’s what he’s saying. That’s the elimination of Israel from the face of the earth. Now, how we can negotiate with something like that facing us is difficult, and I think young people should realize that until something like that is changed, and in my opinion, it would take a reformation is the Islam faith, to separate church and state so that the people whom I think would feel much like we, don’t want this. But, if they’re told by they have to do that, we’ve got to separate the church from the state. This happened to Christianity with our reformation. There used to be the Holy Roman Empire with their own army, which did lots of things during the, in the earlier years when we marched against Islam. These were promoted by religion. But, we’ve had, in our Western culture, have had a separation of church and state, where the people, not the church dictates what the ultimate goals are. Until that reformation happens in Islam, we’re not going to have peace as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s well for young people today, at least to listen to somebody who’s an old fogey, who has seen a lot and has been concerned about a lot, and was naïve when I was 19 years old, to realize that there is evil in the world and that has to be stopped in some way.

I have one thing that is important to me. I have quite a few pictures of the other kids, the young men who were involved with me in SED, and I have one particular that shows us—we didn’t have enough points to get out after the war, because we’d not been in combat, we’d not been overseas. There was a selection based on the number of points. We didn’t get discharged for ten months after the war was over. But, a bunch of us, when we finally made it, we took a train down to San Antonio and were discharged at Fort Sam Houston. I remember that day in July, it was 108 degrees. We’d been issued brand new uniforms to go home with. They still had the sizing in them, they had never been washed, and we sweltered. But, that night, we made a trip to the Riverwalk in San Antonio, if you remember this. It’s a famous spot along the river, where it’s cool at night and so forth. I think this was just after it had been built. We congregated down there and I’ve got a picture of about seven or eight of us sitting around like this, drinking beer and relishing the fact we’re out of the Army and the next day we headed for home.

Steinle: That just must have been an amazing feeling, to be—

Gates: Oh, it was.

Steinle: —young at that time.

Gates: Incidentally, on the way home, I stopped for one night on Bourbon Street in New Orleans on the way back to Nashville. But, I did get back home, eventually.

Steinle: That’s good to know.

Gates: But, we were 20, 21 years old, something like that, and we had played an important part, I think, in helping the scientists after they’d figured out how to do this, to put the things together and do it right. Some of the names, these were names that I, of the group you saw here, but also people at the barracks. We had our own basketball team and we did all sorts of things together. We went fishing. I’ll just read some of them. Well, Dellinbaugh is one. The basketball team that I played on, we were called Dell’s Bells, and Dellinbaugh was the head guy. We weren’t the best, but we could be good. Then there was Don Harris and Walter Peck, Shorty Marsh, a fellow named Trap, Johnny Tempka played basketball with me, Frank Houser, Mel Salisbury, Willard Bloom, who was out at S site, and Joe Velash who is in this picture of us during discharge, Robert Curin, who’s in that picture, Bob Mallory, Jake Newman, Jim Olshoe , William Waterbury and Carl Ziegler. These are all names of my buddies and my band of brothers at Los Alamos anyway.

Steinle: Ralph, you’ve got an interesting pin on your lapel there. What is that?

Gates: Oh, well, that was the arm patch that Special Engineering Detachment in the Army had, and it’s been made into a pin. That’s a picture, supposedly, of the atom bomb breaking, the fission of the atom bomb. This was our pride and joy.

Steinle: Ralph Gates, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and memories with the rest of us.

Gates: Thank you very much for having me. It was an exciting time.

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.