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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Walter Goodman’s Interview

Walter Goodman was recruited into the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos in 1943. Goodman worked as an electrical engineer on the implosion bomb and helped design equipment to measure the efficiency of an atomic blast. In July 1945, Goodman deployed to Tinian Island to help prepare the Fat Man bomb to be dropped on Japan. On August 9, 1945, he witnessed the bombing of Nagasaki from the instrumentation aircraft The Great Artiste and took motion pictures of the mushroom cloud above the city. In this interview, he recounts the Nagasaki mission and describes the disagreement between American and foreign-born scientists at Los Alamos about sharing information about atomic weapons.

Date of Interview:
April 9, 2022
Location of the Interview:


Walter Goodman: My name is Walter Goodman and I was born in 1922, which is a very long time ago. I was particularly interested in engineering and in the military from the time I was a young boy. When I did get into the service, I ended up continuing in school, and finished electrical engineering.

I’d gone to Princeton and to Rutgers. In my senior year, I was asked to report to a conference room in school, and there I met two individuals who wouldn’t give me their name or what they were doing. Apparently, I was up in the upper part of my class. Lo and behold, they gave me no information but did tell me that they had a project that was being worked on at this time. They wouldn’t tell me what the project was. I also couldn’t discuss it once I left the room. They had my assurance that whatever was discussed in this room would not leave the room. The project location was not disclosed; the purpose of the project was not disclosed. The only information I got was the project was interesting and unique, and if I was interested to let them know. If not, I could leave and forget the whole thing. Well, this was intriguing. They couldn’t tell you where, why, or how, but it’s interesting. So naturally, I said yes.

A couple of months later, I got a railroad ticket and orders to report to an engineer detachment in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So I got on a train at, I think it was Trenton, and after three days, I ended up in Lamy, New Mexico and took a bus to Santa Fe. And nobody in Santa Fe that I could find knew anything about an engineer detachment. I roamed around the streets of Santa Fe, and finally ended up with a little old lady at the traveler’s aid station who kept my bags for me and sent me to the second floor office of one of the small buildings in downtown Santa Fe. They checked my name and my identification and my appearance and made a phone call and apparently, I fit all the requirements that they were looking for.

I waited for about an hour, following instructions. In about an hour, a staff car appeared at the entrance to this building, and I loaded my things into the staff car and we went off on what was then a one-lane road going up into the mountains bordering Santa Fe. Nothing was said in the car. It was quiet and peaceful. We came to the first barricade where the sentry called, got my ID and my appearance and called in. Then we went on to the second gate and then the third gate.

By this time, I was thoroughly exhausted because we were up around six or seven thousand feet and I’d been traveling for three days. But I had a chance to rest up and the next day, I was briefed on what we were doing. Fortunately, I was assigned to a group who needed an electrical engineer at that time to design equipment, and so I got involved originally with a gentleman by the name of Bernard Waldman. And then, I met the rest of the team, which was Larry Johnston and Luis Alvarez and later, Harold Agnew.

Cindy Kelly: What year was this?

Goodman: I can’t remember exactly. I think it was ’43. Ultimately, I ended up with meeting many of the people who were on the project. I met Mr. [Edward] Teller – Dr. Teller, excuse me. In the group meetings, I met many others. I did some work with Norman Ramsey at that time. Let’s see. Well, I’ll give you some photographs of the group that we went overseas with. What else do you want to know?

Kelly: While you were at Los Alamos, were you working on an implosion device?

Goodman: We were working mostly on testing equipment that went with the other groups. For example, on testing, most of my work was with the Fat Man. I didn’t get involved at all with Little Boy. This was a totally new concept of a weapon. So first, we had to determine whether this new construction of a weapon was going to stay together when it went up to a very low temperature – it was a great deal of vibration – and then dropped from a plane. Would the thing fall apart? Would it stay together?

So the first thing we did was run shake tests. First, we ran shake tests with dummy concrete lenses and then, they produced HE [high-explosive] lenses to see if they would work. So we went off into the woods close to Los Alamos and set up shake tables to see if Fat Man was a viable weapon.

And then, we had to run cold tests. We ran the cold tests first by dry ice and a coal box. Then we ran the cold test in the bomb bay of B-29s. We’d fly over target areas like Salton Sea Naval Air Station. Then we started dropping them to see what the trajectory would be.

So when that end of the project was finished, it was decided to design telemetering equipment, because nobody really wanted to stand by and see how efficient the bomb was. Between the physicists who were in this group and myself, we designed the telemetering equipment, which was located some on the ground and some dropped from the aircraft, to radio back just how efficient the detonation was going to turn out. Those were my primary projects.

Kelly: You say you knew Edward Teller?

Goodman: Yes.

Kelly: What was he like?

Goodman: I found him to be a very positive person in his views, very logical. There was a conflict that existed at the project between the American-born physicists and mathematicians and the foreign-born. I remember something that Teller said very clearly. There was a view from the American scientists that this would be the end of war. There would be no more wars, the world would be a peaceful, harmonious world to live in, and we wouldn’t need any more weapons. And we should therefore disclose all the information which we had to the world in general.

Well, Teller and many of the other foreign-born scientists were very much opposed to this. I remember Teller – I can’t quote it exactly: “You people have been born into a society which has three thousand miles of ocean on one side and ten thousand miles on the other side. If you lived in a country where you wouldn’t know who was the owner of your district – when you went to sleep at night, who was going to run it in the morning – you would think differently. If you didn’t know if your neighbors were friendly or hostile, you’d also think differently.”

So that was a conflict, that the foreign-born scientists wanted to retain total secrecy, wanted to retain total superiority, and wanted to prevent any other nation from producing – or even experimenting – with this weapon. Which at that time, we could’ve done very readily. But they didn’t have much success. I remember somebody came up with a term, “Pax Americana,” that we were going to retain the peace of the world. I can’t remember who.

So that was the major difference. Of course, there were differences in the different technologies that were planned.

Kelly: Did you have a sense that you were racing against the Germans in trying to–?

Goodman: I don’t ever remember any conversation on racing. We were trying to race to get the thing done because the earlier that it was done, the fewer American lives would be lost. That I remember. As a matter of fact, at least our team had a program where we worked every day of the month, except the one day when we had a chance to go down to Santa Fe and take a shower [Laughter].

Kelly: When you said you were out in the woods – do you remember, was that S-Site?

Goodman: I don’t remember the sites. I have photographs of some of the things but I don’t remember what the site was. I don’t know that the sites were even numbered at that time. I remember we had to run power lines out to the site where we ran the cold test and the vibration test. That was my first contact with General Groves.

Kelly: Oh, tell me about that.

Goodman: Well, it was cold, I remember that, and it was snowing. And in order to run the shake test, the vibration test, and in order to run the cold test, we needed electric lines out there to run the equipment. I didn’t even know about this, but all the electrical work was supposed to be done by a union electrician. I put in a work order to get the lines drawn from the power plant to the place where we needed it. Because it was snowing and cold, the union manager decided not to send the men out, so that the lines were not being constructed.

So I arranged to get the wire and the necessary equipment and pole climb equipment to draw the lines ourselves. A bunch of the military people and I went out there and erected the three-phase lines. And just about the time we were completed, the union manager came by and wanted to know what we were doing. I told him, “Well, you wouldn’t do it and therefore, we had to do it. We had a deadline and we want to make the deadline.” Well, he had a fit and he told me in no uncertain terms that that was a union job and we were taking away a union job. We just completed the job and went ahead with the work we were supposed to do.

I got a message from General [Leslie R.] Groves to meet him for breakfast. And so this was my first meeting. He was very nice. He apparently had the complaint from the union manager. After the conversation back and forth for a little while, he said, “Well, I probably would’ve done exactly what you did, but don’t get me in trouble with a union strike out here.” He said, “Just be a little more careful.”

Kelly: Oh, that’s great.

Goodman: So that was my first contact with the good General. I had a contact with him later where he was recruiting people for the Bikini [nuclear weapons test] program. Since I was probably the only one left in the telemetering group that was still around, he wanted me to go overseas to set up the instrumentation. I hadn’t given him an answer because I hadn’t spoken with my wife. So I was again asked to see him in the office and once I knew what my answer was, I said, “I have to talk with my wife and get her approval.”

He said, “When are you going to do that?”

I said, “Well, wait until this evening and I’ll call her when I get back to quarters.”

He said, “There’s the phone, call her.” [Laughter]

He didn’t mince words. He was very positive and very direct in everything, at least in my contact with him.

Kelly: Do you think he made a tremendous difference in the project?

Goodman: Oh, yes. He went through channels except when he was faced with a strike or basically when he needed someone. He would go through channels. I think he made a big difference.

Kelly: What about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer?

Goodman: Very gentle soul. As a matter of fact, I had some dealings with him after the war was over. The people who really had dealings with him were crazy about him, especially the women [Laughter]. I don’t ever remember him losing his temper. He had the respect of everybody up there, and I would imagine that many of the people were there just because he recruited them. He didn’t agree with the concept of a Pax Americana. He was one of those who thought that the world was going to be a safe and peaceful place from there on. So he disagreed with Teller tremendously, and disagreed with most of the foreign scientists. I was always on the side of the foreign scientists.

Kelly: Tell us about how you got to Nagasaki.

Goodman: Our group was flown overseas, so we flew from Albuquerque to a small airport in San Francisco on a DC-3, or a C-47 at that time. I can’t think of the name of the airport now. I remember it was very close to the bridge. There, we picked up survival gear, and the core of Fat Man was in a ribbed aluminum container with a handle on it, which we carried with us. We stayed at this San Francisco airport for I guess about five or six hours. When we got everything we needed, we transferred to a C-54 and started overseas. We made a stop at Johnston, at Hawaii, and at Kwajalein before we got to Tinian. Most of the time, we were discussing what we were going to do, or played bridge on the floor of the aircraft, or on the top of the containers that were strapped down to the floor of the aircraft.

We were going over there to calibrate the telemetering equipment, which we had designed and built back at Los Alamos. At that time when we were going over there, the only successful explosion was the Fat Man in the desert. So we didn’t know if the Japs were going to surrender or if they would continue to fight. Since there were five of us, it was a question of who’s going to go on each mission. So we drew straws – well, we didn’t have any straws, though. If I remember correctly, Larry Johnston got some matches and broke one off in two, and so we drew matches instead of straws. Luis Alvarez got number one and I got number two and so on down. I think Bernie Waldman got number three – I can’t remember. So that was the way we assigned the missions.

I also remember a conference with General [Carl] Spaatz and we had four of the Air Force generals – well, the Air Corps generals at that time. One of them made some comment that we were a bunch of civilians and we would be seriously damaged by any enemy activity. Actually, we weren’t civilians, but they weren’t so sure as they knew we didn’t have any military training. So he was concerned about our welfare.

One of the general officers, after it was explained to him how the weapon worked, said, “Well, it’s never going to work so we’re just wasting our time.”

While we were waiting, we had some practice missions to some of the Jap-held islands that were close by. We didn’t participate in any of these practice missions because there was nothing to telemeter. I mean, there was nothing to measure, so we didn’t go. But we were required to get all our work done, and working in a strange location to calibrate the equipment took a little bit of time. Once it was calibrated, it was easily handled.

Kelly: What do you remember about the very day of your mission? What was that like? How did you feel? What happened?

Goodman: Very sleepy [Laughter]. The mission starts at about 3:00 in the morning. We’d had breakfast, an early breakfast. Went into the briefing area where the flight crews and the scientific personnel were all gathered. Each one of the briefing officers completed his section of it. It was mostly for the flight crews, because we knew what we were going to do. Then we had a chaplain come in and tell us that “Those of you who will not return are blessed.” [Laughter] But I think we planned to return.

We took off. It was still dark, because it must’ve been about an hour later when we first saw the sun rising. Everybody had a job to do, and they did their job. Because of the missions that our group was involved in, I took some motion picture cameras. I had all these motion picture cameras with me for the drop tests at the Salton Sea.

Oh, we also had to test the bomb releases, I forgot about that. Because we didn’t have any domestically made bomb releases for that size bombs, so that was another part of our project.

Getting back to the mission: there were two planes on the mission, the plane carrying the weapon and the plane carrying the telemetering equipment. There was supposed to be a third plane, a naval plane that was supposed to do the photography. The primary target was not Nagasaki; the primary target was Kokura. There was no question about maintaining radio silence. So first we tried to rendezvous with the naval plane, which never did show up. We made two passes over Kokura, and didn’t find an opening. The flight crew had instructions not to use a radar bombsight for dropping the weapon.

So it was decided to go on to a secondary target. I remember somebody [Laughter] saying, “Let’s get moving because we don’t have that much fuel left.” So they moved, they just went on to Nagasaki and they made one pass. Again, it was about eight-tenths covered. And at that time, flak started coming up, and you could see the puffs of flak lower than the airplanes but ahead of the airplane.

It was decided to take another attempt to find an opening in the clouds. Sure enough, the bombardier did find an opening and dropped it. That’s when I started taking pictures, the motion pictures. I got the mushroom cloud that you see that’s allegedly Hiroshima – it’s not Hiroshima because there were no photographs taken of the Hiroshima mission. The motion pictures were taken at Nagasaki on a Bell & Howell 16 mm camera, which is a story all by itself. Anyhow, as we made the turn, it was easy to get photographs.

We started back, and it seems that the several passes over Kokura and the trip to Nagasaki and the two passes over Nagasaki used up a lot of fuel. When we left the island, we also found out that 600 gallons of fuel were locked into one of the wing tanks, because the fuel valve was frozen.

We were seriously short of fuel at that time so it was decided to land at Iwo [Jima]. Iwo at that time was just recently occupied by us, and they were still working on the runways. After the pilot had some conversation with the tower at Iwo, it was finally agreed that we would land there, because we had no alternative. As we were coming in and just about touching down, a tractor starts crossing the runway. He got out just in time and fortunately, the airplanes that we were flying had reversal pitch props. As soon as the plane hit the ground, the pilot reversed the props. Between the brakes and the props, we were able to land on a field that was made for fighter aircraft.

Then they started bringing a fuel truck out to refuel our aircraft. Well, one tank truck was not going to refuel a B-29, so they wanted to know how much gasoline we really needed.

Something that stays with me—this is many years now—that I still remember so clearly. For anyone who has any thought that we did something wrong or that another alternative was available to us – as we’re crossing the ocean to Japan, if anyone was up at thirty thousand feet and could look down on the sea around Japan and see the extent of our preparation for landing, it was breathtaking. As far as you can see in every direction were ships. I didn’t think there were that many ships in the whole world. There were aircraft carriers, and battleships, and cargo vessels, and troop vessels. As far as you could see, there were vessels. From that altitude, it looked so dense that you could probably walk from one ship to another without getting your feet wet. If this was going to be the intent or the difference between using the weapon and not using the weapon, there wasn’t any question. I mean, whatever numbers they had anticipated I think would’ve been understated.

It was also phenomenal to realize that we had a nation that in three years or four years could develop from where we were in 1941 to where we now were, that all this stuff could be built. Not just built, it had to be planned and built and moved over ten thousand miles of ocean, and be available to us on the other side of the world. We did it, and God was with us when we did do it.

So I think we can do anything we want to do. All we need is the desire to do it. I still agree that in the late ‘40s and the early ‘50s, if we had gone ahead with retaining a total monopoly on atomic weapons for war purposes, we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in today.

I don’t remember much. I mean, we were certainly aware we were number one. We were absolutely told that we’re not to frequent any bars or that type of thing. We’re not to discuss anything, and our mail went through an APO so nobody knew where we were. Until the hostilities were over, we were not permitted to make any phone calls. When we were off base, we were in civilian clothes. I’ll never forget the bilious green suit that I had [Laughter].

We just didn’t discuss our mission with anybody. I remember in my first contact with a hobby house somewhere – I think it was in Denver – there were two of us from the project in civilian clothes in a restaurant. One of the passersby made some comment about these goldbricks, two healthy-looking young men in civilian clothes, at a time when everybody else was in uniform. We got some comments about that.

Kelly: Where did these clothes come from?

Goodman: A store in downtown Santa Fe. Oh, no, wait a minute, I think I got it in a men’s clothing store. The selection wasn’t too great, and this was a green tweed suit, which was horrible [Laughter]. I can’t remember where we got it, because we made a trip to El Paso for some reason. I don’t remember. It was the only suit that fit at that time. The Army paid for it, by the way. I don’t know if I still have it.

You asked about Oppenheimer before. After we were back, and things were settling down and the staff knew that Oppenheimer was leaving, they wanted to buy him a gift, a departure gift, and couldn’t quite decide what to get a man like Oppenheimer. One of the group was aware that he had admired a chest of drawers at the hotel in Santa Fe. So we collected some money and went down and bought it from the hotel [Laughter]. It was an old wooden chest of drawers that was in the lobby of the hotel.

I think that’ll give you some indication of how most people felt about him. Even if they differed with him, they still had a great deal of respect – first for his ability, but I guess more for his gentleness and mannerisms. Very concerned about people and the world and everything around him.

Kelly: What about Luis Alvarez?

Goodman: Luis Alvarez was phenomenal. I don’t think there was anything that we ran into that Luis Alvarez was unaware of. He was a great physicist, he was a great engineer, he was a great mathematician, and I learned a great deal from Alvarez. And a great guy to work for. As a matter of fact, when you’re dealing with people of that caliber, it’s really easy to get along with them. I was very much fascinated by Luis Alvarez, and was pleased with the ability to work with him.

Kelly: Wrapping up – thinking about what made the Manhattan Project work. What were some of the key factors as you look back?

Goodman: Primarily, the need to end the war as quickly as possible, and end the war successfully with the minimum amount of losses. Everybody up there had only one goal in mind, and that was to get it done. They wouldn’t have been there unless—I mean, nobody would hide themselves off in the sticks. Even a thing like the mail – when you sent out mail, you wrote your letter, put it in an envelope, addressed the envelope, but didn’t seal the envelope. The envelope was sent down to Security and Security would read your letter and not indicate that it was censored. But if there was anything wrong in the letter that they objected to, they would scratch it out and send it back to you. At which time you rewrote the letter without the deletions, and sent it on back again so whoever got the letter didn’t know the letter was censored.

The incoming letters were also checked. I still have some of those letters. They were sent to an APO in San Francisco, so everybody thought you were overseas. Even our purchase orders or the requisitions which we sent in would go to the University of California, and then reship to us. So that for all practical purposes, the place didn’t exist for a long time. Except when you needed water [Laughter].

Kelly: And how was that?

Goodman: Well, the water was trucked up to the site – a big tank truck – so it was at a premium.

Kelly: What about the companies that you dealt with?

Goodman: We didn’t deal directly with the companies because we would send any requisitions we had through – and they would go to the University and the University would deal with the companies. So we had no direct connection with the companies themselves. Anything we got, all we did was tell them what we needed.

The only one who gave us any trouble was, they assigned twelve B-29s for the project to go to Wendover [Air Field]. And this is all secondhand; I wasn’t a party to this. But when General [Curtis] LeMay heard about this, he had a fit, because the project was taking twelve aircraft for some mission which was not going to help end the war when he could be using those aircraft for bombing Japan.

So the general officers of the Air Force – or the Air Corps at that time – were not generally friendly to us. As a matter of fact, the personnel were not generally friendly to us. Even the flying crews – as I said, we were in civilian clothes – so when we would lay out the requirements of the mission, they resented taking a whole bunch of instructions from civilian personnel. But eventually, things eased off.

Kelly: Oh, I see. In the end, it worked out. Any closing thoughts about the significance of the Manhattan Project?

Goodman: Significance is, again, something I said before, that if this country makes up its mind to do it, there’s not a doubt in my mind that we can do anything we have to do as long as we want to do it. I think the crazy situation we’re in today where many people in the world want to do away with us, we should keep that in mind. We have the wherewithal to protect ourselves if we make up our minds to protect ourselves. This is part of what caused us to be in this position. I certainly don’t want to have to be part of killing a whole bunch more people, but if we’re put in that position, we don’t have any choice.

Kelly: Well, thank you so much for sharing your memories with us.

Goodman: All right. I told Chris that the original movie film that I took at Nagasaki, I did it without any authorization. I just happened to have the film and the camera along, because we’d been using the film and the camera for other purposes back stateside. So he [General Groves] found out that this had been done. He sent the memo down that anyone who had it should turn it into him. He would get it developed and return the original to the photographer. And if it wasn’t turned in to him, he would take disciplinary action for taking these movies without permission.

So I have the original, it’s still in the original container. If you folks know of a place where I can have them protected, I’d like to send them in there and get it done.

Kelly: Sure, great.

Goodman: We didn’t have this kind of photography.

Unidentified Male: I’m just amazed. It’s in the original can?

Kelly: I know.

Goodman: The original black can that came from General Groves.

Kelly: Wow.

Unidentified Male: Have somebody protect it some more.

Kelly: Yeah. No, that should be in the National Archives or the Smithsonian.

Unidentified Male: Yeah, it’s got to be in there. I don’t know how it even got away from them.

Kelly: Yeah.

Goodman: Well, he made copies.

Kelly: He made a copy.

Unidentified Male: Yeah, but still, the original.

Kelly: That’s fabulous.

Goodman: Well, see, on sixteen millimeter in those days, the film that I took remains the original. In other words, there are no negatives to that, so I have the original.

Unidentified Male: Oh, it was a reversal film.

Goodman: Say it again?

Unidentified Male: It was a reversal film. It was not a negative. You could show it right away.

Goodman: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kelly: No reversal. Oh, my God, if that thing ever gets lost.

Goodman: Well, I’ve got that and I’ve got a whole bunch of other pictures that are legitimate pictures. I have an eleven-year-old grandson and my son wants me to prepare everything. I have short snorters from the trip. Either of you know what a short snorter is?

Kelly: No.

Goodman: Whenever we went overseas, we would pass around dollar bills, which everybody would sign. The attack crew would sign it, everybody who was on the plane would sign it, and so every individual had these dollar bills with the crew name. So I have the short snorters and then, let’s see what else we have.

I even have the parachute release, because we were flying at 30,000 to 31,000. If for any reason you bailed out at 30,000 feet, generally, you would pass out before you got down to 5,000 feet to open the chute. If you opened the chute at 30,000 feet, it’d probably freeze by the time you got down to 5,000 feet.

So there was this anaerobic parachute release where you had it on your chest and you’d pull the release when you left the airplane – after you left the airplane – and the chute would stay closed until the anaerobic piston or cylinder showed, let’s say, 6,000 or 7,000 feet, and then it would open the chute for you. I still have that.

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