What Led Me to the Manhattan Project

This part of the story starts in 1939. I’m attending Punahou, a private college-prep school in Honolulu. My mother is having a conference with the president of the school, Dr. Shepard. He asked, “What are you preparing Carolyn to do in her life?” Her self-righteous answer, based on her own experience was, “That is not for me to choose. She needs to decide that for herself.”

Dr. Shepard responded “What do you mean she should decide for herself? She is only fifteen: A fifteen-year-old doesn’t begin to know her own abilities and strengths, nor enough about the opportunities in the world that will become available to her. You need to prepare her for being able to meet those opportunities with success.”

My mother took to heart his advice and that night had a serious discussion with me about my future career. She told me, “I don’t know what to advise you. All I remember from my life is that I wanted to be a chemist, and they told me, ‘Oh, no! Girls do not become chemists. Only men can be chemists. You could be a teacher.’ But soon after that, Madame Marie Curie discovered radium and polonium, was awarded the Nobel Prize, and became renowned. I always felt disappointed and angry that they would not let me continue in my studies of chemistry. So, I suggest you study chemistry for now, and then if you decide to change later on, you can.”

The next semester I signed up and very much enjoyed my senior year at Punahou learning about chemistry. The following year, now at the University of Hawaii, I took chemistry 1a and got an “A.” After all, I had already learned everything for that curriculum during my high school chemistry classes.

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Carolyn Ruth Hollingshead, age 16, new graduate of Punahou Academy
Carolyn Ruth Hollingshead, age 16, new graduate of Punahou Academy

We were living in the hotel/apartments my mother was managing on Waikiki Beach, while my stepfather Leslie was stationed nearby at Pearl Harbor. World War II was progressing in Europe; the Navy suddenly transferred Leslie onto a “Mother Ship” in the Bahamas, where his classification was upgraded to Chief, and he taught new recruits how to be tor­pedo-men for the War.

Since about forty percent of the population in Hawaii was of Japanese descent, many locals said Japan was likely to bring the War to Hawaii and try to take over the Islands. So in February of 1941 Mom and I sailed on Navy transport from Oahu back to California. She was concerned Japan would also attack the United States along the West Coast (and there are stories of some of those forays), so she moved us inland.

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I enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College, still majoring in Chemistry, to complete my AA degree. Then, the summer of 1941, I relocated south to the University of California at Berkeley, taking Chemistry and Physics classes. Through my connection with some other Punahou graduates who were living in my rooming house, I got a part-time job waiting table in the Men’s Faculty Club on the Berkeley campus, earning a small stipend plus dinner every night.

At that time there was a long table near the back wall where the men could eat individually at their own time and convenience. I learned it was called the “Medical Physics Table.” The men would write their names on the top of their order slip and then under that, their food order. I would collect the slips, take them to the kitchen, shout the order to the chef, and fasten the slip on the rotating shelf for the chef to read. I quickly learned the names of all those men.

I had no idea what the term “Medical Physics” meant. Of course all their conversations were easy for me to overhear, and one of the things they talked about was that they were very short on employees necessary to get the job done; they needed more people.

Carolyn in Santa Rosa
Carolyn in Santa Rosa

At this point in history, Japan had already bombed Pearl Harbor, and The United States was fully engaged in the War. West Coast cities were conducting “blackouts” to protect against night-time submarine and aerial attacks by Japan. My mother was working for the war effort as a night watchman in the Vallejo shipyards. She had a Doberman pincer assigned to her. Fully armed and in formal uniform she would patrol her route from eight o’clock at night until four o’clock in the morning. She had always been adamant that I must graduate college before I took on a full-time job, but about this time she decided she would allow me to stop school so I, too, could join in the war effort. I was surprised, but pleased.

I hiked to where the “Medical Physics” building was on campus and asked for the personnel office. There, they invited me in, and I applied to be a chemist’s assistant. They looked over my credentials, and said I could go to work as soon as I produced a valid birth certificate.

I had been born in San Francisco. This was a Thursday morning. I walked across campus over to the train terminal, caught the train, got off at the San Francisco Civic Center, and climbed the steps of the County Building. On the second floor at the Department of Public Health I told them I wanted a copy of my birth certificate, and in no more than twenty minutes I had it in hand. First thing the next morning I presented it to the Medical Physics personnel office and was told I could start work on Monday.

When I showed up Monday morning they told me there were no openings in the chemistry labs at the moment, but I was to start in the stenographic pool, and when an opening appeared in the chemistry department I could be transferred. I felt betrayed, but decided to accept the situation and see what happened.

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