Working on the Manhattan Project

Monday morning I went to the Medical Physics building on the UC Berkeley campus, and reported to the office manager, Rosie, a svelte, sophisticated lady who was delighted to have me on board. On my first day she had me delivering mail to the entire Project. It was that day I learned that, besides the Medical Physics building, the Project extended into many buildings throughout the Berkeley campus. Offices for E.O. Lawrence, who had invented the cyclotron and was Director of the Project at Berkeley, were housed on the main part of the campus. Additionally, up “on the hill” among the chaparral, was a huge building still under construction, intended to house the 184-inch cyclotron.

I delivered mail to all the offices for several days and got a quick overview of who worked where. Soon, many people were highly impressed by how quickly I knew most of the men by sight, addressed them by their names, and knew where their offices were located. They never recognized me as their waitress at the Faculty Club, and I never told them how I knew them.

As the week wore on Rosie was delighted with me. She decided my job would be to fill in each day in whatever department where someone was absent: the business offices, one of the chemistry labs, or on to where E.O. Lawrence had his offices. Also, I’d take the jitney from the east border of the campus about a mile up a steep hill amidst the chaparral to where they were building the 184-inch cyclotron. The smaller, 60-inch cyclotron was housed in one of the laboratories. I had some idea of the work they were doing, but the whole project itself was very hush-hush.

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Carolyn on the way to work in Berkeley
Carolyn on the way to work in Berkeley

Often I had to walk up the steps to an attic where large boxes and equipment were stored. The maintenance men used that attic as a lunch and break room. One day I was in the chemistry lab while chemists were cooking obviously poisonous stuff under the hood, and I could see the fumes were being directed into the attic where the maintenance men were eating. I immediately went in search of the safety engineer who I found walking down the hall. I told him what I had seen, and he rushed up to investigate. The next day he made a point of telling me that the situation had been fixed. I thought it pretty strange that an eighteen-year-old girl from the stenographic pool had to report that chemists were polluting the building with poisonous gases.

One day I was assigned to report to one of the “top dogs” for a project. He was fresh from the East Coast and new to me. I showed up at the door of his office, which was huge, with large windows on two sides. He was sitting at an empty desk in the middle of the room. He invited me in and to sit down in the chair across his desk from him. What he told me was that I was to go to every project manager and get a list of all the tools and equipment, “everything it would take to replicate their project.” He then handed me a legal pad of yellow lined paper and a half dozen new, freshly sharpened Ticonderoga #2 pencils.

I left his office and began my hunt for “every manager of every research unit.” As I found them, each manager looked at me as if I were crazy. One pointed to a stack of catalogs on a table and said, “Everything in these catalogs.” Another said, “No, I can’t do it. We don’t have time.” Some were “not available.” Some turned me over to their secretaries, who then foisted the job onto someone else.

At the end of the day I reported to Rosie and explained what was happening. The next morning when I checked in with her, she had relieved me of that assignment. For the next few weeks, wherever I went secretaries were busy typing out long lists of equipment, tools, and supplies. Later I learned that all this gathering lists of “everything it would take to replicate” each project was the beginning of setting up the laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was built. It blew me away that Los Alamos was started by some upper echelon administrator handing an eighteen-year-old girl a single pad of paper and a handful of sharpened pencils, and telling her to make a list of everything needed. I withhold his name.

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One day I filled in for the typist who prepared the payroll. I spent the day working with the pay rate chart that told how much money everyone had made that month. The figures were all there; annual salary, monthly salary, hours worked, and amount to be paid to each employee for that particular month. Were my eyes opened! I had already been working on the project for a while, and I knew almost all the people and their work behavior. What I learned was their educational level, level of responsibility, and the length of time they had been on the job all had little relationship to how much they were paid!

Some of the “bigwigs” who seemed to run the place and who had been with the project for some time were getting $270 per month, while newcomers were getting $333 per month. Some recently hired chemists and physicists were making over $600 per month. In my current job under Rosie I was only making $80 per month, but if I could switch to the chemistry department I would get $120. Need I say that I decided it was time to become an assistant in a chemistry lab.

I had a girlfriend, a chemist, who worked at the “Rubber Lab” in Vallejo. They were developing a synthetic rubber. I complained to her that I’d expected to be working in the chemistry lab but instead had been stuck in the secretarial pool. She assured me that I could get a job at the rubber lab any time I applied. Due to the War, we were all scheduled to work six days a week, and the only holidays we got off were two hours Thanksgiving afternoon plus Christmas day. I took an extra day off, and rode the bus to Vallejo. At the Rubber Lab they offered me a job at a higher salary than I was making.

I went back to the personnel office at the Medical Physics building, reminded them that they had promised me a job in the chemistry lab, and informed them I was quitting; that I had a new job in my field. They hemmed and hawed and said that I was “frozen” in my War job at the Radiation Lab, but they would see what they could do for me.

The next day I was working on the Ditto machine—it was constantly breaking down— when Dr. Jenkins walked in to talk to me. I knew him as the head of the chemistry department, so I hid my hands, which were covered with purple ditto ink, behind my back and turned to face him. He interviewed me then and there.

He concluded the interview emphasizing, “You understand that you won’t be able to work in such a neat environment where you can wear your good clothes, and you won’t be able to keep your hands clean, the way you do on this job.” I couldn’t help myself, “Oh, yes?” I pulled my hands out from behind my back, displaying that both palms and backs were covered with purple ink.

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The following week I began my new assignment, as the only lab assistant in a large room with four independent research scientists. They were each working on different projects. Being a chemist’s assistant put me in a whole different world. Every day I could work with whom I pleased, and choose the job that most interested me.

Now there was even more emphasis on secrecy. For instance, we were not allowed to say the word “uranium.” There were also other words that were never to be spoken; we were to use words invented for us to use in their place. Even today when many other countries are using atomic power for home energy as well as making atomic missiles and bombs, I am still uncomfortable to use those words or write about the nature of the projects.

There was one contingent of chemists who were ecstatic about their job. They felt they were doing a mission for God by developing a bomb to blow up the world, and that would lead to Armageddon and the coming of Jesus.

The Germans were simultaneously working on building an atomic bomb. One thing I could easily do well was to translate into English copies of experiments Allied spies had stolen from the Germans. The four chemists had all learned German in school, but that had been years before, while I had recently finished taking twenty units of college German.

Another project was to develop a ceramic that would not be destroyed by heat and pressure, to contain the bomb while it was being transported.

Some of the materials we used were highly poisonous. I helped with building the glass “Rube Goldberg” contraptions that were designed to keep a vacuum while avoiding poisoning us with the various materials.

Carolyn, the chemists’ assistant, in Berkeley
Carolyn, the chemists’ assistant, in Berkeley

We were exploring the attributes of uranium salts. I had a roommate who was a chemist on our project, but in another building. She was supposed to know what she was doing. One Saturday morning she was coming down with a cold. She was working with several large barrels of uranium salts and decided that since she didn’t feel well she wouldn’t bother with wearing her gas mask. That night she developed pneumonia, and ended up in Cowell Hospital for thirty days, breathing through an oxygen mask around the clock. She was weak for a long time after that. I lost respect for her.

Another worker was measuring a solution of uranium salts with a pipette, and accidentally swallowed a mouthful. He rushed over to Cowell Hospital to have his stomach pumped, and when they asked him what he had swallowed he told them he couldn’t tell them, it was top secret. I never heard what they did for him. Yes, the job was hazardous.

One situation I never did understand. The chemists discovered a new combination, how to distill uranium tetrachloride into uranium hexachloride. They were instructed to send a sample to the United States Patent Office. The trouble was that when exposed to air it would disintegrate immediately. So what they did was produce it under vacuum, dump it into a stainless steel container, and then, still under vacuum, solder the lid on with Wood’s Metal. Then they had this container with the newly discovered material, which you couldn’t see, and the instant you took the cover off, it would disintegrate into highly poisonous gases. What was the patent office supposed to do with this? Nobody ever explained it to me.

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Dicta and posters constantly reminded us that we were not to tell anyone where we were employed or what we did. At the door to the building was a huge poster of Uncle Sam, with his forefinger covering his lips and a background of an ocean with a sinking ship. The poster read “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” We were often warned that the Communists were always working on infiltrating our project, and to be careful to avoid divulging anything that might be of interest to them.

One day a lab technician invited me to go dancing with him on a Friday night. I wasn’t interested in him, but I wouldn’t pass up a night of dancing. He picked me up at my rooming house and we walked across campus to a building on University Avenue. We went in and up a set of confining steps to a dreary room with about thirty other people. There was no gayety. Pretty soon one couple started teaching us dance steps to music they played on a phonograph. For about an hour we practiced this couple dance in a circle, and then the lesson was over. That was the night I learned to dance the schottische.

I was pretty sure I was invited there because of my connection with the Radiation Laboratory. I was invited to more than one occasion when I suspected it was a group working on recruiting for the Communists, and they wanted to get me involved with them.

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E.O. Lawrence’s offices included a huge room where Mr. Guyon reigned. Mr. Guyon was E.O. Lawrence’s personal laboratory glassblower. I loved the stories he told me about himself. He was born in Manhattan to a family in poverty. As a child he had no shoes; nonetheless, he delivered newspapers in the winter in his bare feet. It was his dream to come to California where it was warm the whole year around.

As he grew older he learned that where ever there was glassblowing, there were always furnaces and annealing ovens to help him get warm. He worked his way up to a position with General Electric, in a major lab in northern New York, as an expert in scientific glassblowing.

Despite the heated rooms he still talked about his dream of moving to California. One day while he was at the lab, the big boss came by with a small group of visitors. The boss introduced him to E.O. Lawrence, who needed a glass blower to assist him with his project at the University of California at Berkeley. Mr. Guyon was being offered the job. He was exhilarated and accepted the offer on the spot. He brought his family west and gloried in his new job and the fine weather each day.

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One day, while I was still in the steno pool, I was stationed at the entrance of the Medical Physics Building, checking everyone’s I.D., admitting only those with valid security passes. Fifteen minutes before lunch hour was over, a tall, lanky young man entered, planted himself beside my desk, and stood making conversation with me. He was clean-cut, wearing a dark blue suit and white shirt. Finally he pulled out his pocket watch, and looking at it said, “I must consult my chronometer. Yes, it’s time to get back to work, but not before I invite you to be my date at the Christmas Dance next Saturday night.” He pointed to the gaily decorated poster taped on the wall behind me.

Well, sure, who would turn down a date with a physicist for the company dance party? He did escort me, and during the evening told me he had been hired to redesign the electrical system for the 60-inch cyclotron. And, to my delight, he was a superb ballroom dancer.

This leads to the next part of my story, for it turned out he was the man I married.

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