You are here:: News


Remembering Oppenheimer

E-mail Print PDF

Oppie in front of Chalkboard squareApril 22, 2014 would have been J. Robert Oppenheimer's 110th birthday. As director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer proved to be an extraordinary choice. Unfortunately, after the war, the FBI dredged up his early Communist associations and his security clearance was revoked, preventing Oppenheimer from influencing policy. Oppenheimer died in 1967 at age 62.

Many of the Manhattan Project veterans we have interviewed for our "Voices of the Manhattan Project" website fondly recall working with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Here are a few selections.

Ben Diven: He was totally wrapped up in his teaching and he loved his students. I always felt that he was someone who had a real interest in every single person that he was involved with. He was amazing in that he remembered people’s names and faces; if he had only seen some technician once he would remember that person. He prowled the hallways at night to drop in on laboratories, see what people were doing, and he remembered what they were doing. Everybody had a feeling with Oppenheimer that this was somebody who really cared. It made working here just, well—you could almost call it a pleasure, even though it was much harder work and more frantic than anything we had ever experienced before, but we had a real feeling of belonging.

Oppie and EOL higher resScientists are just as vain as anybody else, and you have all these brilliant scientists, each one of whom is sure he’s smarter than any of the others. They’re not necessarily the easiest people to persuade to work on what, let’s say Oppenheimer thinks they ought to be working on. But he was very, very good at getting all these people to work together instead of squabbling among each other.

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

In December of ’53, my father [Admiral William “Deak” Parsons] heard at a cocktail party that Oppie's security clearance had been taken away. He was so upset that he came home and had a heart attack. He died the next morning, a week after his 52nd birthday.

Oppie with gadgetHaskell Sheinberg: Oppenheimer was the one, I think, that really inspired all of us to interact with everybody else that we needed to do our job better. He certainly motivated us. The other good thing was that he trusted everybody to do their best and to do it honestly and help others, and be safe; he did stress that. Everybody tried to adhere to Oppenheimer’s way that he managed the lab.

Dimas Chavez: Dr. Oppenheimer worked at Tech Area One right off on Trinity Road, and I would station myself directly outside the guard house and he would come by and I would sell him papers, Santa Fe New Mexican. Soon he got to know me, and he’d looked at me and say, “Hello, Dimas. I’m Dr. Oppenheimer."

Well, I told Dad about this and he said, “Nah, nah, nah. You don’t know Dr. Oppenheimer. There’s just no way!” So one day Mom asked Dad to go to the trading post and pick up some items. And I am in line right behind Dad. I hear a group of people behind me talking, and I heard that voice. I turned around and there is Dr. Oppenheimer and he is chatting with some people. And he looked at me and he recognized me, and he said, “Hello, Dimas.”

And my Dad heard this and then the next thing is, “Dr. Oppenheimer, I would like you to meet my father, Trinidad Chavez.”

It was the greatest moment of my life. Dad could not believe it. He just could not believe it.

Dr. Oppenheimer croppedJames Schoke: On my first train trip to Los Alamos, Oppenheimer’s assistant invited me for wine, cheese, and conversation at Robert Oppenheimer’s cabin. Here I am, a twenty-year-old at this point, and it was very exciting. So I went, and apparently it was Oppenheimer’s practice to do this on the train regularly. And there were, oh, seven men, standing around his compartment and talking and drinking. Of course there was no talk about the project or what we were doing or where were we going. Oppenheimer liked to recite poetry, and he recited some poetry. He invited me to call him “Oppie” when I was introduced to him.

I was just absolutely amazed. This erudite man, who was so humble and willing to have a young twenty- year-old nobody as his guest. It really was a great experience.

Priscilla McMillan:  The catalyst was Robert Oppenheimer. He knew how to deal with people he had never dealt with, types of people he had never dealt with before. Because there were many, many workmen on the project who did all kinds of things. He knew what all of them did. He could talk to them in their own language, take a totally commanding interest in what they were doing. He respected the people who worked there for their decisions.

He listened to them. He took their views into account, and they all felt they were being heard. So he was a miraculous director in a way that no one who knew him earlier ever thought he could be, ever foresaw. It was probably the happiest time of his life.

Roy Glauber: Oppenheimer commanded not just the loyalty but the deep respect of everybody who was at Los Alamos, and I cannot think of anyone else who would have succeeded as he did in that sense.

Ranger in Your Pocket Launches

E-mail Print PDF

B Reactor w flagHeritage tourists around the world will now be able to tour the historic B Reactor and learn about life at the Hanford site on a new website, “Ranger in Your Pocket,” launched today at The website features dozens of first-hand accounts of working on the top-secret Manhattan Project from solving the mysterious “poisoning” of the B Reactor to enduring the “termination winds.”

 The Atomic Heritage Foundation has created a powerful new interpretive tool called “Ranger in Your Pocket,” based on a BYOD or “Bring Your Own Device” strategy. This technology-based tool represents a fundamental shift in engaging visitors by empowering them to use their personal smartphones or tablets to create their own tour experience.

Congress is currently considering legislation to establish a Manhattan Project National Historical Park with sites at Los Alamos, NM, Oak Ridge, TN and Hanford, WA. Led by a strong bipartisan Manhattan Project delegation, the legislation could be enacted before the end of 2014.

Tour HomepageThe new park is expected to generate 500,000 or more tourists at these sites over the next decade. In anticipation of the park, officials at the National Park Service have enthusiastically embraced this new technology. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in central Idaho and Great Falls National Historical Park in Paterson, NJ are in the vanguard of having “BYOD” tours which have been very popular with visitors.

 The “Ranger in Your Pocket” website will allow visitors to take self-guided tours of the B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor. The B Reactor tour takes visitors through each major room in the reactor. Visitors can listen to Manhattan Project scientists and workers explaining how the reactor works and the various components that were essential to its operation.

Reflecting on the BombAt the Control Room stop, Leona Woods Marshall describes the fateful start-up of the reactor. “You could see the water getting hot, going through the brown recorders, and hear it rushing in the tubes. You could see the control rods coming out and out and out. And then something happened. There wasn’t any reactivity. The reactor was dead, just plain dead! Everybody stood around and stared.” Well after midnight, Enrico Fermi drove while they headed back to Richland arguing about what went wrong.

Another stop focuses on General Leslie R. Groves. As his son Richard recalled, his father was “very, very competitive. He played games not to play games, but to win. You didn’t want to play a game with him, because you were probably going to lose. If you didn’t, he’d come back until he beat you.” With extraordinary ambition, savvy and stamina, Groves was the Manhattan Project’s “indispensable man,” as historian Robert S. Norris explains.

Meet General Groves

Burt Pierard remembers walking to the Village Theater as a five year old. “The Saturday matinee cost twelve cents for two cartoons, two main features, a newsreel, and a serial, like Superman or Rocket Man. I can remember as a five-year-old walking all the way across town with my dime and two pennies in my pocket.” 

AHF plans to develop a suite of Manhattan Project tours on the “Ranger in Your Pocket” website. One tour in the works will feature Hanford’s prewar history, the T Plant and 300 Area operations, and expand on life at Hanford during the Manhattan Project. Another will focus on Bathtub Row, Fuller Lodge and the former Technical Area in downtown Los Alamos, NM. A third will address the extraordinary scientific and engineering innovations that came out of the Manhattan Project and their legacy for today.

For the B Reactor tour, AHF is very grateful for the support of the City of Richland and the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. Thanks, too, to the B Reactor Museum Association for its invaluable contributions as well as the Department of Energy-Richland, Mission Support Alliance, TRIDEC, Hanford Communities, the Hanford Reach Interpretive Center and members of the Hanford History Project. AHF worked with 4Site Interactive Studios to design and develop the “Ranger in Your Pocket” website.



The Other Wendover Commander

E-mail Print PDF

Colonels Heflin and TibbetsColonels Heflin and TibbetsColonel Clifford Heflin served 31 years in the United States Air Force. As a decorated member of the Armed Forces, Colonel Heflin’s career involved flying bomber planes into enemy territory and commanding the Wendover military base in Utah. However, Colonel Heflin rarely ever disclosed the details of his military service to his family. The Atomic Heritage Foundation interviewed Colonel Heflin’s daughter and son-in-law to learn more about his role at Wendover.

Cathy Dvorak, one of Heflin’s four daughters, recalls one of the rare moments when her father spoke about his military career. After watching a film about the atomic bomb, the reserved colonel spoke to his daughters about his role in the Manhattan Project. Mrs. Dvorak quotes her father as stating, “It had to be done, it was done, end of story.”

The details regarding his military career and his involvement with the Manhattan Project have remained relatively clandestine. That is until his son-in-law, Darrell Dvorak, became motivated to document Heflin’s life. Dvorak cites his children as his motivation to provide a record of Colonel Heflin’s career. “What started out as, ‘I am simply going to record a few things for my kids,’ turned into a major project.”

Three years after retiring from a business career, Dvorak began his research. To his surprise, he could find very little published information about Colonel Heflin and his work at Wendover. “I was going to be a mere assembler of information about his career. And I discovered I had to become a historian and researcher.” Bits and pieces of Colonel Heflin’s life started to come together as Dvorak accessed documents from places like the Library of Congress, private archives and the internet. Finally, Dvorak’s tireless efforts unveiled a fascinating military career.

Dummy bombs at Wendover todayDummy bombs at Wendover todayColonel Clifford Heflin began his military career in the Air Cadets in 1938 at the age of 21. In just three years, his technical and leadership skills garnered him the rank of Major. At the start of World War II, Colonel Heflin had a succession of roles flying bomber planes involving anti-submarine missions. He was then given an assignment to work with the Office of Strategic Services in England, and became commander of a secret unit known as the “Carpetbaggers.”

The Carpetbaggers dropped supplies to the Allies and armed resistance movements in enemy territory. Colonel Heflin’s bravery and superior skills in commanding the Carpetbaggers garnered him the Legion of Merit, awarded to him by Eisenhower. He was also given the French Cross of War and the Legion of Honor, the highest French award.

Barracks at Wendover todayBarracks at Wendover todayHis work with the Carpetbaggers brought him to the attention of the Manhattan Project’s top military commanders, who assigned Colonel Heflin to be commander of the 216th Army Air Force's Base Unit Special Airfield. As Dvorak explains, Col. Heflin’s units were in charge of “weaponizing the science and engineering” of the bomb: flying the test missions for the bomb drops, and developing dummy bombs for test drops.

Because the military wanted to keep the ordnance work classified, it was not published in the 1945 Smyth Report, which discussed much of the work done on the Manhattan Project. Colonel Paul Tibbets, who commanded the 509th Composite Group which dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is most closely associated with the Manhattan Project at Wendover. However, Dvorak’s work shows that Tibbets and Heflin had parallel chains of command, and both were essential to the work done at Wendover.

Many of the records of Heflin’s work at Wendover have not been recovered. Dvorak states, “Unless and until someone finds those missing records that just evaporated—I mean, they had to exist. The military can't get by without recording everything. Until that happens, his story won't be fully known, which is unfortunate.”

After the war’s end, Colonel Heflin was transferred to Stead Air Force Base outside of Reno, Nevada as commander. He went on to become the base commander of Lowry Air Force Base in Denver. In 1968 Colonel Heflin retired from the Air Force and moved to Reno, where gave his only public interview about his work. Darrell Dvorak continues his efforts to bring the critical work that Col. Heflin did at Wendover to light.

To learn more about Colonel Heflin and his work at Wendover, please read Darrell Dvorak’s articles, The Other Atomic Bomb Commander and The First Atomic Bomb Mission.

"The Wives of Los Alamos" Review

E-mail Print PDF

LATaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos tells the collective story of the women who moved to Los Alamos to be with their scientist husbands during the Manhattan Project. Collective story, that is, because the book is written in a distinct and novel manner: the first person plural. “Our husbands joined us in the kitchen and said, We are going to the desert, and we had no choice except to say, Oh my! as if this sounded like great fun. Where? we asked, and no one answered.” While this style choice might seem to be limiting, Nesbit is able to get across the range of emotions and personalities that made up the wives of Los Alamos. Drawn from real stories – including a few that likely came from the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s “Voices of the Manhattan Project” oral history websiteThe Wives of Los Alamos is a lyrical and realistic glimpse into the complicated and secretive life of the women who accompanied their husbands to an unknown town to work on an unknown project.

Nesbit writes beautifully, and she is able to bring individual personalities into the mix of her collective narrator. Some women love Los Alamos, some hate it. Some wives are happy to be in the dark about what their husbands are working on, while others do their best to find out what the great secret is. Nesbit explores the women’s connection with their Pueblo Indian maids and the young Army soldiers on the base. The Wives of Los Alamos does an excellent job of weaving together the stories of many different communities and age groups, and the ways in which the project to build the bomb upended their lives.

Main GateNesbit chose to change the names of some of the real-life characters she based the book on. For example, one character is presented as the wife of a scientist who could only be Edward Teller. In the fiction, it is a little disconcerting, for those who know the history well, that the character’s name is “Helen” instead of Teller’s wife’s real name, “Mici.” “Robert,” the lone scientist who chooses to leave the project in December 1944, is based on Joseph Rotblat, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Pugwash Conferences and promoting nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Using the real names at least in some instances might have made it easier for people to look up further information about the scientists and their wives. But the use of surrogate names is reminiscent of the Manhattan Project‘s security officials who insisted on calling Enrico Fermi “Mr. Farmer” and Niels Bohr “Mr. Baker” despite the fact they were internationally known Nobel laureates, and further underscores the secrecy the wives encountered at Los Alamos. 

Nesbit’s book raises the bar for historical fiction. Readers who enjoy innovative story styles will like the book; people who prefer a more straightforward structure may not. We welcome The Wives of Los Alamos as an excellent contribution to the literature of Los Alamos and women in the Manhattan Project. 

While often overlooked by historians, Nesbit conveys the many ways in which the wives of Los Alamos contributed as part of the project and in establishing a community for their families.  To hear more stories from these women and other Manhattan Project participants, check out the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s “Voices of the Manhattan Project” website

Anthology Promoted as Amazon Deal

E-mail Print PDF

CoverOur Manhattan Project anthology has been selected as an Amazon Kindle “Big Deal” and is on sale for only $1.99! The sale goes through February 2, 2014. Thanks to the promotion, The Manhattan Project is in the top 10 of 20th century American history e-books sold on Amazon. We’re in good company with Martin Luther King, Jr., Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Erik Larson!

The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, was edited by AHF President Cindy Kelly and published by Black Dog & Leventhal in 2007. Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, wrote the introduction.

The anthology includes seminal historical documents, first-hand accounts, personal recollections, and excerpts from nonfiction and literary accounts. The Manhattan Project is a great way to learn about the top-secret program to build the first atomic bomb, life in the “Secret Cities,” and the legacy of the Manhattan Project for the world today.

The Manhattan Project can be purchased on Amazon and our online store

Page 1 of 41

  • «
  •  Start 
  •  Prev 
  •  1 
  •  2 
  •  3 
  •  4 
  •  5 
  •  6 
  •  7 
  •  8 
  •  9 
  •  10 
  •  Next 
  •  End 
  • »

Search this site

Shopping Cart

Your Cart is currently empty.