Edwin & Elsie McMillan

Edwin & Elsie McMillan

Master Cottage Number One

The McMillans’ New Home

A World War II security billboard at Hanford, WA

Secrecy and Stress

The Trinity Test

The Trinity Test

Norris Bradbury with the "Gadget" on top of the Trinity test tower

A Long Night’s Vigil

  • The McMillans’ New Home

    The McMillans' New Home

    Elsie McMillan, wife of physicist Edwin McMillan, takes you on a tour of her home, Master Cottage Number One.

    Narrator: The wives of Los Alamos scientists had to learn the art of “making do.” Elsie McMillan found much to like in Master Cottage Number One. It had a big living room and, of course, a bathtub. But it didn’t have everything, as Elsie recounted in a tour of the area.

    Elsie McMillan: Now we’re on Bathtub Row. Butch, do you suppose they really don’t like us, because we’ve got a bathtub and only about eight houses have bathtubs? But shucks, we came so early, that’s the only reason we have a Master’s home.

    Hey, look at that darn open ditch. They don’t put lights up at night around it? Later, two ladies fell in our ditch. They didn’t like it either.

    Oh, this is T-112. Isn’t it attractive? I’ll take you in the kitchen. It was very small. I was very happy, because my husband said if it was a big kitchen, I’d have a “Black Beauty.” That’s what they called the wooden-burning coal stoves.

    But we didn’t have anything to cook on. Ed, where’s the stove?

    “Well, honey, the DC current’s still here. If they get the current changed, maybe you’ll have a hotplate. You’ll have to cook over the fireplace.”

    Oh. Well, anyway, Ed, isn’t this a gorgeous living room? Oh, my goodness, what a big fireplace. Oh, sure I can cook over it. I suppose I’ll have to be most careful over the baby’s formula. Of course things, you tell me, don’t cook fast up here at 7,300 feet.

    Ooh, Ed, look out on that porch. There’s a lawn and trees, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And it’s summer, so the paler green of the trees shows the thunderbird.

  • Secrecy and Stress

    Secrecy and Stress

    Elsie McMillan, wife of physicist Edwin McMillan, recalls the intense pressure the scientists at Los Alamos were under.

    Narrator: Scientists were forbidden to tell anyone about the project. Elsie McMillan remembers that it was very stressful when her husband was so secretive about the work that so consumed him and his colleagues.

    Elsie McMillan: One night I said to my husband, “Why didn’t you tell me you’re making an atomic bomb?”

    He said, “My God, where did you learn that?” I don’t think he said, “My, God,” but I will. He said, “You know, you could get me fired.”

    But I am very grateful that I knew it was an atomic bomb, because I could better understand when my husband left me, place unknown. When my husband worked all hours of the day and night, when my husband and other husbands looked so drawn, so tired, so worried, I would partially sleep and get up and cook another meal at 3:00 in the morning.

    Narrator: Elsie McMillan recalls the tremendous sense of urgency that loomed over the scientists as they worked tirelessly to produce the weapon that might end the war.

    Elsie McMillan: Time is going on. Even by that, not quite the end of our first year, they began to realize the emotional strain, the feel of, “You’ve got to get that bomb. You’ve got to get it done! Others are working on it! The Germans are working on it! Hurry, hurry, hurry! This is going to end the war. This is going to save our boys’ lives. This is going to save Japanese boys’ lives. Get that damn bomb done!”

    We were tired. We were deathly tired. We had parties, yes, once in a while. I’ve never had so many drinks as there on the few parties. Because you had to let off steam. You had to let off this feeling of your soul, your “God, am I doing right?” You had to, people.

  • The Trinity Test

    The Trinity Test

    Elsie McMillan remembers asking her husband Edwin what would happen at the Trinity Test.

    Narration:  J. Robert Oppenheimer decided to test the plutonium bomb or “Gadget” in the desert of the Alamogordo Bombing Range, about 240 miles from Los Alamos. Oppenheimer named the site “Trinity,” inspired by John Donne’s poetry, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Elsie McMillan asked her husband Ed what to expect.

    Elsie McMillan: Things were moving fast now. There soon would be a test near Alamogordo at White Sands, the very place we had visited with carefree abandon a few years ago. I asked Ed in all innocence what would happen. It seemed an easy question, with a simple answer. Knowing that it was an atomic bomb they were testing should have made me more aware of what would be involved.

    It was difficult for Ed to tell me. He finally answered, “There will be about 50 of us present, key workers. We ourselves are not absolutely certain what will happen. In spite of calculations, we are going into the unknown.

    “We know that there are three possibilities. One, that we will all be blown to bits, if it is more powerful than we expect. If this happens, you and the world will be immediately told. Two, it may be a complete dud. If this happens, you will also be told. Third, it may, as we hope, be a success, we pray without loss of any lives. In this case, there will be a broadcast to the world with a plausible explanation for the noise and the tremendous flash of light which will appear in the sky.”

    With our alarms set for 2:30 a.m., Ed would leave at 3:15. We did not want to allow much time. We did not want to say goodbye. 

  • A Long Night’s Vigil

    A Long Night's Vigil

    Elsie McMillan vividly describes waiting with her neighbor Lois Bradbury for word that the Trinity Test had been a success.

    Narrator: Elsie McMillan remembers waiting up all night to see a glimpse of the test with her neighbor Lois Bradbury. Lois’ husband Norris Bradbury was in charge of the final assembly of the “Gadget,” or plutonium test bomb.

    Elsie McMillan: There was a light tap on my door. There stood Lois Bradbury, my friend and neighbor. She knew. Her husband was out there, too. She said her children were asleep, and would be all right since she was so close and could check on them every so often.

    “Please, can’t we stay together this long night?” she said. We talked of many things, of our men, whom we love so much, of the children, their futures, of the war with all its horrors. We kept the radio going softly, despite the fact our last word had been that the test would probably be at 5:00 a.m. We dared not turn it off.

    Suddenly, there was a flash and the whole sky lighted up. The time was 5:32 a.m. The baby didn’t notice. We were too fearful and awed to speak.

    The news came. “Flash! The explosive dump at the Alamogordo airfield has exploded. No lives are lost. This explosion is what caused the tremendous sound and the light in the sky.”

    We looked at each other. It was a success. Could we believe the announcement, no lives are lost? They had not said no injuries. We had hours to wait to be absolutely sure. At least it was over with.

    Lois went home to grab a few hours of rest before her family might awaken. I, too, crawled into bed, but found I could not sleep. The day dragged on. I tried walking the mesa with the children, but by lunchtime home was where I wanted to be.

    The door opened about 6:00 o’clock in the evening. We were in each other’s arms. Then, and only then, did the tears come streaming down my face.

Quick Fact:
Physicist Edwin McMillan helped select Los Alamos as the site of the Manhattan Project's top-secret laboratory. A co-discoverer of neptunium, he would go on to win the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. During the Manhattan Project, he lived in Master Cottage Number One (T-112) with his wife Elsie and their baby daughter Ann.