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In Memoriam: William E. Tewes

In Memoriam: William E. Tewes

Bill Tewes

We are sad to report the passing of our friend, Manhattan Project veteran William E. Tewes. Tewes died on April 19, 2016, at the age of 93.

Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City and a member of the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s Board of Directors, remembers Tewes: "Bill was inexhaustible when it came to sharing his experience working on the Manhattan Project. He was incredibly generous with his time and his knowledge. I remember that whenever we spoke, he always made a point of discussing his wife's work contributions to the Project, as well. That made a particular impression on me. I'm fortunate to have known him."


Early Life

Tewes was the first in his family to attend college. He majored in chemistry, and was also interested in physics and math. He was 19 years old when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, and he remembered: “On December 7th, it was a Sunday, I had gone home, which was Livingston, New Jersey. I was driving back, I turned the radio on and I heard this: ‘The Japanese are bombing Pearl Harbor.’ I pulled off to the side and listened. It was apparent that they had a very successful operation, that we had lost all the capital ships essentially, and there was a very significant loss of life.”


The Manhattan Project

Soon after the United States entered World War II, Tewes was drafted into the military. Because of his science background, he was recruited into the Special Engineer Detachment, whose members worked on the Manhattan Project. Tewes was sent to Columbia University, where he worked on uranium enrichment, focusing on helping develop the barrier material for the gaseous diffusion process.

He and his colleagues eventually outgrew the lab at Columbia, and moved into the Nash Garage Building – using wheelbarrows. Tewes recalled the challenges of moving fragile scientific equipment: “We did not have a good set of moving equipment. The delicate part of it, Art Kelman and I went to a tremendous hardware store and almost everything we used we got there. We each got a wheelbarrow, and boy, I am telling you, we learned about the fact that New York is not flat. At 125th Street, the subway is out of the ground and it is maybe 100 feet high. It is the longest set of steps I have ever seen in New York. And it comes back underground just before we got to the Nash Building. That was a long walk.”

Because of the secrecy of the project, Tewes and his colleagues had little idea about how large the Manhattan Project was and where the sites were located. “In 1945, gradually people were leaving and going down to what we called “Dogpatch” [Oak Ridge]. We knew that somewhere around Knoxville was where the plants were. All we knew was that that’s where the gaseous diffusion plant was. We did not have any information on the others.”


Life in Oak Ridge

In July 1945, Tewes was sent to Oak Ridge to work on the leak testing operation at the K-25 Plant. He recalled, “I was just amazed at the size of K-25. It just almost is inconceivable that they could build a plant like that.”

It was in Oak Ridge that he met the woman he would marry: “On Thanksgiving Day of 1945, I met Olive Littleton of Grayson, Kentucky. We dated continuously until we got married.” His twin daughters were born on the same day—March 19, 1949—as the gates of Oak Ridge were finally opened to the public. “About 4:00 that Gates Opening Day, Dr. Dings came in and told me, “Bill, you’ve got a beautiful little girl.” And I was smiling. Dr. Dings said, “And Bill, you’ve got a second beautiful little girl. [Laughs] I was in heaven! We added two more girls, and you couldn’t ask for a better place to raise children than Oak Ridge.”


Reflecting on the Manhattan Project

Tewes remained lifelong friends with his Manhattan Project colleagues, including Lawrence S. O’Rourke, Donald Trauger, and William J. Wilcox, Jr. In June 2015, Tewes and O’Rourke attended and spoke at the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s Manhattan Project Veterans Reunion and Symposium in Washington, DC. They enjoyed seeing each other and the family members of other old friends, including Thomas Trauger, Donald’s son. Tewes spoke to a packed audience about his experiences in New York and Oak Ridge during the war.

In a 2013 interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Tewes explained his thoughts on the Manhattan Project: “I want to reiterate the words that Secretary of War [Henry] Stimson used in making awards for the participants. There were 130,000 at least who worked on the atomic [bomb], developing and manufacturing the two atomic bombs that were used on Japan. He said that those of us who did that work to make the atomic bombs brought the war in the Pacific to a satisfactory conclusion, and all of us who did that are very proud of our work.”

To watch interviews with Tewes about his life and Manhattan Project work, visit AHF’s “Voices of the Manhattan Project” website.