Minnesota's Greatest Generation

"Nervous in the Service," or "Up and Atom"

A Memoir by Frances Jacob

On Monday, August 6, 1945, two explosions occurred. One was a devastating explosion resulting in tragedy for many. The first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese military base at Hiroshima.

The other was a tiny explosion by comparison. It was an explosion resulting from another form of release of tension. Yes, it was certainly a great relief to me to see splattered across the front pages of all the daily papers, information that it had been necessary to keep locked inside myself for over a year since I had left the Los Alamos division of the Manhattan Project. (Better known as he Atomic Bomb Laboratory.) It was a strange feeling to read in bold print the names of people and places it had so long been strictly taboo to mention. As soon as my friends and family who knew I had been on a confidential army assignment in New Mexico put two and two together, and amazingly got four, I was deluged with questions. I shall attempt to answer many of the questions that seem to be of interest to those less fortunate than I, in not having had the wonderful opportunity of playing a tiny part in one of the greatest dramas in the history of the world.

It all started back in May, in the year, 1944. I was busy typing some pages of what is now the WAC Physical Training manual, when my Section Chief informed me that I was wanted at the Classification Office. My heart leaped. Classification was where you were called when you were being considered for a new assignment. I rushed over to receive the first in what proved to be a series of interviews. I was interviewed by a WAC Officer. When the interview was over I was told nothing except to report back to my regular job. A few days later I was again called to Classification. This time I was interviewed by an Army Officer. Again I was merely told to report back to regular duty. Several days passed and I was beginning to think that I would spend the duration fighting the battle of Ft. Des Moines after all. Then at supper one evening I received orders to report to Classification at 8 P.M. This was the first time anyone had heard of being interviewed in the evening, and our whole barracks was as excited as I was. I pressed my skirt, shined my shoes extra well, and with my heart in my mouth, I again walked over to the Classification Building.

This time a WAC Officer had been flown all the way from Washington, D.C. to interview us, and the group to be interviewed had been shaken down from over forty to about fifteen. The officer asked me a question which I was to remember until the eventful day afore mentioned when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. She said, "If you were doing something of vital importance, and were not allowed to give an inkling to anyone concerning your work, could you refrain from doing so?" When I answered in the affirmative she questioned, "But, if someone scoffed and said you probably were not doing anything important anyway, would you have to prove how important it was by dropping at least a hint about your vital work?" I answered in the negative at the time, but never realized how significant her question was. Many times after I had returned home I was questioned about my secret work in the army. When I refused to even discuss it, the exact thing she mentioned resulted. People scoffed and said I was probably typing recipes for the Mess Hall or some such thing. It was the most natural thing in the world, with the mental picture of the Atomic Bomb Laboratory before me, to say, in the vernacular, "Brother, if you only knew!!" The officer from Washington asked many questions such as, "Would you be happy away from civilization, night clubs, movies, etc.?" "Is anyone dependent upon you?" "Can your family get along without you for an indefinite period of time?" "Can you work long and hard on an important task without recognition?" By the time the interview was over I was burning with curiosity. I didn't sleep much that night.

A period of several days elapsed when I was told to report to my Commanding Officer. From there I was on a merry-go-round. First a Classification Record check, then a clothing and equipment check in the company supply room. After that I packed my barracks bags and was transferred to the Staging area where I was issued a gas mask and several other things. At midnight a truck took myself and five others who had survived the interview screening with me, to the Rock Island Station. Our barracks bags were loaded on the train and we received a copy of our orders. They read "Fort Sill, Oklahoma." We were heartbroken. We had all expected to go overseas. Now we had visions of sweating out the war in muggy Oklahoma, which incidentally is a far cry from the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of said state.

We arrived at Fort Sill around noon of the following day. It was so hot we thought we would melt before we got to the WAC area. When we arrived we were met by a Lt. Creighton and thirty other WACs, whom we were informed, were "going with us". Rumors Were Flying. We knew then that Fort Sill was not our ultimate destination, but we could not tell anyone. We were not to unpack our bags, but were to be ready to leave at any time. We were assigned to no duties at Fort Sill, and we made good use of the swimming pool and spacious grounds around us. One of the Field Artillery Battalions invited us to a party to be given Friday night, but at noon on Thursday Lt. Creighton came into the Mess Hall, blew her whistle and ordered, "All my girls leave at once! Pile your barracks bags on the truck waiting in back of your barracks. Get on the truck yourselves. Talk to no one, and await further orders!"

There was a dead silence in the Mess Hall as she spoke, but the minute she walked out the place was alive with excitement. Thirty-six of us jumped up and rushed out the door. The rest of the girls who were with the WAC companies permanently stationed at Fort Sill started buzzing like bees. They were dying of curiosity, and green with envy. From the curiosity end, they had nothing on us. We followed Lt. Creighton's orders, and she found us and our bags on the truck within five minutes. We were each handed tags and told to write on them our name, rank, and First Provisional WAC Detachment, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Again we were disappointed because we thought we were going overseas, but by now we felt perhaps Santa Fe was just another stopping point – perhaps there we would train for our work in Alaska, Russia or what have you. Bets were flying among us as fast as rumors as to our ultimate destination, but we were all way off the track. Lt. Creighton would answer no questions concerning our destination. The truck took us to the station and we boarded a train. About twenty-four hours later we arrived at Albuquerque where we were immediately put on a bus which took us to the State Highway Patrol Station just outside Santa Fe.

At the Highway Patrol Station we were greeted by a WAC and an Army Officer, who unceremoniously shoved us onto two Army trucks standing by. The trucks were covered on the tops and sides, and as we piled in the WAC Officer told us to take a good long look around us because it might be a long while before we saw civilization again. Before we had time to digest her ominous remark the trucks took off and we found ourselves climbing a mountain. After several hours of climbing the trucks stopped and the drivers got out and removed the canvas from the top and sides so we could look around. We were told that we were at a pretty high altitude and we were going even higher so if we became dizzy we should let someone know. We were all so dizzy from the excitement of our unknown destination we could never have blamed it on the altitude. We stood up in the trucks and gazed at the mountains above us, below us, and all around us. The drivers started off again, and to release the tension we started singing. We sang all the rest of the way and our throats became raw from the dust along the mountain road.

It was dark outside when we finally arrived at our destination. We were hungry, tired and dirty. After washing up a bit we were taken to the dining hall, which was a pleasant surprise. Unlike the usual Army Mess Hall, the Lodge (where we ate for a month until our Mess Hall was built) was a beautiful log and knotty pine building, formerly used by an exclusive boys' school. We ate at tables covered with crisp white tablecloths, and were served delicious hot food by civilian waiters. (Only a veteran can appreciate those things.) Between the mountain air, the long journey, and the good food we really ate. After dinner we had a few minutes to look around. The beauty of the mountain scenery was breathtaking. Millions of stars shone brightly in the clear sky, and pine trees rose majestically all around. The cool green grass was so refreshing after the dirt and dust of the Army Posts and the mountain road.

We were soon summoned to meet at a cabin known as the "WAAC Shack", and were introduced to a Colonel in the Corps of Engineers who was the Commanding Officer of the Post. He greeted us all and said he hoped we would like our new assignment. Since he knew we had had a long trip he suggested we get a good night's sleep and said he would tell us more about our assignment in the morning. Before he dismissed us he told us we could mail no letters nor make any telephone calls until he spoke to us again. You might suspect that we spent many hours that night turning over in our minds the prospects of our new assignment, but you would be wrong. As soon as we were taken to our temporary quarters we literally "fell in" to bed and were all asleep before we had time to begin to rehash the exciting events of the day.

The next morning started off a little rough as we found there was only one bathroom in our apartment, which housed sixteen of us. This proved particularly inconvenient since we all had to be up and dressed at the same time. However, our enthusiasm and curiosity over what lay ahead of us kept us from what would probably otherwise have ended in the hair pulling stage.

After we had breakfast at the lodge we were taken to a long wooden building which we learned was the Administration Building. The colonel was waiting for us. He told us that he was sorry our barracks and Mess Hall was not ready but that they were getting them finished as soon as possible. He said that we were on one of the most important assignments in the army, and that everything possible would be done to make us happy in our new surroundings. He informed us that we would be divided into two groups – Administrative and Technical. Then he proceeded to call off a list of those who would be in the Administrative group. All but about ten of our names were called, and mine was not among them. The group whose names were called were summoned into a large conference room where they would be assigned to their jobs.

The ten of us who remained at first felt disappointed, but in a very few seconds our disappointment changed to wide-eyed amazement. Two armed guards entered the room. We were given orders to line up single file. With a guard on each side of us we were marched over to what we learned was the Technical Area. This area was completely enclosed with a six-foot barbed wire fence. The gate was heavily guarded and we were counted as we entered. We were told not to look around us and not to say a word. Once inside the fence, we were taken into a building and brought into a room upstairs. The guards were posted at the door and no one could enter or leave. The room was so quiet our breathing could be easily heard. In a few minutes the guards allowed a tall, thin, unimpressive but kind looking man of about forty to enter the room. With him came an attractive young woman who was his secretary. She greeted us, and without further adieu said that Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer would like to speak to us.

"Oppy" (as Dr. Oppenheimer is affectionately known to all who work with him) is mild-mannered, conservatively dressed, quiet and completely natural, but whenever he is connected with a job, that job is done in the quickest and most efficient manner possible. Sitting in that room on that day which seems eternities ago, we did not dream that we were being spoken to by one of the greatest nuclear physicists in the world. "Oppy" began by welcoming us to Los Alamos. He told us also that we had been chosen for probably the most important assignment in the army. He said that our work was a closely guarded secret and that even those of us stationed at Los Alamos would probably not know the nature of the project going on. He said that perhaps in the course of time some of our eyes would be opened to what was going on. When and if that time came, we were to mention nothing to anyone – not to our Commanding Officer, first sergeant, bunkmate, or best friend. We could best do our jobs by working hard and asking no questions. He wound up by saying that the success or failure of the project of which we were now a part might well mean the winning or losing of the war for the Allied Nations.

We sat spellbound, and for one of the few times, speechless. All sorts of thoughts entered our minds, but none of us said a word. The secretary then called off our names in groups of one and two, and those whose names were called were taken by one of the guards to meet their prospective section chiefs. Edith and I found our excitement almost uncontrollable when we were introduced to a tall, thin man with a white beard and twinkling blue eyes, clad in a pair of blue jeans, a plaid shirt and tennis shoes. We were introduced to Dr. [Donald A.] Flanders, whom we learned was a great mathematician. In a few seconds Dr. Oppenheimer entered the office and spoke to Dr. Flanders. Then he explained to us that Dr. Flanders was going to give us an opportunity to work for him doing mathematical calculations. It seems that our "A.G.C.T." scores showed we would be good at figures, and this important scientist was willing to teach us what he wanted us to do in assisting him. I kept pinching myself until I was so sore I knew I could not be dreaming.

We all met back in the big room with the guards, and Dr. Oppenheimer spoke to us again. He told us that before we left we would be issued those items which were necessary in order to enter the Technical Area without an armed guard. We were given a round button with a number in the middle and a colored circle around the edge. Then we were given two passes. One corresponded to the number and the other to the color of the circle. Without all three of these we would never be allowed to enter the area. (I was later to walk three miles to my barracks and back, mostly uphill and at an altitude of over 8,000 feet, because I changed coats and did not transfer the button to the one I was wearing. Although I saw the same guard everyday for months, he could not let me in.) We were told that we could never mention the name Los Alamos. Our address would be merely P.O. Box 1539, Santa Fe, New Mexico. We could mention the names of no one we met on the Post, nor the occupations of said people, if we knew them. Those who deserved the title "Doctor" would be referred to as Mister. The nature of our work was not to be mentioned. As far as the girl in the bunk next to me was concerned, I was doing typing. We could make outgoing telephone calls on a one-line switchboard which was always open, but no incoming calls. Those of us in the Technical Area would receive no passes or furloughs. Anyone who left on emergency or business matters was accompanied by an armed guard. Dr. Oppenheimer ended the speech by saying he could not begin to impress upon us the importance of our work.

As we filed out the gate we took a deep breath. One little, two little, ten little soldiers completely dazed by the enormity of what was happening to them. When we went to dinner, the others in the Administrative department were jabbing away and asked us all about our work. They interpreted our silence as disappointment and felt sorry for us. Later they too scoffed and said we were not as important as we seemed to think. We said nothing. Many times, when the Administrative WACs got disgusted, tired, or lonesome and said they thought the "project" was just another army farce, we had all we could do to remain quiet, for even those of us in the Technical Area who did not know the "answer" had seen enough to know that this was no farce. But we could not tell about the large chemical laboratories we saw each day at work, about the Monday morning meetings of the greatest chemists, physicists and mathematicians in the world, of the mysterious machines operating down in the basement of the laboratory.

My work was extremely interesting, and Dr. Flanders, in spite of his eccentricities was a great and a kind man. It was the custom of all the members of the mathematics department to have tea every afternoon at three. From Edith and I to the head mathematician we drank tea and ate cookies, with no thought of distinction. When I was sent to the hospital after a fall from a horse I worried for fear Dr. Flanders would get someone else in my place. I did not have to worry long, for the second day I was in the hospital he came over to see me with a bouquet of flowers. He visited with me for quite some time and sent regards from all of the department with hopes that I would hurry back to work. I knew then that the greater the man is the more humble and humane he is. I developed such a strong respect for these scientists, not for their brains and knowledge alone, but for their selflessness and down-to-earthness, and the humility of these men and women who know about forces in this universe so big that they can feel their own size next to them.

The form of entertainment these people most enjoyed were the barn dances on Monday nights and skating on the pond as soon as it was frozen. There was a barn-like sort of building that was converted into a movie house. Horseback riding completed the list of recreational activities. There were no social cliques among the civilians. Laborer and mastermind were friendly. This did not apply to the army, however, where they continued to associate according to the almighty "rank". There was often friction between army officers who wanted to dictate to civilians about matters which the civilians were far more qualified to handle in their own ways.

After working for several months for Dr. Flanders, I was sent to a new assignment. Dr. Flanders said that Dr. and Mrs. Graves, both important physicists, needed someone to assist them in doing calculating. I stuttered that I knew nothing about Physics, but I was sent down to the Physics Laboratory where Mrs. Graves began to teach me the work I was to do. My eyes were really opening now. I was getting my calculations right from one of the mysterious machines in the basement. I had to lock my work up in the safe at night and unlock it again each morning. I was sometimes afraid to go to bed for fear I would talk in my sleep. Of course, I could still not be sure of what was going on. No one could be sure because each department worked separately and no one but Dr. Oppenheimer got all the pieces of the puzzle. However, I was close enough to know that we were working on a powerful explosive, and my guess was that it would be in the form of a torpedo. Mrs. Graves was one of the many wives of great scientists up there who were very brilliant scientists themselves. She was also another example of the down-to-earthness of really big people. I was invited to have Thanksgiving dinner at her home. According to the army I was only a measly Corporal, but to her I was a fellow worker whom she invited to share her food and hospitality on Thanksgiving Day.

Unfortunately the strain of getting up at the crack of dawn, living in a very high altitude, working under extreme tension all day and coming home to wash, iron, shine shoes, straighten lockers, drill, etc. seemed to be a predisposing cause to the illness to which I succumbed, and I was sent to the hospital. At 9 A.M. on the day I was to leave the hospital, I received orders that I was being transferred. I was to be packed and ready to leave by 10 A.M. I was not allowed to say goodbye to anyone. My Commanding Officer and two armed Military Police accompanied me to the Santa Fe Station where I boarded a bus for Albuquerque and then a train back to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

During the seven weeks I spent in the hospital in Oklahoma I relived the four months I had spent at Los Alamos. It all seemed like a dream – the Trading Post with its Juke Box where we could dance, the people from all over the world who were combining their genius on the biggest project in the world's history, the secret visit of Einstein which was kept so guarded we did not know the great man had been there until three weeks after his visit, meeting General Groves who was the head of the entire Manhattan Project, our Day Room which was finally built, and its beautiful fire place overlooking a canyon, and its little stove and snack bar. I did not know how long I would have to keep all I had seen and heard locked inside of me. It seemed too big to keep sometimes and I felt as if I would burst if I did not have an opportunity to unburden myself. A girl from Post Intelligence at Fort Sill was planted in the bed next to me with a fake nervous breakdown. The day I left the hospital she hinted to me that the seven weeks she spent in the hospital was all "in the line of duty" and she was glad I had not talked to her about anything confidential. The girls at Fort Sill who knew that I was one of the group passing through four months ago were simply wild with curiosity, but my lips were sealed.

Eventually I received a medical discharge and was sent home. After a recuperative period, I entered the University of California at Los Angeles under the Veteran's Rehabilitation Program, but it was over a long year before the explosion occurred, which allowed me to release the tension and let flow the long list of taboo subjects about one of the biggest secrets the world has ever witnessed.