Frances Jacob: "My Lips Were Sealed"
When Frances Jacob joined the Women's Army Corps (WAC), she never expected to be pulled from the typing pool and reassigned to a secret project cloaked in mystery. In her memoir, "Nervous in the Service, or Up and Atom," she remembered the thorough screening she went through before being sent to an unknown destination high in the mountains of New Mexico, her introduction to Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist behind the atomic bomb, and the part she ultimately played in the Manhattan Project.
It all started back in May, in the year, 1944. I was busy typing some pages of what is now the WAC [Women's Army Corps] 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. 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 time a WAC Officer had been flown all the way from Washington, D.C. to interview us. The officer asked me a question which I was to remember until the eventful day 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, people scoffed and said I was probably typing recipes for the Mess Hall or some such thing. 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 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.
We arrived at Fort Sill around noon of the following day. We were met by a Lt. Creighton and thirty other WACs, whom we were informed, were "going with us". We were not to unpack our bags, but were to be ready to leave at any time. 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. 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. Lt. Creighton would answer no questions concerning our destination. 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.
It was dark outside when we finally arrived at our destination. We were hungry, tired and dirty. 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. 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.
The next morning started off a little rough as we found there was only one bathroom in our apartment, which housed sixteen of us. 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 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. Dr. Oppenheimer 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. 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. 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. Dr. Flanders was going to give us an opportunity to work for him doing mathematical calculations.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
After working for several months for Dr. Flanders, I was sent to a new assignment. 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. 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.
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 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 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. I did not know how long I would have to keep all I had seen and heard locked inside of me.
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.
Jacob, Frances, "Nervous in the Service," or "Up and Atom." Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection, [194-].