109 East Palace

book cover of 109 East PalaceThe fascinating book “109 East Palace, Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos,” was written by Jennet Conant.  She is the granddaughter of James B. Conant, the administrator of the Manhattan Project. The address in the title was given to people who were to report for work on the Manhattan Project.  They would enter a wrought iron gate and narrow passageway off a tourist plaza to meet Dorothy McKibbin, a widow who became the gatekeeper for twenty-seven months to Los Alamos and personal confidant to Oppenheimer.  The relationship between General Leslie R. Groves and Oppenheimer also fits into the story.  The two men were able to work together effectively despite opposite personalities.  The author writes in the preface that the book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes details “the saga of scientific discovery,” while her book examines “the very personal stories of the projects key personnel.”

Arthur Compton, the director of the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) at the University of Chicago (unofficially “bomb headquarters,”) summoned J. Robert Oppenheimer to an assembly of brilliant physicists including Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Richard Tolman, and Robert Serber to meet in attic rooms in Le Conte Hall. The meetings were held in the utmost secrecy, but Priscilla Greene, Oppenheimer’s young secretary one day walked into his office to find a drawing of what “…was obviously a bomb.” “Almost immediately after that, everyone started calling it ‘the gadget’.”

Leslie Groves was assigned to be the military head of what would be called the Manhattan Project, and he was not a popular choice. His military second in command, Colonel Kenneth Nichols, “…later described him as the biggest S.O.B. he ever worked for. He is the most demanding. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. Nichols conceded that he would opt to have Groves as his boss again, because he was ‘one of the most capable individuals’.” Vannevar Bush had observed after meeting Groves, “I fear we are in the soup.” “Compared with the subtle, soft-spoken Oppenheimer, Groves was a blunt and ruthless taskmaster…” However, Oppenheimer impressed Groves in their first meeting. Groves, on the other hand, made people uncomfortable. He had marched into a meeting trailed by Colonel Nichols. He unbuttoned his jacket, handed it to Nichols, and barked, “Find a tailor or dry cleaner and get this pressed!” Observers noted Nichols took the jacket and walked out without a word. My guess is that Groves wanted to send a message with this display of arrogance that he demanded complete compliance.

The difficult to understand but successful relationship between Groves and Oppenheimer is an important part of the book. Groves was so sold on Oppenheimer as the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project that he demanded “Oppie’s” many connections with Communists and other dubious associations be overlooked. Anyone who has endured the lengthy “Q clearance” process will be surprised at how many scientists and others working at Los Alamos had leftist associations.

Jemez Springs was originally chosen for “Site Y,” but when Groves visited the site he declared, “This will never do.” Oppenheimer then directed the party to a site he was familiar with. Groves, standing in a snow storm, said, “This is the place.” Oppenheimer began recruiting for the laboratory with help from James Conant. They had to deal with the reluctance of some in working to build a powerful bomb and the belief by some that the project was a boondoggle that would have nothing to do with the war. Many would not join the project if they had to be army officers. Oppenheimer accepted the designation of lieutenant colonel and had ordered his uniforms, but Rabi warned him no others would join him. Conant negotiated a compromise to begin the project under civilian administration.

Dorothy McKibbin, a key character in the book, had been hired by Oppenheimer to be his assistant in Santa Fe, and she reported to the adobe building at 109 East Palace, thirty-five miles from the mountaintop location of Los Alamos. There was a small blue sign with red letters “U.S. Eng-rs” (apparently a shortened version of engineers) that practically none of the scientists ordered to report to the location ever noticed when they were trying to find the office. Dorothy would issue the passes that were required to enter the guard station on the way to “the Hill.”

Security immediately had an effect on everything. Code names were assigned to the scientists, and the word “physicist” was banned. “Atom” became “Top,” “bomb” became “boat,” “smashing” became “spinning,” and “isotope of uranium” became “igloo of urchin.” Security agents, called G-2 or “creeps” were everywhere. The hours were long and the pace was fast, but the scientists had a scientists had a “…sense of urgency and anticipation (that) was contagious.”

Robert Serber, who was described as soft-spoken with a pronounced lisp, gave a series of five lectures to personnel.  The lectures were later compiled into “Los Alamos Report Number 1:  The Los Alamos Primer” detailing theories about making the bomb.  The primer was required reading for every new scientist joining the project. The introduction given at the first seminar was that, “The object of the project is to produce a practical military weapon in the form of a bomb in which energy is released by a fast neutron chain reaction in one or more of the materials know to show nuclear fission…”  Oppenheimer told him to stop using the word “bomb” and substitute the word “gadget.”

Oppenheimer’s original estimate was that the project would require thirty scientists and their dependants. By 1944 there was a population of 3500 and growing. The U-235 bomb was given priority, and would be a gun assembly that would a subcritical mass fired into a second subcritical mass to produce an atomic explosion.  The gun-type plutonium bomb had to be scrapped for technical reasons and developing the “fat man” implosion bomb became the goal.  The project succeeded at detonating the Trinity nuclear device and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred soon after.  The 2 billion dollar project that employed 125,000 people at the peak of construction had succeeded at giving the military the atomic bomb.

I would put this book on the “required reading list” for people who want to learn about the Manhattan Project.

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