March was Women's History Month. Tens of thousands of women, including Hispanas, Native Americans, and African-Americans, played important roles in varying aspects of the Manhattan Project.

From a military standpoint, the Women's Army Corps (WAC's) provided much of the administrative and clerical manpower and generally "filled-in" wherever they were needed. Civilian women worked as nurses, physicists, engineers, machine operators, maids, runners, drivers, chemists, typists, filers, doctors, inspectors, researchers, teachers, veterinarians, cryptographers, draftswomen, pipe-fitters, glass blowers, secretaries, and gauge watchers. These women were generally over-worked, under-paid and over-looked but were driven to do their part to end the war.

To learn more about the women in the Manhattan Project, see our article on Women and the Bomb or visit our Manhattan Project Veterans Database with over 13,000 profiles. 

Legacies of the Manhattan Project Conference
AHF President Cindy Kelly during her presentation. Photo courtesy of Dan Ostergaard.
Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) President Cindy Kelly and Program Manager Nate Weisenberg recently attended the "Legacies of the Manhattan Project: Reflections on 75 Years of a Nuclear World" conference in Richland, Washington.  Hosted by the Hanford History Project at Washington State University (WSU) Tri-Cities, the conference brought together dozens of participants for four days of wide-ranging conversations. Attendees included representatives of the National Park Service and the Department of Energy, academics, activists, museum staff, and preservationists.

Among the many presentations during the four-day conference, AHF's focused on the Ranger in Your Pocket digital interpretive programs as part of the panel "Engaging the Past: Understanding the Manhattan Project in the Twenty-First Century." 

Tanya Bowers.
Photo courtesy of Dan Ostergaard.
The session also featured Professor Todd Timmons of the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith on the use of roleplaying to assess President Truman's decision to use the atomic bombs against Japan, and Tanya Bowers of the African American Community, Cultural, and Educational Society (AACCES) on teaching about the African-American experience.  The audience engaged in a stimulating discussion in the Q&A session. Most agreed on the importance of reaching younger audiences and including diverse perspectives.

A highlight of the conference was a reception and panel on the preservation of Hanford's B Reactor (below), the world's first full-scale plutonium production reactor. The B Reactor is now part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park (MPNHP), which also has units at Oak Ridge, TN, and Los Alamos, NM. 

The panel included Del Ballard of the B Reactor Museum Association (BRMA), Colleen French, senior official with the Department of Energy's Richland Operations Office, Tom Marceau, archaeology professor at WSU Tri-Citi es, and former Congressman "Doc" Hastings. 

Each played an instrumental role over the last 15 years in preserving B Reactor and Hanford's Manhattan Project heritage.  As chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Hastings's leadership and unflagging support were critical to the passage of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act. BRMA recognized the role that AHF played in preventing B Reactor from being "cocooned" and working on the legislation for the MPNHP.

Other sessions provided a variety of perspectives on the Manhattan Project. One panel featured several downwinders, local residents who believe that Hanford's plutonium production during the Manhattan Project and Cold War caused cancer and other adverse health effects. The spokespersons urged that the downwinders' stories be included in the interpretation of Hanford's history.

The restored White Bluffs Bank. 
Photo courtesy of Dan Ostergaard.
Manhattan Project National Historical Park superintendent Kris Kirby updated attendees on the park's progress. After recently completing the park's foundation document, the National Park Service will now begin the process of developing an interpretive plan, collections management plan, and introductory film. Kirby emphasized NPS's commitment to including different voices and perspectives in the Manhattan Project NHP. You can read more about NPS's interpretive themes here.

We are grateful to the Hanford History Project for organizing an excellent conference. The program included many different perspectives on the Manhattan Project and its legacy. AHF looks forward to working with WSU Tri-Cities, BRMA, AACCES and the many others who are working to preserve and share the complex Manhattan Project story. 

For our full article on the conference, please click here. For more on Hanford preservation and interpretation efforts, please see Colleen French's piece in the Tri-City Herald,  Manhattan Project National Historical Park: Sharing an important piece of our history.

AHF 2016 Annual Report Now Available
The Atomic Heritage Foundation's 2016 annual report is now available online here. The report details AHF's accomplishments in 2016 and provides updates on our efforts to preserve and interpret the history and legacy of the Manhattan Project. Highlights include:
  • The Manhattan Project National Historical Park made progress; Kris Kirby took charge as the new superintendent
  • "Ranger in Your Pocket" program "Know Before You Go" at Hanford launched; program on the Bethe House at Los Alamos to be launched in April 2017
  • AHF met with Manhattan Project veterans who participated on Honor Flight programs
  • History articles published on AHF website on a wide variety of topics


If you would like a hard copy, please email us at with your address and we will be glad to mail you one.

LeonaLibbyManhattan Project Spotlight: Leona Marshall Libby
Leona Marshall Libby. 
Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.
Leona Marshall Libby was arguably the most influential female scientist to work on the Manhattan Project. She was just in her early twenties during World War II. Libby was the only woman present when the Chicago Pile-1 went critical, and she went on to work on reactor development at Hanford, Washington.

Libby graduated from the University of Chicago with a B.S. in chemistry, and while working on her Ph.D. she was hired at the Chicago Met Lab in 1942. Her job was to build boron trifluoride counters for detection of the neutron flux in the Chicago Pile-1, and to takes notes on Enrico Fermi's lectures to the crew who were building the pile. In a 1986 interview, Libby recalled the fervor which overtook the scientists at the Met Lab: "I think everyone was terrified that we were wrong [in our way of developing the bomb] and the Germans were ahead of us. It was a very frightening time."

Although she was not allowed to handle the graphite blocks used to build Chicago Pile-1, Libby helped calibrate the equipment used to measure CP-1's output. After the pile went critical for the first time, she remembered that "somewhat later, after the control rods were all put to bed and the charts were pulled out and clipped up and so on, Eugene Wigner showed up with a famous little flask of Chianti. He poured it into a paper cup. He went and drank it very quietly. There was no toast, nothing, no remarks. Nothing very dramatic, really: The most effective kind of drama probably at that point."

Chicago Pile-1 reunion, December 2, 1946. 
Libby is in the middle row at right.
During her time at Chicago, Libby also developed a close relationship with Enrico Fermi . The two would remain good friends for years to come after the war. Soon after the pile was moved to Argonne, Fermi would keep Libby's confidence in concealing a secret that almost prevented her from continuing her work at Chicago: she was pregnant. Libby had married fellow Met Lab scientist John Marshall in July 1943 and became pregnant soon after.

For the next few months, Libby wore baggy clothes to work to conceal her pregnancy. As she later remembered in her memoir "The Uranium People," "Close to the end of the canonical 9 months, Enrico began to worry about the 27 miles that separated the Argonne and Lying-In Hospital at the University of Chicago. He was worried that labor might come on suddenly, and so he asked for instructions from Laura [Fermi] on how to deliver a baby if need be on top of CP-2." This would not come to pass, because as Libby explained, she "went to the hospital a couple of days early with high blood pressure, and came out with a baby and was back at work in a week, not quite on par with Italian peasants, but close to it."

In 1944, Libby and Marshall moved to Hanford to work on the plutonium production B Reactor. The officer-in-charge at Hanford, Colonel Franklin Matthias,  would remember Libby as "a great gal." During an incident on September 27, 1944, the reactor lost all power only hours after going critical. Libby recalled  that "people stood around and stared at each other." Libby was among the group that would discover that the reactor was suffering from xenon-135 "poisoning," which absorbed neutrons faster than they were produced, thus shutting down the reactor. According to Libby,  they were the "babysitters" of the Hanford reactor.
One of 24 John Cadel paintings recreating the Chicago Pile-1 going critical. 
Libby is second from right. Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.
Libby later defended the decision to drop the bomb: " I certainly do recall how I felt when the atomic bombs were used. My brother-in-law was captain of the first minesweeper scheduled into Sasebo Harbor. My brother was a Marine, with a flame thrower, on Okinawa. I'm sure these people would not have lasted in an invasion. It was pretty clear the war would continue, with half a million of our fighting men dead not to say how many Japanese. You know and I know that General (Curtis) LeMay firebombed Tokyo and nobody even mentions the slaughter that happened then. They think Nagasaki and Hiroshima were something compared to the firebombing. THEY'RE WRONG! I have no regrets. I think we did right, and we couldn't have done it differently. Yeah, I know it has been suggested the second bomb, Nagasaki, was not necessary. The guys who cry on shoulders. When you are in a war, to the death, I don't think you stand around and ask, "Is it right?""

After the war, Libby conducted research at Princeton University alongside J. Robert Oppenheimer, before going to work for the RAND Corporation. She would later teach at UCLA, where she helped to create the department of environmental science and engineering.

Libby died on November 10, 1986, in Santa Monica, California. In 2016, the Leona Libby Middle School  was established in Richland, Washington.  For the full spotlight, please click here. To listen to the interview with Libby and S. L. Sanger, please click here.

LLNLDeclassified Videos of Cold War Nuclear Tests go Viral
Plumbbob-Hood nuclear test, July 1957
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) recently released a set of previously classified videos of United States atmospheric nuclear tests. The videos have gone viral since being posted, with millions of views, and were covered in the Washington PostThe initial set of 45 films, which can be viewed on YouTube, is just a start. 

For the past five years, weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and his team have been working to locate, scan, and analyze an estimated 10,000 films of 210 U.S. tests conducted between 1945 and 1962. According to Spriggs, LLNL has thus far located approximately 6,500 films, of which they have scanned 4,200 and analyzed 400 to 500. He says they will need at least another two years to scan the rest of the films.

Weapon physicist Greg Spriggs
Weapon physicist Greg Spriggs
"You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films," noted Spriggs. "They're made out of organic material, and organic material decomposes. So this is it. We got to this project just in time to save the data." Jim Moye, a film expert now working at LLNL, shared a similar sentiment: "I enjoy very much being involved in preserving the film and the history, because it is going to be gone at some point, and we don't have forever to do this."

To see more videos of Cold War nuclear tests, please visit AHF's YouTube channel.

HistoryRoundupHistory Article Roundup

Here is a roundup of some of the best articles published on the history of science, the Manhattan Project, and World War II this month. 

  • The Girls With Radioactive Bones: The Atlantic interviews Kate Moore, author of the book The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women. Moore discusses the women who worked as radium dial painters and how their fates influenced the Manhattan Project's radiation safety efforts.
  • The Haunting Photos That a Holocaust Victim Buried as Evidence: In 1944, Jewish photojournalist Henryk Ross buried 6,000 negatives and prints he had taken documenting the degradation and tragedy of daily life in the Lodz Ghetto. After the ghetto was liberated in 1945 by the Red Army, Ross recovered his cache. Now his Lodz Ghetto photographs will be exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Here are some oral history interviews we have recently added to the  Voices of the Manhattan Project website

Rachel Bronson has served as the Executive Director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since February 2015. In this interview, she discusses the role the Bulletin plays today in informing the public on threats posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies. She articulates Bulletin co-founder Eugene Rabinowitch's concerns about the "Pandora's box of modern science." She also describes an exhibit opening in May 2017 that the Bulletin is putting together in partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Dr. Henry Frisch is a professor of physics at the University of Chicago. He is the son of David Frisch, who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. In this interview, Frisch discusses the University of Chicago's role in the Manhattan Project and how leading figures at UChicago advocated for civilian control of atomic energy. He also shares some of his father's stories from Los Alamos, and reflects on the challenges of addressing nuclear weapons today.

Russell E. Gackenbach was a navigator in the 393rd Bombardment Squadron. He flew on both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions. His crew flew aboard the Necessary Evil, which was the camera plane for the Hiroshima mission. Gackenbach photographed the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. His crew flew again during the Nagasaki mission as the weather reconnaissance plane for the city of Kokura. In this interview, Gackenbach describes his wartime experiences, from enlisting in the service, to training in Wendover, UT and Cuba with the modified B-29s, to flying on both atomic bomb missions. He recalls the personalities of other members and leaders in the 509th, including Col. Paul Tibbets and his crew pilot, Capt. George Marquardt. 

Roger Hildebrand is an American physicist and the S.K. Allison Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus, at the University of Chicago. His involvement with the Manhattan Project began with a tap on the shoulder by Ernest Lawrence, who convinced Hildebrand to shift from being a chemist to a physicist. He worked with cyclotrons and mass spectrometers at Berkeley before transferring to the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge. In this interview, Hildebrand shares his memories of Lawrence, Enrico Fermi, Samuel Allison, and other Manhattan Project scientists. He recalls his postwar work at the University of Chicago, and the pressure of being a substitute for Enrico Fermi one of his classes.

Milton Levenson is an American chemical engineer and former president of the American Nuclear Society who has worked in the nuclear energy field for more than 60 years. During the Manhattan Project, he worked at Decatur, IL, and Oak Ridge, TN, where he was a supervisor at the X-10 plant. In this interview, he describes how he joined the Manhattan Project and his experiences at Oak Ridge, including his memories of segregation there. Levenson then talks about his post-war career as an expert on nuclear safety, including his role in responding to the SL-1, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl accidents.

Peter Vandervoort is an American astrophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. In this interview, Vandervoort shares stories about the university's role in the Manhattan Project. He describes how different buildings on its campus were appropriated for the project. He later discusses his interactions with the university's distinguished physics faculty members after the war, such as Nobel Prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was Vandervoort's Ph.D. advisor in the 1950s. Vandervoort also talks about the university's community outreach efforts and contributions of women to physics.

Esther Vigil was living in the Española Valley with her family when Los Alamos was selected as a site for the Manhattan Project. She attended school at Los Alamos for several years. Both she and her mother worked at Los Alamos, babysitting the children of famous scientists like Edward Teller and Stanislaus Ulam. Vigil also worked for the Supply and Property Department. In this interview, she discusses not only her experiences at Los Alamos but also her later contributions to preserving local culture, a passion her mother also shared. She explains how she helped preserve and reintroduce the tradition of colcha embroidery.

Thanks to all the Manhattan Project veterans, their families and many others who have supported our efforts over the past 15 years.  The "Voices of the Manhattan Project" website now contains more than 440 oral history interviews. We are continuing to interview Manhattan Project veterans, family members, and experts around the country.

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