Scientists in uniform - the Special Engineer Detachment

The Special Engineer Detachment (SED) of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) at play.

In October 1943, the 9812th Special Engineer Detachment (SED) of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) began to supply technical personnel to the Laboratory. Scientists who had not been recruited in the early days of the Laboratory, but who had been drafted into the Army, were now routed to New Mexico to make a different contribution to the war than any they could have anticipated.

So, even though Robert Bacher, who headed the Experimental Physics Division, and other Los Alamos scientists had refused to don a uniform, the military had scientists in uniform at Los Alamos. In fact, 42 percent of the Laboratory wore uniforms. "Although the Army had failed to get the senior scientists in uniform as it wanted to, it did succeed in getting some very young men who were students in engineering and physics - some of them with Ph.D.s."

Bernice Brode, the wife of Robert Brode who was in charge of the group that designed fusing and firing of the bomb, recalled in her "Tales of Los Alamos," "The SED boys were quite different from the regular post soldiers. They looked, in spite of the uniforms, like budding professors instead of combat troops. Shortly after they came up to the Hill, some high brass from Washington came for a formal military review in the baseball field in front of the Big House [at Fuller Lodge].

"All of us came with our children to see the show. The MPs, the post soldiers, the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and even the doctors made a fine upright showing as they marched across the field, but the newly arrived SED boys were terrible. They couldn't keep in step. Their lines were crooked. They didn't stand properly. They waved at friends and grinned. The situation was not helped by the fact that they received the loudest applause from the bleachers. The visiting brass let it be known that they were displeased, and one general even called them a disgrace to the army."

Despite their performance as GIs, these young men "worked long hours in the tech area," according to Brode, and "although they often worked late into the night to meet a deadline, they were expected to arise at dawn for inspection and drill by tough sergeants from the regulars.

"Once, when a sergeant became irritated by his yawning, half-hearted crew and shouted, ‘If you guys think I like this job, you got another think coming,' one of the SED boys offered to lead the drill in his place. He shouted orders in imitation of the sergeant's voice: ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down. Thumbs wiggle-waggle.' Even the sergeant broke down and dismissed them. My husband and others who used the SED boys finally got their discipline relaxed, the drill stopped, and the inspection let go so they could sleep in the morning."

By the end of 1943, nearly 475 SEDs had arrived. By 1945, the unit included 1,823 men. Most were mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers. About 29 percent of them had college degrees. Because of their special skills, exemption from drill was not the only privilege accorded them. They were all permitted to be non-commissioned officers, and two-thirds of them ranked sergeant or higher.

Since many had no basic training, the members of other military units, such as the military police, who were also assigned to Los Alamos, resented their "apparent infringement on the military prerogative." According to Lt. Edith C. Truslow, a WAC then at Los Alamos, "Even before the nature of the project was published, many enlisted men tried to obtain transfers to the SED."

The SED was the result of the shortage of scientific and technical personnel at the time the Laboratory was founded.

In May 1943, the MED had established the detachment with an initial allotment of 675 men, divided into a headquarters detachment and four separate companies. Soldiers were recruited through the Army specialized training program, at universities and colleges throughout the country, and the Roster of Scientific and Specialized Personnel. The National Defense Research Committee, founded to mobilize academic and industrial science in 1940, had compiled the roster.

The establishment of the 9812th SED at Los Alamos allowed the MED to route civilian scientists and technicians whose deferments they could not or would not arrange to the Laboratory. The MED was often reluctant to intervene with local draft boards to secure deferments because it could not reveal the nature of its work. In late 1943, however, when fathers and those with occupational deferments began to be drafted, Laboratory Director J. Robert Oppenheimer predicted disaster for the project. The MED's Selective Service Section took drastic steps to secure their deferments, and by the end of the war, more than 60,000 deferment actions, involving scientists at Los Alamos; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Chicago; and Berkeley, Calif., among other MED installations, were processed.

Nevertheless, when in February 1944 the War Department forbade the deferment of men under 22 in the employment of the Army or its contractors, a number of the younger civilian scientists found themselves drafted and reassigned to the Laboratory as members of the SED. They thus joined those who had already been inducted and wound up far from the front.

For those who were drafted and wound up in the SED, conditions were, if superior to their uniformed companions, inferior to those of civilian scientists who had won deferments at Los Alamos. Unlike them, SED technicians and scientists could not bring their families to Los Alamos or to surrounding communities.

Their commander, Maj. Peer de Silva, who was also the Post Military Intelligence Officer, refused to allow their wives to be hired at Los Alamos so that they could be quartered on-site. This, the official Army history tells us, "severely strained the morale of many junior scientists and technicians."

As they arrived at Los Alamos, the members of the SED found themselves assigned to test sites being completed at Anchor Ranch and S-Site. As they became familiar with the work, they won support from their civilian supervisors in matters of military discipline and promotion. George Kistiakowsky, who headed the division in charge of explosives development at S-Site, took their complaints to Oppenheimer and MED Commander, Gen. Leslie Groves.

Riding back to Albuquerque with the general after one of Groves' trips to Los Alamos, Kistiakowsky insisted that the SED receive better treatment. "Of course Groves immediately told me that as a civilian I had no business to tell him anything about Army matters," Kistiakowsky recalled, "and I said that the SEDs were part of my technical staff, they had to report to me, they had to work for me and therefore I had the authority. Well, I got absolutely nowhere. I then used my ultimate weapon: I said I would resign."

Before he could resign, Maj. T.O. Palmer was appointed to replace de Silva as commander of the SED in August 1944. He developed a system under which the groups and divisions made promotion recommendations. This maintained morale, even though conflicting military and laboratory duties continued to be a problem.

In addition to the ordnance test sites, SEDs were assigned to the group of computers working under Richard Feynman using IBM punched-card calculators. Feynman objected to the Army's refusal to tell the SEDs what they were working on. "They came to work, and what they had to do was work on IBM machines-punching holes, numbers that they didn't understand. Nobody told them what it was."

Feynman convinced Oppenheimer to get special permission "so I could give a nice lecture about what we were doing, and they were all excited: ‘We're fighting a war; we see what it is!' They knew what the numbers meant." This led to a "complete transformation" according to Feynman. "They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night, they invented several of the programs that we used, and so my boys came through, and all that had to be done was to tell them what it was."

Val Fitch, who later won a Nobel Prize in Physics recalls, "A number of young men, like myself, very early in their lives and careers, were exposed to superb physicists who were remarkable in many respects, and it had a profound influence upon us." After another summer at Los Alamos in 1948, Fitch received his Ph. D. from Columbia University in 1954 and went on to win the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in particle physics.

Many other members of the SED went on to scientific careers. Los Alamos provided all of them an opportunity to associate with some of the leading physicists, chemists and metallurgists of their time. Some, like Bill Hudgins, returned to Los Alamos to work on the MANIAC and STRETCH computers. Gerold Tenney, a long-time group leader in WX Division and others also became part of the postwar staff. Among those who had to don a uniform in World War II, the SEDs were surely among the most fortunate. Before they could muster out, however, the SEDs had to complete the biggest test of all -Trinity.

- Robert W. Seidel

Next: Trinity - Completion of the wartime mission