Oppenheimer and his staff arrive

The stakes were high and time was short

Richard Feynman, center, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, right, relax at a social function.

The Big House is where the early arrivals at the Lab were housed.

In March 1943, the new Manhattan Engineer District (MED) Laboratory created to design nuclear weapons was under construction near Ashley Pond in Los Alamos. The man MED commander Gen. Leslie Groves had selected to lead the laboratory, University of California theoretical physicist

J. Robert Oppenheimer, had assembled the beginnings of a staff for the Laboratory. Edward Condon, who had directed the Westinghouse Research Laboratory, had agreed to serve as his assistant, supplying industrial expertise (as well as a background in quantum mechanics) to complement Oppenheimer's academic experience. others were experimental physicist Robert Bacher and theorist Hans Bethe of Cornell University, UC physics professor Edwin McMillan, John Manley and Robert Serber of the University of Illinois, Washington University theorist Edward Teller, and University of Chicago experimentalist Samuel Allison.

Early that same month, Oppenheimer drove to Santa Fe from Berkeley, Calif. His principal theoretical assistant, Serber, followed a couple of days later. "We drove from Berkeley across Route 66 with everything in the car, just as we had done going down to Pasadena, Calif., and to Oppenheimer's ranch in New Mexico in the earlier years. Los Alamos was the kind of mess you'd expect it to be at that stage. The housing wasn't ready, so the Army had rented a couple of dude ranches down in the valley, and most of the people stayed there," Serber wrote.

Richard Feynman came from the other coast. He recounted, "We were told to be very careful not to buy our train tickets in Princeton, N.J., for example, because Princeton was a very small station, and if everybody bought train tickets to Albuquerque, N.M., in Princeton, there would be some suspicions that something was up. And so everybody bought their tickets somewhere else, except me, because I figured if everybody bought their tickets somewhere else. When we arrived, the houses and dormitories were not ready. In fact, even the laboratories were not ready."

The unsettled conditions presented numerous challenges. Oppenheimer had to prevent the Army from cutting down all the trees on the mesa, write out passes on ordinary stationery to get his staff past the construction site guards (only one Army lieutenant staffed the security office and the badges that would become ubiquitous were not yet available) and organize his administrative offices.

"Project Y," the code name for Los Alamos military headquarters, had been set up in the Bishop Building on East Palace Avenue (across the street from the current Palace Restaurant) in Santa Fe on Jan. 4, and an office had been provided for Oppenheimer in another Santa Fe building soon thereafter. Col. John Dudley, who set them up, recalled, "the separation was necessary as the office buildings in Santa Fe at that time were quite small. There wasn't space for the two together. Later I came to realize that actually it was probably a good idea that we were separate." Col. J.M. Harman, the military commander at Los Alamos, arrived on Jan. 16 and, with a staff of six officers, a few civilian experts, and Women's Army Corps secretaries and switchboard operators, planned to provide for the "feeding, shelter, general comfort and welfare" of the technical personnel. Their work, however, was left up to Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer had neither the taste nor the inclination for organization. Very shortly after the military organization was set up in Santa Fe, John Manley, who had coordinated the experimental studies supporting Oppenheimer's theoretical work on bomb design, visited Berkeley to discuss the organization of the Laboratory. Manley said he had "bugged Oppie for I don't know how many months about an organization chart who was going to be responsible for this and who was going to be responsible for that. But each time he would seem to be about as unresponsive as an experimental physicist would think a theorist would be, and I'm sure he was, maybe more so." Arriving at Oppenheimer's office in UC's LeConte Hall, Manley found that Condon had finally persuaded Oppenheimer that it was necessary. "Here's your damned organization chart!" Oppenheimer exclaimed, throwing a piece of paper at Manley.

Manley noted that Oppenheimer had assumed that he would head the theoretical division at Los Alamos as well as directing the Laboratory. Columbia's I.I. Rabi, who advised Oppenheimer extensively during this period based upon his own experience in helping to organize the Massachusett Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory, convinced him that this would not do. Bacher, tapped by Oppenheimer to head the experimental physics division, also argued that Oppenheimer could not perform both jobs. Oppenheimer gave in and appointed Bethe to head the division.

Oppenheimer's optimism about being able to handle both jobs evaporated as his estimate that only about 100 scientific staff would be required proved far too conservative.

Still, there were only a score of research scientists in the first contingent that arrived in the middle of March, including Robert Wilson and Feynman from Princeton. And from the University of Minnesota came Serber and John Williams, who served as acting site director at Los Alamos while the rest of the staff remained at the project office in Santa Fe.

The adaptation to New Mexico life was hard for both the staff and their families. Because they lived on dude ranches around Santa Fe, Laboratory families were often without adequate cooking and other facilities while they awaited completion of housing.

The transportation to Los Alamos was haphazard. The road was poor and there were too few cars, none of which were in good condition. The project's official historian, David Hawkins, reported technical workers were frequently stranded on the road with mechanical breakdowns or flat tires. Eating facilities at the site were not yet in operation and box lunches had to be sent from Santa Fe. It was winter and sandwiches were not viewed with enthusiasm. The car that carried the lunches was inclined to break down. the working day was thus irregular and short, and night work impossible.

Those who did manage to live in Ranch School housing, like Serber and Feynman, experienced other problems. Serber remembered, "I stayed in what had been the dormitory of the old Ranch School that the Army had taken over for the lab, the building called the Big House that's since been torn down. It was a huge log cabin. It had one big bathroom. Charlotte [Serber's wife], would be taking a shower and a boy would stick his head in by mistake and be extremely embarrassed."

Feynman recalled living in the Mechanics' Lodge of the Ranch School. "The first place they put us was in an old school building. ...We were all jammed there in bunk beds, and it wasn't organized very well because Bob Christy, a theoretical physicist from the University of Chicago, and his wife had to go to the bathroom through our bedroom. So that was very uncomfortable. The next place we moved was ... the Big House, which had a balcony all the way around the outside on the second floor, where all the beds were lined up next to each other, along the wall. Downstairs there was a big chart that told you what your bed number was and which bathroom to change your clothes in. Under my name it said Bathroom C, but no bed number! By this time I was getting annoyed."

The hardships of these early pioneers at Los Alamos were only beginning. Working in a half-built laboratory, they faced the challenge of designing a weapon with nuclear materials yet to be made in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash.

The estimates of the amount of uranium-235 that would be required doubled about this time, which meant that the electromagnetic separation facilities planned for Oak Ridge would have to work nearly two months longer than had been planned.

"Since we had no idea where the Germans were in this whole business," Manley recalled, "whether they had isotope separation plants going, whether they had a chain reaction going and were making plutonium, or were almost ready to drop bombs those two months could mean we'd lose."

The stakes were high and the time was short.

- Bob Seidel

Next: Equipping Los Alamos, building a new Laboratory