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The Manhattan Project's 'secret town'

Email|Print| Text size + By Julia M. Klein
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2005

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Kay Froman Johnson still remembers the steep, rough road she traveled up to the secret town where her physicist-father moved his Chicago family in 1943. Once she arrived, the 11-year-old was enrolled in a school so unstructured that when she and another fifth-grader decided to promote themselves to the sixth grade, no one even noticed.

''I thought it was a big adventure," says Johnson, 73. ''And everybody was new. Everybody didn't know what was going on here. And none of the daddies said anything."

Sixty years ago, on Aug. 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, their secret became headline news. In a wartime laboratory led by the charismatic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a group of Nobel laureates and other scientists, engineers, and technicians had worked nearly nonstop for more than two years to create a weapon of unprecedented lethality. Their work helped usher in a new scientific and political era -- and helped bring World War II to a close. Los Alamos is commemorating the bomb and the war's end with a series of special events, including art exhibitions and an Aug. 9 program of readings and reminiscences.

One hot May day, I drove 35 miles northwest from Santa Fe and met Johnson at a reunion of Los Alamos High School classes from the 1940s and early '50s. With spouses in tow, attendees had traveled across the country to picnic beside Ashley Pond, a tranquil oasis near the town center.

Reunion organizer Dan Nelis, 74, a community college administrator in Las Vegas, moved to Los Alamos in 1945 with his electrician-father. He recalls his friends as ''normal teenagers trying to have a normal life in very adverse conditions."

Not much remains of wartime Los Alamos, whose mostly rudimentary housing and technical buildings were torn down almost as quickly as they had been built. It is possible, though, to tour the structures that survive, and learn the stories behind them at the Los Alamos Historical Museum.

At Fuller Lodge, in the company of Nancy R. Bartlit, president of the Los Alamos Historical Society, and Georgia Strickfaden, a guide with Buffalo Tours, I sat beneath the vaulted ceilings in the building's central room, where Manhattan Project scientists once dined. The lodge, designed by architect John Gaw Meem and built in 1928 with 771 vertically placed pine logs, was once the dining hall of the Los Alamos Ranch School, founded in 1917 by Ashley Pond Jr., one of President Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders.

Pond's small preparatory school was designed to toughen up the sons of the Eastern elite with a vigorous outdoor regimen. The writer Gore Vidal was among those educated here.

Oppenheimer, who vacationed in New Mexico, had visited the school and loved the site, on the Pajarito Plateau at the foot of the Jemez Mountains. It was beautiful, but also isolated enough for a classified project. With a couple of months' notice, the federal government closed the financially ailing school and launched the lab in spring 1943, with a frenzy of construction and a small advance guard of scientists.

The lodge is now a community and art center.

Nearby is a Tewa Pueblo ruin, dating from about 1225. On an earlier tour of abandoned cliff dwellings in the Tsankawi section of Bandelier monument, Tewa Pueblo historian Tito Naranjo had described the influx of Manhattan Project scientists as a ''cultural bomb" dropped on his people.

In Los Alamos, we walked beside the houses on ''Bathtub Row." Originally constructed for Ranch School faculty and later occupied by the project's most elite scientists, they were once the only homes in town with bathtubs. In a place plagued by mud, dust, and the soot from coal-burning furnaces, the tubs were a luxury.

The houses are now privately owned, but I squeezed past a hedge for a better look at the heavily shaded dwelling where Oppenheimer (with his wife, Kitty, and two children) ruminated, chain-smoked, and mixed his famous icy martinis at parties that would continue late into the night.

For a detailed account of life at wartime Los Alamos (known alternately as ''The Hill," ''Site Y," ''PO Box 1663," and even ''Shangri La"), I visited the small historical museum, with Pueblo artifacts, vintage photographs, and artifacts from the Ranch School.

Its heart, however, is in the ''secret town," a place without unemployed people, in-laws or jails, whose story is told through quotations from those who lived there. They describe wartime censorship of phone calls and letters, travel restrictions, and other hardships, but also the spirit of camaraderie and shared intellectual struggle that Oppenheimer did so much to foster. (On the other hand, stringent security measures at Los Alamos, including surveillance of Oppenheimer, failed to detect the presence of at least three spies, including the British physicist Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass, brother of Ethel Rosenberg.)

Led by General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project included uranium and plutonium manufacturing plants in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash. Its validation came with the successful Trinity test on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. Just three weeks later, the United States under President Truman dropped bombs on Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki -- actions that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians with motives and consequences that are still fiercely debated by historians.

The museum takes note of the philosophically inclined Oppenheimer's own prescient words, from the Sanskrit ''Bhagavad Gita," after seeing the first mushroom cloud: ''I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Oppenheimer's later opposition to construction of the even more deadly hydrogen bomb helped spark the most painful episode of his career: the Atomic Energy Commission's 1954 revocation of his security clearance. (Oppenheimer died at 63, in 1967.)

Los Alamos transferred from government to private ownership in the 1960s, but its main industry is still the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which employs some 14,000 people. The public face of the lab is its Bradbury Science Museum, named for former lab director Norris Bradbury, who succeeded Oppenheimer.

As dusk approached, I drove past the laboratory to Bandelier monument, a 32,000-acre park 12 miles from town. Following the footsteps of Manhattan Project scientists, I hiked past spectacular ruins left by the vanished ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians.

Even at 7:30, the desert air was warm, and the setting sun threw harsh shadows on the orange-gold volcanic cliffs. Experiencing the power of nature and the transience of man, side by side, I thought: No wonder Oppenheimer found this spot so alluring.

Contact Julia M. Klein, a freelance writer in Philadelphia, at julklein@juno.com.

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