Monday, August 8, 2022

Stories from the Secret City (Part 2)--Plus Huge Giveaway

by Martha Hutchens

WAC barracks room, photo by Martha Hutchens
At the end of the last post I told you about a road in Los Alamos named Bathtub Row, because as legend has it, these four houses had the only four bathtubs in town. As I mentioned last time, legends are sometimes wrong, and this one is—at least slightly. Turns out there were at least two more bathtubs in Los Alamos during the war. They were located in the WACs barracks, one of which is still standing today. The picture above is from that building, which is occasionally open for tours. This particular barracks had individual rooms, but many did not.

The women who lived there filled many roles in our town. They manned the PX milkshake machine, filled out numerous army forms, operated the telephone lines, and performed a million other tasks necessary to a town. A select few chosen for their mathematical abilities worked in the tech area as calculators—humans who performed the work that digital calculators do today.

Deposit Photos
As one would expect, some of the most famous scientists of the war figure prominently in the stories of Los Alamos. One legend has George Kistiakowsky, a high explosives expert and avid skier, carefully eyeing the mountains behind Los Alamos and planning his tests. When he finished, he said, “There’s your ski hill.” It is perhaps a bit more accurate—though less colorful--to say that he used high explosives to clear the way to add a rope tow to an existing ski hill.
Niels Bohr on Los Alamos ski Hill
from Just Crazy to Ski
by Deanna Morgan Kirby
Several of the European-born scientists grew up skiing, and that sky hill saw many of them teaching their American colleagues. One famous picture shows Niels Bohr on the local ski hill, though no one will admit to taking the picture. Private cameras were not allowed in Los Alamos during the war years, and photos of the scientists famous enough to travel under pseudonyms--Niels Bohr travelled as Nicholas Baker--were doubly forbidden.

Many Los Alamos legends involve Richard Feynman, who had only recently received his Ph. D. when he arrived in Los Alamos. His irrepressible humor lightens our legends. It is true that Feynman taught himself to crack safes and frequently raided safes of his colleagues in the technical area. It is also true that General Leslie Groves kept candy in his safe. Do we know for sure that the general came into his office one morning to find his entire stash relocated to his desktop, courtesy of Feynman? I suspect it might be. 

Deposit Photos
Feynman gave security fits. One day he discovered a hole in the fence that surrounded the town. I suspect Feynman eyed that fence with a gleam in his eye before he proceeded to exit the town, walk around, and enter through the gate. Legend has it that he did this five or six times before security realized he had entered multiple times, but never left. (In point of fact, there were many holes in the fence. The terrain just didn’t allow for a solid fence. Therefore, the area around the town was also patrolled by mounted MPs.)

While mail coming from overseas was routinely censored, mail from the United States was not. Los Alamos was the exception. All mail leaving the town was censored, which caused Feynman a problem. His wife lived in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Albuquerque, NM. Feynman wrote his letters to her in code, because she loved to break cyphers. Needless to say, the censors were not amused. Eventually a truce was established. Feynman would write his letter in code and include a translation which the censor would read and remove, so as not to deprive Mrs. Feynman of the pleasure of breaking it.

On a side note, Feynman wrote one of the most heart-breaking love letters of all time to his wife after she succumbed to the disease. You can read it here. I find it fitting that even in this somber note his sense of humor emerges at the end, where he writes, “Please excuse my not mailing this—but I don’t know your new address.”

Another group of scientists in Los Alamos were called the Special Engineer Detachment. Many of these young men had joined up after Pearl Harbor and had technical degrees so they were assigned to the Manhattan Project. One young man got assigned to New Mexico after helping clear a lab in the Pacific. Looting was entirely forbidden, but this soldier spied an platinum beaker and slipped it in his pocket. Not long after he received new orders, but due to the secrecy they didn’t tell him where he was going, only that MPs were going to accompany him. He spent the entire trip convinced he was being sent to Fort Leavenworth for taking that platinum beaker.

The legends of Los Alamos are many and varied. I hope you have enjoyed the ones I have shared with you.

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,

After saving for years, Dot Finley's brother finally paid a down payment for his own land—only to be drafted into World War II. Now it is up to her to ensure that he doesn't lose his dream while fighting for everyone else's. No one is likely to help a sharecropper's family.

Nate Armstrong has all the land he can manage, especially if he wants any time to spend with his four-year-old daughter. Still, he can't stand by and watch the Finley family lose their dream. Especially after he learns that the banker's nephew has arranged to have their loan called.

Necessity forces them to work together. Can love grow along with crops?

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting today. The history of Los Alamos is fascinating! I read the letter That Feynman wrote to his wife. That was so touching!