The Secret Town…and the Lives of its Families

by Allen Dale Olson

Imagine living in a town where your name was disguised and your occupation could never be mentioned. Drivers’ licenses, auto registrations, bank accounts, and income tax returns were issued to numbers, not names. The town was surrounded by high barbed wire fences and armed guards. When allowed to leave town, you could not travel more than 100 miles (the distance to the nearest large city) nor have any contact with relatives. Should you have a chance encounter with any individual outside the town, you had to report it in detail to the security guards.

Such was life in the Manhattan Project, near Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943. The project is still recognized as one of the most secretive projects in American history. The project was like a small town, though in 1943 there was only one telephone, two more by 1945.

The idea of a town for the Manhattan Engineer District of the War Department could probably be traced to early 1942 when physicists and military strategists first started to believe that an atomic weapon could shorten the war and began searching for a remote location to work on it.

In the summer of 1942 officials at a remote outdoor camp and school on the Pajarita Plateau in north central, New Mexico, became aware of low flying aircraft looking over their property. On December 7, a year after Pearl Harbor, Secretary of War Henry Stimson announced the school was condemned and would be taken over by the Department.  The property included 27 houses, dormitories, and other living quarters, and 27 miscellaneous buildings.

Not long after, families began arriving. Only scientific personnel knew what the work was all about. Their families did not. Technicians and administrators were told to take these jobs in an unknown place for an unknown purpose. Employees could not mention the word “physicist.” Everyone was considered an “engineer.” Not even wives were allowed  to know why they were there nor to enter most work stations or laboratories. Many employees were not even allowed to share their work duties or research with one another.

In a Los Alamos National Laboratory report about the early days, the wife of one of the first scientists to arrive at the Project has written, “I felt akin to the pioneer women accompanying their husbands across the uncharted plains westward, alert to dangers, resigned to the fact that they journeyed, for weal or woe, into the Unknown.”

In 1943 a twelve-grade school system was established with sixteen teachers. The residents set up a town council and a nursery school. They established a maid service using Indian women from nearby pueblos. By 1945, there were some 30 recreational and cultural organizations active in the Project.

All incoming mail was addressed to P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. To the outside world, Los Alamos did not exist. One of the early residents recalled that she “couldn’t write a letter without seeing a censor pouring over it. I couldn’t go to Santa Fe without being aware of hidden eyes upon me, waiting to pounce on that inevitable misstep.”

To go to and from the Project, residents had to pass through two guard stations, and the Army created a community laundry, a PX, and a commissary for the use of residents.

Years later, Robert Oppenheimer reported that “almost everyone knew that this job, if it were achieved, would be a part of history. This sense of excitement, of devotion and of patriotism in the end prevailed.”

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the families of the Manhattan Project engineers also served.

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