One woman's memories of growing up in the world's most important small town.
As the sun broke over the San de Cristo Mountains and poured through the plate glass of my Los Alamos hotel’s breakfast room, I felt a familiar light-headedness of connection between past and present. It’s the same feeling I’ve experienced standing on the Great Wall of China, in Independence Hall, and staring up at the night sky through an Anasazi rock-ring observatory. How many men and women, hidden away in this little town perched high on northern New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau, in the throes of the world’s second great war, working day and night to avert a horrible future, had stood, their faces wreathed in steam from their cups of coffee, and welcomed the new day just as I was?
There are many opportunities to connect with the Los Alamos of nearly 70 years ago—a secret New Mexico town devoted to one task: beating Nazi Germany to the world’s first nuclear weapon—but most lack the immediacy of a sunrise epiphany, or the possibility of a unique perspective on a world-historic event. For that, I turned to a woman who has spent her life immersed in the legacy of Los Alamos and in helping others understand it: Ellen Bradbury-Reid. For the past 25 years, she’s been organizing gatherings of scholars and others interested in exploring the history of the region and of Los Alamos itself.
Tall, striking, and possessed of a sense of humor honed to a quick and subtle edge through years of collaborating with scientists, researchers, and historians, Ellen, now 73, was five when her family moved from Tennessee to Los Alamos, in 1944. When I told her I wanted to explore the story of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project through the eyes of a young girl, she laughed. It turned out she’d given this some thought.
During our first conversation, Ellen reminded me that the story I want to tell doesn’t begin with her.
It begins in the early 1930s, when German scientists first began to understand how the atom worked, and realized the immense power it contained. As German-Jewish scientists began to flee to the United States, they brought stories of atomic-weapon research with them. Initial efforts in the States to coordinate comparable research across the country failed. And so the research and its practitioners were finally brought together in a part of the country that the scientific director of the newly minted Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had visited frequently.
For Ellen, the story began when her father was transferred from Oak Ridge (also part of the Manhattan Project) to Los Alamos in the spring of 1944. A brewery worker with an engineering degree, Ed Wilder had been drafted into the Navy, and shortly thereafter was recruited by Norris Bradbury, who would eventually take over Los Alamos, lend his name to the Bradbury Science Museum there, and become Ellen’s father-in-law. Wilder was told he would be working somewhere in the “Southwestern part of the U.S.” He had to make the trip alone, since junior officers weren’t allowed to bring their families.
It was just as well. Los Alamos in 1944 was—as it would remain for many years after—woefully short of housing. When the government bought the Los Alamos Ranch School and surrounding homesteads in 1942, there had been only a few houses, a handful of cabins, and Fuller Lodge, a large timber building. Oppenheimer thought it would be enough. His plan was for no more than 300 people. By 1945, there were 6,000.
After a couple months of separation, Ellen’s mother Dulcinea had had enough.
Along with the wife of another junior officer at Los Alamos, the two women packed their kids into a Buick Road Master, dragooned a teenage boy as tire-changer, and drove across the country for a “brief visit.” “Imagine,” Ellen said, laughing, “three adults, four kids under six, gas rationing, and an uncertain destination.”
Wilder had received explicit instructions that his family could live no nearer than 100 miles to Los Alamos, and Santa Fe, 23 miles away, was crawling with FBI agents, so the group surreptitiously encamped in Bandelier National Monument, just down the hill from the high fences surrounding the town. They homesteaded in two Sibley tents, and living was primitive—campfire cooking, no phone—but there were perks, like a stream full of fish, cliff dwellings nearby, trees to climb, and lots of room to roam. It was idyllic for Ellen, who was usually found tearing around the canyon, her reddish-brown hair chopped short, in loose cotton dresses that did nothing to slow her down.
Yet all was not well. On overhearing that her father’s top-secret job was to build a bomb, Ellen was concerned, since “bombs had already been invented.” As part of the war effort, she needed to invent something new. Taking stock of her surroundings and available resources, Ellen decided on dragons, and worked out that lizards combined with fire would result in the ultimate weapon. “I was going for a proto-Godzilla,” she said. But, as with all ultimate weapons—including the one her father was working on—the problem is how to control your creation. It was only after finally herding a respectable-looking reptile into the campfire that Ellen realized that a fiery dragon might end up eating her family.
As far-fetched as Ellen’s dragon idea was, in the context of Los Alamos it wasn’t really all that different from what was going on all around her. Much of the work—and all of the truly significant work—was at the hazy intersection of theory and practice. Little that was being done had been done before. It was all extraordinary, and probably impossible. And it didn’t matter. There was no other choice. It was a race where the finish meant everything.
By the end of summer 1944, France had been liberated, and the stakes were getting unimaginably high for Germany, as the Soviets increased the pressure from the east. If the Nazis had the atomic bomb, the fear was, they would use it soon. Throughout Los Alamos, a try-whatever-works zeitgeist swirled around everything. Although most undertakings, like her father’s efforts to manufacture the high-explosive detonators for the bomb, were slightly more advanced (and perhaps better thought out) than her own, Ellen’s attempt to build a dragon was part and parcel of the frenzied focus on results.
The Manhattan Project worked because people fiddled until it did. But this arms race, the most significant of the 20th century, relied as much on secrecy as it did on science, and that has lent an enormous amount of mystique to the Manhattan Project.
Despite the fact that extraordinary things were going on there, Los Alamos didn’t officially exist. It showed up on no map; babies were officially born at a PO Box; and new employees reported to a small office in Santa Fe. At every step, security and secrecy ruled. Any leak could spell the end for the Allied efforts.
Even down in the canyon, you knew how important secrets were. Her weapons-making career over, five-year-old Ellen decided that what she wanted more than anything was to be a spy. But, she faced two problems. The first: she was on a timetable. “I had to finish my spy career before I turned six because I wanted to get a pass and live with my parents.” Passes offered the only way into town, and all residents were required to have one. But to get one you had to be at least six years old, and it meant you were sworn to secrecy.
The second problem was a bigger deal. She didn’t know any secrets. That would change. In the late summer of 1944, Ellen and her brother were trying to blast fish out of a stream with rocks. A poorly executed attack crushed her thumb. With blood everywhere and tears streaming down Ellen’s cheeks, her father thought it prudent to take her to the hospital. The problem was the pass; the military policeman at the gate wouldn’t let her in without one. And so a standoff ensued, blood and childhood tears on one side, orders on the other. Finally, the MP relented. As they drove in, Ellen asked why the MP had put up such a fuss, and her father explained that it was “because we are doing something really secret.”
“I was going to figure it out, and tell everyone to get even with them for making me wait,” Ellen explained, telling me that she spent the rest of the trip—face pressed against the windshield—trying to discover her first spy-worthy secret. Unfortunately, everything was boring: large two-story buildings every which way; wood-plank sidewalks here and there to keep people out of the muck and mire of summer monsoon rains; barracks built as quickly as everything else and looking it; and everywhere, on every surface, the soot of the town’s furnaces.
It wasn’t until she was heading back home that Ellen made her discovery: in Ashley Pond—then at the heart of the Allies’ greatest and most clandestine effort to defeat the Axis powers—behind a chain-link fence, there were as many white ducks as she was able to count: 11.
Thrilled with her knowledge of the Secret of Los Alamos, Ellen said she spent the next year looking for someone to tell. “I’d sit by the fence that surrounded the town and wait for someone to ask me the secret,” she said. “No one ever did.” It wasn’t until she sent her younger brother on a reconnaissance mission—to find a fellow spy—into a culvert, in which he got stuck, that she decided that espionage wasn’t necessarily her best career choice. “I decided instead,” she said, “to become a trapeze artist.”
The world gave up its secrets at
Los Alamos. Whether they were secrets of physics, chemistry, metallurgy, or flocks of waterfowl, it took time, but give them up it did. The efforts of those working at Los Alamos finally produced a mechanism that could reliably detonate nuclear material. The test at Trinity, in southern New Mexico, in July 1945, was more than a proof of the concept. It was validation of a radical experiment in creativity and determination, of what Oppenheimer called “the Odd Community.”
After the defeat of Germany in May 1945, the Trinity test offered President Truman a path to end the war quickly in the Pacific.
Almost everyone who worked at Los Alamos recalls the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 with pristine clarity; what Ellen remembers is the countdown itself. The radio station was going to broadcast the wire from the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber designated to drop the bomb code-named “Little Boy.” The only radio was in the family car, so everybody piled in. Waiting. Finally, through the static, the sound of engines, men talking, silence, then “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-bomb away.” Moments later, booms, and the whine of the plane’s engines.
The bombing of Hiroshima, and of Nagasaki three days later, revealed the town, and the Manhattan Project, to the world. Everything changed after that. The war ended six days later. New Mexico discovered that it had hosted the world’s greatest collaboration of scientists and engineers, and that the state had been instrumental in bringing six years of horrific warfare to an end.
For Ellen and her family, the end of the war meant the chance to move from their tent home of 14 months to one of the prefab, flat-topped McKee houses, named after the company that built them, up in town. A move that meant—now that she was six and coming inside the gate—a pass. It was a coming-of-age moment. “My mother had to hold me up so they could make the fingerprints, because the counter was too high. It was a very big deal. It meant you were really grown up, part of a select group, even if we weren’t sure what the group was.”
That was a good question.
Los Alamos’s future was uncertain after the war. There was a recognized but inchoate need for continuing and improving on the work of the previous two years, but the urgency was gone—at least for the time being. It was Norris Bradbury—the same man who had recruited Ellen’s father—who succeeded Oppenheimer as director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and crafted a vision for what would follow. Los Alamos would become both a town and a laboratory. For Ellen and her cohort, it meant growing up in a place that itself was growing up. For Ellen’s mother, the task was very clear: “What we wanted to do was just make Los Alamos a normal town.”
Indeed, with Bradbury’s encouragement, that began to happen, and jurisdiction for Los Alamos passed to the state in 1949. That same year, George Fitzpatrick, then editor of this magazine, visited and wrote of the “world’s most important small town”. He wondered at this entire functioning community that had sat so silently in the northern New Mexico mountains and yet had spoken so forcefully.
There were—everywhere—the trappings of postwar optimism: new stores, lots of children, and a focus on the future. Education played an important role, and the Los Alamos schools were arguably the best in the nation after the war, having benefited from the attention lavished on them by a constituency of extremely well-educated parents. Ellen described roomfuls of precocious and interested students, and teachers and administrators eager to help them succeed. “Maybe we were smart kids,” she said, “but we also had good teachers.” And, with satisfaction, Ellen told me that because everyone took shop, she’s part of a coterie of women from that time who are just as likely to pick up a hammer as a phone when something needs to be repaired.
Looking back, Ellen sees the legacy of the Manhattan Project and its peculiar effect on the people and community of Los Alamos reflected perfectly in her time at school: “The greatest gift we all got was an understanding that we were fully capable of doing whatever we thought we could do.” And so, at 17, she graduated from high school and went off to study art history first at the University of New Mexico, then at Yale University.
By then, the future of the Lab and the town was reasonably secure. The Lab continued—and continues—to attract world-class scientists and researchers eager to explore the outer limits of knowledge. Los Alamos still has one of the best-educated populations anywhere in the U.S., and, as might be expected, also one of the highest per-capita income rates in the country (and the highest in the state). The town, population 12,000, has doubled in size since the war. The dirt roads were paved, and the hundreds of prefab houses that had populated the mesa tops were replaced with permanent structures. The Lab moved to South Mesa in 1953, clearing out the center of town, and Ashley Pond’s new grassed and tree-spotted lawn became a community gathering spot.
The town embraced other aspects of its legacy as it grew. From the beginning, the arts played an important role, offering an outlet for scientists and their families. Ellen recalled the arrival of the British mission in 1944, and their proclivity for Gilbert and Sullivan: “For years, I thought Jim Tuck [a British physicist who retired from Los Alamos in 1972] was either the Captain of the Pinafore or the Pirate King.” And now there are almost 60 organizations and programs carrying on the tradition. Some, like the Los Alamos Choral Society and the Los Alamos Symphony Orchestra, have been around since the War. Others reflect new interests and new audiences.
But neither the arts nor the Lab’s ongoing work is really the legacy of Los Alamos. At the beginning of the postwar era, Norris Bradbury wrote that “Los Alamos is the laboratory and the laboratory is Los Alamos.” The two were—and are—inexorably entwined. And so the town still faces the complicated task of honoring its history—its great role in harnessing human ingenuity, grit, and nature’s elemental forces to end a world war—while living in in awareness of the terrible consequences of the might that was unleashed there. Ellen and I talked about this a lot.
“It’s certainly often true,” Ellen said, “that what is right in war is not always right in peace.” Towns, as well as people, have to struggle with their wartime pasts and their implications. But it’s rarely easy, for anyone.
Within a couple of decades, as new geopolitical and social forces refigured America and the world, the development of the atomic bomb—and its legacy—occupied a chapter of history that many wanted to downplay or forget. By the time she was in graduate school, Ellen recalled, “I stopped telling people I was from Los Alamos. People had a hard time understanding and accepting what had happened there, and why.”
Despite all of that, the Los Alamos of Ellen’s childhood still casts long shadows. Los Alamos is still where the majority of the Lab’s 9,000 employees live. It’s where their children go to school. It’s where an open road can stop suddenly at a gate, with a pass offering the only chance of entry—as in 1944. It’s where areas are declared off-limits at a moment’s notice, and where scientists toil in buildings of plate glass and concrete no less important than those low-slung structures that surrounded Ashley Pond in 1944.
But Los Alamos is also where people spill out of coffee shops onto quiet streets, where new restaurants are given a chance to thrive, where families still find time to feed the ducks, and where libraries and schools and galleries matter. It’s a place where people live.
After Yale, Ellen took museum leadership positions in Minneapolis and then in Santa Fe. She now sees a sort of détente between the past and the present at Los Alamos. But it is tenuous, one always threatening to push the other aside. For those, like Ellen, who has a relationship to both, it doesn’t seem so difficult: “Los Alamos is the birthplace of the bomb. There is no running from that. But almost 70 years on, it is also a town engaged in the present—new arts, new sciences, new opportunities. Those two things aren’t contradictory. They’re part of the same.”
As Ellen and I finished our conversations, it was clear that what matters for her about Los Alamos is something that transcends the past and the present: the example, witnessed as a young girl and carried through her life, that “great, impossible, and extraordinary things can be done under impossible circumstances.” And in the unlikeliest of places.
Peter BG Shoemaker is a New Mexico writer and journalist.