Here’s What Life Was Like At Los Alamos While Building An Atomic Bomb

What was it like to live at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project? As thousands worked to build a top-secret atomic device, the US military tried to keep the entire city secret. All mail was screened and sent through a fake address at the University of California. The security team warned residents to never use their real names, and to cancel all their magazine subscriptions. And the FBI even investigated the head librarian, suspecting that she was sharing secrets with the communists.

Yet at the same time, residents attended square dances, went on horseback rides, and drank ethyl alcohol at raging parties. Los Alamos history during WWII contains contradictions. It was both a military facility and a scientific research project. Civilian residents had to obey the orders of a military commander and follow strict rules of secrecy. However, with its own radio station, soda fountain, and frequent social events, Los Alamos could, at times, feel like any close community in the USA - rather than a secret project to build the most destructive device in history. 

These photographs from the detonation of the atomic bomb stunned the world. They also stunned the very people working on the Manhattan Project. As physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer told the men and women of Los Alamos after the first successful atomic test, “You are heroes today, but in a very short time you will be criticized for what you have done here.”

  • Billboards Warned, 'Keep Mum About This Job'

    Secrecy was the top priority at Los Alamos during WWII. But with 150,000 people participating in the Manhattan Project, keeping the work top-secret was a major challenge. 

    The government chose Los Alamos because it was so remote, but secrecy required more than geographic isolation. Everyone living at Los Alamos needed security clearance and went through multiple security checkpoints to access the facilities. Armed guards protected the perimeter, along with barbed-wire fences.

    Residents were constantly warned not to leak any information, with one billboard warning, "Keep mum about this job."

  • Scientists Took Ethyl Alcohol From The Labs To Throw Raging Parties
    Photo: The Day After Trinity / PBS

    Scientists Took Ethyl Alcohol From The Labs To Throw Raging Parties

    Scientists worked long hours at Los Alamos, convinced that their efforts could turn the tide in WWII. They also made time for parties.

    "Everybody in my dorm would get together, chip in, and give a dorm party. Because it was dusty, muddy, rainy, snowing, you wore boots and things to work," says Rebecca Diven, an engineer and the wife of a Manhattan Project scientist. "We’d have a crew set up and clean up and then we would have punch in which somehow alcohol would magically appear, and we could make punch and different things."

    That punch came from the scientific laboratories. Physicist Albert Bartlett recalls, "The basic ingredient of the punch in the dorm parties was ethyl alcohol from the laboratory stock... A lot of times, the punch was pretty strong."

  • The Librarian In Charge Of Secrecy Was Investigated By The FBI
    Photo: United States Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Librarian In Charge Of Secrecy Was Investigated By The FBI

    Charlotte Serber was a close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer asked Serber to serve as the librarian at Los Alamos

    Serber struggled to maintain strict rules of secrecy in the library. She instituted nightly sweeps of the library to make sure that top-secret documents were never left out in the open. One night, Serber confronted a scientist who left out technical documents. According to Serber, "He argued that since the report was completely wrong, giving it to the enemy would be a service to the war effort."

    Still, the FBI suspected Serber of serving the enemy. She was investigated in 1943 on suspicion of communist sympathies. Although the US Army recommended firing Serber, Oppenheimer insisted she was trustworthy.

  • Babies Born At The Secret Facility Had PO Box 1663 On Their Birth Certificate
    Photo: United States Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Babies Born At The Secret Facility Had PO Box 1663 On Their Birth Certificate

    During the years of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos experienced a baby boom. According to Dolores Heaton, who grew up at the facility, "Los Alamos had no crime. There was no kidnapping. It was an ideal situation to have children - to be able to have this kind of freedom, to grow up in this environment."

    But babies born at Los Alamos were also shrouded in secrecy. Instead of their birth certificates listing a location of birth, they simply read PO Box 1663, New Mexico.

    As John Mench, an engineer at Los Alamos, explains:

    My daughter’s birth certificate says... that she was born in Post Office Box 1663 in New Mexico, because that’s the only way this place was designated. And everything that came to Los Alamos, whether it was a 10-ton machine or whether it was a postcard, came to Post Office Box 1663. And that’s where my daughter was born, still has her birth certificate.

  • Physicist Richard Feynman Got In Trouble With Censors For Exchanging Coded Letters With His Wife
    Photo: United States Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Physicist Richard Feynman Got In Trouble With Censors For Exchanging Coded Letters With His Wife

    All mail to Los Alamos went through rigorous screening from the Office of Censorship. Strict rules stated that residents were never allowed to state their precise location, "except that it is in New Mexico." Residents also could not describe how many people - "either military or civilian" - were participating in the project. Letters could never mention the names of anyone working at Los Alamos, and, of course, censors blocked any information about the work on the atomic device.

    Scientists not used to the strict rules sometimes fought the censors. Physicist Richard Feynman, known as the town prankster, got in trouble with censors by flaunting the rules. His wife, Arline Greenbaum, lived in Albuquerque while Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project. Greenbaum mailed coded letters to Feynman, which he deciphered and returned. 

    Feynman also irritated censors by whiting out words and passages in his letters. He and his wife practiced their cryptography skills under the nose of the censors - who didn't appreciate the joke.

  • One Couple Went Undercover In A Santa Fe Bar To Trick Spies

    During the Manhattan Project, scientists and civilians sometimes tried to help the effort by throwing people off their tracks. In Santa Fe, where the new military installation at Los Alamos was hard to miss, residents began wondering what, exactly, the scientists were building at the top-secret facility.

    Physicist Robert Serber and his wife Charlotte, the head librarian at Los Alamos, decided to spread some misinformation. They visited a bar in Santa Fe, spreading a lie that scientists were working on "an electric rocket" at Los Alamos.

    However, the Serbers discovered it was much harder to spread false information than they suspected. While dancing with a local man, Charlotte pressed him: "What’s your guess about what cooks up there?"

    He responded, "Beats me. Don’t care. May I have another dance later?"