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Manhattan Project, page 2

From Augustana magazine, Summer 1999

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Robert Fryxell in 1944.

By Dr. Paul Fryxell '49 for his brother, Dr. Robert Fryxell '44
Los Alamos, N.M.

When Bob was still at Augie, he went to the University of Chicago to be part of the Manhattan Project because of his much-needed expertise as an analytical chemist. He finished at Augie later, in 1944 He was at Chicago for a year or so before he was transferred to Los Alamos "for the duration," although at the time we did not know where he was. He had an APO number, and we received censored mail from him. Only after the bombing at Hiroshima did we learn where Bob had been and what he had been doing.

Bob's expertise was in analytical chemistry. At Los Alamos, he was in the medical physiology research group researching the metabolism of plutonium, of which they knew virtually nothing at the time. He was responsible for tracking trace amounts of plutonium and uranium in laboratory animals.

They were quite isolated at Los Alamos and sought various forms of recreation, including hiking and music, both of which Bob enjoyed. In fact, Bob was one of the prime movers in the beginning of music activities in wartime Los Alamos. A fine cellist, he participated in many recitals and was responsible for organizing chamber music evenings involving the musical people stationed there. He played with accomplished pianist Dr. Edward Teller, often referred to as "the father of the H-bomb," nearly 20 times during a period of a year and a half, usually in their homes.

Bob returned to the University of Chicago after the war to complete his doctorate in physical chemistry. For the rest of his career, he ran a research laboratory for General Electric, first in Pittsfield, Mass., later in Cincinnati. He died in 1987.

By Dr. Cecil Nelson '44, Oak Ridge, Tenn.

During my three years at Augie, I took most of the math and physics courses offered. I only needed physical chemistry in my senior year to complete a double major in chemistry and physics. Since it was wartime and I was deferred to complete my bachelor's in chemistry, I decided to finish at the University of Chicago where I could continue with graduate courses in chemistry. I roomed with Bob Fryxell '44 and Ernie Anderson '42 during that year at Chicago, and that's when I heard about the Manhattan Project. Bob was involved with it while taking courses at Chicago.

This appealed to me because it would mean I could continue being deferred while doing scientific research on the Project. After applying for a job in February 1944, I finished my degree at Chicago, left before graduation exercises and arrived in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on March 20, 1944.

During the war, I first did chemical research on plutonium isotopes. I turned down the opportunity to go to Hanford, Wash., as a group leader to analyze plutonium samples. Instead, I began doing analytical chemistry research on the fission isotopes while at Oak Ridge, and continued with this until the war was over.

Cecil Nelson and Roberta Carmichael
Cecil Nelson '44 and his bride Roberta Carmichael met when they were employed at the Oak Ridge installation. They were married on Aug. 28, 1946.

I don't remember many anecdotes during those years at Oak Ridge except that we were very busy. We lived in dormitories because we were unmarried and rode free buses (like school buses). Married people had housing based on number of children and ranking of importance. In the spring of 1944, I lived in a section where dormitories were being built as fast as possible even if it rained and was muddy.

Every day, we all got up early to go to the cafeteria and to our buses. Once someone left his car parked at the end of the boardwalk overnight. The next morning people opened the car's doors and climbed through the car to avoid going through the deep mud. Mud was the fact of life during the spring of 1944 due to the amount of construction going on.

People always speculated about what was being produced at Oak Ridge because only top officials and scientists directly involved in the Project knew for sure. Many trucks would bring materials into "the reservation," but no one saw anything leave. Everyone needed some sort of security clearance to go anywhere. Cars entering and leaving the reservation were searched, and we all needed badges to enter the gates.

There were three large laboratories, called X-10, Y-12 and K-25, each with a different goal. Clair Schersten '39 and I worked at X-10 where the goal was to build a prototype nuclear reactor to produce plutonium (used in the second atomic bomb). Others, including my future wife, Roberta Carmichael, worked at Y-12 where the goal was to separate the fissionable uranium isotope (used in the first bomb) from the rest by using very large magnets. Many others worked at K-25 where the goal was uranium-235 separation using gaseous diffusion. Some said the main production building at K-25 was so large that workers wore roller skates to move around inside the building.

When we went to our labs at X-10, we were issued radiation film badges plus radiation gauges to read the amount of radiation we had received. We left these badges at the gate when we left the area. As we worked, we used portable radiation instruments to survey how "hot" the samples in the area were. This would determine how long we could safely work with the sample or in that location.

If scientists wanted to use reference materials in the library, the librarian would look up our clearance in a card file to see if we were cleared to read the requested material. The authorities worked hard to compartmentalize our knowledge of what was going on. Even most scientists were kept in the dark about the Los Alamos progress on the bomb.

Even if I knew all the details about the nuclear bomb effort, I would have completely supported the idea to develop it. We all were involved in a total effort to defeat the Germans and Japanese, and we had to use any weapon that could be developed. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese was terrible, and we never forgot that event.

In 1960 I left Oak Ridge National Laboratory to become a physics professor at Emory and Henry College in Emory, Va. I retired from teaching in 1987.

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