People would ask Martha Frederick why she came home from work covered in black dust.
She couldn’t tell anyone she worked in a laboratory at the University of California, so she lied about her job:
“I told them I worked in a coal mine.”
But when you come right down to it, it was as good an answer as any.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” she said.
Turns out that Frederick, now 93 and living in Vancouver, was working on the atomic bomb.
In the 1940s, Frederick was among the untold thousands of people who were part of the Manhattan Project. That was America’s top-secret research effort that led to the atomic bomb, culminating in the devastation of two Japanese cities in August 1945.
• 1930: Ernest Lawrence builds the first cyclotron in Berkeley, Calif.
• 1934: Enrico Fermi produces fission.
• Aug. 2, 1939: Albert Einstein writes President Franklin Roosevelt about how research on chain reactions might create powerful bombs.
• Oct. 9, 1941: Roosevelt instructs officials to find out if a bomb can be built and at what cost.
• Dec. 7, 1941: The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.
• Jan. 19, 1942: Roosevelt approves production of the atomic bomb.
• Aug. 13, 1942: The Manhattan Engineer District is established in New York City.
• Sept. 19, 1942: Manhattan Engineer District head Gen. Leslie Groves selects the Oak Ridge, Tenn., site for the pilot plant.
• Nov. 25, 1942: Groves selects Los Alamos, N.M., as the bomb laboratory.
• Dec. 2, 1942: Scientists led by Fermi achieve the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in Chicago.
• Jan. 16, 1943: Groves selects Hanford as the site for the plutonium production facilities.
• July 16, 1945: Los Alamos scientists successfully test a plutonium implosion bomb at Alamogordo, N.M.
• Aug. 6, 1945: The uranium bomb, called Little Boy, is dropped on Hiroshima.
• Aug. 9, 1945: The plutonium bomb, called Fat Man, is dropped on Nagasaki.
• Aug. 14, 1945: Japan surrenders.
On Friday, the world will mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
Frederick grew up in Berkeley and said she just wanted to do her part during World War II. Kaiser operated shipyards in the Bay Area, similar to its industrial sites in Vancouver and Portland, but a job on the University of California campus sounded more appealing.
In 1943, she went to work in the radiation laboratory created by physics professor Ernest Lawrence. The laboratory supported Lawrence’s atom-smashing cyclotron, which earned him the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics.
To be precise, Frederick worked in a machine shop at the “rad lab,” as employees called it.
“We were operating lathes and drill presses,” the Vancouver woman said.
Women earned less
“I was about 23 or 24. I was probably the youngest one on the crew. I’d never done anything like it before. But the first time they showed me a blueprint, it was like I’d been reading blueprints all my life.”
Although the women were well-rounded machinists, Frederick said, “We were classified as machinist’s helpers. We weren’t machinists because they would have to pay us more.
“We worked on carbon; rectangular blocks too heavy for us to move,” she said. “The foreman would cut it into chunks. The milling machines were designed for our work. We made intricately cut blocks that were drilled out on the inside to very close tolerances.”
All the delicate machining left them covered with a fine black dust at the end of their shift, she said.
“It would go right through your apron and pants. The skin on our thighs was black. You’d scrub, but it was in your pores.”
And when people wondered about that dust, the women would say they were coal miners.
The “rad lab” machinists had a question of their own, trying to puzzle out just what those chunks of carbon would be used for.
“All we could think was that something had to fit into it. It was like building furniture. I figured my finely fitted boxes had to go around something,” she said.
The women figured that they were part of a much bigger operation because of the way scientists were being transferred around.
“We did know that some people went to Oak Ridge,” a Manhattan Project center in Tennessee. “Security people would drive up to their house in the middle of the night and load the whole family.”
On Aug. 6, 1945, the whole world found out about the bomb — and the women in shop crew learned that they’d played a role.
“We found out the day they dropped the bomb,” Frederick said.
Some of the women had speculated that their work must have been part of some sort of weapon research. But, “We were really shocked when we realized what devastation that was,” Frederick said.
For her, the end of the war meant Frederick’s job at Radiation Laboratory was over.
“I had to find another way of making a living,” she said.
After the war, Frederick’s jobs included stints as an office worker and bookkeeper. But even in those roles, Frederick found herself working in another fledgling effort that helped change the world.
“Some of those companies became the foundation of Silicon Valley.”