Inspired Lives
7:00 am
Wed August 29, 2012

Victor Kumin: A "Soldier Scientist" At Work On The Atomic Bomb

Victor Kumin, Harvard graduate with a degree in Chemistry, helped create the Atomic Bomb under direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He lives in Warner, New Hampshire with his wife, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, Maxine Kumin. The two exchanged 575 letters back and forth during their courtship. These letters will be the subject of an article, written by Maxine, in the September 2012 issue of the American Scholar.

In June 1944, a year and a half after Kumin's graduation from Harvard, he was drafted. During the initial final phase of basic training he was quizzed on about physical chemistry and flunked the exam. He was told he had been away from his studies too long.

He then got another call within a few days and this time he was told to pack his bags and be ready to leave the next morning. Along with a train ticket to Santa Fe, N.M., he was given orders in a manila envelope with instructions not to open it.

Famous color photograph of the
Credit Photograph by Jack Aeby, July 16, 1945, as a member of the Special Engineering Detachment at Los Alamos laboratory, / United States Department of Energy

Kumin, along with one other soldier, were both working this mission together and didn't speak of their mission to anyone, although many sought out information from them but to no avail. The two themselves only speculated about their destination. They thought they were going to be working on a rocket development project. Kumin later acknowledged that they couldn't have been more wrong.

Kumin recalls Oppenheimer's words regarding the creation of the Atomic Bomb: “There are many of us here who hope and pray that this will prove to be impossible. But we’re going to go down to Alamogordo, and we’re going to make this test, and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to come back and we’re going to work twice as hard to make it work.”

After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kumin refused to continue his work and was honorably discharged.

TRANSCRIPT:

Victor Kumin: I got called in to a wooden building, which was adjacent to the area that we were working in, and I was given an oral examination in physical chemistry by a civilian, in the presence of a military personnel. And they had explained that the purpose of it was to see whether or not my training in chemistry was sufficient to satisfy their requirements for reassignment to a very secret enterprise that was being undertaken by the U.S. government.  That was all they would tell me.  At the end of the exam, they very quickly said, well, you’ve been away from it too long and thank you very much for your assistance. And I got returned to the field. 

Then, a few days before the end of this training period, I got called in again, and then I was told by the first sergeant, who was the person in charge of the company I was in, that I was going to be transferred.  So, I went into the office in the morning and picked up my orders, which he said were sealed.  They were in a manila envelope, and I was given a railroad ticket to Santa Fe, New Mexico, from Anniston, Alabama.  I, along with one other person, in a 75,000-person facility, were joined in our trip from Anniston, Alabama, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I was told that I wasn’t to open the orders, I wasn’t to ask any further questions, I wasn’t to discuss it with anybody, I wasn’t to tell anybody where I was going.   When we got to Santa Fe itself, we were told to go to a little store front.  The instructions were that there was a public telephone booth outside, and I was to go to that telephone and call this number.  A male voice answered the telephone, Sergeant Dabney, and I said, “What the hell is this all about?”  Then he said, “Soldier, keep your mouth shut and go inside and have a cup of coffee and wait there, and we will send a car to pick you up.”  

An hour or so later, the station wagon showed up, picked both of us up and drove us the 40 miles to Los Alamos. 

The two of us, of course, had been discussing where the hell we were going, and what his background was.  His background was in metallurgy, and mine was in chemistry.  We decided that we were going to some kind of a rocket development facility.  Well, we were entirely wrong, of course. 

When I was assigned initially to the work that I was to do, I was told that I was not to ask any questions about what this was for.  However, Army personnel being what they are, it took me about a week to find out what this was all about.  And at the end of a week, I knew that an atomic bomb was under development. 

Full interview with Victor Kumin.