What do you know about the Manhattan Project? I asked a few people that question over the past couple of weeks just to see what they knew, what they thought.
The answers were all over the place.
“That’s that thing they do when they fix a subway, isn’t it?” That’s what Amber, age fifteen, said the Manhattan Project was.
“A really great movie,” says Bryan, age twenty-five. “It’s with Christian Slater, the one where he was working on that cold fusion energy project.”
One person, out of the fifty or so I spoke to, knew what the Manhattan Project was.
“The Manhattan Project was the American government plan to achieve atomic fusionand build a bomb,” said Gladys, a woman that says she remembers the project, and many of the larger names involved.
Yet, here in El Paso, there is a man who was part of the Nuclear Weapons Program. He also worked on the ICBM project. Then, the technology he worked on in the ICBM project became the framework for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects.
This same man was also a prisoner of war when he was shot down in April of 1953 while on a mission over North Korea. He also served in Vietnam. And was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Who am I talking about? Master Sergeant Roy E. Aldridge.
There is so much to share from this amazing man’s life, it was hard to pick just one thing to focus on in this, the first part of his story. I decided to write about how he became involved in the Nuclear Weapons project.
“Everyone used to ask me, ‘how did you get into nuclear weapons,’” recalls Roy. “I have no idea. All I know is I got orders to go to report to the Commandant of the ROTC unit, University of California of Berkley.”
Msg Aldridge thought the time had come for him to get his education and commission. “I checked in, and they put me on a bus and took me to a different place on campus, behind a chain-link fence that had a dormitory in it, and that’s where I was,” said Aldridge.
As he was standing around, talking with others and filling out paperwork he was waiting for what came next. Then, names were called out, and they began to board a bus. Some remained behind as they were not able to pass the security and background checks.
Roy, however, did.
“So, they put us on this bus and took us to Livermore, California,” recalls Aldridge. “We’re sitting in this big, pit type classroom, typical college thing, and this General walks out.”
It was General Leslie Groves who walked out and began to speak to them.
“He said, ‘you are getting ready to start on a great adventure,’” said Aldridge. “He says you’re going to be working with, or being associated with, such gentleman as Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, Edwin Teller, Hans Bethe.”
As the General mentioned the name of each scientist, they walked out and stood before the men within the classroom. Each of these scientists were physicists who were leaders in the atomic sciences. These were the men that he would be learning from.
“Now, this is the hierarchy of theoretical physics,” said Roy.
Growing up, while at H. E. Charles Junior High my physics teacher, Mr Capps would talk about each one of these men and their contributions to physics.
Teller is often referred to as the “father of the hydrogen bomb” as he worked hard to convince President Truman to develop such a bomb after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949.
Hans Bethe was the one to discover the violent reactions behind sunlight and helped with the creation of the atom bomb.
Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” was the lead physicists of the Manhattan Project.
From their work, we gained an understanding of nuclear fusion and were able to build upon their discoveries. It is because of their work, the legacy of the Manhattan Project, we have nuclear medicine.
Among the breakthroughs linked to atomic research that Angela Creager highlights in “Life Atomic”:
- treatments for cancer, especially using cobalt-60;
- diagnostic tests still used widely in medicine;
- an understanding of metabolic pathways, such as that for photosynthesis;
- a clearer picture of how the human body absorbs and uses substances such as iron;
- the modern understanding of ecosystems as environments in which matter and energy flow through living and nonliving components.
He was there, with these men, gaining a first had understanding and knowledge of cutting-edge technology that I can only imagine being a part of.
“We would go to class, and they would hand us ten sheets of paper, classified “top secret,” of course by the Atomic Act of 1954,” recalls Roy “And that was for our notebook.”
Aldridge would take his notes, and when class was over, they had to turn their ten sheets of paper in to be stored in a safe. They were not allowed to take them with them when they left the facility. So how would they study?
To study what they had learned that day, or prior days, they would have to come back, from San Francisco to Livermore to study for an hour. That would not be an easy thing to do at all.
What did they do?
“Well, we all developed this memory,” says Roy Aldridge. “I still got about a 95-96 recall. We learned all this stuff,”
Then they decided about 1960 that they, the military, taught these men too much.
These men were walking encyclopedias of what it took to build a bomb from beginning to end.
So how much does he remember? How much did any of them remember after twenty-thirty years?
“We go to the first reunion,” Roy shares, “and my wife says, ‘my God, these guys picked up the conversation right where they left it thirty years ago.”
Roy had not seen any of the people he worked with since 1965. The reunion was in 1995. Now that too, is a memory.
I did ask Roy if he was worried that some group, like ISIS, would one day kidnap him and force them to build a bomb. He assured me that the technology is too old, and that time has moved on.
He did say, however, that they could learn enough from “Sum of All Fears” to build a dirty bomb. Sure, a few things have been left out, but he did say what was written in that book did give him cause to worry.
Roy is an amazing man who has done some amazing things in his life. I’ve spent the past two weeks reading about him and some of the situations he’s found himself in. I’ve also learned that he is just one of many people living in El Paso that were part of major historical events.
MSG Aldridge has a story to share, and it’s one we need to listen to and learn from. If we do, I promise, we will be better people for it.
(Authors note: in my next conversation with Roy Aldridge we will be talking more about nuclear medicine and his role in some of the advances he was a part of as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis in the third part of the series with Mr. Aldridge.)
As I said above, this is going to be the first in a five-part series with Roy Aldridge. Now, I’ll give him the last word.
“In PET Scanning, the camera I had and some of the isotopes I had, everybody says it can’t be done. And I’d say, ‘don’t let Gertrude hear you because she thinks she can.’ Nothing can’t be done, because somebody will think they can and do it. That’s my motto,” says Aldridge.
Master Sergeant Roy Aldridge is living proof that anything and everything can be done. Period.