Few events are as historically substantial as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The incidents cast the world into a new age of international relations, and raised questions about the ethics of technological advancement. For Alhambra resident Marijune (pronounced “Mary June”) Wissmann, that period in time is never far from her mind. She’d worked as a stenographer for the Manhattan Project, the program that developed the bombs that would be deployed by the United States.
Wissmann was first recruited in 1943 at the University of Chicago, where many of the project’s scientists were working. The program soon relocated to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Wissmann went along with the team. Wissmann, now 91, keeps an album of mementos—pictures, postcards, letters—from that period of her life, and she recalls the bygone days with total clarity. She talks with the Source about her time spent with the Manhattan Project, how some of the scientists reacted to the bombings, and the path that led her to Alhambra.
How did you get a job working as a stenographer for the Manhattan Project?
I left Michigan in 1943 when I graduated from junior college. And I went to the University of Chicago for summer school. There was a search for a stenographer who can take shorthand. Through a friend, I was approached by a lieutenant about working for the project. He said they would like to give me some tests. They picked me up in an army car and took me to the armory, and they gave me an interview. They told me I’d be screened by the FBI.
Was the process intimidating?
Well, in the contract they gave me, at the end it said “If you divulge any secret material to anyone, you’ll be guilty of violating the Espionage Act, and it’s punishable by death.” It was pretty sinister, but I took the job.
What was the work like?
When I first started I was in the typing pool. I took dictation from [Enrico] Fermi and [Niels] Bohr. They were working directly with the bomb. I took down their notes, and there were lots of code words I needed to know. In 1944 I was promoted to be the secretary for Dr. Samuel Schwartz. He was in charge of the health of the physicists who were working on the bomb. He also looked after all the employees. He did blood work to see if people were anemic.
Anemia was a common occurrence?
It had to do with radiation.
Were there certain difficulties with your job?
The big problem was with accents. Dr. Bohr was Danish for example, and he had a Danish accent. But I was able to take his dictation, because my grandparents were Finnish, and I was able to pick up his words.
Obviously this project was very top secret. Just how tight was the security around the project?
We were constantly lectured to not say anything. And it was tough because, at the Chicago campus, we’d go out to lunch with our friends and they’d all want to know what was going on. Everyone was curious.
Were your rooms searched? Did authorities interrogate you?
All the time. If we left anything in our drawers when we left the office, we’d pick up a security violation. And we were docked a day’s pay. We were also supposed to have locking bars on all the files. And if we didn’t put the bars in place that was another violation. We would be searched before we went into the lab. We were searched as we came out of the lab. They looked in our pocketbooks, our coat pockets.
Did it feel oppressive? Was there a lot of paranoia?
At first it was scary to have people search you and look through your purse and your desk. And people were going through our private mail; we’d write private letters to our boyfriends. After a while we tried to laugh it off. It was kind of funny. We adjusted.
Did you know, exactly, when the bombs were going to be dropped?
No. We had a sense that it would happen, because we knew the bomb tests were successful. But we didn’t know when it would happen.
How did you, personally, find out that the bombs had been dropped?
People were hanging around the telephones. We were all anticipating, then finally when it was dropped, we didn’t say boo; people didn’t say anything. When it came out in the papers, we didn’t talk about it. There was a sense of shock.
You said some of the scientists felt a lot of guilt.
[J. Robert] Oppenheimer and some of the big shots were definitely affected. There was a lot of quietness. Not a lot of joking around. People were in a state of shock.
Did you have any personal reaction?
I had a lot of personal feelings about it. I’d lost a lot of friends in the war. A lot of the boys I’d gone to school and college with, they volunteered. Especially on D-Day, I’d lost a lot of former classmates there. I knew their mothers and brothers and sisters. I didn’t have a brother, but I had a brother-in-law who fought and survived in D-Day.
How did you arrive in Alhambra?
I met my husband, Frank, at the University of Chicago. He was a Navy flyer. On Thanksgiving of 46’, he came to Santa Fe, and I was about ready to leave Los Alamos. I had a job offer in West Chicago. But my husband came to see me in Santa Fe and said “I think we should get married right now,” and we drove from Santa Fe to Las Vegas and eloped. My folks were very upset [laughs]. We then drove from Vegas to Los Angeles. We moved to Alhambra in 1960.
Obviously there have been a lot of changes in Alhambra in the past few decades. What are some places you used to frequent in Alhambra that aren’t here anymore?
There’s the old library on Main Street. We loved to shop on Main Street, and there were lots of small stores where everyone knew each other. There was Lieberg’s, a department store. There was Nash’s, a dress store. And there used to be a lot of drive-in restaurants on Valley Boulevard.