Turned down dinner with Eisenhower and took dictation from Oppenheimer
Barbara Dresner: Oral History Excerpts
PENNYSLVANIA GIRL RECRUITED DURING WORLD WAR II
Q – Tell me how it came about that you ended up in Washington, DC?
A - I had two years of college. I went to Dickinson Junior College. It is now called Lycoming College in Williamsport, PA. I was recruited with three other girls for jobs in Washington DC. It was during the war, and I didn’t know quite what I was going to do – just get an office job. They came to my home to interview me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to come. I was scared. But what else was I going to do? I had to have my parents’ signature. I was only 19 years old. We went to Washington by train, and our mothers came with us. They had a place for us to live, which was where the Woodner is now – 16th and Spring Road. It had been a girls’ college during World War I, and then it became a boarding house. We each paid $50 a month for room and board.
SECRETARY FOR THE MANHATTEN PROJECT
Our job was located at the Carnegie Institution of Washington at 16th and P Streets. I was in a typing pool with my three friends. Our job was to do the paperwork to get deferments for physicists and scientists. Also, we were looking in Europe for physicists.
It was sort of boring in the typing pool. I was there about three months when I was called upstairs, which was in the rotunda in the Director’s Office. I was told I would work for Dr. Lyman Chalky, who was a chemist, and he was an assistant to Dr. Vannevar Bush. Dr. Bush was president of the Carnegie Institution, as well as director of the Manhattan Project, although I did not know about the Manhattan Project at the time.
I forget exactly how I was asked to go upstairs. But I do remember that they said, “No nail polish, and you must wear stockings.”
I was an accurate and fast typist. I took shorthand at 120 words a minute. I suppose that is why they choose me. I was in a large typing pool and they choose me. That is where it started. I met Dr. Enrico Fermi, who was a well-known scientist.
Dr. Chalkley, my immediate boss, was working with Dr. Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. At that time, penicillin was used only for servicemen and it was not synthesized. They were working out a way to synthetize it.
Until then, I had never heard the word “penicillin.” I thought, “how do I write it in shorthand”? I remember picking up Dr. Fleming at Union Station and bringing him back to the Carnegie Institution. He was quite elderly.
We had a chauffeur. His name was Posey. He did not wear a chauffer’s uniform. He just wore regular clothes. The staff was pretty small, and we were all quite friendly. I remember that military people and other important people came and went, and they often asked me to go with Posey to pick them up at Union Station.
Q – Was: Posey a black man?
A – No He was a white man. But there is another very interesting story. There was Dr. Carl T. Thompson and Major General Leslie Groves. Dr. Bush had an assistant whose name was Callaway. I remember that Callaway was a tall and imposing man. When Callaway was on vacation, I would have to take dictation from Dr. Bush.
In that office, I met a lot of very interesting people like Major General Leslie Groves, who was in the military. I don’t know if you know the story of the Manhattan project. Groves was a very tall man, and he had a big belly. I thought “what a buffoon he is.” He was always eating candy. I was the type who never missed anything. I, in a quiet way, noticed everything, and so I formed these opinions. When he would leave, I would hear that the physicists would talk about him indicating that he was a jerk. These scientists and physicists - one was more brilliant than the next - but they had certain opinions. But I recognize now that Groves did perform an important role in the project.
Q – But you were not that impressed with him at the time?
A – At that age, no. I learned later that he was very effective when I read the Oppenheimer biography.
Q - Were you the only secretary dealing with these people?
ONLY PERSON TO HAVE COMBINATION TO OFFICE SAFE
A – Yes. There was a man by the name of Carroll Wilson. He was an administrative type. He had a very small office, and that is where the safe was, although he did not have the combination to the safe. When I got the job, I was the only one that had the combination to the safe. I didn’t know what was in the safe.
Q - But you believed that there were important things in the safe?
A - I guess so.
Q – The Carnegie Institution building was on loan to a temporary agency?
A -. Yes. We were in partitioned office at the Carnegie Institution. The rotunda there is beautiful.
Q – What was the temporary agency called?
A – The Office of Scientific Research and Development – OSRD,
When I wrote letters home, I didn’t say much about my job but I would mention “ Dr, so and so.” I knew about penicillin, because I took dictation about that. The other things I did not know.
Q – So the dictation you took had more to do with penicillin?
A – That was just in the beginning. Then later, I took dictation about more advanced things you might say - more important people, but I didn’t know they were important at the time. I would type some of the dictation on stencil and then run it off on a stencil machine.
Q – These were physicists who were working on the Manhattan Project?
DR. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER
A – Yes. That is when I met Dr. Oppenheimer. He was at Los Alamos, New Mexico, but I didn’t know where he was coming from. Now I know he was head of the Manhattan Project. The bomb was being made at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The physicists would meet in the director’s office.
Q– You were not in the Director’s Office when they met?
A – Sometimes I was called into the Director’s office to take dictation when the physicists were there.
Q - But they had you typing and taking dictation of the things that they were working on?
A – There was nothing that I remember about the atomic bomb.
Q – I assume they were using a lot of scientific terms. How did you know how to write them in shorthand?
A – There were not that many scientific terms. They were mostly about directors, people’s names, and a German physicist. I can’t remember his name. I met him too.
Q – It was more administrative things that they had you working on?
A – Yes. It was nothing about the bomb.
Q – Did they use code words, and you didn’t know what they meant?
A – They used letters and numbers sometimes.
Q – The person, who had most immediate contact with as you were taking dictation and typing, was Dr. Vannevar Bush?
A – Yes. Mostly Dr. Bush, but also some with Dr. Chalkley.
Q – Did you work directly with Dr. Oppenheimer?
A – Later on. Yes. But in the beginning, I worked for Dr. Chalkley, who was probably in his mid 40’s. He was married and had no children. He was kind of a “fuddy duddy.”
A WOMAN AT THE COSMOS CLUB
I was in the Cosmos Club many times for lunch. A lot of people who interviewed me said that women were not allowed in the Cosmos Club. But I was in the Cosmos Club quite often with these men, and they treated me as a guest. After we were married, Dr. Bush and Dr. Chalkley took my husband and me to the Cosmos Club to celebrate our marriage.
Q – Were these business meetings at the Cosmos Club?
A – As I recall, whoever was in town, they could get together. They would talk. It was hard to know what they were talking about. Anyway, I was a silent person.
I was sometimes asked to take notes.
TURNED DOWN DINNER DATES WITH GENERAL EISENHOWER
My job after I went upstairs was serving tea to any dignitary or scientist who was in Washington DC at the time. The tray was set up with cookies and fancy cups. I thought I would never get through the first one. I guess I just figured out how to do it right. Someone set up the tea, and I would have to put the lemon on the saucer just so. I probably knew what to do from my mother. That is where I met all these people.
One time, Dr. Chalkley said General Eisenhower was going to be at tea this afternoon.
Q – This was what year?
A - The end of 1944 about. There were a lot of people always there. I can remember Eisenhower clearly. I thought, “He really thinks he is something else.”
Q – The way he carried himself?
A – Well a lot was the uniform and all those stars. I don’t remember what he drank or anything. But within the course of 15 or 20 minutes, he came up to me and said something like “would you like to have dinner with me tonight?” I forget how exactly he said it. People asked me what did I say to him. I think I probably just shrugged my shoulders. I don’t think I said anything, but I indicated “no.”
Q – Why did you indicate no? Do you remember?
A – Yes. It was not the fact that he was married. He was probably in his 50’s then. I have been asked that quite a few times. I just thought, “Why would I like to go out to dinner with him?” I was fussy about who I went out with, because during World War II, my friends and I were very cautious, and we were smart.
Q – You were a small town girl in a big city?
A – That was probably true.
Q – Then what happened?
A – Well he went along his way. I watched him out of the comer of my eye, and I saw that he kept looking at me. This photograph that I showed you that was published in the Lycoming College alumni magazine is the dress that I had on. It was the most decent dress I owned.
Q – How would you describe the dress?
A –Well, mother bought me the dress before I came to Washington, and I had to dress properly for special occasions. It was a black crepe dress with little gold things on it. I made my own dresses mostly like in this photo.
Q – It looks like a flowered dress with a little bit of lace on it
A – Yes. And the girls in the photo are the ones who came to Washington with me. We are standing in front of the Carnegie Institution. One is Thelma Shaibley, who was my roommate. The other is Callie McHaffie, and the other is Alysia Agey. I remember that dress well. I made all of my own clothes. I made all my clothes since I was about 13. They left Washington after a few months. But I was there to stay.
A – Anyway, you had this contact with General Eisenhower.
Q – Well, he asked me a second time later. I never said anything to anybody that General Eisenhower asked me out to dinner, because it was not important to me.
Q – Was this also when the tea was being served?
A - It was the same place. Dr. Bush’s office was as big as the length and width of my house. It was impressive – a beautiful room. There were a lot of people there. There were a lot of people in uniform.
Q – This would have been how long after you came to Washington?
A – Four to five months. Because I started to have to do this tea business right away. The second time, I don’t know what I had on the second time.
Q – How did he ask you the second time?
A - There were no other people there. And when I think about it, I was just a dumb kid. I saw him and Major General Groves. There were a lot of VIP’s. I think he came up to me, and, I don’t remember exactly what he said. I probably shook my head a little more vigorously. I thought, “Why is he bothering me?” I guess I really wasn’t so dumb.
Q – Again, he was asking you about dinner?
A – Yes.
Q – You never said anything to anyone?
A – No. Not until later on. My sister just said, “Well, he probably just wanted to take you out to dinner.” I said, “I don’t care. I didn’t want to go out with him.” Someone said I should write a book, but I didn’t think it was important.
Q – What do you remember about the end of the war?
A – It was V-E Day. We celebrated - all my friends.
Q – Where were you?
A – Probably at work. We all went downtown. Everybody in the streets was screaming. I got home at about 3 in the morning. We just had a pay phone in the boarding house, and I was supposed to go to work. They came banging on my door at 4:00 Am.,, and so I had to get myself together. I got on the bus and went to work. I took dictation. I had little sleep. I was the only one called in.
Q – Do you remember what you did when you got there?
V-J DAY AND OPPENHEIMER
A – I remember more about V-J day. I remember I was called again. The part of the Oppenheimer biography was wrong. All of the scientists were there. As I sat there and looked at them, I think everyone was in shock that this happened.
Q – When the first atomic bomb was dropped?
A – Yes. Dr. Oppenheimer I remember was sitting on some low stool. He was dictating to me. I have some of my dictation up in the attic. I am beginning to clean out my attic, and I found some things. I know that other things are still up there. I remember there was a word that he used over and over. The word that he used was “share” - share the atomic secrets with everybody to prevent it from being used again. This is just my thinking. If it were shared, no one would try to make more mass destruction bombs. I think I vaguely understood that. But I was in shock too.
Q- What was the feeling in the room that you observed with them?
A – My feeling was that it was a horrible thing to happen, but it saved our American lives.
Q - What was Dr. Oppenheimer’s demeanor in that room?
A - Quiet. He had very piercing blue eyes.
Q – This thing that he was dictating – who got the document that you were working on?
A – I think he was dictating something over the top of his head. It was his thoughts. I don’t know what happened to it. I had carbons, and I thought it was interesting in my young mind.
OPPENHEIMER DICTATED HIS THOUGHTS AFTER THE BOMB WAS DROPPED
Then, after that, and this is not documented in the biography, for two straight weeks – 6 days a week - he dictated to me in an empty building across from where Foundry Methodist Church is. It is across from the Carnegie Institution. It was like an old house – empty. It was on 16th Street across from Foundry. It was just the two of us. He was dictating.
Q – What was he dictating?
A – The nitty gritty of it I don’t remember.
Q – You would type it, and would he edit it?
A – No. I never saw it again. There was a small elevator in the building holding not more than two people. We would always leave together. He would want to take me home in a cab.
Q – So is that is what happened?
A – No. I took the bus.
Q – He would say, ”Let me get you a cab.”
A – I would say, “No. I’ll take the bus.”
Q – Why did you do that?
A - Well, I was used to taking the bus. I don’t know. Thinking back on it now, I think I thought , “Why bother him. I don’t need a cab. I’ll just take the bus.”
Q – You did this for two weeks?
A - It was 10 days. We were leaving this one-day, and he had the medal that Truman had given him. And I can see him now. He was like a little kid. He was so thrilled with this medal.
Q – Do you know what the medal was?
A – I can’t remember the name of it. Truman had given it to him. Apparently, Truman did not care much for Oppenheimer. He thought he was a crazy scientist and called him a SOB, but the opposite was the truth.
I remember some of the higher-ups saying that Truman said, “I don’t want that idiot back in my office any more.”
Q – This was before the bomb?
A – Yes. Remember Roosevelt died, and Truman ordered the dropping of the bomb.
So Truman and Oppenheimer met probably a number of times, as I have read, and he thought this guy was crazy. He used some sort of a cuss word. He didn’t want him in his office. I remember laughing when I heard that.
Q – This was before the bomb was dropped?
A – Yes .
Q - You could hear people talk?
A - I would listen to everything. One would be louder than the other.
Q – Were you in an open office or were there cubicles? Where did you sit?
A [- There was a huge open area, and I was with Dr. Chalkley. It was a makeshift office. It is a huge beautiful building. I didn’t realize what a beautiful building was at that point.
Q – You could hear conversations in other parts of the office?
A – No. There was not much there. There was Dr. Bush’s huge office. And Carroll Wilson – I never did figure out what he did. That is where the safe was.
TOP SECRET CLEARANCE AND COMBINATION TO THE SAFE
Q – But you had the combination of the safe, and that is where you think all of the secrets were?
A - Yes. On V-J Day I had to get there to open the safe.
Q - Other people must have had the combination.
A – No. They said that I was he only one.
In my understanding, from people who interviewed me, that we probably had top-secret clearances before we were even approached about coming to Washington.
Q – But you didn’t know any of that?
A – Right I didn’t know. The word top secret you never heard those words.
Q - What do you think was in the safe?
PHOTOGRAPHS OF CONCENTRATION CAMP
A – I can’t really say. I know some things that I surmised that were in the safe, because there were pictures of the concentration camps that we knew were going on. I am positive that they were in the safe.
Q – Why do you say that you are positive?
A – I remember being in Dr. Bush’s office and thinking “what is that – all those skeletons?” I didn’t know what it was.
Q –These photographs were visible on his desk?
A – Yes. I would have no reason to question what it was. In my mind I was thinking. “what kind of pictures were they?” In retrospect, I feel almost sure that these pictures were in that safe.
Q – What else do you think was in the safe?
A – I would say anything that had to do with the war, the Japanese – everything.
Q – How about things about the bomb?
A - Yes.
Q – So you had that extensive session with Dr. Oppenheimer. Did you work with him other times?
A – Remember he was developing the bomb, and he would appear sometimes. It would be in Dr. Bush’s office.
Q – Were you doing secretarial work for him during his appearances?
A – It was mostly Dr. Bush that I did secretarial work for, and then after the bomb, that day after that, that is when I did the extensive work with Oppenheimer. It would be 8 or 10 o’clock at night that we worked,.
Q – So you worked over 8 hours.
A – When we started in the morning, sometimes it was as late as 10 o’clock at night that we finished.
Q – Did you take a break for dinner or lunch ?
A - I guess we had food brought in. We never went out to a restaurant. The food came from the Greasy Spoon we called it. It was on P Street. That is where we had lunch.
Q – After V-J Day, what happened after that?
A – The agency was dissolved, and I was asked to stay on and work for the Carnegie Institution. I think Dr. Chalkley and Dr. Bush said “don’t stay in the government.” They wanted me to stay, and so I did. I worked and answered phones. I did some proofreading of books and stuff. I don’t know where I learned how to do that.
MIXED MARRIAGE INITIALLY UPSETS MOTHER
In spring of 1946, I was still working, when this navy lieutenant who had just gotten out of the Navy after the war moved in the boarding house, and he was the man that I married. . He was in the active reserve. He was still flying. He was in the Pacific area. He asked someone how old I was. I said, “Ask him how old is he.” He was 28 and I was 20. Then he came knocking on my door and asked if I wanted to go to dinner. We went out. He had an old car – no money. He had flight pay that he had saved. He was born in the Bronx. As a small child, they moved to Yonkers. He had a brother and sister – all three had been in the service. I am getting ahead of my story. He knew that I sang in the Foundry Methodist Church choir. Ten days after we arrived in Washington, Thelma and I joined the Foundry Methodist Church, and we immediately joined the choir .
Q – Did you sing in the choir back home?
A – Mulberry Methodist Church back home – I sang in the choir. When I went to college, I sang in the vocal ensemble – Thelma and I. Thelma had a lovey voice and mine wasn’t so lovely. So he knew I went to choir practice. We were talking and I could see where we were. I thought he was nice. He said , “I am Jewish.” I thought, “so.” He is telling me that he is Jewish, knowing that I was an active member of the Methodist choir.
Q – In that era, it was more unusual for a Jewish and Christian person to marry.
A - Absolutely. You don’t know the half of it. Well anyway, I came home, and I woke my roommate up. I said “This guy I have been out with, I like him a lot. “ She was just as fussy as I was. I said he didn’t even kiss me goodnight or even touch me, and that was a plus. And I said, “he is Jewish.” And she said up in bed and said, “What would you mother say.?
Q – So you decided that you liked this young navy lieutenant?
A – Yes. So we started to date. He was very concerned about religion. He knew that mine was a stronger religion. His mother was way ahead of her time. She was a social worker and graduated from Columbia University. She was a brilliant woman. As a mother-in-law, she could be a pain. But I respected her, and we got along beautifully. My father-in-law, I just loved him. I didn’t meet them until after we were married. Anyway, we dated from May, and in December we talked about getting married. He was concerned that my family would disapprove. You get the picture as to what he was like.
So he said, “We will be married in your church – in Williamsport, Pa. “ So we agreed. I went home, and my mother pitched a complete fit. She said, “It was bad enough when you almost married that Catholic fellow.” That was someone that I thought I was I in love with when I was in college. It was a big to-do. I got myself together , and I was coming back straight to Washington . On my way out the door, my father called me into the front bedroom. It was Christmas and he said , “Barbara, if you picked him out, he must be all right. You go back and marry him.” We were married January 25 in the Methodist Church in Kensington.
Q – So it was a small wedding.
A – Four of us. One was Dr. Marcien Wyczkowski. He was from Warsaw, Poland. He was best man. He lived in the boardinghouse. He was Catholic. He spoke 7 – 8 languages. He was with the International Monetary Fund. The other person in the wedding party was my roommate.
Q – Then you brought your husband back to Williamsport?
A – That took a while.
Q –How long was it before you brought him home?
A – Allen and I decided to go home. When my mother found out, she decided to visit someone in New Jersey. So when we got there, my 90-year old grandmother met him. My grandmother said, “I like him.” She knew I was expecting. I stayed with my sister. My father was there.
Dave was 3 months old when I flew up with him. My great aunt and my mother met us at the airport, and I was sick the whole time at the airport, because I was pregnant. I was holding the baby. My mother would not reach out her arms to take the baby. My great aunt did. It was pretty bad, and then slowly it evolved. She went on and on about having the baby baptized. We went to the Mulberry Street Methodist Church, and she was not very friendly there. The congregation was not very friendly either became I married a Jew. “Why would Barbara do a thing like that,” is what they thought. I kept my chin up. Then it evolved slowly. In later years, my mother said many times, if Allen was her son, she could not love him any more.
1956 MOVE TO CHEVY CHASE
We lived in [Cheverely, Maryland] for 7 years. I wanted to stay there, because I had so many friends there. But we came to look at the houses behind us in Chevy Chase. My husband said they were not well built. They were asking $25,000 for those houses. So he said there was one that went on the market. We came around for this house. They were asking $38,500. There was no way. But we liked it. It had a nice big kitchen. We thought we could push $30,000. We talked outside, and said maybe we can manage, and so we offered $35,000. They accepted. We have been here 56 years. It was 1956 when we bought it.
Q – It was a new house?
ATTITUDES TOWARDS BLACKS AND JEWS
Q – Tell me about your neighborhood.
A - This area at one time there were restrictive covenants – no Jews or blacks but not by the time when we moved here. There was an older Jewish couple next door. ‘They were wonderful. I learned more about Judaism from them than I did from my husband.
Q– Tell me a little more about what you remember about attitudes towards Jews or African Americans.
A – I remember once before we were married, Allen and I went to the Kenwood Country Club for one of his business functions. As we drove up, I saw a sign that said “Gentiles Only.” I pitched a fit and told Allen I would not go up there. He calmed me down, and we went in. He took these things better than I did. I guess he was used to it.
A – But by the time, we moved to our neighborhood, restrictive covenants no long meant anything. There was a Vietnamese couple and there was a black couple that lived here for many years.
WASHINGTON DURING WORLD WAR II
A – Yes. I did volunteer work during World War II at Walter Reed Medical Center where the worst injured men were sent. A couple days a week Thelma and I – or on Sunday – we would go there and visit. I dated someone who had his leg shot off in Germany. He had not gotten his leg yet. He was on crutches then. We would go places. I remember going downtown to the movies. He would fall. He was in uniform. People would pick him up. He could somehow get up. Then he was transferred to Forest Glen where the rehab was. That is where they were fitted with limbs. Any artificial limb is painful.
Q – You went there to cheer up the men?
A – Yes we had music, and we just talked. The Jewish Community Center on 16h Street had bond rallies. I met Andy Rooney there when there was a memorial service for Ernie Pyle. Pyle was a photographer and journalist during the war, and he was killed. Andy Rooney was a European journalist. He was good looking
Q – How did the bond rally work?
A – The military would be there. There was no one selling that I recall. It was mostly social. There was a military band there. There was no dancing. It was our duty to go – Thelma and me. Then we did volunteer work at Walter Reed.
SALARY AS A GOVERNMENT GIRL AND LIFE AT THE BOARDING HOUSE
Q – Do you remember what you got paid?
A - $1,440 a year, and then I got a raise to $1680 when I went upstairs.
Q – Was that a lot of money compared to what you would get in Williamsport?
A – I never thought about money. The first thing we did was pay our rent. We got room and board. We got breakfast and dinner at night. On Sunday, we got brunch. And then we watched every penny that we spent. We ate lunch at the greasy spoon across on P Street. We paid $50 for room and board. Four people used the bathroom, and it was down the hall. We had two people to each room. It was a beautiful place. There were flowers. It had been a girls’ school during World War I. It was called the Martha Washington Seminary. So it was like a big dormitory. In front was the manor house.
You know the bridge that has the lions on it? Well I had my first kiss from my husband sitting on top of one of the lions. It was in the afternoon.
Q – You called it a manor house. Why?
A – It was a beautiful, old house like a mini- mansion with beautiful gardens and flowers. Then behind it was this big dormitory – where we lived. The address was 16th and Spring Road. The Woodner is there now.
Q – The building got knocked down?
A – Yes Long time ago. I heard that it was used as girls’ finishing school in World War I. Then the government found us a place to live there. It was safe. Our parents came along with us to see where we would live. I think I was the youngest of the three of us. I was 19.
Q – Did you sit at big tables at dinner?
A – Thee were nice individual tables. It was nicely serviced. The food was good.
Q – Did you do social things there?
A – They had a piano. Thelma played the piano, and we sang. There were a lot of Chinese military people living there at the time.
Q – How many lived in the dormitory?
A – There weren’t many – maybe 40. We were the only government girls. There were not many men.
Q – Did you still continue making dresses when you were in Washington?
A – I would come home from work and sew. On Sunday I would sew.
Q – Anything else you can remember about life in Washington in Washington DC.
A – I think it was great But we did think we could lose the war. So I worked 6 days a week. Shoe and stockings were rationed. The stockings were awful looking. They were not nylon. There was no ration book for them, because the stockings were not nylon. They were probably cotton. I think we had one pair of shoes.
We also had a social life at Foundry Methodist Church. The church had a lot of social events. We mingled a lot with black churches. Our choirs would sing together.
HUSBAND WAS A COUSIN TO JONAS SALK
Q - Anything else you would like to tell me?
A – Well I could tell you that my husband’s mother was a Salk before she married. She was an aunt to Jonas Salk, the scientist who developed the polio vaccine in the 1950’s. My husband’s mother’s parents were Jewish and came to the United States from Russia at about the same time as Jonas Salk’s mother did. The Salk’s were a poor, immigrant family, but education was very important to them. I told you that my mother-in-law was a social worker and knew Eleanor Roosevelt.
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