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Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The Manhattan Project: Lyda Speck's Story

In her early years during the Great Depression, Lyda Speck, who held a college degree in chemistry, had been an elementary school teacher in Livingston, but when school attendance dropped she was let go and in May of 1941 became a rural mail carrier.

And then came Dec. 7, 1941. “I remember it distinctly,” she said of the day of the surprise attack from the Japanese Navy at the U. S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. “It was on a Sunday. Momma had just told us lunch was ready, and they broke into the news on the radio before we got to the dinner table. It was just unbelievable.” Suddenly there were jobs. The war brought the Depression to an end. As the men volunteered or were drafted for service overseas, the women stepped up to handle the jobs on the homefront. Lyda had felt the patriotism itch and in 1943 took a leave of absence from her mail route to join the Women’s Army Corps. She volunteered for anywhere in the world that she was needed. She thought her service would have something to do with the mail since that was what she did, but her high score on an Army intelligence test caught the eye of those involved in a top-secret project to produce the first atomic bomb.

After basic training, Lyda’s entire company of women awaited their orders. Eventually, they started shipping out her fellow soldiers more and more until Lyda was the only one left. She thought that perhaps she was the only woman that they can’t find anything for her to do. She was only told to await “special orders.” Soon, she was on a train bound for the Army base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, which was the point from which troops were sent overseas. But it was all a sham, a way to keep hidden the secret job that awaited her in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where she would serve as part of the Provisional Engineer Detachment. She was debriefed about what she could say or not say. The one thing missing was the truth. It took her a while to figure out what the “truth” was. She was actually going to help build a bomb.

I have written stories about how my aunt Mada Boles Allen had moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee in early 1944 to work at the Y-12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant, whose purpose was to make enriched uranium, and about she and the others had no clue what they were doing until after the fact. The Clinton County News reported in 2022 that Opal Talbott of Albany had celebrated her 101st birthday at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, where decades earlier she had worked on the Manhattan Project. She showed the media the silver pin they had given her for her work.

It seems strange to think that a woman from Livingston, Tennessee would end up working with materials that were sent to New Mexico from Oak Ridge, so close to her home, but Lyda's part in the process at Los Alamos involved day after day of being in a physics lab. She tried to tell her boss that the Army had been misinformed about her schooling, that her major had been chemistry, not physics, but she was told she would be taught what they wanted her to know.

While assisting physicists in the experimental physics group, she became the only woman to work with the Van de Graaff accelerator, whose initial motivation for development was as a source of high voltage to accelerate particles for nuclear physics experiments. Her job was to develop the photographic emulsions and make the thousands of measurements of tracks needed to determine neutron energy. Over the next couple of years she got to know her microscope extremely well. Measuring the tracks would help scientists perfect the explosion. It had to do with determining what size the bomb would have to be to go off. Her job was tedious and nerve-racking, and though no one ever said the word “bomb,” it became clear to Lyda that a devastating weapon was coming together.

Lyda also never said the word “bomb," but the thought that she was contributing to the creation of such a device was never far from the young sergeant’s mind as she pushed slide after slide through her microscope, carefully measuring between what looked like constellations amidst a starry sky, not that anyone ever confirmed her suspicion and not that she ever asked, but nothing was left to doubt on July 16, 1945 as she gazed into the New Mexico desert sky from her vantage point on “the hill” and was among the first to witness a level of explosive fury the world had yet to experience.

It was a blast so powerful it could destroy an entire city, with shock waves felt more than 100 miles away, erupting into a monstrous mushroom cloud and leaving a crater of jagged radioactive glass where once was sand. The first test shot detonation had confirmed for her that the two and a half years she had contributed to the top secret research and development endeavor known as the Manhattan Project had not been in vain.

"It was always referred to as a gadget by thscientists and everybody else. I never heard anyone mention that it was a bomb.”

After the war, Lyda returned home to Livingston. There was no hero’s welcome, not even a mention of her arrival in the local newspaper. Life resumed as it had been, back to her mail route, a job Lyda would hold for more than 30 years, but in her home was a reminder of her contribution to the war effort, a small bit of jagged glass enclosed in a globe, a momento of that day in the desert. “That first test shot had everybody so nervous,” she would say. “We didn’t know if it was going to work and when it happened, the view from the hill was amazing."

On Sept. 28, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, wrote Lyda a commendation, which said in part, "For the past twenty months you have worked as an assistant in our research laboratory making microscopic measurements which called for a great deal of judgements on your part. This work was extremely tedious and involved a good deal if nervous strain. Nevertheless you have performed your duties in a cheerful and diligent manner and it must be clear to you that you have made a real contribution to the success of the project."

Lyda Speck died at Livingston Regional Hospital in 2014. She was 100 years old. Her parents were Floyd Morgan and Narcissa Allred Speck. Her grandparents were Magness and Delia Looper Speck. She was the great-granddaughter of Morgan Speck, brother of my 3rd great-grandfather, Calvin.

From a story about Lyda Speck at ajlambert.com

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