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Tatman recalls work on Manhattan Project

October 29, 2012
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville Daily News

It was without a doubt the best-kept secret our nation has ever had.

Best kept, because of how pervasive it was.

Irene Tatman of rual Superior was one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who worked on the Manhattan Project, the development of the atomic bomb that was used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Many is the service person who has remarked, quite gratefully, that by dropping the bomb quite possibly a million lives - on both sides - were saved.

Article Photos

Irene Tatman, right, with Helen Hartwell, a coworker with whom she worked on the Manhattan Project in Ames. Tatman continues to correspond with Hartwell who now lives in Los Angeles.
Photo submitted

Tatman quite virtually stumbled by accident into working on one of the most rapidly advancing scientific projects in history.

She applied for a secretarial job on the Iowa State University campus in Ames. In addition to the typical questions, "Can you type?", "Can you take shorthand?" and "Can you make coffee?" was a far deeper, more important question - "Can you keep a secret? A secret that the fate of our nation and humanity could depend upon?"

Yes, she could, said Irene.

Fact Box

The Manhattan Project was a secret military project created in 1942 to produce the first US nuclear weapon. Fears that Nazi Germany would build and use a nuclear weapon during World War II triggered the start of the Manhattan Project, which was originally based in Manhattan, New York.

US physicist Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves served as directors of this project, which recruited some of the best US scientists, engineers and mathematicians. A number of European scientists, including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, also participated in the Manhattan Project.

So she got the job.

"I just walked in the administration building and they hired me. I didn't know what I was getting into," said Irene.

Workshops cautioned her not to even talk to students - there are spies on campus, she was told. Student spies.

When the FBI talked to her local postmaster to learn about her character, she wasn't allowed to say anything, leaving her folks to think she was a common criminal.

Irene knew better, though, her and the FBI and the scientists involved with the Manhattan Project.

She worked with Drs. F.A. Spedding, Harvey Wilhelm and Jim Warf, leaders in their field, leaders whose contribution wouldn't be known for decades.

It was Irene's job to carry a wax-sealed envelope to the campus post office each night. A guard escorted her.

And sometimes it got a little tense for even Irene.

One night Irene came to work. One of the guards had called in sick and the other guard died of a heart attack right on the job that night, leaving Irene to guard one of the most closely kept secrets in the nation's history.

Later, one of the local papers found a humorous bent in the story.

"They had in the Jackson County Pilot that I was in charge of the Manhattan Project for a full hour," Irene mused.

When the bomb was dropped on Japan, everyone celebrated - including Irene's husband, Jack, who was slated to go to Japan as well as his brother Richard who was scheduled to be part of the second wave of Marines into Japan - after being on the second wave at Iwo Jima.

Irene still corresponds with Helen Hartwell, a friend she made while working on the project in Ames. Helen now lives in Los Angeles, and like Irene, can talk now about was once top secret.

Even now, though, more than 60 years later, Irene's voice sometimes slips into a whisper as she talks about it.



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