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  • Dale C. Maley

Atomic bomb has area roots

(A mushroom-shaped cloud from the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945)

World War II was brought to an end in 1945 when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A young woman from Livingston County played a crucial role in the development of these nuclear bombs.


The Ewing family's story began with William McCord Ewing's birth in 1879 in Pontiac. William married Sarah Lovelock in Pontiac. When they married, William was 37, and Sarah was 27. They had five girls named Frances Eleanor, Marjorie H., Mary Elizabeth, Barbara Joan, and June Ewing. William Ewing farmed east of Pontiac on Route 116.


The oldest daughter of William and Sarah Ewing was Frances "Eleanor" Ewing. She was born in 1918 in Pontiac. Eleanor attended and graduated from Pontiac High School, where she discovered she had a knack for mathematics.


When Eleanor graduated from Pontiac High School in 1937, Assistant Principal Wayne Eckley helped her get admitted to the University of Illinois mathematics program. Eleanor graduated with a B.A. in Mathematics in 1941. She then pursued an M.A. in Mathematics at the University of Illinois while teaching in the mathematics department.


Naomi Livesay received a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin in 1939. She then got a job at Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs. During this time, Livesay was sent to Philadelphia to complete a training course in operating and programming IBM electric calculating machines. For six months, with the help of an assistant, Livesay designed and implemented plug-board programs, punched cards, and carried cards over from one machine to another.


Naomi changed jobs and became an instructor at the University of Illinois. While at the University of Illinois, Livesay became friends with fellow instructor Eleanor Ewing.


During the fall of 1943, Livesay got a letter from Joseph Hirschfelder, an American physicist, offering her a job working on a "war project." After her security clearance was approved, she left for Los Alamos in February 1944. Hirschfelder's group had been working on the gun model for plutonium, but by the time Livesay arrived in Los Alamos, that project had been terminated. However, Livesay was asked by Richard Feynman to stick around and to work with another theoretical group to calculate the predicted shock wave from an implosion-type bomb. Since this group would be using IBM machines, Livesay was an extremely qualified and ideal candidate. Her position involved supervising the crew that kept the IBM machines running 24 hours a day and performing hand calculations to check for any errors made by the machines.


In 1944, Eleanor Ewing, a graduate of Pontiac High School and the University of Illinois, worked in Hartford, Connecticut. She received a phone call from Naomi Livesay, who had taught math with her at the University of Illinois. "I want you to come to New Mexico," Miss Livesay said. "We need you." Miss Livesay would not say where she was, would answer no questions, and asked for an instant decision from Miss Ewing. Because Eleanor knew and trusted Naomi Livesay, she agreed to go to New Mexico.


Miss Ewing was told to say goodbye to no one. A train ticket to Chicago came in the mail from the War Department with instructions to go to Western Union at 10 p.m. for further orders and another ticket.


She also was told to destroy all instructions received after she had absorbed their contents. When she attempted to board the train, an MP told her, "No women on this train, kid." But he let her through after she produced her War Department letter.


Being the only woman on the train and being instructed to keep her name, profession, and destination from everyone made this a rather unpleasant trip for a young lady with long, bright red hair. The train ended at Lamy, New Mexico, a train station in the middle of the desert.


"You're getting off here," the conductor said, and Eleanor and her luggage were put off the train. She recalled thinking, "I hope I see my mother again."


Miss Livesay arrived in an Army car and took her to Santa Fe but would say nothing about what was coming. She took Eleanor to an office on East Palace Ave. with no name on the door or anywhere else. They picked up passes, drove about 30 or 40 miles onto the 7,200-foot Los Alamos mesa, stopped at an Army gate, and were motioned on.


Miss Livesay took Eleanor to an office in the technical area and left her alone while she went to get two men.


The men closed the room's door and pulled the shades. One of them leaned down and whispered in Eleanor's ear: "Eleanor, you're brought here to make an atomic bomb."


After a short briefing session, they wrote some equations on a board and erased them.


"I got panicky," Eleanor said later because I wasn't sure I knew enough physics to work with the atom."


She had had only one physics course in her life, one of Professor John Manley's courses at the U. of I., where she was the only female in a class of 101 students.


At a meal soon after her arrival, Eleanor found herself chatting with two men — Nobel laureate Neils Bohr and Otto Frisch, early developers of the idea of nuclear fission.


Her work settled into a routine after her August 1944 arrival. She and Miss Livesay supervised 12 to 14 men using IBM machines to solve the equations necessary to build the bomb.


Eleanor spent her free time dating Richard Ehrlich, who was working in the theoretical division of the project. Eleanor and Richard Ehrlich were married on July 7, 1945. It was the last wedding at Los Alamos before the first test of the atomic bomb. The first test was called Trinity and was successful on July 16, 1945. Almost 4,000 people had worked on this project for 28 months, starting in early 1943. Of the 365 scientists who worked on the bomb, fewer than 10 were women.


On August 6 and August 9, 1945, the United States detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. World War II ended a few days later when Japan surrendered.


The July 2, 1977, edition of the Pontiac Daily Leader published an interview they did with Mrs. Eleanor Ehrlich. In this interview, Eleanor said she had no regrets about working on the bomb. "I think that was part of the war. I regret that there are wars, but in those times, I was working with individuals whose families had been exterminated in Germany, Poland, and Hungary. They were my best friends. And I knew young men — my classmates who were lost at Pearl Harbor and Bataan."


Mrs. Ehrlich says she remembered what Pontiac High School did for her. Teachers there made her realize she was intelligent, and one teacher, Wayne Eckley, she credits with getting her into the U. of I. from which she developed the contacts that got her into the A-bomb work.


Eleanor Ehrlich died in 2011 in Saratoga, Florida, at the age of 92. She was a pioneer in mathematics and computing and was part of a team of 365 scientists who developed the atomic bomb, which ended World War II.

(Dale Maley's weekly history article is sponsored by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury and Dr. Charlene Aaron)

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