Contributions of Military Men and Women
World War II created a severe shortage of labor in the United States. National leaders had to balance the burgeoning manpower needs of the military against those required for agricultural and industrial production. Many crafts, such as machining, were not only critical to the war effort, but in especially short supply. This national labor crisis extended to Los Alamos, which needed the very same skills required by the military and industry.
Highly Skilled Military Workers
The partial answer to the labor shortage at Los Alamos came from an Army program that identified enlisted personnel with technical skills, such as machining, or who had some science education beyond high school. Those identified were organized into the Special Engineer Detachment, or SED.
SED personnel began arriving at Los Alamos in October 1943. Many were assigned to work at S Site where the high explosives used in Fat Man were cast and machined. Another contingent of SED personnel worked at nearby V Site, where the Fat Man components, including the high explosives, were turned into their final, combat configurations. Many of the SEDs were highly skilled and, in the case of S and V Sites, were allowed to manage their own day-to-day activities.
By August 1945, 1,800 SED personnel worked at Los Alamos. These troops worked in all areas and activities of the Laboratory, including Projects Trinity and Alberta. So integral were the SEDs to the functioning of the Laboratory that their imminent discharges at war's end created another serious labor shortage at Los Alamos. An agreement was quickly reached under which SED personnel could coordinate their discharges from the Army and begin working immediately as civilians.
The SEDs played a crucial role in the wartime success of the Los Alamos Laboratory. As civilians, they ensured the success of the postwar Laboratory for years to come.
Women's Army Corps
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, congress passed a bill creating the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). WAACs served alongside the regular army, playing an important role in the success of communication, supply, and maintenance operations. At its peak, the corps included 150,000 servicewomen. By 1943, the tremendous contribution made by the WAAC was recognized through formal integration into the army. That same year the Women's Army Corps (WAC), as it was then called, deployed a detachment to Los Alamos.
In summer 1943, the First Provisional WAC Detachment included 43 enlisted women and two officers. WACs worked across the laboratory, serving as secretaries, telephone operators, drivers, cooks and librarians. Before joining the corps, many of the women had acquired some technical training. This allowed them to work as research assistants and technicians. Many of the WACs had medical training, and worked in the local hospital. The shortage of skilled workers and the high quality of the WACs' work made them a valuable force at the lab. The detachment quadrupled in size over the next two years, reaching 200 by the end of the war. WACs made an important, though often overlooked, contribution to the development of the atomic bombs at Los Alamos.