Vanderbilt Engineering’s Greatest Generation
When Ralph Gates enrolled in the Vanderbilt School of Engineering in 1942, World War II was raging in Europe and Japan was marching across the Pacific. The 17-year-old Nashville native knew he would enlist when he turned 18.
In the meantime, there was survey camp, a fraternity and chemical engineering classes. For Gates, BE’47, and the other men of Sigma Chi, it was coursework, football games and tea dances with sororities. “There were probably 50 of us in the fraternity in the summer of 1942,” Gates says. “By ’44, there were less than 10 not in uniform.”
When he tried to enlist at 18, the Army and draft board mysteriously told Gates to stay in engineering school and that it would let him know when his service was needed.
In 1944, Gates was finally called to active duty and sent to infantry basic training. Then unexpected orders arrived and Gates wound up in the Army Specialized Training Program for a few weeks. Before long, Gates was sharing a sealed Pullman car with other bewildered young men, heading west. They didn’t know where they were going or why.
“Our car was detached from the train in the middle of the New Mexico desert,” Gates says. “A bus picked us up. Finally we passed through well-guarded gates into the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys and there we stayed until the war was over.”
“There” was Los Alamos, N.M., and the 20-year-old was soon working on the supersecret Manhattan Project, which developed and built the atomic bombs that ended World War II.
“Los Alamos apparently needed people with at least some technical training to do the grunt work in building the bombs,” he says, explaining that degreed engineers were already overseas or committed to other government work. “I’d had three years of chemical engineering and all the physics that was offered, but essentially no knowledge of radiation.”
Gates helped cast high-explosive lenses designed to compress plutonium to critical mass in the Nagasaki-type (Fat Man) bomb. As the junior member of a group handling explosives, he helped sweep up small bits of TNT at shift’s end. “The first time I stepped on one and it went ‘bing,’ it scared the daylights out of me,” he chuckles.
Telling Their Stories
Gates, now 86, says the story of Los Alamos is only one of many that his generation—and others—can tell. Since retiring, he’s launched Life Stories, a personal mission to record people recounting their personal histories in their own words.
“I want the stories of my generation recorded for their children and great-grandchildren,” he explains. He tapes participants as they recount their memories and stories, capturing the emotions, thoughts and motivations of everyday people. Gates provides DVDs to his subjects so they can give them to family or historical societies.
So far, he’s done 75 Life Stories interviews. “People talk about all kinds of things, frequently personal things or opinions they want their descendents to remember,” Gates says. “A 30-year Marine colonel’s story extended over 12 hours. Another person talked about working as a foreign missionary.”
Friends at Arms
Among his most prized Life Stories are those of his Vanderbilt classmates—Bill Akers (BE’47), Lyt Anderson (BE’48), Bruce Crabtree (’46), John Jeffords (’47), Henry “Buddy” McCall (AS’47), Ernest Moench (BE’47), Ed Winn (’46) and the late Bill Stumb (’46) and Bill Wells (BA’48). Each served in the military and Gates has recorded their wartime experiences.
The men’s friendship continues today and they meet for reunions whenever they can.
The first time I stepped on [a bit of TNT] and it went ‘bing,’ it scared the daylights out of me.
“At engineering camp near Sparta in the summer of 1942, we practiced surveying for a theoretical road project up the mountain and through the woods. John Jeffords is well-remembered for placing a large sign over the camp entrance that said, ‘Dean Lewis’ School for Wayward Boys,’” Gates recalls. “A bunch of us shaved our heads, probably because our mothers weren’t there to stop us.”
Dating was a group activity in the era before the war, and few went steady. Hettie Ray’s on Nine Mile Hill was the favored gathering place for dancing and as a watering hole—usually for Cokes. “There was nothing but an empty field between the Sigma Chi House on 21st Avenue and Furman Hall,” he says of campus life. “McTyeire Hall was a new girl’s dorm and the boys were more than happy to help them move in.”
It was a more innocent time, he concedes, and he is committed to documenting it. “On video, people become real and future generations can hear their ancestors firsthand as they talk about their lives and possibly traumatic things that made them who they were,” Gates explains.
After the War
Discharged from the military, Gates finished his Vanderbilt degree and earned a master’s from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Victor Chemical Co. (later Stauffer Chemical Co.) in product development and sales. He married fellow alum Thaniel Dozier Armistead, BA’52, and raised a family of four.
For many years, Gates’ war work was a closed chapter. Los Alamos workers were told to say nothing of their service. That silence continued through what he calls “the flower power years” of the ’60s and ’70s and anti-war sentiment. “I am aware of a certain feeling of guilt for having involvement in killing so many instantly, even in time of war,” Gates says. “But if you insist on numbers, I am certain the bomb ended the war and saved many more people that would have been killed, both American and Japanese.”
Today, Los Alamos vets—including Gates—have been featured in news articles and documentaries about the Manhattan Project. Gates says like other American veterans, he and his cohorts were there to do their part. “We felt like we’d done something worthwhile—our particular part, so to speak,” Gates says, explaining that the possibility of Germany readying its own atomic weapon increased the urgency of their work. “Did anyone have doubts? Sure. … You can point to the destruction the bombs brought to Japan, but it was nothing compared to the number of lives that would have been lost on both sides if the war had continued.”