Old-Fashioned Telephone Service Vital To Los Alamos Efforts In WWII

Switchboard Operators
Switchboard operators at Project Y, Los Alamos, 1945. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society McClenahan:

Old-Fashioned Telephone Service Vital To Los Alamos Efforts In WWII

By HEATHER MCCLENAHAN
Los Alamos Historical Society

In today’s wireless world, we don’t often think about how calls are connected. During the Manhattan Project, telephone wiring was the lifeblood of communication, and it has a story all its own.

The U.S. Forest Service provided the original telephone line to the area. Historian Janie O’Rourke has followed the route of that line through the Jemez Mountains and found several insulators still attached to trees. Originally provided for communications at fire lookouts, the line was soon joined by others in the area.

The single-wire party line also provided service to the Los Alamos Ranch School. According to Richard Womelsduff, son of the school’s chief mechanic, “A dozen or so phones were on it, each using a unique code of short or long rings, or a combination of them. The phone was not the place to say anything that you didn’t want everyone else to know.”

That lack of secrecy would not do when the Manhattan Project arrived on the Pajarito Plateau. In the winter of 1943, two men from the U.S. Army showed up at the telephone company office in Santa Fe and demanded a new line up “The Hill” to the recently closed boys’ school, according to “New Mexico and the Telephone: A Short History” by Herb Hockenburg. The phone company executives realized the army would not take anything but “Yes, Sir” for an answer.

In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would provide whatever resources the company needed to get the line in place. With wartime rationing, when almost all metal was going to the war effort, the army procured and laid out 20 miles of wire “as the crow flies” from Pojoaque to the top-secret site. That wire, sitting on the ground, provided a single telephone in a construction shack at the site. P.B. Burrows, the commercial manager for the phone company, realized right away that such a situation would not do. However, most of the experienced linemen for the company were serving in the war.
Burrows called on Big Charlie Tabachi, a line foreman who spoke Tewa and could recruit “old men” from San Ildefonso and Tesuque pueblos, to help. The young men from the pueblos were all away fighting the war, too. Sixty men showed up to work on the project from dawn to dusk. On the third day, the men asked to be excused for ceremonial dances at the pueblos. The lines were still completed in just five days.

Eleanor “Jerry” Roensch, a member of the Women’s Army Corps who served as a telephone operator in Los Alamos, explained that when she first started only three conversations could occur between the Tech Area and the army post, and only two lines could be used for calls to Santa Fe. The army and the phone company continued to add lines to keep up with the demands as the population grew and more communication was needed with the outside world.

Operators had fast-paced, demanding jobs, and they had to be accurate in their work. “People thought that the operators should be able to trace anyone,” Roensch noted. While someone like Gen. Groves proved easy to track down in any of his offices around the nation’s Manhattan Project sites, a constant stream of new arrivals to “The Hill” often created confusion, chaos, and delays.

However, the work was occasionally broken up by some fun. “New operator voices were easily discerned on the paging system,” Roensch explained. “Then the soldiers had a field day tricking the gullible newcomer into paging Ann Hydride or Roger Wilcoe.”

Editor’s Note: (Along with the Hockenburg article cited above, information for this article came from Jerry Roensch’s book, Life Within Limits, and Los Alamos: The Ranch School Years by John Wirth and Linda Aldrich.)