Special Engineering Detachment (SEDs)
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 machinists, were not only critical to the war effort but also in especially short supply. This national labor crisis extended to the Los Alamos Laboratory, which needed the very same skills required by the military and industry. 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. Among the enlisted personnel sent to Los Alamos were future Nobel Prize Winner, Val Fitch; future University of New Mexico Provost, McAllister Hull; and the spy, David Greenglass, who was Ethel Rosenberg’s brother.
SEDs undergoing inspection at Los Alamos
The SEDs Arrive
SED personnel began arriving at Los Alamos in October 1943. Many, including Hull, 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. While assembling the high explosive charges for a Fat Man unit, Sergeant Al Van Vessem was a bit annoyed when his division leader, George Kistiakowsky, interrupted his concentration. When Kistiakowsky asked what he could do to help, Van Vessem simply pointed to a wrench and told him to start turning bolts. Kistiakowsky did.
As enlisted military personnel, the life of an SED was not idyllic. Unlike civilian employees SED personnel had to live in barracks and could not have their wives and children nearby. Although they often worked side by side with senior scientists performing much of the same work, they were not treated with respect by their first commanding officer. As Val Fitch recalled some years later:
M/Sgt. Gerold H. Tenney in
"We lived in single floor barracks, roughly 60 men to a unit....We ate in an army mess hall. . . We lined up each week to get fresh linen, and once a month to get paid. Reveille came at 6 am, and we had calisthenics from 6:30 to 7:00. We could not leave the barracks for work on Saturday mornings until after inspection of quarters, nominally at 8:00. We worked in. . . the Tech Area six days a week. It was the army and still it wasn’t the army because in the Tech Area we worked alongside, and were beholden to, civilians."
Morale among the SEDs suffered during their first year at Los Alamos as they struggled with their great responsibilities, low pay, slow-to-nonexistent promotions, calisthenics, and questionable leadership. Morale improved considerably in August 1944, when the new commanding officer did away with reveille, calisthenics, and Saturday morning inspections.
By August 1945, 1800 SED personnel worked at Los Alamos. These troops worked in all areas and activities of the Laboratory, including the Trinity Test, and were involved in overseas operations on Tinian. So integral and important 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. Many, including Al Van Vessem and Winston Dabney did just that. The SEDs were not only important to the wartime success of the Los Alamos Laboratory but, as civilians, were equally important to the postwar success of the Laboratory as well.
Request for Policy on SED Time-Off
Military Personnel Procedures
Commendation for Sergeant Lowe
50th Anniversary Article:
A future Nobel Prize Winner Val Fitch, who later won a Nobel Prize in Physics, recalls, "A number of young men, like myself, very early in their lives and careers, were exposed to superb physicists who were remarkable in many respects, and it had a profound influence upon us." After another summer at Los Alamos in 1948, Fitch received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and went on to win the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in particle physics.