By Michael Aushenker
At 21, to the great disappointment of her mother, Frances Jacob joined the Army.
Jacob was among some 400,000 women to enlist in the American armed forces during World War II, but she would become one of only a few women in military uniform to play a direct part in the creation of the atomic bomb.
At 92, Jacob — now Frances Browner, after marrying in 1949 — has lived a quiet life in Mar Vista for 60 years, but memories of her time in the inner circle of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project remain vivid.
It all began with a thirst for education and a fateful trip to the movies.
When Browner was 5, she and her single mother moved from St. Paul, Minn., to Los Angeles, where she later attended Fairfax High School alongside famous classmate Mickey Rooney. After graduation, Browner longed for higher education but her single mother pressured her to give up a scholarship to Los Angeles City College in order to help financially support the pair.
“I had two dreams in life — to go to college [specifically, UCLA] and to have a father,” said Browner, whose dad left home when she was two.
And so Browner went to work for her uncle, a jeweler, to satisfy her mother but also attended classes part-time.
Then, in 1942, her life took a turn after a visit to the cinema. On the marquee: “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” starring James Cagney.
“I saw it three times in a row!” Browner said of the film. “Hitler was taking over the world. It was very scary.”
Browner, a Jewish American, was roused to help her country stop Adolf Hitler’s campaign for world domination. So immediately after her third viewing that day she walked a mile to a recruiting station, where she enlisted in Women Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC, later shortened to WAC).
Soon she was deployed to Iowa for basic training at Fort Des Moines, where Browner settled in as a stenographer documenting court martials. But chart-topping math scores on military aptitude tests and a series of interviews led to her one day being mysteriously plucked from her platoon. Browner and a few other WAC soldiers were taken by train and by closed Army truck, with no idea where they were headed.
“We thought we were going overseas,” Browner recalled. “I was more excited than I was scared.”
After a stop at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, her final destination turned out to be Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where Oppenheimer — though she didn’t know it at the time — was leading a top-secret team in building the first atomic bomb.
In rustic New Mexico, Browner and her peers shared a dormitory — “the former home of a fancy boys’ school,” she recalled. But among them, only she had clearance to the so-called Technical Area, where the scientists did their mysterious work. A few of the scientists on Oppenheimer’s team were women, but Browner recalls being the only woman in military uniform among them.
“Female soldiers played a role at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, but not a huge role,” said Karen Green, curator of the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. “[Browner] is only the second one that I have come across. The other was Oppenheimer’s secretary for some of the time.”
Browner remembers wearing a button with the number 11 and a red pass to gain access to the lab.
“Los Alamos itself was enclosed in a barbed wire fence,” Browner recalled, describing a compound akin to “a huge, round, enormous building. For some reason, it looked like a well.”
Despite having only a high school diploma, Browner worked tabulating mathematical equations for the scientists, adding up lengthy rosters of figures each day and storing her work in a basement vault each night. Her superiors made no mention of how her equations would be used.
Work at Los Alamos was so strictly confidential that her boss, Oppenheimer, denied a request to meet up with an uncle who was passing through New Mexico.
But Browner held nothing against Oppenheimer — whom scientists had nicknamed “Oppy.”
“I had a crush on him. He was nice-looking,” said Browner, adding that she still has vivid recollections of Oppenheimer. “He used to sit on the desk, his legs crossed, with a pipe. He wasn’t loquacious. He had a light side to him — something in his smile and his voice.”
The Los Alamos laboratory kept a daily tea time of 3 p.m., and Browner, a young woman craving knowledge, found herself across the table from some of the world’s brightest scientific minds.
“Education was so exciting, but there was none of it within my own family,” she said.
Over time, Browner began to suspect she was working on some kind of explosive, but a bomb capable of disintegrating an entire city was unimaginable at the time.
“You knew your job and maybe some of what a few others were doing, but rarely did you know everything that was going on,” Green said of people assigned to the top-secret work. “The development of the atomic bomb was the original ‘black project.’ Almost everyone outside of Oppenheimer’s circle had no idea that we were developing the bomb, and Oppenheimer’s circle was just a handful of scientists.”
Browner said she didn’t understand what she was doing until seeing newspaper headlines about the bomb’s devastating effects in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I had very mixed emotions,” Browner said.
After the bombings, Manhattan Project head of computations Donald Flanders, who Browner recalled as one of the nicer people she has worked with, committed suicide.
“It was a terrible moral dilemma for the scientists,” Browner has come to believe. “Many were from Europe and Germany. They knew Hitler was working on a bomb.”
After six months at Los Alamos, Browner developed respiratory problems and returned to L.A. after a disability discharge.
Under the G.I. Bill, she later realized her dream of attending UCLA, though due to poor health it took seven years for the gifted mathematical mind to complete a degree in, of all things, English literature. While attending college, she met husband Joseph Browner (who died in 2006) and became pregnant with her son, Geoff.
But her military experience had one remaining surprise in store. One day in 1948, Browner was pulled out of creative writing class to join an audience mostly made up of faculty for a special guest lecture in the school gymnasium.
Standing in the center of the packed room was “Oppy.”
As the lecture was about to start, “he looked up and saw me, he came over, and we shook hands,” Browner recalled, smiling. “It was pretty exciting. After that, all of these older men started talking to me. They thought I was important!”
After conversation drifted to memories of life in the family home, Geoff Browner — who thought by now he’d heard everything his mother had to say about Los Alamos — is taken by surprise when she suddenly bursts into a nearly forgotten song:
“We’re stuck up on a mountain outside of Santa Fe,
Where the only signs of wildlife are G.I. wolves at bay.
So listen here, my children, of brilliance do not boast,
Or you’ll end up like we did — Up in Los Alamos!”