Were janitors and other menial workers at the A-bomb tests really illiterate?

I’m inclined to disagree. This was at the height of WW2. OK, maybe not THE height of the war, but we were still looking at a possibility of 1 million casualties to invade the “home” islands of Japan. Granted, there were enlisted personnel coming home from Europe that may have been able to assume those duties.

Given the state of secrecy surrounding the project, I vote that it probably was a condition for employment, just maybe not an “advertised” requirement.

I think I own that book! That’s why it sounded familiar!

Just a point of clarification - the OP refers specifically to Alamogordo, which is where the Trinity site was located. Alamogordo was, and still is, very remote and sparsely populated. My understanding is there were never more than ~200 people there at any given time, including military and scientific personnel. The people that did work there moved back and forth between Alamogordo and Los Alamos, as necessary, but weren’t really permanent to the Alamogordo facility. By contrast, Los Alamos had many more people, both military and civilian, who maintained a permanent presence there.

I only point this out, because I’d be surprised if there even were janitors at Alamogordo. At Los Alamos, sure. But looking at pictures from the time, I bet there were very few, if any, civilian support staff at Alamogordo.

Now I’m curious. Why only Alamagordo and Los Alamos? Wouldn’t there be concern, possibly even greater concern, at sites like the met lab in Chicago or the facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the bomb was developed? Did the government routinely employ illiterate janitors at all locations where top secret material was developed and destroyed?

While I was searching for cites for the OP, I came across one cite that the same was done at Oak Ridge. Though is wasn’t stated as a requirement, it was stated that illiterates were frequently hired for the same reasons.

I think that Oak Ridge was basically just an industrial facility where they were producing the fissionable material for the bomb. The actual research on making that into a bomb was out in New Mexico.

Also, given the location in backwoods Tennessee, there were probably a lot of illiterate people around there to be hired.

It sounds like one of those amazing fake facts to me.

The thought occurs you could easily fake illiteracy so given that would they really have tried to employ only illiterate workers when I don’t see any way to prove if someone is really illiterate or not. Certainly if we are talking about preventing spies from getting hold of information then it seems reasonable a spy could fake illiteracy.

Spies would want to get hold of manufacturing processes for such difficult to produce materials as much as they would the research.

I suspect it’s an Atomic Age legend. FWIW, Snopes has nothing on it using the search terms “illiterate,” “illiteracy” or “Alamagordo.”

Or you could teach one of those janitors to read, or teach them enough so they know key words to look for (any pages that say “Top Secret”), or have them keep all the papers from Herr Oppenheimer’s office.

Better just to keep an eye on all the employees or have them empty their own trash into the incenerator.

I suppose they could have taken the extreme precaution of hiring illiterates, but for the reason you give it doesn’t seem to me it would be likely that it would have mattered much. No spy is going to be trying to read and digest top notch scientific stuff on the spot: they are just going to copy or photograph or steal whatever they can lay their hands on. Whether they can read it or not.

Having literate janitor spies instead of illiterate janitor spies would just mean they didn’t waste time copying and smuggling out recipes for making dinner or other obviously irrelevant material.

I guess it might be a good policy not to prevent spies who can read being on site as such but because it is unlikely that anyone illiterate would be chosen as a spy by the enemy in the first place.

Except that the spies might not know to do so. If your policy is to make sure people you hire are illiterate to exclude spies, and you are smart, you are not going to make it obvious that you are choosing people based on illiteracy. You just give them an application form, and if they don’t ask for help with it, you don’t give them a job.