This letter written in WWII and sent from France to a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) at Project Y in Los Alamos remained a mystery for 76 years. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society
By SHARON SNYDER
Los Alamos Historical Society
Sometimes the old saying “it’s a small world” is amazingly true! That statement definitely relates to the circumstances of a letter written in WWII and sent from France to a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) at Project Y.
A native of Oxford, Miss., Katherine “Pat” Patterson joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps—soon to be changed officially to WAC—in autumn of 1942. She was called to active duty in December and was soon on a train headed to New Mexico along with several other WACs. They were to report to Lt. Col. Whitney Ashbridge on arrival at Project Y. Cpl. Patterson was 22 years old and was among the first 200 military personnel assigned to the Manhattan Project on the Hill. She began work as a clerk in the Army Service Forces.
As with most families during World War II, Pat had other family members in the Armed Forces. Her brother, Jim Patterson, was serving in France. In the way of siblings, Jim decided to have a bit of fun with his sister and sent a letter that would send up red flags for the mail censors and get Pat into a precarious situation.
Pat must have mentioned to Jim that she was assigned somewhere in the mountains northwest of Santa Fe or perhaps described the terrain. Whatever the case may be, she got a puzzling letter from her brother in answer. Jim wrote back from France on Oct. 15, 1944.
“You ask how much I know about the place out there,” Jim wrote, adding, “you would be surprised.” He continued by asking a series of questions. “Has Bencis Gonzales in the PX there killed a deer yet? Is Ashley Pond frozen over? What does Peubelo Canyon look like? Do you ever ride a horse named Chili from the corral under the hill? I find out all these things by gazing into a big crystal ball.” He continued, “I know just how to get out to where you are. From Santa Fe to Pajaque, then left across the Rio Grande up Cubbra Hill, Otowi Hill, and past the Mesa.” His spelling was wrong in several instances, but it was clear enough to get the attention of the mail censors.
After reading the disturbing letter, the censors sent it to the higher brass, who promptly called Pat Patterson into the office for an explanation, but she didn’t have one! She was ordered to write a return letter and ask how her brother knew the things he put in the previous letter. Not realizing the problem he had caused, Jim replied that he and his buddy had gazed into their crystal ball. After that response, Pat was not allowed to communicate with her brother for the remainder of the war. Her outgoing letters were very carefully read by the censors, and she received no further mail from her brother.
After the war ended, Pat stayed in Los Alamos and met her future husband, chemist Nerses “Krik” Krikorian. Pat continued to work for the Lab, and the couple had one daughter, Debra, who had the clue that eventually solved the mystery of the censored lettered.
Since none of us believed the crystal ball story, there had to be someone giving Jim Patterson the very real details he included in his letter. Deb Krikorian helped find the answer! She remembered her mother saying that the soldier who supplied all the details about Los Alamos was in the last class to graduate from the ranch school. That narrowed the possibilities to four young men, and among those four only one was a possibility. Two of the last four graduates served in the navy and a third in the Merchant Marines. That left Collier Baird, who was, indeed, in northern France in the U.S. Army Infantry, Yankee Company. Collier fought in the Battle of the Bulge and lived to return home.
“Oh, the stories that were told around the dinner table,” Deb Krikorian remarked recently!
These articles are written by the Los Alamos Historical Society Staff. Many of these articles were originally published by the