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A Recent Passing Reminds Us Of Our Wartime History

on March 29, 2019 - 8:39am

Mary Lou Maloney, Puye Cliff Dwelling. Photo by Mike Michnovicz/ Courtesy of Los Alamos Historical Society Archives

Los Alamos Historical Society

Mary Lou Michnovicz passed away March 9 at her home in Albuquerque. She was 91. Perhaps not many people in Los Alamos today will recognize her name, but at the least they should take note of this passing.

Mary Lou, and her husband, Mike Michnovicz, were among the last of those daring young people who came to an unknown place during the 1940s to join a secret project that ultimately ended World War II. There aren’t many of them left.

The young Mary Lou Maloney was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project not long after graduating from high school in Las Vegas, NM. She was one of a dozen or so recruits who today are known as the Las Vegas girls. Recruiters for Project Y were working their way through small towns in New Mexico, but in Las Vegas, Camp Luna was shutting down and quite a number of people would soon be out of jobs and looking for work.

In her first days at Project Y, Mary Lou found that the job wasn’t what she expected. She had thoughts of returning home, but within two weeks she had made friends and GIs were asking her to dances, so she stayed! At first she worked as a clerk in the grocery store. From there she went to the motor pool where she learned to drive a two-ton truck, and eventually she moved up to the Personnel Office.

After the war, Mary Lou stayed on, and in 1947 on Valentine’s Day she met her future husband, John “Mike” Michnovicz, who was sent to Los Alamos from the Army Specialized Training Program. He had been given an accelerated course of engineering and physics before boarding a train for Lamy, NM.

He was assigned to the technical support staff at Project Y, but because his service record listed photographic experience during college, he was put to work in the photo documentation group. During the war years and soon after, Mike Michnovicz would amass a collection of more than 1,000 photographs of scientists, technical workers, laborers, award ceremonies, scientific conferences, buildings, community activities and culture. Mike photographed Oppenheimer, Groves, Bethe, and top scientists of the British Mission, to name a few.

Off the mesa he documented parades, nature, architecture, and pueblo dances, snapping such iconic photographs as Maria Martinez speaking with Enrico Fermi at a San Ildefonso gathering. And when he wasn’t holding his camera, Mike picked up his accordion and played with other musicians who supplied much needed music to counter the stress and isolation of working on the Hill.

After the war, Mike and Mary Lou moved to Albuquerque, married, and both worked at Sandia Laboratory. They raised a family of 13 children, but they still found time to contribute to their community. Mary Lou was active in the Sister Cities Foundation and a member of the St. Joseph Hospital Auxiliary, making Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls every year for the hospital’s bazaar and logging thousands of volunteer hours.

In 2005, Mike Michnovicz donated to the Los Alamos Historical Society archives the accordion he had played at so many events during the war years. Two weeks before Mike died, he graciously talked to me in his home, telling me stories about those events and the people who attended them.

He was dying of cancer, on pain medication, and yet he propped himself up in a dining room chair, a heating pad behind his back to make himself as comfortable as possible. He apologized only as much as good manners dictated, for he knew it was the only way he could sit up and talk to me as long as the interview required.

Despite that, there was still a sparkle in his eyes, a sense of humor still evident, and an overwhelming appreciation for all that had come to him throughout his life. We sat at that dining room table covered with one of Mary Lou’s handmade cloths and talked of photography, history, his grandchildren, the train ride to Lamy, and so much more. We exchanged comments about how amazing it is that the small, insignificant rail station at Lamy saw people of such incredible talents walk through its doors. Mike Michnovicz was one of them, and he and Mary Lou epitomized those amazing people who came to Los Alamos all those years ago.

In addition to Mike’s accordion, his photographs have since been donated to the Historical Society archives, and many of them can be seen in the book Los Alamos 1944–1947, published by Arcadia and authored by two of his children, Toni Michnovicz Gibson and Jon Michnovicz. This book is available in the Los Alamos Historical Society’s Museum Shop.

Mike Michnovicz playing his accordion with friends, Los Alamos, ca. 1944. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society Archives