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Documentary Shines Spotlight On Influential Manhattan Project Scientist Dr. Raemer Schreiber

on December 4, 2017 - 3:11pm
An MP with Dr. Raemer Schreiber. Courtesy photo
Los Alamos Daily Post 


Ben Saunders’ grandfather, Dr. Raemer Schreiber, or Schreib to his friends, had an extraordinary career during and after the Manhattan Project. In fact, Schreiber’s work caught the interest of Documentarian John Webb so much so that Webb reached out to Saunders about doing a documentary about his grandfather.  


Saunders said Webb felt his grandfather was a “person who had a story that needed to be told.”


After three years crafting this story, the film, “Half-Life of a Genius,” is in the final production stages. Saunders said the goal is to have it distributed sometime in the spring or summer of next year.


Los Alamos has gotten a sneak peek at the film; Saunders said the Los Alamos Historical Society has done partial screenings but they are hoping to do more local screenings and show the full-length version. Additionally,they are in final negotiations for full distribution, and the hope is to get the film sold to video on demand as well as possibly have theatrical or TV releases.


Funding for the project mainly came from Webb but Saunders said his family also did some fundraising.


In looking at the documentary, Saunders said he is pleased with what Webb accomplished. “It does a pretty good job. I feel pretty happy with it.” This was something that Saunders’ mother, Paula Schreiber Dransfield, had wanted to do, but she passed away before being able to organize much for it.


Webb explained why he became interested in pursuing a project about Schreiber.


“I enjoy history and the stories surrounding the Manhattan Project, growing up in the 70’s, I’d enjoy documentaries and news specials on the era and MP (Manhattan Project). My dad was in the Navy during  WWII - in the Pacific on an LST (Land Ship Tank) support craft close to shore on Iwo and Okinawa, so I heard the stores growing up and honestly feel lucky to be here,” he said. “The A-Bomb’s sent my father and millions on both sides home. It saved lives and ended WWII, I’m a traditionalist when it comes to WWII and the film reflects this. In a sea of revisionist views I feel the film will stand out and make a bold statement toward, facts, history and honoring those that had to deal with decisions on scale I hope no person has to make again.”


“In 2014, I was watching a ‘TV show’ on the MP that was altering history and creating a revisionist view of the era. I was unhappy about this, as the actual MP has so many fascinating stories and twists and turns during the war years … why invent a Hollywood version? I started digging around and I discovered Schreiber was born in the same town I currently reside (McMinnville, Ore.) so this made the whole front end of his life story easily accessible, the rest fell in-line, I met Ben, whom was helpful and introduced me to (his) Aunt Sara, and I got the green light to make a film on Dr. Schreiber’s life with Ben and Sara helping with content and family insights,” Webb said.


He added the hope is to show the film sometime next year in Fuller Lodge.


“I hope many from the area can see our new film in this incredible space where Dr. Schreiber and his wife Marge would spend many happy Saturday events during the war years, to hear his recorded voice echoing again in this space will be a highlight of my broadcast career.”


According to Saunders, Schreiber was influential not only during World War II but afterwards in running the laboratory as well as developing the town.


Saunders said his grandfather was an experimental physicist and developed the way to assemble the atomic bomb. He said Schreiber went to the Trinity Site where the bomb was first tested and later traveled to the Pacific to assemble the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.


Later, Saunders said his grandfather worked in Weapons Division and experienced an accident that occurred at the Pajarito Site, which lead to death of a colleague after being exposed to radiation.


As a result of this tragic accident, Schreiber created a procedure to use machines to remotely handle dangerous substances and from a far distance. Saunders said his grandfather’s procedure is used worldwide.


Additionally, Schreiber became involved in the space race; he was head of the Nuclear Rocket Propulsion Division and was responsible for Project Rover, Saunders said.


Furthermore, Saunders said his grandfather served as deputy director of the laboratory and handled the day-to-day operations of the lab.


In a nutshell, Saunders said his grandfather was a farm boy from Oregon who became a physicist. He moved to Los Alamos to help stop the war and ended up a figurehead for the atomic age.


Watching the film, Saunders said he saw a new side to the his grandfather.

“I knew before he had a decent sense of humor,” Saunders said. But talking to others about Schreiber during the making of the documentary showed that Schrieber could be a bit of jokester.

“It’s was kind of fun seeing the levity side of him,” he said.


Webb said he enjoyed working with Saunders and his family to tell the story about Schreiber.


“Ben in an early email told me “Hands on physics comes easy for me..” that caught my attention. Ben has a unique perspective on history that few can relate too, being raised in White Rock/Los Alamos area where his father, whom worked at the lab, would drive them by the building where his grandfather would almost be killed when Slotin slipped with the screwdriver … long before Pajarito Road was closed to general traffic … So he knows the lab, the place and history in a way that few can match,” Webb said. “As a keeper of his grandfather’s legacy, he maintains a vast collection of his grandfather’s personal papers and mementos … which is featured in the film.”


Webb added he was able to hold the Trinitite that Schreiber recovered at the Trinity Site, which he said, “was an amazing experience.”


Webb credited Saunders and his family for the film. “Without Ben Saunders, the kindness of his wife and family, there would be no film,” he said.


Saunders has continued, in some way, in his grandfather’s footsteps. He is a mechanical engineer who works in the high-tech industry. Saunders lives in Denver. Saunders explained his grandfather liked to tinker. He built his own house, made jewelry and repaired vehicles.


As for Webb, he explained he got interested in his career when he was just a kid.


“From an early age I knew I wanted to get into broadcast, my father was a radio amateur and got me into ham radio at an early age and communications was in the family business line. Television was an easy step so I got into broadcasting through the technical side of the business,” Webb said. “In the mid 80’s I worked as a video editor on syndicated ‘Fishing The West’ where we had millions of viewers in the era of big broadcast. I was hooked … from here on I did broadcast, corporate and industrial video communications for three decades. Working on many TV shows but never produced anything of this magnitude until the Schreiber film came along. Other projects are now lining up as I hope to someday quit my day job. Once the history filmmaking bug hits it’s hard to ignore. Too many stories, too little time.”    

Dr. Raemer Schreiber and his grandson, Ben Saunders in approximately 1977. Courtesy photo