Life at Hanford
Herb Depke, a child at the time, remembers his first encounter with Hanford’s terrible dust storms.
Narrator: The dust storms at Hanford were notorious, an inescapable part of life in the region. Locals called them “termination winds” because they often drove people to terminate their employment rather than endure their intensity. Herb Depke remembers his first time, when he came nose to nose with a Richland dust storm.
Herb Depke: Mother and I took the train from Chicago to Spokane, Washington. Dad picked us up and took us back to Richland. It was probably noontime or in the afternoon. We got to Richland, and immediately encountered a dust storm. That is my first memory of Richland, a tremendous dust storm. You could not even see your hand in front of your face.
We stopped at the grocery store on the way to our new home. I got out of the car and walked to the grocery store—right straight into a fence, and gave myself a bloody nose. It was a 2×6 on rebars that they had as a fence in front of the grocery store. I walked right into it. It was just exactly the height of my nose. That is my first memory of Richland.
Carol Roberts, a child at the time, had to help her mother find an innovative way to cook dinner after a storm blew dust throughout the house.
Narrator: Shortly after arriving in Richland, young Carol Roberts and her family experienced one of the area’s legendary dust storms firsthand.
Carol Roberts: One day I remember we had just got our furniture arranged and everything was going great. The temperature was 103, I am told. Well, all of a sudden, the wind started to blow, and dust blew everywhere. It came through the cracks in the windows, all over our clean doilies. Garbage cans were going down the road. You could not see 15 feet in front of you, the dust was so thick.
My mother, she got to whining and crying and saying, “Daddy will be home in a few minutes and we will not be able to cook dinner! And he expects his dinner on the table as soon as he comes in the door.” Well, I do not know if that was true, but that is what my mother said.
So always thinking, I said, “Well, we will just cook our dinner in the furnace. We found papers and stuff, and we put them in the furnace. We did not have our coal yet, they had not delivered the coal for the furnace yet. I took a frying pan and put eggs in it. And we had fried eggs and soot toast for dinner. My dad never said a word, he just ate what was there and put up with it.
With tens of thousands of mouths to feed, cooks like Harry Petcher had to work quickly to make sure everyone got a meal.
Narrator: In the summer of 1944, the Hanford site employed more than 50,000 construction workers, scientists, and military personnel. Feeding this enormous workforce was no easy task. Eight enormous mess halls operated 24 hours a day. Harry Petcher of the Olympic Commissary Company explains how they kept enough food on the table.
Harry Petcher: The way it worked was, all this food was being dished up by the cooks in great big bowls. It was all prepared family-style. The waitresses would run with these big carts up to the front, where the cooks were dishing this stuff out into what we called family pans, like say for fried chicken. They would heap these big pans with fried chicken. They would run down the aisle and scoot it on these tables, where all these guys were sitting, banging their hands. It looked like a prison camp to me.
A table took care of 12 people. There was two bowls of potatoes, two bowls of chicken, two bowls of beef, or whatever was being served that day. As fast as the carts were emptied, another cart was right behind them. There was no such thing as you could sit anywhere you wanted. You would come into the mess hall, they would run you right down to the first table. As fast as those tables got emptied of men, all those dishes were picked up again and put into the dish room and brought back out.
Cook Harry Petcher explains how he and his crew were able to churn out an incredible 50,000 box lunches a day.
Narrator: Employees who were working too far out on the Hanford reservation to visit the mess halls could order a box lunch for 55 cents. Every day, more than 20 refrigerated trucks picked up box lunches after breakfast and delivered them to workers around the site
Harry Petcher: A typical box lunch would be a cheese sandwich, and a meat, and maybe a peanut butter jelly. 3 ounces per sandwich. Basically, you got to remember that the guys were working a 10 to 12 hour shift. In the box lunches, we used to give them a cold baked potato, because we would get so many potatoes from Moses Lake and up through that area. Another thing, we dropped two salt tablets in each one. The men were told to take these salt tablets every day.
The first day I think I made something like 500 of them. That went on, then we got the second mess hall, and the third mess hall, the fourth mess hall, because people were just coming in. Until finally Bob Burton, who one of the DuPont project managers, said, “We need a space for manufacturing of these box lunches.”
They built a complete unit. It took maybe six days. And at my peak, we were making anywhere from 50,000 to 55,000 box lunches a day. It was a 24-hour operation. I had about 370 some odd people, mostly women that were wives of the construction workers.
Carol Roberts, who grew up at Hanford during the Manhattan Project, credits the women of Hanford for their hard work in raising their families.
Narrator: The Manhattan Project was, for the most part, a project led and implemented by men. But Carol Roberts notes that women made important contributions on a number of fronts.
Carol Roberts: I think really the biggest contribution that women did was raising their families here in Richland. They did immediately get involved in their church for their kids. Their kids went to Sunday school. They were in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts—it was called Campfire Girls then. When the government took over, they had women that were willing to give dance classes, music.
In the beginning, there were mostly men hired here. Jobs that women could fill on the outside weren’t available for them here.