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Colonel Franklin Matthias’s Interview (1965) – Part 2

Manhattan Project Locations:

Colonel Franklin Matthias was the officer-in-charge at the Hanford site. In the second part of his interview with Stephane Groueff, Matthias describes the personalities of the men he worked with, including Enrico Fermi and DuPont’s Granville Read. He recalls a visit by Fermi and Eugene Wigner to Hanford, and explains why Read got along well with General Leslie Groves. Matthias discusses the safety measures at Hanford, and recounts how a Japanese fire balloon temporarily knocked out power to the plant. He also explains how scientists conducted tests on salmon to assess levels of radioactive contamination in the Columbia River.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Stephane Groueff: [Enrico] Fermi had the characteristics of a real genius.

Colonel Franklin Matthias: Almost every time you would get in contact with him, something would come up that was impressive. Physically, he was a small man, unimpressive person, but he grew real large when he started talking about things he knew.

Groueff: Was he a friendly person?

Matthias: Yes, warm; very warm, very friendly, a real nice person.

Groueff: But extroverted like Italians?

Matthias: Pretty much.

Groueff: Yeah, a nice person.

Matthias: A nice person, just a person you would just be glad to have as a friend or a guest. Nothing pretentious about him ever.

Groueff: And great competence, so when he came to solve this problem, people felt better.

Matthias: Immediately.

Groueff: Everybody knew that he was the greatest among them? The other scientists?

Matthias: I am sure this is right. I am sure this is right of the group, of [Arthur] Compton’s group. Now, I do not know how you would make a comparison with [Ernest] Lawrence and his people, or [Robert] Oppenheimer and his people.

Groueff: But in this group?

Matthias: In this group, he was recognized as the dean and no question about it. He was regarded as—

Groueff: He was not one of those people that [General Leslie] Groves had trouble with, or DuPont had trouble. He was easy to handle.

Matthias: You almost could not have trouble with him. If he wanted to do something or if he felt something had to be explored scientifically, you could not stop him. 

Groueff: Yeah.

Matthias: He would not argue about it. He would just do it.

Groueff: He would just do it, and usually he would be right. 

Matthias: Usually he was right. I do not know of any arguments ever developing. He just would not argue.

Groueff: He had tremendous authority.

Matthias: Just the weight of his confidence is what made it. Compton was a little like that too. Compton never had real troubles with Groves. They had differences of opinion, but Compton was a very high quality individual outside of all of his scientific achievements.

Groueff: He understood your problems and the problems of the industry.

Matthias: He had a better understanding. If he did not have an understanding, he was willing to admit that he did not.

Groueff: Yeah.

Matthias: And this was not true with some of the others.

Groueff: Purely academic.

Matthias: Dr. [Harold] Urey, I think, always resented every darn thing that was done, because it was not his way. A different kind of a person; I did not know him nearly as well.

Groueff: [Leo] Szilard I understand was difficult.

Matthias: Yes, that is right.

Groueff: He did not come to Hanford. They were not one of your group.

Matthias: No, no. Well, yes, Szilard worked a lot on the Hanford Project.

Groueff: He came there.

Matthias: Not very much. He was not physically around very much, but he did a lot of work, and he forecasted a lot of disastrous things that were going to happen. Our carbon was going to decompose under the radiation and a whole lot of things. But his was purely the scientific side. 

Groueff: And [Eugene] Wigner?

Matthias: Wigner was a little bit like Fermi, but not nearly as likable and not nearly the extrovert.

Groueff: So great genius, but as a person was less attractive than Fermi.

Matthias: That is right. [Max] Planck was in this picture with Wigner, and he was very much like him except he was kind of heavy, and Wigner at least had a little sense of humor. Fermi had a tremendous feeling for everything.

Groueff: So for you, the non-scientist: Fermi was your favorite person, and Compton?

Matthias: Oh, no question. Yeah, and Compton. I thought very highly of Compton. I remember after the war was over, late in the fall of 1945, Arthur Compton and his brother from MIT, Carl, both came out to help install Wilson Compton as President of Washington State University: a third brother. I spent all day driving those three around Hanford and talking about it. It was a wonderful day.

Groueff: Three of the top minds of the world.

Matthias: It was. I will never forget it. I will tell you a little story. Fermi at Hanford was “Farmer.” We used different names in different places. Compton was “Comas.” At Oak Ridge, I think he was “Holly,” his middle name, and Wigner was “Wagner.” One day Wigner and Fermi came into the guesthouse in Hanford at Richland. They were registering, and both had signed their name on the card. Wigner turned away to go to the magazine stand and the desk clerk said to Fermi, “I cannot read his name, could you help me?” Fermi helped him, and he said, “Oh, Wagner. You are sure this is right?”

Fermi said, “His name is Wagner just as sure as my name is Farmer.”

Neither was right, but he did not spend any time thinking about it. It just popped right out of him.

Groueff: Neither was right.

Matthias: Fermi had a bodyguard all through this time. I do not know if you heard this story.

Groueff: I have. I heard that he had a bodyguard.

Matthias: He was a big Italian who had a fairly good education, a pretty nice guy, but a real tough looking character. He used to complain that he had to accompany Fermi in all these train trips that he took. He said, “I enjoy it very much, but I just have a hard time understanding all the nuclear physics he tried to teach me.” [Laughter]

Groueff: He was a tough Italian.

Matthias: It was way beyond him. [Crawford] Greenewalt was extremely good in working with the scientists. He had enough scientific background to understand their thinking. He was a real personable guy in all respects and somehow he just really hit it off with these people, beautiful.

Groueff: Both with the scientists and the engineers.

Matthias: Yes, he had a real special quality. Of course, when I knew him, he was quite young and he almost looked like a playboy.

Groueff: I met him. He looks very handsome.

Matthias: He still does. Yeah.

Groueff: He was well-dressed, beautiful manners, slightly reserved, polite, very attractive man, and handsome man. In order to describe the scene of the gas, the xenon, where was that happening? What does it look like? The place you were all assembled. Is it in a control room?

Matthias: Well, let me see. I think I might have some pictures here of the place down at Richland in the offices. We had a test area, right up the north of Richland a ways.

Groueff: When you realized that the reactor stopped, you were in the building of the reactor in the control room.

Matthias: No, at that time, I was not. I was back at Richland, and I heard about it and got all the data. We carried on most of our discussions of this thing by telephone in the Richland area.

Groueff: I see. Between—

Matthias:  I do not recall meeting on it until after Fermi made his guesses. We had a meeting the next day, and decided to go ahead and load it heavier.

Groueff: He was very discouraged?

Matthias: Very discouraged. 

Groueff: You called probably [General Leslie] Groves to tell him. 

Matthias: Oh yes, he was kept right up to date.

Groueff: You mentioned DuPont.

Matthias: There was not any business of “a big heavy decision to be made, and this is what looks like it has to be done now.”

Fermi says, “I suggest this is how you do it.” We just went and did it. It was not a matter of talking to anybody just going out and doing it.

Groueff: You mentioned DuPont’s people, Granville Read?

Matthias: Granville Read.

Groueff: I have heard a lot about him, but if you could describe him physically and what kind of a man he was.

Matthias: Read was a very large and very heavy man. He figured in this thing very importantly, because he and Groves had had much contact in the early part of the war in the munitions constructions program. Building ammunition, loading plants and all the facilities, and, of course, DuPont was active in developing this high explosive. There were several plants. They built them to supply the Army. Groves had established through this a long time contact with Granville Read, and they were in a lot of ways much alike. Extremely competent, a tendency to be hard-boiled.

Groueff: Energetic.

Matthias: Yes, very much so. Read also had a very close acquaintance with the union people in high levels, and his manners appealed to them too. I think that Groves and Read knowing each other well before this started is probably the principal reason why Groves went to DuPont so quickly. Now, one thing Groves always admired was DuPont’s activities in the early part of the war: the detail in which they made their construction schedules, and their planning, and everything was just completely worked out. Then they maintained control over their operations as they went on to be sure it checked out, and revised as they went along. This was the sort of thing that was a little bit new in the construction industry during that time. Groves had had all kinds of trouble in other places with other contractors who did not do it. This, I think, all contributed and this was mostly, I think, Read’s influence on the program.

Groueff: He was colorful.

Matthias: He was a colorful individual.

Groueff: He had colorful language.

Matthias: Yes. And no inhibitions.

Groueff: No inhibitions.

Matthias: None at all.

Groueff: Shouting?

Matthias: If he felt like it, yes. I was real fond of him, and I thought of him as a guy I would just as soon have as a friend.

Groueff: He was operating from Wilmington. 

Matthias: From Wilmington.

Groueff: Not Hanford.

Matthias: Not Hanford. He was out there. He came out about, I suppose, seven or eight times in the construction period of two years.

Groueff: So his men were [Walt] Simon and [Gil] Church?

Matthias: No, his man was Church.

Groueff: Church, yeah.

Matthias: Roger Williams’s man was Simon.

Groueff: Yeah.

Matthias: There was not any question about that either.

Groueff: So, he was not a man who would let other people interfere in his—

Matthias: Not a bit. Now, did you talk to Frank Mackie in Wilmington?

Groueff: No. I heard his name too.

Matthias: Frank Mackie or Wood, Mel Wood. Well, Mel Wood was assistant to Read during this time, and now is DuPont’s Chief Engineer. Frank Mackie was with Wood, and the normal chain of command for a while was Church to Wood, or Mackie to Read, but Church had no problem going to Read. 

Groueff: Right.

Matthias: This is one of the things that made this work: that Simon had no problem going to Roger Williams directly. I had no problem bypassing [Colonel Kenneth] Nichols or going to Groves directly.

Groueff: The decisions were taken quickly, and people taking responsibility as well.

Matthias: That is right. Years after, I was in to see Granville Read one day. I went to Brazil after this was over, and I was back from the trip and I stopped in at Wilmington. Read was then busy, or DuPont was busy with this plant down in West Virginia. By this time, it had developed with atomic energy and committees and Congressmen and controls and all this stuff.

I said, “Well, how is your work coming down there?”

He said, “Jesus Christ. We never knew we had it so good at Hanford. I do not understand how we get anything done down here.” 

Groueff: He came from this kind of work making decisions, responsibility.

Matthias: Yes. It appealed to him. This is just the way he liked it. And having to fuss with all these committees—

Groueff: Not a committee man, not long reports, and decisions by committee. 

Matthias: He was a direct, hard-hitting individualist. In some respects, I say that is why I do not think he is the model of a DuPont executive.

Groueff: Yes, anyhow the image the general public has is quite the opposite: a very polite sort of soft-spoken committee man. Rather Greenewalt much more.

Matthias: Yes, Greenewalt could fit that, but Read would never. Never ever. I have never seen him do a single thing that would make you think he fit that pattern. He was unpredictable but very solid, very confident, and very intelligent. I use to kid some of my DuPont friends, “Here, look, you are being groomed to be a real smoothie like all these birds. But a guy like him or Frank Mackie are the ones that get out in front.”

Groueff: In Hanford, did you have any trouble from the espionage or sabotage point?

Matthias: We had none directly. I do not recall the circumstances. There was a bunch of about 20 or 30 that were rounded up one time that showed some indication that they had been getting interested in Hanford, but I think we were much more fortunate than any of the other places. One of my responsibilities was to pretty well cover that kind of activity in the Northwest and clear down to almost the Los Alamos zone.

We had working arrangements with the local FBI people, often without the knowledge of their FBI offices, and we had people in various places trying to find out. We discovered a fair amount of interest and activity in the Portland Russian Purchasing Agent Commission, that was handling their lend lease affairs. The FBI knew about it too, and they could not do anything. We worked out a deal between us where we did it, because we were not under any instructions. [Laughter] Then we worked with them, too, in California.

Groueff: They got interested in Hanford?

Matthias: Yeah, and suspicious. They started doing some poking around, and we managed to find the ways to stop it. There was no concerted effort as far as we know ever. 

Groueff: And no results, I mean no espionage? What was this story about the Japanese balloons?

Matthias: Oh, that is an interesting one. This reactor is really a big block of graphite, which has the capacity of slowing neutrons with uranium rods running through it. Then, as controls, you have boron-coated rods that stick into this mass. Boron absorbs neutrons, soaks them up like a sponge, and this will keep a chain reaction from persisting if you have enough boron exposed in the field.

We had these control rods. We also had some emergency control rods from the top that could drop down, and we had a third line of defense of boron solution that would flood the whole reactor if we saw any signs of a runaway. Now, one of the things that worried us very much through this whole program was the interruption of cooling water, because the scientists said that in a fraction of a second without cooling, this thing could heat to the point where it could collapse, tremendous buildup.

Groueff: Not explode, but collapse? 

Matthias: Maybe not explode, maybe explode. You know, nobody knew what might happen, but there would be a tremendous buildup of heat. This was not nearly to the same degree, but similar to the reaction of a bomb. This made us build all the safety we could think of into our water-cooling system and tied in with that, our emergency controls. The first step were these rods that would drop by gravity into the thing if you pulled the trigger, and this was all geared to an interruption of electric power. In the cooling water system, we had motor-driven pumps and steam-driven pumps in the same line, so that with both sets of pumps working, we were pumping water through at 500 pounds per square inch. With just the steam, we were still pumping 250 pounds per square inch, which was not enough, but it would tend to dampen any fast effect.

These were built-in for just this purpose. The steam was operating all the time, no standby because you could not do anything in a half a second. Then, we had this electrical supply all wired in, controlled in, to the emergency controls; so, the minute there was an interruption of power, these rods would drop in and soak up the radioactivity in the field, the flux of neutrons, and stop it. Stop it dead. Then, if that did not work and we had heat rises and stuff out of order, then automatically the third stage would have reacted. We had never had courage enough to test this element of control by shutting off the power. We could not test until the thing got radioactive completely for an emergency, but we did not dare test it. We tested it, of course, before it was radioactive, but we did not test an operating unit to see how it would work. We did not dare. 

So, then the Japanese started sending these fire balloons over. One of them dropped on the power line between Bonneville and Grand Coulee near Sunnyside, Washington. The ropes from this thing dropped across the transmission line and shorted them for an instant before they all burned, but it kicked off the circuit breakers at Bonneville and at Grand Coulee. We had built special safeguards into that line, so the whole Northwest could have been out of power, but we still were online from either end. This knocked out the power, and our controls tripped fast enough so there was no heat rise to speak of. But it shut down the plant cold, and it took us about three days to get it back up to full power again. 

Groueff: You did not know what happened?

Matthias: We did not know what happened, except we knew we had a power outage. Our quick-closing breakers that we had installed both at Bonneville and Grand Coulee reestablished our power. I believe it was 12 cycles we lost, that’s a fifth of a second we were out of power.

Groueff: Only that? That’s extraordinary. Not for hours while you repaired it?

Matthias: Oh no, we built a lot of these safeguards into the transmission line, so it was a fast closing thing. Once the trouble cleared, and it cleared as soon as these ropes burned, then physically it threw the switch again at the main plants again. So, we lost 12 cycles, that is 12 out of 60 a second, and that is a fifth of a second.

Groueff: And that was enough to stop them.

Matthias: We lost about two days production effort out of a plant, but we were all just tickled to death this happened.

Groueff: It proved it worked.

Matthias: It proved our design and our arrangements, and we felt a lot more confident after that than we had before. After we could talk about this; until after the war was over, this was all part of secret information, and nobody else knew about it except us at Hanford. Of course, we reported it to Groves and DuPont.

Groueff: What part was a secret, the Japanese balloons?

Matthias: The effects of the Japanese fire balloons. Of course, everything about Hanford was, in a technical way. But, we claimed afterwards, when we could talk about it, that we were the only war plant that was put out of production by direct enemy action. The only one in the country.

Groueff: How did they send those balloons, with the wind?

Matthias: Yeah.

Groueff: All the way from Japan? 

Matthias: Yes. They loaded them, designed to operate about 40,000 feet elevation where they get these high jet streams from west to east, and then they had them rigged with weights and fire bombs. If the balloon leaked some of the gas and dropped a little below the right zone, they had it worked out so it would drop a weight, and it would go up again and then the last things that dropped were the firebombs.

Groueff: Did you separate all the firebombs?

Matthias: No, we had another balloon that came down in the area, but it did not touch anything. The one that hit the transmission lines, and we had another one come down.

Groueff: But, there was nothing like several balloons every day?

Matthias: Apparently, they sent them at that rate. I saw a write-up once during that time from the Naval Intelligence where they described the sort of ceremonies in which they started these balloons.

Groueff: But it was very inefficient.

Matthias: The balloons themselves were inefficient. The first two that were noticed in this country, I think one was in Montana and one up somewhere in North Dakota. Both of these occurrences [were reported in the local newspapers before the security censorship clamped down. I saw a report from one of our intelligence services at that time, where a week later these had been reported in Japanese newspapers as successful. These two incidences and it never got past a weekly county newspaper. Pretty good coverage.

There were quite a lot that came in the group. It depends, of course. They are completely without control once they get up into the air, and then both the Army and Navy and the Air Force Agencies got busy analyzing these jet streams, and where they would be likely to come next. There was a period where they would sort of sweep up the coast anywhere in a big area, and then for a while they could not end up anywhere but up in Alaska.

Groueff: [Inaudible] Somebody told me that the idea [for the reactors] was air-cooled.

Matthias: Well, way back air-cooled, then helium cooled, because air is a neutron absorber.

Groueff: Yes.

Matthias: Helium is not, and at the time we went out to look for a site, most of the scientists thought it should be helium-cooled.

Groueff: But why did you look for so much water then?

Matthias: Well, because again DuPont and others were not sure, so we had better have a second string to the bowl.

Groueff: So it was a very likely decision to build it on the Columbia River.

Matthias: It was, and even with the helium-cooled, it took a lot of water. It took more water-cooled. I have maintained in this discussion with the Seattle people. While some scientists have reported this as having been decided, I am sure that it was not decided, and we were still playing it both ways at the time we looked at Hanford.

Groueff: The power plant was built with air-cooled.

Matthias: Yes, this was 5000 kilowatts compared to 300,000. By the way, I had a lot to do with the construction of that first pilot plant at Oak Ridge too, although I had to do it all by remote control. They did not encourage me going to Oak Ridge, because always the effort was to not show thatOak Ridge and Hanford had any connection.

Groueff: Right.

Matthias: The only connection that was ever visible is the fact that in our administrative matters, the Oak Ridge office did some things and tried to determine some levels of exposure that would be dangerous, others that would not. 

Groueff: With the salmon.

Matthias: With the salmon, some way to prove that if this ever got to be public knowledge that we were putting contamination of any kind into the river, we could say, “Yes, we know we are, but look what we are doing.”

I think it was two days after the bomb was dropped, we had the fish department move in on us, and we took them up to our laboratory.

Groueff: They didn’t know of the laboratory. 

Matthias: They did not know of anything we were doing. We took them up to the laboratory, and we showed them what Dick Foster, who was [Dr. Lauren] Donaldson’s man, and a very competent man, had been doing over two years, two and a half years. “Here are the results. Here is salmon hatched right in our direct effluent. Here are two generations of them, here are steps of concentration and in the river. It is going to be diluted to about 0.5%.”

Groueff: Was it the radiation or the heat?

Matthias: Radiation is the biggest problem. The heat is a recognizable problem. You could tell them that, sure, the maximum heat from the Hanford plant into the minimum flow of the Columbia River represented about a half of a degree.

Groueff: Yeah, but if the fish started dying at the beginning, you would have been in a very serious trouble. 

Matthias: Yes, we were sure that it would not. We had clean water. The water itself does not carry radioactivity, only the pollution materials in it, minerals and things. We felt pretty secure.

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.