Donald Ross: My name is Donald Ross, and I am about to begin my eightieth year on this planet. I was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and I left there with my parents at an early age. We moved to the southern tip of Texas, and had a little farm not too far from Edinburg, Texas, where I grew up.
An interesting little sidelight is that while I was in high school, I had no idea what my future in life would be. But my sister took a course in chemistry and flunked it. Sibling rivalry being what it was, I took the course, and not only passed it, but made an A in it. It was taught by a professor from the adjoining junior college.
He became a very good friend for the rest of my life—for the rest of his life, since he’s dead now. When I graduated from high school at the tender age of fifteen, he asked me if I would be interested in an NYA job, National Youth Administration job. This was one of the many things that [President Franklin] Roosevelt had put into effect. I said, “Hey, if it would mean being able to go to junior college, I would love to.” I applied for it and received it.
This job was for thirty-six hours a month at twenty-five cents an hour, and it was just helping Dr. Elliot in the laboratory. It just so happens, in this year, 1939, the head of the NYA in Texas was Lyndon Baines Johnson. I thank him, and I thank Roosevelt. That nine dollars a month paid for my tuition. It’s incredible when I think back on it now. Nine dollars a month was the difference between my going to college or my being just a farm worker. This was 1939.
After junior college graduation in 1941, I got an NYA job at the University of Texas. There I was paid fifty cents an hour. But expenses were a lot higher there, but I moved into a cooperative house. A cooperative house then was, a house mother would rent a house. She would feed and house whatever number of people there were in the house. At the end of the month, she would divide up the expenses. My first month’s room and board at the University of Texas was $16.75. However, by the time I graduated in 1943, it had ballooned up to $24.50.
I majored in chemistry. In the spring of 1943, I would be graduating. I had a deferment until I finished school. I noticed on the bulletin board there in the chemistry department that a guy from Eastman Kodak Company was going to be interviewing students to hire. Since I had spent the past year as President of the Austin, Texas Camera Club, I was very much interested in photography.
I said, “This is a person that you have got to talk to.” I tried to put my best foot forward. Some few days later, I learned that they were offering me a job. I was absolutely delighted because as an organic chemist, and knowing that Eastman Kodak had this great, fine chemical business, I thought this would be just hunky dory.
When I got the information as to where I was to report for work, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t going to be working for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York. I was going to be working for Tennessee Eastman Corporation in someplace called Clinton Engineering Works. That is where I reported for work on June 21, 1943.
Cindy Kelly: What was your assignment?
Ross: Well, let me set the scene. I’m a little country boy from a farm, you know. I am now thrust into a place that I’ve never seen before, among a lot of other people, many other people, in a big construction area. People over here are building houses, and people over here are building various construction projects for uranium separation, which I had never heard of.
At any rate, there’s an awful lot of business. Our first few days there were to sit in classrooms while they told us a little something about what it is that we were going to be doing. Don’t get the idea that they told us all about everything the Manhattan Project was doing. They did not. They didn’t tell us anything, except the specific process we were going to be involved in.
I say “we” because a group of people came in on the same day. There were two fellas from the University of Idaho. There was an engineer from Tupelo, Mississippi. There was an engineer from Georgia Tech. There was an electronics guy from the University of Tennessee. There were six or eight or ten people. We kind of formed a little pod. This was new to all of us, and so we lived in a dormitory right next to each other and so forth.
We didn’t know what we were going to do, but they were telling us about this specific process that we were going to be involved in. Now I’ve got to be careful here because during the entire war, I never heard the word “uranium” a single time, either in the plant or anyplace. Nobody referred to uranium.
If you wanted to refer to uranium-235, this was called “R.” If you wanted to refer to [uranium] 238, this was called “Q.” Everything associated with this process had a code name to it, [00:09:06] a code letter to it, not necessarily a name, but a letter to it. When you think about it now, years later, the conversations were a little on the ridiculous side as you kept spilling in these Js, and the Qs, and the Rs, and the Ds, and the Es and so forth. Maybe later on I’ll identify which was which, so that you can get a better feel for what this process was.
We had come from all over the country. We were certainly told this was a secret operation that we were dealing with. That first night—maybe it was the second night after we got there—this little pod of eight or ten people was sitting around in a dormitory room using the background in an experience of the physicist, the engineer, the chemist and so forth, and a textbook that had just recently been put out written by Pollard and Davidson. I don’t even know how it is possible for me to remember the authors of this book, but Pollard and Davidson was kind of our bible.
By the end of that evening, we had figured out what it was we were doing and why we were doing it. We may very well have been disobeying the security regulations there but, hey, look, we were just reading Pollard and Davidson. That’s a book you can buy in the library. That’s how we got started.
The first three weeks I was there, until sometime in about the second week of July, was spent just in classroom activities in which they would fill us in on what it is that was going on. That’s another thing, everything seems to have had code names to them because they didn’t refer to the plant that we were going to be working in. They didn’t refer to that as the electromagnetic separation plant. No. They referred to it as Y-12. Across the hill was another place called X-10. [00:12:05 ] Over a few miles in another direction was K-25, and along the river was S-50.
Everything had to be coded, and so it was. The building that was going to house this process was not finished, and I guess they figured, “Hey, we don’t want to keep these people here doing nothing for months.” So they packed us up, the eight or ten of us, and sent us to the Radiation Lab at the University of California.
This was my first train ride. I was just wide-eyed in crossing the Rocky Mountains and everything. We were set up in some sort of rooming houses in Berkeley, California, and there we got to see for the first time what it was that we were going to be operating. Years later, I mean really years later, they started calling it the Calutron. But in 1943, they didn’t call it the Calutron. It was a “D.” Well, one of the reasons they called it a “D,” the piece of equipment a “D,” is that it was shaped like a D, and that was a natural letter for it to be.
There we worked until probably the end of October. We worked shift work, because we were going to be working shift work when we got back to Oak Ridge. The University of California had set up two units, two Ds, that is, a magnet and two Ds, for training purposes. There amid all these future Nobel Prize winners, this little group of people are learning the process of separating uranium isotopes, by the electromagnetic separation process.
Now I don’t know how much you might like to know about how this process works, but basically, really, really ultra-simply, they have a charge bottle—well, first of all, the unit in use is in a vacuum. Keep in mind that it’s in a vacuum. It’s also in a magnetic field. Those two are kind of givens.
In this D, there’s a charge bottle of something called uranium oxychloride. This, when heated up, will form a vapor. They have this charge bottle with coils around it to heat it up. Now, the vapor from this uranium charge bottle goes up into a little chamber made out of carbon in which, at one end of the chamber, is a tantalum filament called a “K.” It is heated up separately, and gets to a very high temperature and gives off electrons.
The electrons coming across this little chamber with this uranium oxychloride vapor in it forms an arc. This arc is called a “J.” Because these electrons ionize these particles, they become charged. Keep in mind, this is in a magnetic field, and there are two sets of electrodes above it. These electrodes are charged with thousands of volts of electricity. The first one is called a “C,” that electrode is a called a “C.”
There’s another one above it, whose letter I can’t remember. But keep in mind, these are now charged particles, so they are accelerated through these slits. As they are accelerated, the magnetic field causes them to turn. Now I would say that this D is probably maybe twelve to fifteen feet wide. They adjust the accelerating voltage such that these charged particles, which contain uranium now, will come over and hit a receiver called an “E.”
Because these two uranium isotopes that are part of this mess, because they have different weights—and they are ionized, but they are different weights—they are going to have a slightly different radius of their turn in the magnetic field. Not very much, but this E over here has two little pockets in it that these two kinds of electrons will fall into—not fall into, they are driven into it. They then pick up the electron, and become just plain old uranium-238 or uranium-235.
The result of this whole process, the reason this whole plant was built, is so that over here in this E they get as much and as pure uranium-235 as they possibly can. They get one charged particle at a time, from this effect of the magnet on these charged uranium particles.
Later on, they will take out this E after the unit has used up all the uranium in it. They will take out this E, and they will take it to another building where they harvest this little bit of U-235. Do you remember what it’s called? U-235 is “R,” and the U-238 is “Q.” They gather up all the Q. It is of no real use to anybody. But that R is the motherlode. That is what all of this is about.
So that’s what we trained on for several months in Berkeley. We didn’t do much traveling while we were out there, because we worked six days a week. We did get up to see the Redwoods north of San Francisco, and we did get over to San Francisco every once in a while. I know this little pod of eight or ten of us went over to the Top of the Mark. Unfortunately, I was only nineteen. I couldn’t have a drink. [Laughter] But we enjoyed our stay there. Then towards the end of October, we came back because in November, somewhere around the middle of November, they were going to start the first building housing the equipment to separate this uranium.
Maybe I better tell you what a building was. A building contained two racetracks. A racetrack was a circular magnet, which had holes in it. It had places for these Ds to fit in. I think that there were maybe ninety-six Ds—no, forty-eight Ds to a racetrack, and two racetracks. Needless to say, nowhere in the world had there ever, ever built anything like this, of this size and complexity. But we’re going to start it up in the middle of November .
Unfortunately, all sorts of problems held up the beginning of production. It had to do with the magnet. It had to do with the silver coils that were used in the magnet. It had to do with moisture that was in the oil that cooled the magnet coils. I tell you, General [Leslie] Groves and Ernest Lawrence and the people who built the plant, they were in a real tizzy. Of course, I wasn’t in a tizzy because I didn’t even know what the problem was.
It was into the next year before we were able to start it up and operate this particular building. This was 9201-1. The “Dash 1” is kind of a prelude to the fact that there are going to be five of these buildings, of these 9201-1 buildings. Eventually they corrected the problems. I didn’t know if I was going to stay in 9201-1 for the rest of my life or what. But as soon as Dash 2 was ready to start up, I was transferred over to Dash 2, where we went through the same process again of starting up the various units and getting them into production.
Incidentally, my title during this time was technical supervisor. Now, you know, that sounds great. I liked the sound of it. We had one little East Tennessee girl—well, some of them weren’t so little— for each of these units on each shift. Her job is to adjust the various knobs on the control panel to raise and lower the various accelerating voltage, and to do whatever is necessary to keep the amount of Q to the very highest you can get it, and the highest ratio of Q to R that you could get.
The high ratio of Q to R indicated that you had good separation. If you had a very low ratio, that meant it was all over the place. Some of your R may be going into the Q slot and vice-versa. So the ratio of Q to R was what they were looking for. Now, these persons, they had virtually no background for this kind of work at all. They were given a certain amount of training, not to explain what was going on, but rather what to do to keep that ratio maximized.
I didn’t supervise these people in the usual term. They had foremen there that took care of all the things that supervisors do with people. My job was to assist them, and to troubleshoot, and in some way to help them keep this ratio high. So I was called a technical supervisor, and I worked in 9201-2 until it was started up and in production. Then they transferred me to Dash 3. Now in Dash 3, to make a long story longer, this is where I ended up with the permanent assignment. When we got that into operation, I just stayed there as a technical supervisor in Dash 3.
Now, there’s one thing that was very important to me and a lot of other people during this period of time. We were at war. I came from Texas. In Texas, the draft boards are absolutely convinced that every live male should be in some branch of the armed forces. So I had no sooner arrived at Clinton Engineering Works than I received my notice from the draft board to report for a physical and induction into the Army.
Well, I didn’t know what to do. But here are these security people. They knew what to do. Security said, “Just give us your notice and we’ll take care of it.” So they appealed my notice to report, to come in for a physical, and I didn’t think anything more about it. When we moved out to Berkeley, lo and behold, I get another notice that the draft board had turned down the appeal, eleven to nothing. As I say, they that felt men should be in the Army.
But I knew what to do this time. I took it to the security man. He said, “We’ll take care of it.” I didn’t get another bit of information on this until we got back to Oak Ridge, when I received another thing from my draft board. On it said, “Deferred by order of the President.” I was flabbergasted. Naturally, it made me feel, “Boy, you are pretty darn important because you are being deferred by the President.” So I figured, hey, I won’t have to go to the Army. Not so. In June of 1945, I had been working there two years. In June of 1945, I received another notice telling me to report, not for a physical, but to report for induction at Fort McPherson in Atlanta.
Naturally, I took this to the security people, and they said, “Gee, there’s nothing we can do about it. They apparently feel that anybody who is not over twenty-one can’t be all that essential. So you are going to be inducted into the Army. However, because you now have classified information in your”—they didn’t say hard disk—“in your brain, you will not be sent overseas. We are not going to let you out.”
Here I learned there were several other people in K-25, X-10, and Y-12 who were also being inducted at the same time. Another little pod, as it were. A different pod, though. They said, “We are going to bring you back as part of our Special Engineer Detachment.”
Well, those nice East Tennessee girls that I had been helping with there in 9201-3, they chipped in and bought me a farewell gift. It was a pen and pencil set, an Eversharp pen and pencil set. You don’t remember Eversharp pen and pencil sets, but they advertised the Eversharp as guaranteed, not for years, not for life, but forever. [00:33:03] That was a really great thing that they did.
So with this little pod of people, we went to Fort McPherson. For three or four days, we were taking tests. They give you kind of an IQ test. They don’t call it that, but that’s what it—kind of an IQ test. We had had our physicals and whatnot. Then they sent the whole group of us—I guess there might be maybe ten or twelve of us—to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. We spent three weeks, or two and a half weeks, in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
We knew we were coming back, but that corporal who was in charge of the platoon that we were in, he didn’t know it, and he was determined to make life as miserable as possible for us. But it was a different thing. Because we knew we didn’t have to go through thirteen weeks of basic training, we only had two and half weeks of it, and we were sent back. This particular corporal was bragging to us about how on his test, he got 100. In our group of people, I think the lowest score we had was 148 or something like that. This only infuriated him. He was determined he was probably going to be sent to Officer’s Candidate School because he had scored 100.
Anyway, we were sent back, got back in the middle of July of 1945. You know that just three days ago, we celebrated the anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on the sixth of August. Here we had been in the Army about six weeks when the war ended. How are we going to get out of the Army? There were, at this time, eleven million people under arms, eleven million people in the armed forces, and they have got to get these people out in the fairest and most just way possible.
The way they set about doing it is that each person in the armed forces would get one point for every month that they were in the Army. If they went overseas, they would get another two points if they spent X number of months in the overseas army. Then they would start getting the people out, the ones that had the highest score first, figuring that this was the fairest thing to do. I think it was. The only thing is, we only had one point. We had been in the Army one month. We only had one point.
Incidentally, after the war, they had this huge, hugely expensive electromagnetic separation of uranium plant with its 25,000 employees. They had K-25’s big old plant, and they had S-50’s plant. I didn’t know, but they also had the Richland plant for making plutonium. But they had all these expensive plants.
They decided that the S-50 plant is going to go. They shut it down immediately. Then they had to decide if they wanted to have the K-25 plant or the Y-12 plant, and it didn’t take them too long to decide that the K-25 plant would be a heck of a lot cheaper to operate than the Y-12 plant would be. So they made the decision, I guess it was in the fall of ’45, they made the decision to close down the Y-12 plant—to discontinue the Y-12. Not to close down the plant, but to discontinue the electromagnetic separation.
Here we are in the Army in a plant where the work we were doing is being stopped. There were a number of alternative ways to get out of the Army. You could get out of the Army rapidly if you agreed to go back to graduate school, in one of the sciences. I thought, “Boy, I’ve been working in physics, knee-deep in physics for the last two or three years. I think that I would like to go back and get an advanced degree in physics.”
I wrote to the University of Texas and I indicated what my would-be plans were. They said, “Hey, we would be glad to have you. Keep in mind,” they said, “Inasmuch as you have only had one undergraduate course in physics, if you’re going to take a graduate degree in physics, you are going to have to go back and take this, this, this and this undergraduate before you start taking graduate courses.” Well, obviously that was not going to be possible, so I eliminated that.
But in January, two things happened. The federal government decided that they would like to test these weapons. Since they only had one test at Alamogordo, they would like to test them under other circumstances. They had made arrangements to test nuclear weapons at Bikini, a place I had never heard of, but I was to hear about it since. They said, “Those of you in the Special Engineer Detachment: if would agree to go work this summer on the weapons testing group that’s going to be in Bikini, when the tests are over, we will let you out of the Army.”
I was about ready to take them up on that. But as I said, there were two things that happened in January. The second thing was that I met a young lady that was to become my wife at some time in the future. As time went on after January and February, this—I hate to use the term “relationship,” ridiculous because it sounds like it’s something that it isn’t—we were constant companions. I decided that I didn’t want to go to Bikini and the testing. I would rather stay because in February, a third opportunity arose.
That is, if you agreed to come back and work for your contractor, Tennessee Eastman, they would let me out of the Army. I filled out the proper paperwork, and I was separated from the Army on a very, very appropriate day March the second, Texas Independence Day. One day before I was separated from the Army, they gave me my single stripe. I had to have that sewed on so, that I could be separated in my technical corporal. I was called a technical corporal, and I did.
Incidentally, I haven’t mentioned that also on the jacket that we wore in the Army, earlier we had been awarded—the Special Engineer Detachment, which was part of the Corps of Engineers, but it was just the part that dealt with the nuclear, atomic energy work of that time. We got a special award, which we had also to put on our sleeve.
It was kind of like the old Roman, kind of a U-shaped flower arrangement thing. But it was a special award just for us. Needless to say, it didn’t take long—it was yellow—it didn’t for the people in the Special Detachment to give it the nickname of “the golden toilet seat.” But it was our award, and nobody else got this except the Special Engineer Detachment. So after March 2, I came back to work.
Kelly: Were you concerned about that you were going to get the product to contribute to the war effort? Maybe that wasn’t something that you were aware, that everybody was nervous that they weren’t getting enough uranium?
Ross: Golly whiz, I didn’t know we weren’t getting enough uranium. I only knew about this one separation process. I don’t know about how much they were getting. Keep in mind, the people who did the separation, they worked in another part. They worked up on the Hill. I think they called it the Hill, Building 9212.
That had an entirely different kind of security. A person with my kind of badge, with the particular buildings that I was allowed to go in, you couldn’t get in up there. I don’t know what they did up there. I knew that they separated the stuff out, but I didn’t know how they did it. It wasn’t until much later, when I started working on the health and safety of those people who worked up there, then I was able to get up there and know how they did it and what they did and so forth. During the war, things were compartmentalized. You had a need to know, or you didn’t. If you didn’t, goodbye.
Kelly: What about social life?
Ross: I talked about this group that came in on the same day, maybe ten of us, I guess, from all over the country. We went out together to Berkeley, and we came back together. We formed what we referred to as the bachelor’s club.
This group of ten people provided their own entertainment. We would go on a weekend to Gatlinburg, for example. An interesting thing—each of us of this group, when we came back from Berkeley, they were running out of dormitories. They eventually had ninety-eight dormitories, and these each held several hundred people. [00:48:05] They had ninety-eight of them. But they were running out of dormitory space and they were building houses like mad.
So they put five of us in a house, just like a person in a family. They put us in a house. So there were about three houses for these ten people. We had the best of all situations, because we could provide entertainment in these houses. Don’t let your imagination go wild. I meant we could have dinners and parties and so forth.
We were not as dependent upon outside entertainment, but there was outside entertainment. For example, somebody set up a music listening group. One evening a week, in the townsite recreation center, they had a turntable and somebody would be in charge of providing the music. They would talk a little bit about the music and show the music. So groups of people would get together for that.
Of course, there were sports. From the very earliest time, I was a member of a bowling team there in Oak Ridge. There also was an Oak Ridge symphony orchestra. It was directed by one of the scientists out at X-10, and so we had music. Eventually they had a high school, so that there were high school sports you could go to or whatnot.
I would say the low point in growing up there single—it didn’t affect us so much—but you had to eat in cafeterias. I would say that the cafeterias were of marginal goodness. If we had a Parisian cafeteria, you would eventually get tired—it’s kind of like institutional food. But we lived in houses, so we could cook our own food. [00:51:00] As a matter of fact, that played some role in getting my wife to accept marriage. I guess she figured I would do the cooking.
A word or two about Oak Ridge. This was wild country, with a few houses here and there and a few barns, but pretty wild country before it was selected as the place for getting this uranium isotope separated. Then they came in and designed a city to meet the needs. I think that they designed it magnificently.
The city had certain main roads. Of course, the turnpike is the name of the big road that goes from one end to the other, but this doesn’t get involved too much in the residential area. Main roads were named after states. Needless to say, the most main road was named Tennessee. Another main road was Pennsylvania Avenue. These roads, except for Tennessee, these roads were named, and the names given them alphabetically from the east to the west. So if somebody lived on Alabama Avenue, you knew that he was over here in the east, or in Arkansas. Then there was California and Delaware. I know we lived at one time right close to Georgia. Right on the other side of townsite is Michigan and then Pennsylvania and on out.
All of the streets, the residential streets, that came off these main roads, their names started with the same letter as the state. For example, I lived on Tucker. Anybody would know that that is off of Tennessee, because it has the same [first letter]. Our first house after we were married was on Madison. Everybody knows that Madison is off of Michigan. But that’s not all to make it convenient. The city was built on this big old hill. As you went up the hill, alphabetically on the second letter, up at the top of the hill, is the high letters—can’t think of one right now. M-U or something would be up there, whereas Madison was down at the bottom of the hill. M-A was down at the bottom.
If you had somebody’s address, you could pretty well know where they were because of the way it was drawn up. The name was given I think it must have been in ’43, towards the end of the summer or early fall, and was named after Black Oak Ridge. That was the name of the high point of the ridge of mountains or hills along there, so they called it Oak Ridge. By the fall of ’43, they had set up a newspaper, naturally, the Oak Ridger. It was a pretty good durn little newspaper for local news.
Of course, the big moment in the whole history of Oak Ridge is after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I’m sure lots of people knew that a bomb was being made. We didn’t know that the bomb had been tested in Alamogordo. We didn’t know. There were a lot of us that knew that this is what the end point was going to be. It was one very big evening when we learned that this is what it was.
A second big evening came sometime later, some months or years later, when they opened the city. [00:56:57] Up until they opened the city sometime after the war, you still had to have a badge to get in. Without that badge, you just couldn’t get in.
When they opened the city, whatever date that was, on the gate that goes to Clinton, they brought in electricity from a pile or from a reactor that was out at X-10. They put a thing across the gate with a little magnesium strip in the center, so that when the electricity came to it, it blew it up in a puff. That just happens to be one of the pictures that I took, of Oak Ridge being opened up, a puff of smoke.
Kelly: We’ve covered a lot of ground. Looking back over it all, what do you think future generations should think about the Manhattan Project, or know about the Manhattan Project?
Ross: If you look at how things are done in this day, one would think it would be impossible to have done this. Everything leading up to the decision and then the manner in which it was brought about—they didn’t have to deal with Congress, they didn’t have to deal with committees. As far as I know, General Groves could do what he wished, and he was determined to get it done. I’m just amazed that it actually happened.
The only thing that one might compare to it—and it really wasn’t anywhere near the magnitude of this—is putting a man on the moon. That took a lot of coordination and a lot of technical expertise. It got done, but not in the time scale. [00:59:59] Golly, putting a man on the moon, they had some years of background work.
So I think it’s something that people will look back on with great admiration. Now, I think that there is a legitimate reason—this is not any rationale of mine in 1943 or anywhere near—but in the subsequent years, I think that there is good reason to question whether it’s a good idea to have done it in the first place.
But I can’t tell you how many hundreds of people that have spoken to me after they learned that I worked on the Manhattan Project. I can’t tell you how many people there were that came to me and said, “I’m so glad that you were part of this, because my father or my brother or whoever was on one of the islands and was getting set to invade Japan.” The people who were in the armed forces, the people who were going to die by the thousands or hundreds of thousands if they tried to invade Japan, these people are mighty, mighty thankful.
I look back on it and I say, “Golly, after the first one, did you really need to have the second one?” Whoever was in charge evidently figured that they had to, because they [the Japanese] weren’t moving fast enough in the direction of surrender.
I’ve heard the argument also that if you could have made a demonstration of it and brought the leaders together and said, “Look, this is what we have,” maybe that would have been enough. But all of that is second-guessing.
One thing I didn’t know about—as a matter of fact, I didn’t know about it until I read Mr. [Richard] Rhodes book on the subject. That is, as you know, this effort was made possible by the Jewish scientists that were driven out of Europe and came to this country and devoted their time and effort. In large measure, this is true, I think.
Once the war was over in Germany, many of these Jewish scientists kind of lost all interest. They seemed to be in it for winning the war in Germany, and they were not interested in fighting Japan, or they didn’t think that they ought to be using it in Japan. That came as I surprise to me. Never did think about that.