Cindy Kelly: Okay, my name is Cindy Kelly and I am in south Denver, Colorado. It’s June 25th, 2013. And I’m with Fay Cunningham. But the first thing I’m going to do is ask him to tell us his name and spell it.
Cunningham: Fay Cunningham, F-A-Y, C-U-N-N-I-N-G-H-A-M; it’s a good old Scottish name.
Kelly: Hey, the Scots are great. Anyway, tell us something about your background.
Cunningham: Okay. Well, I was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1922. My parents were from northern Michigan and my father was an automobile worker. In the twenties, while business was still good, he was making cars and working, bought a three acre lot, plot, out in the country then and put it in an orchard and berries. And this was our salvation, a big garden; this was our salvation through the Depression because we had so much food and fruit. And we had chickens. Later we got a cow so we had milk and eggs. And we spent the summers harvesting all of this food that we were growing and then preserving it by canning it. Freezing was not heard of in those days. And then we would live on that in the root cellar, which the root plants are found in and store apples and potatoes and so on to get us through the winter.
I started high school. I went to grade school a half mile from home. It was a K-8, and then I went to a junior high for one year for the ninth grade, and then Eastern—Lansing Eastern High School, for three years to finish up, and graduated in January of 1939. I was sixteen years old; no money, no job, no prospects for a job. The worst of the Depression was over so my father was working fairly steady then, making a lot of automobiles. He had switched over from REO where he had been working because he could see it coming that they were going to quit making cars and concentrate on trucks, which they did. And he switched over to Oldsmobile and he worked there the rest of his working life.
But as soon as I turned seventeen, I joined the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] and went up to northern Wisconsin, and I became a crew chief right away on a timber cruising crew. We were basically inventorying the forests for lumber and harvest of trees. The camp was a soil conservation camp. Soil Conservation Service ran the place in the daytime, or the Army ran the camp and provided the discipline and the food and the clothing and so on.
It was a wonderful experience because everybody learned to work as a team and a work ethic. You did, or else. And so it was good. I stayed in eight months. You sign up for six months increments but you can get out if you got a job or are going to go back to school. I was one of the few guys in camp who had even finished high school. And I had good grades all the way through and so on.
So anyway, the forester that I was working for, or reporting to him, was really urging me to go to start college and I could live at home because Michigan State had an excellent forestry school. And Michigan State was in East Lansing only about eight miles from our home. So I could live at home, which would help. And my parents, my mother got a civil service job so she didn’t need—they didn’t need the twenty-two dollars of my thirty dollars a month salary. They had deposited it in the bank for me. So I used that for my tuition the first two terms. Tuition at that time was forty dollars a term. And that included all the athletic events and an excellent concert and a lecture series and all kinds of benefits.
Then after about three—that was in 1940 that I started at Michigan State. And in the spring of ’41 I kind of ran out of money and I had a chance to get into Oldsmobile, working in the motor plant on engines. So I dropped out of school to get some more money, and I stayed in until Pearl Harbor hit while I was working there. And I can proudly say that I bolted the crankshaft onto the flywheel on fifty percent percent of the 1942 Oldsmobiles. There were two-shifts.
Then after Pearl Harbor I was real patriotic. My father had been in the Navy and my great-great grandfather had been in the Navy in 1812 so I decided I’d join the Navy, but they flunked me because of my left eye, which was fairly astigmatic. And so I decided I’d go back to school for a while, which I did, and I switched to engineering. I liked the forestry, but I didn’t see much of a future in it. There weren’t that many jobs, and I thought engineering was here to stay. So I switched.
I got laid off at work, of course, because the plant shut down a week after Pearl Harbor and converted to guns. Now in May they called me back to work, so I went back to it. I decided to go back because there was a much better job and more pay. And they arranged it so I worked the midnight shift all the time, which wasn’t too popular. And so I could do it, and some other people liked it.
So I did that. And I was machining tank cannon actually, putting the lands and grooves in the tubes with a long broach, and I worked from midnight to eight. I punched out at eight, go home, shower, jump in the Model A Ford—I had a ’31 Model A then—and drive out to Michigan State, go to class all day, and go home at four o’clock or so, whenever I was done. And I’d study a little bit and go to bed about six or seven and sleep till eleven and get up and go to work again. So I did that for two terms, and I got pretty burned out and quit. And I just went on to school.
In ’42 the Army came up, they decided they were going to need a continuing supply of engineers. So I joined a program they had called—you joined the enlisted reserved corps, the ERC. It was for medical students and engineering students. And the idea was, at the time you’d stay in school ‘til you got a degree, then you could go in the Army and do whatever they needed you to do. And that sounded pretty good, so I did that.
But after a couple more terms the Army, in its wisdom, decided that they were going to need bodies more than they needed engineers. So they called everybody up to active duty. Well, I had had a couple years of ROTC in field artillery, so I went to a field artillery basic at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was placed in a sound ranging group there.
All the tests that we took when we went in the Army I had kind of aced, the Army General Classification Test, which was a placement for people, said they’d never seen anybody with that high a score. So that helped me the rest of my career in the Army, of course.
Anyway, they put me in there and that was the most technical thing they could do. We picked up the sound of enemy guns on microphones that were surveyed in. So we knew the coordinates accurately of the microphones, six of them. And then they were wired into a sound machine, which was accurate, anything up to a thousandth of a second, which was pretty fast or short time. The time interval between that hit on each of the six microphones allowed us, with a lot of sophisticated trigonometry, and taking in the consideration or the curvature of the earth and all kinds of things, and using seven place log tables because you didn’t—all we had was slide rules and they didn’t work for that. But we’d come up with the coordinates of the source of sound and give that to our artillery, and they’d hopefully take them out before they moved. But it was kind of a cat and mouse game.
But at any rate, I finished that and the company commander wanted me to apply for West Point. I had mixed feelings about that, but I decided that I would apply, as he was quite insistent. And so I got over there and they flunked me too of course with—I had a nice interview, I think I did well—and my eye was not adequate for their purposes. So I went back to duty.
Well then they wanted me—the Army in its wisdom, again, had decided to go to the engineers after all. So they had a program called ASTP, Army Specialized Training Program. The Captain insisted I apply for that—which I did and was accepted. And I went to a unit at Oklahoma A&M, which is now Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and to a place, a unit, called a STAR unit, Specialized Training And Reclassification. They tested us for about four days, then they meditated awhile.
Anyway, I got sent to the University of Maryland, to mechanical engineering. I had wanted chemical and that was my first choice, but I got my second choice, which was mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland. So there were three basic engineering groups, and they were people right out of high school or had no college at all. And then the advanced group, we had two years of college, which I had just barely had, but I got in that and it was three terms of that.
Well, after two terms—yeah, after two terms, the Army decided they needed bodies again so they called everybody up from the basic program, just shot it down, called them all up. And they called most of the people in advance, but they did leave it at certain schools where the president of the university was a good politician or something. And anyway, Maryland fit the bill. So they—we got –stayed on. And in fact, they added another term, so I had four terms. In other words, a full year, not just an academic year, but a full year, and we finished up. We were all wondering where we were going to go when we finished. We didn’t have a degree quite, but we were almost there. And we had a certificate for finishing the Army Specialized Training Program.
In midterm of the last term there, we were interviewed—about half the class. So there was thirty in our group of engineers, mechanical, and there was an electrical group too that had been there. But the thirty of us, about half of us, were interviewed. And so when the orders were posted, nine of us, were to report to the Special Engineering Detachment Corps of Engineers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The rest of the group went to combat engineers. Half of them went to Europe and were building bridges under fire, and in about six weeks from the time they left campus. The rest went to Okinawa and they were running heavy equipment trying to rebuild the harbor because we had bombed it and destroyed it before we went in.
We got to Oak Ridge in Knoxville. An Army bus, met us there and went out to the military base at Oak Ridge. It was a military reservation. We got stopped to be checked by MPs on the way out, and so on. And then we found out the next day what we were going to do, and my assignment was to be at K-25, where we were going into training, to be a shift supervisor, because the plant was running obviously 24/7, 365. And I got just got into it about three weeks.
And one morning when I got up, I got called to go over to headquarters and the sergeant handed me train tickets to Boston. I was going to be in charge of the three of us who were going. One of them was Kermit Lundell, who had been with me in Maryland, and the other one was Bill Smith, who had been in the ASTP program also only at the University of Nebraska.
So he was telling us what to do when we got to New York; we would phone a phone number. And I said, “Oh, I thought we were going to Boston.”
He said, “How’d you know that?” He thought there had been a leak of some sort.
I said, “Well, because you gave me tickets to Boston.”
He said, “Oh yeah.”
And so anyway, we went to New York, and I phoned the number and we were told to get a cab and come down to some number on Park Avenue, which was the headquarters of the Manhattan District of the Engineer Corps. And the sergeant would meet us there and pay for the cab because we didn’t have much money; we were we all PFCs with 54 dollars a month and board and room, of course. So he told us that we were going to have to have a second [check]. We went up to the headquarters there and they sat us down and told us we were going to have to have another FBI check and that we’d have to stay in New York until that was completed.
So there we were in New York City the first time for all of us. Well no, the one fellow, Bill Smith was from Patterson, New Jersey, just across the river. But Kermit and I, it was our first time in New York. But here we were with very little money and we would have board and room—our rations and quarters—but we weren’t getting paid until the end of the month. So the Sergeant told us about a church right near there that we had to check into everyday that had cots in the basement and we could stay there. It was free. And also they had breakfast for us. So that was pretty good.
We both phoned home and had our parents send us some money to tide us over because the same thing happened when we got to Boston. Well, we were there about three days and the big high point was probably going to a Frank Sinatra concert. We got tickets and were the only men in there practically. It was all girls and women screaming and yelling. And standing up on their seats so you couldn’t see. But it was interesting. We managed to get to some of the museums and take a Staten Island ferry over and learn the subway system a little bit.
We took the train on up to Boston then once we had got our clearance. And the same thing there; we phoned a number and they told us to stand in front of the drugstore there so we did with our barracks bags and stuff. And pretty soon a relatively elderly civilian came over and wanted to check our papers. So we showed him. And he said come on. So we went out and got in the big car and went over to the Boston headquarters of the Boston District of the Engineering Corps.
And there we went in and we were told that we’re going to be working at MIT in a metallurgical department and that the metallurgical department had a contract with the Manhattan Engineering District to provide a lot of basic metallurgical research and that we’d be working in civilian clothes. And they gave us a hundred and fifty dollar credit. The guy took us to a clothing store and we bought civilian clothes. Well, a hundred and fifty bucks even in those days didn’t really fill it out so once we got set up and established we wrote home and had a lot of civilian clothes sent to flesh it out.
The next morning we went to MIT and met with the head of the department, John Chipman, who had been at the Met Lab in Chicago before. Then when the opening came there [at MIT] he took that opening. So he was the head of the metallurgical project there at MIT as well as the department head of the university, at the university part of it. MIT had the contract also to provide the crucibles that the uranium and plutonium were reduced in at Los Alamos. The fissionable material comes out of the separation and purification process as an oxidized state, UF6, and had to be reduced to the metal. It was high temperature reduction that needed to have crucibles to do it in and MIT was providing them.
They were having trouble. They had ceramic engineers to handle the firing part of it but when they tamped the crucibles they were tamping them by hand. And when they were fired they would tear, or slump, or have irregularities in the porosity and so on. So they’d be rejected. They were getting about twenty percent acceptance which was not tenable really for the long haul. So our job was to mechanize this somehow to make it so that it was more uniform so we’d get a better acceptance rate.
So we assembled all kinds of equipment and we had priorities on materials and parts: air hammers, mixers, feeders, and vibrating feeders. Whatever we needed we had priorities to get it, which is very important during the war because there wasn’t much of anything available regularly but you had to have a priority. Well we had it. We worked all fall, the fall of ’44, and into the winter and spring of ’45. And in the spring we had the thing perfected to the point that it was working and our acceptance rate was eighty percent instead of twenty, which was acceptable really.
So at that time I got transferred to the beryllium project. The technicians kept on grinding out the crucibles using this machine, tamping them, and then firing them in a brick oven at 1700 degrees centigrade. So I didn’t have anything more to do with that. The beryllium job was to enhance the physical properties of it so that it would be easier to machine into the part of the trigger mechanism of the bomb, or any nuclear reaction actually. And it would store neutrons and then use them to bombard the fissionable materials and get them started. It was quite important that that be done right, of course, because you didn’t want it going off too early and you don’t want it going off too late.
So anyway, they had the big piece of rather unique and difficult configurations. The metal as it comes out of there is hard to machine. It gouges easily and galls easily. We were heat-treating and cold treating and extruding them and pressure hammering them, doing everything you could to try to change the crystal structure. I was doing a lot of the metallography where we’d pull it and test the strength, the physical strength, and then also we’d mount it in a plastic holder and then polish it and grind it to get it smooth. We then took pictures of it to see what the crystal structure was like. We took pictures through a microscope and that’s what I was doing a lot of the time. But I got to do all of it really at one time or another. And in the process I was exposed to a lot of beryllium dust and fumes when we were melting it and pouring it and grinding it and polishing it, and so on.
The war ended about that time. We found out they dropped the bomb and they came around and told us right away that we could tell people what we were working on but no details of course. My parents always wondered what the heck I was doing. And Geri—we weren’t married, but we were semi-engaged I guess—and we corresponded regularly but she had no clue as to what I was doing either, nor did anybody that I had met there at MIT outside of our group.
They actually had people going around and kind of testing you. And you know it was fair game to ask us how come we weren’t in the army or something you know. We all cooked up a story. I hurt my knees in football at the University of Maryland and got medical discharge, which was not true. I did hurt my knees, but not that bad. And they fortunately had given us discharge pins to wear, which was very helpful because you get out of a street car or bus or something and you’d be the only guy on there between the ages of eighteen and forty maybe. And all the rest were women or elderly men or kids or something. And you get a lot of funny looks. But anyway, we had to survive that.
Then in September of ’45 we went back in uniform. They decided that we didn’t need to be in civilian clothes anymore so we went back. Well, that was a lot better because we could get some of the benefits of being in uniform financially wise, train tickets, and so on. I continued working with the beryllium thing and we were making some headway along in May. I never did hear how it came out. And I was working on that.
My roommate was working with beryllium oxide and I hadn’t any clue as to what he was doing and he didn’t have any clue as to what I was doing. And we roomed together for a year and a half almost. At first we’d stayed in the dorms but our rations and quarters just wouldn’t cut it, so then we went to live in a fraternity house which they were low on occupancy in their house and they’d rent them out cheap and provide food cheap relatively to the university there. And then later we got an even better deal; we got a studio apartment. It was thirty-five dollars a month. So seventeen a month a piece and we were getting I think about fifty bucks quarters for room, which could get you a room normally.
In the spring of ’46, somebody came up from Oak Ridge and was pleading with us—we were all by then eligible for discharge in a point system to get out of the army. The ones who are overseas had got two points a month and in the states you got one. And we didn’t get any for the part of the time we were at MIT because we actually were employed by MIT part of that time. So we were kind of the last people getting out which was all right; we weren’t digging foxholes and sleeping in the rain, so. I never had any objection to that; those guys get out first.
Anyway, I was about ready to get out but everybody was getting out and was ready to go on or was getting out in the SED and they needed radiation monitors for the upcoming Operations Crossroads, the upcoming test at Bikini Atoll. There were eight of us at MIT in the military, the rest were all civilians, professors and assistant professors and technicians and some of the technicians were veterans that’d come home and got medical discharges. In the army there’s an old maxim: never volunteer for anything. We violated that but there were eight of us in the group and four of us were married and four of us weren’t. Well all the single guys opted to go to Bikini and put off discharge for three or four months whereas the other guys all opted to get out of the army, which was all right too.
We went to Oak Ridge and got some training on instruments we were going to be using there, which were newer models and grades than the ones we had at MIT. I had worked some with uranium there.
We had about two weeks training and then we shipped out on a train in a Pullman car and had a tour across the country and got to Oakland Army Base and boarded the USS Haven, which was a hospital ship. And that was going to be out base for the radiological safety section. And the reasons that we had that ship—the only navy ships that were air-conditioned were hospital ships. It wasn’t for us, it was for our Geiger counters and other instruments because they didn’t have a chance to make them tropic-proof. In fact they had a lot of maintenance problems even as it was. But we had to store them every night supposedly in the air-conditioned ship.
It turned out my job was to be on an initial boarding team, with men on it. I was the only army man. There was a marine photographer and the rest were all navy brass. It was headed by a navy captain and two commanders, a couple of lieutenant commanders, and a bunch of lieutenants. They were all specialists in one sort or another whether it be naval air and another would be ordinance and another one would be bureauships, a structural part, and so on. And our job was to board the target the vessels as soon as possible after the blasts and make a quick survey of the damage in the event they were sinking or going to sink or something, and to see what the status was whether it was safe for other people to board them at all. And then we’d get off and we didn’t stay on them very long. We’d go to another one.
There were two tests at Bikini, Operations Crossroads. The first one was an airdrop and we had about sixty ships in the target array and they were anchored in the lagoon in an arrangement such that there’d be damage, from complete damage and destruction down to practically none. And our job was to board these vessels and get a quick survey of the damage, the physical damage and radiological damage. And my job was the radiological part and then I advised the captain how long it was safe to stay and actually he’d cut that back a little. Everybody used their own safety factor.
There were a number of ships sunk and we went out on day jobs out from the haven. We boarded these vessels from a naval net tender. It was a sea going tug that’s designed to handle submarine nets that they used in the harbors to keep submarines out. And they’d open and close the gates with these tenders and lay the nets and retrieve them and so on. They had a couple of horns up on the front kind of like a crane but with steps going up and you could go right up and then step sometimes right from the horns onto the deck. Sometimes we went up a Jacob’s ladder, iron bars welded on the ship. Sometimes we boarded a landing stage. Other times we’d have to climb up a cargo net.
The most difficult one was a free hanging cargo net over the bow of the Independence aircraft carrier carrying a fifteen-pound suitcase model Geiger counter in one hand. I had a smaller one that I could put in my army fatigue pants, which had big side pockets, and I could put that in there. So I had one hand to climb this net. I had hooked my finger when I moved my hand to the next on the net. But it was tricky.
People always asked me what kind of equipment we were issued, protection equipment. They gave us each a pair of leather gloves and they were stiff. You couldn’t use them because you couldn’t operate your instruments with them. And so we never did use the gloves. Otherwise we’d just use our army boots and army fatigues and so on and no special precautions of any sort.
There was a lot of residual radiation on some of the ships because they did get a tremendous neutron bombardment. For instance, the neutron bombardment would create radioactive potassium and sodium in soap. The bars of soap would be radioactive because they had been bombarded by neutrons and they would change into these fragments of higher molecules with all varying half-lives. Some of them real were fast and would be gone in a little bit and others it would be years, and everything in between.
The second test was an underwater test and the bomb was in a caisson suspended below a landing ship. It was about a hundred feet down in the lagoon. And we were much closer in on that one. We were out about fifteen miles on the first one. When they evacuated the lagoon, we were out there on our net tender, the USS Shackamaxon. It was an Indian name, and all these tugs had Indian names, Indian tribes, and so on, or chiefs. And all the aircraft carriers were named after naval battles of the revolutionary war of 1812 in those days. The Saratoga was a big battle I guess. And Saratoga was a big carrier, one of our original carriers. It was converted from a battleship to an aircraft carrier right after World War I when they decided that naval air was here to stay. But that was out there, a big ship, with a very distinctive stack on it.
On the second one we came in and that was our first priority ship to board. We came in and we got up close to it and it was listing kind of bad. And they told us to stand off and just circle it for a while. In about twenty minutes it sunk. It reared up one end and slid in the water and bubbled for quite a while. And we were watching it go down right beside it or back aways, you know. We weren’t right beside it or anything but it was quite a sight to be close to a major naval vessel when it was going down.
I got assigned to jobs in between these tests, and one of them was to go out and work with divers. These were the hardhat divers. They hadn’t invented compressed air cylinders [00:41:33] in those days and scuba equipment. My job was to send electroscopes down with the divers and then retrieve them when they came back up and see how much they took. And then I would check the stuff they would bring up. They would bring up parts of the ship or something. They were diving on a destroyer the day I was there, the Anderson, and they were taking pictures down there and so on. It wasn’t real deep because this was all in the lagoon, which is an extinct volcano crater basically. There were coral reefs all the way around the rim with islands popping up here and there on this oval shape.
Well then I guess that was about it. They were trying to clean the ships but in the process I got aboard the Pennsylvania and the New York, and the Independence, the aircraft carrier, a couple times. That was in pretty bad shape, all twisted and torn, and fairly radioactive. But I was on all landing craft and troop transport ships of just about any kind of ship the navy had. Even a dock ship; there’s some docks you can submerge and blow out the tanks and raise the ship up and repair the smaller ships. The bigger ones had to go to a port for that.
Finally they decided that it was over and we were leaving. They were just going to leave a few of the guys that had just got in the army, the young people, and they still had points to go before they could be eligible to get out.
Kelly: Okay, why don’t you tell us a little bit on the ships that you used to board.
Cunningham: I got on all kinds of Navy ships, just about all kinds of landing craft and troop carriers, landing ships. They had ships as well as craft, as they called them, and destroyers, aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers. I never got any of the foreign ships. There were two Japanese, the Nagato and the Sakawa. The Nagato was one of the big super battleships that the Japanese had. And we had two of them out there. And these ships were in terrible shape. The crews that were on them were very unhappy. They were foul, they stunk, and the sanitation was horrible.
Then there was a German battle cruiser, one of these so-called pocket battleships, Prinz Eugen. That was the most beautiful ship you can imagine, beautiful lines, very white, bright; just spotless, good German engineering went into it. And I never got on board but some of the guys got on there. Believe it or not, battleships have wooden decks, and some aircraft carriers did even. A lot of the bigger ships had wooden decks.
The Prinz Eugen was no exception. It had a nice wooden floor and when the bomb went off it was so hot it had vaporized the steel of some of the ships that were close, and it went up in the cloud. As it got up a ways, they’d cool off and condense into little BB’s sort of, small particles. And they’d come down on these ships, well, most of them would roll right off but on the Prinz Eugen, for instance, they’d fall on that wooden deck and then they’d roll in between the boards. They had sealed them with tar or some kind of bitumen anyway. And these hot BB’s would go and they’d melt down into that and they had the crew out there with knives trying to dig them out. And the radiation monitors would find them with their Geiger counter and put a mark there and then one of the sailors would dig it out. I don’t know what they did with them. I always thought it was kind of interesting.
The first test was similar to the ones in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in that they were airdrops with the proximity fuses to set and go off when they got to a certain altitude. And this tremendous amount of heat that was generated would cause the air and the gases and everything from the product to expand. And so it would be real hot because it would go up and pick the traditional picture of the mushroom cloud. It goes up and then as it gets up the stratosphere it spreads out and makes a mushroom shape. And it sucks all the radiation products—not all of them, but most of them—all of the smaller atoms that are generated when a nuclear reaction takes place. And they went right up with this in a gaseous state at first and later condensed but they still had this huge rising column of air. And when it gets up into the stratosphere and then the winds start taking it and it kind of dissipates and rolls around the world. And they still can measure it all around the world. Well, that was the first one. The first test was test Abel.
The second test was a unique one. I guess the thought was that a submarine could come in your harbor and lay one of these things that would fire remotely or something. And they wanted to see what effect it would have. Well, that tremendous amount of heat vaporized one heck of a lot of water so there was a lot of steam. That went up—and you’ve see pictures of it I’m sure—about a half-mile diameter column of water and spray and what not going up and sucking all this stuff up. And then you got up a ways and it would cool off and a lot of it was steam condensed. And then it would come back down and on the way down it would scrub some more of these radiation products. So they’d end up with very radioactive rain coming down on the lagoon and on all the ships there or with a harbor or a city or whatever. And so that really would contaminate it radiologically.
So that made it so a lot of those ships were uninhabitable. They would come down on the steel ships and so on and it would run off the water but it’d leave a film always. And then this film would have all these radiological fragments in it. Well then they decided they were just going to give up trying to clean it. They were going to sink most of the ships and send selected small ones back to naval bases where they would look at them and scrap them or whatever depending on how bad they were. And those were only the better ones, of course. The worst ones, a lot of them, they just took them out and sunk them. So there were quite a few of them on the bottom of Bikini lagoon. They took some of them over to coagulate in the lagoon and sunk them there. And then as they say go out in the open sea because they were declared surplus ships. Most of them were so radiologically poisoned that you couldn’t use them anyway and you couldn’t have been working on them to dismantle them for scrap even.
There was a few that stayed, the younger ones, but we all went on a troop carrier, the USS Henrico, and went back to Oakland and stopped in Pearl Harbor on the way, both ways actually, got a couple days off there. Then we got back to Oakland and took a train by a very circuitous route and went back to Oak Ridge and we got in about the evening. And it’d been about four days on this train going back. And the officer that was with us, in charge of us, the army officer, he phoned Oak Ridge and had them bring a bus down to Chattanooga where we were because we couldn’t get out of there by train till the next day.
So we did and at about midnight the bus came from Oak Ridge and we went back and Oak Ridge was quite a bit different than the first time I was there. It had nice dormitories. It had rooms, two men to a room, and the first time we were there we were in hutments made of just plywood buildings about sixteen feet square with four men in there. The [hutments] were heated by an oil stove that was fed by barrels on framework outside by gravity. There weren’t any windows but you could lift the plywood up and then there was screening under it for ventilation in the summer. But in the winter the only thing between you and the outside was about three-quarter inch [00:53:41] plywood. And there were cracks all around these panels that folded up. And they weren’t weather-stripped or anything, it was just wood on wood and warped a little and it was pretty cold and miserable weather.
And it was all mud boardwalks. And just to go to the latrine for one of those was a major expedition. So the second time when we were there after the war after we came back it was much more comfortable with all the nice shower rooms right next to you on each hall instead of having to go outdoors and walk aways to go to the bathroom there. Both times we had big mess halls that we ate in but they were much better the second time around.
Then I went and got shipped out to Fort Bragg, North Carolina where we went up over the road that went over the Smoky Mountains and one that has a circular loop to gain altitude. We spent about three days at Fort Bragg and got separated and went home to Lansing. I flew from an army field there at Fort Bragg over to Memphis. I was hoping I could get some more into the Chicago area by government planes but they couldn’t and so I went commercial from Memphis to Chicago and Chicago to Michigan, Lansing by the next morning. I slept in a baggage rack that night in the airport. But I guess that’s about it on that part of it.
Then I went back to school and we just got back in time. Michigan State started later than most of the schools, which was lucky because we didn’t get back into the state until around Labor Day. And we didn’t leave Bikini until the 15th of August, two weeks, about five or six days to Hawaii and five or six more on to Oakland. I got it in time but the classes were bothering to start and registration had already taken place but the assistant to the dean of engineering was a gal that we all loved. She was especially taking care of the returned veterans that she had known before the war. And so she arranged for us to get into the classes we needed. And I went back to chemical engineering because I had the GI Bill now so that helped. And I could still live at home.
A lot of folks welcomed us back. My brother had gotten back from Italy. He had been in the infantry over in Italy and he was one of the beneficiaries of the bomb. His outfit was packing in early August, packing up in Italy getting ready to ship over to Guam or somewhere, getting ready for the big one.
Every once in a while I run into somebody; I was in a Wal-Mart down in Florida and I ran into a guy that had been in the Pacific fighting and he had been in the Philippines and so on. And he was in Guam then and they were getting their equipment checked out and all ready to go probably invade in November. And he said, “You saved my life.”
Once in a while I get somebody that asks me if I felt guilty or something because we killed so many Japanese. But we killed as many or more Germans at Hamburg and Dresden just with conventional bombs and firebombs. And sure, it was bad. War is hell to start with. But sacrificing that number of Japanese—we saved three to five million more than we would have killed if we’d had to invade because we’d of leveled everything with bombs first and fire bombs, which were particularly vicious in the Japanese architecture. They had a lot of wood and paper stuff in their buildings that burned like crazy. Then we saved of course like half a million American lives because the Japanese, we had seen how they fight; they didn’t surrender, very few surrendered. They’d fight till they were dead. And you had to burn everyone out of a foxhole with a flamethrower. And if they got in their home territory there would have been even more so. And they were already harming the civilians with crude equipment and so on—obsolete but deadly. So it would have been a terrible situation.
Then I got back to college. It took me two academic years to finish up. And the second year and the summer in between I got a job at Fisher Body working. And then when the fall came they had gone back to two shifts with cars. It was a day shift, morning, they called it. I went in about 4:30 or something and they had a program there and labor was short about that time, which most of the time it seemed like it wasn’t. But they had this arrangement where you’d get another partner, another student, and worked the evening shift all the time. One guy would work Monday and Wednesday and every other Friday, and the other guy Tuesday and Thursday and every other Friday. And it worked out pretty well. We each had about twenty hours on the average a week. We were on the loading dock, unloading trucks, which was heavy work sometimes. But it was decent work. It wasn’t bad, kind of cold in the winter sometimes.
Anyway, I had that money to supplement my GI Bill payment and I had been engaged to Geri. We decided to wait to get married until I finished because she was teaching. She got out. I started a year before she did but she got out three years before I did. She was teaching at Battle Creek and then when we got married in ’48, she got a job in Kalamazoo because I had taken a job at the Upjohn Company, a pharmaceutical firm in Kalamazoo, which is about thirty miles west of Battle Creek.
I started in and worked for about nine years as a development engineer developing and scaling up new synthetic processes. Upjohn was just getting into the synthetic drug business and they had a big research staff working for new products. And our job was to take the synthetic processes and make them safe and efficient, cost effective, and have them work at a larger scale, and build plants and help the production guys start those up and so on. I did that for nine years.
I then transferred to the fermentation area. I was a research manager there in the fermentation pilot plant where we made all the antibiotics and all of the steroids. Upjohn was a primary leader in the steroid business because we’d developed a biological way of putting oxygen into a basic sterol molecule to make cortisone, hydrocortisone, and prednisone. And we developed a lot of specialty items, prednisone, Medrol. I’m still benefitting from that; I get a shot about once a year of Medrol in my left knee. Can you imagine? It’s been since we were working on it at the time in 1958 and we’re still using it. Most drugs that old are supplanted by better drugs. But this one is still going strong. And after about a number of years there I did a lot of converting processes to being controlled with computer techniques where we’d made a mathematical model and then use the computer to calculate the optimum sequencing of plant operation.
We would develop new steroids. Other pharmaceutical firms would develop their own special steroid and they’d have us make it up to about the last step or two. And then they’d want to do their own finishing steps to get it to their particular product because we kind of had the world by the tail for a long time there with the basic using soy steroles as starting material. Originally all the steroids came from bile acids from cattle but there wasn’t enough to go around really. And then they started doing it from diosgenin, which they got from a root that grew in the wilds down in Central America. They stripped the jungles down there, other people did. We didn’t do that because we were able to start using soy steroles actually from part of the products that they didn’t use. So that was pretty good.
And we did a lot of work, good work, and then about ten years more after that I guess, I got transferred back as a research manager of the chemical engineering development group where the synthetic drugs were made. And I was manager of that for the next ten years. And the last five years I was the director of chemical production at Upjohn. And I retired in 1988 after forty years at Upjohn, which is unusual. People don’t do that anymore.
I did a lot of interesting projects. I worked on everything you can imagine, Xanax and Halcion, Motrin, Medrol; I mentioned that, but all kinds of drugs. Unfortunately after I left, they started merging with a Swedish firm and then Pfizer bought both firms. And the first thing they did was shut down most of the buildings and fired 1500 researchers and they continued to maintain the production of the products that Upjohn had. That’s what they wanted. They wanted the products and the facilities to make it because they already had their own research, they didn’t need Upjohn’s research. So a lot of my friends lost their jobs right away. So I got out just in time.
And my wife had decided before that we were going to start traveling a lot when we retired and we did. We traveled all over the world.
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