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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Fred and Diana VanWyck’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

The VanWycks, Fred (“Van”) and Diana (“Di”), moved to Richland (near Hanford) in 1944 from Charleston, West Virginia, where Van worked at DuPont’s Belle Plant as a technician. At Hanford, Van was a plant operator, while Di raised their sons and volunteered actively in the community. In this era, Richland was a raw, new, wind-blown, almost treeless town. The VanWycks watched it change to a pretty city of more than 30,000, with shade trees in abundance and grass that halted the sand storms of the 1940s. Richland had been a government-owned town, and remained so until 1957 when the Atomic Energy Commission allowed private ownership of residences.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 1986
Location of the Interview:


[Interviewed by S. L. Sanger, from Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford, Portland State University, 1995]

VAN: I’m sure the Richland Players, which we helped found, was instrumen­tal in our early adjustment to life here, because it gave us something to do. Di right away won the lead in a production.

DI: The play was “The Male Animal.” We did it here and then took it to Walla Walla to the hospital, for the wounded. Van got involved then, and that was our recreation, except for going to the park and the pool. We used to take our dinner at night and go on the bus to the park. We didn’t have a car. Everything was so new and clean and fresh, except for the wind. There’s so much green now.

VAN: After I got here, I was supposed to get a duplex house, a two story. They had a big lumber strike in the Seattle area and they were cutting back here. But, I could get a brand-new three-bedroom prefab and that’s what I took at 1706 Lee Boulevard. It cost $37.50 a month, furnished, with utilities and grass seed, tons of grass seed.

DI: I used to stand out with a hose on fine spray, with a book in my hand while the children were in school and spray this lawn. It came up very nicely. It happened that we had a faulty pre-fab. It had some construction problems they tried to repair. I came home one day and there was a man under the house in the middle of a terrible windstorm. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was trying to get this house fixed so it won’t blow away. “We lost two of them last night,” he said. We moved into another house.

VAN: I came here as an operator in 1944. To be perfectly honest, we weren’t real sure where we were going. We received our tickets to Chicago, on the train, there were four fellows and we went to the Union Station in Chicago. There we received tickets to Pasco. On our trip, we were contacted by men interested in where we were going. We were non-committal. One guy said, Ill bet youre going to Pasco. What did you ever do to get sent there?

DI: Let me interject, this is really strange. Just before Van left for Hanford, we were driving out to the plant at Belle with a friend, a very bright fellow, a keen mind. Van was going out to do some last minute work and Jim was driving us out. And he said, “So you’re going out to the Northwest. You know what they’re doing out there, they’re splitting atoms.” Van asked him what he was talking about? “Yeah I read it in Time magazine two weeks ago.” So much for secrecy.

VAN: Course, if he had said splitting bananas it wouldn’t have made any dif­ference to me at that time. At the Belle plant, I was a chemical operator. At that plant, we made 235 different products, but mainly alcohol, ammonia, nylon, brake fluid, anti-freeze. I was transferred out here as a power operator. We operated pumps, steam turbines, anything in the power phase. We oper­ated things like compressors. We were at 100-B, in the 190 building, operating pumps for the cooling system, for one thing.

When I got to 100-B, well, the operating buildings didnt contain any windows, they were concrete block. The building was large, had lots of equipment. I was a pump operator, a compressor operator, a steam power plant operator. Our building was right across from the reactor building.

I also worked as a chief operator in the 190 building, which was the power plant. The chief operator controlled all the pumps. The operators started them up and shut then down. I was also a chief operator in the water treat­ment plant, which included the river pump plant, the filter plant, the water storage plant.

DI: Before the war was over, I was involved in the League of Women Voters. I taught Sunday school, was chairman of the Junior Red Cross, which was a going thing at that time because of the war. We had four boys, two born in West Virginia and two in Richland.

VAN: I did not have any idea what was going on before the bombs. The day the first bomb was dropped, I was on swing shift. We heard it on the radio, I believe around noon. That it had happened and what we were doing here.

DI: I was going home to West Virginia at that time, and in Cincinnati they had a man doing interviews with the train passengers and he walked up to me with his mike and he said, “And where are you from lady?” I said Richland, Washington. He said, Thats where they are splitting atoms. Come on, tell me about it.” I turned my nose up and walked away.

VAN: Everybody was excited and very proud. It was the same thing when the second bomb was dropped. I had a brother with the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal. I had a brother in the Navy who was due to land in Japan two days after the bombs. He told me, “Let me tell you something. If we ever had to go ashore, the number of people we lost would be unbelievable.” He was grateful for the bombs.

After the war when Du Pont was leaving Hanford, we were offered a transfer back to Charleston. My boss, the power superintendent, said he would like for me to stay here.

DI: I immediately called West Virginia and told mother we were coming home. We’ve got to find a house to live in, and I had no idea when we would be there but we were coming. Van came home from work that day and said, Lets sit down and talk about this.” We decided to stay. I’ve never been sorry. Have you ever been in West Virginia, and Charleston? Its the Kanawha Valley and it’s damp, and its very dirty and it’s full of chemicals. It’s closed in. Richland was so wide open and so clean and we liked it. We thought it would be a good place to raise children and as it turned out it has been a good place. We were such a young, fresh, enthusiastic group of people. Attractive too.

VAN: We were young, it was an adventure.                                                 

Copyright 1989 S. L. Sanger. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of S. L. Sanger.