Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Gale Kenney’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Gale Kenney was a member of the Special Engineering Detachment at Oak Ridge, where he worked inside the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion plant. With his engineering background, Kenney led a predominantly female team to test the miles of piping used in the gaseous diffusion process. In this interview, Kenney discusses his experience at K-25, the social life in Oak Ridge, and the workers’ reaction to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Date of Interview:
November 7, 2014
Location of the Interview:


Kelly: My name is Cindy Kelly of Atomic Heritage Foundation and this is Friday, November 7, 2014. And I am here in Hobe Sound, Florida and I have with me Kenney. The first question is to please tell me your name and spell it.

Kenney: My first name is Gale. G-A-L-E. My middle initial is G as in George. G-E-O-R-G-E. My last name is Kenney. K-E-N-N-E-Y.

Kelly: Terrific. Thank you. Now I am just going to ask you to tell us a little bit about your background. First, what is your birthday and then where were you born and something about your childhood and education.

Kenney: I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania back on December 16, 1923. I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania most of my life and my father died when he was – how old was he? When he was 40 years old. And so I went on through junior high school and high school. When I graduated from high school, I was able to get a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. I went there and studied Mechanical Engineering and I had about three and a half years in the university curricula and so forth when I was drafted into the service. While I was at college, I had joined the OCS, the Officers Candidate School at the University. And we learned a lot about the Army and we were taught by an officer from the service. We marched, we had uniforms, and it was a nice organization.

The government wanted us to sign up for the service—you did not have to—but some fellows did and still stayed in school. And I elected to stay in school and I did not sign up at that time. So when it came time to—as things went along with the service, and I was drafted out of school. And I had three and a half years in of education in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Pittsburgh. And then I went into the service. I still had to finish my school later, which I ultimately did. I was sent down to Fort McClellan, Alabama in the infantry and I did my basic training there. While I was there, I was given some tests and asked what I would want to do in the Army and I took these tests not knowing the ultimate results. What would happen to me.

When I finished my basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, I was preparing to go home on a furlough and then we were going to go overseas. However, I got a call from the Orderly Room in the Army that they wanted me to come down and see them before I left. I went down there and they told me that orders had come through for me to either go to Officers Candidate School or go to OCS.

Kelly: OCS? Because that is Officers Candidate School. It must be something else.

Kenney: Officers Candidate School or go back to college and study engineering. I elected to go back to college; they sent me down to Texas A&M College to study more engineering. I did not go overseas at that time. When I finished up down at Tennessee. Let me go back.

While I was in the service, I was given a lot of tests. One evening I had to go down and take tests for a couple of hours to determine whether I wanted to go to OCS or back to college. And I decided that after they sent me down to Texas A&M College and I finished up, I did not know where they were going to send me. And it just so happened that orders came through for me in a couple of days and they sent me up to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I did not know at that time what was going on at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but I was assigned a barracks and then later on, a couple of days, they told me that I was going to stay at Oak Ridge and that is where I was the rest of the war.

Kelly: When did you arrive? What year was this when you got there?

Kenney: When I arrived at Oak Ridge was back in 1944 or ’45. Probably ’44. And then I was given an assignment at a place called K-25 and I went out there and was given some duties in the building. 

Kelly: I am going to back up for a second. Did you arrive at Knoxville? Do you remember anything about how you got to first arrive at Oak Ridge and what? You were going into this unknown place that was, I mean, how much did you know about what was going on in Oak Ridge?

Kenney: I do not remember how I got there other than the government paid my way. And I went to the barracks. I was assigned to the barracks. And then there was subsequent meetings, I guess. I cannot recall, but subsequent meetings and eventually I was taken out to K-25 and told what was going on. But not the consequences of what was going on.

They were operating a plant and they had just built this plant. They just finished but it had not been operated. And one of my duties that they assigned me to do is test the equipment before it was put into service. In order to test equipment, they assigned probably seven to ten young ladies to me to test all the piping and fittings for leaks. If a weld went bad or a fitting was loose or anything that would cause a leak. So we had to go around with probes and at all welds and so forth to test to see that they were all tight and everything was working and there was no leaks in the system. And you had to go from one building to another building. There were several buildings in K-25 and so you had an assignment to go to certain buildings and test the equipment after it had been installed.

I had nothing to do with the installation, but after it was installed, that was where I came into play. I had to test the equipment and then after we tested it and thought it was all right, we had to condition the equipment before any uranium was fed into the system. So after it was conditioned, then we had the responsibility of charging the material into the system.

Kelly: Did that happen all at once?

Kenney: No, no. It took several days, probably a few weeks to do all that because K-25 was a big place.

Kelly: I was thinking did you charge each? I know it has separate buildings and within the building had separate stages and so I am just curious whether you would finish your inspection in one building and then charge it or would you wait until all the buildings were done?

Kenney: You would wait until all the buildings were done, if I recall correctly, and then you charge the material all at once too. You do not just charge a portion of the operation. You had to charge the whole building, as I remember.

Kelly: So how many teams were there of leak detectors like your own?

Kenney: I have no idea. They did not tell us. I had a team of people and we went in there several nights and days to test all this stuff, but I had no idea. They did not tell you anything. You had to do what you had to do and that was it.

Kelly: So your team worked several shifts?

Kenney: Oh yes, they worked shift work. I did a lot of shift work. Once all the material was in there and the equipment was conditioned, suitable to charge with the raw material, then we were on stream and we were assigned a shift. I worked night shift, day shift, and mid-day shift.

Kelly: I am just curious whether the seven or eight that reported to you, you all had the same shift then?

Kenney: No. No.

Kelly: You just mixed it up.

Kenney: You did not need that many people to operate it, a shift in the building I was in. But they just, you had more people testing, I guess, than you do working as operators.

Kelly: So do you remember whether you worked in. Now the third floor there was an operating control room. And then below, two floors below, were the actual cascades or the equipment.

Kenney: Yes.

Kelly: So did you sort of go between the two sometimes?

Kenney: Yeah, you had to go between the two. I mean, the controls were upstairs there and then you had to go down and check the pumps to see the pumps were working and so forth. This was a gaseous diffusion plant and you had to see that all parts were operating properly. Yes. And I was working at, once they got everything on stream and everything was going smoothly, it was no problem. But occasionally you ran into a problem or you had to shut down a portion of it and correct the problem and then start it running again.

One of the areas that I worked in was in the tail end. You had a heads and tail end. The tail end where you took the waste material off the system and when you were working that end, they would bring in a so-called two-ton empty cylinder. And you would have to hook that cylinder up to the system and fill it with waste material. And I worked in the tail end most of the time. In fact, I do not think I ever worked where they took the final material off. And we did this 24 hours a day.

Kelly: Was that unenriched uranium then or just only slightly enriched uranium or, the waste material? Was it recycled?

Kenney: No, no. As far as I know, it was done. Once you took the material out of the charge that was in the system and put it in the container, they took the 2,000-pound container full of waste material out and put it in the field.

Kelly: So the container was sealed.

Kenney: Oh yeah. Well, there was a valve on the end. That is all. You closed the valve, and then they came and put it on a dolley, and took it out in the field. Now when they got it out in the field, I do not know what they did with it. How they made sure the valve was not open or could not be opened, but they stored them out in the field. They called them chlorine cylinders, but they were empty.

Kelly: What was it like to be inside the plant when it was running? Was it hot? Was it—

Kenney: No, it was not. It was comfortable to run. The plant was very big, where you would have to use a bicycle to go from one end to the other. I mean, several people had bicycles. Some of the supervisors that were controlling the operations, make sure everything was running properly, had bicycles.

Kelly: Do you remember how long the plant was?

Kenney: No idea.

Kelly: Is that right?

Kenney: I did not measure it or anything like that, but it was long. I mean, if you want to walk from one end to the other, you would not do that in five minutes, probably 20, 30 minutes. I never did that. I never went that far. I was confined to an area that I was responsible for operating and that was it.

Kelly: Do you remember the kinds of buildings and facilities that surrounded the K-25 plant where you might have gone to change clothes or were there cafeterias nearby? Things like that?

Kenney: There was a cafeteria nearby, but I do not know how close it was. There was a cafeteria where we could go and have lunch. Yes. And we went there. It depends on shifts. We worked in shifts and they covered it with a nice cafeteria. So they did have it available, but the government gave us a $1.80 to live on and we used that at the cafeteria, of course. And later on, they raised it to—I guess it was after the war ended—they raised it to $2.40 a day. So that is how they took care of us food wise. We did not have a room or facility to eat in. We just went there and used our card, or whatever we had at that time, for our lunch or breakfast or whatever.

I was G.I. and I was getting $54 a month pay plus the $1.80 a day allowance. And later on they increased it to the $2.40 a day food allowance. And when you were off duty you could use that card downtown where you went for your meals too. There were cafeterias all around the place, and we took a bus. We had to take a bus from where we lived out to where the K-25 was located. And we would get the bus back when our time was up.

Kelly: So what was it like riding on the bus?

Kenney: It was all right. It was no problem riding the bus.

Kelly: Were people really tired, you know, at the end of the shift?

Kenney: I really did not notice it. I mean, you worked your eight hours and that was it. You went back to wherever you were living. When I first went there, it was in barracks, and then after I started working, they assigned me to a hut with three other fellows in there. All four of us lived in this hut for a while. I do not know how long it was, several months. And then they took us out of there and gave us, put us in an apartment building. And had a room in an apartment building, which was very nice, much nicer. You had your own room and the facilities there were much better than we had over at the other place. One big room and four people to a hut.

Kelly: Bunk beds?

Kenney: No, they were not bunk beds. Not in that facility. In the other, the big building, they may have had bunk beds. I do not remember.

Kelly: But your room in the apartment, what was that like?

Kenney: Nice. Real nice. Very nice. We had to take a shower at the end. They still had a common shower. You had toilet facilities as I recall, but you had to go down the hall to take a shower. They had a big shower room there. I guess they had elevators going up. We did not walk upstairs. They had elevators, I guess, in this building. It was a nice building.

Kelly: And then you would eat your meals in a cafeteria?

Kenney: A cafeteria all the time, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Kelly: Was it near a shopping center?

Kenney: The one downtown was. Of course, the one out near the plant was not. But it was located so I think people from other companies could use, too, not just people working in K-25.

Kelly: Do you remember the name Happy Valley?

Kenney: Happy Valley? I remember that but I cannot place it.

Kelly: It was actually used during the construction of K-25 and was right across what is now the Route 58, but it is, the turn, the highway basically, but probably there was not a highway there. But it was full of temporary housing and trailers, and yet they provided for recreation. They had something called Coney Island there.

Kenney: I think that was for people that were pipe fitters and were not in the service. They had families down there and so forth. They were not really close to K-25. This Happy Valley is where a lot of people lived in trailers, yes. There was an area there where people lived. Construction people, pipe fitters and so forth.

Kelly: Right. Right.

Kenney: Yeah.

Kelly: And I know they tore it all down and I cannot remember when, whether that happened before the end of the war or—

Kenney: I really, I know it existed. I was not near it. I had no business being over there. I stuck with my job and that was it.

Kelly: So tell us about there were a few things you did that did not relate to your job, such as meeting your wife. Can you tell us that story?

Kenney: No, my wife was not, I was not married.

Kelly: You did not?

Kenney: No.

Kelly: You did not? How about the dances on the tennis court?

Kenney: Oh yes. They had tennis court dances on the weekend. Saturday nights mainly, if I recall correctly. Nice music. Someone came in and played records and so forth. Everybody enjoyed that. It was a nice affair. You did not miss that unless something special was going on or unless you were working because the plant ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But the tennis court dances were very nice.

And also, certain areas at K-25 had basketball teams. And I joined a basketball team in the area I worked for. And I think we played at the high school. There was a high school there, I believe. And we played at basketball tournaments a lot. And I enjoyed that. And also there was enough men there from colleges that had played football in college to have a football team. And they did have a football team that played teams that came into the area and it was good. We would go down there and watch a football game when you could. So Oak Ridge had their own football team. That was another plus. Of course, I did not play football. And they had uniforms and everything else. But occasionally we would go into Knoxville and watch the University of Tennessee play football during football season. So it was an activity that you could go and enjoy. You know. But another thing that happened to me was I fell into a nice arrangement. A friend of mine was transferred from Oak Ridge down to, the one down in Texas.

Kelly: Los Alamos?

Kenney: Los Alamos. And he had a car. He had a 1933 Chevrolet and he could not take that down with him. It was running and everything so he said to me do you want to buy a car? I said what do you mean? He said I am selling my car. I have to go down to another place. So I said how much do you want for it? He says $30. So I said okay. So I bought it from him for $30. I drove it around and I said well, the lights are not too bright. So one day when I was off work, I drove into Knoxville to an automobile store and I bought new headlights for it and a new battery. And I had no more trouble with the car.

Frank came back and I had a car to go someplace other than Oak Ridge. And I used to go up to a place called Big Ridge up in the mountains someplace. And they had a lake up there and you would go up there on the weekends on a Saturday or a Sunday and swim and you could do a lot of things up there. So it was nice. So when it came time and I was discharged and I was leaving the place, I had a buddy, a friend of mine, Bob Higgins. I said you want a car? He said what do you mean? I said I am going home now. I said you can have the car. He said oh, I will buy it from you. I said no. You take the car. Use it. If you sell it, I will take a dollar or two. So he used it for a while. He stayed down there. Of course, he married a girl down there too. And he stayed down there with the car and eventually he sold it and sent me a check. He sold it for $50 and sent me a check for $25. It was a great time.

Kelly: That is terrific. You almost got your entire money out of it.

Kenney: Well, it did not bother me. At that time, I was not concerned about money.

Kelly: Do you have anything to compare it to what a new car would cost in those days? What would be a new car cost?

Kenney: Oh I imagine a new car back in those days would be $500 or more. But this was an old ’33 Chevy and it ran. It never stopped on us so long as you took care of it. One time we did decide to paint it though. The paint was going bad on it so we bought us some paint, a buddy and I and we painted it. It looked good.

Kelly: What color did you paint it?

Kenney: Black.

Kelly: Fun. Do you have any other memories of good times in Oak Ridge?

Kenney: Well, I enjoyed playing basketball. I enjoyed all the people I met down there. I met a lot of nice people. Bob Higgins. He was one of them. He was from New England. And John Flynn. Adam Mondell [PH]. Fellow by the name of Son Blatt [PH]. A lot of good people and they were nice and we had good times together.

Kelly: That is my impression. Yeah.

Kenney: But we worked hard, too. Do not get me wrong. I mean, like Bob Higgins worked in the Instrument Department. He repaired instruments, the control instruments of the facility. When you operate a plant like that, you have to have some people maintaining the instrumentation. And my job was not in that area. My job was operating the plant, making sure the pumps were running, the pressures were right. And that everything was in good shape. But sometimes a pump would go out on you or you would get a leak in the system or something. And you had to fix it. You had to shut it down. Start it up again. So I worked in what you call operations. And when at the end of the plant, I had to take the bad stuff off, put it in the cylinder, button the cylinder up, close the valves and all that, and have it taken away. So that was a process. I did process work. And there was people that did maintenance, all kinds of maintenance. It was well staffed with good people.

Kelly: And you knew that the process was a gaseous diffusion process and the product was enriched uranium. Did you know that much?

Kenney: I did by the time I was done, yes. But at the beginning, I did not know. No one told me. You have to find these things out for yourself, more or less. And that is what I did. And then you could not go from one area to another. You had a badge and you could only get in one door and out one door. You could not go across the street and get in. They had it pretty well guarded. People could not get in and out. Of course, I never tried. I had a door to go in and when I left, I left the same door. But it was well protected, the facility. They had, the Army had their own people there. The guards, their own guards, police.

Kelly: Do you remember something called a security portal, a portal where there had the guards? As you entered, you had to go through a little turnstile and show your badge before you entered the premises of the K-25 plant?

Kenney: No. Never heard that.

Kelly: Let us see. Were you aware of any spies or any problems with?

Kenney: I was never aware of any spies or, nobody asked me any questions at all. What was going on out there. I was never confronted by anybody.

Kelly: So other than the military police, you were not aware that there were counterintelligence people?

Kenney: No, I was not aware of anybody other than the military police that were there.

Kelly: Did you find that people would stop themselves from sharing information? Say oh, I am not supposed to talk abot that. Was there a constant presence or thought in your mind to make sure to not disclose things?

Kenney: No. No. I did not consider that at all. But I did enough research that I could pick things up myself. Go to the library or something and look something up.

I cannot recall what I did other than use the library for reference for things and that might have been one of them but I did not get everything out of the library. You pick these things up as you go along. And by the time I left, or by the time things, everybody knew what was going on. And I had the same opinion.

Kelly: So when did you find out what it was that Oak Ridge’s purpose was?

Kenney: Several months after I was there. I mean, I knew it was a chemical process and so forth, but I did not know what the material was. No one told me. And a lot of people did not know either. I was not the only one. But eventually, you put two and two together and so forth and you say well, this is going to be a bomb, some kind of a bomb. I did not know what kind of a bomb it was going to be. But they were purifying this uranium for something. I finally found it was uranium that they were purifying and stuff like that. That we had these 2,000 pound empty cylinders that we charged, that we put the waste material in. But I know that the material was not chlorine but they were putting them in chlorine cylinders. They were previously used for chlorine, but they were empty.

Kelly: So do you think that the women enjoyed their jobs?

Kenney: Oh yes. A lot of women enjoyed their jobs down there. They did.

Kelly: I guess you were – you had work experience before so was this new to have all these women working alongside the men.

Kenney: Yes. Where I worked before, we did not have a lot of women working, no. But they did their job and they were very conscientious and so forth. I had no criticism of the women. And one of my buddies had a girlfriend, which he eventually married. She was very nice. But she was not working at the facility. But she told me she was going to give me a Yankee dime. I said a Yankee dime, what is a Yankee dime? She comes over and gives me a kiss. I did not know what a Yankee dime was until she told me or gave me one.

Kelly: That is great. I had not heard that one either. That is great.

Kenney: I never forgot it.

Kelly: So let us see. I am trying to think of— So can you remember the day that they announced the bombing of Hiroshima?

Kenney: Oh yes. Everybody was happy that the war was going to be over and so forth. Yes. Everybody went down there, was happy. And I remember it. Everybody kind of celebrated. You know. It was very nice. Everybody was pleased.

Kelly: Were people surprised that Oak Ridge had such a big role in this?

Kenney: I do not think so. I do not think so. And I know after it was all over and so forth, I mean people, I guess, were amazed, but were they surprised? They expected something to be happening. But at least I expected something. But I did not know what it was going to be. And then after it was all over, several, a couple of months later, they were going to have a ship go out in the Pacific Ocean and set off a bomb over there. And I was asked if I wanted to go out on that ship and I chose not to go because I wanted to get back and go to school. I wanted to get out of the service and finish my education. I still had a semester to go to get my degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

My goal was to get that degree and then I could do those things. So I elected and chose to take my discharge and go back to Pittsburgh and get my degree. Now the company that was operating the plant down there wanted me to stay and work down there. And if I did not work there, they wanted me to go to a plant they had up in Cleveland. But I was not about to go to Cleveland yet. I wanted to get that degree. And they said well, stay down here and go to the University of Tennessee and get your degree. But still, I wanted to go back to my own school that I started out on. So I did get my discharge and went back to University of Pittsburgh and received my degree in one semester.

Kelly: And then what did you do?

Kenney: Then I went to work for a company called Koppers Company. K-O-P-P-E-R-S. And they had a big operation in the city of Pittsburgh. They had a 31-story building, Koppers Building. And they were in the business of building and designing coke ovens, coke ovens where they made coke. It was a dirty process but they had these coke ovens that they charged with coal. Of course, Pennsylvania had a lot of coal. And what they would do is charge these ovens and make a product called coke, which was almost 100 percent carbon, and they would sell the coke to the steel mills. There was a lot of them in Pittsburgh and all over the country now, where they used the coke in smelting there, in the steel mills to make steel.

I went to work for that company, started out on the drawing board. And eventually I moved into operations and I ended up working for them in various positions. I was able to get a – I cannot think of it off hand. But anyway, I worked for Koppers in various positions throughout the company in designing and operating tar plants, the byproducts that you got from the coke plant. They took them and processed into other products that they use. Coke oven tar, we had creosote oil and stuff like that. And so I have a patent on one of the operations that I did when they had problems and I solved the problem and got a patent on it. And so I worked for Koppers Company for about 38 years. And I was in safety and I set up safety programs and medical programs for some of our plants. So it was a very interesting job that I had.

After 38 years, though, I was tired. Time to hang my hat up. So I retired after 38 years and then four years later, I moved to Florida. And then while in Florida, I did some safety and engineering consulting work. I was an associate of a fellow by the name of Gary Robinson and he had a business down here that was very interesting. And we did a lot of work for law firms in the legal end of it. And so I worked in that job for 15 years. Then I decided that was enough. But that was very interesting work.

Kelly: So how did your experience in the Manhattan Project kind of shape the rest of your life for your thinking?

Kenney: Oh. You work hard and you get compensated for it. I worked hard down in Oak Ridge, like everyone else did. And I enjoyed that kind of work. It was process and I ultimately did a lot of process work and operational work in plants for Koppers Company. Yes, I enjoyed that. And I learned a lot. And that was it. I earned a living.

Kelly: So you have never looked back and said oh, if only I had gone to OCS maybe.

Kenney: No, I never looked back. I always looked ahead. You cannot correct the back too much. It is what you see ahead of you that is going to be meaningful for you.

I enjoyed being at Oak Ridge. I enjoyed all the people I met down there. And it was a wonderful experience, believe me. And I went back to Oak Ridge though. They had a reunion. I forget. It had to be about 10, 15 years ago. I will bet you it was 15 years ago. And I was invited and I went back. Drove over to Knoxville and stayed in a hotel, which they did not have at the time, in Oak Ridge. Met a lot of old friends. It was nice. I enjoyed it. Yes.

I have not been back since then. And it was nice to come back. And then what they did when I went back, they had buses taking you out to K-25 or wherever you worked. You did not go into the buildings because the buildings were shut down. So we went out there and riding around the buildings and so forth. It brought back a lot of memories. All good memories. Yes. Of course, the place has changed a lot too. They improved a lot. There are probably more schools down there now. The town has grown, yes. But I enjoyed the return and it was a big difference from when I was there.

Copyright 2014 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.