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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Graydon Whitman’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Graydon Whitman, who worked in the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, speaks about General Leslie R. Groves and his pivotal leadership in the Manhattan Project. Whitman also discusses life at Oak Ridge, from the bus system to the tennis court dances to secrecy and security.

Date of Interview:
September 22, 2005
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: Give me your name and spell it.

Graydon Whitman: My name is Graydon Whitman, G-R-A-Y-D-O-N W-H-I-T-M-A-N.

Kelly: Great. Okay, can you tell us a little bit about your background: where you’re from and how you happened to become part of the Manhattan Project?

Whitman: I was born in Ohio and had basic training in the Corps of Engineers, United States Army, World War II. I had an interview with a Major Miller, who said they were looking for people to work on a special project that he couldn’t describe. And considering my options at the time, I thought, well, it would be a good opportunity to do something.

And I ended up in Oak Ridge. I knew nothing about it, just ended up in Knoxville, Tennessee and Elsa Gate and came into this place. I thought I was back in an Army reservation but soon changed my mind about that because of all the civilians that were around. There were a few Army, and I lived in an Army barracks which had just opened.

I came here in March 1944, March 13th, and Oak Ridge had started construction, major construction in 1943, so the plants were built or being built and were starting operation. I had no idea why I was here, what we were going—what I was going to do. I ended up in a place called Y-12, and it had been designed—the idea came out of Professor Ernest O. Lawrence in Berkeley, California. He modified a cyclotron and built devices called “calutrons” to separate U-235 on a mass scale.

And I was in the middle of all that suddenly. My background was in mechanical engineering and I had had training in the combat engineers, so I’d been in the Army for a year when I came here. And people talked a lot about the mud and difficulties in Oak Ridge. It’s a little bit of heaven to me. It was a lot different from basic training. Believe it or not, we had maids to take care of the barracks, so it was a different life.

The work was very compartmentalized and I learned a lot about things. I didn’t really understand the overall picture. We worked night and day and we were in the business of separating Uranium-235. Never used the word “uranium”; it was called “tube alloy.” We never talked about the overall project, and you were encouraged to learn everything you needed to know to do your job and discouraged from learning anything else.  

Eventually there were about 1250 people in this Special Engineer Detachment, and it came about because of the shortage of technical people. And when the Manhattan Project was established and the Corps of Engineers was designated to manage it, General Groves and Colonel Nichols decided that they had a lot of complaints from all the operating contractors. They couldn’t get enough engineers, physicists, chemists, technical people in general.

And so they had an idea and they said—well, they got permission—to organize a Special Engineer Detachment. And what they did was comb the Army, universities, or any place they could find them technical people. They brought them here. They didn’t have to argue about draft boards or deferments. You’re either in the Army or inducted into the Army and you were assigned to work in the plants along with civilians. 

This strange group—it first started in July of 1943, was disbanded in April of 1946, grew to a maximum strength of about 1250.  And everyone had a technical background. After the war some people stayed on and I was one of those, went to work for Union Carbide Nuclear.

During the war I worked for Tennessee Eastman, and, of all things, I became a track foreman in the calutron operation. I had a crew of fifty girls, five startup men, electricians and whatnot, and we ran forty-eight calutrons, eight hours at a shift, seven days a week. Didn’t know exactly what we were doing in the sense of what the final product would be used for, but gradually learned about it for one reason or another.

And before the war was over we knew what we were working on, or I did, but I didn’t have any idea how it would be used except that in March, April of 1945 we were brought together. It was a colonel said, “You know, we’re going to see the fruition of all this work, and we want you to increase the output. We’re going to decrease the quality. We’re going to go like mad.”

And in August of 1945, they dropped the bomb, and that was material that came out of Y-12, eighty-one kilograms total. 22,500 people working night and day produced a little bit of material which was extremely potent.  

The work time was the most important thing, seemed to take up most all of our time, but this area was very interesting. It had the mountains, a lot of interesting places to visit when we got time off. I got a weekend off about every month. The rest of the time we worked. And so my first visit was to the Smoky Mountains.

I went to—stayed all night in Mount LeConte, hitchhiked up there—well, we got on a bus—and then I hitchhiked up to the mountains and walked up Alum Cave trail. First visit to this part of the world and it was very interesting.

Tennessee Valley [Authority] was here and they were building dams. That’s one of the reasons Oak Ridge is located here is because of Norris Dam and the electricity that was available. Oak Ridge used a seventh of the electricity generated in the United States when it was going full tilt, which is a lot.

Aside from that they built the world’s largest steam generating plant in Oak Ridge: the gaseous diffusion plant. When I worked here I just knew the existence of the other plants, had no idea what they were doing. Never visited them. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory was called X-10 and all I knew that it existed from the signs that were around.  

There was a bus system in Oak Ridge where you could go any place, any time. All you had to do was get out and get on the bus. You could visit other places in Oak Ridge or you could go to the central bus terminal and go to one of the plants if you had the proper badging, or you could go offsite if you had a pass—if I had a pass—and visit other towns.

There were no sidewalks in Oak Ridge and there were no paved roads. It was—this time of year it’d be very dusty. In the wintertime, it was very muddy and it’s no exaggeration; it was muddy, rained quite a bit. Norris Dam was impounded in 1936, and it was a year of the floods and it—they stored up a lot of water and prevented floods in Chattanooga.

In the year—first year I was here in 1944 was very wet, so the Tennessee Valley Authority, in addition to providing electricity—and that’s one of the reasons Oak Ridge is here—it also provided flood control, which was very important. Norris Dam was the first dam impounded in the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Oak Ridge was located because it was—the site, most people don’t know, was selected by the Tennessee Valley—it was recommended to the Corps of Engineers by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and this was one site that they considered. So when Groves—that was his first act.  

And when he was put in charge of the Manhattan Project he came to this area and agreed that this was a good site and approved its acquisition. Groves had been in charge of building the Pentagon and had an illustrious career in construction. He knew all of the builders, the manufacturers; he had a lot of contacts in universities. So he was an ideal selection.

He replaced a Colonel Mitchell—Marshall, I’m sorry—and he took over and his headquarters was here. His office was in Washington. But a Colonel Nichols was his deputy and managed a lot of the activities of the Manhattan Project.

Groves selected the name for the Manhattan Project because it was in the Manhattan office in New York City, which was the custom in the Corps, to name projects after the home office. He thought Manhattan was an innocuous name for such a complex project, and it turned out, I guess, to be a good choice. That’s how it got its name.

You had—he did not want the job. He wanted to go to the Pacific and get in the war because he felt that it would lead to more promotions. He was a colonel, a full colonel, when he was selected to take over the Manhattan Project and he requested that he be promoted to general so he would have more weight dealing with the contractors and whatnot. And he was immediately promoted.

I saw him several times. I never met him. He wouldn’t—when I worked I wore a uniform that was part of the plant where I worked. Everyone wore a uniform, everyone; practically everyone, and most people didn’t know you were in the Army. Y-12 had 22,500 people in it, so you were just one person in a lot.

There were four military organizations in Oak Ridge. There was the Manhattan Engineer District who ran the place. There were the Military Police who policed the place, directed traffic, and ran the gates, and arrested the drunks. There was a Special Engineer Detachment who’s about 1250 people concerned with technical operations and were assigned to the plants. And then there was the Counterintelligence Corps, which was about 350 people who were General Groves’ spies, and they were spread throughout the facilities and had jobs in each of the important and sensitive areas in each plant.

I worked with one for two years and never knew he was in the Counterintelligence Corps. In fact he used to—I met him recently, I work at the visitors’ center, just by accident, he said, “Well, yeah, we used to be paid by the company and I used to go in and bitch about my wages,” but he had to turn his check back in; he could never cash it. He was paid by the Army, never wore a uniform.

So it was an interesting operation to say the least. You were admonished night and day about classification and not to talk about the work. I learned about what we were doing kind of by accident.

I overheard some doctors, M.D.s, talking about heavy metal poisoning and its effect on the kidneys, and they were talking about uranium. And one thing led to another and I learned about—well, I was working with uranium. And there was a physics book in the Oak Ridge library; you could go down and check out the book and hold it.

And there were dark pages just opened at the pages and discussed utilization of fission as a weapon, that a kilogram of uranium-235 would be the equivalent of detonating 20,000 tons of TNT, which is kind of an overwhelming thing, kind of scared me when I first read about it. How in the world could you ever deliver such a thing? And it was a problem.

So Y-12 was a joke, but to many people, because everything went in. They had a railroad spur which brought in 100,000 gallon tank cars of liquid nitrogen, railroad train full, connected to each of nine production buildings, lot of chemicals, pipe, but nothing ever went out. All the trucks, all the—everything went out empty, and the product went out in cupfuls and was taken out in briefcases, taken to Los Alamos on trains.

So all of the jokes about Y-12 not producing anything weren’t true. It produced very little which was worth a lot. It was in competition with the gaseous diffusion plant and didn’t win out because it was a batch process, very expensive compared to others. Was shut down after the war, recovered all the silver from the magnets, which—used to be interesting to look at the bus bars, which were silver. Copper was in short supply so they got 15,000 tons of silver from the Treasury and wound all the magnets and made all the electrical connections with silver. And when they were drilling the bus bars they put the bolts through, guards used to stand around and make sure all the silver was collected.

An interesting place, to say the least, made up of a whole spectrum of people from giants in science—[Ernest] Lawrence, for one, was a Nobel Prize winner. He developed the cyclotron, and modified one for a calutron and it became Y-12. Enrico Fermi did the reactor, graphite reactor, and people in Columbia University developed the gaseous diffusion process. So everything in Oak Ridge, believe it or not, came out of a university laboratory.

It was a scale-up of enormous proportions. Nothing like that had ever been done before and it all worked, which is even more remarkable. General Groves once said that if this thing didn’t work they’d put him so far back in [United States Penitentiary] Leavenworth he’d have to pipe sunlight into him because he’d be such a goat.

He used to come down here quite often. I saw him, didn’t mean anything; I didn’t really know that—know his position, and I’m sure he’d never heard of me. [Laughter.] And he used to march through the control rooms with his entourage periodically and—well, I guess just to make his presence known. And it is said that he had a bed in the maternity ward at the hospital where he could take a little rest and not be bothered by people, which I think is probably true.

Kelly: Well do you have any image of him going through the control room?

Whitman: I sure have. He was a portly man and he never smiled. I’ve been in—I was—he just—the control rooms were long areas where cubicles were on either side, and ladies—girls were in these things, and there were a myriad of knobs and switches and whatnot. And in our case we had forty-eight in this—each of four control rooms in a building. And he would come in with his lieutenants and whomever and walk through and look either way and buzz on through.

I probably saw him a half a dozen times. It didn’t mean a thing—I didn’t, you know—I wish I would have known what he was going to be. [Laughter.] But yes, saw him many times. And he came here after the war and made a talk about the importance of Oak Ridge. He was at the football field, at Blankenship Field, in Oak Ridge.  I remember it very well because the PA system didn’t work. [Laughter.] Here we were, all these technical people, and he had to stroke around and get the mikes going.

Kelly: What did he say?

Whitman: He congratulated everybody on the job well done and how the importance of the atom bomb was to the conclusion of the war. It was kind of a controversial thing which I never realized. I couldn’t imagine that—and I don’t think he ever thought about not using the bomb.  You know, there were those who wanted to have a demonstration, show everyone how powerful it was, but his view was it was a weapon and it could bring a conclusion to the war. And that’s what was done.

His Air Force met here. The 509th Composite Group was in wind over Utah; that’s where they trained. They had seventeen B-29s and they were modified to carry the atom bomb. And it was General Groves’ Air Force. And then they went to Tinian in later times; that’s where the Enola Gay left.

In its first application, B-29 was—a lot of pilots were worried about it because they had a lot of engine fires. And it was very interesting when they were here that Colonel [Paul] Tibbets got a couple of gals from the WASPs [Women Airforce Service Pilots]—lady pilots—got them qualified to fly B-29s and brought them out to Wendover [Air Force Base] and flew the planes around. And the guys said, “Well, if these gals can fly these things we surely can. We’ll quit worrying about them.”

They were—they had a lot of crashes of the B-29s because of engine fires. And they had big powerful reciprocating engines in them, but they developed into be one of the most effective bombers of World War II. Like all new things, they had growing pains. I can tell you a story about all this B-29 business. [Ted] “Dutch” Van Kirk was the navigator on the Enola Gay. Tibbets was the commander. The B-29s trained at Wendover, and one of the crews, they would fly to different places.

When I was here we used to have classification lectures every five minutes, I think. And then I said one time, I said, “Well, what would happen to me if I started blabbing?” And they said, “Well, you’d probably be sent to the Aleutians.” That impressed me no end because, when I was in basic training, my first lieutenant had come from the Aleutians, and he said, “You don’t want to go there. It’s cold, it’s rocky, it’s foggy, and the Japs are coming in. Just stay out of the Aleutians.” Well, that impressed me no end.

Well, “Dutch” Van Kirk gave a talk about his experiences in the 509th and someone asked him about classifications. He said it was very tight. He said, “We had a crew; they had flown out to the crew chief’s home town.” I don’t know where it was, pretty large, I assume. He took his parents out to see the plane. The B-29 was a classified plane when it was modified for the a-bomb. The bomb bay was stripped; the whole armament was taken out.

Anyhow, the next day he was gone! And they said, “Well, what happened to so-and-so?” And he said, “Well, he got transferred to the Aleutians this morning. He broke cl—” [Laughter], “He talked too much.” So it was true, and people did disappear from time to time, I guess. If you were a security risk you were in a lot of trouble because, if you’re in Oak Ridge in any important capacity, they weren’t going to send you any place else where you could talk about what went on. And so that was an important thing.

Eugene Wigner was one of the people who was obsessed with the fact that the Germans were ahead of us. He and [Edward] Teller—[Leo] Szilard, Wigner, Teller were just beside themselves to see the United States building the town with the bomb because they were sure that the Germans were in the process of doing so. And they wrote this letter—Szilard wrote it and got Einstein to sign it to give it to Roosevelt to prod—to get the United States to develop an atomic bomb.

I learned—I knew Eugene Wigner and worked with him—I worked for him—many years later, didn’t know him during the war. And he was Hungarian, I think, and a chemical engineer, among other things, and a very gentle man but a hard driver. And he was one of that group.

They—Groves spent a lot of time worrying about whether the Germans were ahead of us or working on the bomb. But they quit, and I’m not sure I understand why, but it’s been argued that one of the problems in Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project was how much material was going to be needed to build a bomb; no one knew, to start with, and so all this work they embarked on, maybe it wouldn’t—maybe they couldn’t get enough material together in time, and maybe someone else would be ahead of us. And there were estimates of anywhere from, you know, a hundred kilograms or whatever.

Oak Ridge was selected and at one time they were considering building what was finally built at Hanford here: the plutonium reactors. But Groves wisely thought that there wasn’t enough isolation. And then Los Alamos was selected to design and test the bomb, at Alamogordo.

Kelly: What about—what more can you tell us about your personal experiences? Either what was it like—how did the fifty girls do, or the forty-eight?

Whitman: I had a forelady. [Laughter.] We never interacted with the girls directly, only indirectly—and the forelady. It’s kind of interesting in that we could—we talked with them and said hello, but—and we could work on a special problem—but most of the time the forelady directed the girls. I had—we were responsible for the operation of the cubicles, the output. They only ran about thirty days and you had to take them out, rebuild them, recharge them, and get them started, so you had start-up people and people who tested all of the equipment. And relationship with the girls was kind of standoffish. [Laughter.] I was twenty-four years old.

[Tape Switch.]

Whitman: Well, when I came to Oak Ridge I had been in the Army for a year, and the Army is, of course, regimented. I got here in the forenoon, just before noon, and we went to the barracks and they weren’t ready for us. They had just opened the thing and we had a—there was only a captain and a first lieutenant for all of us. Pretty much on our own, and they said, “Well, you can have the afternoon off. You can do whatever you want to do. You can’t leave the area. And report in tomorrow morning.”

So the next morning I got up and we fiddled around and found out that we were going to have maids to take care of the barracks, and we had a mess hall that was—well, you could eat at any of several cafeterias. But had no idea what in the world was going on and took—you could go out and just get on a bus and go anywhere in Oak Ridge. The barracks that we lived in were just on the turnpike, and so we got on a bus and rode around the town.

It was enormous, just overwhelmed by the size of the place, and they were building everywhere: houses, buildings, all G.I. architecture. The houses were different; they were prefabbed. So we got back and everyone was kind of, “Well, what in the world is this place? What are we doing here?”

And the next morning I was told to be—eight o’clock be so-and-so and I got on a bus and went to Y-12. And it was a big place. We went through the gate and went to the personnel office in to the head of personnel. Here I am, you and I, and he welcomed me to the place, and, “We’re glad to see you. We can’t tell you what we’re doing. Don’t worry about it. It’s very important. We want you to work hard. We’ll keep you busy.”

And I went to a training facility and spent two weeks to learn about calutrons, learned a new language; everything was in code. Nothing had a generic name. You know, that would be a “K” and that would be a “D”, and learned this language and then went to work in one of the plants separating uranium.

In off-hours we had a lot of cafeterias. There was a central cafeteria. I think there must have been a dozen cafeterias in Oak Ridge that opened night and day. And we had buses to take us to work at—used to go to the central cafeteria, which was nearby here, after work and have a cup of coffee and talk.

There were lots of dances. They had dances in the tennis courts, in rec. [recreation] halls. There were several rec. halls. I met Lucille in a rec. hall. We both came here at the same time, didn’t meet ‘til after the war, and we had—as I said, maids took care of the barracks, if you can imagine that. You haven’t been in a military setting, probably, and your primary purpose was to work in the facilities and to do whatever you could do to get things going.

There was a whole spectrum of people and you were admonished not to talk about your work, not to discuss it off the job, at the pain of death, I think. And, on the other hand, you were encouraged to do everything you could to do the job you were assigned to do.

And there used to be these signs all over about classifications: “Don’t talk,” and “What you do here, and what you say here, when you leave here, let it stay here,” and that sort of thing. So it just became a way of life. Everybody wore a badge and, when you went into the plant, you exchanged one badge for another. And the badge that you got had all kinds of letters and numbers on it, and it would identify what you could—where you could go and who you could talk to and what you knew. So it was just a way of life.

Kelly: So, just summing up, what—how do you feel about, you know, your experience in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project?

Whitman: Well, it was unique; it was unbelievable in retrospect and at the time. You know, during the war there was an entirely different attitude towards things. Everyone, it seemed, would just do whatever you could do to win the war, and we were told this was important, and gradually learned that it was important, and so—but the other thing was, it was so unique, it was so complex, and just seemed like every day you learned something new.

You can imagine walking into a place that utilized huge magnets and high voltage which, on a warm summer night when humidity was high, there would be arcs and sparks and all that kind—and the magnetic field was humongous. If you walked in it, if you had nails in your shoes, it would straighten your feet out, all that sort of thing. So it was a different world, unbelievable.

I found it hard to imagine, and the intensity of things was a bit overwhelming. It was serious and getting the job done was the first order of business, and everything was done to get it done. Whatever you needed, whatever you wanted, whatever it required was important. A different time. There weren’t any arguments about it. I guess that, when the decision was made to do it, that’s when the arguing was done, but at our level we were just working very hard.

One of the reasons that I stayed here is because it seemed to have so many opportunities. There are so many interesting things going on and a lot of interesting people. My goodness, I worked—I came in contact with Nobel Laureates and it didn’t mean anything to me at the time. Like I said, like Wigner and Lawrence and those people—I’d like to relive that time to just say—well, golly, I’d like to talk with them but never had that opportunity.

In the Y-12 operation there were sections of the plant that was set aside for development and—development of new equipment and processes, and Lawrence used to send his graduate students to run that thing. And we would spend a week or so over there every so often to see new things, new advancement.

And I got to rub shoulders with some of his graduate students. I’d like to have done it again after I knew who they were: [Luis] Alvarez and [Edwin] McMillan, who were Nobel Laureates. They were out there. It’s just unbelievable that all these giants were all here. And here I was a peon, wandering around, in a sense, with all that talent. And things that this country can do in—the Manhattan Project has been described as being the equivalent of building a Panama Canal every year for three years.  

It involved expenditure of 2.1 billion dollars back then, and we were fighting a war in the Pacific, the Atlantic, and Africa, all the seas; it was a world war. And we did that on top of it all. It’s overwhelming when you stop and think about it. The probability of doing that successfully is just overwhelming.

You know, I don’t remember the Japanese admiral who said, you know, after Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese had awakened a giant. Well, he was right. [Laughter.] This country has tremendous capability. Just to have been a part of that is—I’ve always been proud of it, always will be. A small part, but it was kind of exciting in many ways to do things that had never been done before, even though we didn’t know exactly what we were doing at the time, and finally did, a little bit.

You know, everything becomes routine after a while, but doing some of these things the first time was kind of exiting. I got to work on nuclear reactor projects after the war and I found that very interesting. It was another new thing, and Oak Ridge is always full of exciting people and ideas, and all an outgrowth of the Manhattan Project.

Oak Ridge had three facilities and all these—as you know, the government had operating contractors, and so they were DuPont, Union Carbide, Eastman, whoever was in here running the place, and made lots of contacts with people that would come in and work on special projects and whatnot. Metallurgy, materials, electronics, whatever. 

Spent a lifetime, as a result of the start of the Manhattan Project. I don’t ever remember using the word Manhattan Project at the time. I guess it was, I just never thought about it.