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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Hal Behl’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Hal Behl and his wife, Reggie, an art teacher, arrived in Oak Ridge in 1945. A member of the Special Engineer Detachment, Behl served as Assistant Supervisor in an Engineering Department laboratory at the K-25 plant. He focused mainly on designing and building laboratory, process, health physics, and quality assurance equipment. In this interview, Behl describes everyday life at Oak Ridge and his experiences renting various rooms around the “Secret City.” He also discusses how his Manhattan Project work helped lead to his postwar career in aerospace and weapon system technology.

Date of Interview:
October 12, 2016
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: Okay. I am Cindy Kelly. I’m here in Albuquerque. It is Wednesday, October 12.

Hal Behl: Okay. I’m Harold Behl. B as in boy, e-h-l. Known as Hal.

Kelly: Okay. I just want to have you tell us when and where you were born and a little about your childhood.

Behl: Well, I was born in 1922. I was born in the Bronx, New York, in my grandparents’ bed. Because my grandparents, who were Russian immigrants – my grandfather was a medical person. He had studied medicine in Russia, but then ended up being a pharmacist. He did not trust doctors. Therefore, his first grandchild had to be born where he could watch and make sure everything was sterile. So they painted the walls and he sterilized the doctor’s instruments that he brought in this box. And I was born. After everything was quieted down, the dog crawled out from under the bed, they tell me. So much for sterilization, but I’m still here. 

At the age of three, we moved to Long Island, within commuting distance of New York City. The town of Long Beach was kind of a sandbar barrier island on the south shore of Long Island, about 35 miles out of New York. Most of the people there, the men anyhow, commuted to New York City to work, about an hour’s train ride. The town itself was about 5,000 people in the wintertime. A nice day in the summer, a weekend day, had maybe 100,000 people. So as kids we always had a summer job with something to do with the summer people. 

I met my wife in high school there. We were 4% of the high school graduating class, because it was only 50 people. We were two of them. We were together while we were in college. She went to Pratt Institute to study art in Brooklyn. I went to New York University at the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aeronautics, and got a degree in aeronautical engineering. We were married very shortly after we graduated. We were married 67 years.

Kelly: Tell us now about how you got into the Manhattan Project.

Behl: I started college in 1939, and that was when World War II started in Europe. The United States didn’t get into until ’41, so that was halfway through college. So, when I graduated – January of ’44 or such – I, as an aeronautical engineer, went to work in an aircraft factory, obviously. I got a job at San Diego at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft. They built four-engine Liberator bombers; they turned out one an hour. Then they did other things. I was kind of in the advanced projects area.

Everything was great. I loved San Diego. My to-be wife was going to come out there. We were going to get married when one of my local friends who I worked with, who was in the personnel department, said, “Hey, you know, we’ve been looking over all the deferment requests that we have to keep people out of the military. You’re not 21 yet. By definition, you can’t be essential to the war effort. Just by definition. You ought to do something about getting into the service.”

Anyways, I hitched a ride on one of the bombers back to New York and we got married three days after I arrived. You didn’t enlist in those days. You went to your draft board and you said, “I’d like to go into the service.” They said, “Okay. Next opening we have, the next group of people that we’re going to send in, you’ll be on it.” It wasn’t like today when there’s storefront enlistment things.

I got in and they assigned me to the Army. Well, that was okay, because I had had Army ROTC in college, but I didn’t get a commission because they decided that I was slightly colorblind and therefore couldn’t get a commission in the combat arm. I went into the Army. They interviewed us and said, “What do you think you can do in the service?” I had a copy of my diploma and a letter from the chief engineer at Convair saying I knew everything there was to know about the airplanes they built. He was a friend. I didn’t.

So [they said] “Oh, no sweat, we’ll get you into the Air Corps. But, by the way, do you have any military experience?”

I said, “Well, ROTC.”

“What did you do in ROTC?”

“Well, half the time you marched around and half the time you sat in class.”

“Very good. What did you do when you marched around?”

I said, “Well, you had a rifle.”

“Oh, rifles!” And they wrote that down. 

I ended up in an infantry replacement training center in South Carolina at Camp Croft. It was a 13-week program and I tried everything I could do to get out of that, because the last thing I wanted was to be an infantry private in a ground war in Europe.

Oh, I got to start with something. When I graduated college, there was a government agency called the National Roster of Scientific and Specialized Personnel, which gave I think every graduate a number and an address. “If you are going into the service, send a collect telegram, your number and where and when you’re going in, and we’ll make sure that you’re doing something that you’re qualified to do.” I did all of that, figuring nothing would ever come of it. 

So here I was in infantry training and I tried everything to get out. Heck, I even volunteered for paratroops. But it didn’t work. Twelve weeks into the course, I got called in and they said, “Somebody wants to interview you.” I went in and there was this fellow in uniform, an officer sitting behind a desk. He looked up at me and he said, “About your application to go to college.”

I said, “I didn’t apply to go to college. I have a degree.”

He said, “Oh, would you like a master’s degree?”

I said, “What in?”

He said, “What would you like?”

By this time I was getting very suspicious, so I said, “Mechanical engineering.”

He said, “Okay.”

Two, three days later I was on my way to Ohio State University. A week later, everybody that I was training with in Camp Croft went to Europe as replacements for the Battle of the Bulge. Talk about luck.

So it turned out that Ohio State was an ASTP [Army Specialized Training Program]. They called it a special training program, but everybody had a degree. What it really was was a holding area for different organizations in the military to come in, interview people, and take them off to do their job. While we were there, to keep us out of the cold and off the street, they gave us graduate level courses. I got the first graduate level course given in the United States on jet propulsion, which paid for my food for the rest of my life practically.

Anyways, I was there for a couple of months and nobody would interview me, and I was getting kind of annoyed. Meanwhile, my parents would say, “Are you in trouble or something? The people have been wondering around town, talking to the principals of the school, the police chief, the mayor, asking questions about you.”

I said, “I have no idea.”

Then, suddenly: yes, somebody wants to interview you. Same guy: “I have a very interesting job for you, an assignment, but we only take volunteers.”

I said, “Oh, what would I be doing?”

“Can’t tell you.”

“Ah. Well, where would I be?” 

“Can’t tell you.” 

“Can’t tell me where I’d be, what I’d be doing, and you want volunteers? Forget it.” I walked out. Next day, I was on my way to Oak Ridge. That’s how I got to Oak Ridge.

Now, Oak Ridge had a fairly large SED [Special Engineer Detachment] group. When I got there, first of all, I had never heard of the Manhattan Project, I had never heard of Oak Ridge. I didn’t know anything about it. When I got there it looked like a military camp, a very large military camp.

I was assigned to Union Carbide’s K-25 facility in the laboratory. There was a small engineering department being set up in the lab to build and design gadgetry. All the mad scientist stuff. We had a glass shop and we had all the bubbly stuff that you see in the movies. We had a precision machine shop with a couple of guys that could build anything from the back of an envelope. We had half a dozen really good engineers. About half were military, and half were civilian. I was the second one in the department, so therefore, I obviously was the assistant supervisor, by definition, not by assignment. And I was a lowly private. 

Eventually, my wife showed up there. I wanted to get her there. Once I knew that this was going to be a permanent wartime assignment, I checked with the school system there because she was teaching art in Long Beach. They said, “Oh, yes, we could use an art teacher right now.”

So she got out of her contract in Long Beach and came expecting she’d be teaching in a little red schoolhouse in the crossroads of Tennessee, to find that—I forget what the number was—ten elementary schools and a high school about three or four thousand kids in it, a monstrous school system. And fantastic. I mean money was no object. Whatever she needed in supplies, she got. Her art room was adjacent to the music room, so they could coordinate all their classes and things like that. It was really great. She loved it, and eventually ended up being the head art teacher there within a year. 

Meanwhile, I was still an Army private. I don’t know if it was a written rule or an unwritten rule, but you could not get a promotion until you had been on the project for a year. Not in the Army. Once you got a promotion that was a single stripe, you became a PFC, a private first class, at seven dollars more a month. Big money compared to $50 a month. Then after that, if you didn’t get caught screwing up too badly, every two or three months you’d get another stripe.

During that time there were people that we had met at Ohio State and at Oak Ridge, and some of the Oak Ridge people had been sent on to Los Alamos. I actually was told that we were working on a bomb about three days after we got there. One of the senior scientists in the lab called me to his office, closed the door and said, “Okay, you’ve been here for three days. What are we doing?” 

I said, “Something to do with atomic energy, maybe?”

“Yeah, what?”

“Gee, I don’t know, trains, ships, power?”

He says, “You’ll do fine. You’re a civilian like the rest of us, a natural-born civilian like the rest of us. We’re building a bomb.” That’s how I found out. My wife never did know until we actually saw the headlines in the newspapers.

Most people in Oak Ridge didn’t know that we were working on a bomb. Remember, we had three plants there. Each one was developing a separate method of separating the fissionable isotope of uranium. Oak Ridge was the uranium plant; Hanford was the plutonium plant; Los Alamos was the place where you put it together and made it work.

Of course, the Manhattan Project was essentially in competition with the rest of the world. The Japanese had an atomic program, weapon program, the Germans had a program, and I’m not sure who else. I don’t think the Chinese did; they were too busy fighting each other. But anyways, there were all these programs. Especially the Germans. The people were really afraid that the Germans were ahead of us, because they had essentially discovered fission.

So it came to how do you separate this seven-tenths of 1% of uranium that is fissionable from the rest of it in industrial quantities? It’s really easy to do it a molecule at a time with a pair of tweezers maybe. But, how do you do it in industrial quantities? They couldn’t afford to pick one concept, because if it didn’t work they’d have to start from scratch with the next one and you’d lose a year. So they went ahead and they built the three complete plants in Oak Ridge with three different methods. One was run by Union Carbide, one by Eastman Kodak, and who was the other one—oh, DuPont.

I was in the K-25 plant, which was gaseous diffusion, and that was run by Union Carbide. The gaseous diffusion plant had to have the uranium in a gaseous state, and therefore, they used what they called uranium hexafluoride. Made a chemical conglomeration with it, but with fluorine. Fluorine is an extremely, extremely corrosive material. Hydrofluoric acid can’t be kept in a glass jar. It eats up the glass jar.

Because of that, there were so many precautions taken in the plant that nobody would be exposed to this hexafluoride. All of the joints were welded; the pipes were made out of pure nickel as opposed to stainless steel. There were all kind of neat things. So people thought, “We must be making a poison gas.” 90% of the people you would talk to at Oak Ridge absolutely knew what was going on. They knew it was poison gas, but they couldn’t talk about it.

Now my wife didn’t know anything about what was going on. She was absolutely shocked when she saw the headlines. “You mean that’s what we’ve been doing?”

Kelly: How much did you know about – if you can remember – what was going on at other parts of Oak Ridge?

Behl: We knew that there were three plants. I had no idea what was going on in the other two plants. There was no way I could get into them, and even within the K-25 area, you had to have special markings on your badge. The top of the badges had sort of like today’s military ribbons with the stripes with different colors for different areas. It was also very useful, because some of the local guards couldn’t read, but if you painted the door yellow and the guy had a yellow stripe, that was pretty good, you could let them in.

I knew nothing about—in fact, I didn’t even know anything about Hanford. I knew about Los Alamos, because people like friends of mine were assigned there after Oak Ridge. But I didn’t know what they were doing.

Kelly: After you were told that it was going to be a bomb, three days into your assignment there, were you curious about what kind of bomb this was going to be?

Behl: Well, we knew the basic concepts. You had to have a critical mass and you had to be very fast putting the pieces together. That type of thing. But the actual mechanisms and such? No, we didn’t know anything about that. That was Los Alamos. We produced uranium. 

Kelly: Had you known anything about the work that Enrico Fermi did at Chicago, particularly the initial reactor?

Behl: Didn’t know anything about that. We did know a lot of the Oak Ridge work was done at Columbia by, who was it, [John] Dunning and other people like that, [Harold] Urey. Our lab director was kind of fascinating. If anybody important came in for some reason or another, he would tell them that he’d like to have ten minutes to have them talk to his staff. Now, they wouldn’t tell us details of what they were doing, but they’d kind of bounce around the edges and things like that. 

I got to shake hands with a couple of Nobel Prize winners who didn’t have the foggiest idea who they were shaking hands with. But I knew. So that was pretty neat, and of course, I had this—I would call him a chief scientist there, who kind of took me under his wing and said, “Hal, I’m going to make a physicist out of you.” Because I was just a damned engineer, you know.

Kelly: Who was that scientist?

Behl: Harold Beyer. I don’t know that he was the chief scientist, but he was kind of a senior one from where I was sitting. I don’t think there were titles other than the director of the lab. But I’ve always felt that he was kind of the top scientist there. Maybe because he was older than anybody: he might’ve been 35 years old or something like that. 

Kelly: Did you have a sense of what the K-25 building was like?

Behl: Oh, yeah. I was able to go out into the building.

Kelly: Can you describe it?

Behl: Huge. It was a big, big, big building, and still it’s the kind of thing you’d never seen before. Or, I’d never seen before. I knew how it was working and what the process was. So, I had a good feel for it, but other than it was just, “That was the process area.”

Kelly: If you went to visit, which floor would you go to? Did you go up to the operation level or were you down? 

Behl: I don’t remember, really. I guess the only reason I would’ve gone there was for some specific thing. In those days, you didn’t just wander around staring at things. “How pretty,” you know.

Kelly: Exactly.

Behl: No, no.

Kelly: Right, right.

Behl: The fact that security was very, very, very tight. It was sometimes a little bit scary, but it was interesting, because they would tell us about security and the signs were all over the place. There was a book written by a couple of physics professors, I think from Harvard or Yale, one of the two: Pollard and Davidson. I think it was called Applied Nuclear Physics, and there was one page in there that talked about fission and had a statement that said, and I’m trying to paraphrase, but it’s probably not exact. “That if you wake up one morning and find that half of the United States has been blown into the ocean, you know that somebody has succeeded in producing a bomb.” Now, this was before the war, and it wasn’t classified.

I was in Knoxville one day shopping and I found a copy of it and brought it back on the bus, because we didn’t have cars in those days. The next day somebody came over to my office at the lab and said, “Yesterday, you were seen with a copy of Pollard and Davidson’s book. Why don’t you just put that away somewhere quietly? You should know better than to walk around with that thing in the open.” They obviously had people on the buses and such who knew what to look for.

That was my only problem with security at all there. Other than that, you just didn’t talk about things. Everything had code words.

Kelly: I have learned from some interviews that people were recruited to actually spy on their colleagues, and write little reports if they noticed somebody.

Behl: Oh. Well now, nobody ever approached me or any of the people I know to do that. It was a sort of like a college town type of thing, too. I mean you had all these young people within the laboratory group and the SED group. Everybody had college degrees and they were all within ten years or so of age. We had some wild parties and did a lot of interesting things together. Really, it was really a great place to grow up. I’m talking about 21-year-old kids growing up. So many of us were just newly married and we had never lived by ourselves.

One of the things was that as a SED person who could not leave, I could not get housing. Because all the housing was military that they allotted to the various companies. It was all government housing. It was allotted on the basis of location and size, according to rank or how important you were. It didn’t matter what kind of a job you had if you were in the military. I didn’t know anyone that had housing. 

What we had to do was rent rooms from civilians, and usually paid them about as much as they paid the government for the housing. We lived at different times with a physicist, a single male physicist; a Tennessee farm couple; another teacher, one of Reggie’s teacher friends who went home for the summer vacation wherever she went back to. As long as we would take care of her cats and her chickens, why, I’d pay her rent, we could live in the house, so we lived in the house. 

That was an interesting story, too. Because, talking about me, here was a young couple who grew up in more or less of a city environment. We felt really rich. If we wanted chicken for dinner, Reggie had to go down to the farmer’s market and buy a live chicken, bring it back on the bus holding it by the legs. Then, I had to chop its head off, running around like a chicken with its head cut off. It works. That’s the way it is.

But I’d never done that before. Then we had to pluck it and, oh my gosh, here’s these pinfeathers sticking out. We thought they were worms. Reggie called the health department about it. Of course, it wasn’t, but that’s the kind of thing that we had to do. Things were really unusual.

Because we didn’t have any vehicles and it was wartime, hitchhiking was a safe thing. Women could hitchhike and such. One time Reggie was hitchhiking down to the supermarket, and she was picked up by an old farmer. They left a few of the locals in their farmhouses within the reservation. I don’t know what they had them doing or such, but they did.

So he was going down in this rattly old truck and he took her down there. She noticed that while she was walking around, he was following her. Again, this is a 21-year-old kid and she was getting kind of scared, and she confronted him. It turned out that he couldn’t read, and he wanted to ask her to read the labels on the cans and boxes and things. She did, and he took her back.

The next day to show his gratitude, he brought her three young, live chickens, which she threw in the pen with our house owner, lessor’s, chickens. They in turn—we didn’t know that—attacked the new chickens, and the chickens flew the coop. She spent the whole day trying to catch them and she couldn’t. When I came home, she was in tears, because she had this wonderful thing. She had gotten these free chickens and everything was fine, and now they’re all gone. Great experiences.

Kelly: So, where was that house, for example?

Behl: It was on Outer Drive. There was a ridge. The views were magnificent, looking out over the Cumberlands. In fact, Reggie’s school that she taught in was the Highland View School, which was up on the top there. Toward the end – I would guess six months before we got our discharges – the local powers that be discovered that they had a number of what they called “victory cottages.” Little plywood buildings that were maybe 25 feet on a side that were divided into two apartments with sort of a living room/kitchen and a bedroom/bath, but plywood. Like, for instance, the Crosslands.

Doug, the one who ended up at Rocky Flats, lived on the other side. We didn’t have an alarm clock, so in the morning, Jean would bang on the plywood wall and so we all knew to get up. You know, even having an alarm clock was a big deal. These houses had, in the middle of the kitchen/living room, or not in the middle but in the wall, a cast-iron, wood-burning stove that had been converted to kerosene. They would have a 50-gallon drum of kerosene up at the road, and you’d go back and forth with a gallon jug to fill your stove which heated the place and your hot water and you cooked on it. Summer in Tennessee, if you wanted to cook, you heated the house. Very interesting. And again, for a young kid, city kid, this was wild. This was Raccoon Avenue, 721 Raccoon Avenue.

In fact, it was on the side of a hill, so the back of the house was maybe ten feet off the ground and the front was right at the road level. The wind would come up the hill through the cracks on the floor, so we ended up blowing a lot of our money and buying a linoleum rug that we put on the floor of the living room. You could watch when the wind was blowing, the waves going like this across the—anyways, it was ours. It was the first thing that was actually ours that we lived in all by ourselves.

Kelly: Some people talk about going to dances on the tennis courts, down by the [Alexander] Guest House.

Behl: Oh, yeah. There were lots of activities. Remember, this was the kind of thing where the only sidewalks were in the downtown area. Jackson Square town site, we used to call it. Elsewhere, the women wore boots most of the time, because of the mud and the dust and the dirt. If you went to a dance, they’d carry their dancing shoes with them in a bag. But there were theaters and there were recreation centers and we’d have dances and such. The SED had its own little club, PX [Post Exchange] type of thing. You could get beer and toothpaste and all the important things.

Kelly: Do you remember where that was?

Behl: In the barracks area. There was a barracks area that was the SED’s collection of little buildings that were for the unmarried. If you were married and you had your wife, we had a lot of privileges. You didn’t have to live in the barracks area. We had what they called Class A passes, which allowed us to be away for three days, but you had to sign out. But you didn’t have to go through a whole rigmarole about vacations and leaves and that kind of stuff. It wasn’t a formal leave. We got paid by check rather than cash.

Kelly: You mean the SED or the married SED?

Behl: The SED. All the SED.

Kelly: Okay.

Behl: We didn’t have an awful lot of military duties. I think once a month we had a meeting where the young captain who was the military person in charge of the SED, Bill Barger his name was, would get up on a table in the cafeteria and start off usually with, “Will you guys stop antagonizing the regular military people? I’m getting tired of making excuses for you.” Things like that. And then to tell us all the things that they had to tell us and such.

Kelly: So, could there be—I’ve read figures as many as 1,300.

Behl: There were about 1,200 SED at Oak Ridge, and I don’t know how many elsewhere. I mean I just heard that number. I don’t know for sure. The thing was that the people worked in shifts also, because the place was working 24 hours a day. That meant that the barracks area was also a mess. There was always some people sleeping, people wandering around doing things. So they couldn’t be very military. I lived in the barracks area for a month, I guess, until Reggie came out there, and then we rented a room. I’ll show you. She made little posters we put up on the telephone poles, asking for people, “Would you please rent us a room?” 

Kelly: And that worked. 

Behl: I’ll show you pictures, yeah.

Kelly: Oh, good. This is terrific. Well, that’s very entrepreneurial. That’s great.

Behl: We had to do something.

Kelly: Yeah.

Behl: So, let’s see, what else?

Kelly: What about African Americans who worked at Oak Ridge? Did you encounter them? Are they part of your—?

Behl: I don’t remember any in the technical areas. I think the reason that they gave the SED folks the victory cottages was that the blacks had enough—I mean, they had segregated areas for black people. In fact, if you were black and unmarried, you were segregated to men and women in different areas that were under guard and fenced. But we didn’t go over to any of these areas. You just stayed within your own little box. So yeah, blacks were there as laborers. Remember, this was a southern state during World War II, so segregation was still pretty strong.

Actually, you know, women had problems there. In our lab, which had maybe, I’m guessing, 50 to 100 people, I think there was one woman who was technical, and we had one very vivacious young lady who was in our engineering department. She kind of acted as a draftsman/secretary type of person. She married one of the SED guys eventually and they moved to Orlando, Florida and then he retired. They lived on their boat, their sailboat in Key West, which was kind of neat.

Kelly: You said they had problems there. Those that you noticed. They were clearly a minority.

Behl: What? Women?

Kelly: Yeah, the women.

Behl: Well, I mean, there wasn’t problems. It was just that they were like two women that I remember in our laboratory, period. Teachers were all women. I don’t remember any male teachers. The superintendent of the school and the principals of the schools were men, but truthfully, I don’t remember any male teachers at all, though there may have been. No, that’s about how it worked. I mean, you didn’t even think about it. It was just, hey, you know, that’s the way it was. Nobody said, “Hey, why aren’t any more women here? Or why aren’t there any blacks in this?” It just wasn’t anything that you thought of.

Kelly: So the SED was completely male.

Behl: We had women, WACs [Women’s Army Corps] in the office of the SED. I’m sure there were some over in the Manhattan Project headquarters building. The Castle, they called it. But other than that, no, they were all male.

Kelly: What’s interesting is that there were a lot of women who worked as leak detector girls at the K-25 plant. Were you aware of that? Did you ever see any of them?

Behl: No.

Kelly: No. That’s interesting.

Behl: There were [inaudible] girls that were riding their bicycles back and forth delivering messages. Doug Crossland’s wife, Jean, was a secretary in one of the offices in the process area. I don’t know if there were other women around, but I was never in their office. 

Kelly: It must’ve been a lot of segregation, as you say, of responsibility, so you wouldn’t know.

Behl: Yeah, you didn’t even talk to people. Yes, I knew somebody that was at X-10 and I knew people that were at Y-12. But we didn’t talk about what do you do or such, or people who worked at the headquarters, the Castle.

Kelly: What was the demographics of the people working at Oak Ridge? You talked a little bit about that. Where did they come from?

Behl: The people that I knew closely: California, West Virginia, and Massachusetts. I’m thinking of SED and wives. Maryland, oh, I think Texas. Of course, I came from New York and I know some came from New York. I have a copy of the SED yearbook that was put out that lists all of the SED folks at Oak Ridge and what school they went to and where they came from. I think I remember hearing that they came from almost every state in the Union, but the ones I knew specifically were not that many. I didn’t kick around with 50 people, for instance, one from each state.

Kelly: But you certainly knew them from California to New York to Texas to Massachusetts. That’s quite a spread.

Behl: Yeah.

Kelly: A spread, geographically.

Behl: Pennsylvania.

Kelly: Right, right.

Behl: Others.

Kelly: It’s interesting, because some of the other population that’s been heralded lately is the women who worked on the calutrons, the so-called “calutron girls.” Did you happen to be aware there were such—

Behl: Didn’t know anything about them and didn’t know any of them. But I’ve heard stories after the fact that originally they thought that they would have to be operated by Ph.Ds. They found out that no, you could just train women. That’s cheap labor without any education. They could probably do a better job than the Ph.Ds., because they were too impatient with things like that. And they did.

But I didn’t know anybody that worked in that. The people I knew that I was close to were in the close group of young married people at Ohio State who came on to Oak Ridge. Here’s everybody. Some of them went to Ohio State, some of those went to Oak Ridge. Some of them—now it was getting smaller and smaller as you went along.

Kelly: When you were gathered together for this monthly meeting with the colonel—

Behl: The captain.

Kelly: Captain.

Behl: He was only a captain.

Kelly: How many? Were a thousand people there, or just a few?

Behl: I don’t remember, but I remember that they had these meetings in one of the cafeterias, I guess because of the size. I remember him standing on a table talking. Now, maybe it was only one time and I remembered it because it was unusual. It was a very, very informal type operation. In our department where I worked, I had a civilian boss. He had a civilian boss. I had people I worked with and who more or less worked for me. Not officially, but more or less, who were both civilian and military.

Kelly: Most of those military were SED.

Behl: Yeah, they were all SED.

Kelly: Which is really military lite.

Behl: Well, SED was—I think it was more or less of a catch organization for everybody that worked at the—well, no. Maybe not. Maybe the hierarchy was such that worked in the headquarters. Some of them were probably not technical people. Whether they were official part of the SED organization or officially part of some other military organization, I don’t know. But all of the SED people I knew were technical. All had at least one degree in engineering or science. Some of them had two. 

Kelly: Right. One of the themes of the Manhattan Project interpretation is how innovative and creative people were or had to be. 

Behl: Absolutely. You were doing things that nobody had ever done before, working with materials that nobody had ever known about. You know, here I was in a laboratory and it was decided that we needed a couple more mass spectrometers, so we built the mass spectrometer tubes. You couldn’t get them anywhere else. We made them ourselves and I’ve got a patent somewhere. I can tell you about that. That’s interesting, also. 

We built the darn things and, heck, none of us had ever built a vacuum tube type of thing and some of them were small. Heck, we didn’t even have tools for it, and I had this bright idea and went over to the dental clinic and collected a whole bunch of dental tools and they were just great. The long-nosed tweezers and the hooks and the things like that. The little mirrors. So we did things like that that never existed.

I told you that we were using this highly corrosive material in K-25 that was pumped through the whole plant. Well, occasionally, you couldn’t have a welded joint. You had to have a bolted joint so that you could clean things out and such. If you have a bolted joint, you had to have a gasket or something to make sure it wasn’t leaked. Well, what kind of material could you use that wouldn’t be eaten up by this fluorine? I have been told Teflon was invented [misspoke: was used] by somebody to do that. Polytetrafluorethylene. It was a brand new product and been used ever since. So, it was innovative.

Kelly: Interesting.

Behl: There was a lot of things, because, one, we didn’t have access to a lot of things we wanted, so we had to build them. A lot of things nobody had ever built before. So you try it, and a lot of us played around with things. We had a glass shop there. I was fascinated with it. Besides that, we had our own little victory cottage. Occasionally I had nothing to do and I would go in the glass shop, and I would make stem glasses out of Pyrex tubing and things like that and take them back. I burnt the palm of my hand off one time. My only war wound, which I didn’t dare tell anybody about. But, anyway, yeah, we did all kinds of good things like that.

I think I ended up with two patents, and we designed these things. About, I don’t know, six months later some young Marine lieutenant, Marine Corps, comes in, and says, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you about this and that. I’m the patent officer for the project.” 

“Oh? Okay.” So, we talked about it and I said, “You know, I got a question for you. I’ve seen Navy people and I’ve seen Army people. You’ve the first Marine I’ve seen on the project.”

He says, “Yes, that’s a very sad story. You really want to hear about it?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “I was a civilian working at the Nash Building in New York City where the original K-25 process stuff was done, as a civilian.” He had an engineering degree, and he and his parents were getting all this static from everyone: “Why isn’t your son in the military? What are you doing?” He couldn’t tell anybody what he was doing. “Well, why aren’t you in the service?” He took it for as long as he could and then he decided, just as I did, “Hey, I haven’t seen any Marines in this program.” So he took vacation. He said, “I’m going on vacation,” and he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He went through the Marine Corps basic training.

This is his story to me, so I don’t know if it’s true or not. He said, “They came to me and they said, ‘You got a college degree. We want you to go for officer training, too.’” So, he went through officer training. Then everybody’s getting assignments, and his assignment was New York City in the Nash Building. He said, “The same desk and the same stuff I had left on the desk was still there. Well, now I’m on the project and now I’m wearing a uniform, and getting paid less, but I’ve got a uniform on.” 

Kelly: That’s great.

Behl: Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but hey, it’s a heck of a good story.

Kelly: It’s a great story, and his parents were pleased. Probably wondered why he wasn’t—

Behl: So in any case, I don’t know whether he filed the patent or not, but if they did, it would’ve been classified. I’ve never been able to find out if there were such things, because there were two of them. But I tell people about it anyhow.

Kelly: There were 6,500 patents, according to the things I’ve learned, under the Manhattan Project.

Behl: Oh, yeah.

Kelly: Then 2,300 of them later were U.S. patents. The others are probably all classified.

Behl: I didn’t apply for it. It was just somebody saw the sort of drawings and saw the things. It was a mass spectrometer tube that you could adjust from the outside, and I forget what the other one was. It was some kind of a pump—oh, a high-vacuum selective valve, because we were doing high-vacuum work, too.

Anyways, when I left Oak Ridge, I was very lucky. Again, Doug Crossland and I both went to work for Boeing in Seattle right after we got out of the Army. The Boeing Company. Remember, this was right after the war when jet propulsion was just being thought of, and we had had this first graduate level course at Ohio State. Boeing hired us to be part of a very small group to investigate jet propulsion and tell them what they ought to be doing with it. It was fabulous and it just got me going off on all kinds of things afterwards. I’m sure they hired us because we had been at Oak Ridge. Also because we had this Manhattan Project experience, so we had to be smart or handsome or whatever.

Kelly: How long were you there?

Behl: I was only at Boeing for about a year, because my wife got pregnant. Her parents and my parents were back in Long Beach, Long Island, and this would’ve been their first grandchild. We figured, you know, we’re going to be trapped. We love Seattle and we love the Northwest, but every time we’re going to have a vacation or something, we’re going to have to go back there. It’d be better if we went back there, and then we could take our vacation and leave the kids with them. So, I went to work for Republic Aviation doing very much the same thing for Republic, for $7 more a month. No, a week, I’m sorry. I went from $60 to $67 a week.

Behl: They built fighter planes during the war, the Thunderbolts, B-47s.

Kelly: They were located in? 

Behl: Farmingdale, Long Island.

Kelly: Long Island. How far were you from your parents?

Behl: I could drive to work in about half an hour, and we were 15 minutes away from the parents.

Kelly: That’s great.

Behl: It worked fine, until I decided I’d had enough of the New York area and went to work for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, California and stayed there for 17 ½ years.

Kelly: In all of these other assignments, do you ever run into other people who had worked on the Manhattan Project?

Behl: Occasionally, I would run into somebody. Because a lot of the stuff I was doing was–I ran Douglas’s propulsion advanced projects group at one time–so doing things like combustion and designing rockets and fuels and that type of thing. Also, part of my responsibility was space nuclear power plants and nuclear rockets. So, hey, I was an expert, because I was on the Manhattan Project. Not that I really knew anything. But you know, it was the badge. 

Kelly: For people who aren’t familiar with the space application of nuclear energy, can you talk about that?

Behl: Oh yeah, it’s very simple. Two things. One is that a rocket engine by definition carries with it its fuel and oxygen. It’s like when you drive your car, you’re carrying your fuel with you and you’re taking the oxygen from the air. But if you’re going to get out in space, there isn’t any air. Or if you’re going underwater, they use rocket engines underwater, too, for torpedoes and things. You got to carry your own oxygen or a chemical that will have a very large proportion of its weight in oxygen. 

That becomes a problem if you want to go to Mars or someplace like that. You’ve got to have two tanks and the weight of the two tanks. One tank to keep the oxidizer in, liquid oxygen or something like that, and one tank to keep the fuel in. You’ve got to have pumps to pump it into the combustion chamber.

Now if I could eliminate the fact that I’m burning something and I need fuel and oxygen, I could fly further because I have a lighter vehicle. I don’t have to have two tanks and I don’t have to have two pumps. So, if I could have a small nuclear reactor and some kind of a gas or liquid I could spray into it and heat it up to the same temperatures that a combustion of burning oxygen and hydrogen, say, and then squirt it out the nozzle, I’ve eliminated the need for quite a bit of weight in my vehicle when I’m going to go to Mars.

They’re talking a lot right now about going to Mars using nuclear rockets, which would just be that. There was also talk about nuclear ramjets, which was essentially the same thing. The electric power on space vehicles, a lot of the electric power comes from solar panels. Well, that’s great when you’re near the sun. But now, as you go out to the outer planets, the solar energy drops off very much, and so eventually you get to the point where solar panels aren’t going to do you any good. But if I have a little nuclear power plant onboard, wow, I can have electricity whenever I want it. I can also have heat, which is pretty important. 

That’s the kind of thing that even fifty years ago we were looking at very carefully, though we didn’t have a lot of the technology to do it. But a lot of space probes have gone up and have not only had nuclear reactors, but some of them have used plutonium sources. Now, plutonium is warm all the time. If you have now this constant source of heat, you can put some kind of a heat receptor around it like a solar panel that will generate electricity. The Russians used to use it in the Arctic for lights and things like that, a little piece of plutonium.

There’s all kinds of neat things that you can do. Nuclear is pretty important in those areas. Of course, there’s the Navy that has been running 100 nuclear reactors for over 50 years and never had an accident or anything. People don’t realize that. The U.S. Antarctic station right on the South Pole, all their power comes from a small reactor.

Kelly: So, when you say small, how big is it?

Behl: I have no idea.

Kelly: Is that like a tent?

Behl: I’ve never been there. I would imagine it’s small, because they had to get it there and the only way they could get it to the South Pole is on an airplane.

Kelly: That’s great.

Behl: Anyways, I did that, and I’ve gotten involved with the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. Right now, I’m a board member emeritus, and I’m not quite sure what emeritus means. Does it mean with merit? To all practical purposes, it means this is a guy who’s been doing some work around here, we want to hold onto to him, but not give him too much, you know. Can’t vote at the board meetings. 

I’ve been involved with the museum for about 25 years. I made the mistake of coming in with some of my Oak Ridge material that I had. Maps and things like that and saying, “Hey, can you use this?” Fifteen minutes later I left and I was a charter member of the foundation and on the board. Sweet-talking lady was running the museum at that time, long before Jim Walther. I’ve been the chief scrounger there, because I’ve gotten a lot of the material and stuff that’s in the museum from various organizations. When we built the new museum, I was very much involved in that.

Kelly: That’s a wonderful legacy.

Behl: Oh, it’s terrific. Because of getting involved with museums, I got interested in museums. Albuquerque, I have been told, has more museums per capita than any other city in the United States. True or not, I have no idea, but I think it might be. I eventually was president of the University [of New Mexico]’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. I’ve been very much interested in local history and stuff like that. I’m right now chairman of the board of a museum, Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, so that’s keeping me busy.

Kelly: Wow.

Behl: So I keep out of trouble.

Kelly: I guess you do.

Behl: I also mow my own lawn and that kind of thing.

Kelly: That’s wonderful. Well, looking back at the Manhattan Project again, and obviously, a lot that happened afterwards was sort of—

Behl: Fallout.

Kelly: Yeah, fallout. Exactly. Tell us how it shaped your future life.

Behl: It shaped my life. Because being an engineer, it just gave me a step up over so many of my compatriots and people with the same experience level and such. I don’t know if I would’ve ever gotten into this advanced projects thing at Douglas, for instance, if they didn’t say, “Hey, this guy’s done all this good stuff.” It certainly gave you an interesting, different viewpoint on things, having worked on this highly restricted, high-tech, advanced, advanced, advanced areas. 

I’ve stuck with that the whole time. I’ve been very much involved with the Star Wars thing, high-energy lasers and spacecraft and that kind of thing. I think a lot of my background has been the reason for getting involved in that and for being allowed to be involved in that. It certainly gave me confidence that I could move into a lot of this.

Kelly: Some veterans I’ve talked to have been very close-lipped about their experience. They’ve been shy to talk to about it, even with their families. Partly, I think, because they were told, “This is secret. Keep it secret.” But also, I think in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s when there was a lot of pushback against nuclear weapons, they didn’t want to self-identify as someone who brought them here. 

Behl: That could be, and also in their 60s and 70s and 80s, they probably don’t remember half of that stuff. So, maybe that’s it. I know veterans who were in combat and things that were just so horrible that they don’t want to talk about it. But I wasn’t involved in anything that was horrible. 

In fact, a lot of the stuff I was doing was fun. We learned a lot, we did a lot, and it was useful. Of course, you couldn’t talk about it at the time, and right now, okay, you can talk about it. What I was doing—remember, I was in a laboratory. I wasn’t in the research and development, the basic starting. The work I was doing was things that helped the lab do its stuff. Quality control. We built machinery that would—I say machinery, meaning the things that went into the plant area that would tell you what the percentages of the fissionable material was. You don’t go buy those off the shelf. You sit around and scratch your head and somebody says, “Why don’t we do this, and why don’t we do that?” 

And you end up, “Okay, let’s build something and try it.” So you did that. Of course, sometimes you did very simple things. “Hey, I need a little pump that’ll pump water from this barrel to that barrel,” so you did that, too. It was a good experience. 

Of course, wandering around Tennessee wasn’t too bad, either, the Smoky Mountains. Of course, we only had one day a week. We worked six days, but you could get over to Gatlinburg in the Smokies. This gal, Margie, who was in our engineering department, her dad was the chief chemist or something at the Bureau of Mines Laboratories in Norris, Tennessee, which was only half an hour drive away. You could hitchhike over there and get fed. 

Kelly: You made the most of it.

Behl: Yeah. Anyways, it was a great experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think it did actually affect a lot of what I did afterwards, because I was constantly at the leading edge of various sciences and things like that.

Kelly: When people call for “another Manhattan Project” to solve Parkinson’s disease or cancer or whatever the next challenge is, what would you say to that? 

Behl: Well, I’d say that if your definition of having another Manhattan Project is having priorities, funding, a goal – a measurable goal – yeah, great. But it depends on what do you mean? 

The Manhattan Project was a survival thing. It had a specific goal. It had essentially unlimited funds and assets and availability. When people say another Manhattan Project, I don’t think we’ll ever see one, because I don’t think anybody will agree. Maybe another war if there was one.

But you got to remember, the Manhattan Project really did something. We haven’t had a major war between major nations since World War II was over, since those bombs were dropped. And that’s something. There’s a lot of people alive today who wouldn’t have been. That kind of makes you a little proud. 

Kelly: Another aspect of interpretation of the [Manhattan Project National Historical] Park that the National Park Service has promised is to look at what happened in Japan. So often the story is told by us Americans with the crescendo being the bombs were dropped, end of war, end of story. 

The Park Service has been approached by the Japanese who say, “You need to tell the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and recognize that.” I think with the end that the mayors of those cities are leading efforts in the United Nations and internationally to end wars.

Behl: But you know, people have got to look at things sensibly. We had a firebomb raid on Tokyo that I have been told killed more people than the nuclear bomb killed in Hiroshima. But you don’t hear about that. So what the world is actually saying is, it’s okay to burn a person to death, but you mustn’t kill them with radiation. Kind of silly, but that’s the way it is. 

You talk to the Japanese—and I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan. We hosted a Japanese graduate student when we lived in Los Angeles area, just because my kids were teenagers and I thought it was a great idea. We’ve been very close to that family and been back there any number of times.

It’s just amazing. I was at the museum in Nagasaki, and because I’ve been involved with the museum here, I got business cards and I can send it in to the director and sit down and talk to them. I was talking to the director of the museum there. Their whole museum, I looked at it drooling. They had unlimited funds and we had just finished building ours and scrimping. “Okay, we didn’t finish the parking lot. Okay, we didn’t do this.”

The whole museum was based upon “we were victims,” and nothing to do with anything else. It was “we were victims,” and highly selected exhibits for foreigners. There was one Catholic Church [Urakami Cathedral] in Nagasaki, so they have a whole room based on the ruins of that church. So, some Catholic American will come in there and say, “Oh, my God, they destroyed our churches!”

Another time, I was with a group in Tokyo and we heard a lecture by the chairman of the history department of a major university in Tokyo. He was talking about history, obviously, and he said, “You know, you people have been laboring under a tremendous misapprehension and it’s all been propaganda. For instance, there was no such a thing as the Bataan Death March.” Oh? “There was no such a thing as the Rape of Nanking.” Oh? “We only bombed Pearl Harbor to make sure that the Americans didn’t have the capability to interfere with our activities in Southeast Asia. We didn’t want a war with the United States. It was all your doing, because you insisted on following up and attacking us.” Oh, okay. Interesting.

But they’re lovely people. I really like Japan. I have never told even the people I know there that I had worked on the Manhattan Project, because our Japanese friend that we hosted, his grandmother was killed in Hiroshima. So, I definitely never said any word, anything to him at all. I didn’t want to bring it up.

Kelly: But if he asked you, what would you tell him?

Behl: I’d tell him, if he asked me. He knew that I was working on high-energy lasers and satellites, and satellite weapon systems and things like that.

Kelly: If you could build a museum that would have copies, both in Albuquerque and Nagasaki, how would it tell the story?

Behl: That would be interesting, because you’d had to try to tell the story based upon what the Japanese people think they know, and kind of work it around that way. I would probably emphasize in Japan the fact that dropping those two bombs and ending the war saved millions of Japanese civilian lives, even though a few hundred thousand were killed on those two bombs. There would’ve been millions killed if we had to invade Japan. Not counting our losses, but just their losses. Because, again, what I heard, they were issuing pointed sticks to Japanese women to kill Americans as they came there. 

Oh, interesting thing. I had an uncle, an ex-Marine, who during World War II was a civilian radar expert with the Army, traveled all over the world. The day after the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, he was on an airplane going somewhere, and there was an Army colonel next to him, sitting, and they talked. The colonel said that he was stationed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. 

So Hank said, “I got a nephew who’s at Oak Ridge.” Now, this guy’s a colonel and I was a sergeant or something at the time. And he says, “Do you know him?”

The colonel said, “No, I don’t know him, but I know the name. And, he’s not in Oak Ridge, he’s in Hiroshima.” Because there was a small group that was sent there, about half a dozen people, right after the bomb drop, to make measurements. They flew into Hiroshima. And he said, “He’s there.” So, Hank told the whole family and, of course, I didn’t know about it at all. I was still in Oak Ridge.

It turned out that I was the first alternate, but nobody got sick, so nobody bothered to tell me about it until the guys came back. They landed in Hiroshima, they told the Japanese that they were the leading edge of an American division right behind them. They accepted their surrender and then made their measurements, and got the hell out of there just as fast as they possibly could. But I was almost there, except for nobody getting sick.

Copyright 2016 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.