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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Jack Hefner’s Interview

Jack Hefner joined the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge in 1943. Hefner was a reactor engineer and helped supervise the construction of the X-10 Graphite Reactor. Later, he transferred to Hanford and worked as a shift engineer, where he monitored the B Reactor. Hefner also helped maintain Hanford’s sprawling facilities, including office buildings and houses in the 700 Area.

Date of Interview:
June 11, 1986
Location of the Interview:


S. L. Sanger: This is Hefner on June 11, 1986, interviewed at his residence in Richland.

Jack Hefner: The plant at Oak Ridge was operating to make enough samples of plutonium, so they could learn how to separate here at Hanford. Very few people said a great deal about that and knew much about it. And we only had this manner of need to know. So all our job was keep the plant operating. And the operating people was crank the plutonium out the door.

Sanger: So you would have come here you say, what in January?

Hefner: Well I was here at Hanford in July of ’44. And I was at Oak Ridge three months before that, in April, May and June of ’44. Because I was at Kankakee [IL] in January.

Sanger: So you were employed by DuPont.

Hefner: Yes sir.

Sanger: Where did you come from?

Hefner: From the Kankakee Ordnance Works.

Sanger: Where did you grow up though and how did you get in?

Hefner: I grew up in Iowa.

Sanger: Oh did you? I am from Iowa too.

Hefner: What part of Iowa?

Sanger: Iowa City.

Hefner: My wife went to school at Iowa State.

Sanger: Oh, did she? So that would have been when?

Hefner: Well I graduated in ’32 and she graduated in ’33.

Sanger: What were you in?

Hefner: Chemical engineering.

Sanger: And then you went with DuPont after that?

Hefner: I was in the building business before that and then when the war came along, you could not get building materials. I would sell complete houses and I would hire contractors to do the architectural engineering and build a house. And at that time, I was in Princeton Illinois. And the last year there, I built about sixty houses in that area, and then you could not get materials.

Sanger: What year was that then?

Hefner: That was in ’43.

Sanger: Oh, so then no more materials, huh?

Hefner: No more materials.

Sanger: So then, you went in with DuPont?

Hefner: Yes, Kankakee Ordnance Works.

Sanger: And what did they make there?

Hefner: It was block pressed TNT, manufactured TNT, and Tetrol. That was of course for munitions.

Sanger: Did somebody come around, a recruiter or what?

Hefner: Yeah, they said, “Hey, you are going.”

Sanger: Oh, they told you, you were going.

Hefner: Well you know how it goes. They said, “We would like to have you go,” and you did not turn them down. But they did not tell you what it was for, they just said, “We need you.” And we did not know what it was for. I did not know what it was for until I went to Oak Ridge at Clinton Labs, where they did tell us exactly what the activity was going to be.

Sanger: What were you to do then when they took you from Kankakee, what was the idea then? What was the purpose of your leaving?

Hefner: “We have a contract with the government to do some military work and we need all the supervision we can get to do the job, and we would like to have you go there.”

Sanger: What were you doing at Kankakee?

Hefner: Minor construction, engineering; we would design new facilities and I had a group that would do the design and then we had a small construction group and we would go out and build. Small construction. There at Kankakee we had the block press, which pressed TNT into blocks, and about every three days you would press one of those too hard and it would blow up. And then we would put it in a big vacuum.

Sanger: And then when you went to Oak Ridge, what did they tell you that you would do at this new job?

Hefner: Engineering related to the project at Hanford. Of course then they told us what it was: for manufacturing plutonium.

Sanger: So how did that come about when they told you at Oak Ridge, what did they tell you?

Hefner: “We are in the process of designing and will operate a facility in Hanford to manufacture plutonium. Germany is also in the process of splitting the atom and if they get there first, we have got trouble. We are going to get there first. And we are going to design and build a plant to do this.”

It was rather a serious and shocking sort of thing. Complete secrecy, “do not tell anybody,” and when I got here, you did not talk to anybody about anything related to what the operation was.

Sanger: Who told you about it back at Oak Ridge?

Hefner: They had an individual in their personnel operations that—his exclusive job it was to convey this information to the employees.

Sanger: Was that a DuPont person?

Hefner: That was DuPont, yes. Everybody in that facility at Clinton Lab was a DuPont employee. My brother-in-law happened to be the manager of that plant. Incidentally, he died this morning.

Sanger: Where was that?

Hefner: Well he lived in Tempe, at Friendship Village, one of those retirement homes.

Sanger: I suppose not everybody who went to Oak Ridge got the story though, did they?

Hefner: Everyone that was involved in the supervisory capacity at Oak Ridge knew what was going on. When we came here, I already knew what it was. I do not know who told people what was going on here, because again, it was need to know; you did not ask any questions unless it was related to doing your job.

Sanger: What was the reason that you had to know what was going on? Was it something to do with doing your job better?

Hefner: Well yeah, we were playing around with the reactor and doing engineering related to that. Just a little thing, the graphite reactor there at Oak Ridge was air-cooled and you blew air up through the reactor, which was made up of graphite slabs, and the top layers were starting to blow off. So we came up with an idea of going in and folding the top of the graphite down.

Sanger: So that was what you did there, you sort of had a practice or training?

Hefner: It was training and productive training, things like that to improve operations.

Sanger: For three months?

Hefner: Yes.

Sanger: And then when you came to Hanford, what did you do out here?

Hefner: I was a shift engineer. The shift engineer’s responsibility was on their shift to keep the plant running, and we had maintenance people at our beck and call. If there was a problem, we were called in to find out what the problem was and get it resolved by whatever means as necessary. This was in separations.

Sanger: And you went to the separation area?

Hefner: Yes.

Sanger: You say West or East?

Hefner: I went to West Area for probably three or four months, and then East Area started up.

Sanger: You would have been there when the first plutonium came up to be separated up there. And that would have been what, after September ’44, because the reactor started in September.

Hefner: I have got the dates of all the reactors, when they started and when the first material came out of each one of them, but I would have to refer to it.

Sanger: So you were there for about four months at that one. Is that T, the building?

Hefner: You mean the T Plant? It was the whole area, everything, 200 West.

Sanger: Yes, but that was the one where they got their first one, was it not?

Hefner: The T Plant was in operation, it was in that area, yes.

Sanger: But did you tend to roam throughout the area, was that your responsibility?

Hefner: Yes.

Sanger: And that was mostly maintenance?

Hefner: It was maintaining the operation of all of the facilities, engineering, and calling upon maintenance people to do whatever they needed to.

Sanger: What sort of things did you run into most frequently, or was there anything?

Hefner: Well, you would have leaks in some of the facilities. Then by remote control, they would remove equipment and clean it up and put it back in. Do you know how those operations are? They have the big crane on the top. And we would have to come to a conclusion as to how you wanted to handle it and what should be done. Do you take it out and throw it away, or do something with it?

Sanger: So you were involved in that when that had to be done—when they lifted the lids and so on with the crane and replaced things or repaired them.

Hefner: Now you see, there is the difference between the operating people. After they discovered what was wrong and what needed to be done, then they informed us, “Here is our problem.” Then we had to come up and get it back into operation. But we had nothing to do with the production or how they operated or any of that sort of thing.

Sanger: Did that sort of thing happen very often, something going wrong in one of the cells?

Hefner: We were busy all of the time doing something. DuPont did a super job in their design though, because both of the reactors and the separation facilities—it is just amazing how well everything operated, never having done it before, I was very impressed with it.

Sanger: Ray Genereaux, who was involved in the design of the separation, I talked to him when I was on that trip.

Hefner: He is the type of person that really could give you facts that I was not privy to because of things that were “need to know.”

Sanger: Well sure, but he talked about all the couplings and the way they would move the material through, and then he talked about how they devised that system of the cranes and the remote and the TV. And the use of Teflon, he said, and what the gaskets were made of. He did not take a whole lot of credit for inventing anything in particular, he said there are a lot of people involved in it. Also, you remember a fellow named [Lombard] Squires?

Hefner: Oh yes.

Sanger: He lives in Florida. I talked to him on the telephone, and he gave Genereaux most of the credit. And a man named Stanley Handforth, who worked with Genereaux in Wilmington on the design of all of these cells and what went into them, and the couplings, and they had an impact wrench they devised too.

Hefner: Very objective. 

Sanger: Actually Squires in a way was more detailed than Genereaux, who seemed to want to not take a lot of credit for most of it.

But anyway, then you went to East [Area] then after that?

Hefner: Yes.

Sanger: Well that would have been getting toward the end of the war, I suppose.

Hefner: Yes, I did not stay out there too much longer because of the previous experience I had had in home building and that sort of thing. I came in and I had charge of the community maintenance of the whole 700 Area, which was all the buildings, offices, and maintenance facilities.

And we had about 1,000 people maintaining all of the houses. I am sure that is not part of what you are interested in. We would go out and clean out these people’s toilets, I mean, send people out to do that, and let them in the front door because they had lost their key.

Sanger: But that would have been after the war?

Hefner: That was after the war.

Sanger: How did these houses stand up, the original ones that were built?

Hefner: Amazingly well. I just had what they called a B duplex, two units together. I just sold it last year and it is amazing what I got for it, because it still was in excellent condition. They were very well built for one year. I was told when I came here, “You will just be here one year.”

Sanger: Were they largely pre-fabricated, or some of them were and some of them were not?

Hefner: No, all of the Hanford Engineering works and buildings—these are all of the buildings. These were all built like the other house. Now here we get into the prefabs, which we then bought, but these are the ones back to here.

Sanger: Well, are these still around?

Hefner: They are still around, but some of them are in pretty sad shape.

Sanger: These are prefabs?

Hefner: These are the prefabs. Any time you see these letters, like this “Z,” those were the original houses. Then these are called “prefabs,” and that is the only reference they have to them. There are some more that they built, and then here was the original site.

Sanger: That is the architect? That name there?

Hefner: Yes. And Matthias was the guy that was out there. And then this tells all about what happened. These stores—here is where they went about deciding who to have—how many stores they would have. Let us see what they have here. List of planned buildings: post office, garage repair and gas station, coal yard, cafeteria, laundry, bakery, two stores unassigned, and then they went on and told about them before they went ahead to design these things.

Sanger: Yes, there is a DuPont unpublished history, but it is not as detailed as that.

Hefner: No, it is pretty detailed.    

Sanger: They decided at first I think it would be 15,000 people and they upped it to—or maybe that was the top. They started off with whatever and then it kept going up and up and up until I think it was 15,000.

Hefner: I think it was closer to 8,000 to start with.

Sanger: Yes, and they talk about the architect who was from Spokane and some of the ways they were built. I think they mention the prefabs, but I think they mentioned too that most of them were conventional construction.

Hefner: Originally, most of them were, yes.

Sanger: And the rent and description of the furniture. And most of the houses here are from that period in Richland? In the center at least. Not this one but—

Hefner: Well this is a later one, these are called A and J houses.

Sanger: How old is this one?

Hefner: 1948, I moved in in ’48. Of course, it has changed quite a little, I mean, this was an open porch at one time. This was a river view before the dike went in.

Sanger: Yes, that was in ’48?

Hefner: Yes, ’48, the year we moved here. And the front door was over here. So everybody came in through the kitchen.

Sanger: So this was the front yard out here?

Hefner: This is the front yard.

Sanger: It is too bad about the dike, although I suppose, has the river ever come up since then?

Hefner: No, they do not usually. They are now considering lowering the dike or whatever, but it’s expensive.

Sanger: Now when was the Priest Rapids Dam put in? Was that after the big flood?

Hefner: Oh yes.

Sanger: That would have what, presumably stopped it or not.

Hefner: It would have helped control. So with the dams you have got in there now, they control it much better. And of course McNary [Dam] was put in afterwards. McNary was put in after ’48. And then the new dike was put in. See, a temporary dike ran right here.

Sanger: Oh, not as high.

Hefner: Oh yes, it was this high. And did I say this right, this is 356 and our temporary dike might not have been quite that high. But it almost came over the dike when we were out here. The manager of the Atomic Energy Commission moved down about three doors, and we were all there putting sandbags on the dike. Well, this is not really what you are interested in.

Sanger: How old are you now?

Hefner: Seventy-six.

Sanger: I was kind of curious as to what they told you about the product here, because a lot of people did not know, of course.

Hefner: Oh, that is right. Now I presume, and again I am not sure what they told people who were actually in supervision, managing, I presume most of them knew. But they had a level at which they stopped telling people.

Sanger: I suppose maybe if you were actually on the site of the critical facilities, maybe I told you and you were a supervisor, do you suppose?

Hefner: I am sure that there is probably—I am not qualified to say that though. 

Sanger: But you were not allowed obviously to talk about it with anybody.

Hefner: That is right, so I did not really know. I never said anything.

Sanger: When you found that out, were you surprised or had you guessed at something like that before?

Hefner: You mean what was going on?

Sanger: Yes, the plutonium.

Hefner: When I went to work for the DuPont Company? Was I surprised at what they were doing? Of course. My sister was a physics teacher, and after the bomb was dropped, I talked to her. And she pulled out a book and she said, “I learned all about splitting the atom in 1938.” And she still had the book and it had all that information and what its potential was in 1938. So when they told me that, of course I was quite surprised because I had had enough physics. When you start playing around with the atom, you have got ahold of something.

Sanger: What did you say your brother in law’s name was?

Hefner: Stuart Pratt, S. W. Pratt.

Sanger: Yes, well I have read his name, I guess in books. That is your wife’s brother?

Hefner: No, my wife’s sister’s husband.

Sanger: And he was the manager at Oak Ridge?

Hefner: At the Oak Ridge plant.

Sanger: You mean the X-10 operation?

Hefner: X-10, yes.

Sanger: Oh, yes, I guess I have read his name.

Hefner: You may have, yes.

Well after I left the 200 Areas and I got out of that problem of running the maintenance of the areas around here, I got into just strictly engineering and redesign, and redesigned a facility for the environmental DEHF which was for in the event of someone becoming injured.

Sanger: Oh I see, well that was after the war, right?

Hefner: That was after the war, that’s right.

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