[We would like to thank Robert S. Norris, author of the definitive biography of General Leslie R. Groves, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man, for taking the time to read over these transcripts for mispellings and other errors.]
James R. Chapman: When I first heard about the project that was in the early days called the “X Project,” I was finishing up work on a TNT plant for the Army ordnance. I was about twenty-six years-old, about four years out of college, having spent the last three-and-a-half years working for Stone & Webster, two years of which was spent working on ordnance plants of one kind or another during the prewar and early war periods. Practically all of this work was done under the direction of a man named [Augustus] Gus Klein, who was selected for spearheading Stone & Webster’s efforts in this type of war industry. It was largely through Gus Klein’s acquaintances with the ordnance people and scientific circles and his proven ability as an executive and organizer of technical projects that he fell into the early phases of the X Project.
Gus Klein started fairly early in 1942 while the rest of us were still plugging away finishing up the TNT projects. I remember he was moved out of our group and a lot of rumors going on that it was some kind of a very special government project of extremely high priority. Gus had to do a tremendous amount of traveling at this time, and he covered the country pretty well. The rest of us really didn’t know too much what was going on, except that one by one certain people were taken out of our group and sent over to work with Gus. As far as I can remember it was in the early fall, maybe about August or September of 1942, when I was told I was to leave the TNT work and go over and work with Gus.
I recall reporting for work one morning and sitting down with Gus and Warren Stewart, his right-hand man at the time. Gus was sitting there, jingling his coins as he usually did to get rid of some of his nervous energy. He asked me, “What do you know about heavy water?” It so happened that I had read something about heavy water not long before. Professor [Harold] Urey of Princeton University [misspoke: Columbia University] had done some experimental work in heavy hydrogen, or deuterium as it was called, and he was considered to be the font of knowledge in this field. I told Gus what I had learned and he said, “We’re going to build a heavy water plant and we want you to help.”
Before this particular project started, there were a few days while I had to do odd jobs, and one of the jobs I had to do was to do some tabulation of a series of purchase orders that had been written on a Canadian mine for quantities of uranium. This brought to mind a book that had been published a few years ago by Madam Curie, in which she had speculated somewhat on the possibility of uranium fission and had, I believed, tied it in somewhat to the use of deuterium as a practical moderator. These two things made me aware at that time of just what the significance of this project was. Although I didn’t check it out with anybody at that time and wasn’t brought into the secret, I felt pretty confident that this is what it was. This of course impressed me with the tremendous importance of it, and the great need for secrecy.
Pretty soon the designs were developed on the heavy water plant. The basic process was evolved by Professor Urey and some very eminent scientists and engineers of the Standard Oil Development Company in New Jersey. And along with Dr. Ray Geddes and our own company, the award for the engineering design of the plant was given to a Boston company, EB Badger Manufacturing Company, who had a great deal of experience in distillation processes of the type that this turned out to be. This company also had a very large manufacturing facility that was to be counted on to make this very special type of equipment. The equipment had to be all built out of very high quality solid copper. And the vessels, tower heads, and everything had to be hand-beat out into shape. All the big piping was all beat out from sheets and formed by hand by heating the copper with tremendous blow torches and then hammering them out. It took a very special skill to do this.
We soon found that this company was way overloaded with very top priority work and couldn’t do this. So we had to scout around desperately and finally found another firm, S.D. Hicks & Son in Hyde Park outside of Boston, who could do this work.
There was a great deal of furor in setting up the orders and ordering all the materials. Copper was in extremely short supply at the time because it was very critical war material and we had a great deal of trouble getting priorities assigned and getting deliveries made. But we finally did, and the materials started to flow into this little shop. They started to form the materials and build all the equipment on a very tight schedule. Everything was very urgently required and very rushed, and we were under close supervision all of the time by the key men who were supervising the X Project. By that time, I think the word “Manhattan” was starting to be used, Manhattan Project.
I recall at one time I was following the work out at this plant, and Gus Klein told me that General [Leslie] Groves was coming up and would want to inspect the work. So we got things ready. I remember the tremendous thrill I had when the Army car went out to this plant. In the front seat were the Army driver and myself and in the back seat were General Groves, Colonel [Kenneth] Nichols, and Major [Wilbur E.] Kelley. At that time they were the three “top brass” you might say in this part of the project. I was tremendously impressed and got quite a thrill out of that trip. Everything came off well. As the months went by the equipment was finished and shipped to its destination, which happened to be up in Trail, British Columbia.
One little item that might illustrate the tremendous problems that we were confronted with is that this equipment had been designed for fabrication at Badger’s shop, where they had some special equipment that, for example, would form the big flanges that we had with very close accuracy. These flanges were some thirteen feet in diameter and made of steel about two and a half or three inches thick. They were to be just formed out of a roll and required no machining. This plant down at S.D. Hicks tried to emulate this, but their equipment was not of suitable accuracy. When the rings got all ready and we tried to fit them up, they were uneven and wouldn’t fit.
I remember one time that we had to get these towers on test. The Army brass were coming up to inspect the test. We had about a week, and we found that none of the flanges were true. At that time, we used the telephone practically all the time for everything. It was just an absolute necessity in getting anything done. I got on the telephone and started calling around all the big shops I could think of. I’d call a shop and ask to speak to whoever the top man was and tell them my problem. If he said, “We don’t have any equipment,” I’d ask him who I could go to. Finally, after maybe a dozen telephone calls, I got a hold of a fellow down at the Fall River Shipyard, the Bethlehem Ship Company, and found they had a giant lathe down there that could take this size of ring. They were busy working practically twenty-four hours a day, but we got things set up and got the rings down there and they faced them up on their night shift, and we got them back to the plant and all set for the test. So when the Army brass came round, everything went off on schedule. This was just typical of many incidences that kept coming up and had to be solved on the spot by frantic telephone calling or getting in experts, or calling in special consultants. We just lived from one crisis to the next. This got to be a way of life, and we just got used to operating this way.
The plant up in British Columbia, the procurement and engineering got over on that. Then we started to get into the other phases of the actual processes that went in down at Oak Ridge. This uranium was sent to Malachite Chemical Company out in Cleveland, where it was processed and then shipped to the plant in the form of an oxide.
Now to be able to use it in the final electromagnetic units, it had to be in the form of a tetrafluoride, which was the only chemical form in which it would vaporize under the temperature conditions we have and enter the machines and go through the separation processes in order to separate out the U-235 from all the U-238. The field of fluorides was relatively new in chemistry, and there were only a few people that were really progressively informed in the treatment of fluoride.
One of whom was a professor whose name I can’t think of right now down in Brown University. He was really an amazing character that practically never went anywhere without clutching his bottle of Old Grand-Dad. They say he even took it with him when he lectured to the class. How he ever lived to be the ripe old age, in the early seventies, that he did, I don’t know. Maybe he got thoroughly pickled and maybe that’s what did it.
But he was a very eminent authority on chlorides, and he used to come up and sit down with our engineers. They would perform a laboratory experiment down in Brown, and then come up and our fellows would take the data and translate it into full-scale equipment. There was no pilot plant. It was a transition from laboratory glassware to full-size equipment. We would get the designs of these large vessels and go through the paperwork. We’d go out and get bids on them and select our bids and then get our approvals through the Army. There was a tremendous amount of red tape involved. Everybody was extremely skeptical all the time that you’re going to be wasting government money. And then we’d follow the designs through the manufacturing plan, get them built, coordinate them with our designs of the plant, and get them down to the job. Everything was rush, rush, rush.
We would have to do a tremendous amount of guessing. For example, when it came to the way of materials, nobody really knew how these fluorides were going to perform. We knew they were tremendously corrosive, but no one knew their actual action on metals. There was no time to run laboratory tests on the action of these fluorides on the various types of metals. We just had to make the best calculated guesses, and sometimes I’d known that duplicate orders were placed for different materials in the hopes that one of them would be right. This duplication also carried down to the field of processing. There were several methods by which you could convert the uranium oxide to the fluoride. There was a liquid process. There was a vacuum distillation process. There was a vapor phase process, and there was a fourth that I can’t think of right now. We went down the line and developed full-scale production facilities in each one of these four processes in the hopes that one of them would work.
I remember one of the processes that I was called in on was a vapor process. I don’t remember the exact process now, but it involved treating the oxide to a very severe temperature. This had to be done in a glass tube. It’s surrounded by electric furnaces and conveyed through and taken out one end, and fit in the upper end with all the corrosive conditions of vapor that went along with it. We very quickly designed and built twelve of these small units. Each one involved the use of a high quality Pyrex glass tube about three inches in diameter and about six feet long. I remember arranging with one local manufacturer who had some warehouse space to set these up.
We went down the catalog and we bought all the little pieces. It was almost like buying them out of a Sears & Roebuck catalogue. We bought the glass and we designed all of the metal fixtures and had them manufactured at various places. We bought motors and chain drives and reducing gears and instrumentation and had them all shipped to this little plant and then assembled. During the assembly process, we discovered that the glasses were quite fragile and broke quite a few so that we had to go back and reorder. Finally we had it all set, and we sent them down to the job.
I recall sometime later that we got a rather frantic call from the job that “The workmen were setting up the equipment but that the glass tubes were breaking. Could somebody please get down there and straighten it out?” I was elected to go. At that time no one did any air travel unless they had a pretty high priority. So my priority was cleared through the local government people and I got on a plane and headed down to Oak Ridge.
It’s the first time that I had flown during wartime conditions. It was a little bit eerie. You get on the plane at night and all the curtains are drawn and there’s not a light showing and you’re absolutely not allowed to draw the curtains at all until you got away from the eastern seaboard. We went down to New York and we got down as far as Washington, and lo and behold I was displaced from the plane. I found out that this had happened because they were taking on some equipment that had a higher priority than my travel priority. I slept on the bench in the then-new Washington Airport and had a rather decent night’s sleep, and caught a flight out the next day getting down to Oak Ridge rather late in the afternoon.
Apparently the crisis had calmed down a little bit, or more or less people were all excited about something else and no one seemed to pay too much attention to me. I began to wonder why I was down there at all. But this was the normal way of life down there. The crisis of yesterday is forgotten in the face of today’s crisis, which is even bigger. We finally got the equipment going and got it all set up. As a matter of fact, it never was used, because by the time it got used, time processing this equipment, the liquid-based system was found to be quite superior. It turned out to be the system that was used to convert most of the oxide to fluoride. The vacuum distillation system was used somewhat.
It’s interesting to note that each one of these plants had its own space in the building designed for it. It had foundations, electrical appurtenances, water, drains, vents, and all of these little things that go into a chemical process were all designed and built. Practically all of them were without any design information at all, just with guesswork and some relying on experience and just plain old good horse sense and fundamental engineering principles.
At first it was rather a shock to be doing plants this way. It didn’t make sense. But after a while you kind of got used to it. Always information was lacking, it was difficult to get it. Generally somebody somewhere knew, but you could never get to him because of the tremendous secrecy of the project. Everything was departmentalized.
I remember my little group was myself and three or four other engineers. We had two stenographers and two clerks, and we were in our own little compartment and the girls were not supposed to associate with the other people. This was the way that they prevented the cross flow of information back and forth between groups, so that it prevented any one group from knowing too much about the whole process. This probably accomplished that phase of it, but it also made it terribly difficult to get the design information we needed. Also, there were a lot of top scientists involved in this work. And undoubtedly some of those scientists knew the answers to the problems that we had, but we couldn’t have access to them. Or by the time they did visit us in a closed conference and confide the information, it was already too late. We’d already committed ourselves to the design of the equipment. Schedules were so tight that we sometimes just couldn’t wait two or three days. We had to go ahead and make the best assumption we could get.
We finally got so that we joked and said that we could design standard equipment. We got so that we would design very complicated process vessels, order them, and then had them built before we even knew the size of the connections that went to them or even the number of connections. We just tried to anticipate and give ourselves a little margin, maybe one or two extra, and hope that it worked out. Most of the time, it did.
Because of the tremendous corrosive problems that were involved in these plants, we had to go to great lengths and we had to use the most sophisticated materials we could get during that time. Titanium was one of the materials that we used a great deal of, and glass-lined vessels of all kinds. I think we practically sewed up the entire production company, the Pfaudler Company, who was a well-known glass-lined vessel maker. We know that glass-lined vessels are rather particular. It’s an old German process of baking the glass onto the steel. It’s very delicately done. It has to be done in very controlled conditions. Occasionally, imperfections arise. What they would do is to drill out these little imperfections with a dental drill and fill them with a gold inlay, just the way a dentist would fill a cavity in your teeth. Very often these vessels would go down there with two, three, four or a dozen gold inlays in them.
It got to be a standing joke the way these vessels were treated down in the field. I know in one particular case when the vessel was all set up and all cleaned out and the supervisor leaned over the top looking down at the vessel, to examine its contents, and a pair of pliers fell out of his pocket and fell down and bashed a number of cracks in the glass. It took them the rest of the week to clean those out and patch them up with gold. This was just one of the things that went on all of the time.
We had to use a tremendous number of all kinds of materials, very often without too much knowledge of how long they would last or of the manufacturing processes involved. We specified vessels manufactured out of a particular type of nickel alloys, only to find out that these alloys were not suited to the type of manufacturer. We’d have to frantically rush around and get substitutes or redesign our vessels to fit.
We found during this time that we learned to lean very heavily on the manufacturers. We got a great deal of good information out of them. But again, however, contact with them was somewhat limited. Whenever a manufacturer would come, we couldn’t come in the office. We had to go out and sit in a little telephone booth with him up in the anteroom and be very guarded in how much we told him. We couldn’t give him any classified information. Everything had to be passed through security, and it made things difficult. It made it more time consuming. All of this time, we were under tremendous pressures to get things going and to meet our deadlines.
This went on for all of the two years that I worked on the job. I finally got off in about November of ’44, and went back onto TNT work. They had decided to recondition one of the old plants that we built, and so I got back on that.
I was working on that all the winter of ’44 and ’45. In the first part of ’45, I did know from my friends, however, and people that came back from Oak Ridge, when the test at Alamogordo was successful in July. And we knew at that time approximately what the production rate was, and anticipated that about in another month we’d have enough for the first real bomb, so that by the time it went off in August, it was no real surprise. In fact, it was somewhat later than what most of us had really expected.
It was very gratifying all the time to have been, even though a small cog in this vast organization, to see the spirit in which everybody involved jumped into impossible situations and didn’t fret or worry or reason. They just went ahead and did their very best.
One of the little side incidences: I remember one of the first times when I was down in Oak Ridge was in the spring of ’43. In those days, Oak Ridge was nothing more than a great big mud hole. It was red, sticky, Tennessee mud. When you walked along the streets, they weren’t paved. They were mud. It was so gooey and sticky it pulled the rubbers right off of your shoes. We called it “the Oak Ridge Blitz,” “the Knoxville Blitz.”
The Tennessee River water isn’t as pure as what most of us were used to drinking, and we suffered a little bit for a few days, but you finally got used to it. I wasn’t really down in Oak Ridge too much. I made about seven or eight trips down there for a week or two at a time. One thing I enjoyed particularly was the one time we stayed out at the Whittle Springs hotel and rode back and forth into work. We spent a weekend out there and had Southern fried rabbit for the first time. It was very good eating.
Another little incident, not directly related to the job, but one weekend in the spring Seymour Bingham and I, he was a Stone & Webster engineer who was stationed down there at the time, we took a trip down into the Blue Ridge Mountains. We spent a weekend down there, and coming back we took a late bus. It left Newfound Gap, I guess, about eleven o’clock and it was due to get into Knoxville about three o’clock or so. This little bus wove its way through the hills towards Knoxville and was stopping along the way. Every once in a while a few people would get in, and I noticed that they acknowledged greetings. They all seemed to know the driver and know each other. It was very homey, casual greetings. Around about one o’clock the bus was pretty full about that time, and they started singing. These homey, folksy people sang their folk songs for about an hour on the way into Knoxville.
I found out later that a lot of these folks had come up from the hills and were working on the night shifts out at the Oak Ridge project, and this was the bus that picked them and brought them in and would bring them home the following night. The beauty of some of that simple, almost-spiritual quality singing left an impression, left a memory that I’ll just never forget. It was simply beautiful. It’s probably something that could never be duplicated again, because these people, I’m sure are all tarnished by civilization now. Whereas at that time, this was probably the first real contact that many of them had had with big cities. Generations were probably spent back in the hills, and this was the first time that they were brought into the commercial side of civilization.
In trying to think back this long, it’s surprising how many facts have kind of faded out. I thought at first I’d have a great deal to outline, to tell about what happened. But I find now when it comes to actually recounting some of the incidences, they don’t quite sound the way they do in memory’s picture.
I’d just like to say a few things though about Gus Klein. He was rather an amazing man. He really gave everything he had to this job. Besides being a remarkable extrovert, he had an amazing memory for names. He knew everybody on a first-name basis. He kept a tremendous amount of detail in his head. He had tremendous energy. He was on the go all the time. Some of the trips that he made were that he went around the circuit from Westinghouse, General Electric, and Allis-Chalmers. The scientific laboratories, the various jobs, Washington, the Manhattan Project offices in New York, and sometimes he was gone for four, five, ten days at a time and very often going from one stop to the next. It’s a pace that would be too much for an ordinary man.
Most of the time there were poor plane connections. They used to tell a story that Gus Klein could go into an airport and find that his plane was cancelled or it would be an hour and a half late, and he’d climb up onto a counter and drop off to sleep for an hour. He’d wake up automatically in time to make his connection. It was this facility of being able to just drop off to sleep for little catnaps right under the midst of the terrific pressure of events that allowed him to keep going. Very frequently he would call the office from some distance and say he was going to be home that afternoon and asked them to call his wife to come into town to meet him, and then they’d go roller skating that night.
Gus Klein was a man of tremendous enthusiasm, and he was able to pass this down to everybody under him. We all had a great deal of respect for him. We were always fired by his example. He really gave everything he had to the job. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tremendous physical effort he made during the time wasn’t perhaps in some way responsible for his early death.
Thinking back over the years and comparing it to the way that we push out jobs now, it was really fantastic the amount of work that was gotten out, considering that each one of these plants had to be designed. First, the basic flow process had to be very carefully worked out, the selected equipment had to be sized, and all the pipelines had to be sized. Everything in the way of valves and fittings had to be sized and specified. Specifications were written for all of the equipment, and we’d go out and get bids for it, compare the bids, and make your selection. You’d write everything up, and have volumes and volumes of paper. We’d get all of the necessary Army approvals on them, get the orders placed, get the manufacturers’ prints in and check them with your designs, approve them, and send them back most of the time with numerous changes.
We’d correct mistakes and then get this data into our own drafting room, where we had then to make the layout drawings and locate the equipment. From that, building structures would be worked out. Foundations would be designed. The electrical people would move in and provide all the connections, the controls for the motors and instrumentation wiring and lighting. All of the plumbing had to go in there, drains and ventilation systems. Some of them were very elaborate and had to be worked out. All of these had to be done in tremendously short order, often before the equipment was really specified. We just had to make guesses.
I know it got to be a blanket custom that floors would all be designed for a certain loading whether you needed it or not. You couldn’t wait for the exact information to make an optimum design. We had certain levels of lighting that just went in regardless of the type of equipment. I’d imagine if a person went down there after the plant was built and went around, he’d probably be appalled at what would appear to be clumsy design. But actually it was because of the lack of information and the necessity for just making judgment decisions on the spot so that the job could move along and schedules could be met.
As it was, there were numerous delays, and the problems that the people had to face down in the field were simply appalling. I know in some of our processes we used stainless steel exclusively, and we just had literally thousands of feet of stainless steel pipe. We located a supplier and we bought fittings and they were a special alloy type of stainless steel. We bought these fittings literally by the thousands and sent them down. They were very poorly made. These were threaded fittings and they’d make them up, and they’d leak under these very corrosive acids that we were using. The people in the field would have to clean them out and flush them and back weld everything. It was a tremendously frustrating experience.
It’s just amazing now that everybody lived through it without any more blowups or frustrations than we had. But I think at the time everybody realized the tremendous effort that was being made, what the goal was. We had our boys in Pacific and in Europe, and this was the thing that would get them back. If we could only get this thing working, it’s the thing that would prevent the need for a frontal attack on Japan with its estimated million casualties that General [Douglas] MacArthur at that time spoke about. I think this was a goal that everybody had in their minds.
There were many other incidences down there. I remember one particular process we had. I can’t remember too many of the details now, but I do remember that it gave off a tremendous amount of phosgene gas. This was the result of the chemical reaction. Phosgene, as you may recall, is one of the World War I gases that was so deadly. Besides being corrosive, of course, you couldn’t allow any of it to escape into the atmosphere. So we had to design a system for neutralizing it. Ray Geddes, being the chemical engineer, was the fountainhead for most of these designs. He would work them out on pieces of paper and turn them over to me. I would then develop them into practical designs and get the specifications written.
In one place in particular, we had this phosgene and the only way we could quench it was by passing it through a very alkaline bath in which we would use large quantities of ammonia. We had to have a place to store the ammonia, because we had to have the ability to get a large quantity of ammonia in action very shortly, which means we needed a large-volume storage tank. Ammonia has to be stored under considerable pressure and it has to be stored in a tank that is manufactured to certain design standards and codes and of suitable materials. It’s just not something that you go off and get off the shelf. We made some investigations and found the delivery times were far too long to get a storage tank of this type built. So there again I turned to the trusty old telephone and started going down and investigating second hand equipment dealers. Finally, after about twenty calls or so, a little dealer down in Delaware someplace said he had a tank of the approximate type that we wanted.
Arrangements were quickly made, and two engineering inspectors went down there and examined the tank. They found it to be suitable, but since it was a second hand tank we wouldn’t accept it until we put it under a test. So we put a hydrostatic test under it and found a couple of leaks that were properly repaired, and then the tank was rushed over to the job and set up. We had to use all of the existing connections. We couldn’t design them the way we wanted to, but we used it and I understand it worked. This was just another illustration of the rather frantic scrambling for just about anything that would fit and the “make it do” attitude that everybody had. I have to give a lot of credit to the fellows in the field. They took some pretty sloppy designs and equipment and hooked it up and some way or another got it working.
I’d like to comment a moment on schedules. I keep referring to the tremendous pressures everybody was working on with the need to get jobs done. Illustrative of this, we would get information that a certain chemical process needed to be operable at a certain date. We would be told that you have to develop this information. By this time the Tennessee Eastman Corporation were firmly established as the operators of the Oak Ridge electromagnetic plant and had a very large number of chemists, physicists, and chemical engineers down at Oak Ridge. We would go down there and try to go around and find out what the basis of this process was. Very often it hadn’t even been started. People hadn’t even started to work on it. So we would have to get together and very often we made flow diagrams just on our own wildly of what we thought the process might be. And then you’d have to go around, “Is this right? Is this really the way you want it?” And by coddling the various people and almost tricking them in some cases, we’d get bits of information out and we’d rush back to Boston then and sit down and develop the designs.
Then we’d have to go back down to Oak Ridge and get these people together again and get them to look at it. Everybody was so busy. You couldn’t mail anything down and expect it to be acted on. There were too many other crises facing these people. You’d have to take the designs down, take the thing that you had developed from what meager information you had, confront the people with it and say, “Is this really the way you want it? Is this what is supposed to be going on? Are these the reactions that are taking place? Are these the flow quantities that are taking place at pressures and temperatures that you’re interested in? If not, why not? What is it and who does know about it?”
We’d chase around from one man to another and gradually put together things. We’d go back and develop your design and go out and buy your equipment. We’d get it down there, and half the time you get it down there and by the time it got down there the engineers had really had a chance to look at it, and had perhaps changed their minds and wanted to come up with major revisions. This then again fell on the poor people in the field who had these designs, foundations built, the wiring in, and were faced with major revisions. There was not much complaining. A system was set up down on the field to record all of these things. The proper information was documented. The chain of notices came out, and workmen would rush in there and very often rip an entire process out and replace it with another one and without any whimper or complaint. How often this went on is hard to say, but I do remember seeing the change orders that were up in the thousands, literally. These were documented by special papers in bookcases literally full of books recording the changes that were made. This was inevitable in a period when entirely foreign concepts were jammed through with amazing rapidity and people literally forced to make decisions that they were not prepared to make. They would make them with the full understanding that maybe weeks or months later the situation would be completely changed. This just went on all of the time. You got just so that it just didn’t bother you anymore. Just as soon as you got the new direction, you’d just drive hard down that road until you got another direction to do something else.
In talking about characters, we had a rather interesting fellow working with us. He wasn’t an engineer. He was a scientist, a chemist. He was hired because we thought we were going to have to get into a lot more of the fluoride chemistry than we did. After we got going, the basic information was supplied by the university research groups. However, this fellow stayed with us throughout the job. I supposed he figured this was his contribution to the war effort, and he did provide a lot of good information and a lot of interesting things.
He was kind of a wild-eyed fellow who smoked a pipe continually and had a rather excitable attitude. He’d start talking and get rather excited and had a habit of getting up close to you, sticking his face right under yours and blowing through his pipe so that the ashes from the pipe, sparks and all, would spew up and scatter you. He’d be absolutely unaware of the whole thing. Some of the supervisors would kind of avoid him. They wanted to make sure that when he was in an excitable mood that you didn’t get yourself backed in the corner. It was kind of cute sometimes to see some of these people sidestepping around so that this chemist wouldn’t get them cornered and blow ashes all over them.
We engineers used to kid him a lot. He would have absolutely no use for piping at all. He considered this a plumber’s trade. We’d try to get him into piping designs and say, “Albert, don’t you know all there is to know about pipes?”
He’d say, “Why sure, I know about smoking pipes.” And then he’d lapse into great discussions of his collection of pipes. This was the only concession he would ever make to knowing anything about pipes.
I might add a little bit that Ray Geddes in the early days did a lot of back-of-the-envelope designing of these early processes. Later on, when the volume of the work increased very substantially and there was perhaps a little bit more organization in the systems, other people got into the act. Charlie Chaves, now chief of our nuclear branch, was a man that perhaps more than anyone else was instrumental in bringing a very well organized team to bear. And I think that man perhaps put up with as many frustrations and problems as anyone else in the system. Several times I know he was just on the edge of throwing up his hands and saying he couldn’t do it. And then he’d go on again.
It’s just fabulous some of the things that they did. I know some pieces of electrical equipment that cost a million dollars apiece, and they’d buy them with perhaps as much concern as you would buy a fifty-dollar item. This doesn’t mean that the money was wasted, by any means. It was a necessary and properly designed piece of equipment. The value was there. But these are the kind of decisions that these men had to make and they had to be made quickly.
After I left the job, the complexity of some of the chemical processes got really bad. They were concerned then with concentrations of the uranium and had to be very careful that they didn’t accumulate too large a mass in any one place because it might fission, and then they’d get a catastrophe, an incident on their hands. There’d be no explosion, but it certainly could go radioactive with disastrous effects to personnel and equipment.
The chemical systems that were thrown in there in rapid order were just fantastic. They’re things now that would be constituted as a very complex chemical plant now, maybe fifty million dollars’ worth, and would take years of planning and careful execution and construction. Systems of this magnitude were thrown in in matters of months and actually gotten so that they worked, even though ultimately the electromagnetic separation process did not prove to be the most economical.
After the K-25 area, the gaseous diffusion plant became operable then they shut down the Y-12 area. But the Y-12 unit was the one that was working the fastest, and it was gotten working through the concerted effort of hundreds of qualified and dedicated engineers all working together and translating the way-out concepts of the research chemists into full plant operations. It completely eliminated the normal steps of testing and trials and pilot plants. There was no time for all of these. Thinking back now, it was just incredible what was done. And it was a great tribute to the tremendous dedication of all the men involved.
Here are a couple of little postscripts. One interesting anecdote that caused me a good deal of concern at the time was that after about a year and a half on the job, we were installing miles and miles of stainless steel and glass piping for some very corrosive acid solutions that were used in the recovery of spilled and wasted uranium compounds of various types. We had a very difficult problem keeping the joints tight. We were constantly searching for some kind of gasket material. We experimented and tried all different kinds. I don’t know what avenue it came through, but finally a new white, waxy, almost a soapy-like compound was given to us to try. And we tried it and it was excellent. We could only get it on government order, but we immediately proceeded to use it far and wide and to arrange for companies to stamp out these gaskets of the various sizes and types.
In the summer time they just got unbearably hot. I remember going down there into our engineering office down there in July and having a little desk off in the corner, and sitting there and working during the day while the perspiration dripped down my legs and into my socks. By the time quitting time came, my feet were wet. The men said that this was the usual practice. They all got used to it. And you’d go home to a hotel that was not air conditioned and was just as stuffy and hot. The continuous physical discomfort that everybody put up with was just amazing. The only way they did it is because everybody realized at that time that a lot of our boys were putting up with a lot worse elsewhere in the world, and that it was our contribution.
It just occurred to me that the heavy water plant that we built up in Trail, British Columbia, was called “Number Nine Project” for secrecy reasons. I recall right when we were in the middle of building it what a terrific thrill we got when we heard of a British commando group that under cover of night and with a great deal of daring sent some bombers over to Dime, a Norwegian hydroelectric project where there was a heavy water unit that was turning out heavy water for Hitler’s scientists. This very daring group got through. As I recall, about five bombers made the run and two didn’t make it. But the three that did completely demolished the project and practically eliminated Hitler’s hopes for producing any heavy water. This must have been maybe sometime in the middle of 1943, as well as I can remember.
Thinking back over some of the amusing incidents, it was also a source of amusement to see the security regulations that were set up. Not the one set up by the Army, but the fact that so much of our work was classified in one form or another and had to be protected. Since some of our work was in different buildings, it was really funny sometimes to see a little messenger girl walking down the street with a roll of blueprints under her arm and followed by a great big Brinks Company guard with his gun strapped in his waist waddling along behind her. These guards of course followed all classified equipment out of the building. I suppose it did some good. At least it called the public’s attention to what was going on. And I’m not so sure that any of these fellows could have ever fired his gun if he had to, but I guess it filled the requirements.
As far as our office is concerned, they were pretty well compartmented and very securely locked after hours and policed very well. There were burglar alarms on all of the doors and windows. The interesting thing that struck me when I first got on the job was that everybody had two waste baskets, a red and a standard green one. The red was all classified material. And every evening the classified material had to be taken downstairs and incinerated in the presence of the proper security officers. The system really did work, I guess, because it was one of the best kept secrets of the war in spite of the fact that I’m convinced a great many of our people knew pretty well what was going on, and still they didn’t talk about it very much.
It was only in a very select group of about four or five of us that we got together very guardedly at times and compared notes and put pieces together, building up the story of just what was happening. With the little rumors that came along, we knew just what was going on in our place and what was being done down at Los Alamos. We also knew what was going on in the K-25 project being built by Kellex. That was a gaseous diffusion process. We knew they were running about a year behind us and we knew pretty much when we started producing how much of the stuff was being produced, and speculated pretty much on how much was being stockpiled. When the first bomb would go, we all knew pretty well of the successful trial shot in July in Los Alamos, and then it was just a matter of time.
And although we didn’t have any idea of the date at which the Hiroshima bomb would be dropped, we knew approximately when it would happen. So when the final date did come, it was with tremendous relief and with a real feeling of assurance that the war would soon be over and all the boys out in the Pacific wouldn’t be asked to lose their lives in vain.
And that, I guess, about wraps it all up.