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Joe Dykstra’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Joe Dykstra joined the Manhattan Project with Hooker Electrochemical Company at Oak Ridge, working at K-25 on the gaseous diffusion process. He discusses the debate over the bomb and the attitude of those working on the project.

Date of Interview:
June 18, 2005
Location of the Interview:


Joe Dykstra: My name is Joe Dykstra, that’s spelled D-Y-K-S-T-R-A. 

Cynthia Kelly: Ok, now you can talk about—

Dykstra: I finished school with a degree in chemistry in May of ’43. I was in Iowa. During that year, I’d filled out an application for a defense job with Hooker Electrochemical Company in Niagara Falls. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing, except it was defense. 

And so I went to Niagara Falls the day after I finished school, a twenty-one-year-old kid. And as at it turned out, they had a contract with the Manhattan District to develop production fluorine cells and make fluorocarbon chemicals for use—I didn’t know at the time, but it was for use in the gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge. 

We made the fluorocarbon coolant for the plant and fluorocarbon lubricants. And we chlorinated and fluorinated the material with HF [hydrogen fluoride], anhydrous HF, at 1,000 pounds pressure. So it was a rather hazardous operation, and they weren’t sure just how it worked, so all of the operators in this plant were chemists and chemical engineers. And that’s how I got on the job. And we produced enough material to take care of the requirements of this other defense plant, which turned out to be the diffusion plant. And we had developed the production fluorine cell, built by Hooker, which the Manhattan Project needed. 

And they shut the plant down. And so I was in—the rest of the chemists and engineers that worked there, they were working on a draft deferment, so they were immediately called up for service. I was too tall for the service, so I was 4-F [registrant not acceptable for military service], so I came to Oak Ridge to work for Union Carbide, which was supposed to be a defense project. I didn’t know what it was for until I got down here and later on I found out that they were the facility that was using the material that we developed in Niagara Falls.

So I got down here in March of ’45. And of course by that time, we had the barrier, and they were ready to start operating the diffusion plant. And since I’d had some industrial chemical experience, they made me a supervisor. And I was on the start-up crew for the cascade buildings when it started up. And I worked shift and had a crew of operators. And we worked around the mile-long “U” starting at the bottom, and I stayed on the top cells, all the way around until we got up to the top of the cascade. 

So, started in March of ’45 and by August of ’45, we had the entire K-25 cascade in operation. And sometime during that month they announced on the public address system, that night on the twelve to eight shift, that a nuclear weapon had been dropped on Hiroshima and it was a product of the workers at Oak Ridge that helped create the nuclear weapon. That’s the first time that I really knew—of course, I knew what the chemicals that we were working with, but I had no idea that we were making material to be used in a nuclear weapon.

Kelly: How did you feel about that when you heard the news?

Dykstra: Well, of course, everyday, like—we heard, you know, atrocities and high casualty rates in Germany and in Japan and in the islands, that invasion coming up. And everyone knew that we were getting close to the time there’d be an invasion. And most of us had people that had been our friends or relatives or schoolmates. In fact, in the college I went to, I was one of four of the men that graduated from school because almost all of them were called into the military or Army Reserve or Air Force Reserve. So we all knew people that had been in the European theater, and of course we knew a lot of them were being shipped to the West Coast for the pending invasion of Japan. 

So when we first heard about the nuclear weapon, we all felt real relieved, because hopefully it would prevent a lot of acquaintances and friends and relatives from being involved in the invasion of Japan. And then of course, a couple days later, they used the plutonium weapon and the war was over. And it was a great feeling to think that they wouldn’t continue these high rates of casualties and so forth. 

And so I—of course, most of us felt that soon as the war was over, even though we didn’t know we were making a weapon, we knew that the defense jobs would be over. And in the meantime, I had married a gal that I met in Niagara Falls. And we had never bought any furniture. We lived in a furnished apartment because we didn’t expect to be in Tennessee very long.  

But you know, we still kept operating the plant. And some of the knowledgeable—again, you, know, I think it’s kind of unfortunate that we’re having this talk and the dedication of the contributions of the people to the nuclear program, because most of us and most of the people that are talking about it now, we were mostly just flunkies. But the managers and the people that directed the operation aren’t around anymore, and it’s unfortunate there wasn’t some recognition, when they were the ones that were the major contributions. And now, us young kids are the experts of things because we’re about the only survivors that are left. 

But anyway, rather than going back to Iowa and not having any other job, I stayed here. And you know, year or so later, one of the real knowledgeable managers of the plant said that there was a great future for K-25 and the enriching process because he really felt that, in addition to the medical advantages of radioactivity, that there would be a demand for enriched uranium for nuclear power reactors. So although a lot of the people left and went back home or went back to other jobs, since I didn’t have one, I stayed here. 

And, of course, we did continue production of weapons-grade material for a time. But then, in the later years, we quit producing weapons-grade material, but we still produced low assay material for fuel for nuclear reactors. And I was in charge of the uranium recovery and equipment decontamination, and then also, in the UF6 [uranium hexafluoride] production we had to produce a lot more UF6 for the reactor program. 

And then, when we got into Cold War years, we went back into production of weapons-grade material again. And even though none of the weapons were used, we were in the race with Russia to see who could produce the most weapons. And of course, even though our weapons in that case didn’t actually be used, I think eventually the nuclear race between us and Russia probably helped end the Cold War. 

And so we produced a lot of enriched uranium, and of course with bigger and better cascades. And I was involved in the startup of the cascade at Paducah and at Portsmouth. And before we started shutting these plants down, we’d produced many, many times the amount of material that we produced during the World War II era. 

And one of our—I was in charge of the receipts and shipments of product to the fuel fabricators and one of our first and biggest customers were the Japanese. You know, they have a much higher percentage of their electrical energy being produced by nuclear reactors. And almost all of that enriched uranium was produced initially at K-25, then later at Portsmouth also. So we had Japanese visitors every month that came over and we shipped several hundred million dollars of enriched uranium to the Japanese. Of course they have many more nuclear reactors in Japan than we have in this country. 

And you know, most of us that are in the uranium business really feel that it’s unfortunate that the U.S. hasn’t developed more nuclear reactors at an earlier time, because the energy crisis is upon us now and we haven’t built any nuclear reactors in the last thirty years. And most of us feel that, environmentally, the nuclear reactors are better, and if you look at the overall cost, they probably can produce electrical energy cheaper than you can with fossil fuel or dependency on foreign oil sources. 

So, I’ve continued to work. I retired over twenty years ago, but I have worked as a consultant on some of the decontamination and dismantling operations here and some of the other sites in the country. 

Kelly: Great, Joe. That was good, very good. 

Dykstra: I might say that, should I add that—I think it’s a real worthy effort that we try to preserve some of the historic facilities because I know you can make pictures and you can make models, but I really think, for the long run, it would be real good for people in future generations to be able to see some of the actual equipment that was used, and see some of the technology that Kellex Engineering outfit designed and contractors installed and then the Union Carbide employees were able to start up, because everything worked.

And we didn’t really have to be technical experts to get it to work. It’s unbelievable. And that’s why I think there’s a real advantage to save some of the actual equipment that can be observed by people in the future, to think that a technology like that can be designed and built, and built in such short time and still operate with success. And I don’t know how you’d ever convince people of what the achievement was by those designers and construction and managers if they didn’t actually see some of the equipment.

Kelly: Can you tell me how you felt that day that everything worked? You know, it must have been…

Dykstra: Well it was unbelievable, because—see, on the startup, you know, I didn’t know anything about diffusion plants at all, but I had had some experience in chemical plants, a couple years, in HF and corrosive material. You know, UF6 was rather difficult to contain and to handle and we really didn’t know much about it. We learned it on the job. 

But as a startup crew, every time they had new buildings ready, I was assigned those buildings. We had an operator on every cell. In some of the buildings, I’d have like six buildings and fourteen cells a building, so you’d have, you know, 90, 100 operators. And these were seventeen-, eighteen-year-old girls that were just hired to sit in front of the panel. They didn’t really do any operating, but if an alarm sounded, you know, they were supposed to call the supervisor and he was supposed to come. 

You know, most of us really didn’t think that women were capable of operating an industrial plant anyway, but there wasn’t anyone else you could hire; they were all in the army. And so they hired these seventeen-, eighteen-year-old girls. And that’s what we did. They just would whistle or holler, you know, when something went on, and a supervisor would come around there. Of course, we didn’t know much what was going either, but anyway.

When we really got everything going— and we hadn’t been operating every piece of equipment very long until they announced what our output really had done. But it was a great sense of relief because every day when you went to work, you didn’t really know the fact that we had that many people. We had thousands of operators, because you know, we had four shifts. We had continuous operation and there was a girl sitting in front of every, what, 1,000 stages or something like that. 

And of course, soon as the war was over, you know, we knew now that it worked, so, you know, we laid off all those people. And when we shut the plant down in 196—I’d had other assignments, chemical recovery and so forth, but I had been assigned that whole K-25 “U” building, mile-long building. And I had one foreman on each shift and I had five operators operating that. 

And we had bicycles so that people could get around. In fact, the foreman—I requisitioned a battery-operated golf cart, Cushman golf cart. And of course we had a thing like that, that was petty cash, and so D.O.E. [Department of Energy] had people that—it was Atomic Energy Commission at that time—they reviewed purchasing requisitions that sounded unusual. And that’s what it said. 

I just saw this in a magazine, Cushman golf cart, because this poor foreman had to go over this whole mile. The operators had bicycles just to go within their own building, but that guy would wear himself out because some—going that mile back and forth during the eight hours. But they rejected the requisition because I think there was note on there, whoever reviewed this, that we don’t spend federal money for golf carts. So anyway, we rewrote the requisition that a battery-powered mobile unit or something like that, and we got it. 

But people still talk about all the bicycles out there at the diffusion plant because every operator and every engineer had a bicycle, because there were so many miles of traveling during the day. That’s one of the—people don’t quite understand that every operator and every supervisor would have a bicycle to ride. And some of the old vintage bicycles are still out there, you know.

But anyway, it was a—even though we weren’t aware of it at the time—it was a real feeling of relief and accomplishment when we found out that what we had been doing did accomplish something. 

And, of course, I raised my kids in Oak Ridge and I have grandkids in Tennessee. And none of them are chemists—well, one of them is. I’ve got a lawyer grandson in Miami and I’ve got a grandson that just got his chemistry degree from Boston University this month, and he’s going to do graduate work in chemistry at either University of Texas—biochemistry at University of Texas—or California, starting next year.

Kelly: That’s great.


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