Lauren Attanas: My name is Lauren Attanas, that’s A-T-T-A-N-A-S. I am the granddaughter of John Attanas, who we are interviewing for the Atomic Heritage Foundation today. Can you say your name and spell it for the camera?
John Attanas: John George Attanas.
Lauren: Tell us the story of your origins. Where did your family come to the United States from?
John: Well, my mother came to New York City, to Manhattan. My father came on a tramp steamer to get away from the Turks, who were about to induct him into the Turkish army. He rode this ship to Savannah, Georgia, landed in Savannah, Georgia. His trade was working wrought iron, fences, and stuff like that. He found out there was a rolling stock, railway rolling stock in Atlanta, Georgia.
Lauren: What year was that?
John: That was about 1910 or ’11, somewhere in there. He worked for a while. He contacted with his brother, who was in New York City, as he had got in infection on his hand. It was tied up with his work. He came up to New York City, to where his brother was. That’s where he met my mother, who came from Europe legally through Ellis Island. She came from Austria-Hungary, and was Ukrainian by nationality, by what do you call it?
Lauren: By birth?
John: By birth.
Lauren: She was from Halych, right?
John: They met in New York City, and I was the result of their meeting in Manhattan.
Lauren: Your sister, Mary, what, six years before you were born?
John: She was first. She was about five years older, but she was sickly. The doctors told my folks that they should get her out of the city and up to a farm area. This is where we moved up the Hudson River to near Kingston, New York, a little town called St. Remy, S-T R-E-M-Y. That’s where we bought a farm.
Lauren: What year was that?
John: What year was that?
Lauren: Yeah. You were born in 1920, right?
John: Yeah. It was 1925.
John: I was five at the time. This is where I spent all the way until I was graduated from Kingston High School and went to college.
It was just a typical farm life. My father had a grape arbor, Concord grapes. He made wine out of that, but with very little sugar in it. He made hard wine.
Lauren: All right.
John: We had vegetable gardens, all sorts of vegetables. We had cows, so we had milk. We had chickens, we had eggs. The typical farm life. There was my sister that I mentioned, who was five years older, but she was sickly.
John: She was the main reason why we left New York City, Manhattan, and went up the Hudson River.
I went to grammar school, a one-room grammar school in Rifton, New York, R-I-F-T-O-N. I had a one-room schoolhouse. The teacher was a lady who was not married, lived with her mother. Her name was Anna Devine, D-E-V-I-N-E.
Lauren: You remember that? Wow! I don’t remember my teachers from elementary school.
John: She had a yardstick, and she wasn’t afraid to use it. Also, my mother also had a yardstick and she wasn’t afraid to use it. They got me into condition real early in life.
Lauren: When did you start being interested in science?
John: In science?
Lauren: Yeah, in chemistry?
John: That would be in high school. I had chemistry, of course, and that’s the thing that caught my liking. When I graduated from there I went to a technical college, Georgia Tech. The full name is Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia.
Lauren: Back to where your dad came up from.
John: That’s where I took the chemical engineering, and I took what was known as the co-op, which was five years, six months on and six months off, back and forth for five years, instead of the normal four years. I graduated from there in 1942.
My first job that I got was with Remington Arms in New York State, up near a city in central New York.
Lauren: Was that near Syracuse?
John: Yeah, near Syracuse.
They happened to be a subsidiary of the E. I. DuPont Company. They were in the rifle and shotgun business. We could get a box of shells for almost nothing.
Lauren: All right.
John: And go to the shooting range, and shoot the shotguns at both fixed targets or flying targets.
The war broke out and they said, “We can’t waste ammo on this.” That was the end of that.
Lauren: What year did you start working at Remington Arms?
John: Let’s see, I graduated in ’42. So 1942, that was–
Lauren: Okay. Right out of school, you got that job.
John: Of course, at my co-op, the five years’ co-op at Georgia Tech, I had several, four or five different jobs, one of which happened to be in New York City at the Fair, the New York World’s Fair in ’38 [misspoke: 1939]. I worked for—let’s see, what was the name of that company? Well, they had a concession to take people around the fair, to show them highlights of the buildings.
You went to the World’s Fair to work before Remington Arms, right?
John: Other jobs, when I was at school doing my co-op jobs. One of those was working for North Carolina, the State of North Carolina.
They had a skeet-shooting and a target-shooting. We would get a box of shells for a very cheap price. Then World War II broke out and then they said, “Well, we got to save the—,” they cut that out.
Then the government got the atomic bomb job. DuPont got that job, so I moved from Remington Arms to DuPont. My first job was at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Lauren: You went straight from Remington Arms—
John: Remington Arms—
Lauren: —to Tennessee?
John: —to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where I worked in a lab there, which was making how the bomb worked, while the main plant was being built in the State of Washington.
Lauren: That was the Hanford plant, right?
John: At the Hanford Works. After a few months at Oak Ridge, I got shipped out with my buddies to the State of Washington at Hanford Works, H-A-N-F-O-R-D Works.
That was on the Columbia River at the place where the Snake River joins the Columbia River. It took a lot of cooling water to cool the reactor there. That’s why that was chosen, a lot of cold water. The Columbia starts up in Canada, and it was good for cooling.
Lauren: How did you get recruited to go down to Oak Ridge in the first place? Did they just pull you off the line one day and ask you?
John: Well, I started with Remington Arms, and that was joined with DuPont. It was easy to jump from Remington Arms to DuPont.
Lauren: When you worked at Remington, what were you doing? What was your job there?
John: In a chem lab there.
Lauren: Okay. So you were chem lab there, too.
John: Making the ammo to go in the shotgun shells and rifles. I worked in the lab, lab work.
Lauren: Were you approached by government officials on the Manhattan Project to go, or did DuPont officials approach you to ask if you wanted to work on the project?
John: No, DuPont—I got with DuPont later when the atomic bomb came on. Since DuPont looked throughout all their companies to send the men for the atom bomb.
Lauren: Somebody from DuPont asked you if you wanted to go to Oak Ridge?
John: I didn’t have any—it was wartime, remember. They didn’t care for that.
Lauren: So they didn’t ask. What did you know?
John: I was single at the time, too. How did I find my first wife?
Lauren: Mary worked at Remington Arms, didn’t she?
John: Yeah, she was working at Remington Arms, yes.
Lauren: I remember you telling me she was a guard there.
John: Her name was Mary Rita Lilli, L-I-L-L-I. We got married, and I got shipped out to the State of Washington.
Lauren: Did you go to Oak Ridge first after you got married?
John: Yeah. We went to Oak Ridge first.
Lauren: Did Mary come with you?
Lauren: You got married really soon, not long before you left. It was a matter of days, right, before you left for Oak Ridge?
John: I was at Oak Ridge less than a year.
Lauren: Yeah. You moved down there in a hurry after getting married, right?
Lauren: Was it days after, or weeks after?
John: It was fast.
Lauren: What was Oak Ridge like when you first got there?
John: Terrible. It happened to be a lot of rain at that time. There were trees—if you had a tree there that was as high as this room, that was pretty good. They were stunted, everything was stunted. I was never so glad to get out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There was no concrete walks. If there was a walk there, it was made of wood.
Lauren: What was your housing like then? Where did you live?
John: Lived in a box. It was exactly a big box.
Lauren: Was it, was it, did you get a bigger box because Mary, your wife, came with you? Or were all the boxes the same size?
John: No, there were smaller boxes and bigger boxes. I wrangled a bigger box.
Yes, of course, it was heaven to get out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Lauren: Did Oak Ridge have any redeeming qualities? Was there any nightlife or entertainment there?
John: The war had just started, you know, and it was all about business.
Lauren: What was your job like at Oak Ridge? What was your work like there?
John: Working in a laboratory, taking samples of the process.
Lauren: Were you working on plutonium extraction methods at that point?
Lauren: What did you do?
John: Had a big concrete block with holes throughout that put the steel-cased, and that’s where the plutonium was made from, if I remember right, from uranium.
Lauren: When you started at Oak Ridge, did you know anything about the atom bomb? Like, did you know what this was for?
John: Oh, yeah, we were let in on everything.
Lauren: They told you what it was for?
John: People weren’t educated, didn’t have a chemical degree or some kind of degree, they just went through the motions. They didn’t know what they were doing.
Lauren: But you weren’t compartmentalized in that same way? You had an idea of what this was for?
John: The whole business.
Lauren: Did they tell you that before you got there? Or you got there and they said, “Hey.”
John: That’s a good question, because I didn’t write it down.
Lauren: But you were not in the dark. You weren’t as compartmentalized.
John: The minute I got to Oak Ridge, the boss there told me what was going on. Of course, in less than a year, I was out of there to the State of Washington.
Lauren: Was there a lot of emphasis at Oak Ridge on secrecy? Everything had to just stay with you and your co-workers? Did, did Mary know anything about what you did?
John: Oh, I told her. I didn’t keep anything from her.
John: Let’s see. Richland, Washington, was the town where our house was. There was the tri-cities, Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, three cities together.
Lauren: In Washington.
John: Where the Snake River from Idaho joined the Columbia River. It had lots of cold, cooling water for the reactors.
Lauren: You moved there in 1943, is that right?
Lauren: That’s about a year after Oak Ridge.
John: I remember we used to go once in a while to the Pacific Ocean, at the beach. If you went straight from Portland, Oregon, to the beach, that’s where we were when the bomb went off on Japan, Hiroshima first, you know, and then Nagasaki second. We were freezing to death. As you know, how cold the Pacific water is.
Lauren: The Pacific is cold. Unless you’re in Hawaii, it’s cold.
John: You shiver all the time when you’re in that water. It comes from the North Pole, or up that way.
Lauren: It sure is cold. When you moved to Richland, what was your job at the Hanford site?
John: I was a supervisor, and I had a group of men that actually ran the valves.
Lauren: What did your job entail?
John: Well, naturally, we started with uranium, uranium compounds, and mix it with chemicals to make—we worked on the plutonium bombs. It was wonderful to get out of that mucky Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was wonderful.
Although out there, my hay fever picked up. That was before Kleenex, and I had handkerchiefs. I used to carry at least three at a time, two drying out and one at my nose. There was no rain, but my nose rained.
Lauren: Your nose rained all the time. Did that affect you at work at all?
John: It didn’t help, keeping a handkerchief up at your nose.
We just produced the plutonium nitrate in heavy steel containers, what we shipped to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. No, not to Oak Ridge, to New Mexico, Alamogordo, or—there was another town there, too.
Lauren: Was that Los Alamos out there?
John: Los Alamos, yeah. The man who was in charge there [J. Robert Oppenheimer] had lived there, and he was instrumental in having the place put there.
I got a chance to watch the first bomb explode in Alamogordo.
Lauren: You did?
Lauren: How did you get chosen to go down for that?
John: I was lucky. So I knew what the Japs were going to get.
Lauren: Yeah. And, was that because of your position as a supervisor at Hanford Works?
John: Yeah, I was a supervisor.
Lauren: That’s why you got to go to Los Alamos?
John: It’s been so long ago, it’s lucky I can remember any of it.
Lauren: What was it like, seeing that first atomic blast?
John: Naturally, we had to have dark glasses when it went off. But it worked. It wasn’t too long after that before it was—Hiroshima got the next one and then Nagasaki the third one.
Lauren: Yeah. Do you remember when you saw that test, what did it look like?
John: We had dark glasses on.
Lauren: But you couldn’t see anything, or could you see a blast?
John: Of course, we were miles away from it there, so it wasn’t like we were up close.
The war in Europe was winding down already, and some of us were wondering if we were going to get a chance to zing Japan.
John: We worked hard. Hours didn’t mean a thing.
We also wore a film badge and two pencils. The film had a piece of film in it, and the radiation would darken it. The two pencils would discharge the charge in this wire, and every day we got a fresh pair. At the end of the shift, we gave the men [inaudible], they had the people who did that to develop the film and they checked the charge on the two pencils.
If they were negative, you were taken off the job, and have to sit out instead of going to your regular job. DuPont was a real safety conscious company. They had people whose jobs were just to make sure the workers took care of the radiation part of their jobs, like the time. They would be the ones with the instruments checking around for radiation.
Lauren: Did you have to wear protective clothing or suits? Or did you work under a hood when you did your work?
John: No, but you had to give your [clothes] to the laundry, and they would wash them and they would make sure that when you got them back that any radiation was gone. DuPont was really safety conscious.
I was sorry that at the end of the war that DuPont took back their big guys with the big beards, no hair or gray hair. I was just out of college three years, so we had to go to our next job rather than stay. I wanted to stay with DuPont.
Lauren: But you stayed in Hanford, right? You still worked there after you were with DuPont?
John: My next job was in the semi-conductor industry.
Lauren: Oh, yeah.
John: There was germanium, and there was the other metal. Solid-state, glass bulbs were a thing of the past. I did get that job in New York State up at—let’s see, that was only about five miles from Skaneateles where I lived, when I came back from the West.
Lauren: Before you went to New York, how long did you work at the Hanford Works, and how long did you live in Richland?
John: At the Hanford Works, that’s the one out in the State of Washington. Well, I was trying to get a job back East, because that’s where I was from.
Lauren: The whole time you were in Hanford, you knew you wanted to come back East?
Lauren: But you raised a family there, right?
John: Just to come back. How did I come back? I don’t know whether I paid my way back home. I can’t remember.
In Ohio, I had a stay in the State of Ohio, but I worked on rockets and missiles.
Lauren: Was that during the war, or after?
John: After the war.
John: Then the Sputnik came along, and Germany was hot on the missiles and rockets. Then I got a job with silicon semiconductors. The company was—
Lauren: Was that General Electric, or was that before?
John: A New York State company. That’s how I got finally back to live in New York State.
Lauren: When you worked in Ohio, did you work with GE?
John: No. Who did I work with there? The Air Force had a rocket to get the plane up in the air, and then switch to gasoline. That was for the Air Force, if you may remember. You could hear when they tested those rockets.
Finally, a man from GE came. He showed me a semiconductor. He said, “This is what we’re making up in New York. Do you want to come up there and work for us?”
I said, “Of course, Mister.”
Lauren: Then that’s how you made it back?
John: I got back to my home state, finally, after many years in Oak Ridge, Washington, Ohio. It was an interesting travelogue.
Lauren: I would say. I remember you telling stories of having my dad, Roger, and John out in Richland. They were born while you worked at Hanford, right?
John: This was out West, in Hanford. Roger had fallen out of a tree, and fractured his skull.
Lauren: He did that in Washington?
John: Yeah. Across this little river was Benton City. There was a family there with kids, and the kids would go there and climb these trees. It so happened that Roger fell out of one of them. Boy, we were scared when he was tied up in the hospital.
Lauren: He spent a good long time there?
John: You will have to ask him about that. Of course, he was young, would hardly remember it.
Lauren: I will have to ask him.
John: But he was unconscious for quite a while.
Lauren: That explains it. Did Mary know what you did out at Hanford? Did the kids have any idea what you did for a living out there?
John: Yeah. Of course, at some point, missiles and rockets came into—Germany was sending rockets over to England. That became popular.
Lauren: During the war. Did you do any work on rockets or missiles during the war?
Lauren: That was after?
John: That was not my business.
Lauren: That was not your business. What were your most serious challenges, would you say, working out in Hanford?
John: Well, most of the time, we were working in radiation. They would get mad at you if you made your—over charge your pencils and your film badge, and take you off the job.
Lauren: How long did you get? Did they give you an allotted amount of time that you could work in the danger zone?
John: We had instruments, all these checks, told you how much you could take. DuPont was a terrific company for safety, the best.
Lauren: Did you know people who worked for other companies out at Hanford Works?
John: Not too much.
Lauren: You mostly interacted with people from DuPont?
John: I was hoping to stay with DuPont when the war ended, and the project was closed up.
Lauren: What year did the project end? When were you told that the work was finished?
John: Well, it was in the newspapers when the two bombs hit Japan. That was the end of it.
Lauren: You knew when that happened, that was the end of the project.
Lauren: There was nothing more.
John: Because there were more waiting to drop on Japan if they didn’t say uncle.
Lauren: Did you have much of a social life out at the Hanford Works? Were you very social with your co-workers and colleagues out there?
John: We were always kind of serious. As long as the war was on, we didn’t know for sure. But like I say, the war in Europe ended first. Germany got the—actually, you’d say, “Well, why did you drop the [bomb on Japan]? Well, I guess they had to go ahead with getting Japan out of the war.
Lauren: How do you feel about the decision to drop the bomb on Japan?
John: I didn’t lose any sleep. I still don’t.
Lauren: No. Were you aware of that invasion of Japan while you were working? Did you know that ultimately that’s what the bomb would be for?
Lauren: Yeah. How did that affect the attitude of people working on the project? Did knowing that they were going to drop the bomb on Japan, did that affect your attitude working on the project?
John: Well, we knew that—the Long March, they marched a bunch of GIs. They were not nice to the GIs that they captured. I never even wanted to go visit Japan.
Lauren: Did what you knew about the Japanese’s treatment of American soldiers affect your attitude toward your work? Did that motivate you at all?
John: Well, it didn’t hurt, it didn’t hurt.
Lauren: How about your colleagues? Is that something you talked about at work?
John: We were usually too busy.
Lauren: No time to stop and chat?
John: No time to. And the war began to drag on for so many years.
Lauren: Sure. While you were working on the Hanford project, were you optimistic that the project would be successful, or were you worried about it?
John: I was optimistic.
Lauren: Yeah. What made you optimistic?
John: Well, being an engineer and knowing what was going on, that’s all you needed to know.
As far as the Bataan Death March, where they marched soldiers and if they couldn’t walk, they [makes noise of someone being killed]. There was a guy in New York who had been on that Death March.
John: Yeah. A survivor, of course.
Lauren: Did you know him?
John: He was a next-door neighbor.
Lauren: Was that in Skaneateles?
Lauren: Oh, really?
Lauren: What was his name?
John: I can’t remember.
We all remember [General Douglas] MacArthur. He didn’t have the Death March. He left in a motor boat with his family.
That’s a tough job to put a person in, that he was in. He decided to save his family and himself. But it left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth.
Lauren: Including yours?
John: A little.
Lauren: Did your attitude and your confidence about developing the atom bomb before the war was over and the ultimate success of the Manhattan Project, did your attitude change as you worked on the project? Or was your confidence and your optimism always equal?
John: Until you try one out, you never know for sure.
Lauren: Were you worried then, in the time leading up to the test?
John: Just something that has to be proved, you know. The one in New Mexico proved it.
Lauren: Yeah. Did seeing that test, did that change your outlook on your work?
John: When I saw that one in Alamogordo, New Mexico, sure. If something hasn’t been tried, you just hope for the best.
Lauren: Did you have any contact with any of the higher-ups on the Manhattan Project—General [Leslie R.] Groves or Robert Oppenheimer or any of those people? Did you ever meet any of them?
John: In the same room, but not this way.
Lauren: No handshakes. Who did you see?
John: I wasn’t too old that time. I was just out of college a few years. I didn’t expect to have special—shake hands.
Lauren: Did you ever meet General Groves?
John: Just in the same room.
Lauren: Sure. Did he come out to the Hanford Works ever, or did you meet him elsewhere?
John: I don’t ever remember seeing him at the Works.
Lauren: Yeah. Would you have seen him—
John: He just wanted to make sure no secrets were coming out of Hanford. That was his job, to keep everything here.
Lauren: Was there a lot of secret-keeping there? Do you remember? What was it like working on a top-secret project?
John: Of course, we do remember there was a machinist [David Greenglass] who was an enemy, and then the Rosenbergs, they got the chair.
Lauren: Yeah. Who was the machinist? Was this somebody you worked with?
Lauren: Did you know of any spies at Oak Ridge or at Hanford?
John: No. Not personally, no.
Lauren: Had you heard stories or rumors?
John: But the Rosenbergs got the electric chair, you know.
Lauren: Yeah. Did you ever come into contact with other key figures or famous people working on the Manhattan Project?
Lauren: Did you ever meet Enrico Fermi? I thought I remember Dad or Uncle John—
John: Fermi, the Italian. He didn’t get out of—he was always in the small group. Yeah, that’s right, Enrico Fermi. I was just a greenhorn.
Lauren: Did you meet him?
John: I can’t remember.
There were a few guys that got overexposed. They had to stop their work. They sent one guy to go in with us.
Lauren: In with you where?
John: I can’t remember what he was supposed to do, but he had to get out of the radiation areas. But I must say. DuPont did a great job with radiation. With the war and DuPont out of the bomb business, GE took over whatever was left.
Of course, they got in the semiconductors, silicon semiconductors and germanium. But I thought DuPont was better for safety than GE.
Lauren: Sure. When you were on the job, were you working in radiation all the time? How much of your job was spent in high radiation and radioactive areas? How much of your job was not in those areas?
John: Well, like I say, we had our badges and pencils with us. DuPont was mostly a chemical company. Well, GE was chemical and electrical and this and this. Being a chemical guy, I liked DuPont better, because that’s my business, more in my business. The war was over with GE, so it didn’t have to be so tense.
Lauren: Yeah. Have you read anything about Hanford and the cleanup of Hanford after you left?
John: No. I was happy to forget about it.
Lauren: Really. Do you know anyone, or did you ever suffer any health effects from working out at Hanford?
John: There was this one guy that was overexposed. They shoved him over to sit with us.
Lauren: Was that just temporarily?
John: I don’t know whatever happened to him, anyway.
Lauren: No. Do you remember many of your co-workers at Hanford Works?
John: No. A lot of the people were from out West geographically, and I was from the East. When the war was over, back East I went.
Lauren: How different was it, living out West compared to living in the East Coast?
John: It depends on where you are. If you’re near the Pacific Ocean, it’s quite a bit like the Atlantic, only colder. But as you get across that range of mountains into the desert, then you’re in like Sahara.
Lauren: Yeah, it’s quite dry in Eastern Washington.
John: Just like the Sahara Desert, almost. It’s bad.
Lauren: Do you remember spending any time fishing or doing any hiking or anything out in Washington?
John: Yeah, in Washington, we liked these big fish that run up the river and lay their eggs up there and croak, salmon.
Lauren: Were they king salmon?
John: I think that’s the big ones.
Lauren: Yep. Spots.
John: I remember you had one, a big salmon you brought home.
Lauren: I did. Well, that salmon is our bread and butter up in Alaska. I think I brought a sockeye home, but we don’t get the king salmon like you got. Did you fish for them when you were down in Washington? Or did you ever buy them from people?
John: Yeah. Salmon, and there were other fish there. There was a place along the Columbia, where the Indians had a concession to fish for salmon from this crossover point on the Columbia River. That was nice, I thought.
Lauren: Did you ever buy salmon from them?
Lauren: How much for a king salmon?
John: I can’t remember.
Lauren: Was it cheap, or expensive?
John: It wasn’t expensive, no.
Lauren: So delicious. Did you ever take the kids camping or hiking or anything out in Washington?
John: Yeah. We had a tent.
Lauren: Did you ever spend time with any of the other families that were employees of the Hanford Works?
John: In the immediate neighborhood, yeah, in Richland. We had some families, next-door neighbors.
Lauren: Did most of the people there work out at the Hanford site, or did you have a variety of different occupations?
John: I’m trying to bring back what friends we had. My first wife was eight years older than me. In those days, women did not have the education that men did. Women came along later, where they got a better shot at education. With more labor-saving devices, would take some of their back-breaking mixing and pumping and all that. So, they started getting education.
Lauren: Well, I’m sure thankful for that.
John: That’s one reason why the first wife I had was eight years older than me.
Lauren: Why is that?
John: Because the older you are, the more chance for education you have.
Lauren: Sure. Did Mary like living in Washington?
John: Yeah. We had some nice neighbors. But women have come a long way since when I was in my twenties. It’s been good for women.
Lauren: Amen to that.
John: Labor-saving devices have done the trick.
Lauren: Now, I wanted to ask you, did Mary work while you were out in Washington? Or did she stay at home with the kids?
John: Stayed home.
Lauren: Yeah. Was she excited to return to the East Coast as well?
Lauren: You both were trying to get back there.
John: I had my hay fever to leave behind there.
Lauren: You didn’t have it on the East Coast?
John: It bothers me everywhere, but just some places are worse than others.
Just these co-op jobs that I had for five years on and off, I had a lot of experiences. That was throughout the South, mainly. Did you ever hear of a coachwhip snake?
John: One of our main jobs was with laying out new roads. The chain, fifty-foot chain—
Lauren: This was down in Georgia?
John: —the guy with the transit. Most of the time, there was an older man doing that, and we would be going through the untraveled area. We would run into a snake now and then.
Once my buddy had to make a pit stop. He went into the bushes, and he came flying out of there. There was what they call a coachwhip. You ever heard of a coachwhip?
John: It’s a snake that’s curious. Most snakes, you go like this, and they go. But a coachwhip are curious, and scared the hell out of him. He came out of there with his pants not up.
Lauren: Was that in Georgia?
John: Yeah. That was in Georgia.
Lauren: When you were in college, did you know when you got to Georgia Tech that you wanted to be a chemical engineer?
Lauren: I feel like now when people go to school, you spend a couple of years thinking about what you want to major in, and you explore. But you knew right when you went in?
John: Yeah. I had never been to where my mother was raised. Bonnie–
Lauren: Your second wife.
John: We flew over. I didn’t know enough Ukrainian to talk, and of course, Bonnie didn’t know any. We got a Berlitz [Phrase Book]. Berlitz had one for Russian, but they didn’t have one for Ukrainian. So we got the one from Berlitz.
We practiced Russian. When we came to this town where my mother came from, Halitz, H-A-L-I-T-Z, on the Dniester River. We knock on the door. They open it up. We had practiced Russian with the Berlitz book. Not Ukrainian, Russian. We started to say hello, and he goes like this, “We don’t allow Russian spoken in this house.” That was the end.
Lauren: Was that when they were part of the Soviet Union?
John: That shows you how much the Ukrainians tried to split away from Russia on and off for a long time. Halitz, it rises in Alps and winds up in the Black Sea.
Lauren: The Dniester River.
John: Dniester River.
Lauren: Did your parents know about your work out at Hanford?
John: Did they know? We never even discussed it.
Lauren: They just knew you had a good job.
John: It was quite a few years after the war when we got there [to Ukraine]. When the Germans were coming toward the East, a lot of the Ukrainians were [clapping]—then they saw them picking up all the Jews that lived in Halitz. Right away, that changed their attitude. Their welcome changed, because the gas chambers and all that.
Lauren: That’s terrible. Did your opinion of Hitler and his treatment of the Jews and World War II in Europe, did that influence how you felt about your job?
John: I can’t remember that. Of course, we were fighting Hitler, so we had to be against him. There were quite a few Jews who managed to escape, and a lot of them would up in New York on the East Coast. They would bring their valuables with them. But those gas chambers were something.
Lauren: Were you aware of them while you were in college?
John: Little bit, yeah.
Lauren: Did that have any influence on your career choice?
John: Not too much. Let’s see, I started in ’47. It was just before the war.
John: ’37, yeah, eight years before the war [ended].
Of course, as a child, I spent my first five years in New York City. Then at the New York World’s Fair, I spent six months there. I knew quite a few Jewish people. As a kid on the West Side, West Manhattan where we lived, they had pushcarts with vegetables and stuff like that for sale along the sidewalks. Delicious potato kosher knishes, I can remember that.
Lauren: How old were you?
John: Well, I was five at the time.
Lauren: Do you remember Roger and John and Donald growing up out in Richland?
John: Yeah. Roger had fallen out of a tree.
Lauren: What about John?
John: John, whenever we would go shopping, I would say he would always be running ahead, running head. That’s one thing I remember of John.
We had this trampoline, the canvas, and you would bounce on that. Once he bounced and hit his head on something.
We finally got to swimming in the Columbia River, which was right alongside Richland. There was an old rowboat that we somehow got. We used to use that, had a couple of oars. That would have been quite a deal if it got away from us, got out in the deep water and sent me miles down the Columbia.
Lauren: Did it ever get away from you?
John: Never did. Of course, I always was a good swimmer, so I was not afraid of water. Within a half a mile of where I lived, there was Rondout River, and then there was a dam there. There was a big body of water where I had an old rowboat that we used to go across that.
Lauren: Did you just do it for fun? Were they just fun outings?
John: For fun.
The DuPont Company was all out on safety.
Lauren: Yeah, you said that.
John: That’s a good way to be.
John: It may cost you a little more labor, but if you can keep people from getting killed or overexposed to radiation or whatever, it’s worth it.
Lauren: How old are you now?
Lauren: Ninety-seven years young.
John: You could fill a gallon container with whiskey or alcoholic beverage, and that would be as much as I’ve drank in my whole life.
Lauren: You were never a drinker, were you?
John: No, never, never, because I knew the evil of it. It’s not good. If it maybe makes you feel a little happy, that’s about it.
The worst part of the World War, I think, was the Japanese part.
John: When they had the Bataan Death March, a lot of them [US soldiers] didn’t make that. It left a big, big sour taste in my mouth.
Lauren: Things between Japan and the United States have improved greatly since World War II.
John: But the Bataan Death March, that was one of the things that was sad. Of course, if I ever went to Japan, I wouldn’t want to tell them that, “I helped work on the two bombs that we dropped on you.”
Lauren: Sure. Does that give you any pause or do you have any misgivings about that now?
John: No misgivings. They could be cruel, cruel.
Lauren: People can be cruel. Well, what do you think?
John: Germany, if they didn’t have to work on two, the East and West fronts, they might have won the damn thing. They had to fight Russia on the East and us on the West, son of a guns.
Lauren: They were surrounded by Allies on both sides.
John: Yeah. The gas chambers that they had, “We were only following orders.” Remember? At the trials, “We were only following orders.”
Lauren: Do you feel like some of that was the same on the American side? Did you feel like you were only following orders sometimes?
John: Well, if you got an enemy that can kill you, you want to kill them first. To hell with what’s a reason.