Cindy Kelly: This is Cindy Kelly at Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is March 20, 2013 in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. And we are delighted to have Larry O’Rourke. His first question is to tell us your name and spell it, please.
Lawrence S. O’Rourke: I am Lawrence S. O’Rourke, L-A-W-R-E-N-C-E S-for Stephen O’Rourke, O-’-R-O-U-R-K-E. And, I like to be known as Larry.
Kelly: Perfect, Larry. Please tell us your birthdate and where you were born.
O’Rourke: I was born on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1924, in East Providence, Rhode Island.
O’Rourke: East Providence, Rhode Island.
Kelly: Oh yes. Sorry. Terrific. Let’s start with the beginnings then. So, you were a Rhode Island boy. Where did you go to school and what did you study?
O’Rourke: I was born in Rhode Island, but at the age of four my dad got an opportunity to improve the situation so he moved to—relocated to Buffalo, New York. I was four and I had a sister who was eight and another sister who was twelve at the time. So, they left a rather tightly knit family situation in Rhode Island and established in New York.
I attended grammar school there. I went to Saint Joseph High School. I ultimately matriculated at Canisius College in Buffalo. I was fortunate to be able to go there because my dad had a very difficult time in the Depression and didn’t have much money. So, I got some financial assistance from the school, and started at this local school, run by the Jesuit priests in Buffalo. I majored in physics, and it was in the midst of many crises at the time, the European war particularly. Things were not going well.
We attended class six days a week and had no breaks other than Christmas day. We crammed in as much as we could possibly do. In two and a half years of chronology, I had completed a little more than three years of my physics courses.
One day, a notice arrived in the mail that I had been called into service. There was a list of names there that were included in that call-up. Interestingly enough, they were all classmates of mine at Canisius. There may have been one or two exceptions, but I don’t remember. That seemed kind of opportunist, to have hit our group.
We went to Camp Upton in Long Island and were inducted and briefed. At Camp Upton we were only there a few days, and we generally just milled about. We were berated by some long-term sergeant by the name of Benny, who didn’t like college kids very much. He wanted to give us latrine service regularly and all that. It was kind of abusing.
We then were sent by train out to Camp Roberts, California. We had two in the upper bunk and two in the lower bunk. We had the shades drawn, so no one could look in and see that there were troops in there. I imagine it must have been pretty obvious, but they couldn’t see how many, perhaps.
I remember, we pulled into the Philadelphia station with the blinds down. There were all kinds of bustling outside. It just seemed so strange to be sequestered like that. We went across the country. We got off every now and then. We were just in fatigues. We got off, I know, in Kansas City and had the greater part of our day to roam around there. We got off in Tucumcari, New Mexico and milled around. We didn’t have any idea where were going because we didn’t have a copy of our orders at the time. And we arrived at Camp Roberts, California.
We learned that it had been formed from the vast Hearst estate out there, and was bifurcated into an infantry training area on one side of Highway 101 and field artillery on the other. It struck us as unusual, but we didn’t spend too much time thinking about it. Our platoon was all made up of either college graduates or college undergraduates. The other three platoons weren’t. I still haven’t reconstructed that, but there was something behind that.
We had the thorough training. We had all the infantry training that was built into the thirteen-week program. We learned the Garands and the mortars and the grenades and the like. We went to the J Ranges, under the barbed wire, and all that sort of thing. We were ready—I guess rather—in our youth looking forward, we thought we were going to the Pacific, was our guess. We were ready for it—ready to go onto further training and get shipped over.
One morning after we were graduated, they called out our platoon and they told about fifteen of us to report to the orderly room, and we did. We were shipped to Ohio State University under orders. They put us in a hall that they had to vacate women from that hall. I don’t imagine they appreciated it, but we took over that hall. We had chemical engineers there, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and we were all put in term 9A of Mechanical Engineering, which is a graduate course in Mechanical Engineering.
I either volunteered or was selected to go to the Captain, Grotgen, who occupied a place in that dormitory. And I said “Sir, permission to speak.”
He said, “Go ahead, O’Rourke.”
I said, “You know, we’re in term 9A of Mechanical Engineering, and none of us is a mechanical engineer. I’m just wondering if—what’s planned.”
He didn’t answer the question exactly. He pulled a folder over in front and said, “O’Rourke, you guys want to go back to Camp Roberts?”
I said, “No, sir.”
He said, “Well, study your mechanical engineering.”
So we did. We had lights out at night. I think it was eleven o’clock. We didn’t understand the lectures. And we had flashlights under the blankets and studying elementary stress and strain and things we didn’t know about, and trying to stay alive through Mechanical Engineering.
Another day, Assembly came, and some of us were called out. I think about half of us. We were marched over to the armory. I recall there were some desks there. There were at least four, maybe more. Behind each of them was an officer in the United States Army. I was seated before a full colonel. I don’t remember his name at all. He just interviewed me, something similar to what’s going on here. You know, what did I do and what was my interest. That was all there was to it. We marched back to barracks and continued our courses in mechanical engineering.
I got a letter from my mother, I recall, that said that the FBI had been interviewing the neighbors on either side of our house and had spoken with her. “They were asking about you, Larry.”
That seemed odd. What was I, nineteen years old? I didn’t care. It didn’t worry me. Nothing worried—we were young and going with the flow.
Then, in the final day of this, a group of us— maybe fifteen or so—out of the dorm were shipped off to Columbia University. I think, but I don’t know, I think some others might have gone to the University of Illinois. I’m not sure about that, because I know that there were only about ten left in that residence building that didn’t leave somewhere. I know, because one of them was a close friend of mine at Canisius College and a squad mate of mine at Camp Roberts and a roommate at Ohio State. He ended up going to—he was in D-Day. So, those fellows I think all went to England.
I want to tell you something about Eddie Roessler. He was badly wounded in the invasion. When he hit the shore, he never knew he was hit. He had severe abdominal wounds. He awakened in England and had a nurse over him. She examined his dog tags and saw he was from Buffalo, New York. She said, “Oh, you’re from Buffalo. Do you know Larry O’Rourke?”
That nurse was Agnes Garvey from Providence, Rhode Island, and a family friend of whom I had met and known pretty well in repeated trips back to Providence to visit relatives. She ended up to be the nurse over Eddie Roessler. I think that’s a fantastic story.
At any rate, our orders were to report to Columbia University and to do so in civilian clothes. I don’t think any of us liked that. We were proud of our private first class rankings. But we did. We went home and packed a civilian suitcase and went to—reported to Columbia and reported to Dr. Dunning at the Pupin Physic Labs.
I was placed under the section leader, Don Trauger, who was a physics grad from Nebraska Wesleyan and a fine guy—maybe four years older than I. It happened in his residence club right immediately contiguous with the Columbia campus, called the Morningside Residence Club, there was a room open in his corridor, and he invited me to occupy that room. I thought that was great.
So, we occupied corridor 4-F on the fourth floor of the Morningside Residence Club. Don and an associate lived in the larger room, which had a bedroom and a sitting room. I occupied a single room with a closet. A fellow named Jack Largey occupied the other one in that corridor. So, everyone in that corridor was working at Columbia University in the physics labs.
While we were at the physics labs—no recognition whatsoever of why I was there or what I was expected to do. I was given very rudimentary assignments that didn’t seem to warrant having been assigned there for that purpose. But, it was just a holding thing, because I was mostly interested there in the fact that there was an electron microscope there in the basement. I used to roam down there, and I’d never seen an electron microscope before. I wasn’t allowed in, but I could get the scope of it, and I was intrigued by that technology.
In rather short course, I think measured in weeks or maybe a month at most, we relocated uptown around 129th Street or so and Broadway to a large building, which had been occupied by the Nash Motor Company, which was empty when we arrived there. I don’t know how many floors of the building were occupied, but it was sectioned off. You didn’t roam through the building. My area was in the basement of the building. I met another fellow in the army from Uppsala College. He was a physicist by the name of Bill Tewes. I smet him and he turned out to be a lifelong friend. He’s still with us—more on Bill later.
Bill and I—it’s not hard to talk about this in a non-classified way or a declassified way. We had a pretty important job, although putting it in that context—we couldn’t really put it in that context at the time. But, the assignment we had was to assist in the development of the gaseous diffusion process, which was the heart of the rather well identified K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge. The theory behind this was, separating isotopes of anything could be accomplished by passing them through a porous barrier, the pores of which were of the diameter where essentially one molecule at a time would pass through them. If they were too large, you’d get laminar flow and mixture all the way through. If they were too small, nothing would pass through it.
That’s how they were attempting to separate the molecules of uranium-238 and 235 – not by the molecular size, which was the same, but by their relative velocity, meaning that the lighter element would travel at a higher velocity and therefore impinging upon the walls of the separation barrier more frequently, relatively than the [heavier] uranium in gas form would. And, ultimately enrich itself theoretically over four thousand stages to a point where one could construct a nuclear weapon. We didn’t know this, but we knew that we were being delivered sections of barrier, which I won’t describe. And we tested those barriers by introducing a pressure differential across these samples with a mixture of gasses, which—we knew what the gasses were, but I won’t name them. There were two gasses, which of course were on a physical basis of essentially the same energy differentials of what ultimately was going to be the uranium hexafluoride gas.
So, we knew we were separating these gasses. We quickly learned that some of these samples that kept coming and coming were getting better and better, and sometimes there were big failures in what we could report as the efficiency of any given sample that was given to us. We didn’t know where the samples emanated from.
Kelly: These are barrier samples?
O’Rourke: These are barrier samples, yeah. There was one particular barrier sample, called the Norris-Adler, that seemed to be coming back and back. So, we could assume that it was progressing better than anything had before. However, it faded off, and other samples kept coming. In due course, I did learn where some of the barrier was coming from, because I was seconded to Dr. Clifford Beck, who had been head of the physics department at North Carolina State, and a very good man—pretty young. I was seconded to him to go out to Decatur, Illinois to a plant operated by Houdaille-Hershey. I quickly learned that was where at least part of these barriers were being manufactured.
They didn’t know what they were for. Our assignment was to construct testing equipment where they could test it themselves out there, instead of sending it to Columbia, and instruct personnel how to do it. So, we did. That was an assignment of perhaps two months.
The most memorable part of it was, one day General Leslie Groves appeared on the scene. I learned that when General Groves shows up, things happen [chuckles]. What a dynamic person. He stood on a platform, and he—over his head was this sign, “Every tube may mean a life.” That was very dramatic. I wish I had that sign. I can see him up there, and he didn’t cut any corners. He just laid it on. He said, “I don’t care how hard you think you’re working or how tough you think it is or how tedious it may seem to you, you just keep at it. Don’t you let down.” He just put it out there. The only time I ever saw him. I thought, “Oh boy, there’s dynamism behind what’s going on here.”
Shortly after President Roosevelt died, just days after—I remember where I was when I heard about his death. Most of us who were there, and there were others, by the way, members of this Army detachment at Columbia. I’d say at the outset, I think maybe I was one of the first, and I think we grew to maybe fifty or maybe a little less, all working in the Nash Building.
I do recall in the opposite side of our basement there was a wide-open area, there were two GIs—Charlie [Allen]—slipping his last name, and the other—a name you can’t forget—Sam Adams, were working on equipment over there, which required heating and special ventalization. I didn’t know what they were working on. I think they had what was called PG, or processed gas, or actually had uranium hexafluoride over there. And were taking advance samples from the ones that Bill Tewes and I were working on with inert gas, and testing them for endurance under a fluoride atmosphere, and efficiency, and that sort of thing. I think that’s what they were doing. But of course, we never—we were all friends, we never asked each other, “What are you doing over there?” But, you could see them down at the other end of the basement, and they could see us.
We weren’t really called the Special Engineering Department of the US Army Corps of Engineers, as I remember, until we shipped to Oak Ridge. When we first arrived at Columbia and worked at the Pupin Physics Labs, we were known as DBS Laboratories. That stood for Drs. Dunning, Booth, and Slack, who were noted physicists. I think when we moved to the Nash Building, that became a little too obvious. They didn’t want people deciphering that name. So, they just called it the SAM Labs. Which, I don’t think anybody ever really completely identified, except those who made it up, and I don’t know who they were. We generally called it Special Analyzed Materials or something like that. But, it was just SAM Labs instead of DBS.
The time came that—it was very sudden. Early after Roosevelt’s death [in April 1945]—a matter of days—everyone who was in the building in the Corp of Engineers was sent to Oak Ridge. We went down by train. We were met by bus and transported into Oak Ridge. We quickly learned that Oak Ridge was a rather vast place, surrounded by fencing and barbed wire, and had at least three gates manned by military police, who would want to see identification or other authority and search the cars and allow ingress. There was no egress checking that I remember. There may have been some.
We were introduced to Oak Ridge, which had essentially one paved road—Tennessee Avenue. It went from one end to another of the instillation. The rest of the roads were essentially dirt and gravel. We were put into hutments, really. They were heated by coal stove, two in each of the barracks. We had upper and lower bunks. I’d say there were about forty of us in a barracks. There were some hutments that some of the guys stayed in that only had eight men in them and a coal fired stove. There were about eight of those way back in the woods. I occupied Barracks E, which was right in front of the detachment.
We came reasonably well acquainted. Then, we were scattered out. From then on we really didn’t know what any other individual was doing while they were in Oak Ridge. We could tell where they worked. We knew there were four plants. We could tell where they worked because of what bus they got on. They would say “K-12” or “K-25” or “Y-12” or “X-10”, and we’d know. But we didn’t know what went on in those plants. They didn’t know what went on in the plant I went to, which was K-25. That was the gaseous diffusion plant.
I learned there that that plant had been designed and built, and the eight thousand compressors had been built, by Allis-Chalmers. And these massive cylinders of eight to ten foot in diameter at the largest had been built by the Chrysler Corporation at the cost of building some tanks, and were being installed in Oak Ridge.
And they still didn’t have the barrier. They didn’t know. They build this whole plant—I learned later—before the barrier was ready. They finally decided on a barrier that had been approved through the work at Columbia, and had been manufacturing and shipping it down there and installing it in these converters. That was a very impressive introduction to an industry. I had worked in the steel plant while I was in high school. In college, before they accelerated the programs, I worked at Republic Steel at night. I knew something about industry, but I had never seen something as high-tech as this place or as big.
I think it’s rather well known that this K-25 plant was a “U”-shaped building and had two floors. Various utilities and the like were on the ground floor. And the second floor was the process floor, where there were four thousand stages of decreasing size, that did decrease in size because, of course, as the material was enriched you’d need smaller and smaller converters to handle the smaller volume of gas, being the enriched uranium-235. I was assigned to four buildings, which would be forty cells. Each of which had an instrument panel in front of it with temperature and pressure and power consumption meters for each cell. So, there were forty of those. And in front of each one of those was a woman, usually in her twenties or thirties, on a stool with a desk in front of her. She’d make notations of all these gauges all day long. Usually, they didn’t move.
My job was to go around and inspect these charts. If I saw something was off, they wouldn’t know what it meant, but I would know what it meant. It meant that there’s an increase in pressure in one side, meaning the barrier was plugging, or that the—one of the pumps was drawing too much energy, which means it might have solids built up in it, or whatever. Then, I’d report that to the area superintendent. That was my job.
It wasn’t challenging and it was interesting because it—I’m sure each of us who were doing that sort of work were trying to put all of the dots together. I still hadn’t. I didn’t know exactly what those gasses were until I did get involved in some—in what they called line recorder work, which is a mass spectrometer. They built these marvelous miniature gas spectrometers on carts that could be rolled around and they could draw samples. They’d read out the spectrum of the constituents in the gas stream. You knew you were working with something very heavy. From there on in, it didn’t take any guessing. You just had to—and you knew it was radioactive material. You knew it was a fluoride. And, if you had any training at all, you could then quickly know, “We’re separating isotopes of uranium.” But nobody ever said that.
We moved from those initial areas to dormitories. They were simple dormitories. They didn’t have any eating places. We had lavatories on each floor and showers. When you entered the main entrance, there was a larger room with some sofas in it and either a pool table or a ping pong table, I can’t quite recall, and a telephone on the wall. There were two men in a room. I’m not sure how we did it, or if we did it, it happened by circumstance, but Bill and I—Tewes—occupied the same room. We had a corner room with two windows and two cots with a table in between. He had a Hallicrafters radio, which was a rarity in that stay. Not many people had radios. That was on the table. So, we could listen to the radio.
Bill went his way every day on a bus to K-25, and as did I. I never knew where he went once I went inside the gate of K-25. I had no idea what Bill was doing, nor would he say, nor would I say, nor would anybody I ever knew say. We were very, very close. I don’t know if all the disciplines down there were, but I can tell you our Special Engineering Detachment kept their mouth shut.
We had a very good social life, I’d have to say. It wasn’t like an ordinary Army base at all. There were more civilians than there were of us. I think there were 1,250 of us from various places. We had very, very vigorous and active dances on Friday nights at the Grove Rec Hall and the Ridge Recreation Hall and one in Townsite, which was the center of the commercial area in Oak Ridge, such as it was. And the band was made up of members of the Special Engineering Detachment. I remember Lenny Dawson was a very important leader in that. He was a born leader, Lenny Dawson. He also helped to put that band together. We had good dances and plenty of opportunities to find a date, because there were a lot of young women in town.
Bill Tewes had dated the same girl throughout, Audrey, and ultimately married her and had two daughters and still lives in Oak Ridge. Audrey died a few years ago. It turned out in the long run Audrey had a pretty important job over at X-10 in highly advanced technology and was actually applying her technology, where I was simply supervising established and operating technology, which is a lot different than research that I had been engrossed in at Columbia. You know, to this day, I still don’t know what Bill did. As close as we are, to this day—it’s inured into us. I don’t know what Bill did. I did learn through other sources what Audrey did. She had a Master’s degree in chemical engineering, as I recall—a very important job.
So we had a good social life. Not to draw too much on it, but to make it clear, it wasn’t easy to get into that place with the gates and they were manned by the military police. The military policy had their own enclave in Oak Ridge. They didn’t—weren’t barracked in with the Special Engineering Detachment. They manned the gates. And if you passed by their quarters, you might glimpse that there were some horses there and you assumed—and later I learned was correct—that they had horsemen who used to ride around the parameter of the sixty-four square miles, I think. Ride around and patrol those fences.
I’ve learned so much in the last ten years that I’d never knew. It came—Hiroshima and Nagasaki— and we continued work. Some of us were given options to go to Bikini. I turned that down, because I wanted to go back to school. Bikini was a demonstration at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific for a more advanced bomb that they tested, and had quite a demonstration down there.
I continued on for almost a year. It was April 1, 1946 that I was sent to Fort McPherson and discharged. I went home, and the time of year was just right for entering a semester. I enrolled at Brown University with the intent of getting a PhD in physics. That didn’t turn out to be the case. I was not a good fit for that curriculum. Not to demean Brown University, but the professors didn’t know anything near what I knew by that point in time about the areas of physics I was interested in—not their fault at all. At the same time, Dr. Beck—Clifford Beck, who I had mentioned earlier at Columbia—was in charge of research and development at K-25. He had been urging me to return. He said, “We really need you. You’re just what we need.”
So, I never finished at Brown. I went back to Buffalo and married Dorothy Jean, my wife for sixty-six years. We took off with thirty dollars in my pocket, borrowed from my dad, to Oak Ridge. I went to commence work, and it developed that I had not had my top secret clearance renewed, or they hadn’t had time to do it. So, Ralph Wadell, who was the personnel manager there, said “Larry, there’s no sense in you sitting here in the green room reading these introductory papers like these other guys. Why don’t you just go and stay in touch.”
So, Dorothy and I went out, and we had a six-week honeymoon in a cabin in Fontana Dam National Park. We got acquainted. Checking in every other day, we’d walk down to the lodge and phone into Ralph Wadell, and he’d say, “No, not yet.” Finally one day, he said, “Oh yeah, good. You’re green. Good to go.”
So, we came back to Oak Ridge on a bus. We were put in a dormitory room, and I went to work for Cliff Beck, doing some real research this time in barrier—still in barrier, but knowing what we were working with, knowing the shortcomings of the past and the requirements of the future. I worked now again with Bill Tewes, back in my life in the same lab, and happy to do it. And Don Trauger from the Columbia group, here he was as our section superintendent again.
I found out that Don Trauger, when he first arrived at Columbia, was briefed by Dr. Dunning on what was the purpose of the work to be there and not to mention it. I knew that often on a weekend—we worked six days a week at the Nash Building. Bill and I ran two ten-hour shifts. We ran the testing equipment twenty hours a day. We’d reverse shifts every now and then, Bill Tewes and I. We knew that Dr. Dunning would appear in the basement of the Nash Building every now and then. He’d go into Don Trauger’s office and they’d talk. Dunning would leave. I knew that he was being briefed on the weeks’ worth or so of the barrier, or was making demands, or whatever it was it was functioned to do. Don was carrying them out, Don Trauger. So, there we were in the Nash Building basement, reunited in R&D in the 1401 Building in K-25.
Dorothy and I were promoted from the dormitory to a single bedroom, very nice, what they call “E-1.” These were buildings that had a single bedroom with kitchen, sitting room, and fireplace on each end, and then the middle were two stories that had two bedrooms. The E-1’s and E-2’s, they were called. They were really nice little places for newlyweds to be in. We were able to get one because Dorothy Jean proved to be pregnant, and we were advanced there waiting the birth of the baby.
I worked in the research and Dorothy had our first child. I’m not going to go too far into what we were doing in research, but we felt it was productive. In fact, I know it was productive, because I can tell you for the next fifteen years they kept retubing those converters over and over as more and more efficient barrier was developed, even after we went on to other things, Bill and I. I’ll leave any of those details behind.
In due course, Dorothy made us eligible for a two-bedroom house. We moved into this B house, which was very nice—nice brick fireplace, nice sitting and dining area, effective kitchen, two bedrooms, and an infamous furnace that everybody in Oak Ridge was aware of. We had coal-fired heating. The coal that was delivered was gooey. It was hard to find an individual piece. It was all stuck together with gunk. It would burn beautifully, but the smoke was insidious. At least one fellow, Carl McDowell, made the mistake of installing a fan in a window. Somehow or another while the furnace was going, the fan was on and the damper in the fireplace was closed. Anyway, it sucked all that black all through his house, and he became famous for that.
Now, there became a crisis at K-25 on the 4th of July in 1950. A certain interruption in at least part of the process, I’ll say, had developed and it was an emergency. I had advanced from work on the barrier to certain other specialty research projects. I had just started on one. A very important technical guy named Sy Smiley at K-25, said, “Hey, that work that Larry O’Rourke is starting, maybe that would help?” So, I got descended on, and was told to skip much of my basic work and skip the pilot plan and go right into application of this process to that particular little problem. It worked like a charm. It just worked like a charm. The reason this is important to me is because it brought me to the attention of the production people, rather than the R&D people.
Simultaneous with all this timeframe, K-25 was having a larger K-27 and a larger K-29 built in series with it. And the Atomic Engineering Commission had decided to build an even bigger plant than all of those put together in Paducah, Kentucky, as a gaseous diffusion plant. To my surprise, the production people asked me if I would join the ones who were moving to Kentucky as an area supervisor, which was a pretty big jump for me. I was very pleased.
I spent a little time in K-25 as a foreman to get familiar with that part of the work, and went to Oak Ridge as an area supervisor. I was assigned to start up the first of four plants. I was in charge of that and I did. I worked with the construction people closely and the unions. We got along fine. I got those cells on schedule. As soon as they were available, I got men on them and got them started. That went very well. And I think both the construction forces and Carbide, Union Carbide—then known as Carbon and Carbide Chemical Corporation, rather than Union Carbide—they wanted me to go. I was happy to go. It was quite an advancement. So, that was a big life change.
I started out at the first plant and they liked the work. So, they had me start out the second, and then the third, and then the fourth. Then I became the cascade operation superintendent for all four plants. It was a little startling, because I was twenty-seven years old, but understandable because there weren’t any forty year olds who understood the process. I remained essentially in that same position from 1952 to 1963. And then become—Union Carbide invited me to join the New York office on 270 Park Avenue in New York. That was, again, a nice advancement. Dorothy was just thrilled to—she’d had enough of the—God bless the south, but she was a farm girl—not a farm girl, but a country girl. She’d always wanted to go to New York. So, she was delighted. That was no problem.
So, off we went to New York. Again, through my history, I was put on a development operation to see if it would develop into a divisional—warranted division establishment. I ultimately managed that operation. It was not a successful business venture, or judged not to be. I was assigned to the metals division. Ultimately, because some of the metals available to that division were highly technical, like germanium and niobium and tantalum, I became specialized in those metals after working with more base metals in steel plants for a while. I went into that. Inasmuch as they were directed at electronic applications, I became the general manager of the electronics division in South Carolina, Greenville, South Carolina. By good happenstance, a brilliant physicist and very aggressive individual, Bob Sharpie, Dr. Robert A. Sharpie, who at a young age was an assistant directive of the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and whom I had known only at a distance in Oak Ridge, became the president of the electronics division.
So, Bob and I became acquainted, and we got a mutual respect. Bob didn’t remain there very long. He became president under the Cabot Corporation and left. But I stayed managing the electronic operations until 1973. I had been receiving offers that were attractive to leave. I remember one of my sons, Paul, said, “Oh, dad will never leave Union Carbide.” But, it turned out I did.
By the way, we had, in the meantime, we had six wonderful kids. I remember this Carl McDowell I mentioned earlier once said, “Larry, what are you going to do with all these kids?”
I said, “Carl, we’ll manage.” Two of them are physicians—two of them are practicing physicians, and two of them are practicing attorneys, and one is a practicing registered nurse all these years, and the other is an NBC station manager in Texas. They did all right. Unfortunately, Carl had passed on before I could tell him what happened. Our children are self-starters, and I’m very pleased with them. Also, our fourteen grandchildren are very productive, solid kids. That all started by going back to Oak Ridge, I guess, in 1947.
I left Union Carbide for an opportunity with Gulf and Western, which was quite big at the time, and stayed together as an amazing conglomerate until its chairman, by the name of Charlie Bluhdorn, died of a heart attack. Then, it just seemed to go asunder, with internal differences of ambition and management technique. It was quite a conglomerate, you know, Florsheim shoes and Hart Schaffner suits, cigars, and Paramount movies, and fender bumpers. Sugar was the big thing in the Caribbean, Jamaica. It was one of the big money makers.
It fell apart. And at that time I was the executive vice president of the natural resources group of which exploded in all the disassembly of Gulf and Western. Would you know that I got a call from Dr. Sharpie, Bob Sharpie, president of Cabot Corporation, asking me to be president of a division that they were about to acquire? They did, and they acquired a company which had been my biggest customer when I managed the electronics division at Union Carbide. It was known as KBI, Kawecki Berylco Industries. They had acquired it and they wanted to put their own management in at the top. They invited me to join. So, I became president of Kawecki Berylco Industries, located in Reading, Pennsylvania.
We moved from Allentown, where I was with the Gulf and Western, to the Reading area, and here we are. All the history I have spoken to up to 1964—I left completely behind the raising of the family, progressing through these different assignments. We moved around a great deal. Hardly one of our six children ever went to the same four years of high school. They all had to split up. One went to three junior high schools and two high schools. He is now a very well recognized physician. Every one of them tell me that moving around meant a lot to them, to learn a lot people in South Carolina and Indiana and Ohio and Pennsylvania—all the places we lived. They say they treasure it. I respect them a great deal for that.
There is annually here what they call “World War II Weekend.” It’s quite a thing. They bring in reconstructed military aircraft from all over. They have B-17’s and P-51’s and all sorts of aircrafts, about twenty of them. They fly around the area for a week, and people can take rides in certain ones of them. Then, they have the weekend where they reenacted—they built a French village being defended by the Americans against the Germans. They have a battle. It’s really an enormous thing. It closes with a big dance in the hanger. They have people representing FDR and Patton and everybody. They play the music of the ‘40s, and people dance. It’s really great. It’s an undertaking that is the love work of a lot of the educators around in this area, and some of the medical people.
They were looking for somebody who had been in the Manhattan Project. They’d operated for some years, and they thought they’d like to get the project in. They were trying to find somebody, and somebody told them about me being right there in the neighborhood. They invited me to make presentations. So, I opened up a lot of old boxes and things I hadn’t seen in forty years. I reconstructed a scrapbook to refresh my memory. Then, I studied things that I hadn’t really understood or paid any attention to. I studied the technology and the processes at Hanford and the problems with plutonium-241 and why the plutonium bomb was such a different shape than the uranium bomb, due to certain isotope problems. All this has all been published. It was all new to me, but I became fairly, really deeply interested.
I learned a lot in the study, and I started giving lectures at the World War II weekends. That became a little much for me, because my wife wasn’t well. I didn’t want to leave her for the better part of three days. So, I stopped giving those lectures, after which one mans a table and people come and talk. They say, “Oh, my dad worked there, and my dad did this.” Mostly, the ones that meant most to me, these fellows—Cindy, I can’t tell you how many—more than a dozen—have come to me and they have been in Europe and they’ve been shipped back to the United States and were being geared over to join that armada out off of Okinawa. They didn’t have to go. And, some of them were there and didn’t have to invade. They say, “Thank God for what was done.”
Another offshoot of this, which I still do: a professor at a local college, Albright—Dr. Claudia Strauss. She has invited me a number of times to address her class. It grew a little bit, to where other classes, history classes and physics classes, would join. I give lectures over there at Albright. I’m very interested in that because if the students—if I can open them up enough, they’ll be frank because their age group has a limited but very definite understanding of the use of the atomic weapon. And usually they resent it and don’t like it. They don’t like it at all. I addressed that.
I would develop my presentation into first some history of it and then into what I hope is an open discussion of using it or not using it. I’ve been to Hiroshima and I’ve been to Nagasaki. I’ve been the vice-chairman of a Japanese company, Kawecki, KBI – Showa Denko. And, I have Japanese friends, none of whom have ever voiced any reservations about it. Of course, they are awful polite people. Down in their hearts—well, I know one, one who had said that that saved millions of Japanese civilian lives, because they would have died defending themselves in an invasion. Whether the Americans wanted to kill them or not, they would have died defending their little house. There was no question. They would have died in the field. It’s good that it ended.
Then, there are the political parts of it, about the Russians coming down from the north. The Japanese didn’t want to see them get in there any further than they got. I’ve never met—worked with Japanese who had any resentment about the use of that bomb. Or, when I visited the two sites, any of the civilians all seem to be welcoming, and everything was in balance by that point in time.
That’s about my nuclear experience and my life history. I don’t think I’ve ever said so much about it in one sitting. I know I haven’t.
Kelly: That’s excellent. Wow, breathless, goodness me. Where to begin? I don’t want to keep you too long.
O’Rourke: Well, I don’t want to keep you too long. I know you need to get back to Washington. I know that.
Kelly: That’s fine. I want to talk a little bit more, if we can, about New York. I mean, you described really well where you were staying and as much as you could on what you were doing. What recollection do you have of John Dunning? You’ve mentioned Dr. Dunning.
O’Rourke: I only saw him four times. I was introduced to him when I arrived. I saw him walking through the labs once in Pupin. I saw him at least twice on a weekend in the Nash Building. We’d shake hands and he’d say some nice things. My impression of him was a very nice gentleman. I didn’t have a lot of exposure, nor did either one of us have the opportunity or the cause to express our personalities or thoughts in any way—although I sure got General Groves’ personality in a hurry out at Decatur that day.
I’ve read his [General Groves’] life story. I forget the author, frankly. I’m sure you remember. It’s a very interesting book. It still doesn’t get—you can’t put his personality on the page. He didn’t look much like a general, you know. He was pretty heavy and ponderous. He didn’t look like he belonged on a battlefield, but he was an engineer by education. He had been in charge of—I believe in charge—of building the Pentagon. He got that done in an amazing length of time. I think it was six months to build that place. The whole design was altered by adding another story to it after the thing was started. Thank God the foundations would take it.
The guy did that, and then he saw to it these plants got built in advance of how to use them in Oak Ridge. Hanford, I’m not too familiar with. I think they were pretty well geared in advance when—the work at the University of Chicago, to know what they wanted to do out there and how to build it. That was different in Oak Ridge.
You know the four plants in Oak Ridge—I’m sure you know, Cindy—none of them produced the material that was used at Hiroshima. None of the plants had been able to produce enough material. According to my reading, and I know it was done, Oppenheimer and Groves—I think it was Oppenheimer suggesting, “Put the plants in series.” I think they took the thermal diffusion product and fed it to the ¬¬¬¬calutrons, and took the calutrons product and fed it to the gaseous diffusion cascade. There’s where they got enough to ship in April of ’45 out to Los Alamos.
Kelly: Why don’t you say that again? I think it was thermal to K-25 to the calutrons.
O’Rourke: No, thermal to calutrons to K-25. Is that correct? Now, which way was it?
Kelly: Thermal to the K-25 and then—
O’Rourke: Oh was it? And then the calutrons.
Kelly: Right. Exactly.
O’Rourke: Oh, I’m glad I came. I’d gotten it wrong.
Kelly: Why don’t you say it again though because I like the way you say it, if you’d just tell the story.
O’Rourke: That’s all there was to it. We got special cylinders to feed to the cascade. They weren’t the same as the ones we had been feeding normal from the feed plant, the K-25. So, there was something different in them, which we didn’t know. Our job was to operate the place.
Suddenly then this fellow, Bill Humes, who was in charge at the top of the cascade, and later in charge of all K-25, and later a vice president of Union Carbide. Bill Humes, his whole attitude changed. He became a—one happy camper. You could tell something had happened. You knew it was something good. You just had to guess something or somebody was getting close. But, I’m glad to have that straightened out. I thought we were the top of it. Maybe he was pleased being there halfway, I guess.
What else can you enlighten me on or ask me?
Kelly: One thing we want to impress upon people is, the success of the Manhattan Project wasn’t inevitable in that there was a lot of innovation that went on to try to make these plants work. You saw it firsthand. You were involved in trying to look at these experimental barrier materials. It’s hard, because you weren’t told what the end product was and probably didn’t have the sense of how close they came to having this big plant with nothing in the innards of the—
Kelly: Yeah, to work. Think about that. Talk about—you know.
O’Rourke: I assume you knew that before I mentioned it?
Kelly: Well, it’s really—we’re talking to an audience far beyond me. It doesn’t matter what I know.
O’Rourke: You’ve heard so many of the histories. I would be surprised if you didn’t realize the plant was designed before the barrier was able to be accommodated. I think that’s extraordinary. I don’t think you could do that today, Cindy. I don’t think you could do many of the things we did. I know we couldn’t do any of the things we could today. We certainly couldn’t keep it a secret. I don’t think the—well, I love young people. But, I don’t think they’re tuned in anymore to being enclaved, you know, at Oak Ridge, and keeping their mouth shut and not having their iPads and their iPhones and Samsungs and communicating with each other. I’m sure they could be dedicated enough to do the work, but I don’t think they could be kept quiet; the media as well. I think there would be more sources of leakage and more places for it to leak, by far more magnitudes than there were in those days.
Keeping the compartmentalization between all these research centers, where the heads of them couldn’t even talk to each other. They didn’t know how the other one was progressing, according to the literature I read, and resented it, to some extent, as researchers. But, that’s the way it was compartmented. That was my history, anyway. It’s supported by what I studied since. I don’t think we could do it now.
Kelly: There was a lot of call for a “Manhattan Project” to solve various problems, like Parkinson’s Disease or cancer or global warming, or you name it. Do you think they could have some variation on this to tackle those things and what would it look like?
O’Rourke: Cindy, I don’t know. That’s a little out of my grade—pay grade. Those things interest me, but you know, frankly, I don’t delve deeply into such things anymore. I don’t have the staying power. I used to have staying power. I know my limits now. I know that one of my granddaughters, who is in medical school, is very interested in applications to improve medicine. She impresses me in that sense. I think she may get into that. She’s brilliant in mathematics and all the sciences. She may someday teach me something. But, it’s going to come to me that way. I’m beyond doing research anymore.
Kelly: It’s a hard—it’s a tough thing.
O’Rourke: No, it isn’t tough at all. I’m having a good life.
Kelly: No, I meant the question is tough.
O’Rourke: Oh, yeah. You need to be involved to really answer that question, and I’m no longer there.
Kelly: Let’s see. I’m trying to think of something you didn’t talk about. You covered so many things. You did an excellent job. It was excellent.
O’Rourke: Well, I had a pattern laid out for me—your interview you had before mine. I audited that and saw that. I could see what I think you wanted.
Kelly: Any further thoughts?
O’Rourke: No, no. I just appreciate you coming all this way to meet Bill and to meet me and to try to archive some of our remembrances. Something tells me then you’re—like one thing you’ve pointed out here, on the sequential tying together of the Oak Ridge plants. Isn’t it ironic that one of the four processes that fail in Oak Ridge, the centrifuge, is now the mode? Isn’t that interesting? They couldn’t get the structural strength out of the revolving cylinders to hold together at those revolutions. Now they’re it.
No, I’m done. I do thank you. I thank your associate for taking this time to do this work. It was nice to have met Ed and his daughter, Linda, who turns out to be a neighbor of mine. I know I’ll get to know her better in the future. But, thank you very much.
Kelly: My pleasure.