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Michele Gerber’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

In this interview, historian Michele Gerber discusses the significance of the Manhattan Project in the twenty-first century, focusing on the Hanford site and its legacy. Gerber talks about why Hanford and DuPont were selected for the Manhattan Project, as well as setbacks from material shortages. She discusses the atmosphere of safety, how most Hanford workers had no idea what they were working on, and the environmental legacy of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. She also explains the role of women at Hanford, the demographics, and why the area around Hanford suffered from termination winds.

Date of Interview:
September 1, 2003
Location of the Interview:


Michele Gerber: My name is Michele Gerber, M-I-C-H-E-L-E G-E-R-B-E-R.

Why should people today care about the Manhattan Project?

Gerber: I think there are three reasons why people today should care about the Manhattan Project today, even in the 21St century. One reason has to do with money. The events set in motion by the Manhattan Project have cost this country trillions of dollars, and every American has paid those taxes. Something that is that expensive, it’s in our national interest to know as much as we can about it.

Another reason is health and safety. If the cleanup of the Manhattan Project facilities and the Cold War facilities in this country is not done expeditiously and well, we could all suffer some consequences in the degradation of our environment.

The third reason really is different from both of those. It’s the lessons in democracy that this project offers to us. The lessons that we can even translate and use in the modern world, about how information was handled, how technology was handled, how large organizations functioned. All of those lessons come to us from the Manhattan Project.

Would you like to elaborate on any of those? 

Gerber: Well, maybe I’ll talk a little more about the third reason I think it’s important, even for students today. Believe me, when I speak to groups of students, college students and high school students, to them I might as well be Betsy Ross. In other words, this history’s very old to them. It is as old in their minds as the American Revolution, and so it’s very distant. It’s very important for us to find a way to make them see it as relevant to the 21st century.

One way to do that is to talk about how we handle a new technology like genetic engineering. How do we handle something as a war on terror, with all of its implications in terms of cultural and racial and religious issues? The way that we can do that, or at least to begin to do that, is to look back at how the Manhattan Project handled information, and handled technology, and handled bringing people together for a whole new purpose in a whole new place.

What did we learn from the Manhattan Project?

Gerber: I’m not sure you want to use this one [laughs]. The Manhattan Project can offer us lessons in what we can do when something totally new is thrust upon us. In other words, nuclear reactors and radiation and all of those technologies were completely new and mysterious in the 1940s. They were so new that people didn’t even recognize the words. They certainly weren’t conversant, and it wasn’t easy for them to grasp what this might mean in their lives.

We have issues like that, too. We have genetic engineering. We have a whole new language in the world of genetics and biotechnology. We don’t understand those very well. But we can look back and say, how is this handled? How might we do better? How might we simplify and bring everyone into the dialogue, even people who are non-technical? How do we democratize something so new?

What is essential significance of Hanford?

Gerber: Well, to me, the Hanford site is the battlefield of the Cold War. It’s the largest, first and foremost plutonium site in the world. It is a battlefield. What was fought here was a battle for the 20th century’s essential issues: money, power, global positioning, in terms of the alignment of nations. [There was] a whole realignment of nations after World War II, what nations had power, the meaning of colonialism. Everything was realigned. I believe that if you don’t understand the Cold War, you cannot understand the 20th century. I believe that if you don’t understand the Cold War, you can’t understand the 20th century. You can’t understand the Cold War unless you understand the Hanford site.

Are there any analogies to the Manhattan Project today?

Gerber: A lot of people try to make analogies to the Manhattan Project. They speak of it when you hear of the push to make America energy-independent—a very, very large and complex task that no one quite knows how to do. You hear speeches, and Senators and Congressmen will say, “We need a Manhattan Project for energy-independence,” or say, the war on terror, another example. You hear people saying, “We need to make a Manhattan Project of the war on terror.”

What that really says is they did something so special in the Manhattan Project, and so colossal, and so complicated, that we would all like to do something like that and like to be a part of it. But so far I don’t see any analogies.

Can you explain why it’s hard to do what Manhattan Project did?

Gerber: The Manhattan Project took place in a different era. Even though it was only sixty years ago, it was a very different America. It was a very different mindset. The trust in government was still very, very strong, and we know that that’s been eroded by many of the issues in the ensuing years. People were willing to work under cover of secrecy, and not feel a sense of distrust about that. They felt a sense of camaraderie. It brought them together, rather than having them feel fragmented and scared. I think that fundamental trust now, that it isn’t as strong in this country. I think that we would have trouble implementing another program like the Manhattan Project.

What does the Manhattan Project show us about American spirit and character?

Gerber: Well, I think the Manhattan Project embodies an American trait that runs through our entire history, which is faith in the idea of science and progress. Some cultures, as you know, are very circular. To them, forward motion, progress, changing things, making things different, pushing frontiers is not a value. There are other values more important, such as community and tradition. But Americans like change, and they like to push frontiers, and they’re quite linear. They like to go further. They like to have more inventions, more things than the previous generation. I think the Manhattan Project is the most logical extension of that American trait, which is to have a faith that we can take something, and the next generation will take it further. That’s a good thing. I’m not saying that that’s the best set of values, but I think it’s very inherent in the American character.

Talk about why Hanford was selected.

Gerber: Well, Hanford was selected on the very first day that the DuPont and Army scouts came here. Actually the moment that they got here, they realized that they had found a site that met all their criteria. There was abundant cold water to cool the reactors. There was nearby, abundant electric power. Grand Coulee Dam had just been built and come online, producing power in October 1941. Here they were, arriving in December 1942, so most of the power that was generated was not being used or tapped in any way.

The other thing was, they had isolation. That was important because they knew these processes were dangerous, and they had some inherent unknowns. They felt that if they did have an accident, they would like it to occur in a remote place and affect as few people as possible.

Also, they had the climate here for year-round construction. Even though this place is very far north—it’s in fact further north than the northern tip of Maine, here at Hanford. It is still at least a month ahead of any other place that has a latitude as far north as this place, in terms of climate, the coming of spring, mild winters.

Why was DuPont selected?

Gerber: The DuPont Corporation was the largest chemical company in the nation at the time, and most likely in the world. They had had a role in World War I as munitions makers. In fact, they had a role that they wished they hadn’t had. They had a role which had earned them the title of “The Merchants of Death,” and that they had manufactured some of the nerve gasses of World War I. They really didn’t want to be in the munitions business. They wanted to be in peacetime development of fibers, materials, compounds that would aid agriculture and industry.

But they took this job because the President asked them to. They took it because they felt a sense of duty, that you simply did not say no in the middle of the war when the nation said it needed you.

But they did not really want to be at Hanford, and they left Hanford as soon as possible. In fact, they’re the only contractor in Hanford’s entire history that has ever left by choice.

Talk about the conditions that DuPont had.

Gerber: DuPont came here to Hanford with a set of criteria in exchange for a very low fee. As we all know, their fee for the entire project was one dollar. In other words, the only money that they received from the government was money for their expenses, the salaries of their people, the expenses. But in terms of profit, no, they did not want to build a shareholder base on their work at Hanford. But they did have some conditions that they wanted, instead of money.

They wanted to be indemnified against any accidents, or any unknown events that might occur after-the-fact: people getting ill as a result of any exposure here, anything that happened to them that might come to light even a whole generation later. They insisted on that.

They also insisted on some very robust industrial safety rules. They had a tremendously safe record. So in terms of ordinary industrial accidents, they insisted that strict precautions be put in place. Now, that doesn’t speak to the radiological issue—that was a different issue. But in terms of keeping workers safe, healthy—giving them exams, giving them gloves, boots, goggles, etcetera, they had a wonderful record.

Talk about the magnitude of the effort. How quickly was it accomplished?

Gerber: Well, the pace of work here was astounding. You had a sleepy little town of 300 people, the town of Hanford, Washington. In the summer of 1943, in just ninety days, they moved in 51,000 people. Because they obviously didn’t have enough housing, they put up over 800 barracks and hutments, eight mess halls, baseball diamonds, sort of a swimming beach along the river.

There really wasn’t much for people to do. Essentially people came here, and they worked very hard, they ate well, and they went to sleep. They might be able to listen to the radio in the evening, or go sit with friends, but there was really nothing else to do. Just twenty-nine months after ground was broken—twenty-nine months—Hanford had delivered the plutonium weapon that ended World War II.

Could you address the issue of wartime shortages and how it affected getting materials?

Gerber: World War II was a war that involved the entire country. In other words, every person, right down to the school boy, was affected. It’s hard for people today to realize that. Food was rationed—meat, gasoline, ice cream, beer, everything was rationed. People were asked to grow their own gardens, because there wouldn’t be enough vegetables in the stores. So it was a war that touched every person.

Hanford was sprung on the scene in the midst of wartime shortages. It was subject to shortages, but it had a AAA priority. In other words, if Hanford needed stainless steel, it would probably get it ahead of other industries, even industries that were building tanks and armaments. So Hanford, in one sense, had an easy time.

In another sense, it had a hard time because some materials were in fact so scarce that they simply ran out. There weren’t enough materials, no matter what your priority was. So Hanford had to make some substitutions. In some cases, substituting carbon steel, which is a softer steel than stainless steel in some of the key components, and some of the buildings.

I probably shouldn’t speak for the Oak Ridge site, but I know at Oak Ridge at some point they ran out of copper, and they literally had to substitute silver in some of their equipment. Different kind of equipment, but still it speaks to the issue that these were sprung into a very ordered and well-governed priority system. All of a sudden, these atomic sites went right to the top of the priority list.

Talk about how the operation functioned.

Gerber: There are basically four steps in the plutonium-making process. These were revealed for the first time to the public in General Leslie Groves’s book in 1963. So twenty years after the fact, the public was learning. It’s actually a very simple process. You start with uranium. You simply fashion it into a certain shape. You place those shapes in a reactor. You withdraw control rods, and natural fission occurs. You don’t have to turn the reactor on. You simply have to let it be, and it will turn itself on. You can stop it by inserting control rods, but you can’t actually ever start it.

The reactions occurred in the reactors, and then some of the uranium turned into plutonium, a very small amount. Less than one-sixtieth of one percent of the uranium that went into Hanford’s reactors became plutonium, and the rest became waste. You then wanted to separate out that tiny fraction of plutonium from the rest of the uranium element, so you had to dissolve it into a liquid. There is no way to get plutonium out in the solid state, so you go to a liquid state. You use chemical solutions to wash out the plutonium, and then you must re-harden it. The fourth step is, you must heat that fragment—solution containing plutonium. You must heat it until it fuses again into a solid. So you go from solid state to liquid and back to solid, and that is the only way to do this process. In sixty years, no one has found a different process.

What kind of legacy have they left, environmentally speaking?

Gerber: The plutonium-making process is very messy for three reasons. One, when you’re actually making the fuel rods, if you’re going to use a water-cooled reactor, as was done at Hanford, you have to coat the uranium with a different metal. As you’re applying the coating, which will be very thin, you always have to rinse the fuel very carefully. You have to rinse it many, many times, and you’re rinsing it in corrosive chemicals. Those chemicals then go out as part of the waste stream in step one, when you are first just beginning to make the fuel rods.

Step two: during the irradiation in the reactors, it takes hundreds of thousands of gallons of water pumping through the reactors. That water, of course, becomes contaminated, and that becomes a major waste stream.

Then in step three, when you dissolve the plutonium and you use a wet chemical process, all of the washed chemicals become contaminated. They go out as waste.

The final step, plutonium purification, or the very last step where the plutonium is re-hardened into metal, is a fairly compact step, without a lot of waste. But still there is the use of corrosive chemicals, and there can be toxic and corrosive fumes.

How did project managers handle all these wastes?

Gerber: The Manhattan Project was not cavalier about waste. It did have a plan. It had studied the wastes, and it wasn’t simply dumping them and belching them out into the atmosphere. It did have a thought-out plan.

Unfortunately, there was an awful lot that was not known. Containers that were supposed to last a lifetime instead were leaking within seven or eight years. Gasses that were supposed to disperse in the atmosphere were instead coming to ground and contaminating vegetation. Water that was supposed to be harmlessly contaminated at mild levels actually ended up concentrating some of the radioactivity in the water organisms, such as algae, plankton, fish. This was part of the learning process. These things were not known at the very onset of the project.

Would you consider this the first baseline environmental science?

Gerber: The Hanford site actually pioneered environmental monitoring. It was the worldwide pioneer in monitoring. That was at the insistence of DuPont. They insisted on measuring fish in fish tanks, even before they began production, so they would have a baseline, and then a measurement after production began. They were measuring the gasses in the atmosphere. They were measuring wind dispersion patterns, keeping track of their measurements. They were measuring every contaminant and every parameter, whether liquid, solid, gaseous, or any other form. They did a terrific job of record-keeping. Unfortunately, we have to say that they faltered in that they classified their findings, and did not share them with the scientific community at large for many years.

As a pioneer, it was probably the world’s greatest pioneer in environmental monitoring. Before that time, rivers and lakes were routinely polluted by industry all over the world. The materials disappeared into the water, into the soil, into whatever media they were placed. Here, measurements began before production. In early 1943, in the spring, as soon as there were people here, there were meteorologists taking studies of the wind dispersion factors, and the wind directions, and the wind velocity. They were actually building a meteorology tower at the same time they were constructing the production plants. There was a fish biologist that was brought over from the University of Washington, set up fish tanks at one of the reactor areas where the river bends, where there’s a lot of dispersion and a lot of fish, and set those up before production began.

So they were monitoring everything. They were doing soil column studies, building soil column replica, big cones full of soil in laboratories here. That’s amazing, given the shortages both of manpower, money, time, resources of every kind.

Unfortunately, this wonderful effort faltered, in that it classified the data. It was the policy of the War Department that this data would be classified. In fact, it wasn’t released to the public and to the public libraries here until the 1980s, in many cases.

Could you talk about the worker safety? Techniques to protect workers?

Gerber: At World War II Hanford, certain words were never to be spoken. The word “radiation,” the word “plutonium,” even the word “uranium” were absolutely not allowed to be spoken, and they were not spoken. But the workers were protected. They were told simply, “This is dangerous work. You may not understand all the specifics, but we’re going to tell you where you can go, where you can stand, where you can place your hands, how long you can be there.”

So they were protected in the fact that they were told, “This is dangerous.” There might be a rope barrier, simply a rope, and a person walking by could not see any danger, but they were told, “You do not cross that rope, because it’s there for your own good.”

Being 1940s Americans, they were trusting for the most part, and they were quite obedient. So people took care, followed the precautions, even though they didn’t know specifically what they were being protected against.

How inventive and creative were DuPont engineers in designing the facilities?

Gerber: An interesting part of Hanford’s history is still visible today. You can actually go out into T Plant, and you can see the periscopes that were used in World War II submarines, and were also used in the plant and are still used in the plant. The reason they wanted to sight through periscopes is that periscopes are curved. They are not straight, so radiation can’t travel and shine through them. They wanted to use piping that was crooked, but that had mirrors and the ability to see around corners.

They took those techniques and modified them in the most unique ways, so that people could sit in a crane forty feet above the equipment they were operating, sighting through a World War II submarine periscope, and actually place materials with that crane within inches along the working surface.

One of the issues is recruitment. Who came to Hanford? Where from?

Gerber: Hanford recruited from all forty-eight states at the time. Remember, there were not fifty states at that time. They actually sent out posters and recruiting advertisements saying, “You will be doing important war work.”

People were not told what they would be doing, but they were enticed by the fact that this was important work. This was emphasized once they got here, “Your work is important.” They would have sort of pep rallies in which they were told how important the work was, even though they couldn’t be told what its ultimate goal was.

Remember, the draft took men up to the age of thirty-eight, so most of the construction workers here were in their forties and fifties. It was definitely an older workforce, for the day. The young men here were the top scientists. This was a young man’s game. Physics was a brand new science. If you had a degree in physics, chances are you were under the age of twenty-six.

So it was a strange demographic here at Hanford, where the young men were the bosses, the older men were the vast majority of the workforce, and the support services were, in large part, done by women. There were about 4,000 women here among the 51,000 men. Those women for the most part were non-professional. There were some nurses, but there was no large majority of women engineers, scientists, anything like that. Most of the women were food service workers, clerks, drivers, stenographers and jobs of that type.

Can you talk about the woman recruited from state university to run women’s programs?

Gerber: A woman was brought here as a unique idea of General Leslie Groves himself, the head of the Manhattan Project. His idea was that there should be a position here called “Dean of Women.” It was almost a sorority-like atmosphere in that this woman came to look after the welfare of the women workers, so that their parents wouldn’t worry about them. Because for the most part, these were very young women. A lot of them were teenagers. They were eighteen, nineteen, twenty. They wanted a sense of adventure, but their parents didn’t want them exposed to danger.

So the position “Dean of Women” was created. This woman, Buena Maris, did come from Iowa State College. She was a middle-aged widow, and she came with her own daughter. She ran programs, everything from the Girl Scouts to the candy-stripers to day-care programs for some small minority of working mothers here. She also established a housemother in every single women’s dormitory. She often tells a story out of the past where, at one time, the Army commander here asked her, “What is the one single thing that women here want most?”

Her answer was immediate. “They want the sidewalks paved, because high heels are rationed and they’re breaking their shoes.”

So the very next morning, believe it or not, with all the priorities of work here, the very next morning when she woke up, the asphalt trucks were rolling. They were paving the sidewalks between the dormitories and the mess halls.

What was the dress code?

Gerber: I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never been told that.

What about the African-American population’s contribution?

Gerber: Hanford, like every other Army site, Army post and Army unit in the United States was segregated during World War II. As you know, they were not de-segregated until 1948.

There were black workers at Hanford. They lived in separate barracks. They ate in a separate mess hall. They had a separate recreational tavern for them to go to in the evening. But the work crews were mixed. The actual crews building on the plants were mixed during the work-day.

Can you address the issue of Colonel Franklin Matthias and his attitude towards Latino and Hispanic workers?

Gerber: I don’t know too much about it. I thought he housed them at first in the 3000 area. There was a tiny minority and they were kept separate.

How many people really knew what they were working on?

Gerber: Secrecy was very tight at Hanford, and it was absolute. People were told immediately upon being hired, “You will not talk about your work. You will not write letters to your family about your work. You will not ask your bunk mate, or your lunch mate, or anyone else that you meet what that person is working on, because we don’t want you to know. If we wanted you to know, we would tell you.”

So secrecy was not in any way subtle or gentle. It was absolute, and that was one of the working conditions here. When people went through several years of working here—a year and a half, or two years, and they worked 52 hours a week on something that they did not even understand—that’s a real mark of dedication. For the most part that secrecy was very successful, in that it achieved its goal.

People at Hanford did not figure out what was happening. They had a couple of prime theories. One was that this place actually was making some kind of advanced rocket fuel. Some of them had heard stories, and were familiar with the fact that Hitler had developed a V-2 rocket. This was a small, unmanned flying bomb that could fly faster than an airplane. Sometimes these little V-2’s would whiz by American bombers over Europe, and people would talk about them. By about 1944, people in America knew what these little rockets were. The people at Hanford thought they must be making fuel for some kind of larger and more advanced rocket. That was the prevalent theory because there were so many tanks and receptacles for liquids, sand so much piping.

There were several rumors that were jokes, and very lighthearted. One of them was that the place was a manufacturing factory for President Roosevelt to have a fifth campaign. This place was going to manufacture the leaflets, and that’s why it had to be so huge.

But, for the most part, and I’ve talked to hundreds, if not thousands of old-timers, when they began to hear the news of the atomic bomb on August 6th, they were shocked. They had no idea, and they were absolutely dumbfounded when President Truman, the very next day, announced that Hanford was part of this project.

How would you characterize the workers’ attitudes upon discovery?

Gerber: When the news came to Richland that World War II had ended, August 14, 1945, just five days after Hanford’s weapon had been deployed, people were jubilant. The news came to Hanford kind of late in the evening. It was a summer night, and people began to literally hear things from their neighbor’s kitchens, and they began to hear radios getting turned up louder. Pretty soon they all started coming out of their houses, and coming into the town’s gathering square and parks, and began hugging each other. They actually had a spontaneous all-night party in which they simply partied out of joy.

A lot of them have retained, to this day, the attitude that this was a good thing, a defensive weapon, a weapon that in the end saved the lives of brothers and uncles and fathers and friends. To them, it was a defensive weapon that saved lives.

Talk about termination winds.

Gerber: When the Army and DuPont came here to build the Hanford plants, they ripped up the vegetation in the desert at an unprecedented scale. Remember, this had been a place that was primarily used for sheep grazing. Most of the acreage of the Hanford site, before it was the Hanford site, was a sheep grazing area. It was simply eaten off once a year by sheep, and the rest of the time it had natural vegetation.

When the Army and DuPont started to rip up the desert vegetation, the dirt just flew. This is a naturally windy place, and when the winds came in 1943 and ‘44 and ‘45, they found so much of the desert uncovered that the dust was simply everywhere, and they were famous for their dust storms. Some people say, “Well, isn’t that strange, that the storms would get worse?” Well, it’s not strange at all when you think about the desert being ripped up. They actually had to build wind-breaks on the west side of town as soon as Richland became settled, so that they could contain some of those winds and stop them. But the wind would blow so badly that people would actually line up to quit their jobs, or to terminate right after a wind storm.

Talk about housing again.

Gerber: In Richland? Alphabet housing?

Alphabet housing.

Gerber: At World War II Hanford, in the beginning, almost everyone lived in a barracks or a hutment. There was a small trailer park for people who came with their families, but that was the vast, vast minority. But the Army and the DuPont Corporation were committed to building enough housing that people could live in a normal manner.

So while the construction was going on out on the site, they were also constructing houses in Richland. They constructed a government set of plans, a specific set, based on the size of your family and your rank in the company. In other words, a large family would get a larger house, but also a supervisor could get a different kind of larger house, even if you had a small family.

These became known in Richland as the Alphabet houses, different style for every letter of the alphabet. In World War II, there were about nine different styles, but this continued into the early Cold War, so that by 1952, you actually had housing styles going from A to Z. You also had some prefabricated housing, what we might call manufactured housing today, going as a double A, a double B, a double C, so you actually had in effect over thirty housing styles.

Tell us about the tension between the scientists and the engineers in early B Reactor.

Gerber: You know, it wasn’t like Los Alamos really, where it was kind of the intellectuals versus everybody else. It really wasn’t like that here. There’s not much of an issue.

How about as an operative issue? Tell us how it worked.

Gerber: Hmm. Don’t know too much about that.

Regarding the clean-up effort: how extensive is this effort going to be?

Gerber: Hanford has a huge legacy of waste from the Manhattan Project and the follow-on Cold War. The Cold War ramped up production, increased production to the point where it almost dwarfed the wastes of the Manhattan Project.

The Cold War was fought here at Hanford. This is the battlefield of the Cold War. The wastes are the cost of the Cold War. The war was free in terms of the fact that millions of people didn’t die, and that’s a good thing. But it wasn’t free in that the land paid a price, the river paid a price and the region paid a price.

So we do have this legacy here. This is the task of this generation: not only to take care of the legacy, but to be open and honest to make sure that we join the larger community, and being willing to talk about it, and not hide it, and also that we are able to transition our economy and become something other than “The town next-door to Hanford.”

Copyright 2015 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.