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Theodore Petry’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Ted Petry was recruited for the Manhattan Project after graduating from high school. He worked as a lab assistant at the Chicago Met Lab and witnessed the Chicago Pile-1 going critical for the first time. In this interview, Petry discusses his experience working at the Met Lab, and working under Enrico Fermi. He explains how the crew planed graphite blocks, and worked on the Chicago Pile operations. He reflects back on the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Chicago Pile-1 and meeting President John F. Kennedy at the White House at the time.

Date of Interview:
March 13, 2018
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: Okay. I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and I’m in Orland Park, Illinois. It is Tuesday, March 13, 2018, and I have with me Theodore Petry. My first question for him is to say his full name and to spell it.

Ted Petry: Theodore Frank Petry, Jr. The name Theodore is T-h-e-o-d-o-r-e, and F for Frank, and Petry, of course, capital P-e-t-r-y, and Junior.

Kelly: First, I just want to know something about where you were born, when you were born, and a little bit about your family.

Petry:  My family were South Siders in Chicago. I was born at 67th & Normal in Chicago. I’ve lived almost all my life in Chicago and in the area. Went to school in Chicago, college in Chicago, and the whole works.

Kelly:  That’s great. What did your parents do for a living?

Petry:  In those days, actually, my dad was a meat salesman. My mother was a housewife. During the course of events, he worked for the WPA in Chicago, the Works Progress Administration. Everybody was without jobs, so they got you the jobs. We lived at 68th & Carpenter for over forty years, until I got married and left home. Here we are now.

Kelly:  Tell us when you were born.

Petry:  I was born June 21st, 1924. It was the first day of summer, and the longest day of the year.

Kelly:  And you came out.

Petry:  Two of us. I was first-born, and my brother followed.

Kelly:  What is his name?

Petry:  His name is Arthur F., Frederick Petry.

Kelly: Did you have other siblings? 

Petry:  Yes, I had a sister, Barbara Jean Petry. She passed away long before we did. My brother has passed away also.

Kelly:  You say you went to high school in Chicago, and college. What high school?

Petry:  I went to a boy’s high school in Chicago called Tilden Technical High School. It was the old Lake High School, originally at 47th & Union in Chicago. I went there, I graduated from there. Eventually, I went to Chicago State University and got my degree. Because I started teaching high school, and I needed that degree to teach.

Joe Dowling: That was later in your life that you went back to college, though. You were in your thirties.

Petry: Yeah.

Kelly: What did you do right after you graduated?

Petry: Actually, I was recruited for the Manhattan District project at Tilden in the last year. When I got right out of Tilden, I went right to work at the University of Chicago, in the West Stands. That’s where we built the first pile, and did a lot of experiments under Enrico Fermi.

Kelly: My goodness. You must have been quite a protégé. Only seventeen, eighteen years old? 

Petry: Like I tell other people, it was a job. During those days, jobs were not easy to get. That’s why I just went right to work. Like I say, they recruited us to go to work at the university right from high school.

Kelly:  How many in your class were— 

Petry:  Oh, there were maybe 400 fellows—it was an all-boys school—in the class. But I’d say less than 10 of us were recruited at the university, and those fellows went on to different places. There were several of them that stayed with the university, but went out to California, to Los Alamos, different places where they were working, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and worked there. I didn’t follow up where they went after that. They went their way, I went my way.

Kelly:  What was it that made you stand out for the University of Chicago? Why did they seek you?

Petry:  They came to the high school and recruited—they interviewed you, and right from there they hired you. The minute I graduated, I went right to work at the university. I was more of—what do you want to call it—a messenger or something at the university: going downtown, picking up different things. All of this was on the streetcars, the Cottage Grove streetcar.

I would go downtown and pick up uranium or some radioactive material, actually just put it in my pocket, and go back with it to the university. Eventually, they did test your blood, and my red blood corpuscles were diminishing. They decided to pick up the radioactive material with a station wagon and a lead container, where they could put the radioactive material in it and bring it back to the university.

Kelly:  That probably made some sense.

Petry:  Yeah, it finally did, yeah. I probably wouldn’t have been here. I don’t know if the blood samples are there yet or not.

Kelly:  Wow.

Petry:  That’s what it was. I worked under Enrico Fermi, and there were others. [Leo] Szilard was there. He was a refugee from Vienna [actually Hungary], I think. There were many of those people that came as refugees, because Hitler was controlling all the things. They came down through Europe and got out of Europe, and immigrated to the United States. That’s what Fermi did. He was in Italy and Mussolini took over. Fermi left there with his wife, Laura, and came to the United States, which we were fortunate to have. 

Kelly:  Indeed.

Petry:  Right.

Kelly:  You must have towered over Enrico Fermi.

Petry:  Oh yes, he was a little guy, short, and very quiet. I can remember him just doing things and when the final experiment came [the Chicago Pile-1]. He did his calculations with his slide rule, he was a slide rule man, and he just kept calculating and calculating. 

Finally, he says “That’s enough. Let’s go to lunch.”

The experiment went through, that big pile, just one little slide rule calculation and it was all over with.

We had fellows there that went with the unit to Argonne Lab and other places. But they were stationed on top of the pile. On top the pile was a canvas tarp, and they were set on that canvas tarp and held liquid—oh, what was it—cadmium. In case when the pile, if it went critical, and got away with it, they could pour that over the top of the pile. 

If you’ve seen pictures of the West Stands, they had doorways jackhammered out of the concrete stands. Those were escape doorways, in case something went critical and we couldn’t contain it. They said, “Just get out of those things and head for Indiana.” That was their saying, “Head for Indiana. Just get away.” But that’s all that happened there.

Kelly:  Were you involved in creating the pile? Did you get involved in assembling it?

Petry: Yes, I actually handled the graphite. There was a fellow named August Knuth. He was a carpenter, and we did the planing of the carbon blocks. They were about, I’d say 30 inches in length, and we planed them down to 4×4.

Then they had a big drill press there where they drilled the holes. They compressed the uranium into cylinder, small cylinders, and they put those cylinders in the holes of the carbon. They stacked those up—I forget how many they said. There were 45,000 pieces of carbon that they put in there. They still have some over at the National Archives. They take them out with white gloves and set them down, and put them back in boxes after.

In those days, they had semesters from September to January, and then from January to June. You were in either second-year A, which was first part of the year, and then the B after that. But that’s the way most of the high schools were set up at that time.

Dowling: Didn’t they also hire you and Art?

Petry:  They hired me from Tilden. They came into Tilden Tech and interviewed—

Dowling: They hired Art also, too, didn’t they, initially?

Petry:  My brother. 

Dowling: Yeah.

Petry:  Yes, they hired us both. I have a twin brother, and they hired us both. But my twin brother decided the military was much better, so he joined the Coast Guard and went into the service. He stayed in the service, actually, thirty years.

Kelly:  Wow.

Petry:  Yeah. 

Kelly:  You were talking about how you had planed the graphite blocks.

Petry:  Right. We used woodworking tools. We used shapers for planing, where we could square off the carbon blocks, the graphite blocks, into—well, you couldn’t say perfect squares, because they were a little off when they came out of the factory or wherever it came from. They would run them through the planer and square them off, and then pile them up in the West Stands, in the tower where we built the pile, one-by-one.

Also, they were drilling them so they could put the uranium into the holes. That was all determined by people like Fermi, where they used their calculators and such. 

Kelly:  I don’t know if you were involved in this piece, but when they assembled the blocks, put them in place, was it very dusty? Did they have to keep it really clean?

Petry:  Yes and no. I mean, when we used just plain wood planers—actually, we only had one, I think, where we planed the blocks. Then we would square them off, and then we would slide them down.

The floor of the tower was way below the grade, so there were stairs that went down to the bottom of the tower. We put a 2×12 on one side of the stairs, and we could slide the carbon blocks down, which eventually, it got very slippery and they really whizzed down there. We would have like a mattress down at the bottom where they would land. Then we could pile them up. I understand there were 45,000 blocks in the pile. Wow. I didn’t believe that we worked with that many.

Actually, it was a day and a night operation. They did a lot of the work, the compressing of the uranium and everything, at nighttime. A lot of people, I guess, around there were wondering why all the lights were on in the West Stands and that people were working there all night long. Because we would enter at the north end of the West Stands, and that’s where trucks could go in and out and deliver equipment and a lot of 50-gallon drums with—I don’t know what was in them, because they just stored them there. It was just like a hush-hush thing, in and out, in and out.

Eventually, the West Stands were torn down. They put a skating rink there below the North Stands. The North Stands were still up there, and they had a nice skating rink down there. The Commons was way over on the east, the northeast corner of the Stagg Field.

Fermi was down by the pile with his slide rule and the rod that they used to go in the pile, and he’s the one that controlled the rod. He stood there, and he pushed it in and out to his calculations, [0:18:00] and he would figure out his slide rule. Then, he would push the rod in a little bit, or pull it out until he got his calculations correct. Then, he said, “That was it, we’ll go, let’s go to lunch.” 

Kelly:  I was wondering whether you went on to the second reactor they created.

Petry:  No. That was that one big reactor that was a humongous thing, twenty or thirty feet high and wide and everything. But then there were other people there that left there and went to Los Alamos. I think that’s where they went after the university, they moved out to Los Alamos. Then they extended other places, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Dowling: Didn’t they offer you a position at Argonne, out in the west suburbs?

Petry:  Yeah, I was offered a position at Argonne.

Dowling: Back in the day.

Petry: I thought it was far out. I didn’t realize it was just right outside of Chicago. I declined it and I took a job with some other company and went to work for them. I stayed with them for twenty-five years.

Kelly:  Oh, wow.

Petry:  A company called Joslyn Manufacturing. It was down in Bridgeport and I took an electrician job, maintenance and electrician’s job there. After they left—they moved out to the suburbs of Chicago. I just didn’t want to go there. I went and got another job and worked with the Pullman Company as an electrician, too. I worked with them building airplane wings.

Dowling: Then after that, you went back to night school and got your teaching certificate and you taught shop.

Petry:  I started teaching without a certificate, but they needed somebody to teach shop. Being an electrician—they needed the teachers, and I got the teacher job to teach at Tilden Tech High School. 

I got a job teaching there, and I taught there for twenty years. I left there, I retired as a teacher. That’s the story of my life.

Kelly:  That’s wonderful. Looking back, were you proud to have been part of the Chicago Pile operations?

Petry:  It was so secret at that time, it was just a job. Then eventually, they started having forums and the twentieth year, I think we went to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the first atomic pile, when it went critical. There, I got to meet a lot of dignitaries and things like that, and received a—

Kelly:  Who was president in 1962?

Petry:  Was it [John F.] Kennedy, wasn’t it? I got to meet him.

We went to the White House. Fortunately, we drove up to the gate of the White House and they said, “The CP-1 guys,” and they opened the doors and we went right in. Usually, you’ve got guards going in and everything. 

We met President Kennedy. I have pictures of him in the Rose Garden of the White House. He came out, and we presented him a small plastic statue of the first pile. He said that was great, he’s going to see that it gets into the Smithsonian, and not going to stay with the White House. 

Kelly:  By that time, Fermi already died. Do you remember, Arthur Compton, was he there? 

Petry:  Arthur, no.

Kelly:  Walter Zinn?

Petry:  Yes, and, yes, Compton’s wife was there. Fermi had passed away, and so had Arthur Compton. Their wives were at this dinner with the other notaries. That’s where I got that medal, I think. I’m pretty sure that was in 19, what, 42. That’s 75 years ago, though, and that’s on the table there. It’s got my name on it. 

Kelly:  It’s almost like a Nobel Prize.

Petry: I think only fifty of them were handed out. I’m not sure. I made the little thing to hold it, the little plastic thing. This is it here, and it says, “1942 to ‘62.” That’s the twentieth anniversary, when they gave it to us. I put in plastic, so I’d have something to save for posterity, at least. I can put that up there, too. That’s my memories.

I left there and went to work for a company called Joslyn Manufacturing, which is no longer in the Chicago area, and stayed there twenty years.

Kelly:  That was pretty soon after—like in 1943, you started with Joslyn?

Petry:  Yes, and I stayed there. As a matter of fact, I started as an apprentice electrician and I worked my way up to journeyman. Then I had the opportunity to take a job teaching high school, and that’s when I went and taught high school for twenty years. Twenty-five years with Joslyn and then twenty- years teaching.

Dowling: Right after the Manhattan Project, though, you actually had two small jobs. One was when you worked for the freighters around Lake Michigan.

Petry:  Oh, yeah, that was just a small job.

Dowling: For a few months.

Petry:  I got tired of working at the university, so I took a job as a deckhand on the ore freighters that plied Lake Michigan. I went all over, up to Minnesota, down to Erie, Michigan, Lake Erie, down through the Great Lakes on the boats. Then I finally got tired of that.

Dowling: Then you did a short stint with—

Petry:  He remembers more than I do now.

Dowling: I’ve heard it a lot, so, and I don’t get tired of hearing it. But you also worked in the Pullman Plant during the war.

Petry:  Oh, the Pullman Plant. Yeah, my dad was a guard there and he said, “Why don’t you go and work there?”

We were making C-47 airplane wings at the Pullman Plant. That was at 103rd and Cottage Grove. I think it was part of a high school, after the plant closed. I worked there for a time, and then I went over to— 

Dowling: Then you went to Joslyn, and then you taught.

Petry:  Joslyn’s, yeah.

Kelly:  Right. Sounds like you had a good time. 

Petry:  I was young. You know, you went from place to place. If you didn’t like it—believe it or not, seventy-three cents an hour you were making in a factory, as an electrician.

Dowling: Do you remember your salary from the university?

Petry:  It wasn’t much more, about $92 a month.

Kelly:  $92 a month. Were you living at home?

Petry:  I was living at home with my folks then, yeah.

Kelly:  That helps.

Petry:  That helped, yeah. I just handed it out to them like rent.

Kelly:  When did you get married?

Petry:  Yeah, 1951, March 31st. It was her father’s birthday. We got married on a Saturday. I think the church is still there at 65th & Peoria. Maybe not, I don’t know. From there on, four children, two boys, two girls, all doing fairly well.

Kelly:  Grandchildren?

Petry:  Nine. Nine grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Everything is—just living, good neighbors, active in church and the community. We’ve had a pretty good life.

Dowling: My favorite story—he touched on it, though—was how they put him on the streetcar with the uranium samples. And, you know, that really brings how primitive it was. They had to make their own—he was involved with it—I think they made their own test equipment, which just didn’t exist. It lets you know how bleeding-edge that really was at the time.

Petry:  Well, primitive, it was. I mean, you go downtown. I can’t even remember where I picked up the uranium at. But, anyhow, I had to go down in the Cottage Grove streetcar and take that down, back to the university in my pocket.

Kelly:  How big were the samples?

Petry:  It was just like a beer can of uranium.

Kelly:  How heavy was that?

Petry:  Not very heavy. I could put it in my pocket and just carry it in my pocket. That’s how I did it. Went down there, picked it up, brought it back. They did, eventually, after that, they did take a blood count and they found out the red corpuscles don’t work too well with uranium. So, they started going down there with a station wagon and a lead container.

Dowling: All they did was give you a few days off.

Petry:  That’s all, a week, I think. I took a week off and went back. They took a blood test. “Okay, you’re back on.”

Very lucky that here I am going on ninety-four. There’s nobody else left [who witnessed the Chicago Pile-1 go critical]. I’m the lone man standing. Because the last one that I know of was Gerry Pawlicki. I don’t know if you heard of him. He was a young scientist, and he was living here in Northern Park, too. He died at ninety-one. I don’t know of anybody else that’s around at all.

It’s funny, I got that picture, you saw that picture, that’s the lone man standing. Joe took the picture. I think Joe took that picture, didn’t you?

Dowling: I was there. 

Petry:  You were there, yeah.

Dowling: At the University of Chicago.

Petry:  That’s right. They had a bunch of kids there, and that was there by the statue [“Nuclear Energy”] at that big black thing there. These kids were looking at it, and the guide that was taking us around, she told these kids who I was. And they were, “Oh, my gosh,” you know.

Yeah, there were about ten or fifteen kids that came out and stood there listening to me. “What do you want to dream?” And talk about the different things that happened then.

If you go down to the university, you won’t know the place at all. The new buildings—there is no West Stands, no Stagg Field. I even think the library is gone. That used to be in the middle of Stagg Field. They built a library.

Actually, I took my daughter there to do some research, and I remember going through the library and finding some books. In one of the books, there was our old—I think it was a Republican representative, Mel [Ralph] Metcalfe, if you know the name. His name was in the book, and I had my daughter there, and said, “Hey, look at this.” Mel went to Tilden Tech, too. We got to see things like that in there. I don’t know where the library’s located now.

Kelly:  It’s still there.

Petry:  Oh, is it still there?

Kelly:  Regenstein.

Petry:  Right in the end there. Well, that was there, and the Commons was in the corner there, too, the University Commons. That was like a restaurant on the northeast corner of Stagg Field, it was. I don’t know if they rebuilt so much down there. You’d get lost down there now, with the different buildings. 

I spent a lot of my time, lunch hours and that, going over to the Museum of Science and Industry. I spent a lot of time over there, because it took a long time to go through it. I’d do my lunch hours there and then all that faded away when they moved to Argonne. So, here I am now.

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