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Tom Gary’s Interview – Part 1

Manhattan Project Locations:

Tom Gary headed the design division in the engineering department at the DuPont Company and served on the committee which decided among the proposed fissionable material production and purification processes. He discusses his time on the review committee, including Ernest Lawrence’s effective salesmanship, and what it was like to work with a young Crawford Greenewalt.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Stephane Groueff: Mr. Gary, what was your job at that time here?

Tom Gary: Head of the design division. The engineering department had five divisions: design, construction, engineering services—that’s a division of consultants and they have young engineer’s resident on many of the DuPont plants. The fourth one was control, which is to take care of the payroll and all of that stuff, sort of like Ashton General in the army. And then the fifth one was the engineering research division. I headed the design division.

Groueff: With offices here?

Gary: Yeah, we did every bit of Hanford design, four floors of this building that were in complete security.

Groueff: I see. And you were assigned especially to the plutonium project?

Gary: No. I had the entire design division. We had just finished building six or eight huge military explosive plants when this thing popped up. We thought we were through with it all. We were almost through. We were going to sit back and watch the boys fight it out with the powder we’d made for them. And then this thing popped up. I headed the entire design division.

Groueff: When were you briefed about the atomic work for the first time?

Gary: Now that’s a story, and I hope I remembered right. Mr. [E.G.] Ackart, who was then Chief Engineer, to who this letter was addressed, he retired the year after the war ended in ’46 at sixty-five. He called me one late afternoon and said, “Tom, call Tom Chilton in.” Tom Chilton was head of the research division, and I was head of the design engineering department.

He called us in and says, “We’re going to Washington in the morning on a nine o’clock train. I don’t know what we’re going for. Nobody has told me. We’ll go down there and meet some generals and they will tell us why we’re going to Washington.”

Groueff: When was that?

Gary: This would have been—

Groueff:  The winter of ’42?

Gary: Yeah, I would say that would have been the early fall or late summer of ’42. The chain reaction went off in Chicago in November.

Groueff: The 2nd of December, ’42.

Gary: Wasn’t it November?

Groueff: No, December.

Gary: I guess you’re right, because it was just before Christmas. So I would say it was probably early fall. The government had just finished building a magnificent new building in Washington called the War Department on Virginia Avenue, one of those big red, monumental buildings. It was all finished but it wasn’t furnished, completely occupied. The Pentagon was designed for record storage, not for [00:33:00] a military war department. It was designed to store all of the records. It really was a file room. I think they’d just barely started it, or maybe they had finished, but they decided that would be military headquarters.

So the War Department never did really completely occupy this building I’m talking about. We were taken into I don’t remember whose office first, but a magnificent office with flags. I don’t think it was General [James C.] Marshall’s office. Have you seen the gold ballroom down here in the hotel?

Groueff:  No.

Gary: It’s a great big ornamental thing. This must have been some sort of a big conference room about half that size. In one corner there was an old oak desk like this and two chairs by it. There there was a general, an admiral, and Dr. [Arthur H.] Compton. A third military man, I only remember General [Wilhelm D.] Styer, he was a big staff man. I don’t even remember the Admiral’s name or the other Generals, or whatever he was. Dr. Compton after introductions took over. Some of them sat on the table swinging their feet. Two of them got the chairs. I probably stood up.

Groueff: And you were three DuPont men?

Gary: That’s right.

Groueff: Ackart, Chilton, and Gary.

Gary: And then Compton unfolded this fantastic fairytale. At that time they wanted us to do the chemical separation after the uranium had been exposed in the pile. We were given then or soon after a little blueprint. It wasn’t any bigger than that. This looked like a coal storage bin that I had out in my home when I burned coal. In one corner we were told, “That will be where they’ll put the fuel. Somebody else will deliver the fuel to it there. You get it out of there and you run it through this chemical operation.”

When we came back Mr. Ackart was worried and I remember well I said, “Mr. Ackart, don’t worry about this thing. This ain’t going to happen. This is just some physicists/chemists dream. There’s nothing that’s going to happen.”

Groueff:  But did they talk about producing a bomb or a weapon, or just to separate?

Gary: They told us it was top secret. It was a military weapon. All they wanted us to do was to take this fuel, which of course if it had been a hundred feet away and you were standing here it would kill you with that much uranium right out of the reactor [00:36:00]. This was just on paper. They didn’t have any at that time. This was two or three months before the first chain reaction. They had a little piece that big in the laboratory. You couldn’t even see it. They tried to show it to me. I kept saying, “Where is it?” I never did see it. It was a pinpoint and that’s all they had.

We came back after a few legal negotiations or whatever you’d call it. We got the job and I picked out a certain man who had just finished a top secret job for another military department. It was a moderate project, but very complicated chemical engineering. I sent him out to Met Lab to get the story. This was just an experimental plant, the first separation plant. DuPont hadn’t become committed then to anything but this little experimental separation plant. I still don’t know why they did it for seriousness or just to get DuPont entangled, but Groves created what he called a reviewing committee. There were three DuPont men, Williams, [Crawford] Greenewalt, and Gary.

Greenwalt: And [Eger] Murphree?

Gary: Murphree and Standard Oil had been in a lot of this stuff. Not this particularly, but he knew a lot about this. He had a virus or something and was sick at home in bed, so he never went on the trip. He had been exposed to it before we were. When we went back with our report and reviewed it with him he said, “I agree with everything you say.”

Groueff: So you were a member of the reviewing committee?

Gary: Yes. Now there was a fourth member, Dr. [Warren K.] Lewis, who was a chemical engineer at MIT. I think at that time he was practically emeritus, but he had been with his professorial work at MIT since being a young man. Incidentally, he came from a tomato farm down in Delaware I found out. He was wonderful. He had been the consultant for the oil companies.

We went to Columbia where the fusion work was going on. We went to Chicago to the Met Lab and then we went to California, where the electromagnetic work was going on. We were about ready to report when somebody in the Navy called about this thermal thing [00:39:00].

Groueff: How did you travel? You traveled by train?

Gary: By train. On the trip from Chicago to the West Coast we were given all of these secret, highly technical reports. It was two days and a night between Chicago and out there. We had a double compartment that you could open up. There were only four in the party, three DuPont plus Dr. Lewis, because Murphree in bed in New York. There were two in each compartment and we’d open up the door during the day.

When we went to lunch we’d pack our stuff up and we were studying these reports and discussing them. At five o’clock somebody would say, “It’s time to quit and get ready for dinner.” Somebody would push the button and the porter would come with three scotches and one ginger ale, because Dr. Lewis never drank any whiskey. So Greenwalt and [Roger] Williams and I each had a scotch, and Dr. Lewis would have a ginger ale. Then we’d clean up and go to dinner and come back and talk it all over again. So that was two days of that. Then we had our session out there. We arrived in the early morning at Berkeley I guess, or wherever it was down the hill from Lawrence.

Groueff: Yeah Berkeley.

Gary: Lawrence had his radiation laboratory with the big cyclotron that was almost finished up on the hill with a great big round building over it. When we arrived in the morning we were greeted by him and some of his staff. I said, “Lawrence, don’t forget I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean and I want to be sure and see it before I go home.”

He said, “Leave it to me.”

We were there two days and a night. We were catching the second night train about eleven o’clock to come back East. He had a big laboratory on the side of this. The building around this looked like a big gas holder. It was a huge a hundred and fifty-foot cyclotron. About ten o’clock it was time to get our bags at the hotel to catch the train. I said, “By the way Lawrence, I haven’t seen the Pacific Ocean yet.”

He said, “Come here.” We wound down all of these steps. You haven’t seen it? It’s up on a hill over the University.

Groueff: Yeah, I’ve seen Berkeley. I vaguely remember this hill.

Gary: It was quite a high hill. We got to the nice bright night and we went out there on the edge looking over the University and he said, “Do you see that row of light there?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He says, “That’s on the Golden Gate Bridge. You look under there and you’ll see the Pacific Ocean.”

So I didn’t see the Pacific until ten years later when I was in South America for the company. I came back up the west coast so I saw too much of the Pacific.

Groueff: During the visit there in Lawrence’s laboratory, what kind of work did you do? Did he explain what he was doing with electromagnetics?

Gary: We acted like we were the Supreme Court. We just tormented the life out of those people asking questions.

Groueff:  And they were answering?

Gary: Well they tried to answer them. Roger Williams, who later headed atomic energy in the explosives department, had been here quite a while and he was a real keen chemical man. A lot of these questions were directed at the chemistry of the electromagnetic thing. Our job as the reviewing committee was, “Which of these three routes is the best to go ahead with?” We were hoping the reaction pile would be the worst so we wouldn’t have to handle it [laughs]. Then of course as you know they went ahead with all three of them.

Groueff: Yeah. How was Lawrence while he was explaining this? I’ve never met him. Was he an enthusiastic man, shy, or talkative?

Gary: If that guy had been born in France, de Gaulle wouldn’t have a chance to have been President. Not only did he know his physics up one side and down the other, but he had the manner and the political acumen. That guy Lawrence was just a natural.

Groueff: He talked well?

Gary: My yes.

Groueff:  Convincing?

Gary: He talked more about supporting Compton than his own, but he was itching to go ahead with his in a big way. But he’d change the subject and tell us how fine this thing Compton was doing in Chicago. Thinking we’d turn him down and go for his. I was fifty-two years old. I had been up against French and American Generals in World War I. I had reported to them on liaison work. I’ve been around, and in my business life I’ve been exposed to the big shots. I listened a little bit as well as talked to him, so I had been around.

Groueff: And Lawrence impressed you as one of those big shots?

Gary: Not in that sense. He didn’t have bluster. He didn’t put on any bluster. It’s hardly fair to talk about President de Gaulle in this thing, but he was not shouting and beating on the table like I always did. He had a way of getting his way. Churchill got his way. Churchill and de Gaulle were just as different as night and day as people. But they both had a way of getting their way.

Groueff: What was your way as head of the department?

Gary: Yell at them. I always did and I always will and I’m seventy-three years old.

Groueff:  So you were impressed by Lawrence.

Gary: I was impressed by all of them. I had the same thing with [Harold] Urey. Urey was more out than [John] Dunning was. We didn’t see much of Dunning up there. He was there, but he was quiet. Urey did most of the talking in Columbia.

Groueff: But Lawrence was the kind of man who not only was a good scientist, but he knew how to sell his stuff?

Gary: And was very articulate.

Groueff: Was he a pleasant man, attractive man?

Gary: Oh yeah. He was tall and bordered on being handsome. And yet he could tell a story. They took us to a Trader Arms restaurant the first night we were there. We got in early in the morning and checked into the hotel and went to work.

Groueff: Trader Vic?

Gary: Yeah, Trader Vic. There were four of us and I think he probably had four of his own crowd with himself and three others. You’ve been to Trader Vic’s?

Groueff: Yeah.

Gary: Well you know what kind of a thing that that was? Those punches are hard to start off with. That Lawrence was really something.

Groueff: Did he convince you and your committee that his system was good?

Gary: At that stage nobody knew what was good. They didn’t know whether Compton’s pile would work. The fusion thing had plenty of trouble and wasn’t worked out for a long time. As to convincing, we were the prosecutors and they were the defendants. I’m sure that they recognized that some of these questions that were asked were very constructive and pointed to some things that they’d better pay more attention to research wise.

Groueff: But Lawrence himself was a believer?

Gary: Oh yeah. No question about it. The newspapermen were always talking about the “power,” that they all wanted power, whether it’s de Gaulle or whoever was running Germany that they seek power. They do seek power, but right or wrong if they believe in something they believe in it and they want to put it across.

Groueff: And Lawrence was that type of man?

Gary: All of them were. All of these three Nobel Prize physicists, Arthur Compton, Lawrence, and Urey, they were all Nobel Prize men and had known each other in these scientific meetings and visits. Here they were in competition for the big prize.

Groueff: And you had to decide which one was the best of the three?

Gary: Yeah.

Groueff: What was the manner of Lewis? Was he an old man at that time, a quiet man?

Gary: Lewis must have been sixty-five at that time anyway, but he was a jewel. He had a keen sense of humor. He wasn’t a physicist, he was a chemical engineer. He was wonderful and he used to tell us stories about his early consulting days with the oil companies. Some oil company would want him to come down and dress it up a little bit. I don’t know if in France you have the term, “He was the salt of the earth.”

Groueff: I see what you mean.

Gary: Down south when a guy is solid and you can trust him and he’s alright, he’s the salt of the earth. That’s what Lewis was.

Groueff: Most of the chemical engineers that I talked to all have an admiration for him and said he was one of the greatest.

Gary: He had taught Greenewalt at MIT. Greenewalt had been one of his students. So that didn’t hurt anything either in this in the few moments of relaxation that we’d have on this trip.

Groueff: But he was pleasant competitor?

Gary: Yes, not grumpy or anything.

Groueff: Who was asking most of the questions, him or you?

Gary: I would say that probably Roger Williams asked most of the pointed questions, but we had a pretty well-organized little team. We didn’t have any winks or signals. I asked very few questions, because my function was strictly engineering. I had to say several times in the DuPont Executive Committee if the scientists really knew what they were talking about and if we had somebody—I mentioned Greenewalt by name not in Greenewalt’s presence, but I could translate this language to DuPont engineers that we could design it.

Now whether it would work or not, I don’t know. Because you see we had the whole run of engineering, every kind of engineering you’ve ever heard of in the DuPont Engineering Department. And we had three years of beating out these explosive plants.

Groueff: Why did you pick out Greenewalt? Did he have some special qualities of combining science with engineering?

Gary: Greenewalt was a very unusual man. People use to say when he was made President if he hadn’t been a son-in-law he’d never have been. All I say is that that’s true. It’s a damn good thing he was a son-in-law. That was a lucky break. His father-in-law, Irénée, was that type. He’d study astronomy as a hobby.

Groueff: Who his father-in-law?

Gary: Irénée, his father-in-law. He died at eighty-two or three several years ago. So as the young son-in-law of Hot Rock Chemical Engineering, I can picture them not talking about DuPont chemistry but just broad science, astronomy. Greenewalt had read some of this German-translated stuff.

Groueff: So he’s a highly cultivated man. He was well-read?

Gary: And again articulate. You’ve talked to him.

Groueff: Yeah, very articulate.

Gary: He’s one of the most articulate men I’ve ever known. Walter Carpenter, the Honorary Chairman, Greenewalt succeeded him as President and then succeeded him as Chairman, was articulate in the same manner. We met with the government in Washington before the whole whatever the committee was called about top things. They included Urey, Compton, and two or three other scientists and a couple of generals. By then [Vannevar] Bush was head of it. There wasn’t any time to write reports, but we went down there to make our report. By agreement, Greenewalt did all of the talking. He had a little loose-leaf book like this and he’d hold that book with his hand like this. You’ve seen him talk?

Groueff: Yeah, very mild.

Gary: That’s what we should have had a tape recording of.

Groueff: So I see the four men of this committee were very different from the old established professor to the young engineer, Greenewalt. You said you were doing the shouting?

Gary: No, not in there. I don’t shout at a time like that.

Groueff: Your manner was energetic?

Gary: It hadn’t reached the stage of designing the building. Once in a while they’d turn to me with a question and I’d answer it. Or once in a while I’d ask a question, but we hadn’t gotten to the point where there were the kinds of questions that were my business.

Groueff: So after visiting Columbia and Berkeley, you took the train back to Chicago.

Gary: And there we ran into the chain reaction.

Groueff: You wrote a report on the train?

Gary: We didn’t write any reports. We discussed it. We’d make notes in this loose-leaf book. Now I’m sure that a report was written, but it must have been after we made the verbal report [00:55:00]. This thing had to go like that [snaps his fingers].

Groueff: So you went back to Chicago to make your report?

Gary: No, you had to come through Chicago. [Phone Ringing] They had told us that they were about ready to turn the experiment on. So we stopped to review some questions.

Groueff: In Compton’s office?

Gary: Yeah. It had occurred to us on the trip out to see Lawrence. He wanted to check up on a few things that we were confused about. We were just by happenstance there for the big day.

Groueff: I see. And then Compton said, “Today’s the day that Fermi is trying to do the experiment?” He took Greenewalt with him and you went too?

Gary: Oh no. [Norman] Hilberry was Compton’s assistant. So Hilberry, Williams and I and Lewis sat in Dr. Compton’s office a quarter of a mile away from the grandstand of Stag Field under which this thing was going.

Groueff: And you were waiting?

Gary: Yeah.

Unidentified Male: Did you hear it blow up? Who was Lewis, Tom?

Gary: He was the top chemical engineering professor at MIT. And along with it, George, he had been a big consultant for all of the big oil companies on the chemical refining end of the thing.

Groueff: How did you learn about the success? Did they come back? Who told you that Fermi’s experiment was successful?

Gary: I’ve heard so many different stories I don’t know what the story was. But I do know that there was a dinner that night that Dr. Compton gave over at one of the hotels nearby. I can remember Fermi after it was over. He was one of these salt of the earth men. He was a little short fellow and not too heavy. He was quiet and never raised his voice. He talked with a slight Italian inflection. We talked with him a lot on our first visit out there, and Oppenheimer talked with him, who turned out to be the one that really put the bomb together as you know.

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: And then because he talked to one of your Frenchmen or something they put him aside, which I thought was the biggest lot of so-and-so.

Unidentified Male: This is Oppenheimer?

Gary: Yeah. But now they’ve restored him, they gave him fifty thousand dollars. I wished they’d kick me out if they gave me fifty thousand dollars.

Groueff: After that DuPont took the assignment, but the assignment at the beginning was only for the separation, and not to build the reactor.

Gary: Yeah.

Groueff: What was your job from then on? You said you supervised?

Gary: Another company had already been contracted with to do the reactor half of it. In the meantime we had been hooked to design the production separation plant [Phone Ringing]. Not just experimental but the production. Then the company that was going to do the front end were busy out at Berkeley making plans for the separation plant. Then as I understand it, Groves figured that that was just too much because at this time you see they decided to go all out on Lawrence’s electromagnetics. That was a bit of a thing to deal with, it covered acres of ground. So Groves uncoupled the plutonium end from this company, and DuPont took the entire plutonium end.

Groueff: But you worked on that project from here, from Wilmington?

Gary: Every bit of the design was done right in the four top floors of this building. I had the four top floors for design, but there was still a lot of military explosives work. There was a little bit of commercial, because we couldn’t get materials to build the DuPont commercial plants as we call them except for nylon and things that they used in parachutes. A lot of DuPont products went into the war, but we were building very little at the end. We were only spending ten or fifteen million a year where we’d been spending a hundred million of our own money on plants.

I have a little story there that might interest you. When we got the whole thing General Groves was up here and he was explaining to me the extreme importance of security in my office. I had an office about here, only a bigger office since they chopped off the secretary’s room on the tenth floor of this building next to the chief engineer. So he started to explain to me security and I said, “General, I was taught all of that in 1917 and 1918 while you were still at the military academy. Don’t try to tell me what security is.” He said, “Alright Tom. I won’t.” And he never said a word to me after.

Gary: Maybe a year later, he came breezing into my office. He was in uniform all the time. He said, “I tried to get up in your drafting rooms and they would not let me in.” He had forgot and left his pass in Washington.

I said, “Didn’t you have your pass?”

He said, “No, I forgot and left it in my other uniform.”

I said, “Well, you can’t get in. You told me not to let people in.”

Groueff: Even General Groves, they did not let in?

Gary: Groves did not have much of a sense of humor. I mean, he was very serious, smart, and a pure executive type. But that is the one time I saw him laugh and smile. Oh, I saw him laugh and smile a lot. He did not drink. Great tennis player. And he really smiled at that.

He could not get through his own security. So of course, all I had to do was walk up there with him and wave my hands and let the general in. These guards up there, you know, I really had them fixed so that—

Groueff: All your floors were guarded by security?

Gary: Yeah.

Groueff: Nobody could enter?

Gary: Unless they were in the book and had the picture pass with them.

Groueff: And the documents and the papers were locked in a special safe?

Gary: Oh, yeah, I had a safe in my office with all these secret reports they had given us on that reviewing trip until a couple of years after the war. I wanted to get rid of them and I finally turned them over to the time of Atomic Energy Commission division, and DuPont got rid of them. So I had none of those papers at all, which now are all published, I guess, in the book as far as I know.

Groueff: Some of it. The details are still classified specifications. So in other words, Mr. Greenewalt was the liaison between the scientists in Chicago, the [Eugene] Wigner group and all those people, [Enrico] Fermi, and you?

Gary: When I say liaison, that is a bit of an understatement because Greenewalt was a skilled chemical engineer—you know he was in the nylon development.

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: You knew that?

Groueff: Yeah.

Gary: And he was a skilled chemical engineer and—well, I was going to say a pseudoscientist, but he was a scientist as well as a chemical engineer. His college work was chemical engineering, not chemistry. You follow me?

But it was more than liaison because he would, I am sure, discuss the things with the men and by his questioning, just like in the reviewing committee, helped guide them and expedite their work, shortcut their research and all. I am sure he did.

Groueff: But for instance, when Wigner designed his plan for a water-cooled reactor that you later built, how does it work? These blueprints come to your department and you make all the designs?

Gary: I do not think there were any blueprints that ever came to us. It was more typing technical reports with all these formulas and stuff that I used to pretend like those Nobel scientists explained it to me a dozen times, and I would say, “Oh, yeah, I get it.” I do not know whether I ever did understand it.

Groueff: Even you did not?

Gary: But I picked out the right men under my jurisdiction: Fred Pardee to top it, [Raymond P.] Genereaux on the separations, and Jack Burns, who died about two months ago—sad death, sixty years old. Fred Pardee to top it. I picked a man as his assistant who I had known for years, a civil engineer as his assistant. This is administration as well as design.

Then I picked Jack Burns for the pile end and Ray Genereaux for the separation end, he being the one that went out there just to do the little experimental separated thing. And a third man to do the service work, the shops, and all that sort of thing. Then, of course, as they needed them, they had all the design divisions before the thing was over.

Groueff: And who was in charge of reactors under you?

Gary: Now, wait a minute, Pardee had the whole thing under me. Then under Pardee, Burns had the reactors, and Genereaux had the separation. This other stuff is just running shops and railroads and stuff like that.

Groueff: But you personally, you did not go to Hanford during the construction or operations?

Gary: Oh, yeah, I made trips out there infrequently.

Groueff: I see. But you did not work there permanently?

Gary: Oh, no, none of the work whatever was done there.

Groueff: Because if I understand you correctly, you had other responsibilities than the atomic side?

Gary: Yeah, but now wait a minute. You know the stick powder that they use for shooting rockets out of airplanes?

Groueff: Yeah.

Gary: You have heard of that?

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: Well, those powder grains were crucifix form. The cross was about this size, eight inches, crucifix form and they were as long as this table and they were extruded. Well, DuPont had not done any of that particular type of military explosives; Hercules [Powder Company] did that.

I think about the time we got into atomic, the airplanes were doing so well with those rockets knocking down enemy planes and things, they wanted more in there. So we went out and looked over Hercules’ plant in detail and then we were building a huge rocket powder plant as [00:06:00] an adjunct to the huge military explosives plant for cannon and rifles and pistols and what have you out at Indiana. So we had that, which was a tremendous project in itself along with this.

Groueff: And you had responsibility for it all?

Gary: Oh, I had it all as far as the top man is concerned. Boy, I had it. The chief engineer did not tell me what to do because I did not let him know what I was doing. He had to find it out some other way because I did not have time to argue about whether this was the way we were going to do it or not, or put this man in. Ackart was a wonderful gentleman.

Groueff: Ackart was the—?

Gary: Chief engineer.

Groueff: The chief engineer.

Gary: And you see he retired at sixty-five, the year after the war. But he was a fine gentleman. He let me and [Slim] Read, who later became chief engineer, run construction or he would ask us questions and sort of question some things. But I will give him credit for really letting us young men—

Groueff: So, you had complete freedom?

Gary: Oh, yeah.

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.