Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Tom Gary’s Interview – Part 2

Manhattan Project Locations:

Tom Gary was a military engineer during World War II. In his interview, he discusses how he began working at the age of nineteen, dropping out of high school just two months before graduation to support his family. He worked on the railroads for a decade before applying to become an Army first lieutenant. After earning the position, he was deployed to France, and sent back to the United States following the end of the war. He then became the head of design for DuPont. Gary also helped design the plants at Hanford and Oak Ridge.

Location of the Interview:


Stephane Groueff: And what was your background, Mr. Gary? You said that you are a Southerner?

Tom Gary: Well, I do not know whether I am a Phoenix or a paradox.

Groueff: Why?

Gary: People used to say, “How can you do these things?”

I said, “I was a military engineer. A military engineer does it with what he can find.”

We stole shovels from the French to dig the trenches because the Americans had a million shovels, but they could not get them up to the front. We could not get the pontoons up, so we stole boats from the French and patched them up on the Marne River. That is military engineering.

In answering your question—and you will not believe this. I was to go to VPI, which is the Virginia Technical College.

Groueff: You come from Virginia?

Gary: Yes. I am the first immigrant from Virginia out of my family who as far as I know landed there as soon as the Indians were kind of chased up the river a little bit. I think my first immigrant ancestor was in Virginia in 1635. Well, anyway, the whole thing had been there until I was the first one that left.

Well, instead of going to VPI at seventeen, I quit high school two months short of graduation, much to my mathematics and science teachers’ disgust. They offered to help me through college. Well, I could have got through college, but I had a mother and sister to help feed and house and clothe. So I went to work as a rideman on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.

Groueff: You did not have money? Your family was poor?

Gary: Well, they had been until the Yankees came down there. If the Yankees had not come down there, I would have had you down on my plantation on the James River with two or three colored men in white coats bringing you a drink right this minute.

Groueff: Damn Yankees.

Gary: Yeah. My father went into the Confederate Army at not quite seventeen a month after the Civil War started and he was one of six men of his unit at Appomattox when they surrendered.

He and his older brother and six first cousins on his mother’s side rode off and joined the Prince George Calvary, furnished their own horses, their own uniforms. And I have a military background. I have to stop and figure—my twice-great grandfather was at Valley Forge as a young man that horrible winter. And if DeGrasse, or whoever the Frenchman was, had not landed their entire fleet, I would still probably be a British subject. So I have a military background.

But, anyway, getting back to this. I went to work as a rideman on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in Richmond at the Division Engineer’s Office. After six months, I was transferred uptown to the Chief’s Office where I was for five years. In the meantime, I had been loaned for railroad location in the rough mountains of West Virginia and recalled when they were going to build a bridge over the Chickahominy swamp where some of the Civil War battles were fought below Richmond.

It was an old pile trestle and they were going to build a permanent bridge—concrete piers, and steel girders—a mile long across the swamp. I was recalled to be instrument man on that. Well, that was a lead pipe since. It was a straight track, level all the way, and these concrete piers every fifty feet and the steel girders to go along them were made with these collapsed forms. The concrete was delivered in an overhead cable with a bucket about ten piers and then move over the towers.

All I had to do was level these forms and give them line, a snap. But being so near Richmond, they had one of the young engineers in the Chief’s Office nominally, a resident engineer—he would come down once a month and take the quantities from me to pay the contract on a unit basis—so much a yard of concrete, so much a foot of pile.

And Old Lee, the masonry inspector, sixty years old, that had spent his life on big concrete and stone bridgework for the railroad, caught malaria fever a month after the job started. Well, I commuted into Richmond on an early and late train and I had, on doctor’s orders, a bottle of good whiskey dosed with quinine so that you could not hardly—I had not drunk any whiskey except out of my father’s toddy glass at this time.

But old Dr. Montero, who was a friend of the family, said, “You should give him a big tablespoon of whiskey and put all the quinine in it that it will take, saturate it.” Otherwise I would have probably died.

Well, anyway, I dosed the old masonry inspector in his shanty. It was wire-screened to keep the mosquitoes out—too late. Because when they opened the swamp, that is what did it. That malaria is a terrible thing as you have heard in South America. I do not know whether they ever had any in France or not. It is pretty well drained.

Well, anyway, after two weeks of this he was getting out of his head, so I told them in Richmond, which was twenty miles away, “You better come down and get him.”

So the chief surgeon came down and got a buggy and took him to the train and took him to the hospital in Richmond where he died. So then I became masonry inspector. I was nineteen years old. I was really the resident engineer, the masonry inspector, and the instrument man. So I got an early start in beating on the table.

Groueff: That was before you had any diploma or anything?

Gary: I never had any diploma.

Groueff: You never had any diploma?

Gary: I never graduated from high school. I was short two months of graduation. But, listen—where did you go to school?

Groueff: I went to law school.

Gary: What university?

Groueff: In Geneva.

Gary: Geneva?

Groueff: Yeah.

Gary: Well, now law is different. But I will bet you that in the next ten years I put twice as many hours on books than any of these boys that I would have gone to college with spent in classes and books. For ten years.

Now in Richmond, there is what is known as Virginia Mechanics Institute, night school, heavily endowed, fine building, and they use the professors from the University of Richmond for the night school. So I went there for three years, three nights a week. Then I went to Cleveland, Ohio with another railroad job. From there, just before I went in the military service in 1917, I changed to the Grasselli Chemical Company.

I went back to them when I came out of the Army. Then in ’28, DuPont bought Grasselli and I used to say, Graselli was as sound financially as DuPont. They had a bigger depreciation reserve. You know what that means in bookkeeping?

Grasselli had a bigger depreciation reserve than the DuPont Company did when they bought them. I used to say I was the only liability DuPont bought. And when I retired eight years ago, I said “DuPont finally rid themselves of the liability.” But it is a fantastic story.

I do not know whether it is psychic or what. But here is what I say. At Virginia Mechanics Institute, I studied elementary physics and elementary chemistry. I won the mathematics medal, and I did not even know there was a medal up for excellence in mathematics until the instructor came over to apologize to my mother because the principal said a boy that only attended half of the classes couldn’t possibly have won the medal. I did not even know that somebody had put in a little endowment every year they gave a gold medal for the boy that did the most excellent mathematics.

Groueff: And you won it?

Gary: But I did not get it. And for two or three years before I left Richmond, I used to see—you remember those black silk watch fobs they used to wear when they wore wires?

Groueff: Ah, yeah, the watch in the pocket of the trousers.

Gary: Yeah. And then it had a little gold thing with a black silk ribbon.

Groueff: Watch chain.

Gary: Well, I saw him with that medal of mine on his watch fob for three years, but I never breathed a word to him. I could have said, “What the hell are you doing with my medal?” It was fun.

Well, then I was very fortunate in my railroad experience. You see, in those days, the engineers were small groups. They did not have this big mob of engineers with all these specialties they have now. I was very fortunate in being exposed to very fine senior engineers who were the kind of men who when I would ask a silly question, they would not give me a silly answer; they would explain it to me.

It was the same way with Grasselli when I begun to match up with the chemists. And later, many years—well, I was transferred to DuPont engineering in ’32, four years after they bought Graselli. I was assistant chief engineer at Grasselli at the time they bought them, had been several years.

Groueff: So you learned your engineering and chemistry and physics by practice?

Gary: Yes.

Groueff: By doing it?

Gary: By listening—asking questions and listening.

Groueff: But when did you work as a military engineer?

Gary: When?

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: When did I work as?

Groueff: As a military engineer.

Gary: Well, I applied for an engineer. After the Spanish-American War, General [Leonard] Wood, a doctor who was Teddy Roosevelt’s Lieutenant Colonel of that Rough Rider outfit came back. He stayed in the Army, General Wood did, and was a big general. He was upset because they did not send him to France instead of [General John J.] Pershing. There was a lot of political talk about that. But they did not make any mistake on that.

General Wood invented the Medical Reserve Corps sometime after the Spanish War, where the doctors would be commissioned reserves. Then later, somebody followed that with an Engineer Officers Reserve Corps. I was in that about the time we entered World War II and went on active duty on September 17.

Groueff: So when the war started, you were already in uniform?

Gary: No. I was with the National Guard in Cleveland, which happened to have an engineer regiment posted in Cleveland Downtown Armory. They ran a training course for civilians about a year before we got into it. I attended that and I paid $15 for my uniform, hat, and leggings. And that’s where I reported for active duty in the United States Army a year later in that $15 uniform.

Unidentified Male: We just went down to the store and bought a $15 pair of overshoes for my wife. You got the whole uniform for 15!

Gary: Yeah. When I was commissioned, I applied for first lieutenancy on the basis of ten years railroad experience, and it was very broad railroad experience. I had gotten over into the building side, not bridges, but the big shop buildings and all.

The regular Army officer in Cleveland, river and harbor—you know the Corps of Engineers is in charge of the river and harbor work over here and have been for years. Young Major Barnes, later Colonel Barnes, interviewed me. I had three letters, that was a requirement: one from the Chief Engineer, the CNO, one from the man I worked for in the railroad I had just left to go to the chemical industry, and I do not even remember the third one.

But he looked them over and he said, “I see you have applied for a first lieutenancy.”

“Yes, sir.”

He said, “You have very fine railroad experience.”

“Yes, sir.” I told him like I told you how I got an early start. I had to—forced to.

He said, “Would you accept a second lieutenancy?”

“Yes, sir.”

He said, “Okay, I will recommend you for a first.”

Well, in six months, I was laying out trenches at night on the Marne River when we thought the Germans were going to push across there. I was going to look for a hideout in Paris or some place if I could not get to the Atlantic Ocean. The trenches I laid at night are the trenches that Pershing, in his final report, said that this is the ground the 30th Infantry with Germans on three sides held from which the counter attack took place.

Groueff: That is where you learned about military engineering, huh? Stealing the shovels—

Gary: Well, military engineering, the old fashioned ones during the Civil War—they cut down trees right there and made bridges out of them. Now they run up these steel bridges and run them across. You know, you have seen them over in France.

Groueff: But after the war did you remain with the military?

Gary: No, no.

Groueff: The first Grasselli?

Gary: Oh, by the way, just before the Battle of the Marne took place, I was detached and sent back to Army school at Lyons. There for one month I listened to American officers and one or two French officers and I do not think a single one of the American officers lecturing to me about bridge building and all of that had seen the front lines. The Frenchman had.

There were a few French instructors, but most of them were Americans. We would drill—it was a refresher course to pep us up and put discipline back in us. Because then I had orders from Pershing after the end of this—I was promoted to captain—to come back here and join a new combat regiment as a little catalyst to show them the way back to France. So I was in this, and then when I got over here, these guys that had never been over there tore up my orders in Washington. I found out I was an expert in field fortifications, which was the first I knew about it.

So I ended the war as an instructor in field fortifications in Fort Humphreys, with the result that I was on the first order of discharging engineer officers in December, a month after the armistice.

Groueff: And then you joined Grasselli?

Gary: I went right back to Grasselli.

Groueff: Grasselli, and from Grasselli, DuPont inherited you?

Gary: That is right.

Groueff: And then you rose to the top position.

Gary: Head of design.

Groueff: Head of design. It is quite a story.

Gary: You believe it?

Groueff: Yeah.

Gary: You know, it is very hard for me to believe myself.

Groueff: Yes, it is a terrific story.

Gary: It has been a long time since I went through it from soup to nuts like that.

Groueff: The biggest company in the world, to be the chief of design—

Gary: Now my son, who went to Princeton for chemical engineering for three years before he went in the military service as a reserve officer like I did, four years in the Army, and had one year to get his degree in chemical engineering. [He] came back and worked at chemical engineering three years. Then he switched to DuPont Treasury, where he had about six jobs, and for five years he has been in the DuPont International Department, and since June he is the Director of Employee Relations and Personnel and flies over to France and Germany and Latin America.

Now that job is really to indoctrinate the nationals—whether it be French, German, or what—into DuPont ways. It is not personnel development, as you would think about as a Frenchman training Frenchmen for work in France. Because, as far as I know, the DuPont policy is to quickly remove the Americans. Isn’t that right, George?

Unidentified Male: Yes, as fast as possible.

Groueff: But tell me, during that Manhattan Project, what were the main difficulties that you met? Was there some extraordinary headaches that you had?

Gary: Oh, yeah. You know, remember I told you about the little blueprint that was a coal bin that they were going to put the hot coal in and we would take it out to separate it?

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: Well, then when we got the job of the reactor, these people had already had at that preliminary work. They were going to build them a certain way just like a blast furnace where you would open the grate and the coal would come out of the bottom. You have seen an iron blast furnace, have you not?

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: Well, you talk about difficulties, but we had a very keen mechanical man, Charlie Johnson.  Dead now. Like myself—self-made if you want to call it that. I did not make myself; all these big engineers I was exposed to are the ones that made me. And Charlie Johnson too. Well, that was one—how to get those things out of that reactor, these hot slugs. And on the separation end, we built an experimental plant, a pile and separation plant, all down in Tennessee.

The Clinton Engineer Works, it was called. There was nothing but desert out on the Columbia River. I do not know that they had even settled on the site, and we had to hurry with experimental plans. So DuPont built that down on the site where other companies were building there—Kellex.

We just had acres given to us and built our own independent plant, powerhouse and all. We were completely independent of them. I like to tell the story. You have seen pictures of the pile, have you not?

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: It is horizontal tubes. You know all about that. Well, as I remember, those piles were a twenty-foot cube of carbon with holes in them and tubes and slugs go through. Well, there was some very fine tolerances on that—perfect fits and all. So I came up with the idea that we are going to build one section, which was about four feet—I do not know how many tubes it had, complete tubes, full length and everything—down at Oak Ridge to be sure that this thing would fit mechanically, I am talking about.

We had it hooked up for water to go through it and everything. No reactions in it. It was a purely mechanical experiment. And this Charlie Johnson is probably the one that talked me into it because I never had an original idea in my life. But I was pretty good at grabbing them quick and beating on the table. Well, Groves loved to call that “Gary’s Folly.” But I would gamble that that saved the government or the world several months in getting that far.

Groueff: How come?

Gary: Because we found out things that needed to be modified in this fine mechanical work. They fit together almost like a Swiss watch. They had to mechanically. Groves loved to call that “Gary’s Folly.” But he was prouder of it than—I did not have too much trouble—well, that thing cost probably a half a million dollars.

Groueff: It was exactly like the real thing, except for the uranium and it did not work?

Gary: That is right. These sections, big thick steel things all packed up with finely drilled big holes for the aluminum tubes to go through and all. We had the tubes and everything. And we had the water pumps to circulate the water. But no reaction in it of course; there would not have been enough to start a reaction.

Groueff: But did you have to change a lot of things after you built this?

Gary: Not basically, but in minute detail. Well, it was more letting construction know the methods they had to use in making these carbon blocks, finishing the carbon blocks. See, we got them from the [Union] Carbide, and then we had to machine them like you would machine a piece of a Swiss watch. Because they would just pile up, see.

Then of course, we built a manually operated pile where we shoved the slugs through by hand with protecting screens, along with a separation plant that was, in principle, exactly the same as a huge 800-foot long canyon plant out at Hanford. But in detail it was quite different, the way you would get the hot stuff out of the cold bin.

Groueff: Before that, it had never been done, so you had to see it work. But your department designed the Hanford reactor and the separation thing, all of the cells?

Gary: Everything. We had to build a town for 30,000-40,000 people. And what we did there, we took one of my key men and sent him out there with two or three men on his staff—an architect and someone else—and we engaged a local architect to design it because we were not accustomed to those kinds of building materials that they have on file in the northwest coast.

Anyway, we did not have the time. We needed all of our time. That was just like building one of these big housing developments in France or here or somewhere. That is all it was.

Except for the limitations. We had cast cement bathtubs; those young wives would go and get in there and they all had scratched bottoms. The brass fittings were not even finished. They were just cast brass. No finishing and no chrome plating on them. There were brick houses—must have built thousands of them with streets and water lines and firehouses and movies and banks and all.

That was done by a local architect under our positive direction of this man of mine. I went out there once or twice. So now and then going to see what Gil [Gilbert P.] Church wanted to complain about.

Unidentified Male: What were you then? Were you head of the Design Division?

Gary: All the way through, yeah. And Pardee headed this thing this gentleman is talking about under me.

Unidentified Male: Oh, I see.

Gary: And under Pardee was Jack Burns on the pile and Ray Genereaux on the separation and Lou Harp had the services, the shops, and the cafeterias, the offices, and all that. Lou is long dead. I do not know that you ever knew him.

Groueff: But did you have personal contacts with General Groves?

Gary: Oh, yeah.

Groueff: Did you know him before?

Gary: Well, here is the background on that. Construction work in the Army had always traditionally been handled by the constructing quartermaster. Now quartermaster in France gets uniforms and food and all that, right?

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: So did they here. But, in addition, here, the quartermaster had a division known as the construction quartermaster. Well, when this thing got rolling—it should have been done fifty years before, but they never got around to it—it should have been done after World War I.

Well, first of all, they took the nucleus of engineer officers, of which Groves was one—he was a colonel then—and put them in the constructing quartermaster. So he changed his castle to a wheel. And there is where I first met him, because Remington Arms, a DuPont subsidiary, was building the small arms ammunition plants. And we in DuPont Engineering were given a little assistance.

Groueff: That was before the war?

Gary: No, no. This is during the war. This was after we got in the war, about the time we got in.

With that damn Neutrality Act, we did not dare do anything, you know. The first explosive plant we built was for the French-British purchasing mission. But [00:33:00] before we got it in operation, France had folded up and Britain had run out of money. So the U.S. government took it over and finished it. That was the first one we built down at Memphis.

Groueff: So you met General Groves for another job before you met him for Dupont?

Gary: In fact, we were in the Manhattan District before he was. We dealt with a Colonel Marshall who later left and went overseas as a big commander or something. Groves then, by this time it had changed from the construction quartermaster and he put his castle back on as an engineer.

Groueff: I see. Did you get along with him, Groves?

Gary: Oh, yeah, anybody can get along with him.

Groueff: The DuPont people were on very good terms with him?

Gary: I would say so. Oh, we had our differences of opinion, but I do not know—I should not say this, but as far as I am concerned, from close personal observation, this country owes him a debt they could never pay. In a quiet way, he was ruthless.

I have been present in a situation with one of his military men where things were not going right. The man was doing the best he could, but it was not good enough. Two or three days later, he was gone and another man in his place. But he was quiet about it. Nothing was ever said. He was a man of quiet action. He helped us to no end in breaking logjams with suppliers that did not know what we knew about it. We could not tell them. See what I mean?

Groueff: Yeah. So you would go to General Groves, and he managed with the suppliers?

Gary: Well, we went to the limit with the big men in the companies, and very seldom did we have to ever appeal to him because he knew that we were capable of doing it from what we had done for our own work and what we had done in military explosives. He knew our abilities. He did not worry with us.

Now, Nichols, his deputy, who was a West Pointer and had spent half of his military career going to school at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute to study hydraulics—I suppose he went to the Sorbonne to study French girls. He spent half of his time—a lot of officers in the French Army do the same thing, you know. They are no different, whatever Army.

That guy was really educated to a degree—Nichols—who signed this letter that’s dated the day the bomb dropped. Of course, it was written before hoping the bomb would go off. Incidentally, Read and I had an agreement: if it did not go off, he was heading for the Arkansas woods. If I could catch him, it was alright with him, but he doubted I could!

Well, anyway, it went off, so we stayed here and did not go and hide in the woods. Nichols came here more often because he was the one that got down into the technical details.

Groueff: And he knew about that?

Gary: With the laboratories.

Groueff: He could talk like an engineer, like Sanders?

Gary: But Nichols was later general manager of the Atomic Energy Commission. And then later, he got out of that and set himself up as a consultant.

Groueff: Yeah, I will go and see him.

Gary: He is quite a fellow.

Groueff: And the other military men were in Hanford—[Franklin] Matthias?

Gary: Yeah. Now let me tell you a story about that. He was a reserve officer. During the Depression, we had what was called a CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps. It was an employment thing. They would go out and clean up woods, forestry and that sort of thing. He had been in that.

He was a highwayman, I think, or maybe on hydraulic power.

When he was put out at Hanford, I asked Groves, “Why Matthias?”

He said, “It is very simple. If we have a catastrophe, which I pray to the good Lord we will not, there is a guy that nothing will disturb. If anybody can get them evacuated, Matthias can do it.”

Listen, one of my first trips out there, Matthias—of course, I had known him before we really got rolling out there. He says, “Come on, let’s go to look at the canyon in my Jeep.”

Well, they just had the big excavation down in the ground. That canyon goes down about forty feet for a foundation and then sixty feet in the air.

So we drove the Jeep out there and he says, “Watch this.” And he would go and drive that damn thing over sagebrush this high and I would hold on, hold my breath.

Well, another time we went out in his car. We went down through that sand road—they were pouring concrete on this trip in the bottom for the canyon. He said, “Let’s go on down here and see what is down the hill.”

That thing—thousands of acres, you know, in that desert. We got stalled in the sand. He had to walk back about a half a mile to get help to come down there and drag his car out. He was quite a guy.

Well, he was later chief engineer of the Aluminum Company of Canada. I knew him down in South America. I was down there for DuPont in ’47. He was down there building those big hydraulic things.

Groueff: What is his main quality?

Gary: Well, he was a graduate engineer. He was one up on me.

Groueff: But his character—he was sort of cold-blooded? He did not get excited?

Gary: No, no, not cold-blooded, but regular fellow in every sense of the word.

Groueff: Good organizer?

Gary: Oh, yeah. Now Groves put an older colonel with him who had been on a lot of this military stuff. That Groves could really set up teams like that, that fit together.

Groueff: But between DuPont people and Matthias, there was a good collaboration?

Gary: Oh, yeah. Well, it was all the way through. We had our differences. We would yell and fuss at each other. We did not agree with each other and all, but they were all reconciled. Because that is the way we work in DuPont, been doing it for 150 years.

Groueff: Did you have some trouble with the scientists, the Chicago people?

Gary: Oh, in the beginning, Wigner felt it was terrible how DuPont would do a thing that they could do with a few draftsmen. But when it was all done, Wigner came in here for a week and I spent nearly a day with him. He told me when he left—he says, “It amazes me.”

Groueff: But in the beginning, didn’t they have a little bit superior complex that you were just a bunch of engineers?

Gary: Oh, yeah. You see, they were scientists and great research people.

Groueff: Nobel Prize people?

Gary: And they would sketch up things and go in the shop often with their own hands and make them—the little experimental stuff. And this thing—a great big old DuPont engineering company and they’re loading up the thing with a lot of people.

Groueff: So at the beginning, they did not think DuPont would be capable of doing that?

Gary: It was not that at all; they thought they were capable of doing it. There was not any question about DuPont being capable of doing it at all.

Groueff: But they wanted to do it themselves?

Gary: Oh, yeah. It was their baby and they wanted to nurse it and feed it.

Groueff: That was a good decision by General Groves, not to let them.

Gary: Well, sure. Well, it would have been an obvious thing but those scientists in the shelter of the big university atmosphere and all, going over to pick up a Nobel Prize now and then. This run of mine on their stuff.

Groueff: Were there hurt feelings when they were not given the job?

Gary: Oh, I wouldn’t hardly describe it as hurt feelings.

Groueff: Disappointed.

Gary: They might have been, if you would look closely, you could detect a little disappointment. But there was never any open—if you got it, go on and do it. It was not that at all. It was “What can we do? What can we do?”

Now you asked what was the difficult thing? For the first three months that we had this bear by the tail, they had about three different ways they thought this pile should be done. Of course, water-cooled was one of them. Now, I am not talking about the water reactor that came up later, you know. That was in the works, but they thought that is too far off for experimental—

Groueff: But there was helium cooling?

Gary: Helium was one, but there were was sodium.

Groueff: And there was bismuth or something like that?

Gary: Bismuth.

Groueff: Yeah.

Gary: Helium, bismuth, and water.

Groueff: Yeah.

Gary: Now we went through all the rigmarole of preliminary drawings on those things before we finally settled down to the water-cooled job and then really went to work. Then, even with the water-cooled job, the shape and form—the structure part, I am talking about now, because the form was all fixed by God—it had to be this or it would not do. But the outside arrangement and the way to get water in and all, we went through that for several months. Then we settled down, and that is it.

Oh, now I forgot my main thing that I wanted to show you. By that I mean the bomb dropped.

Groueff: After the bomb dropped, yes?

Gary: I had a fine photograph of General [Levin H.] Campbell, who was Chief of Ordnance under which we did the military explosives work. At the beginning of the war, I don’t think he was even a brigadier general, maybe colonel. His job was to let out the contracts to industry on the early war plants.

Then he became Chief of Ordnance and we were doing the military explosives under the Ordnance Department. So I had from him a very fine photograph with his three stars lieutenant general on his cap and all and autographed to me. I had met him many times in negotiations at the beginning when we were getting ready to do these things and later—he did not come up here much.

So I told General Groves, I said, “Listen, I got this picture of Campbell.” I had it on the wall in my office. “I want a picture of you as a working general.” And that is what Groves was, a working general.

Groueff: What general? What do you call it?

Gary: A working general.

Groueff: A working general?

Gary: Not a desk chair general.

Groueff: I see.

Gary: You have heard of desk chair executives?

Groueff: Yes.

Gary: They run their war from the desk. They do not get out and walk in the mud like old [General Joseph] Joffre and [Ferdinand] Foch did. They sit at the desk and tell the boys how to fight, see. I said, “General Groves, I want a picture of you as a working general.”

So I got this beautiful picture at his desk there in his khaki shirt with his two stars on it, and autographed down the side is this. I am pretty proud of this picture.

Groueff: What does it say? “My work is so secret, I don’t even know what I’m doing?”

Gary: Oh, this is just my funny paper. Now this is the inscription that is on this picture.

Groueff: The inscription is, “To Tom Gary, who never again will be called upon to design such a plant without at least a few facts which are fixed.”

“Signed: Groves, Major General, USA, August ’45.”

Gary: Well, that was his view of what I did, and I did not do a damn thing except pick the right men and beat on the desk and yell at them. You have seen that, have you not, John? I will tell you a story about it.

Groueff: So you personally and your closest associates were personally involved in the designing of the actual plant in Hanford?

Gary: Not only that, we designed the experimental plant down in Oak Ridge and from that as a pilot. Now the idea was that that would help us with the other, but shoot, by the time we got that going in operation, we had our plans well outlined for the other. It helped us fix up little things here and there.

Groueff: You used only the principles and specifications given by the Wigner group, and you applied them to industrial proportions. But who were the main designers? Who were the men who actually designed the Hanford plant?

Gary: Well, there were 700. Do you want me to name them all?

Groueff: No, wasn’t there one or two.

Gary: Well, I told you, Jack Burns for the pile, Ray Genereaux for the separation, and Charlie Johnson for the tricky mechanical stuff, the ingenious mechanical stuff in both of them.

Now, Charlie Johnson is the one that came up with a lot of the ideas. Well, first of all, after spending a month—or less than that, because I took him up to Chicago where they were going to drop the stuff out of a vertical thing like a glass furnace and carry the ashes over to the separation plant in a bucket. Geez. He said, “That thing won’t work.” Then he came up with a wild one and he decided that would not work.

Then we came to this horizontal thing where he pushed through. Now that push through—you know what Rube Goldberg is, that cartoonist we had that would design mechanical things where the bird would step on here and the first thing you know, you would get your oatmeal over here? That mechanical stuff even for pushing the slugs through there was wizardry.

Groueff: And it was solved by the groups of those three men under you?

Gary: Yeah, with Pardee intervening. Let’s put it this way. I was the general, the major general. Pardee was the brigadier general. These were the three colonels in charge of the regiments. Does that make it clear?

Unidentified Male: What data did you get from the scientists? They just told you, “Here is how this thing has to perform this?”

Groueff: Oh, no. George, we had mimeograph reports with diagrams and formulas and sketches in it this thick. We were giving them that when we went on the reviewing committee. And then, they flowed in.

Unidentified Male: They gave you fairly detailed data then?

Groueff: Of the basic principles, but nothing on this stuff that I am telling you—how and what we are going to do to use these principles. Oh, they had wild ideas, which worked in the thing. But that was their idea of this vertical thing—you would drop it through a hole and pull the slide and drop it through like you would wheat out of an elevator.

Groueff: How many people did you have in the Design Department for the atomic side of the job?

Gary: I believe I had, if I remember the figures right, about 700.

Groueff: 700.

Gary: Of which probably fifty would have been—I do not know whether that includes the stenographers and a few clerks or not. But some of those were what we call procurement engineers, that would take from the engineers and write out the requisitions and deal with the suppliers. But I would say there were at least around 500 engineers and designers. Now half the designers were graduate engineers, but they were the men on the drafting boards.

Groueff: So at least 500 people participated in the design of those two plants or three plants.

Gary: Between 500 and 600.

Unidentified Male: Did you subcontract any?

Gary: Not for Hanford. We did every bit of it here.

Groueff: That is an enormous thing. And you are not counting the people who were engaged in operation later?

Gary: Oh, no.

Groueff: That is only design?

Gary: Only in construction. Now the construction did inspection, the field inspection in the in the plants where all these shops around the country would—we made a lot of prototypes in our own shop down here. The first one of these things I described that were made in the Wilmington shops to develop the shop techniques. We did not have enough machinery to do them in quantity. But we developed the shop techniques and then got other people in big shops with big tools to carry them out.

Groueff: And those 500 or 700 people used to work here in the top four floors in this building?

Gary: Well, the top two, I guess, at the end, because I had four floors for the design division. It was three and a half because the medical department was still up in there and stuff like that. But I had signs on all the drafting room doors. See, there were half a dozen drafting rooms, some of them big and some of them big huge rooms. [00:51:00] “No admittance without this, that, or the other.”

Groueff: Even to DuPont employees?

Gary: Even to those that were in the job. I did not want the draftsmen disturbed.

Groueff: I see.

Gary: We had a big room, twice as big as this, with a great big table. Once a week for more than a year, Greenewalt, [Roger] Williams, Gary, Pardee, we would have Burns in when we discussed the pile. The general was not even supposed to know where the hot stuff that they handed to him came from. See?

And then we had Burns go through his story with his drawings and talk and all and charts. We would dismiss Burns, and then Genereaux would come in. Then we would dismiss him and Lou Harp, who had the services, the shops, and all that would come in. Once a week, we spent near a day in this room upstairs going over that. That is where I would ask a lot of silly questions, because the good Lord was on my side. When they gave me the answer, I hope they knew, but it stimulated them to research themselves.


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.