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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Virginia Ballard’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Virginia Ballard was born in Charleston, West Virginia. Her parents immigrated to the US from Scotland. In 1944, Ballard’s family moved to Richland, Washington where her father worked for DuPont. After attending college, Ballard went to work for GE and Exxon Nuclear. Her last job before retirement was as executive secretary to the manager for Siemens. Ballard had two children – Bruce and Diane – with her husband Del. In this interview, Ballard discusses her family’s relocation to Richland and her experience living there as a teenager. In particular, she talks about the high school she attended and recreational activities for teenagers at the time. Ballard also describes the town of Richland and its economy. She explains social and economic changes that occurred before, during, and after the war. Commenting on the secrecy of the scientific activity going on at Richland, Ballard shares that the dropping of the bomb came as a surprise to residents of Richland, but their reactions were positive and they expressed great pride in the work of their fellow residents. She hopes that the Hanford area and B Reactor will be preserved as an important historical site.

Date of Interview:
September 13, 2012
Location of the Interview:


Virginia Ballard: I was born in Charleston, West Virginia. When I finished ninth grade, my dad, who worked for DuPont in Bell, West Virginia, was transferred to Morgantown, West Virginia. We moved to Morgantown in the summer of 1942.

In 1943, near the end of 1943, DuPont asked Dad to transfer to Richland, Washington, and he did. He came out to Richland, he got here January 3rd, 1944. They had a few dormitories built that he stayed in. Then March 13th, 1944, my mother, my two brothers, and my sister and I arrived in Richland. We stayed at what was called the Transient Quarters, which was a hotel built by DuPont or the government for people to stay when they arrived here.

There were very few houses built by this time. Our house, which was on the corner of Stevens and Williams, was an F house. The person who took us there, and I don’t remember who he was, drove just sort of cross country. Not on roads, because the city wasn’t completely laid out at that point in time. What else can I tell you about that? 

Kelly: How did you get across the country?

Ballard: We came on the train from Morgantown. A train from Morgantown, and of course, it was wartime—any troop train [came through], we got to sit on the siding. So it took a while. I thought we would never get across Montana. You go to bed in Montana and you get up in Montana. We had a compartment. We didn’t just sit up all night or anything. We had a compartment.

Came into Pasco in the middle of the night. When I looked out the window where we were staying, there was a livery stable across the street. There was a general mercantile store, which was Nelson Dam’s. John Dam and John Dam Plaza now is named after that person. I think there was one other grocery store a little later, I think it was called Randall Doyle. It’s where that kayak store is now.

We moved in and then I started high school in the old Richland High School, which was down about the place where Jadwin [Avenue] takes a left turn and goes into George Washington Way. And there was a Methodist church there, which we went to also.

Across the street from our house on the corner, Stevens and Williams, there was virtually nothing. There was a little house kind of on a little knoll about a block down. They took that down, and that’s where they built the Central United Protestant Church. The Catholic Church was then built on the other side of the street, but that was after we came here.

The old Richland High School, we moved out of it up to the new Columbia High School, which is where the Richland High School is now, on May 1st. The first graduating classroom from there was 1944. I was in the next class, was 1945. We had seventy-one students graduate that year, probably a lot more than normal in Richland but a lot less than there is now. They had a Club ‘40s reunion here last weekend, which I didn’t go to. But anyway, they’ve had those since—about twenty-five years after I graduated they started doing that.

Kelly:  What was Richland in 1939 or ’40. before DuPont came?

Ballard: Before DuPont came, it was a farm community, strictly a farm community. I don’t think it had much more than 300 people or 400 people at the most. It was all farms, fruit mainly. They grew a lot of mint too, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Kelly: Did any of these people stay? Were there classmates of yours that were from these communities?

Ballard: Yes. Gordon Rear, his parents had a farm. Actually, I think that house is still—it’s been remodeled but I think it’s still on George Washington Way, going out there. They were both from Scotland, which is where my parents were both from. So that’s how my parents got to know them quite well. I don’t know that anybody else in my class – well, Norman Dam, who was the son of John Dam. As I said, that John Dam Plaza is named after John Dam. Most of the people that I graduated with moved away as they graduated, didn’t stay here, but I stayed.

Kelly: So what did you do after high school?

Ballard: I worked for GE. Then I quit GE and went to college for a year, and came back to work for GE and worked for GE for eleven years. During that time, I met my husband at the YWCA Supper Club. They had things for single young people. After we were married and wanted to have children, I quit GE. We had two children, a boy and a girl, Bruce and Diane. I stayed home until Bruce was a senior in high school, when I went back to work for Exxon Nuclear, which later became Areva. I think it’s Areva now. I retired from there after fifteen years.

So I’ve stayed here all my life, virtually. I don’t remember West Virginia that much. I have been back there three or four times and that’s all since.

Kelly: Of your time here in Richland, how has the city changed?

Ballard: Well, you have to pay to ride the bus. You didn’t at first, when we were here. They ran a public bus that you didn’t have to pay for. You could just get on it and ride it. And people did get on it and ride it. Just to have their kids taken care of, they would ride the bus while Mom went to the grocery store downtown, because there was only one grocery store for a while. So the kids just rode the bus till Mama got them off.

It’s changed. Well, it’s built up, you know. They had to start from scratch virtually here as far as department stores were concerned, drug stores, and they built them in neighborhoods. They built little shopping, I would say, shopping things in neighborhoods like a drug store, a grocery store, and a gas station. They were just scattered all over town.

But it did cost you a nickel, I think it was a nickel, to ride the bus when I worked out in the 200 Area. Ten cents a day, I think it cost.

Kelly: What were those bus rides like, going out to the 200 Area?

Ballard: They were not that comfortable. They were hot, really hot in the summer, and cold in the winter. So it was not that great. They were always full. You never stood up to ride the bus, though. We never had anybody standing on the bus.

Kelly: Tell us about whether there were cars here during the war.

Ballard: There were a few, but you were asked not to bring your car because they didn’t want you going, visiting I guess, outside the area, because this was really secret. I had no idea what my dad did or where he worked really. He didn’t say. They didn’t talk about their work at all. Even with friends, they did not talk. I don’t think he talked or told Mother what he was doing. I had no idea.

The day they announced the ingredients for the bomb that had been dropped on August 6th was made here, I was selling tickets at the Village Theater, and I was shocked. I had no idea that that’s what they were doing.

Kelly: What were other people’s reactions? If you were at the theater, you probably noticed how everybody responded.

Ballard: Well, I think they were surprised, but then they were proud that we had done it. But still to me, it was a horrible thing really. 

Jeff Nalezny: There was a movie going on at the time. Did they make an announcement to the people in the theater?

Ballard: I don’t remember how I found out, but somebody must have come up to the ticket office and told me. I don’t know if they made an announcement inside, because I was not inside the theater. I was outside selling tickets. It was summer, of course, August. So we had matinee on whatever day it was.

Kelly: And the show went on.

Ballard: Oh, yeah. The show went on, absolutely, the show went on.

Kelly: Do you remember the newspaper headlines?

Ballard: I have a copy of it at my house, yes.      

Kelly: So since people aren’t going to hear my questions necessarily—

Ballard: Okay, so I have to tell you. I have copies of the Richland Villager and Sage Sentinel, and I don’t remember what the other ones are. I have a copy that says, “Our bomb ended the war,” and things like that.

Kelly:  Can you describe kind of the evolution of people’s reaction to this? How they responded when they first heard it and then later on, and how that changed?

Ballard: I think everybody was happy that it had happened. I mean, they were in favor of doing what they did. Richland High School now are called the Bombers, but they’re not named for the bomb. They’re named for the B-17 bomber that the workers at Hanford paid for [Day’s Pay]. So that’s why they’re called the Bombers, not because of the bomb. Although sometimes I think maybe they still do it, they set up what looks like a bomb out in the middle of the floor in the basketball games. They changed the name from Columbia High to Richland after Hanford was built, so that they had a Richland High School and a Hanford High School both in Richland.

Nalezny: Do you think it changed the way that people thought of themselves in this community, once they found out what had been going on and what their part had been?

Ballard: I’m sure [for] some people it probably did, but I think most people were proud of what they had done, that we did it, and it was a secret, too. I don’t think it got out particularly what they were doing.

You’ve heard the story about what the little boy said. I’m sure everybody will tell you this one. His daddy went to work and the teacher says, “Well, do you know what he does?” Yeah, he did. “What’s he do?”

“He makes toilet paper, because he brings home two rolls every night.”

So that was one of the jokes that they told about it, because nobody knew what they were doing.

I wasn’t out there working, so I really can’t say this for sure. But you had your job to do, but you didn’t know what they were doing over across the way. You didn’t mesh—you know, you had to do this with whatever you had, and then it was sent someplace else and they did some more with it.

Kelly:  So how many people worked here, do you remember?

Ballard: I have no idea at that time. It [the population] raised considerably during the Cold War, I’m sure. And when they were building all the reactors, of course, they kept bringing in people, operators, for the reactors. I think they had nine [reactors] at one time operating. But the only thing that’s operating now is the Washington Public Power Plant. That is a nuclear plant, but none of the ones that were making the plutonium are operating.

Nalezny: Did having all those new people flood in improve the quality of life? Or did it make you feel that you were losing part of what you used to have?

Ballard: Well, it quit being a small town, as far as I was concerned. It grew rapidly, which was fine because everybody seemed to have a job and you could find a job if you were looking for one. It was probably better.

There were many organizations started in the early days, even. Kiwanis came in, and they had a chorus groups. My dad was in one called the Meistersingers. They had one for the women, and I forget what it was called, but Sidney Irving was the choir director. The League of Women Voters was started quite early here. And lots of organizations started in the early days. Of course, they then expanded with more people coming in.

Kelly: What kind of activities were there for a high school student? 

Ballard: Well, there was a teenage club for the high school kids, and just all the school activities. There were many, many school activities during the school year, not too many in the summer. Originally the school kids worked picking apples and stuff like that in the fall, but that soon quit. They now have itinerate laborers usually pick the fruit, but I don’t know.

We always seemed to be busy. There were lots of church groups. I belonged to those at Central Church. Christ the King, of course, had the same type thing. But originally there were only two churches, Christ the King and Central. Those two churches were built by the government. The rest of the churches in town were built by the church denomination.

Kelly: So did you feel somehow confined by the fact that you couldn’t travel during the war?

Ballard: No, not at all.

Kelly: Why don’t you say that as a sentence since you—

Ballard: No, I didn’t feel confined, because we didn’t have a car. We never had a car in West Virginia. It wasn’t new to me, not to have a car. You could ride the bus and you could ride the bus to Pasco, or if somebody had a car you could go to some other town. It wasn’t that you couldn’t leave Richland. You could leave Richland. But they just didn’t encourage it particularly, I think. But no, it never bothered me at all. I didn’t feel restricted.

Kelly: You said you went away to college for a year. Where did you go?

Ballard: I went to college at Cheney, Eastern Washington State College in Cheney for a year. And when I came back, as I said, I went back to work for GE. I decided I was making as much money as I was going to make if I graduated in business, so I might just as well continue working, which I did, continue working.

Nalezny: What do you think of the legacy now? What the project has evolved into, from the fact that it’s cleanup now?

Ballard: I think that its okay to clean it up, but I think it’s a shame to get rid of it all, because I think they have torn down a lot of buildings that could have been used that they shouldn’t have torn down. I hope that they do preserve this area, B Reactor and some of the area, because I think it’s important as far as a historical site is concerned. They have just kind of taken things away that I feel they shouldn’t have taken down. They could have been used for medical purposes, actually. Some of the facilities could have been used for medical isotopes, that they got rid of.

Nalezny: As far as that legacy, what do you think are the lessons people would learn by looking at the buildings and learning about the people?

Ballard: Learning about the people – I think they should be proud of the people that did this, because they did it as well as they could and as safely as they could, considering the time and the amount of effort that they had to put forth to do it. They did a remarkable job that should be remembered by everybody.

I guess living in Richland, it never worried me that I was within fifty miles of reactors or something like that. It never bothered me at all, even though Chernobyl happened. I was working for a person at Exxon then. He says, “Our reactors are really not exactly like that. We don’t have it that way.” And  , he was back with that too. And still I didn’t worry about it out here. 

My last position was executive secretary to the manager for Siemens. That’s the job I had when I retired. I was pretty happy with that. I really liked going back to work when I was forty-nine, something like that. I never considered myself, when I worked for the area managers out in the 200 Area. I mean, that was nothing to me. It was just a better job. But I really enjoyed my work for Exxon and for Siemens, more than I did the others. 

Copyright 2012. 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.