[At top is the edited version of the interview published by S. L. Sanger in Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford, Portland State University, 1995.
For the full transcript that matches the audio of the interview, please scroll down.]
The first day of September, ’44, in a nice howling dust storm, I arrived at Hanford. I drove out from Oak Ridge, my wife could not come because there was no housing. Russ Chapman and I went to the ration board, and the ration board gave us four new tires, S3 Goodrich tires, and a whole wad of C tickets for gas. Russ had a Ford and I had a Chevy.
At separations, I worked at T Plant, somebody had to make up the run books, what I call cookbook chemistry. You gotta remember our manpower was chosen, frankly, out of the ranchers that had been dispossessed of their land and construction people who stayed on.
You have a crew of say 10 people. You look at this outfit and you say, “Now you do as I say or get hurt, because what we’re dealing with, you can’t see it, you can’t feel it, you can’t eat it, and so on and so forth.” And you sit down and you have to train people how to read the run books.
You see, that type of operation was controlled by gang valves and the supervisor had a key to the gang valves. You have, let’s say you have finished dissolving, you have to move the liquid, you have to jet the liquid from the dissolver cell over to, we’ll say, an E-1 tank. Now, that solution could not be moved until, first, I look at the run book to see if everything is done, and secondly, I open the gang valve and then they say, “Jet dissolver to E-1 tank,” for instance. Then when it is done, I come back and I lock the valve. Then it had to be centrifuged, let’s say. Okay, so the operator comes down and says “I’m ready to centrifuge.” I look at the run book. Okay, everything’s fine. I open the gang valve.
That’s what I call cookbook chemistry. Anybody who never saw a chemistry book in their life could do it because everything was labeled. All the piping was remote controlled. Everything was remote control maintenance, with remote control wrenches.
The equipment worked very well. In fact, the first run as I remember it at the T Plant was something like durn near 99 percent pure. It was a good process. Most of the time, things went fairly smoothly. Oh sure, we had our problems. We might have a leaky connector, or a jet that didn’t work right, those normal kinds of problems. When I was there we had four to five really qualified crane operators to handle remote repairs and maintenance. These guys could drop a pipe through a hole in a tank from 40 feet and never miss it. The fuel slugs on well cars could be backed right into the tunnels and unloaded into the dissolver. In those days we had only aluminum cladding on the fuel slugs, not like now with zirconium. So nitric acid was used to dissolve. Also before you could dissolve in those days you had to worry about wind conditions, because nitric oxide fumes, on a first cut, would be practically brown. They didn’t want the wind to be in the direction of the Tri-Cities, even though they were 30-35 miles away. We had a big meteorological tower outside the West Area and we worked closely with them. If we started dissolving and the wind got bad, we would have to quit, so we were at the vagaries of the wind. That’s before we had sand filters and all kinds of purifiers. Right now you go to PUREX (the post-war separations plant) and when they dissolve you have to look hard before you can discern a slight light brownish smoke.
The radiation danger was always with us. We were taught to obey our instrumentation, like flying an airplane. If your instrument says you are flying straight and you think you are upside down you better think you are flying straight. In the early days, we carried Geiger counters with us, we didn’t have fancy pencils and badges.
When we first came out here, for years, they would come by and leave a bottle on the porch. And you were required to urinate into that bottle and then they would come and pick it up. We were tested once a month, during the war and afterward. We had yearly physical examinations. And, every day somebody would check your feet for radioactivity.
We were taught about radiation at Oak Ridge. And on top of that we had to train our people too. It was much easier after they dropped the bombs. Before the bombs, you would have to tell them, “Put your confidence in me, because I am not letting you go somewhere where you would be hurt but at the same time I can‘t tell you what you are doing either.“ Not many of them guessed. I couldn’t say anything about radioactivity, not until after August 6.
S.L. Sanger: This is Wakefield “Wakie” Wright and Mrs. Wright, interviewed June 19, 1986 at their residence in Richland.
Do you want to tell us where you came from?
Wakefield Wright: My real name is Wakefield A. Wright.
Sanger: Wakie is what they call you?
Wright: Wakie is my nickname.
Sanger: How old are you?
Wright: I’m seventy-one.
Sanger: And you’ve been here since?
Sanger: Where did you come from?
Wright: Oak Ridge.
Sanger: What were you doing there?
Wright: I was learning in the separations process of how to operate this plant here. We were operating the pilot plants. Most of us were assigned to the project after FBI investigations. I was with DuPont in the Military Explosives Division before World War II.
Sanger: Oh, you were. So you had worked for DuPont for a number of years?
Sanger: For how long?
Wright: In 1940 I was assigned to DuPont from Charlestown, Indiana.
Sanger: What had you done in Charlestown?
Wright: First I was in procurement. Then they sent us to Carneys Point, New Jersey, where we learned how to operate the military explosive plants. My particular field was nitrocellulose manufacturing.
Sanger: Which is a part of the explosive?
Wright: That’s the business end of a torpedo, but we were also making gunpowder, the type of powder that goes into the bullets and everything that they were using in World War II.
Sanger: Where’s Carney’s Point?
Wright: New Jersey, right across the river from Wilmington, Delaware.
Sanger: Yeah, that’s a big plant now.
Wright: So we learned how to do that, and then we came back to Charlestown, Indiana to train the operators for that. We went through all of the operating phases of that plant. Then they assigned our whole training school out to various plants. Some of them went to Gopher Ordnance Works in Minnesota, and some went to Oklahoma Ordnance. Some stayed in Charlestown, and I just happened to be assigned to Alabama Ordnance.
Sanger: Was that a DuPont plant?
Wright: That’s DuPont. And then one day in 1943 the boss says, “You’re assigned to a super secret project and I can’t tell you anything more.”
Sanger: Where were you then?
Sanger: Which town?
Wright: Childersburg, central Alabama.
Sanger: Did you have some training as an engineer?
Wright: No, I have a degree in biological sciences from the University of Louisville.
Sanger: When was that?
Sanger: That’s when you got in with—
Wright: I worked a couple of years in the furniture business in Louisville in piecework. I was timekeeper for Mengele’s Body Corporation for two years. And then, unintentionally, I went to work for DuPont. I took a friend of mine to apply for a job in Charlestown. The first guy I run into is a fellow that I played four years of baseball with at the University of Louisville. He said, “What are you doing?”
I said, “Nothing except working for Mengele’s.”
He said, “Come to work for DuPont.”
Sanger: That was in 1940?
Sanger: So they came around when you were in Alabama and told you that you would be transferred?
Wright: Yes. He says, “Leave your wife here and when the time comes we’ll give you your tickets.” At that time we had a little one-year-old daughter. When the time came the ticket said Knoxville, Tennessee. When we got off the train on a Sunday in Knoxville, we were met by DuPont people. On Monday we were escorted by threes into this security building. There were two guards on the front door and bars all over it. We sat down and they told us what we were—
Sanger: They told you what? What did they tell you, do you remember?
Wright: Oh yeah. They told us that we were in a race for an atomic bomb.
Sanger: They used those terms?
Wright: As I remember, it was just something like that, and consequently nobody would know everything about it. We were assigned to either the reactors or separations. This whole training school was from all over the United States. We knew if Mr. B over here was a superintendent coming from this training school that he was going to be a superintendent there. Most of us were supervisors. I was assigned to separation, so we learned how to use the bismuth phosphate method of separation of plutonium from uranium.
Sanger: So you worked in a small pilot semi-works next to the reactor?
Wright: Right, DuPont’s codename X-10.
Sanger: Yeah. That was right next to the reactor?
Wright: The reactor was sort of up on the hill and then the separations plant was down below. I lived in Dormitory 39.
Sanger: Was your wife with you then?
Wright: No, she could not go. DuPont paid us two salaries, my regular salary and a sustenance salary for being at Oak Ridge. She was able to come up and visit. That was a closed city.
Sanger: Oak Ridge?
Wright: Oak Ridge was closed. This was always an open city here. Oak Ridge was under military control, so you got permission to have your wife come up. She could stay for seventy-two hours and she had to wear a big red badge that said “Visitor” on it. Seventy-two hours later, she had to leave.
Sanger: What was the work like when you were in the training? Was it similar to anything you’d done before at Oak Ridge?
Wright: No. In the first place, you’re sworn to secrecy. You couldn’t even mention the word “atom.” You couldn’t even mention the word “plutonium,” or nothing. You were sworn to secrecy. You know how people like to talk. If we were on, from Dorm 39, a bus or a cattle car or whatever you want to call it and somebody got talking, there was generally an FBI man that you didn’t know anything about would put the kibosh on you. It was a pretty well-kept secret.
Sanger: What happened to a person that would talk?
Wright: As far as I know, I don’t think they terminated them, but they sure let them know that if they didn’t straighten up they could be terminated.
Sanger: How long were you there?
Wright: I was there for the better part of nine months.
Sanger: Was that true for the reactor trainees too?
Wright: About the same. Actually, the reactor group probably came out a little earlier here than the separations group, because the B Reactor was starting to be constructed in July of 1943. They finished construction in September of ’44 and started to load the reactor. The first fuel slugs that were processed in the separations plant was in December of ’44 at the T-Plant.
Sanger: So that would have meant that the reactor operators would have been on the job a little sooner?
Wright: Yeah, probably a little sooner.
Sanger: You went there, when did you say, to Oak Ridge?
Wright: March of ’43.
Sanger: So you were there—?
Wright: Six months.
Sanger: Okay, so in September of ’44 you came out here [to Richland]?
Wright: The first day of September in a nice howling dust storm, where it was so—
Wright: Meet my wife, Mitzie.
Sanger: Steve Sanger. How are you doing?
Mitzie: I’m glad to meet you.
Wright: Do you want to sit down and listen to this?
Mitzie: You all go ahead.
Sanger: How did you get out there, by train?
Wright: No, I drove out.
Sanger: By this time now, your wife was along?
Sanger: Not yet?
Wright: No, she could not come. There wasn’t any housing. We went to the Ration Board and they gave us four new tires, S3 Goodrich tires, and a whole lot of C tickets.
Sanger: For gas?
Wright: For gas. I don’t know whether you’ve spoken to Russ Chapman yet?
Wright: He and I drove our cars out. He had a Ford and I had a Chevy. That way we had a car when we came out here. With no housing ready, six of us were put into a home down here right across from that little mart when you come into Richland. Later on we were assigned an “A” house. This is an “F” house. The “A” house was over there on Terry Court. And then four years later the boss said, “Do you want a single-unit house?”
We said, “Yes.” So we moved in here in 1948 and have been here ever since.
Sanger: What’s your recollection the first time you went out to the separation facility?
Wright: Weather-wise, terrible.
Sanger: That was when?
Wright: September of 1944. It was terribly dusty. Remember, at Oak Ridge we had been studying Hanford blueprints, so one of our jobs was to calibrate the tanks. Tony Prudish, who is retired and lives up in Sunnyside, was our boss man later on. He was the number one man in 234, 235, and so on. He was our boss. Finally with my little girl and Mitzie, DuPont said, “Okay. It’s time for them to come out.” So they came out in the latter part of October or the first part of November. By this time, the house was ready.
Sanger: So you were at the T-Plant first?
Sanger: And that was about three or four months before it started?
Wright: A couple of months before it started.
Sanger: What did you do when you first got there besides calibrating tanks? What else did you do?
Wright: Somebody had been making up the run books. This is what’s I called “cookbook chemistry.” You gotta to remember that our manpower was just chosen, frankly, out of the ranchers that had been dispossessed of their land and construction people. Here is a type of supervision that you normally don’t get into, in which they assign you a crew of let’s say ten people.
You look at this outfit and you say, “Do as I say or you’ll get hurt. What we’re dealing with you can’t see it, you can’t feel it, you can’t hear it, and you can’t eat it.” You have to sit down and train these people how to sample the liquids out into the Canyon Building and how to run books. That type of operation was controlled by gang valves and the supervisor had a key to the gang valves.
Sanger: What’s that?
Wright: Let’s say you’ve finished dissolving, you have to move the liquid, and you have to jet the liquid from the dissolver over to, we’ll say, an E-1 tank for a holding tank. That solution could not be moved until first, I look at the run book to see that everything is done, and secondly, I open the gang valve and then they say, “Jet dissolver to E-1 tank,” for talking purposes. When it was done, I come back and I check it and I lock the valve.
Then it had to be centrifuged, let’s say. Okay, so the operator comes down and says, “I’m ready to centrifuge.” I look at the run book. Okay, everything’s fine. I open the gang valve. He spends two hours centrifuging. The gauges have to be right, and they’re doing all of this recording. This is the way it went.
Sanger: So it was very detailed?
Sanger: You followed it point-by-point protocol?
Wright: It’s what I called cookbook chemistry. Anybody that never saw a chemistry book in their life could do it.
Sanger: It was sort of by the numbers, I suppose.
Wright: Yeah, because everything was labeled. All of the piping was remote controlled from the remote controlled cranes. Everything was remote controlled maintenance. Your impact wrenches could be dropped down from the crane into the cell. You take your bales off and put a new connector in, and so on.
Sanger: Did the equipment work pretty well?
Wright: Yes. The equipment I felt worked pretty well. In fact, the first run, as I remember, when we came out of the T-Plant was something darn near ninety-nine percent pure. It was a good process. Then we started up the East Area, the B-Plant in the East Area in April of ’45.
Sanger: There was another one built too?
Wright: The U-Plant, which we never used.
Sanger: You never used. But it was there?
Wright: During the war. You’ve got to remember that we had East, and West was if the separation plants went down in one area then you had the other one to fall back on.
Sanger: There were two plants in which area? There was one in—
Wright: In the West. The U-Plant was in the West and the T-Plant was in the West. One plant was in the East Area.
Sanger: That was the B-Plant?
Wright: The B-Plant.
Sanger: And so you used T and B?
Wright: The U-Plant was ready but never had to be used.
Sanger: Was it used later, then?
Wright: Yes, right now it’s being used for chemical labs and things like this.
Sanger: Are the other two deactivated, T and B?
Wright: Oh yeah. They’re using the B-Plant right now to extract strontium and cesium.
Sanger: From the—?
Wright: From the waste streams from the waste tanks.
Sanger: What about T?
Wright: T has a big decontamination facility there. For instance, if a big centrifuge, and those might have been eight or ten thousand dollars worth, went out for some reason, they would snake it out of the cell and put it on a flat car and take it out to a burial ground and snake it off to bury it. Later on they got wise to the fact that they could really have a process to decontaminate used equipment and repair it. So I think the T-Plant had that type of a facility, and I also think that the T-Plant right now is also used for certain laboratories. The 222-S, which was our laboratory for running our samples for purity, is now a chemical development type of laboratory.
Sanger: Do you remember under normal conditions or average conditions, how long it would take to run the fuel through to get plutonium at the other end?
Wright: Exactly really I don’t, because you’ve got a dissolver. If you had a holdup it might be days before you got down to the other end of the line through twenty cells. You go from there to 224 and from there down to 231, and so on.
Sanger: So it might be a couple of weeks?
Sanger: It would vary? It might be shorter than that?
Wright: It would vary depending on how your equipment ran and depending on the analyses and so on. I’d have to go back—if I could find some of my books, maybe I could tell you a little more specifically on that.
Sanger: Would they’d be running material through all the time? One batch would start and then they’d put in another one?
Wright: Yeah. The fuel slugs on the well cars could be backed right into the tunnels and unloaded right into the dissolver. In those days we had only aluminum cladding on the fuel slugs. We didn’t have anything like zirconium. So the nitric acid type dissolved these. Also, before you could dissolve in those days you had to worry about wind conditions, because the nitric oxide fumes sometimes on a first cut would be just practically brown. They didn’t want the wind to be in the direction of the Tri-City areas, although you’re thirty, thirty-five miles away.
Sanger: You had to be very careful for the right wind.
Wright: Yeah, we had a big meteorological tower at Hanford right outside of the West Area. We had to work very closely with them with the wind. If we started dissolving and then the wind got bad, we had to quit. So we were at the vagaries of the wind. That’s before we had sand filters and all kinds of purifiers. Right now you go to PUREX, and you’ve got to look hard before you can see just a slight light brownish smoke coming out.
Sanger: The filters were put in?
Sanger: Later. At that time, the main idea was, within reason, to get the plutonium out.
Wright: Yes. I don’t know that we’ve ever contaminated—
Sanger: Yeah, I suppose you read about the nineteen thousand pages of DOE documents that were released?
Wright: I haven’t read it all.
Sanger: I mean, in the newspapers.
Wright: I know the Iodine-131 was purely an experiment.
Sanger: Yeah, that was in ’49.
Wright: Yeah, they were trying to see if they could cut the cooling time down.
Sanger: Did you ever have any releases that were unusual during the wartime that lasted longer than a short time, if you shut it down through the stacks? Say you were dissolving and suddenly the wind was wrong and you’d stop?
Sanger: I was talking to a guy named Healy, do you know him?
Sanger: John Healy, who was in environmental monitoring. As soon as he found that that there would be a little too much released through the stacks, they put in some different filters. They did it differently. They irradiated the uranium longer, which I guess cut down the iodine.
Sanger: So you stayed at 200 West for how long?
Wright: I was in 200 West from September until the following March, and then we went over to the East Area to start the runs through the 200 East.
Sanger: It started about when?
Wright: April ’45.
Sanger: Did you always work in the Canyon Buildings, or were there other parts of it too?
Wright: I worked not only in the Canyon Buildings, but in 1948 they started up a manufacturing division and they assigned me to the manufacturing division down here in an administrative capacity. So when I left the 200 East Area, I was a senior supervisor in charge of all of the outside diverse box changes.
Sanger: You didn’t leave there until after the War though, or were you there?
Wright: No, I didn’t leave the 200 areas until almost 1949.
Sanger: I see, so you were out there. You said there weren’t really a lot of serious equipment problems. Everything went fairly smoothly most of the time.
Wright: Most of the time. Sure, we had our problems where you have a leaky connector or a jet that didn’t work right. We had all of those normal kinds of problems.
Sanger: They would take the lids off and go in with the cranes?
Sanger: Do you happen to know if any of those men are still around or not, the crane operators?
Wright: You would ask me that question. The stellar performer we had just died two months ago, Frank Drum, over here in West Richland. Charlie Boyd, he left the area. Slim Borshime, he’s gone. When I was there we had about four or five. These guys could drop a pipe through a hole in a tank from forty feet and never miss it because of the high opticals we had, and the cab was shielded with lead. We had this sixty-ton crane and then we also had the ten-tonners.
Sanger: They used remote TV sometimes too?
Wright: No, we didn’t have TV.
Sanger: Oh yeah, they had periscopes then.
Wright: They had periscopes, but we didn’t have TV.
Sanger: I know that TV was at least discussed as a possibility once because Ray Genereaux, do you know him?
Sanger: He was talking about the remote TV aspect, because he’d gone to RCA in New York City before then. He had seen the TV, but apparently it never worked too well because it was too murky.
Wright: Yeah, we used the periscopes.
Sanger: Those crane operators were in a different operation from what you were doing?
Wright: Yes. We generally had them on our shifts. But when they came in they crawled up into their little lead-lined cab.
Sanger: I suppose they wouldn’t necessarily always have anything to do though, right?
Wright: Not really.
Sanger: What did they call the guys that you were supervising?
Wright: We had just plain old chemical operators.
Sanger: And then you were a supervisor?
Wright: I was supervisor. We had some that worked out in the acid makeup, but normally DuPont was pretty simple on their terminology. There wasn’t anything fancy. They were just plain chemical operators.
Sanger: Did they work with every three shifts around the clock?
Wright: Yeah. You’d have four shifts and you worked rotating shifts. You’d come in on four to twelve on Wednesday and work through Tuesday of the next week. You’d take two days off and come in on Friday and work the day shift until the following Friday. You’d come off on the following Friday and then you’re on the long weekend, ‘cause you tie in your two days off for that week with the two days off in the coming week. Every month you had five days off. Of course, there were other types of shift too. That was our shift.
Sanger: What were the working conditions like? Were they fairly good, reasonable? You were a supervisor. Did the ones above you treat you okay?
Wright: Oh yes.
Sanger: DuPont was a good outfit to work for?
Wright: DuPont was a good outfit to work for. General Electric was a good outfit to work for. DuPont left here on September 1, 1946, and we all had our chance to go back with DuPont if we wanted to. But Mitzie and I lived all over the United States and we just thought, wind storm or no wind storms, this is about the most moderate seasonal climate that you can find. After you fight bugs down south and everything else back east.
Sanger: Yeah, the humidity. This probably would have happened before you came, but do you remember a construction accident at one of the separation areas? A construction accident. It was probably in the waste tanks. There was one, and five to eight men were killed, according to these stories I heard. They were working under a tank. Apparently it was propped and they were boilermakers and they were attaching pipes, and it collapsed on them. The policeman who worked out here, a supervisor who worked for DuPont, told me about it. He said there were seven killed. This is Monsignor [William] Sweeney, do you know him?
Wright: He’s still here.
Sanger: Yeah. He said that there were five. Somebody else said that there were eight. It would have happened in the construction period before you were here. I’m just curious because I think that we should mention that somehow, if that happened. But it’s hard to pin it down because of the records. It was a secret project.
Wright: I remember one time outside of this area, a couple of locomotives ran together.
Sanger: That was when? ’44?
Wright: That was in late ’44.
Sanger: This fellow mentioned that too, if it’s the same one. That may have happened more than once, because there were a lot of trains around. He said it was between Hanford and White Bluffs.
Wright: That’s right, right outside of this area.
Sanger: Two locomotives ran together on a foggy morning because of a mix-up.
Sanger: He said that there were fatalities there, too.
Wright: I had never heard of any fatalities.
Sanger: It’s not important in the A-Bomb aspect, but it’s interesting. It wasn’t DuPont. I think that it was a subcontractor who had a worse record than DuPont did.
Wright: It might be American Ridge, or somebody like that.
Sanger: Yeah, I think that somebody said it was a chimney.
Wright: Oh, combustion?
Sanger: I don’t know.
Wright: What’s the name of that chimney outfit?
Sanger: The guy I talked to, the patrol person, he’s in Indianapolis now. He mentioned the name—I think it was in Cleveland. I don’t know if that was it, but it was one of those terrible things to happen on a big job like that.
Sanger: Do you recall your feelings when the bombs were dropped? You probably had no advanced notice of that, right?
Wright: No, but I’ll tell you that weekend was a long weekend for me. Mitzie and I had been up to Joseph, Oregon, and we had crawled up to the top of Hell’s Canyon up in a tower and looked down nine thousand miles. When we got back into Pasco, we stopped at the old Pasco hotel for dinner. We walked in and Paul Cunningham, who was my instrument technician on my shift, along with his wife Ruth, he’s still here, and he’s talking about dropping the atomic bomb and he’s talking about plutonium and everything. I said, “Gee, what happened?” And he told me.
Sanger: So you didn’t know that beforehand?
Wright: I had not known before that, because here we kept our mouths shut.
Sanger: You knew, of course, that was in the offing.
Wright: Sure, but that was August the 6th of 1945. Of course, two days later they dropped another one. My feeling off the bat was that it was probably necessary, because my brother was in the 13th Air Force and he was sitting off the north coast to Borneo. He said that they were getting prepared to storm Japan in October of that year. If the bomb saved him, it probably saved a few thousand more. I had always felt that that was a proper move, myself.
Sanger: You wouldn’t have known about the Trinity test in New Mexico until that time. That came up then too, didn’t it? That was discussed?
Wright: Right. We would not know that ahead of time. This is something that you read about in the papers. We didn’t know anything about the bomb tests on Bikini or anything. At least I didn’t. Most of us weren’t aware of that.
Sanger: How much did they go into it? I suppose quite a bit about the radiation exposure and the possible danger, when you were on line with the operation?
Wright: That was always with us, even from the low-level radiation liquids that we were using in Oak Ridge. We were taught to obey our instrumentation, like flying an airplane. If your instrument says you’re flying straight and you think you’re upside down, you better think you’re flying straight. As the science progressed and they got more advanced, your Poppy’s and your Pluto’s, then we all were trained in that. Most of us originally knew how to operate these machines. And then they got into the place where they made a profession out of it so that only the health instrument people and radiation monitors could do this. But in the early days, we carried Geiger counters with us. We didn’t have all of these fancy pencils and film badges.
Sanger: So they’d periodically do a check? Or did you just leave them on and listen? By listening to the Geiger counter, it would tell you if it was too much. Did you watch the gauge?
Wright: You watched the gauge, because most of them were in mR [milli-Roentgens]. They weren’t in rads. When we first came out here, for years what would be now the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation would come by and they would leave a bottle on the porch. You were required to urinate into that bottle, and then they would come and pick it up. That’s the way that we were tested once a month on this.
Sanger: Is that during the War or afterward?
Wright: That was during the War and even afterward. Our physical examinations were yearly. Our urine tests were standard procedure for a long time.
Sanger: Every week, you said?
Wright: Every month.
Sanger: During the wartime period, would there be any kind of a daily check beyond what your instruments told you?
Wright: Oh sure, because they didn’t have the hand and foot counters that they have now. Somebody would check your feet to be sure that the thing didn’t go off-scale.
Sanger: When you were actually on the job at the T-Plant, you were just reading instruments and supervising? You were behind seven feet of concrete or more from the product, right?
Wright: I would go out into the Canyon Buildings to check up on things. There’s many a time I spent six hours in an assault mask out in the Canyon Buildings, just to check up on things.
Sanger: Where would you go to do that?
Wright: In the Canyon, the T-Plant, where the covers of the cells are. Those are the Canyon Buildings. Their samplers were out there. The doors to the whole Canyon Building and all doors were operated from the central control station. We had a gal, and sometimes a man, that would be our central control operator, so that nobody could get into those doors until previously it was known that they were going through those doors. You would pick up the outside telephone there and say, “This is Wakie. I want to go into the Canyon to take a sample.” Then they would flip the door open for you.
Sanger: Could people actually go into where the lids were?
Wright: You could go in where the lids were, but to start out with there wasn’t too much background radiation. As the weeks and the years went by, more background radiation showed up. In the 200 Areas, you’re dealing mostly with alpha radiation. You want to be sure that you don’t ingest alpha, some beta, and some gamma. Beta, you could stop it with a piece of paper, but gamma goes through anything. So your background radiation, as I remember, would be coming up, and then you couldn’t spend as much time if you had to go out into the Canyon Buildings.
Sanger: I suppose that eventually that area would become off limits because of the build-up?
Sanger: I think I read that later on they were considered too hot to go into.
Sanger: What did they tell you, do you remember, about the radiation dangers? About alpha, not to eat or breathe it?
Wright: Oh sure. That was all done in training school. And then on top of that, we had to train our people too. It made it much easier after they dropped the bomb. Before that time—
Sanger: What did you tell them, do you remember? If you were having a little group session on radiation with the people you worked with?
Wright: You’d have to tell them, “Put your confidence in me, because I’m not going to let you go into somewhere where you’re going to get hurt. But at the same time, I can’t tell you what you’re doing either.” Not many of them guessed it, either.
Sanger: I see. So you couldn’t say that, “We’re dealing with radioactivity,” at that point?
Wright: No, not until August 6th of ’45.
Sanger: So you knew of course because you had to tell them, but you couldn’t tell every Tom, Dick, and Harry that, because then obviously everyone would know that it was nuclear.
Wright: I worked out at the plant for thirty-some-odd years, and my wife never has known what I did out there. She knows some of the people that I worked with, and she knew that the last ten years I was out at N Reactor. She knew that I worked all of the reactors in the 200 and 300 Areas. When I came home, that was it. I just never said anything.
Sanger: I guess when you had parties, you never talked about it either with your friends and associates?
Wright: No. I don’t talk about it.
Sanger: The secret was kept fairly well.
Sanger: I suppose that’s part of the reason, the people didn’t talk about it.
Wright: I know down in Alabama one day, two FBI men came in. I was getting ready to get going on the four to twelve shift. This never happened down here, but it happened down there. They said, “You are Wakefield Wright?”
I said, “Yes.”
They said, “Okay. You have been investigated,” and then they explained our mission. “There’s going to be six guys at the Alabama plant. You don’t know who those five are and those five don’t know who you are. We’re not interested in personnel problems. All we want you to do is to keep an eye on what you think might be possible sabotage.” And they told me how to write a letter and send it down to Sylacauga, Alabama and say, “I had a good golf game today,” which meant everything was fine; “I missed a two-foot putt,” which meant that something was a little shady. That’s the way that we did it down there.
Sanger: Did you ever send any letters off? Was there anything suspicious?
Wright: I never found any.
In those days, the blacks and the whites were separate. The blacks went through their guard house and the whites went through their guard houses. It was an immediate dismissal if a white person drank out of a black fountain.
Sanger: Oh, you’re talking about in Alabama.
Wright: But one day, some guy was up in a tower at the explosive plant and lit up a cigarette and blew this thing to smithereens. You had to dump all of your pockets into pie pans to make sure that you didn’t have knives or matches.
Sanger: Yeah, for sparks.
Wright: At this plant they never did do that.
Sanger: I suppose in some ways, you could have some problems out here, but it wasn’t quite as sensitive as an explosives plant, was it?
Wright: No. It’s very sensitive, because you’re dealing with something that will blow at you.
Sanger: I suppose that was one the reasons why DuPont was so safety conscience, because they were associated with explosives.
Wright: But DuPont and General Electric were very good on training. We spent countless hours in training schools, not only on radiation and contamination, but just normal industrial practices.
Sanger: Where did you say that you grew up?
Wright: I grew up all over the United States. I was born in Ohio and I graduated from high school in Ohio. In between that time I lived in Chicago, Atlanta, and Omaha.
Sanger: Why was that?
Wright: My dad was a lawyer. He’d get a job as a credit manager for BF Goodrich in Atlanta, Omaha. Then he got an idea that he’d like to go to California for a couple of weeks, and we stayed seven years. As a kid I was raised just outside of Disneyland in southern California. So when you ask me where did I come from—
Sanger: Yeah, where were you born?
Wright: Ohio. My wife’s from Louisville, Kentucky.
Sanger: You met here in college?
Wright: No, I met her in the Shriners Hospital. I worked my way through college in a Shriners Hospital in Louisville. She was a nurse there. I knew her when she worked there, but she had joined the Army Nursing Corps and she went to Walter Reed and Hawaii and all over the place. She was back on furlough four or five years later that we met up again and then we got married.
Sanger: Did she work out here at all?
Wright: Yes. When she first came out here she did. We had the one daughter and we adopted a boy. So up until the two kids were through the sixth grade she didn’t work, but she’s a pediatric nurse. Then she worked for the pediatricians down here at Richland Clinic.
Sanger: Your wife’s name is Mitzie?
Wright: Yeah. Her real name is Helen.
Sanger: M – I – T – Z – I?
Wright: M – I – T – Z – I – E. Her maiden name is Mitler, so I call her Mitzie.
Sanger: You must have come pretty close to being drafted, or were you in a vital spot?
Wright: Yeah, every six months. I went through four physicals every six months, and then DuPont would defer us.
Sanger: So you were how old when you first went to Oak Ridge?