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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

William E. Tewes’ Interview (September 2013)

In July 1945 William E. Tewes was transferred from New York, where he was working on gaseous diffusion, to Oak Ridge. He worked on the leak testing operation at K-25. He discusses the many scientific and engineering innovations of the K-25 Plant, raising a family in Oak Ridge, and the friends he made among his fellow Manhattan Project workers.

Date of Interview:
September 6, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: This is Cindy Kelly. It is September 6, 2013. I am in Oak Ridge, Tennessee with Bill Tewes. So Bill, can you tell us your name and spell it?

Tewes: Sure. My name is William Edward Tewes. And the first and second names are obvious, but to spell my last name, it is T-E-W-E-S. My father and my children all pronounce it “Tewes.” The rest of my older family, including my grandparents, pronounced it “Teweys.” And my Uncle Elmer would remark, “Any fool should know it’s pronounced Teweys because there are two E’s in the name.”

Kelly:  That’s great.

Tewes: I would like to start with my grandparents.

My grandparents had a famous member. That’s Colonel William A. Tewes, who served in World War I in the infantry. He was called to active duty from the – I believe it’s the First Lieutenant in the New Jersey National Guard. And the reason I want to get to World War I is, that World War I ended in an armistice. It did not end in a victory for the Allies. They were able to place a lot of very restrictive rules on the Germans, but there was no means of enforcement. So Germany was essentially free to rearm as long as they did a few things like keep their battleships below a certain size. But they very cleverly made sure that the guns were outgunning the British fleet.

And the reason I mention this is that when World War II started, this country was greatly divided. There was a very strong isolationist movement. And words that were said over and over again were, “We do not want to send our boys to fight another European war.” Although we cheered for the Allies and President Roosevelt managed to get a certain amount of material to them, like the fifteen destroyers on the Lend-Lease Program. We stayed out of that war, and we were completely surprised when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

I can remember those days very, very specifically. I was in my sophomore year at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey. They were a small school. They gave me a good scholarship and the second year, they added to it, so I was able to live on campus. But the really good schools in the New York area all had a clause that you could not do any outside work. So that was about the best I could do.

[On December 7, 1941] I remember pulling off the road and listening to the radio, and you know, just stunned. And when I got to campus, everyone was sitting around talking. No one had any idea that we might be attacked. I guess around dinnertime, the announcement was made that President Roosevelt would address the nation. And this was one of these dates that you remember, December 8. I think it was around noon. I know I was sitting at a small table in the student union, and I remember that I was sitting there with Arnie Larson and Bill Lausinger, and Seth Artson.

And when President Roosevelt went down the aisle in the Congress, everybody cheered. And one of his staff remarked later that usually it was only the Democrats who cheered. So we were essentially united, before he said a word. But his speech, “The date that will live in infamy,” was one of the greatest speeches of all times. And it took Congress, I believe I read somewhere, 111 minutes to declare that a state of war existed between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan.

I know afterwards we broke up. And a few people enlisted the next day, but not very many. The Army wasn’t anxious to have a big enlistment because they really weren’t prepared for it. Personally, I had no idea of enlisting at that time. The draft was functioning at the start of the war. And there was a path where one could enlist in the Army or the United States Reserves and complete their college year.

Jed Hall and I decided, that would have been the fall of, I think maybe November of ’42, to enlist, because we decided the worst thing that could happen to you is for you get halfway through, and then at the end of the war you’d maybe have a long time to wait before you could go back. And they guaranteed us we would get through that year. And I guess I was called to active duty in – sometime in late June of ’43, when the induction was at Fort Dix, New Jersey. And after a few days I shipped to an infantry training center at Fort McClellan, Alabama.

Now, one of the tremendously significant effects of World War II was the fact that people learned to move all around the country. Before World War II, I had probably gone, oh, 100 miles in each direction from Orange, New Jersey. You can go 100 miles east, but you have to go sort of a bit north. The thing that impressed me the most – you know, Fort McClellan was an Army town. After six weeks you got to go into Anniston, Alabama. And Jed and I just lucked into the fact that there was the Dixie Fireproof Hotel there. I think it was about six stories high. And all the locals were finishing Sunday dinner, but we had no trouble getting a table. That was my introduction to Southern cooking. My mother used to make candied sweet potatoes that were terrific. But this casserole dish that they made was out of this world. I also learned that no matter what you asked, you could not get rare meat in the south.

We went through the typical infantry basic, eleven or thirteen weeks. And essentially what they were trying to do was to teach you to kill people, and to do it without any question. The second thing you learned to do was to get you to obey orders without question. This meant if they told you to walk off the edge of a cliff, that you would do so. Because you would count on them having some way to catch you as you went down.

There are also a number of people who had a lot of difficulty with the thought of killing, even an enemy man. And the Army had a solution for that. They became Medics. As far as I’m concerned, they were the bravest people in the Army. When everybody was hunkered down, somebody yelled for a Medic. He went from being hunkered down and ran to help them.

After basic training, I spent about four days where my instructions were to just keep out of sight. “You can come back to the training company,” which now had different crews in it from mess. At that time we were shipped out, had no idea where we were going.

One thing about trains at that time, there was no such thing as air conditioning. Summer was hot and we’d strip down to our shorts, and we first experienced it going from Fort Dix to Fort McClellan. We had no idea what the experience of going through a tunnel was like. And when you got out the other side, you were gasping for breath. And you were black, and after a while you just didn’t bother trying to clean up. And as I remember when we got to Fort McClellan, they just hosed us down [laughs], and put us in a truck and first thing we did was get a shower and new clothes.

On the second day of July, I guess it was in the early afternoon, that’s July of ’45, I received a phone call telling me to report immediately to headquarters. Not to bring anything with me. And I knew what that meant. That meant I was going to be shipped out. Because a lot of my friends had been shipped out already. I went over to headquarters, and I can’t for the life of me remember where it was. I was up at the Nash Building at the time. And after a few minutes, I was admitted to see – I think he was Captain by then, Captain Hyde. And I saluted, told him I was reporting. And he immediately read these orders, which said that I was to report to a certain railroad station on the next day. And they gave me a train number, and that was all.

And then after receiving those orders, Captain Hyde wished me well. I have since learned that Captain Hyde – there’s a famous picture of him. He was First Lieutenant at that time. And it shows him and a couple of civilians and Colonel [Kenneth] Nichols standing side by side. And from the way I read it, using a magnifier, he was receiving the Silver Star for previous action. I know that Colonel Nichols in his book mentions that there were a few officers that didn’t need any technical skills, who had been in battle. That’s a story you might look into, Cindy. It’s one of Ed Westcott’s.

My mother was very ill with cancer and was in a hospice in New York, and I said goodbye to her. That night I was living with my stepfather and my half-sister Beth, who was a lot younger than me. I took some time to pack and to procure a certain – converted maybe two-thirds of my money into liquid assets, which I knew were going to increase in value appreciably when I got to Dogpatch. We were generally aware of where the Oak Ridge facilities were. At SAM [Substitute Alloys Material Laboratory], it was universally known as “Dogpatch.”

The next day I got on the train. There was a Pullman porter there, waiting out near the gate. When I told him that I believed he had my orders, he said, “Yes I do.” He said, “If you would please take the things you will need to clean up in the morning, I will take care of your things.”

I said, “I hope you will be very careful. There are some breakables in there.”

He said, “Oh yes.” He says, and he said, “One other thing.” He said, “We do not accept tips from GIs.” He said, “Please don’t offer the people in food service a tip.”

Well, it turned out that the trip down here was very, very much like Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo-Choo. We had dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer. And then we had country ham and eggs in Carolina. [Laughs] When I got in [to Oak Ridge], a couple other GIs were there and there was a bus, but Art Kelman and Larry O’Rourke met me. They had an old truck, GI truck. They discussed for a while whether I should sit in the back, but we managed to get all three of us plus my large bag with the valuables in it. And I arrived on the Fourth of July, and actually they had taken the day off.

There were very limited days off during the war. And one thing that most people don’t realize is that during the war, everybody worked six days a week. That was a normal workday. We hung out here or there, went to the PX, and drank 3.2 beers. The Army had an attitude that they complied with local law. And with the beer, nobody was going to bootleg beer. And that was one of the first recycling operations. They used to recycle the glass.

The next day, I was assigned to a leak testing operation. They still had parts of K-25—I think the construction was pretty well complete and a lot of it was online, but there was a lot of it that was not finished, so I ended up on shift. I went out to get some orientation and badges and stuff.

And I tell you, I was just amazed at the size of K-25. It just almost is inconceivable that they could build a plant like that. I spent I guess about a month leak testing. Work shifts, when I was on day shift or swing shift, I stayed in Barracks E where the group from Columbia, there were about a dozen of us I guess, were all located. The other shift couldn’t stay there because the maids would be cleaning up. There were a couple of – oh, I think there were four or five, maybe more than that, hutments that were just general purpose. People didn’t have their equipment there or anything. And we would sleep there.

I am mentioning that specifically because there’s a lot of talk about the treatment of blacks, and blacks certainly all lived in hutments and the way they used barbed wire to separate the men from the women wasn’t admirable by any means. But the Army had a hard time keeping men and women separated among the whites, too, because a lot of them were married, but didn’t have the kind of job that would get them a house. And [Laughs] usually it was the woman that would get caught in the men’s dorm, just trying to have normal relations with their husband.

Essentially we finished leak testing and everybody went off for a job. I wanted to go back to development and had no problem in doing so.

On leak testing, the first thing that one would do when they had a new cell—six converters in a cell, which is the unit that can be segregated from the rest of the converters. And first thing they’d do is they’d pressure—using nitrogen, they’d first evacuate it, fill it with nitrogen to maybe about five pounds over the normal pressure, normal atmospheric pressure, and look for leaks. You use your ear first, and then you’d go around to likely places and you’d put some soapy water and see if you got bubbles. When you pretty well found all the big leaks, you would evacuate the unit, which was hooked up to a helium leak detector. This would detect only helium. It was essentially set up and you would squirt some helium on suspected spots.

If they were not leaking, nothing would happen. If they leaked, the gauge would go up. After a little argument, I was able to convince the fellow who was in charge of the area where I was working that we ought to just put some gunk on that and close it up. They had been just bringing it up to atmospheric pressure and having the welder fix it. But we did that for eight hours a day and it was mostly women doing it.

When I came down, I think it was more a matter of, they were shutting down SAM than it was that they needed me in Oak Ridge. I know Don Trauger stayed ‘til the very end and I think he stayed almost to the end of ’45, or something like that.

Kelly: Just because not everybody would know this, the equipment you were testing for leaks was new?

Tewes: Oh yes, it was state-of-the-art new pieces of equipment. I have had some people ask me and I can’t remember whether we were using a GE or a Westinghouse leak detector. Apparently both outfits had made them. They were in use not only at K-25, but also at Y-12.

Kelly: So the leak detector itself was a new innovation?

Tewes: Yeah. It was made for the project. And it was a necessity. Either at K-25 or at Y-12, they needed to have a perfectly sealed vessel in each case. There’s an awful lot that was made entirely for the project. Probably the most significant things were the Calutron at Y-12, and the gaseous diffusion barrier at K-25. Both of them are still classified. The general idea is used freely and I think the French have disclosed a lot more than we have

I really today don’t know if people who have Q clearances know anything about the barrier. I made one effort back when we – oh, about five years ago to get a number of old people like me, who had worked at the plant, and discuss barrier. It got set up in a rather formal arrangement and it just didn’t get all of the information. Maybe I’ll take another crack at that.

At K-25, we used a series of porous membranes. They were in the form of tubes, and about half the gas would flow through the membrane and go down to the stage below. By the stage I mean, there were six of these sets of barriers. You pumped in each cell and there were a number of cells in each building. The word “building” was just for convenience. It was a group of cells that went from the front of the back of the plant. And there were several thousand of these units. Each would enrich a little bit, and that would go to the stage above. And they would take the stuff that had been depleted to the stage below. The general word for it was a cascade.

In the case of Y-12, Y-12 used an electromagnetic separation process. They would vaporize a form of uranium. It was a compound that would vaporize at a lower temperature than pure uranium would. And they would run it through a tremendously strong magnet, which would separate the U-235 from U-238. They had to do this twice in the Alpha building. It came up to maybe 15%, something like that, 20%. And then in the Beta buildings, it would get up to weapons grade, around 90%, something in that neighborhood. I don’t know of anybody has come up with an official definition.

One has to be in awe of the engineering accomplishments at the three separation points. The third one was liquid diffusion. This came in later when—it’s sort of a murky story about how Phil Abelson got the word to Colonel Groves that liquid diffusion could function to get a small increment of separation, and then their product could be sent to Y-12.

About the time they got this plant built, K-25 had enough cells on string that Colonel Nichols’ brother-in-law had been assigned to develop a system for making the three plants work together. For the last several months before the bomb was dropped, they ran the thermal diffusion plant, S-50 was its code name, and took its product, K-25 and got further enrichment. And they took the enriched material then to Y-12. By the time the bomb was dropped, K-25 was functioning well enough that Colonel Nichols recommended that the Alpha buildings at Y-12 and the thermal diffusion plant be shut down, because they were both very inefficient compared to gaseous diffusion.

As it turned out, this was a wonderful thing for Oak Ridge, because it resulted in a lot of people being terminated. Since it was after the war, there was a tremendous number of women working in Oak Ridge. They normally would have been married. They mostly had high school graduates. They normally would have been married and perhaps had a child or two by the time the war was over. And they were very happy to leave as their men, in many cases husbands or boyfriends, were released by the Army. This meant that when we came to the end of ’45, and it was recommended that the Beta buildings in Y-12 be shut down, a very sizeable portion of the Y-12 plant had been shut down so that the layoff weren’t quite as difficult to take.

Well I guess I want to say something about dropping the bombs. Now, the people I knew, that included the SEDs, the civilians that I worked with, the civilians that I met, and we had no thought whatsoever that there would be any question about dropping the bomb. We were working on it because it was a means of bringing the war to an end. It was a military decision. You know, GIs or officers, they didn’t question military decisions. The civilians didn’t question military decisions. But out of Los Alamos we had two groups that did question military decisions. We had a group of refugees from Hitler. They were mostly Jewish, but this wasn’t a Jewish thing by any means. They had worked diligently to make the bomb when it was thought that it might be used against Germany. There was a small group that were pretty leftist. And they ended up making – or circulating a paper and they got the group at the University of Chicago involved in it.

My personal feeling is, how could a refugee who had no feeling for Pearl Harbor at all, who had been motivated by his anti-Hitler concepts, conceive of what we did in our war with Japan? There were some petitions. They did not have a majority of the people at Chicago, who voted on this subject. The people I knew personally at Oak Ridge never questioned this. It was a military decision.

Since the war, we’ve had one group after another raise this question. They apparently all are comfortable in ignoring the number of Japanese lives that were saved by the bomb. Because if we had used conventional weapons, and the most vivid case was the firebombing of Tokyo, which killed as many people as were killed at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And if we had continued a conventional war, and you read different dates, whether it was the first of October, the first of November, that that war probably would have resulted in a million American casualties and probably ten times that many Japanese.

We have a good basis for recognizing this. Iwo Jima was about as bloody a place as there was, and it wasn’t just the fighting. The Japanese almost had a religion that said, “You cannot retain your honor if you don’t fight to the death.” That was certainly a factor in a lot of the Japanese war crimes, they had no use for Americans who had surrendered. It just wasn’t done. So the carnage would have been horrible. I know there hasn’t been a good estimate of how many people might have died. They vary all over the map. One thing you can say, though, is, it’s a lot. It’s a great, large number. I want to see if I can get somebody to do the work, because I don’t do much anymore. But I would be very interested in how many Japanese were killed by bombs compared with—and that applies throughout the war.

The British brought the policy of essentially there were no noncombatants, that combatants, that people who worked on war plants, were also the enemy. You would have infamous bombings by both sides in Europe. We bombed the hell out of the Japanese conventionally. We had four, no, five Japanese cities that were not bombed because they were set aside as targets for the atomic bomb.

I want to reiterate the words that Secretary of War [Henry] Stimson used in making awards for the participants. There were 130,000 at least who worked on the atomic [bomb], developing and manufacturing the two atomic bombs that were used on Japan. He said that those of us who did that work to make the atomic bombs brought the war in the Pacific to a satisfactory conclusion, and all of us who did that are very proud of our work.

The people who worked here during the war didn’t just pick up and go home. A lot of us stayed here. And one of the great things about working in Oak Ridge was, we had a tremendous number of really good-looking women working here. At Y-12, they devised the means of having women do just a few things. For instance, they might have a group of women who did routine chemical analysis. And Woman A would do a certain thing and pass it through to Woman B, who would do something else. And Woman X down the line would write out the results of the analysis. The Calutron operators became quite famous, who spent their eight hour day, six day a week shift just worrying about four or five dials and keeping them within the required range.

It was an exceedingly important thing because everybody was overworked.  This country was dedicated. Whether you were in service, whether you were civilians, it didn’t matter. We were dedicated to winning the war. And six million women moved to different sites to do war work. And it probably about 15,000 of them here in Oak Ridge, many of them on shifts. Shift workers sort of had a life of their own, and so I mentioned the women.

Now, I want to mention a specific group of men, the Special Engineer Detachment, 9812 Technical Service Unit. There were 1,247, or some number like that, of us working here at all of the plants and the Castle on the Hill [headquarters]. And a number of us stayed here after the war. And one of the great attractions that kept us here was the fact that we had all those beautiful women.

And I can speak personally of this because on Thanksgiving Day of 1945, I met Olive Littleton of Grayson, Kentucky. Grayson is about twenty-five miles from the West Virginia border. Go another ten miles and you’re in Huntington, West Virginia. She gave me credit anyway for changing her first name to Audrey on our first date. I guess that we dated continuously until we got married. I know of so many of my friends—well for instance, you remember Bob and Evelyn Ellingson? Bob was from Iowa? Or no, Idaho. Evelyn was from Alabama. I was from New Jersey. Audrey was from, as she would call it, Kentucky hills country. It was very common. She continued working until the summer of ’49. I can remember our neighbors from downstairs had come up on the day before Gates Opening Day.

Audrey was petite. When she got a wedding dress in that main [inaudible] in Knoxville,

I was told, keep my eye on the street. If I found out what that wedding dress was, the wedding was off. No restraints were put on my ears. I heard these two salesladies talking. And one of them said, “I am helping this lovely little girl select her wedding dress.” [Laughs] She said, “You know she’s 98 pounds and 5’3” and she’s 31, 20, 32.” [Laughs] The size. Well, I didn’t reveal that for a little while [Laughs].

On that day in ’49, we decided that we’d just go as far as we could and walk. And Phil and Myrtle Bursey were their names. They were older than us. And Phil and I were having a drink and talking. And all of a sudden Myrtle says, “Hey guys, plans have changed, we’re going to take Audrey to the maternity ward.” About 4:00 that Gates Opening Day, Dr. Dings came in and told me, “Bill, you’ve got a beautiful little girl.”

And I was smiling. Dr. Dings said, “And Bill, you’ve got a second beautiful little girl,” [Laughs] and you know, I was in heaven. I went up and eventually he said that someone would come get me, but I knew where the maternity ward was. I figured I’d waited long enough. They had sort of a pretty strong-willed nurse in charge and she told Audrey, she said, “Mrs. Tewes,” she said, “Kiss your husband and we’re going to get you to sleep until 11:00 tomorrow.” [Laughs]

And Audrey, she said, “Nobody sleeps till 11:00 in a hospital!” But, she told me, “No,” she said, “I’m going to drive you home.”

I said, “Well first, I’d like to see my daughters.” [Laughs] But she reminded me the buses were on strike and next day, you know Gates Opening Day was a very festive thing here. We had movie stars and politicians.

I learned at the time that the mother has the privilege of naming the child. At least Audrey made it very clear to me that I was welcome at the conception but [laughs] from then on I hadn’t really done a damned thing. I had suggested Olivia Ann. And her response was, “Oat!” [Laughs] I had never thought of the initials. She had told me about Madeline and Lee before. And actually she did say that I might be privileged to make suggestions on the middle name. Amelia Ann was her sister.

We added two more girls, and you couldn’t ask for a better place to raise children than Oak Ridge. At that time, the cemesto house area, we lived on Venus Road. Our first, Ellen was born there. And then we moved to our current house on East Forest, and had Rebecca there, rather late in life, which keeps you young.

Kelly:  Well, that is a lovely story. I think that we should probably wrap up. We probably should end. Is there anything that you suppose I haven’t covered in all of this that you want to say? Or shall we just sign off? You have some wonderful things you’ve contributed.

Tewes: Yes, I think there’s one other thing I want to say. You’re not down here on a fun trip. You’re here because Bill Wilcox died. And I worked for Bill directly, or maybe with one person in between us, for probably about forty years, both at K-25 and at Y-12. I got to appreciate him more than most people have. I got to know him very well. And he’s the closest to being – I’m having trouble coming up with the right word.

But Bill was interested in everything. He was a very effective person, and the city has lost a great deal. I have been going through a bad period, because it seems like about every month, before Bill it was Hal McCurdy. I’ve known Hal – well, when Audrey and I were courting, we mainly did things with SEDs, but Hal was one of the few I got to know early on from Y-12. And then about a month before that, Evelyn Ellingson. You know, Evelyn was certainly Audrey’s most cherished friend.

And I became good friends with her and Bob many, many years ago. And before that, Viola Ergen. I don’t know if you know Viola. Her husband Bill died much too young. And he was the one who came up with the China Syndrome idea, and who really got the attention of the need for increasing our knowledge on—oh, I can’t think of the name of it. And Viola was a very good friend of Audrey’s from Girl Scouts. Audrey had been chairman of the Girl Scouts for a number of years. There were over 900 of them.

So, this isn’t a very good day for me, and I’m sure it isn’t for you. 

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