Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and it’s Tuesday, March 13, 2018. I’m in Orland Park, Illinois, and I have with me William Nicholson. I’d first like to ask him to say his full name and spell it.
William Nicholson: Oh, my name is William J., Joseph Nicholson. W-i-l-l-i-a-m, J, Joseph, J-o-s-e-p-h, Nicholson, N-i-c-h-o-l-s-o-n.
Kelly: Perfect. Thank you very much. It’s great to be here in Chicago, and interview you about your illustrious past.
Kelly: Especially your role on the Chicago Pile-1. Why don’t you start by just telling us where you were born and when, your birthday, and what your childhood was like?
Nicholson: I was born on March 2, 1924, in Chicago, to a family of seven at the time. I made the eighth. I was the youngest of eight children. I had five sisters and two brothers ahead of me.
We lived on the South Side of Chicago, in an area that might better be known as “back of the yards.” My father worked in the stockyards, so we lived close to the stockyards. The neighborhood was a lower middle class working neighborhood, very few professionals, and all laborers for the most part. All hard workers, and subject to the wills of the economy whether they had a job or not.
I grew up at 5123 South Union Avenue in Chicago. For the first five or six years of my life, I was home, and then started grammar school when I was about six. Grammar school, in first grade, is where I met my wife, actually. We both lived in the same neighborhood. We went to a Catholic school at that time, and spent eight years in that school, in that neighborhood.
I was always interested in aviation and aeronautics, and the achievements and feats of many of the World War I pilots and the prestigious pilots of the day, like Wiley Post and others like him. I wanted to be a flyer.
I had an opportunity to go to a nearby, very accomplished technical public school, Tilden Technical High School, which was only a few blocks away. But I wanted to go to St. Rita High School, because they had an aeronautical engineering course. They had actual airplanes, and they taught much of the curricula for pre-engineering in aeronautics. That was my love.
I made every effort to go to that school, although it was fairly expensive at the time. It cost ten dollars a month, and my family could not afford it. My father had been out of work for the better part of six or seven years at that time. I made a compromise deal with the head of the St. Rita School that I would work in their classrooms. I would work to sweep out their classrooms after school every day for three dollars a month. The way I figured it, it was about forty hours for three dollars in a month’s time, but that helped me.
I made up the remaining amount of money as best I could by selling airplane rides out at an airport called Ashburn Airport, which at that time was in a real hinterland. It might have been the middle of Wyoming, for all anybody knew. There was nothing around it. It was an airport called Ashburn Airport, and the service was general air service. It was a private operation.
The owner of it was Bernard DeWitt. He allowed me to sell airplane rides to people who would come in off Cicero Avenue and watch the airplanes coming in and going out, up-close. I would try to sell them an airplane ride for a dollar and a half, and I got fifteen cents for it. I made up enough money to cover my expenses at school.
The following years were no problem, because I was part of a baseball team that was highly effective, a neighborhood baseball team. The following summer, after my first year of high school, we played some 78 games for the entire season, and we won 55 of them. On each game, I was betting money. If I bet two dollars and we won, I got four back. I won enough money to pay for my full year’s tuition, for my mother to get some new clothes, my father to get a winter overcoat, and have some surplus money for the family.
I stayed at St. Rita’s for four years, graduated in 1942. In 1942, I was looking for a job. A neighbor told me that the University of Chicago was hiring people, and that they might be interested in me. I might add that at St. Rita’s, I not only learned a lot of mathematics and sciences in the course of the studies, but I also developed a practical knowledge of machinery and could operate very efficiently a metal lathe, shapers, milling machines, power saws. You name it, I could do it. I also had courses in engineering drawings and engineering drawing interpretations. I was capable of reading blueprints without any problem.
I had skills that I tried to sell, and it wasn’t working out until this neighbor told me that the University of Chicago was hiring. I took a streetcar over to the University of Chicago, inquired about it, and was interviewed by a gentleman. I don’t remember his name. I don’t know if I ever knew his name. But I was interviewed, and he said, “I think we could use you, especially your mechanical skills.” That’s how I became an employee of the Manhattan Project.
I was assigned to work with a Dr. Creutz, Ed Creutz, C-r-e-u-t-z. He was the chief physicist, and he and Jules Simmons—Simmons was the chief metallurgist—and a fellow by the name of Tom Langan. I comprised a team that was to work on alloys of uranium, and whatever other matters came up.
Dr. Creutz was from Princeton, and he looked like a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. He was young and big and muscular, but a hell of nice guy, very intelligent, very knowledgeable. Jules Simmons came from LSU [Louisiana State University] and also a great guy, a good sense of humor. Tom Langan, I think, was perhaps a grad student associate for Dr. Creutz. But he was a kind of in-between worker, who generally relayed instructions from Creutz and Simmons to us, to myself and one other fellow, whose name I can’t remember right now.
This was just the nucleus in the beginning of a team working in a space that was totally barren. It was under the north stands of Stagg Field, the football field for the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago, years before that, had eliminated sports as a primary activity in the university, and they wanted to concentrate on academics rather than sports. The field was not being used at all, the stands weren’t being used.
A structure was built under the north stands about the mezzanine level of the stands, approximately the size of a four-car garage. It had heat, I think. It was equipped with electrical power and lights and water. No windows. It looked like a large, empty shed of some kind, hidden under the stands. That was the start of my employment at the University of Chicago.
My first assignment was to build electric furnaces, induction electric furnaces. This was for the purpose of creating alloys that could be further tested in other laboratories. Exactly where, I don’t know. But these furnaces were unique in that they consisted of a silica tube about five feet high, about twelve inches in diameter, with an inner diameter of about ten inches, so a wall thickness of about an inch. These came from England, and were very expensive and very difficult to make.
I don’t know what the manufacturing process was, but whatever it was, it resulted in an extremely smooth finish in the center of this silica tube. It was like glass, and the entire tube was very brittle. It had to be very carefully handled, or it would shatter.
I would prepare an electric coil, about a half-inch copper tubing, and make a coil that circled the outside surface of the silica tubes. When connected to a power source like 240 or 400 volts, etc., would create heat in the center of that tube. We could melt uranium-238, which requires a little bit better than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to melt. We could melt that and any other metal that we wanted to, and make alloys of uranium.
Now, exactly why the metallurgists were experimenting with alloys of uranium, I didn’t know. Whatever alloys we made were further tested in other laboratories. Later, when I learned more about the pile that was happening, that was built in the west stands, and a chain reaction and knew something about the graphite content of the piles, I realized maybe some of the alloys that we melted were actually in that pile, and maybe contributed to the success of the nuclear reaction and the chain reaction on December 2, 1942.
We made hundreds and hundreds of different alloys, tested different alloys. In time, we had not only one of these furnaces that I constructed, but four of these furnaces. We had four huge tubes with the coils of copper around them, and we could make four different compositions at once and melt them and make small samples. There were also times when we made large samples, what we called billets. The billet was about six to eight inches in diameter, perhaps about eight inches high, and weighed a ton. Uranium is extremely heavy and hard.
The purpose of making these billets was so that they could be taken to Detroit to a tube company, I believe it was called Wolverine Tube and Extrusion Company, taken there on a Friday night train. Saturday, there was nobody in the plant, or virtually nobody except supervisors and people who had been cleared by security so they could witness what we were doing. We would have these huge billets placed in an extrusion machine and with a very high hydraulic pressure ram force that billet through a die, which would reduce it down to about two-inch diameter tube—a pipe, rather.
Once that piston pushed that billet into that die, and the extrusion came out the other end, it resulted in a pipe of solid uranium about two to two-and-a-half inches in diameter, and perhaps eight or ten feet long, from this little tube, extruded through this small die. Then those pipes were further cut in smaller pieces, so they could be transported more readily, and they were brought back to our laboratory. Then I would grind them, the outside surface, to clean up the surfaces. I would cut them into slugs of about two inches in depth for the slug, about two, two-and-a-half inches in diameter.
Turns out that the graphite bars that were used to build a pile had holes bored in the ends of these graphite bars, down to about two inches into the graphite bar. The graphite bar was probably four inches square, about one meter long. These pieces of uranium alloys were dropped into those holes, those recesses in the carbon bar, the graphite bar. The pile was built with these.
Now, whether every bar had graphite, or had uranium alloy in it or not, I don’t know. That was another department, that was another area, and I wasn’t involved in that. But we supplied the little slugs that went in there. I don’t know whether they used—for example, on a chain reaction test, if they used ten of them or 1,000 of them, I don’t know. That was up to [Enrico] Fermi and others. I’ll try to talk about the pile a little bit in more detail in a minute.
That’s what we were doing. We were formulating uranium compounds, and providing this other group with the uranium slugs that could be used in the building of the pile. Somewhere, in the pile when we had the first successful chain reaction—what the composition was, I don’t know.
I might add at this point that we had almost no protective equipment or clothing at all during all this time. Uranium dust was as common on us as sand at a beach. We were breathing the uranium fumes from the grinding wheels and from the saws, etc. We even carried it around in our lab coat pockets. You could dust it off your coat like that. There were times when I worried about what might happen medically to me in short-term or long-term. Since I’m now ninety-four, I don’t think it bothered me, at least not to my knowledge.
I used the machinery of the University of Chicago. The machinery was located in the basement of a building called Ryerson Physical Laboratory, R-y-e-r-s-o-n Physical Laboratory, and Chapin Hall. I used to walk across campus. If they were small enough pieces of uranium or slugs of uranium, I would carry them. Otherwise, I’d have some kind of a wagon or a truck to haul them, because they were extremely heavy. I used the equipment in the basement of Ryerson Physical Laboratory like it was mine. They had lathes there, shapers, milling machines, drills, a cutting apparatus, all kinds of equipment. I could go there without any reservation, and do whatever work I did. Back across campus, across the football field and up in the north stands to our office. Office, I call it, but it was like just a barn.
They had a power saw there that had hacksaw blades that were the thickest I’ve ever seen, and the longest and the biggest, with the largest teeth I’ve ever seen in my life. The power saw would take these blades—I’d install them on the power saw and then place the saw on the piece of uranium that wanted to be cut, either a billet or a rod or something.
Then that saw would automatically power and saw away with it. That uranium would wear those teeth out to nothing, to where there were no teeth on the blades. Time after time after time, we went through dozens and dozens and dozens of blades of the hardest kind of steel, and it just wore them out in short order. We had to requisition more blades for the machinery. I’d turn in the requisition and it would be sent to the University of Chicago, and the blades would arrive by magic from somebody.
I might add a little point of interest. I was always surprised and never understood it exactly—a good machinist can look at the sparks that come off a piece of metal and almost tell you what the composition of the metal is. I didn’t classify myself as an experienced machinist, but the sparks that came off of the uranium were fantastic. They were unique. When you’d put it on the grinding wheel or on a saw and the grinding wheel was grinding into the uranium, sparks would come out like a 4th of July sparkler. They would fly in the air for three, four feet, so they’d be coming over my shoulders, etc. When they got to the point of about three or four feet, they’d explode. Bam!
These little sparks were like small pieces of gunpowder or something. They’d just explode, and they go, “Bam, bam, bam, bam!” As these sparks were going all around us, like that. I never had that explained to me. I never understood it, but it happened, and it would happen with uranium all the time. It’s part of the magic of the metal.
I might also want to mention one time, we placed an order for and received another silica tube from England. It took months to get it, and then it had to come across through the North Atlantic, of course, which was rife with German submarines, but luckily it avoided. Came across the U.S. on train, was delivered to our lab up in the north stands. Outside the north stands, there were some helper people, people I didn’t know, but they worked in the group and they did odd jobs, I guess. They took this silica tube, placed it on a flatbed truck and pushed it over to our laboratory, to the door on the mezzanine level, where the entrance to the lab was positioned.
At that point, everybody came out, all of the principals, Creutz and Simmons and Langan and myself, came out to view this marvelous piece of equipment that arrived from England and it was so precious. I have no idea the cost, but it was horrendous. The tube was on the flatbed truck and it was blocked with blocks on the side, so it wouldn’t roll off.
In preparing the tube to go into the laboratory, these fellows took these blocks off the sides of the tube. The first movement of the wagon at all, this thing just rolled over and fell about four inches to the ground and just shattered. I thought that Creutz and Simmons and Langan were going to cry, literally, grown men. They were so dedicated to their job that the loss of this was critical and they almost felt like failure had occurred.
There was a constant concern that the German research effort on the same atomic energy program, or same type of program, was ahead of us by a long way. This was just going to hold us back a little bit more, and it was a body blow to us. That was one of the saddest days I saw in the entire operation there.
I might add that the principals like [Leo] Szilard, [Enrico] Fermi, [Arthur] Compton, [Albert] Wattenberg, [Walter] Zinn, and [Herbert] Anderson, everybody in the hierarchy were the greatest brains of the twentieth century, I thought, at that time. But they were all very sober, very serious. Twenty hours a day was maybe normal for them to work, weekends as well. They had no limits on time, again, because of the fear that the Germans were ahead of us.
They were very subdued people, they were quiet. They were serious all the time, except on two occasions. One was December 2, 1942, when the first chain reaction was successful, then it was euphoria. There was dancing and hollering and hooping, almost like a sixteen-year-old’s party.
The second time that I saw that same element of joy and happiness was when—the date I don’t remember—but it was late February of 1943, when the British commandos attacked the heavy water plant in Norway and inflicted significant damage on the plant, such that the expectation was that it was out of order for a long period of time, out of production. This gave everybody great joy, because now maybe we could catch up to the Germans, because they got a big delay thrown in their lap. We didn’t know that the Germans were behind us at that time. The fear was, they were ahead of us, and so the incentive was to beat them to the end result. Fortunately, we did.
My work there, I was always aware that there was huge secrecy associated with whatever we did. It was drilled into us constantly by the leaders and by the security forces. There were known agents of the German government in and around the University of Chicago. We were told that, and that we were not to reveal anything of what you do. “Don’t take up with strangers. If you’re having a sandwich someplace or a beer or whatever, watch out that people who may engage you in conversation would be damaging to the war effort, that they may actually be the enemy.” That part of the secrecy was well-known.
I also knew that we were pursuing atomic energy. What I didn’t know was that it was a bomb. I thought we were going to be developing atomic engines that would allow our aircraft and our battleships to provide the engine—the atomic energy would provide fuel for propulsion and for use in all the mechanical equipment ad nauseum, without replenishing, without end. We’d never have to come back to the base to get more fuel. You could go around the world as many times as you want without refueling.
Some of that was true, and some of our current military equipment can do that. They do have the propulsion units and the power units that are consistent with continuous operation without refueling. That part was true. I did not know about a bomb at that time. I just knew there was great secrecy. I never even spoke about this subject to my family at home, or anyone. I was very concerned with that.
My love for aeronautics, my love for airplanes going way back was such that—I started flying when I was thirteen at the same airport where I was selling airplane rides. The owner took a liking to me and took me flying, and taught me how to fly for free at that time.
I wanted to pursue flying, and I wanted to be in the Navy Air Force. It’s probably not a nice thing to say, but I said it and I can’t take it back: I wanted to shoot down Japanese at that time, because of Pearl Harbor. I was totally confident I could do it. I had no question at all about my capabilities. I decided to give up my gold-plated deferment. I always laughingly say it: I don’t know what my deferment number was when I was working at the University of Chicago, but it was high enough to where they would have taken women and children before they would have taken me.
As soon as I made my intentions known to my superiors, I was cautioned and was coached on exactly what to say to the military, what to say on any forms I filled out, not to reveal where I was working or what I was doing. This was by General [Leslie] Groves, I think. He was in charge of security. He had all the forms, and had me fill them out just so that they’re very innocent forms, not revealing a thing. I maintained that secrecy all during the service. Nobody knew where I worked, nobody knew what I did. They thought I was a machinist, that’s it, period.
I made my intentions known about leaving, and I went to downtown Chicago and took the test for the Navy Air Force with three or four of my neighborhood friends. Of the three or four of us—I think there were four of us—I was the only one that passed. Two-day examination, one day on intelligence matters and one day on physical health and all that. I passed everything.
I was scheduled for Pensacola, Florida, for flight school for the Navy. Made me happy as a hog in mud. Everybody at the University of Chicago was sorry to see me leave. But in a sense, they had already accomplished what we set out to do.
Prior to my leaving, I was offered a job at Sites X, Y and Z. X, Y and Z were the designations for three locations that were secret locations, one of which turned out to be Hanford, Washington, one was Los Alamos, New Mexico. The third one, I can’t remember where it was. It might have been in Tennessee.
Kelly: It was probably Oak Ridge.
Nicholson: Might have been Oak Ridge. But X, Y and Z. The conditions were, “If you take the job at any one of those places, you’re going to be interned for the rest of the war. You’re going to live in a compound, you’re not going to be out, and you’re going to be restricted to a great extent.
I decided, “Eh, I’d rather fly.” I passed the exam, and waited for the Navy to call me to go to Pensacola.
Meantime, as soon as the draft board heard I’d given up my deferment, bam, they made me 1-A. I got that notice about three weeks after I informed them. About three weeks later, they asked me to report for a physical exam. I called the Navy, and they said, “Don’t worry about it. We got it covered. You’re going to be okay.” Because they gave me a contact to call.
I said, “Okay.” I went and got a physical taken, and everything passed okay. About three or four weeks later, I get a notice saying report to Camp Grant, Illinois, for induction into the Army.
I called the Navy right away, they said, “We’ll take care of it, we’ll squash that.” Well, I waited and waited and waited. Nothing happened. Came down to the day and I had to report or else I’d be AWOL or a deserter or something.
I reported to Camp Grant. Two or three days later, they sent me to St. Petersburg, Florida, for Air Force, Army Air Force. I was on a drill field about the third or fourth day down there. I was on a drill field and a fellow with a jeep comes out to the drill field, says, “Your mother’s got an emergency call in the office, headquarter office. Jump in the jeep, we’ll take you there.”
I get there. My mother’s telling me I got a telegram saying, “Report to Pensacola, Florida, for naval air training.” Right opposite the phone where I was talking to my mother was the colonel’s office, the colonel of the base. I walked into his office, after properly hesitating and saluting and all that. He looked up from his papers and said, “What do you want?”
I said, “I have a telegram at home saying I should report to Pensacola, Florida, in two or three days hence, for Navy Air Force.”
He puts down his paper and he said, “What?”
I repeated myself. He said, “Tough shit, soldier. We got you now. Get out of here.”
That was the end of my Navy career.
I flew for the Army. In those days, there wasn’t an Air Force per se, there was an Army Air Force, there was a Navy Air Force, there was a Marine Air Force. Around 1948, I think, after the war, they created an Air Force, a standalone operation. I was not in that Air Force, I was in the Army Air Force, the predecessor of it.
The irony of the thing is, I was flying bombers, B-24 bombers out of a base in southern England. The irony of the thing is, I got out of my job at the University of Chicago to shoot down Japanese, and here I am being shot down by the Germans, which happened several times. I thought, “Isn’t that something? I didn’t even get to see the Japanese, but the Germans are taking care of me. They’re knocking me out of the sky!”
Fortunately, we survived, and in 1945 I was discharged. I returned to Chicago.
I should mention, in 1945 in June, I was on furlough from England. The war was over, and I had thirty-day furlough in the States. I went to the University of Chicago. I don’t remember who I called, but I called and said, “Can we get together and just chew the fat?”
They said, “Oh, yeah.” Time and place was a day or two after that, and we met on what’s called the Midway of the University of Chicago. The Midway is a grassy area. It’s about half a block wide, a grassy area, with traffic going east down one side of it and west on the other side. We met in the middle of that grassy area. I’m emphasizing that to point out the security that was involved in our meeting. There was nobody around us. There were cars passing on either side of us about 100 yards away this way and 100 yards away this way. But they were flying by, and there was nobody around above us or around us.
The people that joined in this little get-together on the Midway area informed me after looking around to make sure that nobody was around, they said, “We finally got the bomb. We’ve tested it in Los Alamos, and it’s dynamite.” They said, “Where are you going from here?”
I said, “I don’t know, I may go into B-29s.”
They said, “Whoa, wouldn’t it be something if you got to carry the bomb?”
I said, “It’s not likely, because the training to learn the B-29 as opposed to a B-24, it’s probably going to take a couple of months, and you’re not going to sit around that long, I’m sure, if you got the bombs out there already.” That was true.
Meantime, I was shipped to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an air base in South Dakota. I had enough combat flying hours to where I was given the rare distinction of being able to choose whatever job I wanted after that.
They said, “You’ve flown enough, do you want to fly again? If you do, fine. If not, what job do you want to do?” I couldn’t think of any job offhand, so I was there a couple of weeks. Every couple of days, they had me down in headquarters, and they’d say, “We got a job for you over here, or something to do there.”
I said, “Nah, I don’t think that fits me. That’s just not me.”
I was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The loudspeakers on the air base, all over the air base announced the fact that they had dropped this bomb, it’s an atomic bomb, and kind of explained what it was. I was in a barracks and I was laying on my bunk listening to this, and I thought, “Thank God, now I don’t have to worry about slipping and saying something that I shouldn’t say.” A big load was taken off my shoulders.
Everybody was running around the camp. It was like New Year’s Eve in Times Square, you know, everybody was jumping up and down. People were running all over the damn place, and I just lay there real quiet. Mainly because I knew what was coming. I knew that it was coming some time. I didn’t know it was coming that day. But it was successful, and I was overjoyed that it’s over with.
I completed my tour of service in the Air Force in Pyote, Texas. I was in a B-29 base, but I wasn’t flying. I was in charge of all the squadron mail rooms and post offices and so forth. Never worked so hard in my life learning postal codes and all that. I thought it was an easy job, but it wasn’t. It was more than selling stamps.
In October of 1945, I was discharged. I sent my wife—she was my girlfriend then—sent her a letter. There’s a word that describes a letter when you use, you know, like A “Able,” E “Easy,” use that phonetic kind of alphabet. I sent her a phonetic letter with no explanation, with all these crazy words in there for the letters that made up the message. The next day, I sent her a letter with the code, how to interpret it.
She didn’t know I was home. When we were growing up, we lived only two blocks away from each other. She was in our neighborhood one night and I was in the neighborhood, walking on the street. It was a damp night, I remember, and there she was coming towards me with one of her relatives, and there I am coming towards her with some friend of mine. She didn’t even know I was home. That’s the way she found out. She still has that letter, incidentally. It’s in our archives here someplace.
That was the end of my military service. I went to a school where I could brush up on my sciences and my mathematics. After three years of not having any academic work, you get a little rusty and slow in the mind and whatnot, and I wanted to speed things up. I wanted to go into engineering, my first love, besides my wife, you know.
I went to school eight or nine hours a day on a subject, like trigonometry or chemistry, one subject. Do a whole year’s work in about five days, six days, take all the exams. We’d go eight hours a day, and I’d do another five or six hours of study at home at night. I completed most of the courses in jig time. Courses I never had took a little longer. Even the physics courses and the chemistry courses, even with the experiments and all that sort of thing, it still only took about three weeks to do a year’s work of physics and chemistry.
It was a godsend that I did that, because I took the entrance exam for Illinois Institute of Technology. I wanted to go there. First of all, I wanted to really go to Purdue. All my life, since I was a kid, I wanted to go to Purdue. I didn’t where it was, and I didn’t know how I was going to get there, and I didn’t know who was going to pay for it, but I was going to go to Purdue for engineering.
Well, when Loretta and I got closer and closer, I decided, “Eh, maybe I’ll stay in town.” I went to IIT. I was going there night school when I was drafted. I was taking night courses there. Only then, it was called Armour Institute of Technology. During the war, they merged with Lewis Institute of Technology and called themselves Illinois Institute of Technology. It was the same school, but a different name.
I took the entrance exam at IIT, passed it, and entered the school in September of 1946 as a freshman. That’s where I learned that some thirty-some thousand had taken the exam for entrance, and that 746, or something like that, were chosen out of the 30,000. We were told by the chancellor up on the stage in the big assembly hall, “You are the cream of the crop. You are the best of the best. But we can’t handle you. We’re going to get rid of at least half of you in no time at all. All the professors are instructed to go warp speed through all the courses and whatnot and weed you out.” He says, “I’m telling you this as a warning. We can’t handle all of you people, 700 people.”
I might add that prior to saying that, he said, the first thing he said was, “I’d like everybody to join in groups of four.” One of my neighbors that I grew up with, he also passed IIT, so he and I were sitting there. There was a stranger on this side of me, and there was a stranger on this side of him.
We said, “We’re two, how about you? Okay, you’re with nobody, okay, and you’re with nobody.”
This was Jack Dunn, and this was Arlo Southwick, these two guys. We made a team of four. Meantime, people are scurrying around trying to get a team of four.
“Okay, quiet down,” says the chancellor. He says, “Now I want you all to look at each other real good, because one of you is not going to be here in six months, the first semester. You’re going to be wiped out. Second semester, the second one is going to be gone. We’re going to wipe you out.”
Then he explained why. We were sitting in buildings with no roofs in them, in the classrooms. The surge of returning veterans was greater than they anticipated, and they had no building program to accommodate them. They were way behind. That was true.
Although the four of us finished the first year, four of us finished the second year. Arlo Southwick, a fellow from Blue Island over here, was a crackerjack student, a good engineer student. He was married. We weren’t, the other three weren’t married, and he had demands on him that he had hard to take. He started building an expansion on his home in the summertime. When he came back in the fall for the start of the third year, he kept falling behind and he finally decided to quit. He wound up chief engineer of Clark Oil Company. Great guy.
This guy, Jack Dunn, he went on to get his Master’s degree, and had an unfortunate accident and several years later died. Dick Bach, who was my neighbor, he was in electrical engineering. He’s retired now in Irvine, California. He married one of our childhood friends as well, in the same neighborhood. We got married first, they got married the next year, I think. We’ve been friends for all these years, with Dick Bach, since I was a kid. We got married in 1948 and they got married in 1949, so we’ve been friends for a long time.
But by the end of the four years, of the original 746 or so that were entered in September of 1946—because we graduated in 1950—of the original, there was only a handful of the original left, believe it or not. Either wiped out, dropped out, transferred out, somehow or other. I’ve been told that there was only something like fifty-four survived all the way. We were three of the four made it.
I was very proud of that. I was proud of my Air Force career, and I was proud of working at the University of Chicago, and proud of my professional career after university. I obtained my degree in 1950, and accepted a job in the petroleum industry with Sinclair Research Laboratories. Worked for them for sixteen years, and then moved to Amoco Chemicals and worked for them for twenty-some years.
In my last assignment was I was director of all operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa, and the communist countries at that time. My headquarters was Geneva, Switzerland, and I had offices all over Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. We had agencies in places like Poland and South Africa and Israel—not offices, but agencies. I had that entire responsibility for manufacturing and marketing of chemicals and profitability.
I found out something that’s been true in my life and in my children’s lives. All of our children have migrated into the sciences and the engineering and mathematics, even though we urged them in other directions. It must be in their genes. I don’t know, because Loretta was a great mathematician.
But I found out that if you’re good at your job, if you like your job and you’re good at it, in short order, you won’t be doing your job. For example, I worked as a pure engineer for several years at Sinclair. As I got promoted, I got less and less engineering and more and more management and finances and union arrangements, and all kinds of things, budgeting. But it wasn’t engineering. But engineering got me there to begin with.
As a general comment, I might say, in my opinion now, looking back—I didn’t think this way at the time—but looking back, none of the people in the U of C [University of Chicago] hierarchy, like the Fermis, the Szilards, the Compton, the Wattenbergs—and incidentally, Wattenberg and Zinn, they were the two that ran the pile. Zinn was famous for always wearing a white shirt, and never getting it dirty with all the graphite around him and the graphite dust. Dr. Wattenberg, I don’t know whatever happened to him. Zinn wound up as head of Argonne, Walter Zinn, at one point or other.
But all of those fellows would fall under a classification of having little or no managerial ability. They weren’t interested in being people-managers, they were interested in achieving an objective. I can’t blame them for that. They did not have a hands-on management style at all. There was a lot of freedom for us, for the workers, to innovate and to do what was not only expected, but maybe unexpected. There was little or no trouble or discipline. Everybody was motivated.
Later on, I think I read somewhere where Creutz became a head of a large corporation, or near head of a large corporation. They were all pretty successful after the war.
The instruments we had were primitive. We didn’t even have a Geiger counter. Could you believe that? We’re all walking around and we’re all radioactive, because of all the stuff we had in our pockets and dust on us and everything else. We didn’t even have a Geiger counter.
We did not have masks. We didn’t have dosimeters to measure the amount of radiation exposure that we had. It wasn’t even thought of in those days.
But as a startup operation from scratch, they did pretty damn well with what they had. Everything was kind of homemade. Like our laboratory, it was homemade. It was a little bit of a steel mill in that we could melt metals and all that sort of thing. It was a little bit of a foundry, because we’d be casting into molds and all that stuff.
When we had that little meeting on the Midway at the University of Chicago, one of the things that was said was that the experimental explosions at Los Alamos, prior to the test explosions, there was great fear among all of the scientists that they couldn’t stop it if they started it, hat the explosions would go through and around the world, destroy the entire planet. Apparently, thinking the molecules of air would start exploding and things of that sort, the hydrogen, oxygen and all.
There was great concern, and I think virtually every one of the scientists was concerned, but they decided to go ahead and try it anyhow. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. If it did, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it today.
A fellow by the name of Dave Gurlinsky joined our group towards, September, October, I think of 1942. He came from NYU [New York University]. Dr. Dave Gurlinsky, and he was some kind of a special chemist or metallurgist, or a combination of both. He was a little fellow from New York, and a wonderful guy. He was really kind of brokenhearted when I left. He was kind of emotional, and it made me a little emotional as well.
I don’t know other assignments. I knew people like Fermi, for example, he was probably about 5’1” at the most, maybe ninety-eight pounds soaking wet. It was rumored that he could see a string of boxcars going by. Every boxcar has a serial number on it about that long, maybe eight or ten figures in it, that he could add them up in his mind just as they went by, like a human computer. I don’t know if that’s a fact or if it’s a fiction about Fermi, but he was well-regarded on the site, as was everybody else.
There was a lot of respect in those people. Like I said, I’ve seen a lot of working groups, I’ve been in a lot of working groups. I’ve never seen the dedication that I saw there. It was unique. Luckily for us, it was successful.
That’s a lot of what I’ve done. My service in the service, the Germans did what the Japanese couldn’t do, they shot us down a few times, but luckily, we survived it all. Everybody survived. Got banged up a little bit here and there with crash landing and things like that. I saw miracles occur right in front of me many times during that period of time.
I came back, and we worked and retired. We raised five children, who are all very successful themselves, we’re happy to say. Most if not all of them are in the sciences and math fields, and very successful, all with advanced degrees.
We’re now celebrating our seventieth anniversary in just a couple of short months. We’ve accomplished a lot as well. We look back and we say, “How the hell did we ever do it? I can’t believe it.” But we did it one step at a time, and it all worked out for us as well.
Yeah, I have a photograph. I have on my office wall, I have a painting of one of the planes we flew. We also crash-landed it, so we ruined it. It’s a painting I had on my office wall in Geneva, Switzerland. We had a lot of German visitors come through my office, and some of them didn’t particularly care to see a warplane on the wall. But others did. Japanese, Chinese, and Italians had no problem with it, and neither did the Swiss, the English, or the French.
But there was a young man who lived near our air base, a young Britisher. He was like twelve, thirteen years old when we were there. But he was fascinated with the American flyers and the planes and the records and all that sort of thing. He was an artist, and had great artistic skills, and as a young boy, he had great skills.
He developed those skills all along, and then he started drawing, painting those planes. Each one is—while they’re the same manufacture, is a different plane, because it’s a different crew and they have a different name on the nose of the plane, and different figurines and all that kind of stuff. He kept a record of all that as much as he could, and when the base closed down, he had access to all the base records, and he got all those. He made a lot of paintings of the actual planes.
I contacted him when we lived in Geneva, and I asked him would he paint a certain plane, the Top of the Mark, we called it. It was named for the fact that the last three days we were in the States before we shipped out, we thought we were going to the Pacific. We wound up in the Atlantic. Before we shipped out, we went cross-country to Boston to get on a troop ship to go to England. We spent at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. Are you familiar with it? There’s a room at the top that’s called the Top of the Mark. I think it rotates, I’m not sure. We spent three fantastic nights there, our crew did. Raising a little hell, but having a great time, great memories.
One of the times, we got a brand-new plane, because we wrecked the other one. The ground crew chief says, “What do you want to name it?”
I don’t know, your wife, your girlfriend, that’s too many conflicts that way, favoritism. We said, “Why don’t we put the Top of the Mark on there?”
He says, “Okay.” He printed Top of the Mark on there and someone else printed a lady underneath it, with very little clothes on.
That was the plane that I liked the best, and he painted that picture. The painting is on my wall right now. It’s about that wide and it’s about this high, and I take photographs of it and people think it’s a photograph. It’s so precisely done, down to the rivets on the plane. It’s unreal, this guy’s skill. If you wanted to see it, you’re welcome to see it. In that room is where I have that certificate from Vannevar Bush. It’s been on my wall since I got it, because it was my only link with the University of Chicago.