Victory And Beyond The City Built On A Secret In 1944, Thousands Of Workers Built And Lived At Hanford And Helped Make A Plutonium Bomb Without Knowing It
“Come on you Okies, let’s take Japan We took California, and never lost a man.”
-Poem on an outhouse door, Camp Hanford, 1944.
The world learned Hanford’s big secret 50 years ago today when a fearful, billowing blast scorched Hiroshima, vaporizing tens of thousands of people and hastening the end of World War II.
“It’s Atomic Bombs,” trumpeted the 4-inch-tall headline in the Richland Villager after the 8:16 a.m. blast.
Three days later, on Aug. 9, 1945, Hanford workers learned more. They had made the innards of a second, far more powerful plutonium bomb that destroyed Nagasaki and led to the Japanese surrender less than a week later.
The weapon that launched the atomic age and the nuclear arms race was a complete surprise to thousands of men and women who had built Hanford in only 14 months without knowing the purpose of the remote, sprawling facility.
Lured by high wages, they had worked six-day shifts in a top-secret city - code-named “Site W” - making plutonium for atomic bombs.
Most lived at Camp Hanford, a guarded enclave carved out of gritty desert on a bend of the Columbia River with the largest general-delivery post office in the world.
Muzzled by piles of emergency wartime regulations, few questioned the need for secrecy.
Military spies squelched construction camp rumors. Telephones were bugged in government-owned Richland, where supervisors lived.
Armed guards escorted the project’s top scientists to Hanford from the University of Chicago. No one commented about the urine bottles for radiation tests that appeared on Richland doorsteps next to milk bottles.
Secret codes veiled Hanford’s work. Plutonium was called “metal.” Reactors were identified only as numbered buildings. Blueprints were kept in locked vaults.
“I was a pipe fitter, but I didn’t know what the pipe was used for. They told us not to ask questions,” said Leon Overstreet, 81.
Overstreet and his brother Paul slept in the car on their trip from Kansas to Hanford. They were attracted by the high wages - $1.65 an hour - and the excitement.
“It was a big adventure,” Leon Overstreet said.
Unlike Hanford’s rank-and-file workers, news of the atomic bombs was no surprise to Bill McCue.
Retired now in Richland, the 86-year-old McCue was part of an elite group of scientists who had been aware of the Hanford secret since 1943.
The young chemist was working in a Du Pont weapons plant in Oklahoma when he was called to a meeting in a sealed room at company headquarters in Delaware.
McCue was told the Germans probably were building a nuclear bomb. Du Pont was rushing to build a uranium separations plant in Tennessee and a plutonium plant at Hanford for the Manhattan Project, the government’s top-secret race for the bomb.
“They told us there was a 60 percent probability a plutonium bomb would work,” McCue recalled.
A Presbyterian sobered by the prospect of the fearsome new weapon, McCue and a colleague talked into the night about whether to join the project.
“We asked ourselves: What business do we have doing this? We decided it would be God’s will if it worked or not.”
While McCue pondered the bomb’s morality, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked around the clock to build it.
In September 1942, it began “Site Y” in the Oak Ridge valley of eastern Tennessee to make uranium for the bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima.
At a secret meeting at Spokane’s Davenport Hotel in December 1942, Hanford was chosen for the second atomic city among several potential sites in the Northwest and California.
Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, and his assistant, Col. Franklin Matthias, considered the site ideal.
Hanford was remote, with Columbia River water to cool the nuclear reactors and plentiful electricity surging from Grand Coulee Dam. It also was far from major cities, a plus because of the unknown danger of manufacturing plutonium.
Military men went to great lengths to protect Hanford’s secret.
When a federal judge cleared the way in January 1943 for the government to seize 194,000 acres of land in Benton County for “war purposes,” Matthias visited newspaper editors throughout the Northwest.
He asked them not to write about the 51,000 workers who would be coming by train and car to tiny Pasco - and to avoid speculating on what was happening at the $382 million project.
But reporters speculated. A frustrated Matthias wrote in his diary in April 1943 that trying to restrict publicity “is like keeping water in a sieve.”
Lt. Milton Cydell, a former Seattle Times reporter, was hired as Hanford’s public relations officer. He was dubbed the “suppress officer” for censoring news about Hanford - which grew into Washington’s fourth-largest city in 1944.
“He could talk to reporters for hours and tell them nothing,” recalled his assistant, Hope Sloan Amacker.
Amacker, 76, was 24 and a Women’s Army Corps sergeant when she was assigned to the Manhattan Project. Her first job at Hanford was in military intelligence.
Wearing a headset, she eavesdropped on telephone calls made from the transient housing quarters (now the Hanford House) in Richland, where many scientists and project supervisors stayed.
“I wasn’t in on the secret. I wouldn’t have known what an atom was. But I was supposed to listen for any speculation as to what was going on at Hanford. I never heard any,” said Amacker of Kennewick.
As Pacific battles raged, Hanford scientists came under great pressure to produce enough plutonium for a bomb.
Construction began at Hanford in March 1943. On Sept. 27, 1944, scientists fired up the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, where McCue had worked since arriving at Hanford that January.
Tension was high that day, McCue recalled.
Enrico Fermi was there to supervise. The famous nuclear physicist had produced the world’s first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago in December 1942.
“Fermi sat on a big 80-foot elevator on the face of the reactor, telling us to load uranium into the tubes 300 slugs at a time,” McCue said.
The reactor crew knew that neutrons inside the reactor were generating a small current when they saw a light flicker across a frosted glass screen.
“Everybody was excited - this is what we had trained for,” McCue said.
But then the reactor inexplicably shut itself off. McCue watched as Fermi, physicist Eugene Wigner and the president of Du Pont discussed the problem.
“They were waving their hands and talking. We joked they were betting on when the reactor would start again.”
Xenon gas had poisoned the reaction. The problem was solved by using extra tubes that Du Pont had insisted on installing in the reactor. The tubes allowed the reactor to run at a high enough power level to overcome the problem.
On Feb. 2, 1945, Du Pont gave the first Hanford-produced plutonium to the Army.
Matthias took that first batch to Portland with a military escort in a small wood box wrapped in paper.
The Jell-O-like plutonium nitrate, weighing 3-1/2 ounces, was in a flask suspended between shock absorbers.
O.R. “Big” Simpson of Richland was in charge of getting additional shipments safely to Los Alamos, N.M., where the world’s first atomic bomb would be assembled.
For several months, 10 men would form a military convoy of three panel trucks, a lead car and a rear car for the 22-hour drive through Boise to Salt Lake City, where a Los Alamos team met them.
“We had shotguns, .38-caliber revolvers and a machine gun for each car. We drove straight through. People along the way were curious, but we told them nothing,” the 83-year-old Simpson said.
The convoys never had a serious accident. But the men all wore radiation badges and knew what to do in case of fire.
“Get the hell out of the way and get upwind,” Simpson said.
The plutonium that Simpson shepherded south fueled the July 16, 1945, Trinity nuclear test in the New Mexico desert. It was awesome proof that the bomb worked.
Despite the war’s urgency, life at Hanford had its light side.
Living conditions were harsh - especially the driving sandstorms that residents dubbed “termination winds” because many workers quit after the winds had howled through the camp. But most people coped.
“One year, we lived in a trailer. Every morning, there was sand on the windowsills and in the bedsheets. We just took ‘em outside and shook ‘em - it was kind of like pioneering,” said Grace Overstreet.
People gave dinner parties. Big bands and Hollywood movies played to large crowds.
Hope Sloan was voted “Safety Queen” of the Hanford Project in a 1944 beauty pageant, winning $100 and a key to the city.
Her “queen” portrait still hangs in the Amackers’ spacious home overlooking the Columbia River.
“We were made to feel important even though we didn’t know what we were doing. We were all young, and it was a great time,” she said.
These Manhattan Project pioneers have little ambivalence about the decision to drop the bombs on Japan. They still remember where they were when Hanford’s secret was revealed that Tuesday.
When Leon Overstreet heard the news, he was maintaining air conditioners for Du Pont in Richland.
“I was glad to find out what I’d been working on. The bomb stopped the war and saved a lot of lives - American lives especially,” he said.
Hope Sloan helped Cydell explain Hanford to hordes of reporters that day. “Everyone was exhilarated to have had a part in it,” she said.
Her future husband, chemist Obie Amacker, was working in his Hanford lab. “Everyone was celebrating. They were so happy, they were dancing in the streets,” he said.
Fifty years later, scientist Bill McCue still is full of quiet pride. “You realize the terrible use of the bomb. But we had a job to do, and we did it well.”
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