Death has claimed most of the Manhattan Project pioneers who made plutonium at Hanford on a guarded, remote bend of the Columbia River for the atomic bombs that ended World War II.
Dee McCullough of Richland, 91, is one of the last survivors among the 40 people who gathered expectantly in the control room of Hanford’s B Reactor on the evening of Sept. 26, 1944.
The top military and civilian brass assembled for the startup of the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor that night knew all along what they were making at Hanford but were sworn to secrecy. Project scientists, including world-famous Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, had been escorted to Hanford by armed guards. For security reasons, Fermi was known as “Dr. Farmer.”
McCullough knew only his assigned task at B Reactor and nothing more. He didn’t learn the reactor’s mission until July 16, 1945 – the day of the dramatic Trinity test of the world’s first nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert.
“At lunchtime that day, we got a call. We were told the material came from Hanford and what we were making,” McCullough said.
At the time of the Trinity test the Nazis had surrendered, but the war against Japan in the Pacific raged on.
Watson C. Warriner, 88, was in the know about Hanford’s mission much earlier.
The young chemical engineer was summoned to I.E. DuPont de Nemours & Co. headquarters in Wilmington, Del., in January 1943. At the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, DuPont had reluctantly agreed to operate Hanford and other Manhattan Project sites for the government.
Warriner got a top “Q” security clearance for Hanford. But first, company officials read him sections of the Espionage Act, which said that any disclosure of Hanford’s secret to unauthorized persons was punishable by death.
“The secret of Hanford did not get out,” Warriner said.
In that wartime atmosphere, B Reactor was built in only 13 months.
As World War II engulfed two continents, a pioneering experiment in nuclear fission was achieved in a small experimental reactor at the University of Chicago on Dec. 2, 1942.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first rushed to build “Site Y” in the Oak Ridge valley of eastern Tennessee to make uranium for the bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima.
Several sites for the plutonium mission were considered.
At a secret meeting in Spokane’s Davenport Hotel in December 1942, Gen. Leslie Groves and other Manhattan Project officials chose Hanford for its isolation and access to the Columbia’s vast supplies of water to cool the reactors. Its code name was “Site W.”
There was an atmosphere of extreme urgency at Hanford, recalled Warriner, now retired in Wilmington after a long career with DuPont. “We knew who got the bomb first would win the war,” he said.
When the Manhattan Project began, just 1 milligram of plutonium existed. Only 32 months later, the huge Hanford reactors and separation plants had produced 246 pounds of plutonium – enough for a small nuclear arsenal – Warriner said in an article written for the war’s 50th anniversary.
Warriner was 26 when he arrived in Pasco by train in the middle of a sandstorm on a freezing winter night in February 1944. He was assigned to help build the Hanford separations plants that chemically isolated plutonium from dozens of other, unwanted radioactive elements produced in the reactors. The plants were dubbed “Queen Marys” for their vast size.
McCullough, with two years of engineering training, also was transferred to Hanford in 1944, from an ordnance plant in Utah. “I was told it was either the Manhattan Project or the Army. I chose the project,” McCullough said.
As B Reactor’s instrument shift supervisor, he installed sensitive radiation detection instruments in and around the reactor. They measured an ion current that represented the neutron flux within the reactor’s huge graphite block. They ensured that any nuclear reactions didn’t exceed safety limits.
“We were concerned that if the nuclear flux got out of bounds, it could explode. This had never been done before,” McCullough said.
Shortly after B Reactor went critical, Fermi asked McCullough to crawl under the reactor to readjust his instruments. A major problem had arisen.
“First the power level went up, and then it went down. Xenon gas was poisoning the reactor. Fermi said to me, go down and reposition those instruments,” McCullough said. “We got them all working right.”
B Reactor’s mission was saved by a DuPont engineering modification, said 87-year-old William Ryan of Wilmington, a former DuPont physicist and engineer who trained the reactor’s operating engineers and was also in the control room that night.
“They concluded that the extra 504 tubes for uranium that had been added as a design change while B Reactor was under construction would allow it to operate at the designed power level,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s first job at Hanford was to maintain a log of construction and startup progress in the 100-B Area where the first reactor was located, reporting daily by telephone to DuPont headquarters in Wilmington.
The daily telephone call “was a challenge because at the time I do not believe there was any such thing as a secure line, so the conversation had to be in an informal code that we made up as we went along,” Ryan wrote in an August 2002 essay on his role at Hanford.
In those calls, he initially referred to the reactor by the code word “pile,” but that word was later classified by military censors because it was so commonly used at Hanford, Ryan said.
There were many other efforts to mask Hanford’s mission.
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,” Col. Franklin Matthias of the Manhattan Project 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 by mid-1944 – and to avoid speculating about the $382 million project.
But reporters speculated anyway. A frustrated Matthias wrote in his diary in April 1943 that trying to restrict publicity is “like keeping water in a sieve.”
Information about Hanford was carefully compartmentalized. The thousands of hourly workers who lived at Camp Hanford while they constructed the plants were told nothing about what they were building. Security clearances were given only to those with a “need to know.”
Families of the salaried DuPont men lived in government-owned Richland, where telephones were bugged to thwart spies. Their wives tended children and coped with frequent dust storms. The dust blackened diapers drying on outdoor clotheslines and blew through the windows of the flimsy houses. They weren’t supposed to speculate about Hanford’s mission.
Despite the hardships, there was also a light side to life at Hanford. People gave dinner parties. Big bands and Hollywood movies played to large crowds.
On Aug. 6, 1945, Ann Warriner learned for the first time what her chemical engineer husband had been doing a year earlier at Hanford. By then, the couple had returned to another DuPont job on the East Coast.
“She said, ‘Listen to the radio – they’ve dropped a bomb, and an entire Japanese city is gone,’ ” Watson Warriner said.
A fearful blast fueled by radioactive uranium from Site Y in Tennessee had been dropped on Hiroshima, vaporizing tens of thousands of people.
“I said, ‘My God, it worked.’ I was glad it worked,” Warriner recalled.
Three days later, a second bomb made of Hanford plutonium – dubbed “Fat Man” for its bulky shape – was dropped on Nagasaki. It obliterated 40 percent of the city, instantly killing 35,000 people and injuring 60,000 more. Japan surrendered less than a week later.
On the day of the Japanese surrender, the Warriners drove from their New Jersey cottage into New York City, where they celebrated all night in Times Square with a huge crowd of other war-weary Americans.
On Aug. 6, 1945, the Richland Villager newspaper revealed Hanford’s mission with a 4-inch headline: “It’s Atomic Bombs.”
“Hanford’s secret, the best kept since Pearl Harbor, is no longer a secret,” wrote The Spokesman-Review. It also reported on Aug. 6 for the first time about the July 1945 Trinity test – a $2 billion project that the newspaper called “the outstanding achievement of nuclear science.”
After B Reactor, eight more reactors were built along the Columbia.
Today, some see B Reactor as an exciting physics project. Others remember the destruction of Nagasaki.
But the surviving Manhattan Project pioneers say they have little ambivalence about the decision to drop the bombs on Japan. They are unswayed by historians, armed with freshly disclosed government information, who contend the U.S. military didn’t need to drop the atomic bombs on Japan to end the war.
Both Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adm. William D. Leahy, President Harry S. Truman’s chief of staff, said the atom bombs were a mistake, wrote Gar Alperovitz in his 1995 book, “The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb.”
In his postwar memoirs, Leahy said the United States “adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages” by being the first nation to use the bomb. “Wars cannot be won by destroying women and children,” Leahy wrote of the deaths from the blasts and the lingering radiation poisoning of nearly 400,000 civilians.
The U.S. government engaged in “airtight suppression” of all film shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings, and the color U.S. military footage has never been shown in its entirety, according to an Aug. 1, 2005, article in Editor and Publisher magazine.
But in 1945, as hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were massing in the Pacific, other voices won out. There were no major debates within Truman’s Cabinet about the morality of using the bomb, the historians say.
Bureaucratic momentum also played a role in the bomb’s use.
Gen. Groves, in charge of the Manhattan Project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had spent $2 billion on the bomb – $26 billion in today’s dollars – and was eager to demonstrate its effectiveness.
In 1945, he rushed production schedules at Hanford to obtain enough plutonium for the bomb he called “The Gadget,” according to his biographer, the late Stanley Goldberg.
Groves was elated by the incredible power the bomb had displayed at the Trinity test. The bomb had a yield of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT – far greater than the 2,000 tons scientists had predicted.
The bomb’s awesome punch dazzled Truman, who decided to use it.
Truman’s insecurity about his ability to lead the nation after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 and diplomatic saber-rattling against Joseph Stalin also were factors in his decision. The atomic bombings really were the first overture of the Cold War to check Stalin’s growing power, according to author Alperovitz.
On Aug. 20, 1945, after the U.S. bombs were dropped, Stalin ordered a crash program to develop the Soviet bomb. “It was a small lab project up to then. It suddenly became the top priority,” said Stanford University professor David Holloway.
The new history underestimates the psychology of Americans in 1945, who had suffered through Pearl Harbor, the Bataan death march and other Japanese atrocities, critics say.
“We were very happy and proud to work at Hanford, ” said Bill McCullough, Dee McCullough’s 77-year-old brother, a retired Hanford reactor operator. “A person has to live through World War II and the scariness of the Cold War to appreciate our feelings about the bomb as a deterrent,” he said.
Cornell University professor Paul Fussell was a 21-year-old second lieutenant in an infantry division training for the invasion of Japan when he heard the bombs had been dropped.
“We broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live,” said Fussell in his essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”
The Manhattan Project pioneers are still full of quiet pride for their roles in developing the bomb.
“We built this reactor in 13 months. We had a job to do, and we were there to do it,” Dee McCullough said.
“I’m not an organized religious man, but the United States had its back against the wall. With all the things that could have gone wrong, they didn’t and somebody helped us. It was good vs. evil,” Warriner said.