Hanford: 70 years ago thousands came to remote desert site to work on mysterious project that would change the world

October 5, 2013 

Seventy years ago, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor began to rise among the grass and sage of the desert near the Columbia River.

Lives across the world and for generations to come would be changed. The world would begin to live under the threat of nuclear warfare.

But the weapons-grade plutonium produced at Hanford also helped end a war in which 17 million people died in battle and another 18 million civilians were killed by bombs, plague and genocide.

Plutonium produced at B Reactor was used in the world’s first nuclear explosion, a test in the New Mexico desert, and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

At the time construction started on Hanford’s B Reactor, the United States had every reason to believe that Germany also was developing a nuclear weapon.

But at Hanford 70 years ago, most people had no idea what they were building, much less the lasting changes that would be created from the start of the Atomic Age.

All they knew was that their long hours of work in a remote and dust-blown area in Eastern Washington had been deemed essential for the frantic effort to win the war.

In 30 months, Hanford’s construction forces would build 554 buildings, 386 miles of road, 158 miles of railroad, three massive chemical plants and the world’s first three production-scale nuclear reactors, starting with B Reactor.

At the start of the year, about 6,700 people lived along the 30-mile stretch of the Columbia River between Hover and While Bluffs.

By the end of the year, the construction camp at Hanford was home to 51,000 people, the majority of them past draft age but still young enough to build the huge and mysterious industrial complex.

As the Tri-Cities marks the 70th anniversary of Hanford throughout the month, the majority of the tens of thousands of people who came to Hanford during World War II are no longer living.

But drawn mostly from Herald archives, here are some of their stories:

Working around the clock

Larry Forby and his buddy, Melvin Gaines, reached the top of Cabbage Hill near Pendleton in August 1943. Below them the landscape stretched dry, hot and flat. But maybe they’d see the fir trees of the Northwest, as hinted at by a recruiter, by the time they reached the Hanford employment office in Pasco.

No such luck. They arrived in the evening and were given mattresses and bedding to bunk down in Barracks No. 51 and were ordered to the employment office first thing in the morning.

Rooms literally were filling faster than workers could build them. Gaines and Forby moved into their barracks while it still was under construction. They had no electricity and no running water.

Workers were housed two to a room, sharing a couple of metal cots, a desk and little more for $1.40 a week. Central wash houses for the barracks served 160 workers each.

Eventually, the construction camp would have 131 men’s barracks, 64 women’s barracks, what would be called the world’s largest trailer camp, eight mess halls, separate beer halls for men and women, an auditorium, a movie theater, butcher shop, grocery store, Sears outlet, hospital, post office and bus system.

It wasn’t an easy life. Because housing was in such short supply, most workers left their families behind, sometimes for months, until accommodations opened up.

“We got homesick,” Forby said in an interview 20 years ago. He had left his wife and baby daughter in Kansas.

Many recruits didn’t last a day, even though the pay was more than union scale to entice them to remain.

“A lot of them would just throw their mattress down on the bed and leave,” said Harold Worthington, when the 50th anniversary of Hanford was commemorated.

Those who stayed lived in a constant crowd.

“You learned to wait in line,” Forby said. “You stood in line to mail a letter and stood in line to get a letter. You stood in line to cash your check and you stood in line to get a meal.”

But at least the food was good. While most of the nation made do with little meat because of wartime rationing, Hanford workers got all they wanted.

When a plate was empty, a worker only had to hold it up and a waitress would replace it with another heaping platter of fried chicken or pork chops. Men would devour an entire pie or a dozen pork chops at a sitting.

“A lot of them acted like they were starving to death. I guess they were, with the Depression just over,” Worthington said.

Workers were bused out to the work sites, with some of the buses lacking seats. Workers had to stand and hang onto straps. To encourage long work days, the buses without seats were scheduled as the last to leave for the work sites and the first to return to the living quarters.

“It worked like a charm,” said Lt. Col. Franklin Matthias, head of the Hanford Engineering Works during the war. Work was scheduled six days a week and sometimes on Sundays if a project was lagging.

By the end of World War II, recruiters for Hanford workers had visited 745 cities in 47 states, where they interviewed 255,169 workers. They hired 90,581 employees, not all of whom showed up at Hanford.

To retain workers, officials realized that they needed to provide more for them to do in their limited off hours. A huge auditorium was built in 21 days by three shifts of workers laboring around the clock.

During the 1943 Christmas season, the auditorium scheduled 100 events — from boxing matches to plays — to help keep workers from missing home at Christmas.

Enough workers brought their families to live at the Hanford construction camp, mostly in tiny trailers, that a school was needed. In the fall of 1943 it had 560 students and 18 teachers. But by the end of the school year, those numbers had grown to 1,891 students and 38 teachers, the Columbia Basin News reported.

Teachers never knew who they would teach from one day to the next, as families grew discouraged with the living conditions and left and new families took their places.

Conditions remained as rough as at other construction sites.

The Hanford Patrol was kept busy with drunkenness, and law enforcement also responded to prostitution, bootlegging, rape and murder, although no more than for cities of similar size, said Maynard Plahuta, president of the B Reactor Museum Association, in a speech last year.

One man was stabbed to death in a barracks when he was caught with loaded dice in a craps game.

Plahuta remembered the late Larry Denton, who arrived at Hanford in 1943 at age 19, being asked a few years ago if working on a nuclear project scared him. No, he replied, but going to the bars in the site’s early years could be frightening.

The saying at Hanford used to be that cowards quit Hanford to go to war, Plahuta said.

Most kept in the dark

As few as 40 people at Hanford understood the nature of the project.

One of those was Matthias.

“This is a secret project,” he would say. “So if you talk in your sleep, you better sleep alone.”

In 1942 he was a 34-year-old lieutenant colonel at the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C., tracking funding for the new Pentagon building and other military construction projects throughout the United States.

Then he caught the attention of Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, the nationwide effort to develop a nuclear bomb during WWII.

Groves sent Matthias out West to scout locations for the nation’s first plutonium production site.

On Dec. 22, 1942, Matthias took off from Yakima in a small military observation plane. As he flew over the small towns of Hanford and White Bluffs, Matthias knew immediately he had found the spot.

A few weeks later, Groves sent Matthias, then just 34, back to the Mid-Columbia to manage the coming construction project as farmers, business owners and Native Americans were ordered from the land chosen for the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The Hanford project was more than a big job. The technology had barely been demonstrated beyond theoretical possibility in early 1943. Workers were building plants to run processes that hadn’t been invented.

“We were designing and building at the same time,” Bill McCue remembered in 1994. When the first batch of concrete was poured at B Reactor, there were no blueprints, he said.

Matthias would tour Hanford in a small plane that he learned to fly. But he spent many days out of town, cajoling a transportation officer to free up some buses or the regional director of the War Manpower Commission to cut loose some electricians.

He had not planned to be at B Reactor when it went live for the first time Sept. 26, 1944. But Groves ordered him there. Matthias remembered him saying, “Franklin, I want you down there because if this thing blows up, you might as well go with it.”

That day, workers started inching the control rods out of the reactor.

“Everything was working perfectly,” Matthias recalled. Then, suddenly, the reactor shut itself down. “We thought the whole thing was a failure.”

As it turned out, the reactor was producing xenon, an isotope that absorbed neutrons, causing the plant to shut down. Within 24 hours, Enrico Fermi, the who led the scientific team, was able to figure out that a bit more fuel would overcome the problem.

Less than 10 months later, plutonium from the reactor would be used in the world’s first manmade atomic explosion in New Mexico.

No one was certain the bomb would work. The night before the Trinity Test blast, Fermi made bets with the other scientists assembled in New Mexico about whether the test would ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world.

The test’s success shocked almost every witness as a mushroom cloud rose almost 40,000 feet.

It was at Trinity that Robert J. Oppenheimer uttered what may be the Manhattan Project’s best remembered remark, a quote from a Hindu holy book: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

On Aug. 9, 1945, the B-29 bomber Bock’s Car dropped the Fat Man bomb with Hanford plutonium on Nagasaki, killing 35,000 people and injuring another 60,000.

Within two days the Japanese government would begin negotiating a surrender.

“I never had any reluctance nor any thought later that I didn’t follow the right course,” Matthias told the Herald shortly before his death in 1993.

The U.S. invasion had been planned to start about three weeks after nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan. The official Army estimate was a million Americans and probably twice as many Japanese would die, Matthias said.

“We saved them by three weeks,” he said.

On the home front, Hanford workers finally learned what they were laboring to make.

“IT’S ATOMIC BOMBS!” read the headline on a mid-week extra edition of the Pasco newspaper.

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