Early Hanford workers remember dust, security

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 6, 2013 

Ask early Hanford workers what they remember about the 1940s, and you're likely to hear a story about the wind and the dust it whipped up from a desert being scraped bare for new construction.

"There was a terminator wind, and there was probably 3 to 4 inches of sand blew into our front lawn," remembered Harold Copeland, who started working at Hanford in 1947 and lived in worker housing in the government town Richland. "The way they took care of it was the fire department came out with their tanker trucks and hoses and hosed it off our lawns."

Monte Stratton, who came to Hanford in 1944, remembers lying across his bed on a Sunday afternoon with the window open in a dormitory for Hanford workers.

"One of those termination wind dust storms came up, and when I woke up I was covered with dust," he said.

Early workers called the winds "terminators" because of the many workers who would pack up and leave after each dust storm.

Both men's stories have been collected in recent months as part of the oral history project of the Hanford History Partnership, a community collaboration led by Washington State University Tri-Cities.

Its goal is to record 75 to 100 oral histories by the end of the year, and then continue collecting them next year. The partnership also plans to make about 400 oral histories recorded earlier by other agencies available online as part of the foundation to create a Hanford Research and Educational Center at WSU Tri-Cities.

Another common memory was the tight security at Hanford.

Before atomic bombs -- one made with Hanford plutonium -- were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, most Hanford workers did not know what they were producing at the nuclear reservation.

But Stratton had a pretty good idea early on what was being produced, he said. His education as an electrical engineer and his knowledge as a ham radio operator helped him guess, he said.

His ham radio was an issue shortly after he arrived at Hanford.

Stratton opened his dorm room door to a knock one afternoon, and a man walked past him straight to the ham radio receiver. A seal would have to be put on the send-and-receive switch to keep it from being used, Stratton was told.

But Stratton wanted to keep listening to the ham radio and said he had a time explaining that the send switch would only work if the equipment was hooked up to an external device to transmit.

By the time the United States announced that atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan, Stratton was married and he and his wife were vacationing at Mount Rainier. But his supervisor tracked him down at the Paradise Inn and warned him not to talk about Hanford. Only limited information was being made public.

His supervisor need not have bothered, Stratton said. He knew better than to say anything.

Security remained strict during the Cold War.

Copeland, an engineer, said his wife and daughters did not know what he did at Hanford for many years.

He worked for a time at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, but then it was called the 234-5 Building, or more commonly the "dash-5 building."

"They named the plants and facilities in a name that did not relate at all to what they did, "he said. "Plutonium Finishing Plant would have been giving away a secret."

Workers still had fun on the job, he said.

He remembered the instrument technicians in the T Plant complex leaving their lunch buckets on the workbench, and when the quitting bell rang they would grab them as they rushed for the best seats on the bus back to town.

One day, workers put a lead brick in the lunch bucket of one of the workers who was particularly fast to leave work each day, Copeland said.

"He came along and grabbed his lunch bucket and all he got was the handle and the top part," he said.

Copeland was proud to work at Hanford, where efforts during the Cold War contributed to the growth and safety of the nation, he said.

"People wonder about, 'We were producing plutonium, was that a good thing?' " Stratton said. "You have to look at it from the stand point that the (WWII) war effort was brought to an end primarily because of the work we started here with the plutonium."

The Hanford History Partnership continues to look for volunteers for videotaped oral histories, including Hanford workers from 1943-63 and people who were forced to leave their homes and businesses to make way for the Hanford nuclear reservation during WWII.

Call 509-372-7125 or go to www.ourhanfordhistory.org.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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