New photo book tells Hanford Manhattan Project story

A resident of the Hanford construction camp trailer park tends her garden during World War II.
A resident of the Hanford construction camp trailer park tends her garden during World War II. DOE

The story of the Manhattan Project in the Mid-Columbia is told through vintage photographs in a new book written as a companion project to the historical Hanford exhibit at the Reach center in Richland.

Almost 200 photos were collected to tell the story of Hanford’s work to produce plutonium, helping end World War II.

They range from life at the construction camp, which grew to be the fourth-largest city in the state, to the role of McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary prisoners. Prisoners, many of them conscientious objectors, were brought to the Hanford area to harvest 5,600 tons of produce for military use during the war.

“This is an opportunity to do more … for visitors, teachers, families to really understand this monumental story,” said Elizabeth “Lisa” Toomey, executive director of the Reach and author of Manhattan Project at Hanford Site.

The book is published by Arcadia Publishing, which specializes in local and regional U.S. history.

It fits well with the Reach’s mission to provide education and is intended to help build interest in the new Manhattan Project National Park, dedicated at Hanford this month, she said.

Washington (state) had a huge role in ending World War II.

Lisa Toomey, executive director of the Reach

Toomey couldn’t resist telling a few other stories of wartime activities in the area.

“It’s a way to tell a broader war story,” she said. “Washington (state) had a huge role in ending World War II.”

Stories include the internment of first- and second-generation Japanese residents of Yakima County for the duration of the war, and the work at Big Pasco, one of the busiest Army depots during WWII.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, military operations were moved inland.

Seattle’s Sandpoint Naval Air Station was moved to Pasco and the new book includes photos of the contingent of Navy WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services — there.

The Franklin County Historical Society contributed photos of Italians brought to the United States as prisoners of war, some of whom would work at Big Pasco.

Italian prisoners of war worked at a WWII Pasco Army depot.

Many of the WWII Hanford photos in the book were shot by Robley Johnson, who arrived at Hanford in 1943 to supervise contractor DuPont’s photography crew.

Some of the photos come from the Department of Energy’s historical archives, but others are rarely seen photos from the collection now owned by Robley’s daughter, Catherine Johnson-Pearsall. The collection is on loan to the Reach.

Toomey also relied on previous interviews with Johnson, including a previously published interview by Ted Van Arsdol.

The early days at Hanford saw some “Jim Dandy” dust storms. “We used to have a saying that Prosser and Grandview were going by,” Johnson said.

Robley and his staff would take photos for 145,000 identification badges, even though peak employment was about 50,000 workers, Toomey wrote in the book. The dust storms, isolation of the desert site and secrecy that kept most workers from knowing how they were contributing to the war effort led to high turnover.

Robley remembered his boss coming in one day and saying “Well, Rob, we got two people on the rolls today. We hired 650 and 648 quit.”

Photos in the book show Hanford workers contributing to the war effort through rallies to sell war bonds. To do something more tangible, a plan was hatched that led to many workers contributing a day’s pay to purchase a B-17 bomber that would have its name, “Day’s Pay,” painted by its nose cone.

We used to have a saying that Prosser and Grandview were going by.

Robley Johnson on the dust storms at Hanford, in interview by Ted Van Arsdol

Toomey wrote the book on nights and weekends.

“I love books and I love history,” she said.

She had help from Reach staff and volunteers, including Dianna Millsap and Nancy Bowers, who helped select the photos for the book.

The book will be released Dec. 21 and will cost $21.99.

It can be purchased at online retailers or at the Reach. Part of the profits from the copies sold at the Reach will be used to benefit its programs. To reserve a copy, call 509-943-4100, ext. 108, or email Krisc@visitthereach.org.

Purchasing the book at the Reach will have a second benefit. The center has created a map with WWII sites and exhibits across Washington state, which will be included with the copies it sells.

Suggested sites to visit include the Qualls Agriculture Laboratory in Ephrata, which has photos of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, and the Yakima Valley Museum, with information on the 1,200 Japanese and Japanese-Americans who lived in and around Wapato until sent to an internment camp in Wyoming.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews