The Living Force: Early days at Hanford as told by emergency nurse

An unidentified nurse may have had the same job as Esther Wurtzel Nelson, riding along in ambulances at Hanford.
An unidentified nurse may have had the same job as Esther Wurtzel Nelson, riding along in ambulances at Hanford. Courtesy DOE

Editor’s Note: This account was shared by Esther Nelson’s daughter from the time Nelson spent at Hanford as a specialty nurse riding along in ambulances.

In 1944, security at what is now known as the Hanford Atomic Energy facility in the state of Washington was so tight, so compartmentalized, that very few people had any idea of its physical magnitude.

In fact, none of us worker bees even knew why we were there and what was being made.

Unlike the others, my duties as an emergency nurse gave me carte blanche to range over a wide area. I saw things I would have never known existed — like the old-fashioned saloon, complete with heavily costumed dance girls serving the drinks.

Since I came from the sophisticated East Coast, I never dreamed this sort of place was still a reality in the far West. I found out it was real enough the first time I entered its precincts.

As I came through the door, the ambulance driver at my side, a huge glass schooner of beer came sailing toward us.

Instinctively I ducked and it smashed behind me.

I was not in much better shape than the patient I had come to look for. His heart attack was not fatal and neither was mine, but I did lie down on the other stretcher as we drove back over the dusty, corduroy roads.

The fight that had prompted that incident was symptomatic of the kind of life the men were leading.

Men and women’s barracks were rigidly divided from each other, an arrangement that was calculated to bring out any latent ingenuity in the most prosaic man.

Circumvention by any means was the most common topic of conversation. The fences were high, but so was the motivation. Cars were lined up outside the steel barriers, many of them with no tires at all, but available for hourly rental if you knew the owner.

Inevitable babies were born and the chief honchos in remote places had to face facts.

They could not wait for the new hospital that was being built in Richland, a town that was being recreated as a permanent facility. There the plans called for a proper delivery room and a maternity wing. The potential for infection in an emergency room environment was too great a risk even for our bloodless planners, and after much hammering and sawing a new wing was built.

Birth became officially recognized.

Boredom was the common key to the bloody battles that erupted, especially on the weekends.

After the weekend boozing had begun, the emergency room ran red. Most of it was not very serious because head wounds are notoriously bloody and bald scalps made good targets.

A lot of these men recruited to work in Hanford were past their first youth. The Second World War took all the young men, the active doctors, etc., so that the workers were mostly women and older men.

The first doctor I ever saw there was an old man who had conceived it his patriotic duty to come out of retirement.

This complicated my life because he could hardly see or hear. In addition, he had a bad tremor and any surgical procedure was a disaster.

I found myself doing things no nurse was ever allowed to do since the Civil War. Necessity gave me more skill and virtue than I had ever before possessed and youth gave me the fortitude of ignorance.

There were terrible times when the sand storms came to Hanford.

In their mistaken zeal and hurry, the builders had torn up every living thing. The cactus that gave the desert soil some stability had been thoroughly uprooted.

So the sand blew and we all ate it, worked in it and slept in it.

It drove some people crazy so that long lines formed around the office that accepted termination notices. Very few stayed for very long. Even the Oakies and the Arkies who had come from the Dust Bowl found it hard to take.

Yet some, like my two watermelon growers, stuck it out.

The first time I saw them was when I was called to pick up a patient from a men’s barracks. As I entered, I saw a man sitting at the entrance holding a shotgun aimed at what appeared to be a bare patch of land. I had visions of shotgun wounds on their way to happen.

Coming out of the barracks, I stopped to ask him what he thought he was doing.

“I’m protecting my watermelons,” he said.

I looked, and sure enough there was something green sticking out of a wet patch in the desert. He explained that he and his roommate had planted them and they intended to keep thieving hands off them.

Watermelons require a lot of water, I discovered, and this meant they had to hand-carry every bucket of it from the barracks bathroom to their thirsty desert garden.

Word spread around the compound — bets were made. In a place where there was little to do, anything out of the ordinary became momentous.

By mutual consent, the ambulance driver and I made wide circuits so we could check on the progress of the plants.

It cheered us up when we could see that the little wet patch was still showing dark against the surrounding sand. By the time I too had decided to terminate my job, the watermelons had a perceptible shape and the men were still guarding it day and night with their long rifles.

I had no doubt then, and I have no doubt now, that anyone who tried to steal those plants would have been killed on the spot.

In this place, where unknowingly we had worked to produce the deadliest weapon yet devised, the tenacity of life was ever present.

Whether it was the men climbing over the fences as they left the women’s barracks or the tender leaves of a watermelon, the continuity of life was a force equally as strong as the atomic bomb.

Young nurse would later describe her life at WWII Hanford

Esther Wurtzel Nelson took a train across the nation from New York City to what’s now the Tri-Cities in 1944.

When she was about 33, she took the adventurous step of accepting a job on the Manhattan Project while her husband was serving in Europe during World War II, said her daughter, Flora Lovejoy of Sun Valley, Idaho.

Nelson had graduated from nursing school and worked for a few years in hospital delivery departments before setting out for a job she knew little about. Only the top officials at Hanford knew that the massive construction project was producing the first industrial quantities of plutonium as the nation raced to develop an atomic weapon during the war.

As many as 50,000 workers were employed at one time as the first nuclear reactors and processing plants were built.

As was typical for nurses then, she did not last long at Hanford, Lovejoy said.

But before she returned to New York City she got to know Spokane. Hanford workers would travel to other Eastern Washington communities in search of the culture, shopping and entertainment in short supply at Hanford.

After becoming parents, Nelson and her husband moved to Spokane. She gave up nursing but became a well-known piano teacher and supporter of the Spokane Symphony.

In 1995, about four years before her death at the age of 87, she was given a computer and started writing down the stories of her life.

Among them was the account of the time she spent at Hanford as a specialty nurse riding along in ambulances.

With the creation of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which includes historic areas at Hanford, her daughter wanted to share Nelson’s memories with the Tri-City area community.