The Manhattan Project

Frank Mackie's Interview

Printer-friendly version
Born in 1903 in Baltimore, Mackie studied civil engineering at Union College in Schenectady, New York. In 1934 he went to work for Du Pont in construction and retired in 1968 as manager of construction. "They called me manager, now they call them directors. They give them a big title, but they gave me more money, "he said. After the war, Mackie was construction manager at Savannah River, the plant in South Carolina built by Du Pont in the early 1950s to produce material for hydrogen bombs.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
1986
Location of the Interview: 
Wilmington
Collections: 
Transcript: 

[At top is the edited version of the interview published by S. L. Sanger in Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford, Portland State University, 1995.

For the full transcript that matches the audio of the interview, please scroll down.]

Book version:

I was manager of the war construction division of the Du Pont Company, and I handled the construction of Hanford from the Nemours Building in Wilmington. I was manager of all construction for quite a while, but at that particular time we had more going for the government than we did for any-thing else.

Hanford was quite the largest plant Du Pont ever built up to then, and other than dams and things of that sort in faraway places, I guess it was the largest thing anybody had ever built. Right away I was aware of the plant's purpose. They took us down to the eighth floor of the Du Pont Building here in Wilmington, put us in a room and gave us a book to read, even before we got started. The book was one our design division and our engineering group had prepared with certain of the men who been working on the problem.

Very frankly, some of the physics in there was a mile and a half over my head. I spent a few sleepless nights. We weren't a company to fail on doing anything. I wasn't too damn sure that with the lack of knowledge ahead of us, that we would be able to do it. Du Pont said it would not take any of the atomic work unless we operated it. Unless we built it, we wouldn't run it.

They were building the Alcan Highway at the time and people were com­ing and going to that. We even put recruiters on the boats that brought the men back from Alcan. We knew we had to build a camp, and find ways to keep the people reasonably satisfied out in the boondocks. I don't recall the turnover rate, but my recollection is that it wasn't a good deal worse than jobs where we had 14-15,000 men.

In construction we were doing things people hadn't done before, that's for sure. There were extremely close tolerances and we were working with certain materials we had never worked with before. We had something in our favor. We not only did the construction, we also did the designing. We had our design division in Wilmington, with a nucleus of a design group at Hanford. If we got into a problem one night, we'd try to have it solved by our construction and design groups by the next morning. We had quite a few design men at Hanford, and they were only a telephone away from the big group in Wilmington. Now, a job of that sort, one that had never been done before, gave an opportunity for it to be a job that was in continuous change. Fortunately, and I say fortunately because I built some plants for Du Pont that we never got done changing for two or three years after they were put in operation. Fortunately, we were able to hold design changes to a minimum at Hanford. I can't say enough for the designers of that plant. People like Crawford Greenewalt, that ilk, who really burned the midnight oil to make sure we weren't getting something in today we had to take out tomorrow.

As far as materials were concerned, Hanford had the highest priority for government work and we could almost pick and choose what we wanted and when we wanted it. Worker quality, in general, was high. We had very good supervision, all Du Pont employes, who knew standards for safety and put­ting things together properly and not letting things slip. The men were a little older than average on construction jobs. I don't mean in their fifties and sixties, but they were a bit older than on jobs earlier in the war because the draft had taken quite a few of the younger men.

We had some accidents, you don't do a job of that size without having some accidents. We had a contractor who was building some underground tanks for storage of toxic materials who had some fatalities, but it was a very safe job, and well recognized as such. We used to have difficulties with certain contractors who didn't want to do certain things of a safety nature but either they did it our way or we got rid of them.

I would say I visited the site an average of once every two months and I would stay two or three weeks. I found out early that unless you got out on the job and saw for yourself what was going on you weren't supervising very well.

Building the piles and separations plants, putting these things together wasn't easy, and we trained men for weeks or whatever was necessary to get them able to do it right. We had inspectors always on the job. You see, we didn't know if this thing was going to work, and some of our vice presidents weren't too damn sure about it either. I don't think there was any appreciable difference between the separation plants or the piles when it came to building them. We tried not to shift men from one to the other, both from the stand-point of secrecy and also from standpoint of once they had learned to do one thing properly, it is better to let them do it. We never experienced any serious labor problems. None. Union men were hired but there never was a contract with a union and no union organizing activity occurred at the job. I knew all the national officers of the building trades by their first names, and if any-thing was brewing I called them and got it straightened out.

I had the greatest respect for General Groves. He was quite a man in my estimation. Especially, I liked his choice of officers to run the Corps of Engineers at Hanford. I asked Groves how he managed to have such good judgment. "That's my trade secret," he said.

I found out about the first bomb on the plane from Hanford to Wilmington. I got off the plane in Denver and there it was. I wasn't surprised when the second bomb was dropped. I learned early in life never to be sur­prised at anything anybody does.

 

Full Transcript:

S.L. Sanger: Tell me I guess first what your position was at Hanford.

Frank H. Mackie: I did not have any position at Hanford, as I told you earlier on the phone. 

Sanger: Oh, I mean in connection with the project.

Mackie: I was manager of war construction division for DuPont Company, and handled the construction of it from my office here in the Rose Building and made frequent trips out there to Hanford. 

Sanger: Who was your superior then?

Mackie: Melvin F. Wood and Gravel M. Read, R-E-A-D.

Sanger: He was what, Read?

Mackie: Chief Engineer. Wood was assistant chief engineer, and I reported directly to him. 

Sanger: And you were manager for war construction?

Mackie: I was manager of all construction worldwide for DuPont for quite a while. But at that particular time we were more interested or had more doing for the government than we did for anybody else. 

Sanger: When did you start with DuPont?

Mackie: 1934. 

Sanger: In what? In construction?

Mackie: Yeah. 

Sanger: So by 1943, when Hanford, began you were at that position?

Mackie: Yeah, I retired about 1968. 

Sanger: I have this in my notes somewhere and I cannot nail it down where I got it. Was the Hanford Engineer Works at that time the biggest thing DuPont had built? Do you know?

Mackie: Quite the largest that DuPont had ever built, other than dams and things of sort. I guess it was the largest thing anybody had ever built. 

Sanger: I wrote that in my notes before but I cannot find out where I read it, so your attribution is good enough for me. 

The other thing was the project, as you recall, a fairly safe job. I mean, I read that there were some injuries and two fatalities with the subcontractors, but I do not know if there were any for DuPont.

Mackie: We had some accidents; you do not do a job of that size without having some accidents, but none of any great magnitude, other than as you say. We had a contractor who was building some underground tanks for storage of toxic materials who had some fatalities. It was a very safe job and very well recognized as such after the fact, after anybody could really read about it and tell about it.

Sanger: DuPont is noted for its safety record though in general. 

Mackie: We always like to think so. 

Sanger: I have talked to some physicists who are out there and they were commenting on that, how it actually was sort of irksome to them because everything was so safety-oriented.

Mackie: Yes, that is exactly right. We used to have our difficulties with certain contractors who did not want to do the things, but they did it or we got rid of them. 

Sanger: I noticed in the company history, the unpublished books, for every subcontractor there were safety records at the end of the little description.

Mackie: That has been some considerable time ago. I could not give you the number of accidents that were on that whole job at the time. It was a very safe job, and it could not be a DuPont job and not be. Management of the DuPont Company always are interested in that, and have done everything in their power to make the job safe. 

Sanger: How many times did you visit the site? Do you remember?

Mackie: Well I could not tell you how many, but I would say an average of once every two months. 

Sanger: Oh. 

Mackie: I would stay for two, two and a half or three weeks on each trip. 

Sanger: You were there a lot then. 

Mackie: Right. 

Sanger: Would you go out for any particular reason, or just as part of the ongoing process?

Mackie: I found that in my early life, unless you got out on the job and saw for yourself what was going on, you were not supervising it very well. 

Sanger: What are some of your memories of the project, the first ones, the early ones? 

Mackie: Well I remember very vividly when we first found that site. They took some of us around in B-25s, and this, that and the other thing to look at various sites around the country. 

Sanger: You went on that?

Mackie: I was on two of them. 

Sanger: Where did you go?

Mackie: We went down to the south, southeast, and where the hell was the other one? I’ve forgotten now. 

Sanger: Did you go to California?

Mackie: No. 

Sanger: The southeast, do you mean around Oak Ridge or what?

Mackie: Well we built the first pile that was built was in Oak Ridge. 

Sanger: That was considered for a time, that area?

Mackie: Yes, they did consider that. General Groves and his cohorts did not think that was the best location because of availability of manpower. 

Sanger: Were you with [Col. Franklin] Matthias on this on these trips?

Mackie: I was never on a trip with Matthias. I knew Matthias very well, but my contacts with him came later, when he was sent to head up the Army. 

Sanger: You say you remember finding the Hanford site.

Mackie: We went out there right after they had narrowed the thing down, the location down to three or four sites. I looked it over and of course it was an ideal site for the construction of any of this kind. 

Sanger: Why was that?

Mackie: Well it was remote, other than Pasco and Yakima and a few other places like that. We had a lot of water, which of course was needed from the Columbia River. 

Sanger: It was a good building site too, I suppose. 

Mackie: Hanford is a good building site, yes, very good building site. 

Sanger: Of course, one of the things that I wondered about, were there any particular problems that were more daunting than others, as you recall in that construction process?

Mackie: Any project of that size had the first connotation that if you wanted to get people you had to have some basic area where you could find them. They were building the Alcan Highway at the time and people were coming and going to that. Just as an aside on this thing—we even put recruiters on the boats and so forth that brought the men back from Alcan.

Sanger: Oh, you did?

Mackie: Yeah, to put these construction men up. 

Sanger: Was labor availability one of the big difficulties?

Mackie: That was one of the prime reasons for—of course with a job that size and one that was in a remote area, we knew we had to build a camp, we knew we had to have certain things. How am I going to put this up? We would have dormitories, recreation, and some method to keep these people reasonably satisfied out in the boondocks like that. 

Sanger: How did you do that, then?

Mackie: We built a camp for some 55,000 to 60,000 people. And we had movie theaters, we had dance pavilions, and things of that sort to keep people reasonably satisfied. 

Sanger: What is your recollection of the turnover?

Mackie: I do not remember. But I would say this: that having all the things that we could think of to give them, to keep them reasonably happy, my recollection is that it was not a great deal worse than some of our other jobs where we had 14,000 or 15,000 men out there. 

Sanger: What about the construction itself? You were doing things there that people had not done before, weren’t you? 

Mackie: That is for sure. 

Sanger:  Can you talk about that a little bit?

Mackie: Well, in what way?

Sanger: When you built the piles or canyons, it is amazing to me that you could do that kind of work that no one had done before so quickly. Is there any secret to that, how you accomplished that? I read about the close tolerances. 

Mackie: I am sure there were extremely close tolerances, and we were working with certain materials during the construction that we had never worked with before. See, we had one thing in our favor: we not only did the construction, but we also did the design and we had our design division here in Wilmington with the nucleus of the design group out there. If we got into a problem at night, we would try to have it solved by our design group and our construction group getting together, and be ready to go to work the next morning. 

Sanger: Oh I see, you could do that because you had representatives. 

Mackie: That is exactly right. We had quite a few design men right there on the site. They were only at the end of the telephone from the other group here in Wilmington. 

Sanger: Do you recall much of a problem getting the materials?

Mackie: General Groves was quite a man in my estimation. We had priorities in those days on government work, and ours was the highest priority. We could almost pick and choose wherever we wanted to get something and when we wanted to get it. 

I did one other thing to expedite that on many of our largest suppliers: I stationed men, both inspectors and expeditors, right in their local works where they were making the material who could inspect it there and say it was right before it came out, so we did not have a lot of this back end filling business.

Sanger: Do you recall the quality of the workmen? Was it fairly high?

Mackie: We had some areas of necessity in which we trained people for their work right there on the job. In general, yes, but we had very good supervision, all DuPont employees who knew the requirements that we had for not only safety but for putting things together properly and not letting things slip. We had good inspectors on the job to follow that up, and it worked out pretty well. 

Sanger: The workers, did they tend to be older? Wouldn’t most of the young men be in the draft?

Mackie: Yeah, we did not have a great portion of younger men. Now I don’t mean that they were fifty or sixty years old, but they were a little older, older than the average age of, we will say the employees on Oklahoma Ordnance Works or things of that sort. 

Sanger: It has been very difficult really to run down anybody who was at least an actual carpenter or pipe fitter, whatever on the project. I think most of them were a little older. 

Mackie: Well, another thing we did, we had a group of employment men in the construction division that looked these people over. They had been doing it for DuPont for a long time and they knew what questions to ask. If they did not come up to snuff, why, they had to go. I mean, that job was not one that you could take the responsibility and not have good people to operate it. 

Sanger: I noticed in the recruiting figures that there were many, many thousands of people interviewed, but apparently not a lot of them were hired. Maybe that is one of the reasons.

Mackie: That is exactly one of the reasons. Of course you spoke of tolerances and things of that sort. We were building the piles and the separation plants and things of that sort. Putting those things together was not easy. We trained those men. We had actual training areas where we worked those men for certain weeks or whatever was necessary so they could do it right. Then we had inspectors right on the job watching them, because we did not know whether this thing was going to work or not either. Some of our vice presidents were not too damn sure about it [chuckle].

Sanger: Were you there when production startup occurred?

Mackie: I was out there the week before they pushed the button. I did not stay for it. As a matter of fact, we were having talks then about Savannah River Works. 

Sanger: Were you already?

Mackie: Already, and I had to be down in Oak Ridge with General Nichols, so I was not there the day it went off, but I was there the week before. 

Sanger: When did you stop going out there? Do you remember?

Mackie: I stopped going out there when we turned it over to General Electric. 

Sanger: Oh, you did? And that was early 1946?

Mackie: That is correct. Of course, my responsibility had shrunken to just doing what they wanted done out there. Of course, a job of that sort, and as you say, one that had never been done before, gave the opportunity for it, as a job, to be in continual change. 

Fortunately—and I say this “fortunately” because I built some plants for DuPont that we never got done—two and a half years later, we put it in operation. We were able to hold that to a minimum. I cannot say enough for the designers of that plant and people like Crawford Greenewalt and men of that ilk who really burned the midnight oil to make sure that we were not putting something in we had to take out tomorrow.  

Sanger: Do you remember if the reactors were more difficult or formidable to build than say the separation plants, or was there a lot of difference?

Mackie: No, I do not think there was any difference between the separation plant and the piles and those areas. They were different and we tried not to shift men between one or the other, both from the standpoint of right to know business and also from a standpoint of—once they learned how to do these things properly, we let them do it. 

Sanger: Before I forget, what is your personal background? Where were you born?

Mackie: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1903. 

Sanger: Where did you go to college?

Mackie: Union College. Engineering school.

Sanger: Where is that?

Mackie: Schenectady, New York. 

Sanger: Engineering, any particular type of engineering?

Mackie: What I took was subtle, but I had enough mechanical, electrical, and so forth. I had somewhere in the neighborhood of—I cannot break it down too fine, because we also had other work for the government, Navy, and this, that, and the other thing going at the same time. I had forgotten the number of engineers I had but it was in the neighborhood of 4,000. 

Sanger: While Hanford was going on, what were some of the other big projects you were involved with?

Mackie: Well, we had work at Indiana Ordnance Works, Oklahoma Ordnance Works, Alabama Ordnance Works, and where the hell else? There were quite a few more than that. 

Sanger: Were those explosives mostly?

Mackie: They were propellants, yes. Navy powder, Army powder, and of course we had to build sulfuric and nitric plants with each one of them. They were for propellants for the Armed Forces. We did some work for the Navy too for trying to advance the art of submarine warfare, things of that sort. 

Sanger: I take it that Hanford was by far the largest of the projects that you were involved with. 

Mackie: Hanford was the largest until Savannah River came along, and of course Savannah River was larger by two piles and one separation plant. 

Sanger: Were you involved with Savannah River too? You built that afterhand, right?

Mackie: That is right. 

Sanger: When was that? A few years, or more than that when it first started?

Mackie: I am going to say it was a little more than a few years.

Sanger: In the early 1950s?

Mackie: I would say three or three and a half.

Sanger: Okay. Then you say you retired when?

Mackie: In 1968, the end of September in ‘68. 

Sanger: Roger Williams, what was his role?

Mackie: Vice President. 

Sanger: Okay, and was he a man more or less in charge of Hanford overall?

Mackie: No, I would say that anybody at that level—our corporate setup is such that our executive committee—this was when I left, I do not know what the hell they do now. They have an Englishman in there running it. Roger Williams was a member of the executive committee and he did not have anything more directly to do with that than Crawford Greenewalt and Walter Carpenter or any of the others. 

Sanger: What was the connection with this TNX?

Mackie: I spoke a little too fast there. He [Roger Williams] was the executive committee member who for some years had the responsibility for our research and development in the DuPont Company. For that reason, I think he kept probably a closer eye on it than some of the others. 

Sanger: The TNX, explosives division, was that something that was related to Hanford directly?

Mackie: No, the executive and finance and chairman decided in their wisdom to put the responsibility for building Hanford Engineer Works and all the other work we did for the government under the hand of the engineering department. Then at the same time, they made the decision to put the responsibility for the operations of those facilities because we told them we were not going to take any work unless we operated it. We thought we knew more about the smokeless powder than anybody else in the country and unless we built it we would not run it but if we did build it we would not build it without running it. 

The explosives department, which was at that time a fairly good sized department because we were still in the powder business and the other related areas, was a fairly large department and nobody ever sat in one chair. I was very fortunate I went into the construction division. With the exception of about eight to ten months, I stayed in the construction division or the engineering department for my total thirty years with DuPont. 

Now, it did not always work that way. These boys in the explosive department, they were picked out and put into other departments or whatever and they had other people to pull from in the DuPont Company to build up the personnel for the explosives department when we needed more people as this thing bloomed. 

Sanger: What was your title or position when you retired?

Mackie: When I retired I was Manager of Construction Division. Now they are directors, they gave them a big title, but they gave me more money [laughter]. 

Sanger: During the Hanford period, what was your title, you were manager of what?

Mackie: Construction for the DuPont Company.

Sanger: Okay. You were working on obviously many projects besides Hanford?

Mackie: That is for sure. 

Sanger: Yeah, but that was the biggest at the time? 

Mackie: That is exactly right. 

Sanger: Were you totally aware of what the plant was going to be for?

Mackie: Oh yeah, they took us down to the eighth floor of the DuPont Building and put us in a room and gave us a book to read. 

Sanger: When was that?

Mackie: That was why before we even started. 

Sanger: Before you got involved?

Mackie: Yeah.

Sanger: What was the book?

Mackie: It was one that our design division and our engineering group had prepared with the men who had been previously working on this problem. I am thinking of people like Fermi and people like that who had put together [a book] to just tell you what they wanted done and what they wanted to do in the final analysis. Very frankly, some of the physics in there was a mile and a half over my head; I was never afraid to have good physicists. 

Sanger: That could not have been what was called the Feasibility Report, do you remember?

Mackie: No, it was not the Feasibility Report. I am not even sure—do not quote me on this because I am not sure of this—I am not even sure that we had a Feasibility Report at the time we started this thing. I do not think we did. In other words, I think we were working from hand to mouth with things that came out of design. 

Mackie: But feasibility reports, you say you have—at least in our group, we have several different groups who throw their weight into these feasibility reports for even our company products and things of that sort. The operating department, the engineering department, the research department—they all combined. And I did not see one, maybe we had it but I do not know. There were a hell of a lot of cubbyholes to hide things down there. 

Sanger: Do you remember what you thought when you found out about the bomb being used?

Mackie: Yeah, I spent a few sleepless nights thinking about it. We had never been one to fail on doing anything, and I was not too damn sure that with the lack of knowledge ahead of us to do this, whether we would be able to do it or not. As I say, some of our vice presidents were not too damn sure the thing was going work. 

Sanger: Where were you when the first bomb was dropped, do you remember?

Mackie: I was on the plane coming from Hanford to Wilmington. I got off the plane in Denver, picked up a newspaper and there it was. 

Sanger: Of course, I guess you would not have known that that was the uranium bomb, I mean the first one, or did you?

Mackie: Yeah, I did. 

Sanger: Were you surprised then when a second one was used or not, the plutonium one?

Mackie: No. I learned early in life never to be surprised at anything anybody does.

Sanger: Did you have much to do with any of the physicists out there in Hanford?

Mackie: Yeah, well, I know them all and I was very friendly with a great many of them, that is, the DuPont physicists. Now I met a great many of the others, but I have a pretty good idea to stay close to my own self because I do not know what the hell somebody else is going to say. I know what I am going to say. 

Sanger: You might stay two or three weeks. How did you fill your non-working hours then?

Mackie: We did not have many non-working hours in those days. I stayed at the hotel, the transient quarters, and I had a jeep assigned to me and I worked all hours of the day and night. I would get in that jeep and I would go to 200 area, 100 area, walk through and see how they were working and if they were working and so forth and so on. 

Sanger: There was a good deal of around the clockwork, wasn’t there?

Mackie: Oh yes, well from the time we got started, we did not do much around the clock work in building the Hanford construction facility, but from then on we had shift work continually until we got out of there. 

Sanger: On the reactor and the separator? 

Mackie: That is right.