The Manhattan Project

Irene LaViolette's Interview

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Irene LaViolette's Interview

Irene LaViolette was born in the United States and raised in Greece. During the Nazi invasion of Greece, she worked as a nurse, and encouraged the nurses to strike when the Germans took over her hospital. In 1941, she joined a repatriation group to return to America. After studying chemistry at Barnard, she began to work for the DuPont Company. There she met her husband, Fred. When Fred was transferred to Hanford, she went with him, and worked on analyzing the Columbia River’s water and checking Geiger counters.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
February 13, 2013
Location of the Interview: 
Washington
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: Let’s start by having you tell us your name and spelling it.

Irene LaViolette: I’m Irene LaViolette.

Kelly: And how do you spell that? Can you spell your name?

LaViolette: I-R-E-N-E; V middle initial, LaViolette, L-A-V-I-O-L-E-T-T-E. 

Kelly: Great. Today’s date is February 13, 2013. My name is Cindy Kelly and we’re here at the offices of the Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Can you tell me what does the “V” stand for, your middle name?

LaViolette: For my Greek name, Voutsas, last name.

Kelly: How do you spell that? 

LaViolette: V-O-U-T-S-A-S. 

Kelly: So you have a Greek maiden name.

LaViolette: That’s right.

Kelly: Where did you grow up?

LaViolette: I was born in Manhattan and at the age of—I just had finished kindergarten, my mother took us to Greece to visit her parents. And we were going to spend just summer there, a few months in the summer, but my father realized that the economic conditions in the United States was not so good. So he wrote to mother to wait, not to return immediately until she hears from him. And it turned out that his decision was for mother to stay and to see whether she can build a house in the land she owned. And he stayed two more years in the [United] States to send some money. And believe it or not, he pulled out from New York just before the crash. 

So we were very lucky to have a nice childhood in Athens. We attended, my brother and I,private schools and I was—I had finished second year in the chemistry school when the war broke out. When Mussolini sent the ultimatum to—for Greece to surrender. And that was the time that our—in Greece, the dictator Metaxas answered, “No.” So the universities closed, the fellows went up to the front and Irene had to find something worthwhile to do. 

So in the beginning, I was in a recreation of Red Cross group, visiting hospitals, and later on I realized that wasn’t enough contribution, and I signed up for a nursing course—volunteer nursing home. And upon finishing my training, I was assigned to a military hospital, which fortunately was not too far from my home. It was the Polytechnical of Athens, converted to the thirteenth military hospital. It seems to me that the number 13 follows me. Thirteen military hospitals; when I left Greece was 13 of August, today is 13 of February. 

Well anyway, so I served as a volunteer nurse under the supervision of a registered nurse up to the time that Greece had to surrender to the Germans and Italians, at which point they ordered the head of the Red Cross, Mrs. Messaloda, to evacuate the hospital, and to take over the hospital for their wounded. And they even wanted the nurses to stay on. But of course I wasn’t—I was a volunteer so I made a movement for other volunteers not to stay on.

And our wounded, most of them came from up north, and the railroad lines were all broken up because of the war. And they couldn’t travel back home, so it was a very pitiful sight to see the streets of Athens full of wounded soldiers. And most of them, because of the weather conditions up north where they were fighting, they had frostbite, and their uniform didn’t help the circulation in the legs. The old-fashioned way was the legs to be bandaged with khaki; that type of uniform. So many of my wounded were amputated, and they were—I was there receiving wounded directly from the front. And many times, I wouldn’t even have a day off. 

So it was very pitiful, that experience and after I—in April 1941, when the Germans invaded, I just was around, trying to come to normal living. But really, I couldn’t. It was very fortunate that the American Embassy sent a letter to my parents that they are going to have a group repatriated to the [United] States, and actually we didn’t know who would be in the group, and if I would like to join. And I had to pay—my parents had to pay my ticket as far as Lisbon, where we’ll use airline and train. The travel will include air and train and in Lisbon, we would expect to have someone from the States to pay the rest of the boat ticket. 

So my parents were quite undecided. But I told them, “I like to go back.” I was the only daughter and my brother, who was two years younger, two and a half younger, than me had just left Greece 24 hours before the declaration of the surrender. And he was caught in Rome. He left under normal conditions with a Greek passport, and at that point when he heard the news he put away his Greek passport and traveled the rest of his trip on the American passport. So since he arrived in the States we hadn’t heard from him, and my mother and dad submitted to my wishes to go, hoping that I’ll be a good company to my brother too. 

So that was how I came to the States, and I had a wonderful group. We were living on Italian—Italia. They would offer us once a week only five seats, so the group had to assemble somewhere. So for a time they will gather in Rome, and when it was a big enough group, they’ll go as far as Lisbon by train. Altogether, the group wasn’t too big, maybe 60 or 70. And the head of the repatriation group was Mr. Laird Archer, Foreign Director of the Near East foundation.

Upon arrival in Lisbon they—oh, when I arrived in Rome I checked the departure of the boat from Lisbon to New York, and I would have missed it by hours if I had continued the route that I had to take. The route was definite, assigned by the deportation group. So when I arrived in—by train in Switzerland, I had enough money—spending money my parents had given me, so I decided it would be a great thing if I can change the train route between Madrid and Barcelona by air. And that little change would bring me to Lisbon on time to leave with the rest of the group. And when I arrived in Lisbon everybody was very, very happy that I made it, and they told me I was covered with black soot because the trains in those times, they were using coal. 

So the first thing they did to me, was to take me to the lavatory and wash up the black soot and said, “Now we are going to celebrate.” So before we did anything else, they suggested we go to a bull fight. So that’s how the night before departure I spent, and I arrived in New York on Labor Day. My cousin was also—first cousin, our mother’s sisters—was in the group too. And he had sent from Lisbon a telegram to his cousin that he’s coming. And in the same telegram, we included to let them—my brother know that I am arriving. 

But somehow it got a little mixed up. My cousin’s last name was Alex, and my brother’s first name, Alex. So somehow they interpreted the message in a different way, and my brother didn’t have any idea I was arriving. So I went with my cousin to his cousin, and then we let my brother know. 

“What are you going to do now?” You know, the cousin was single. They thought, you know, I’ll settle for matrimonial. I said, “I’m going to continue my education.” I had brought all my transmit and—

Kelly: Transcript.

LaViolette: Transcript and I—the first thing I want to go was to Barnard College, Columbia. And after a few weeks I heard of them that I was accepted as an unclassified student. And that’s how I got to Barnard. And in 1943 I graduated, from Barnard, majored in chemistry. And the next thing I did was, headed for Niagara Falls, New York, where I had a job with the DuPont Electric Chemicals Department Research Lab. And I thought I was very fortunate to land a job, the type that I wanted because I had offers for control work around New Jersey and New York and so on. It was right after the war so jobs were plentiful.

Kelly: During the war?

LaViolette: During the war; yeah. So that’s how I got to Niagara Falls, DuPont. And shortly after I was there, about a month, at YMCA I met a young professional group, international relations. I met Fred LaViolette who was with DuPont—physicist, chemist and instrumentation. And since 1940, I with him, 1943. 

It didn’t take too long to start a relationship with Fred, and within a month he proposed to me. And at that point we planned to get married. We had to wait because he was selected to participate in the Manhattan Project, which had taken him for special training in Delaware. So in February 1944, he left Niagara Falls for Delaware. And when he came back, we got married in May 28, 1944. 

We didn’t have much time; we just took a honeymoon weekend, a train trip to New York. Actually we stayed at St. Moritz Hotel, and headed back to Niagara Falls to board the train for out west. And I remember passing lovely places, and one of them was the Grand Canyon going through Colorado. And we arrived in Richland, Washington sometime in June 1944. Upon arrival, housing was not ready, so we had to split in different quarters, men and women so-called barracks, and had to wait for the housing. Being just a couple, we were assigned a prefab, one-bedroom prefab. The ones with families, they were assigned houses. And we were very fortunate after—at least a month we had to wait—to have a prefab in the last row. So it was really nice. 

Although in the desert a closed house can get very hot, but that’s one thing we were doing after work. The first thing we were doing was to wash down with water the roof to cool it off, and we’ll sit outside and enjoy a refreshing highball while watching the lovely sunsets. 

It was really desert. And sage was the only plant you could see around. And I was lucky that I saved some of the papers that was published weekly, “Sage Sentinel.” So sage double meaning for that! And I am going to donate the papers, weekly papers, to your organization; that is a mirror of the life there. 

And I’ll tell you that for a community of very interesting people, we didn’t get bored at all because we would entertain among ourselves, we’ll play games of charades, progressive dinners. And then they would organize square dances and other dances; lectures, mainly on topics of safety and health. And sometimes we would go to nearby Spokane to visit. 

That’s about it, about life there. Is it anything else you want to hear? I took too much time.

Kelly: No, not a bit; not a bit. That’s fascinating. What did you do at Hanford?

LaViolette: What I did there was, of course I wasn’t in the secret. You see, I got reinstated out west and my work was different one. First I worked at the control lab analyzing the Columbia River water. Some other time, I worked for a physicist analyze—using the Polado graph for analysis. And another job I had, I was given the job of checking the new Geiger counters that they had come in, for background count, Geiger counters that measures gamma ray. That’s about it. 

Kelly: What did you learn from these measurements about the radioactivity in the environment? Were there high levels of radiation you found, or low levels? Did you detect any change from—

LaViolette: You mean in my analysis?

Kelly: In the water; yeah.

LaViolette: In the water. Well we were not told—we were just doing the analysis and tipping [inaudible].

Kelly: So you monitored the Columbia River water from various points.

LaViolette: From various points. 

Kelly: Right. 

LaViolette: Now Fred was in the—I was in the 300 area, as we were saying and Fred’s work, top secret, was in 200 area. 

Kelly: So the 200 area, of course, is the chemical separations; that’s where they were taking the spent fuel rods and extracting the plutonium; is that—

LaViolette: Yeah, well one of Fred’s significant contributions was in solving a problem. They had the plutonium—a group at Hanford, they wanted to put the plutonium in—plutonium [misspoke: uranium] slugs in aluminum cans and seal them in solder. But one of the problems they had was, as soon as they were sealing with solder and place them in the molten solder, the aluminum would melt. So Fred’s observation was that a solution can be found by trying to do the process as soon as possible, so the aluminum would not have time to melt. And that’s what that group emphasized and practiced on the time they should finish the operation. And they finally were successful and they were able to—because they had to put it in a sealed case, as plutonium [misspoke: uranium] is very flammable in air, the air we breathe.

Kelly: Right. You’re talking about the uranium that they put in these aluminum cans? Before they put in a reactor, right?

LaViolette: Yeah.

Kelly: Do you want to say that? Or just say it again and use the word uranium because I think it’s—they were canning uranium.

LaViolette: They were canning uranium, and they put it in—slugs of it—uranium in the case, and they would seal it with solder. So by doing this quickly enough, they were able to finish this operation successfully.

Kelly: And that was so critical.

LaViolette: Yeah.

Kelly: That’s wonderful; that’s great. Let’s see, Well you both were involved in very interesting things. Did you talk to each other? Could you tell Fred about what you were doing and could Fred—

LaViolette: He knew what I was doing, but I never knew what he was doing because he was on secret. 

Kelly: How your friends? Did you have a good time living there? Was there other people in your situation, about your age, doing similar things? Was it a fun community?

LaViolette: Oh of course we made friends; yes. And we kept in touch afterwards. Fred’s work lasted eight months from June 1944 to March 6, 1945. And then we headed back to Niagara Falls to DuPont. You see, DuPont at that time was operating Hanford for the government. Later on, they changed. At one time GE was running it. And on the way back, we took the Sunlight Limited train, coastal train to California, and that’s how we came back through—after visiting California and San Francisco; it was really nice. And I guess I covered everything, huh?

Kelly: You did a great job. Maybe there are some other things—

LaViolette: What else do you want me to talk about?

Kelly: Just what it was—what you felt like. What was it like to arrive in this desert?

LaViolette: Well, I enjoyed myself. We made new friends and I liked my work. 

Kelly: What was it like working for DuPont?

LaViolette: Working for DuPont? You mean back in Niagara Falls?

Kelly: Well, was DuPont a good company to work for?

LaViolette: I think it’s a great company to work for. Your efforts are always appreciated and you had freedom of—in the research department of course, they should. And my work was of different kinds in Niagara Falls, trying to use the products that they make. They used the electric power from the falls to separate metals, like sodium and lithium, from salts. And so one way for—they’re too—of their business is their customers, can improve their products by us using the metals that they’re produced by this electrolysis. Like at one time, I was doing a project for Proctor and Gamble and I was using linseed oil to hydrogenated, and this way they can use it to make soap. Another time I was working on dyes and different types of things. 

Mary LaViolette-Ange (daughter):  You want to talk about Dad’s work there?

LaViolette: My husband, who was hired at DuPont in Niagara Falls as a physicist/chemist and instrumentation, he was—and process control for the heavy chemical production. He developed methods for locating hazardous ground faults on multi-megawatt electrolytic cell banks; measuring dangerous levels of chlorinated hydrocarbon vapor in work areas; the production of high [inaudible] capabilities for the Air Force, And Fred developed a machine for workers to check their rubber gloves for holes; so that was one of the things he did.

Kelly: Well good. I have talked to other people who have worked on sort of environmental monitoring from DuPont, and they give DuPont a lot of credit for sort of being one of the first companies to really care whether the environment is okay, whether they’re stressing it or contaminating—

LaViolette: Oh yeah, very safety conscious; yeah. And out west, a lot of the lectures were on safety—lectures    open to the community. 

Kelly: Did they talk to you about radiation? About hazards you might have from radioactive materials?

LaViolette: Well we wore a monitor, which upon leaving the plant, you had to leave it. 

Kelly: So they measured the doses that you might have received?

LaViolette: Yeah. I don’t remember any incidents of hazardous radiation.

Kelly: Let’s see, what else? Do you remember, at the 300 area, was there a reactor there with a big silver dome?

LaViolette: I don’t remember.

Kelly: You don’t remember; yeah, they just took that down. It had become an icon for the community, which was very sad they took it down. Your house that you lived in it had a flat room, is that—

LaViolette: Flat roof. 

Kelly: Did they call it a “flattop”?

LaViolette: Flattop?

Kelly: The name, did some people call them a flattop?

LaViolette: I don’t remember.

Kelly: You don’t remember? Because I think in Oak Ridge they had the very same—

LaViolette: But it was very interesting inside, you know, one bedroom, the kitchen and living room was open. We had just the built-ins that were necessary.

Kelly: I hear a lot about the dust and the wind.

LaViolette: Oh yeah, in the desert you do get sometimes this winds. I know because I had a chance to spend some time in another desert with Fred at Saudi Arabia so later on, we were there in Saudi Arabia from 19—

LaViolette-Ange:  ’80.

LaViolette: ’80 to the end of ’88, up to ’89. I think was with the University of Minerals.

LaViolette-Ange: Petroleum and minerals.

LaViolette: Petroleum and minerals at the research institute there.

LaViolette-Ange: In Dhahran.

LaViolette: In Dhahran, yeah. 

Kelly: So comparing two deserts, which was windier?

LaViolette: Oh it varies. Much worse, the wind storms—

LaViolette-Ange: In Saudi?

LaViolette: Yeah.

Kelly: In Saudi is worse. Do you remember the tumbleweed? The tumbleweed, the plants that kind of get carried by the wind and roll?

LaViolette: Oh yeah.

Kelly: Yeah. What about shopping? You said you’d go to Spokane? Or what did you do if you needed to shop for—

LaViolette: Sometimes we’d go to Spokane. I also was able to go to Seattle once with a group of girls. One of them had a friend in the Navy, who invited us. So Fred wasn’t able to go.

Kelly: So did you drive? How did you get to Seattle?

LaViolette: I don’t really remember who drove, but I remember I was so impressed by Seattle, the nice contour, hilly. 

Kelly: Let’s see, do you remember any more of your train ride from Niagara Falls to Richland? I guess you went to—you told me you went to Albuquerque. I mean, was it full of soldiers or was the train—did it take several days?

LaViolette: No.

LaViolette-Ange: She doesn’t remember; she remembers the Grand Canyon.

Kelly: Oh yeah.

LaViolette-Ange: The trip on the way back was more pleasant.

LaViolette: Oh yeah.

LaViolette-Ange: You had a name for that train; what was it called that train.

LaViolette: I did say Sunlight Limited.

LaViolette-Ange: Yeah.

LaViolette: And in San Francisco, we rode the street car and looked around; it was so interesting, San Francisco.

Kelly: Well, you’ve had quite a well-traveled life.

LaViolette-Ange: She didn’t tell you that she caught a German spy in Greece before she left.

Kelly: Oh my.

LaViolette-Ange: Yes and she also, I don’t know if you understand that when she was—when the German’s took over the hospital she actually led a—

LaViolette: I did say—

LaViolette-Ange: Well, it wasn’t in that much detail. She went around to the home of each volunteer nurse and said, “Look we’re volunteers, you don’t have to go,” so they didn’t show up; it was a strike. And later, my mom was in the States, the Germans came to my grandparents’ house looking for her four times. And my grandmother held it a secret all her life until, when she died at 94 or something, a few years later she told us because she didn’t want my mother to be upset about it—

Kelly: That the Germans were after her.

LaViolette-Ange: She never mentioned that; yeah. But yeah, they were looking for her because she was, you know—

Kelly: A troublemaker; yeah.

LaViolette-Ange: But yeah, she saw—tell the story about the German spy, Mom, that’s so interesting. 

LaViolette: Well it was the time that I wasn’t a nurse anymore [in Greece]. But anyway, I just followed a nun, she was dressed as a nun, and I thought she was walking kind of funny. And she sensed that I followed her, and she tried to stop, window shopping in one of the main streets of Athens, past a theater—a movie theater, and I stopped too. And it was getting kind of dark, and I wasn’t going to be late going home, so I told a policeman that, “I don’t have any clues except that this person seemed to me a little suspicious and I wanted to let you know.” And he took my name and address and telephone number, and that’s how they notified my brother—my home that indeed, she was a spy. 

Kelly: You had the wrong job. Should have been doing counter espionage, clearly.

People are interested in women in science. So you were a chemist, and they obviously had very responsible jobs at Hanford. Looking back over your career were you happy to be a chemist, a scientist?

Kelly: What made you want to be a scientist in the first place?

LaViolette: I did and when I told my mother, “I’m going to study chemistry” she was a little speechless because she was just the opposite. She was a woman of the literature. And as a matter of fact, when she finished high school she was offered a scholarship to go abroad to Alexandria, Egypt through a scholarship of a magazine—a little encyclopedia type. And my grandfather didn’t let her go at those times, you know because of—so she knew mythology from A to Z, the Bible. And that type of mind she had, different than me.

Kelly: How about your father? Was he a scientist?

LaViolette: No. He wasn’t a scientist; he was a hotel man. When he was in the States, he worked for the Commodore and the Waldorf Astoria, he was a host. 

Kelly: Switching back a little bit, or maybe I should pursue this one more question. What did you like about chemistry? With no parent having any, you know, profession in that field, what made you want to be a chemist?

LaViolette: Well really what made me choose chemistry, maybe well—young people tried to figure out what the—their abilities are, and I figured that I can count on my memory. And maybe I admired someone else who was a chemist.

LaViolette-Ange: Madame Curie, maybe?

LaViolette: Usually that’s the case.

LaViolette-Ange: How about Maria Fleming?

LaViolette: I had borrowed from the States, my cousin’s cousin where we stayed the first day of arrival in the States, I had borrowed—he was a chemist, and I had borrowed Conant’s chemistry book, organic chemistry. And he had actually sent me one as a present while we were in Greece, while I was a student at the university there. 

Kelly: So this was James S. [misspoke: B.] Conant, he was the president of Harvard. And ironically, he was head of the—or advisor to President Roosevelt on the Manhattan Project.

LaViolette: Yeah, I saw that right across the street where I was attending Barnard a lot of work was done on the cyclotron, and I just was reading it; yeah. And one thing I can tell you, when I was in Niagara Falls after graduation, the head of the repatriation committee, Laird Archer, Near East foreign delegate, Near East Foundation. He was assigned just before the end of the war in Greece to become the head of UNRR, United Nations Rehabilitation Reconstruction. And he called me or wrote to me if I would like to go back with a group, his group UNRR, to Greece. And I thought it over, and my decision was no, I wouldn’t. I’ll stay in the States and I had met Fred already. 

LaViolette-Ange:  Because you felt you had given your word to Fred?

LaViolette: Yeah, well I didn’t want to go back.

Kelly: So tell me if you can remember your first reaction stepping off the train, and the first couple of days in the desert of Richland.

LaViolette: Well I’m the type that—I adjust easily. So well, of course it must have been a surprise, but it didn’t take me long to adjust. I’m not the type—you know, some people cannot adjust and they are very, very miserable. Fortunately I’m not that kind; I can adjust to any conditions. 

Kelly: You are blessed; that’s a great blessing.

LaViolette: And in Saudi Arabia—everybody hears, “Saudi Arabia?!” We had great time, the women there. 

LaViolette-Ange: We couldn’t drive, we had to wear long things, but—

LaViolette: Not really, they weren’t so strict in the ‘80s. Later on things became very tough, but in the ‘80’s was the golden age.

Kelly: Well that’s wonderful; really you’ve been terrific.

LaViolette: When I arrived, my brother was attending Columbia at night, and he was working at the Grumman Aircraft in Long Island. So he was living, because of his job at Long Island, he was living at the Bethpage Long Island. And when I arrived—was accepted at Barnard, we decided to look for a small room, but it turned out it had to be big room, with kitchen, near Barnard on Broadway. Something like 130; Barnard is 116. And we will make a two room, separating the one room by a blanket. So this way, my brother was with me and he had to travel. And to make extra money I looked for a job in teaching in Greek, and I was offered a job at one of the churches. And at one time I had to travel quite far, I think it was Brooklyn, but fortunately that wasn’t for too long. 

Then I was more fortunate to find a job in Washington Heights in New York, which was closer. And I had to go to Barnard, when all of a sudden in mid-term I heard that they are going to give me assistance in the tuition. So that helped, and by the end of 1941 I was notified, after two midterms that the next semester of 1942 I’ll be given a full scholarship, residence and tuition, everything. So that was a good time, because my brother was looking to start studies at RPI, and when his final acceptance came through he left for Troy, New York with a major, aeronautical engineer. 

So the timing was good. But while we were at the one room apartment, I really was responsible for a little hand washing for both of us, a little cooking, I had the job, I had the classes to attend; it was two hard months. But I made it. 

Kelly: That’s inspiring. 

LaViolette: My brother, Alex Voutsas, in his thesis, he talked about the twisted ribbon, and that twisted ribbon was used by the astronauts landing on the moon. And that’s why he’s recognized, and his name is at the Smithsonian Institute.