The Manhattan Project

John Shacter's Interview

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John Schacter

John Shacter was born in Austria and immigrated to the United States after Hitler came to power in Germany. He first worked on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, then was transferred to the K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge in 1943. He explains how the innovative design of the uranium enrichment process facilitated the design and construction of nuclear reactors around the country. He recalls the urgency the workers felt to beat Nazi Germany in making an atomic bomb.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 17, 2006
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge

John Shacter: John Shacter, S-H-A-C-T-E-R. 

Interviewer: And your age?

Shacter: My age? Eighty-four. Eighty-four and a half, going on 85!

Interviewer: And how did you end up in Oak Ridge, in the Secret City?

Shacter: Well, I’m going to make it fast, but I was born in Austria, spoke no English when I got here in 1938. I knew I wasn’t going to get any dates with American girls in German, so I had all the incentive of a seventeen-year-old fellow to learn English fast. So I crashed English, finished high school in Philadelphia, went to the University of Pennsylvania, and got a chemical engineering degree. Was hired in 1943 by Union Carbide on the Manhattan Project, and that was just exactly a few days after I got my citizenship papers, as a damn foreigner, so I got into the project that way. 

And I worked my way up in Union Carbide to get in charge of process design. We can talk a little more about that. I think we ought to talk—

Interviewer: Yes, we should try to talk about that.

Shacter: —about the differences between the Kellex design and the Union Carbide design, without getting into any classified information. And that made the nuclear energy industry, the hundred nuclear reactors in this country, possible, from an economic point of view, so it’s an important point to put across.

Interviewer: Well, why don’t you go ahead and tell us that story, tell us how that happened?

Shacter: Well, the Kellex plant was successful, the gaseous diffusion plant [the K-25 Plant]. And in fact, it put Y-12 out of business, and put S-50, the thermal diffusion plant, out of business. So it was the surviving process, and it worked like a charm without pilot light. And Manson Benedict and the guys in Kellex deserve a lot of credit. But Manson Benedict and Arthur Squires, who became one of my supervisors in the early days, wrote a paper when Kellex bowed out of the project, that they had done all that could be done and there was really no need—no reason to do any research or development in gaseous diffusion anymore. 

Well, George Felbeck, who was a big shot in Union Carbide, came down and said, “If you guys had to do it all over again, how would you do it?” And everybody thought that was a kind of a stupid question because, you know, how—what was there left to be done? 

Well, it turned out that major improvements were made, not only in barrier but also in stage design, cascade design, and some of those inventions were assigned to me. I got a dollar for each invention from Clark Center. [Laughter.] And that was in view of the fact that a lot of them were classified. I also got—on stage design, there was an unclassified patent issued that was issued to me. 

And as a result of all the innovation after Kellex got through, we lowered the cost of enrichment, of uranium enrichment, to the point where it became cheap enough for the nuclear industry. And since, in the nuclear industry, most of the money goes for capital expense, not operating expense, you can see that if you can shrink the size of the reactor because you have enriched uranium instead of normal uranium, then that shrinks the cost of the reactor enormously. 

And that really facilitated the hundred reactors we have today, and we’re going back to nuclear industry—no, nuclear energy, I’m sure, and that’ll facilitate new reactors. So it’s a story that needs to be told because hardly anybody knows that the Union Carbide inventions in K-25, in the plant, and all the—from K-29, K-31, K-33, Paducah, Portsmouth—all those plants made the breakthrough possible, and that was Union Carbide, no longer Kellex. So it was almost like a different process rather than just improvements.

And then later on I moved to Union Carbide in New York, became manager of planning for the corporation. This was outside the nuclear division, the corporate staff, and then came back to start a multi-contractor group called AECOP in Oak Ridge, became a consultant after that, and retired. So that’s a quick summary of my career. 

But I got quite deeply into corporate planning and government planning and performance reviews: how do you judge the performance of a business, and how do you judge the performance of a business manager? You know, what are the things that you look at? Today, you’ll find that stuff in textbooks for business schools, and it’s well accepted. But we worked on it at a time when hardly anybody knew what we were talking about.

So I got into a lot of innovation, not only on the technical side, but on the management side, and then became a professor, an adjunct professor, taught chemical engineering design and economics. And today I still am very active in education. I got back into public school education and I teach kids from pre-K[indergarten] all the way up through high school. I like to teach math because they all hate math. And I teach math and money; they hate math but they love money! I’m mean; I take full advantage of that. I teach with a light touch and a good sense of humor and the kids like me. And they do learn a lot of math. 

And I think in teachers’ colleges they ought to tell the graduates, I mean the future teachers, that a good sense of humor is one of the best ways to teach kids. Keep them entertained. I mean, what the heck, if you’re going to make them work and study you might as well keep them entertained at the same time. So that’s sort of my approach. So I’m deeply involved in education, both on the practical side and on the conceptual side.

And I also have right now, for the fifth year, a group of retirees. We talk about current critical issues and choices. And I have people there from way left to way right, and I’m there to prevent fistfights. And I’ve been very successful so far! [Laughter.]

Interviewer: You came to Tennessee in 1943?

Shacter: I came to Columbia University, the Manhattan Project, in 1943, worked on barrier for a short—for a few months, and then came to K-25 permanently in ’44. I was down in Oak Ridge in ’43 for an interview for Y-12, but I came down here “permanently,” in quotes, ‘til I moved up to New York in 1944. 

Interviewer: And you worked directly—you worked on K-25 during the war years?

Shacter: Worked in K-25, mostly in production, and then design, and I was placed in charge of process design, and that’s when I got involved in some of these innovations and inventions that I was telling you about earlier. I knew some of the top guys in Union Carbide and Kellex directly. Manson Benedict is dead now, and so is Clark Center, and Bill Humes, and all those guys that were on top. You know, I know a lot of stories about them. You might be interested in a couple!

Interviewer: [Laughter.] Sure, why don’t you tell us a couple?

Shacter: Well, Clark Center was a general manager of what they called the Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Division of Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation in those days. That was quite a mouthful. And after the war there was a Texas millionaire who was contributing heavily to the politics, the political guys, so he was—so Clark Center was asked to make him welcome and show him, at least from a car, you know, the outside of the gaseous diffusion plant; he couldn’t show him the inside.

But so he took him around in his car and showed him the gigantic gaseous diffusion plant and bragged a little bit about it. And Clark Center said to this guy, “You know, we—this is the biggest darn plant that’s ever been built under one roof.” He says, “The people go running around in bicycles.” I was one of the bicycles in the plant. 

And the Texan said, “Shoot,” he says, “We got outhouses in Texas that are bigger than that.” 

And Clark Center looked him up and down and said, “You guys need it!” [Laughter.] Clark had a good sense of humor, very dry, never laughed. I thought that was a great comeback. 

Interviewer: That’s a good comeback.

Shacter: Another interesting story, I mean, laughable story, is that after three or four years at the plant—no, maybe less than that, two years—I went back to Philadelphia and got myself a driver’s license. I subscribed to a course that had six hours, but I took it all at once. I knew nothing about driving, and learned enough—fortunately, it was snowing in Philadelphia, so I couldn’t go fast, so they thought I was a very safe driver because they didn’t know I couldn’t drive any faster, if the weather had been perfect! 

So I came down back to the plant, and we had a truck that everybody went to lunch on at the cafeteria from the place we were working. And of course the keys were hanging on a nail in the wall, so as soon as I got my driver’s license, I rushed to the keys and I drove. And it was raining, and I was in the cab of the truck, and guys were piling in the back and next to me, and it was very noisy. 

And, all of a sudden, I heard fists on the roof of the truck and I opened the window, and there was a fire engine that came at me from the rear, and half of the guys were jumping off, rolling into the ditch! [Laughter.] And the fire engine passed me with two wheels up on the sidewalk, blazing with sirens! And I hadn’t heard them, and neither did anybody else in the cab of the truck. But it took me quite a while before the guys let me have those keys to the truck. 

Interviewer: That’s what I wondered.

Shacter: So we had a lot of fun. I liked to folk dance. We—in the city of Oak Ridge, I was—there was a guy from Ithaca, New York, Cornell University, a professor who taught international folk dances. And my wife was a physical education teacher at the junior high school in Oak Ridge, and so she joined the group to learn how to teach her girls something that was a little more sophisticated than “put your little foot” because they were doing Russian dances, and Polish dances, and Austrian dances and everything else. And, of course, when I saw her dance, well, I decided that was going to be my wife! [Laughter.] She didn’t know it. First time I told her I was going to marry her, she laughed! But I was very persistent. [Laughter.]

Interviewer: How long did it take?

[Tape switch.]

Interviewer: So how long did it take before she married you?

Shacter: Several months. She’s from here, and she grew up and she was born in Morton County and spent the early years there, and then moved to Knoxville, Fountain City. So she was a local girl, and she was sure that I was a damn Yankee. But she didn’t realize that I was a damn foreigner too! [Laughter.] So it took me a while to convince her that she really wanted me to marry her. And then we had two girls. I’ve always discriminated; I like girls!

Interviewer: [Laughter.] And where did you live when you moved to Oak Ridge? Did you live in a dormitory?

Shacter: Initially in dormitories, yes: Saginaw, in west Oak Ridge, and we used to go in buses to the plant. And then, later on, one of the Kellex guys, Leo Waters, he was a big shot, so he got an efficiency apartment. That was a one-room place with the beds folding up against the wall and the kitchen in the same room and everything else, and I thought that was a big improvement over the dormitory place. And he needed a companion to get that efficiency apartment, so I was lucky enough to graduate to that. 

And then later on after we got married I was eligible for a little better facilities, and then I moved to New York, so I didn’t get full advantage of the better residences in Oak Ridge. But a lot of people still live in those original cemesto houses, are what they called them. And I imagine some of the people that you met are still living in original Oak Ridge housing. 

People came to Oak Ridge from all over the world. I met, for example, [Eugene] Wigner, who was a Hungarian, got a Nobel Prize. And you couldn’t meet a finer guy, very modest, brilliant guy. Boy, was he a fast thinker, and so unassuming. And he became director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory before [Alvin] Weinberg did, and became later interested in civil defense and other things. But you couldn’t help but appreciate a guy like that. 

Manson Benedict, Hans Bethe, you know, all those guys. Of course, I spoke German so I could communicate with them in two languages, at least. I spoke a little bit of French, but you know, just street French. The two languages I really spoke was German and English, in that order. I had six years of Latin, but I’m still looking for a guy to converse in Latin with. [Laughter.] Didn’t do me much good!

Interviewer: When you were working on the Manhattan Project, when you started at the laboratory and then came down here, did you know what you were working on?

Shacter: Oh yes, I knew the second—I suspected it from the start because there were some magazines, Life magazine or other things, that had speculated about the international race for an atomic reaction. They didn’t know whether it was going to be a bomb, or you know, but they knew it could produce more energy than it took, so it was an energy producer. Whether it would lead to a successful bomb, they didn’t know. 

And one of the ways to get there was uranium. Later on they found out plutonium and reactors was another way, but in the early days it was uranium. And a fellow by the name of [Gustav Ludwig] Hertz in Germany had invented a process on the desk scale, test tube scale, to separate uranium isotopes by gaseous diffusion, because the lighter isotopes moves a little bit faster. And it’s like having a Jeep and a truck. The Jeep moves faster and if you get a hole in a membrane, the Jeep can find that hole faster than the truck can. I’m overdoing it, of course. 

The differences in the isotopes are so small. You know, the two—one is in uranium hexafluoride—it’s one in, I mean, 352—353 [actually 235] versus 358 [actually 238]. So the differences are very small on a percentage basis, and that’s why you need so many stages. But that was the idea and he invented that process decades earlier. 

And then Lise Meitner and [Otto] Hahn and [Fritz] Strassmann in Germany worked on the atomic reaction, and then we thought that we were competing with the—that we were racing the Germans, and whoever got the bomb first would win the war! 

So we worked days and nights. Forget the eight-hour day. I mean that—nobody worked eight hours. We worked day and night, literally, to try to beat the Germans, and found out later that they weren’t all that far advanced. Even though the initial breakthroughs came from Germany, when it came to the practical applications, they weren’t even close to us. But we didn’t find that out until the war was over. 

And of course there were a lot of lives saved in Japan. Now, whether we should have tried the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or whether we should have demonstrated it offshore in the ocean where they could have watched it, which might have been as convincing. You know, that’s the controversy that’s still going on. 

I’ve since met a lot of people in the Navy and Army that would have gone to Japan had the war lasted, and there’s no question in their mind that they were pleased to have the war end that way. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it saved a lot of lives, because an invasion of Japan would have been extremely costly on both sides, and would have dwarfed the deaths and casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So there’s a lot of people alive today that talk about these things without really knowing what they’re talking about.

What else would you like to know?

Interviewer: So, you weren’t surprised, or were you surprised when we dropped the atomic bomb?

Shacter: Oh no. I didn’t know when they were going to do it, being in Oak Ridge. And, of course, the Los Alamos people were closer to the final bomb design and stuff than we were. So, in those days, I didn’t keep up on a day-to-day basis with what was going on. But it was obvious that we were going to use the bomb in one way or another to convince the Japanese and the Germans to give up, and then that was done.

Interviewer: So do you have any other good stories about these Union Carbide head honchos or the Kellex guys?

Shacter: Well, a lot of these fellows had terrific personalities. You couldn’t meet a guy like Bill Humes. He was a gigantic guy, a real heavy, bass voice, a brilliant guy. He later became a Union Carbide vice president in New York, and he was the one that asked for me to come to New York and work for him originally; this was in 1956. 

And, well, Bill Humes was the kind of manager who was technically very well-equipped. And if you worked for him, you might be four or five levels down, and find Bill Humes walking into your office and asking you, you know, what—how you were doing, and what was bothering you, and where do you think the management is doing right or wrong? Now, he would never make decisions bypassing all the levels in between; you know, he would not make decisions, but he would get a lot of information, and then he would use the line organization to do something about it. Well, there are not too many managers alive even today who have learned how to do that effectively. 

I’ve tried. And I did get an award. The secretaries in Tennessee, the professional secretaries in Oak Ridge, gave me an award of the “Boss of the Year,” which I was quite proud of. And I did get—two engineering organizations, the Professional Engineers and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, recognized me as the “Outstanding Engineer of the Year.” So I’m still kind of proud of the technical recognitions.

Interviewer: You should be, yes.

Shacter: And I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a very varied career going from the technical side all the way to management and education, and issues, world issues. And I think we’ve got a lot of problems. We are trying to run a democracy with ignorance, that’s a little bit like male motherhood, you know, it’s inconsistent. 

So some of the problems we’re having – if you’d let me solve education, and maybe populations, I can solve everything else, so could anybody else. But when you have big problems in education, and you’re trying to run—you’ve heard the story of this guy that had a friend named Joe, and he asked Joe, “Joe, do you think our world problems are mostly due to ignorance or apathy?” And Joe said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” I love that story because that’s really what’s ailing us today. So, you know, you have to keep a light touch on things or you go nuts if you worry about today’s problems. 

And, of course, we have terrorists and people that don’t mind dying. You know, those little boys in the madrassas, they’re practically hypnotized and they want to go to paradise, so they strap things on them. But with weapons of mass destruction, you know, not only nuclear, but chemical and biological, coming along, we’re working ourselves into a corner, obviously. You can have great conversations about timing, but the combination of suicide bombers and weapons of mass destruction spell the end of civilization if you think far enough, and really the only thing that you have a right to discuss is whether—how much time you have to reverse some of the directions that are taking place right now. 

So, over the years, I’ve gone through quite a bit of disciplines. It is a multi-discipline problem. Being an engineer has helped me because I don’t get scared on the technical side of things. You know, a lot of people know either the political side or the technical side, but not both, or the education side, and I’ve tried to consider it an obligation. 

You know, I’m paying back now. I retired in ’83 and then consulted for a couple of years, and then after that I could afford to volunteer, and I’ve been volunteering, teaching and all that stuff, since. And it’s my way of paying—I feel very grateful for having been raised in the United States, had a career in the United States, and I’m trying to pay some of it back. 

Interviewer: Now, the Secret City, of course, Oak Ridge was very secret, but can you draw a parallel to today’s security issues in the way that you guys felt when you were working in Oak Ridge, because it was so tight? It was a completely different political situation but there’s some, a little bit of the same atmosphere.

Shacter: That’s right. The details are different, because what was secret then is not necessarily what’s secret now, here. But there’s still people in other countries—you probably have heard of this guy [Abdul Qadeer] Khan, who worked for Pakistan and was a brilliant guy. But he’s of course a Mohammedan in Pakistan, and he was responsible for proliferating a lot of technical knowledge on how to make nuclear bombs. And he gave those secrets to Iran and North Korea and other places that we’re worrying about today. So there is some overlap. 

And some of the uranium-enrichment and plutonium-producing items are still secret or top-secret today, and they should be. And you have to be careful that you don’t slip into classified areas. And that was true then too. The details were different, some of the details were different, but there’s good reason for classification and for secrecy. And I think people that argue that there should not be any classification or secrecy, and that we’re not really fighting terrorism in rogue nations, in my opinion, just don’t know what they’re talking about. You know, it’s like a kid—you’re playing hide-and-seek and the kid closes his eyes and thinks you can’t see him because he can’t see you. And, you know, it’s a game that should not really be played in politics today. 

We’re in a serious situation now. We were in a serious situation of a different type then, and not only—the secrecy and the intelligence, it’s critical. Involved, but so is the knowledge that the situation is very serious. And there’s no guarantees that democracy or civilization will survive.

Interviewer: Did you have trouble getting a security clearance? Or did anyone ever question you because you had an Austrian background?

Shacter: No, no. I think Adolf Hitler saw to that. I was an Austrian, and of course Adolf Hitler was an Austrian, went to Germany. And when Germany took over Austria, I knew one of us had to get out. And Hitler wasn’t getting out, so I decided I’d better get out. 

And it was pretty clear, you know, what my background was and stuff, and I never had any problems getting top security clearances. And, of course, Schwarzenegger is also a fellow Austrian. He’s the governor of California, and I keep telling people that I’m now taking bodybuilding and groping classes, and I’m going to run for governor of Tennessee, and I want everyone to vote for me! [Laughter.]