The Manhattan Project

Norman Hilberry's Interview (1985)

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Physicist Norman Hilberry was Arthur H. Compton's righthand man at the Metallurgical Project, the associate director who handled administra­tive chores. He had previously served as a professor at NYU, and went to Chicago to work with Compton. Later in the war, he would often go back and forth from Chicago to Hampton. He played a role in selecting Oak Ridge as the site for the pilot plutonium production plant and worked with Eugene Wigner and DuPont on the design and operation of the plutonium production plants. He participated in a meeting where a number of leaders of the Manhattan Project, including Szilard, Wigner, and Fermi, discussed which type of reactor would be most successful.
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[Interviewed by S. L. Sanger, from Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford, Portland State University, 1995]

I was teaching at NYU and Ann and I had gone into our first faculty party just before Christmas '41. Our babysitter called and told us a telegram had come. It was from Compton. "Have important war job for you. Please report earli­est possible moment." I got on the train and went to Chicago, PDQ. He told me what he could. I went to the Physical Society meeting to recruit and reported back to Chicago in January of '42.

Our first meeting was the first weekend in January. All physicists. There was Fermi's group and Szilard's group from Columbia. There was Wigner from Princeton, John Wheeler was in that group, there was the Chicago group. At that meeting every reactor type was discussed. The decision was to use a gas-cooled reactor purely for neutron absorption reasons. The fact was that when we got the first Chicago pile running and found how much excess reactivity we had, then water made so much more sense than gas as a cooling agent that we ran a set of experiments using paraffin as a stand-in for water and obviously it would work. Later on, the design for a gas-cooled one was almost complete and Du Pont made the decision and said the simplicity of the water-cooled design is so much greater than the complex mechanical en­gineering for loading and unloading the gas cooled one that we think there is no real reason for a gas-cooled reactor, it has to be the water-cooled machine.

Compton ran the operation by commune procedure because these longhairs, well, this was the only way you do it. We gathered every Wednes­day and they chewed the rag and expressed their differences of opinion unmistakably. Colonel James C. Marshall of the Army Corps of Engineers (temporary chief of the Manhattan Engineer District) was in one meeting and after the meeting was over he came over and put his arm around my shoulder. He said, "Look, Hilberry, it sounded to me that these guys were saying they think a single bomb, or two, is all that's necessary." I said "Yes, quite definitely that's what most of them would believe."

He said, "Look, let me just sketch you in on the basic military mind and ethics and philosophy. You never use a weapon that you cannot continue to use once you use the first. We are not talking about A device, we are talking about the construction of production facilities to make these in whatever quan­tities it turns out are necessary for national protection."

Well, this just sent cold chills up and down my back because when you start talking about production facilities I knew enough about this to know that this is going to take a very very different slant.

Well, when it became clear this was a production matter, Groves sized the thing up in a hurry and he said as far as he knew there is only one organi­zation in the country that in his opinion can handle this kind of thing and that's Du Pont. Groves said we simply have got to get Du Pont to do this.

Groves said that this had to be a production operation, and we've got to have a production outfit do it. Folks like aligner, in particular, just blew their tops. "This is absolutely impossible. Just terrible." I went into see Wigner one day and he jumped up and down, and said "Give me some hacksaws and a couple of hammers and we'll do better than any damned Du Pont Company."

Du Pont was approached, and said, "Look, the last war left us called `merchants of death.' u7e are damned if we are going to get in this situation again. This is just utterly impossible." Groves said, "Well maybe it's impossible but you're going to do it.""Says who?" says Du Pont. We had a meeting with the Du Pont executive committee. Groves, Compton, I was there, and went over this thing. And boy, that bunch, you understood why Du Pont was the company it was. They were the hardest-nosed, sharpest bunch of characters you ever ran into.

They even made Compton mad. You see this must have been in October or early November of '42. The guy that was head of the committee turned to Arthur finally, and he said, "Look, now be realistic. You haven't even proved the scientific feasibility of this business, yet you are asking us to undertake engineering on something you haven't even gotten out of the laboratory. I don't think you stand more than a three percent chance of getting it out of the laboratory." A.H. just went through the roof. He said, "If you have no greater faith than that, it's proof that you don't have the policies necessary to carry it out." Finally, they said, "We'll do it on one condition only. That the Du Pont Company take be $1 and that we have a signed letter from the President of the United States ordering us, essentially, to do it." Groves said, "You will have it in the morning," and they did. That was the start.

Du Pont took absolutely no responsibility for the basic science. That's yours, they said. We will take full responsibility for the engineering develop­ment, for the construction and for the operation. The cut was clean. A straight, clean operation. When they agreed to do it, okay they took over. The shift supervisors, when we got to operations, most of them, were at least assistant plant managers, they hadn't done shift work for years. Du Pont said every-thing hangs on this. When we play, we play for keeps. They did, there wasn't any question. They put the best people they had on at every point.

The physics went along amazingly well. There were four projects to ob­tain fissionable fuel at the start. Our first instructions in December of '41, were that we were to do the reactor business, but also the fast neutron work, which meant designing the bomb, a job taken over later by Los Alamos. That summer, the boys at California had come up with the fact, okay, you could make plutonium if you had lots of neutrons, and plutonium was probably a better fissionable material than uranium 235. So, our instructions had been changed to do all things possible to produce plutonium in quantities of mili­tary significance.

I went to Hanford the first time in July, '44. Then very shortly, the group went in to test the effects of the Columbia on the fish. It became clear that if anything happened to the salmon, the hell with the United States.

Du Pont had said at one time to give me a good title. In the Du Pont Company, titles count, they said. If he's got a good title it will help in many ways, so I was made assistant director of the overall project. I went back and forth from Chicago on the railroad so often that one of the porters said to me one day, "Boss, us porters has decided youse the only guy who rides this train more than we do."

Really, at Hanford, there was no sense the production or separations pro­cess might not work, as far as I know. Before the development work, before the process started at Oak Ridge, perhaps yes. But Seaborg's first separation at Chicago, the sample that's in the Smithsonian, I guess, now, indicated quite clearly that you can recover plutonium from uranium used in a chain reac­tion.

One difference I continually had with Groves was his belief we were per­fectly safe because none of the other countries in the world had our great engineering, our technological knowledge. I told General Groves to remem­ber that our dye industry was constantly struggling to keep its head above water against the German industry. There's always more than one way of killing a cat. You don't have to choke it with hot butter. A group of senators came out once to Chicago to look at our operation. I said don't let Groves give you a cockeyed picture that other folks can't do what we are doing, because anybody that is willing to do it can do it.

The thing that impressed us was that when we carried out a review of four major systems of getting fissionable material-plutonium reactors, gas­eous diffusion, electromagnetic and centrifuge-all four systems looked as if they would work. Instead of being able to say it can't be done, you had to say it is almost impossible for anybody that really wants to do it to go wrong because anything he does will work.

One thing you should ask Fritz Matthias. He was noted for a story he told the business people in Kennewick and Pasco who were continually trying to find out what on earth was going on at Hanford. Fritz finally gave in and went to a luncheon and talked about the project, then he said I under-stand all of you folks are curious about what we are making. He told them he didn't want anyone to pass it on, but what we are making out there are wheels for miscarriages.