The Manhattan Project

Roger Hultgren's Interview

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Roger Hultgren's Interview

Minnesota native Roger Hultgren worked for the DuPont Company as a chemist during the early 1940s, when he was suddenly transferred to Hanford to work on the Manhattan Project in the spring of 1944. Hultgren discusses the secrecy at Hanford and recalls not being allowed to share information with other scientists even though they were working on the same project. Hultgren also explains the importance of safety and recalls Du Pont’s strong commitment to its employees and their health.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 2003
Location of the Interview: 

[Interviewed by Cindy Kelly and Tom Zannes.]

Tell us your name.

Hultgren: Roger A. Hultgren, R-O-G-E-R, A was Aaron, double A-R-O-N, and Hultgren, H-U-L-T-G-R-E-N.

How did you get to be part of the Manhattan Project? 

Hultgren: Well, there's many avenues. I was born in 1920 and my mother went to the University of Minnesota. She was a sorority woman there. And Dad had not been an educated person, but she and my father met and were married and started from that point. So if you can go back to the 1920s and if you're putting twenty years and twenty-five years onto that, you're right square in the middle of the World War. And that's where I sat.

I actually, fortunately, went to a smaller school, Macalester College; it's in St. Paul [Minnesota], outstandingly accredited like Carleton and some of the schools. And at that time I was in the chemistry, physics-type major. But in the late—well, let's see—late ‘30s, the World War was on and they were going and needing pilots for the Air Force. And I guess you can appreciate the fact that most young people, men, were interested in flying, and I was.

But what you could do at that time was—the University of Minnesota, you could get in the aeronautical engineering end of it and they actually would sponsor the Air Force. Well, I got involved in that, but the war was coming along. 

And I can remember, and I won't try to incorporate all the details, but I do remember coming back from flying one afternoon—the airport was in Minneapolis, but I came back to St. Paul and I had a note up in my room in the men's dormitory. And it said, “Roger Hultgren would like to be seen by Dr. Shiflet." He was head of the chemistry department. And I didn't know what in the world was going to happen, because I didn't think I was going to flunk out or anything. I thought I did pretty good.

Anyway, I got there and into a room about this size and it was full of people. And what it was, this Dr. Shiflet was dealing with the Air Force. And at that time they also had people that were in chemistry for the support of the atomic energy business that was going on. Also, the head of the recruiting department was there. His name was Dr. Stiles. He was head of the DuPont recruiting company. He was after chemists, physicists—not pilots. And at that time, I guess I'll have to say that the chemical warfare was more important than getting pilots at the time going. There were more chemists were available, but anyway—

And that's how I got into the DuPont company, which was in what—‘42, '43 anyway. I was transferred to the Manhattan Project, where the DuPont Company was, and I got into the munitions business at the Hanford Engineer Works. It was in Joliet, Illinois. DuPont had this huge plant, one of many throughout the whole United States, and that was in—I was there a couple years. Next thing I knew I was called in; I was being transferred out here to Hanford. And I arrived here on 4/4/'44, about six o’clock in the morning in a windstorm.

It was an unbelievable time, and in those days security was right up to here. You couldn't—it was hard to imagine, you couldn't imagine. We were told, and I was personally told, “Now, you watch what you're talking. When you kids get together and start talking, you want to be sure that what you're talking about is talk-able and not something that's secret.” Because actually as a chemist, you got pretty close to what the atomic energy field was.

But anyway, that was pretty long, I guess, I would say, coming out here. When I was flying—it turned out that when I came out here—let's see, Dr. Parker, Herb [Herbert] Parker, was head of the health physics people out here. I don't know if that was the title at the time, and actually—who else was the other one? But anyway, they were all searching for support people, and this one thing went back to needing airplane pilots.

Well, what happened was, I had a private license working with the DuPont Company way back in the early days, but as it turned out, the Manhattan Project, which was what we're in today or was, took precedence. And I don't know—there's several people here today, in fact. I don't know if any of you know I went to school with Roger Rohrbacher. We were in class together. He was in the same department. 

But anyway, we had a lot of things that transpired, and when you're in that age, the world is just moving so rapidly and the security was just absolutely unbelievable. There were times, and you were not supposed to talk to anybody outside of your, you know, what you were doing. Well, then of course, DuPont had the Hanford plant and one of the big things they had to do was taking plutonium and making the products that could be used in the atom bomb. They knew that and it was pretty easy for you; if you had a pretty good physics background and so forth you could actually anticipate what was going on, and it just became a very tight situation. This is probably in '40—late '40s—'45.

And DuPont left the Hanford plant, which is right here, in 1945 and into '46. And we were given an opportunity—they were going back east to some place I don't recall. But at that time I had just gotten married and my wife was a physical therapist out here and she had worked on the plant—did a lot of the blood work. So obviously we didn't move. We stayed here. And those were the early days.

And it's amazing to go back and what you think actually happened. I'm going to work a little away from the previous because we worked in tandem. I was in the operation end of it and Ed was over in the laboratories. And it was interesting, very interesting. He's very, very knowledgeable, wonderful, and it was just one of those things. And I know that it was a further education on my part, and we've still stayed together. And I had the chance of coming out here with him today, and Ben; we came out yesterday.

But getting back to the Hanford plant and what went on here—I actually worked in the operating field where we had shift crews like at T Plant, for example, which was original extraction plant here, for plutonium. At that time we knew what we were going to be making, and I would say there was about—shifts were fifteen to twenty people on them. And there's usually a chemist who may have been on it, or some engineer that could actually work with—just like we're working today, and points saying “This guy right here. He just talked earlier.” If you had a problem, technical problem, who would you call on? That's the first person to sit down and analyze it, if it was a safety aspect or something to that respect.

But actually the Hanford plant here at this time was—I've been sitting here thinking again as to how we went on. You're young, your life's ahead of you; how long's the war going to last? I know we had a bridge club. That was very popular. And the wives played bridge and the men got involved in bridge. But one of the other things that was very popular to me was golf. And I’ve played golf all my life. And sports, I got involved in football and had a chance to have a cup of coffee with Green Bay years ago. That was when I was just going to go to work in—coming out here before. And it was one of those things.

So I'm deviating somewhat away from history, but there's so many history cases around here where you can talk to people that have had backgrounds that are near but yet far enough away.

We knew what was going on here all the time. The security was just so tight.

Let's get into the T Plant for a while.

Hultgren: Well, as we all know, the first extraction plant at the time—T Plant was actually being built so they could extract plutonium. Well, they knew how to make this atom bomb. It was done in the laboratory, and we had the chemists and physicists around here that actually could take care of it.

But getting back to the, well, I'll say the flow sheet. We changed the flow sheet around many times. And I know that, from the lab point of view, the samples that went over to the lab and people—we're in this thing so deep at the time, as we needed enough material for the bombs, but I don't know how much was required. It was so secret that you couldn't really discuss it, but we were on the production line of it.

I remember many, many times, Steve, you and I discussed the merits of sitting down in the labs and operations end of it. And it actually was enjoyable but it was really down to earth, and I know, just thinking about and living with a doctor or chemist—we didn't dare talk to anybody except to ourselves, is what it amounted to. 

Security, I guess, I'll have to say was “uno” [Number 1]. It had to be. The T Plant started construction in what, '43, I guess. But earlier, when we first came out, I know many times we would be out in the areas and on production when it actually started building. Or going down to Hanford, there was a—

You saw the plant being built?

Hultgren: Yes.

What did it look like?

Hultgren: It looked like your kid that's had one of these construction kits where he'd put a box together or something like that and just the poles—but it was just a skeleton, is what it amounted to. It looked like a long skeleton. As far as the size—and of course we were sitting down with the laboratory people and there were safety that was always incorporated: how much exposure to personnel that's working for you? It was how much, in the shielding of course, was density? Lead was obviously a very paramount one and I—the cells you've seen, I'm sure, these pictures—the depth, the blocks being three step blocks, shielding blocks. So people could go in and actually work there, but it's hard to explain.

We had to keep very extreme exposure records of all our people. Everybody that would go into that canyon, they had to sample. The workers we had would go in and take a sample of, for example, if the metal that was brought up here from the reactors and stored in one of our cells for, well, the next month—to cool it off—it would be brought forward and it would be dissolved and moved further up the plant where it was sampled. And that sampling that was taken in these stainless—with the lead-lined sample supporting things. I don't know what the exposure limit was anymore, but I do know that these samples were so vital to what we were doing.

Were people afraid back then of the risks involved?

Hultgren: Well first of all, I think one of the things that I would have to—I was one that was so anxious if I went to work with any company, it had to be DuPont. And I think the DuPont Company, even back in those days; they were so “uno” on safety in everything they did. And DuPont today—I won't say the stocks are low and so forth—but DuPont, from a chemical point of view, I'm sure everybody sitting over here knows that they were number one. Weren't they? Number one.

Talk about the workers.

Hultgren: The workers—I'm getting around to them. That's why the workers were so—they were aware of the fact that they had a chance to work with the number one company and it was DuPont. You know, when you get into a question asked like that, you start thinking about it, and how far is far on this thing? And in those days I don't think there was hardly another company that you had to think about that would—actually, it wasn't a race.

The workers had that attitude, too?

Hultgren: The workers, yes, were—

They were the ones—

Hultgren: Safety. DuPont. And DuPont, I'm sure—there was no question at all in the world around us; no, DuPont was number one, and I think today they probably share that same category. And the people that worked for DuPont—I know I'm one, and I'm sure that I speak for so many people—they just felt there was not necessarily an obligation, but it was just an achievement.

You know how proud you can be to be out here today in this plant. We helped on this war effort and I think that you people that are here today certainly can respect the fact that here was a company—

And just like yesterday and this morning we were over in the other building looking around and I—if it didn’t bring back memory after memory after memory. It was down through the operating gallery and they’ve gutted must of the operating gallery.

[Tape switch.]

Hultgren: One of the things that we probably didn't even talk about here was people. And when we first came around here—I did anyway—I had the pleasure of meeting mostly scientific people, but one person that I do remember is—he’s sitting here in our group now. And that's Steve [Buckingham] over here. And I think that what—just like talking back and forth in this past week now, when we were asked to come out here in this excursion with you people, to talk about the opportunity to work with people again. The possibility was probably there, but we did not meet. 

But working with the scientific people—and I'm talking, well, let's say chemists at this time, laboratory people—it was so important to the world we were in at the time, for high explosives that were involved and safety was so paramount, everything. Every time you get involved with these people again, and I just wanted to say it and I mean it so firmly, that when you get involved and talking to these people, you always get back to the point of the safety end of it.

And I think that's one of their things about DuPont. I was getting back to that, looking at the plant yesterday and again today—then that people that are at—working here at this present time—safety is very, very paramount, and I'm sure that you heard that. And I think it's an absolute must. One thing that I miss out here is an injury board. Injury frequency—that was usually pretty strong in plants—well, just like injuries. And it might be keeping that down. And it keeps people; without even making a big issue out of it, they just glance out of it and realize that we're doing fine and— 

How did you feel when the bomb was exploded?

Hultgren: I think we celebrated. And I'm going to get back—deviate a little bit here before I forget about it. There's a question came up that involves a famous chemist. The name is Enrico Fermi, and you probably all heard of him, but he was out here in nineteen —late in '44, and I know in '45—in and off.

But one of the things that came up when we were all working in the middle of this thing—and I was working with the metallurgical group in 300 Area. And we were actually—if you're familiar with the uranium that's used and that's irradiated, and after it's put into a can and sealed off so it's hermetically tight, then you get these together and you can come up with your chain exposures and the safety end of it and so forth. But that's just a very low-keyed mention. 

But I want to mention—one day I was working in 300 Area in the 313 Building, and that was where they canned all of the slugs, the uranium slugs that were about one and an eighth inch by eight inches long, and they were actually canned into an aluminum jacket with, I would say—I'll have to ask, what was that? It was a bonding agent between the metal and the stainless. What was that?


Hultgren: AlSi—aluminum silicon. Anyway, we were doing that, just canning down the line. You'd get the slug, which was maybe eight inches long and one and an eighth inch wide. And one day we were doing this, and I remember there were about four of us that worked in this line. It was as long as from here out to the hall. And there was a pot of aluminum right here and silicon—what was the other things in there, Steve? In that—? We dipped the slug in there, and it was in there a certain amount of time and we moved down the line, and that ended up as a canned aluminum slug, is what it was called. And it was just a slug that had been welded together and it was taken out.

Well, anyway, that same day—I didn't know about it, maybe other people did—but they had a very important visitor to come there. And it was this Enrico Fermi. Well, also the time was—what was it? Just the latter part of June because the supervisor that—I can't think of his name right now—but he called us into his office and said, “Now, you've been invited by Dr. Fermi to have Fourth of July with us.”

And we didn't really know where it was going to be. But that same day—I don't know if you're familiar—we got into cars and it was leaked out then. We went up to Mount Rainier and Lake Tipsoo, which is just around the corner. For those of you who have been up there, there's a lake—is it a lake really? I don't know how—small. But that's where the picnic was, and that's where Fermi—and he was talking just like we're talking here now.

He was just—you know, it's hard to explain how those things gravitate through you, but Fermi was the closest I've been to a person that was actually tops in the field. I don't know if there's anybody like it, but it was—you know when you're a young guy and so forth and people—just like today, we're talking here. 

Steve and I are a little older than you people by quite a bit, but what a pleasure it is to come out here and to put this together in a different sequence of what to do. But safety was so paramount in these big companies, and even today I'm sure that, in fact, we've all—keep literature with DuPont, but from safety end of it, it was it.

Talk about how they built the three plants.

Well, I’ve sat down, I listened to one of the lectures on it, and I really—after the meeting is over I think someone else may be a little more familiar on that. But I know about it from sitting [in on the lecture] but it was such a—you go forward through the fourth plant, which is B Plant, and then coming back, [laughter], in this sort of backwards, you know.