Stephane Groueff: Hello. Colonel Matthias, if you can tell me the story of how the plutonium was shipped.
Colonel Franklin Matthias: Is this good enough.
Groueff: Yeah, it is good enough. The plutonium was shipped from Hanford to—?
Matthias: To Los Alamos.
Groueff: To Los Alamos.
Matthias: We spent a lot of time trying to figure out a way to make this shipment secure. Both from the point of view of a possible radiation hazard, if a shipment was wrecked or destroyed or something of that sort, and also to do it in a way that did not call attention to the operation. What was finally worked out was we set up a military police group at Hanford and a similar one at Los Alamos. We selected army ambulances as the vehicle to carry this material, because during that war period they were driving around all over the country on all sorts of streets and roads and areas.
We set up a transfer point at Fort Douglas in Utah near Salt Lake City. Our people would bring in an ambulance and park it. We had quarters for them at Fort Douglas, so they would stay overnight. The other group would then pick up this ambulance. There was no contact between the military police from Los Alamos and those from Hanford, just one officer who handled this in between. They would take that ambulance back to Los Alamos, and our people would take the empty that they brought up and go back to Hanford.
Groueff: But did they know what they were carrying?
Matthias: They did not know what they were carrying, except for the military police officer that was in charge of the operation at both ends and the one that was the center.
Groueff: How many people were involved in this?
Matthias: Well, I suppose about seven or eight. We were running, as I recall, about two trips a week. There was no volume involved you know.
Groueff: Plutonium was transported in what container?
Matthias: The plutonium was transported in sort of a box arrangement that we devised, with the plutonium actually suspended in the middle in a container. The purpose of the box was to be sure that the spacing was such that there could not be a critical mass developed under any situation.
Groueff: What does it look like, the plutonium?
Matthias: The plutonium was made a thick solution, almost a gel.
Groueff: Not hard metal.
Matthias: No, it was not hard metal; it was a solution.
Groueff: And this solution was in a container.
Matthias: This was in a container then supported in the center of a box. I suppose two feet high and maybe a foot and a half the other two dimensions.
Groueff: A wooden box?
Matthias: Yes, a wooden box.
Groueff: And this special box was—
Matthias: Well, there would be several boxes. We get a minimum amount of material in each box also. Again in the interest of staying way, way on the safe side of a critical mass.
Groueff: But it was not dangerous from the radiation point of view, no?
Matthias: No. There was very little radioactivity out of this concentrated plutonium.
Groueff: So who handled the boxes?
Matthias: It was shielded however inside. But you could handle a box without any hazard at all.
Groueff: Those drivers and soldiers never knew what they were?
Matthias: They never knew what they were taking. Furthermore, they were conducted by a military police car that stayed well in front and another one well in back and always an officer in this three-car convoy. They took different routes, and we insisted that they did not always stop at the same place to eat and all these things.
Groueff: There were three cars convoy.
Matthias: So there were three cars. A minimum of three cars.
Groueff: And one of them had the box.
Matthias: Well the ambulance in the middle had the box.
Groueff: The others were for protection.
Matthias: The others were cars with radio control and radio contact.
Groueff: And armed guards.
Groueff: But in uniform.
Matthias: In uniform, military uniform.
Groueff: But it was a very ordinary sight on the roads then.
Matthias: That is right. This is the one place where we did play up the military uniform kind of thing. To make it look like a normal, some kind of a military operation. Then besides that, we would send occasionally another military police or counterintelligence core officer to just spot check their habits. If they were developing habits, if they were getting into routines, just to be sure.
Groueff: Without knowing.
Matthias: Without knowing. This was a second follow-up.
Groueff: You went with the first convoy.
Matthias: Well, no. The first bit of material we rushed to Los Alamos: they were real desperate for it. This I took down by train in a similar type of packing box all wrapped up.
Groueff: Like a sort of square suitcase.
Matthias: That is about it. We took it down to Los Angeles, and were met by an officer from Los Alamos who did not know what he was supposed to pick up. Of course, this was very precious material for us. I recall that we met him at the station and I said, “Would you have a bedroom back to Los Alamos on the train?”
He said, “No I could not get a bedroom; I have an upper berth.”
I said, “Do you realize that what you are going to carry is pretty valuable?”
He said, “Valuable. What do you mean ‘valuable?’”
I said, “Well it cost about 300 million dollars to make it.” [Laughter] So he rushed back and got himself a room where he could lock himself up.
Groueff: Was that train between Los Angeles and Los Alamos?
Matthias: Yes, Albuquerque. Then he was met there by a—he was the only one that carried it that distance, and I do not recall his name now.
Groueff: From Hanford to Los Angeles on the train also.
Matthias: We drove to Portland and got the train at Portland.
Groueff: At Portland, yeah. But you described part of it here in this letter, yes.
Matthias: Yes. Just a real high spot.
Groueff: Do you describe your military career and your background here?
Matthias: I do not think I do in this paper, but I do.
Groueff: Can you tell me in a few words where you come from and—?
Matthias: I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. I guess I lived the normal life of a farm boy up until the time I started the university.
Groueff: Well, your family.
Matthias: My family were farmers.
Matthias: My father had for a long time worked for the railroad. Then we moved to a farm while I was still seven years old at that time. So practically, I grew up on a farm.
Groueff: Where was that?
Matthias: In the middle of Wisconsin. The town is Curtiss.
Matthias: A very small town and an interesting farming community. My father’s family was German and he was second generation born in this country. That is, his grandfather came from Germany.
Groueff: I see.
Matthias: My mother’s family all came from Norway, and her father came from Norway.
Groueff: I see.
Matthias: They really lived in a farming area that was pretty much German ancestry on the south and Norwegian on the north. This probably has no significance, but it has always been interesting to me how these groups of people for many years maintained a certain amount of identity as to where they came from.
Groueff: That is why then they call you Fritz, no?
Matthias: Well, I got the name Fritz because in World War I, now I was pretty small. I had an uncle that started calling me Fritz and that was a bad word and it used to make me so angry that the nickname stuck. [Laughter] I have escaped it the last four or five years however.
Groueff: But your friends called you Fritz.
Matthias: Yeah, quite a lot of them from those days did.
Groueff: Where were you educated, schools in childhood?
Matthias: Well, in childhood I went to the grade school in Curtiss and then high school in Abbotsford, Wisconsin. I did not go to university the first year after I graduated from high school. I stayed at home, helped on the farm, and took some correspondence courses from the University of Wisconsin. I had long before made up my mind I wanted to take civil engineering.
Groueff: You wanted always to be an engineer, not a farmer.
Matthias: Engineering seemed to be something that intrigued me from, I suppose, fourteen years old. I remember even studying the University of Wisconsin bulletins while we were working on the farm out thrashing and some of the things when you had spare time. Then when I entered the university, I took examinations in these correspondence courses, and these became qualified then for full university credit. I started with some freshman math and freshman English behind me. Then during my university time, I did a lot of odd jobs and work to support myself in school. In my third year at the university, I got a job helping as an assistant instructor in surveying. This helped me a lot to get through the rest of the university costs.
Groueff: Your family was sort of financially modest.
Matthias: That is right. We had a farm, but we did not have much cash. This was a good assistance getting through school. I spent then the rest of the time and because I was doing this work, I took an extra year to graduate.
Groueff: You lived where?
Matthias: I lived then in Madison, Wisconsin. After the University. I got into all kinds of outside activities at the university, almost to the point where I was a little gun shy of getting involved in organizations and things afterwards because I got myself into so many. A little more pressure than I liked.
Groueff: Always student organizations.
Matthias: Student organizations. I was president of the university YMCA. I was editor of the Wisconsin Engineer.
Groueff: Sports also.
Matthias: Yes. I never played in the varsity athletics, because I tried to at the beginning but I could see real quick that I did not have time. I had to make a living too. I did play a lot of fraternity athletics and intermural athletics. In high school, I played all of the athletics, football and basketball principally. I think we started with football in my first year at high school. We had not had a football team for years. I missed five minutes in the four years I was in high school playing football.
Then I graduated; I got my degree in 1931, which was right in the middle of the Depression. I stayed then as an instructor in both surveying and hydraulics at Wisconsin for another four years. After two years, I got a master’s degree in civil engineering. Then after a while sitting out the Depression, I took some more courses. Then I went to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
At the university, I took ROTC and got my commission in 1930 as a second lieutenant through the four years at the university. In the meantime, we had a National Guard company in my hometown, near it in Abbotsford. I joined that when I was not quite old enough to join. Since that was in 1925, I have had some sort of military service connection ever since. Now I am a retired reserve officer, but all through that time, I maintained some connection, in some capacity.
Groueff: So your life you had some sort of inclination to military things.
Matthias: Well, yeah. I had a little, and then I had a brother who had gone to West Point, and this made a difference, I think.
Groueff: An older brother?
Matthias: An older brother.
Groueff: I see. So that was—
Matthias: There was a certain amount of influence involved. Then I left the University of Wisconsin and went to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority. This was just a few years after it had started. Well at the university, my major, if you can call it that, was in hydraulics and hydroelectric engineering. I recall at that time, one of my professors said I was real silly to go into that field because it was not going to amount to anything. [Laughs]
Groueff: Funny, Colonel [Kenneth D.] Nichols is also a specialist in hydraulics.
Matthias: Yes. This was pure coincidence. We did not even find it out until after we had worked together a year or two, I guess. Then, after four years in the Tennessee Valley Authority, I got a job on the Tennessee River on a dredging contract with a Minneapolis contractor as field engineer. Then I went to Dravo Corporation in Pittsburgh. This I thought was going to be my life career, but four months later, I was in the army on active duty as a reserve officer.
Groueff: When was that?
Matthias: I went there in the fall of 1940 and I went on duty in forty-one. I was only a first lieutenant reserve. When I first went on duty in Washington, I was assigned to the construction division on temporary duty and I escaped from there two years later to go to Hanford. You mentioned some of the problems on this gaseous diffusion process.
Matthias: This was the second job I did while I was in the army related to the Manhattan District. I was in Washington then. I had worked on construction and programming construction, military construction for the Corps of Engineers.
Matthias: Along about summer of forty-two, General [Leslie] Groves gave me some work to do on the Pentagon building. So I got involved in that for three or four months. So gradually got over to work for Groves. I think it was sometime late fall – maybe not late fall, it must have been October, November of 1942 – he gave me a scientific report. Which was sort of an imaginative combination of that and scientific on what it would take to produce the uranium-235 by the gaseous diffusion process. He gave me the job to describe a plant, physically describe it, with the idea that this would be the basis for the Air Force looking for such a place in Germany or in that area.
Groueff: Ah ha.
Matthias: In Europe. Of course, this report was written in such a way that it did not talk about the end product. I did not know what I was doing except that here is a scientist’s dream and what would it look like actually. Then I helped a little bit in the site report and the site studies of Los Alamos. Again, not knowing what it was for. My first real contact with the Manhattan District is described in one of these papers. I was sent to Wilmington to go to a meeting. This assignment was by General Groves. He was real unspecific about why. He said, “Just go up there and tell them who you are and sit on the meeting. When it is through, come back here, call me, and tell me what it is all about.”
Groueff: You did not know. You had no idea.
Matthias: This was a meeting on December 14 or 15.
Matthias: Forty-two. Just after the Chicago experiment had worked. It was a meeting with [Arthur] Compton and his group of scientists from Chicago and some high ranking DuPont people. It included Gil Church, who had already been picked to be the project manager for DuPont and [A.E.S.] Hall, who was their principal civil engineer, and directors. I am not sure that [Crawford] Greenewalt was there at that meeting. I do not believe he was. In Wilmington.
Groueff: In Wilmington?
Matthias: DuPont’s building. Nichols was there, Colonel Nichols. He and I were the only representatives of the Manhattan District, although I was not because I was not then assigned to the Manhattan District.
Groueff: You were in uniform.
Matthias: I was in uniform. This was not unusual, because DuPont was doing so much military work that it was quite common around their building to see people in uniform. The purpose of this meeting was to describe the site requirements for a plant to extract plutonium, or to make plutonium. The scientists worked on whatever hazards and some little notion of the physical requirements. When they finished that day, which was quite late, it was an all-day deal; we had some ground rules for finding a site to build this plant and not much more. I had started hearing about radiation and radiation hazards. I still did not know.
Groueff: You did not know anything about plutonium for instance, the reactor.
Matthias: Not a thing.
Groueff: So you did not understand everything.
Matthias: I did not understand it very much, but I did understand all the things translated to physical needs. I came back to Washington, and I called General Groves. This was at ten o’clock or so at night. I called him from the station and he was still at the office. He said, “Just stay there, I will come down and pick you up.” He picked me up and he was going to take me home. We lived out in the same general area then. He said, “What did you think about it. What happened?”
I said, “Well, I decided all the way back in the train that I should get busy and read some Buck Rogers stories because I figured that somebody needed a lot of imagination.” [Laughter]
Then I described what we had done, what the site requirements were, and as best I could, the whole meeting. He said, “Well, tomorrow morning you get hold of Church and Hall and make arrangements to find a place to build this plant.”
Matthias: Tomorrow morning. He said, “I have done some thinking about it, but two of the most basic requirements were a lot of water and lots of power.”
This was a time when power was at a premium all over the country. Then of course the isolation and getting away from cities or railroads or highways, a place that could be protected. There was a desire at that time to stay at least 200 miles from the coast. So Groves says, “I think the way you ought to do this is spend a day tomorrow in Washington and find out where in the country there is power, where there might be a site like this, power and water being the first basic needs and isolation.”
He said, “I think the only areas that are really possible are out west.”
He said, “Originally we wanted to build this plant at Oak Ridge, but we have too much there now and it just takes too much space.”
So the next day Church and Hall came down to Washington and we got busy with power specialists and the Corps of Engineers, and we worked out an arrangement then where we could call on the division and district engineers of the Corps of Engineers to help us identify possibilities. We were not to tell them what it was for, but what kind of place was all right. We arranged for an officer from the Seattle district. We decided that the Northwest was the best. We asked the district engineer for the man in the Seattle district that knew the area best. Then we took off from Washington that night and immediately got fouled up in bad weather in North Plains. Instead of meeting in Spokane as we had planned, we had to go to Seattle, and we took a night train to Spokane and we fouled up a whole day in getting up there and getting started.
They sent us a man named Hopkins, George Hopkins, who was a civilian employed before the war and then was commissioned. He really knew that country cold. He is still in the Seattle district. He took us around.
Groueff: From Spokane?
Matthias: From Spokane. By that time, the three of us had had a little bit of briefing, so we knew a little bit about what this was and a little bit about the physical facilities that would be needed. The clearance distances between, say, two reactors and between the reactor and the separation plant and a zone to keep away from big cities. We drew this up on a template to fit the air navigation maps and we used that as a means of trying to identify places. As soon as we could find three or four and some easy way or some logical order to get to, we would take off and look at them.
Groueff: But you were travelling by car.
Matthias: We are travelling by car. Again, by using the Corps of Engineers facilities. Church and Gil were both identified on this trip as Corps of Engineers civilian employees. I was in uniform and this was supposed to attract no attention. Because again, this was happening all—we covered a lot of sites in Washington and Oregon. Some by car. I got an air force plane in Yakima and flew over two or three others.
Groueff: It took several days.
Matthias: Well, we left Washington I think on December 15. We covered a bunch of sites in Washington and Oregon. We came down to California and visited several sites, particularly out in the desert area east of Los Angeles in the Boulder-Parker Dam region. Then on the day before New Year’s, we went back to Washington and we wrote our report on the plane on the way back. New Year’s Day we presented our report to General Groves.
Groueff: So it took you two weeks.
Matthias: Two weeks.
Groueff: Mostly car and small planes.
Matthias: Car and plane, some small planes. They would not take the civilians in the army planes, so all the plane reconnaissance I had to do personally.
Groueff: So you went.
Matthias: They would not take civilians. We got back to Washington with our report all drafted. I do not know just what Groves did to get approval of it.
Groueff: Because you recommended Hanford.
Matthias: We recommended Hanford. This was way above all the others in all respects. I still think it is the best place in the country for a plant like this.
Groueff: What did it look like at that time, when you saw it?
Matthias: Well I saw it first flying in from the south in an army plane. Mr. Church and Hall saw it driving in from Yakima. We met at the Pasco air base. We all three were completely convinced at that point that we had found exactly what we want. This was only about the third place we looked. So we drove on in that same night to Portland. I recall I called General Groves and said, “We do not see much point in doing anything more.”
He said, “You better check out some of the other places you have in mind, just to be sure that we cannot be accused of giving it proper coverage.”
So we did; we continued on our planned trip through southern California and then back to Washington. I think it was on January 9 we got approval to go ahead and initiate land acquisition, which I think is a record too in time.
Groueff: In nine days.
Matthias: At that time, I was still just working in Groves’ office. I did not know what my future would be with this project. I was just out to find a site for it. Then Groves asked me to get busy and get some air restrictions over the area as a prior requirement to going all out. Because we found that in this area, both the Army and Navy had bombing ranges.
Groueff: What arrangements?
Matthias: Bombing ranges.
Matthias: Practice ranges.
Groueff: I see.
Matthias: So I made a trip out and talked to the Air Force and also the Navy.
Matthias: One in Spokane and one in Seattle. The Navy was headquartered in Seattle. By that time, I also had the support of being told that if they did not want to do what we needed, that there was an officer I could get in touch with real quick and settle things, both the Army and Navy. We worked that out without too much trouble.
Then when they had the plans for land acquisition and for construction, not having one single design drawing at that point except the ones we made ourselves. [Laughter] We actually started work in the field at Hanford in March of 1943. We finished in February of 1945, finished the plant. Our first reactor went into operation in September 1944. This was—
Groueff: The material was produced at the last moment.
Matthias: Materials started being produced in September 1944.
Matthias: As soon as the reactor started to work. We got our first concentrate then in early forty-five.
Groueff: So the shipping started after September ‘44.
Matthias: No, it started after. What date did I say in this thing that we made our trip for the first plutonium?
Groueff: February ‘45.
Matthias: That was the first shipment. Then we started—this was a sort of a concentrated effort to get a measurable amount to Los Alamos. Then probably two or three weeks later, we started the regular routine of shipping processed plutonium.
Groueff: As soon as you started the requisition and all this, you moved personally to live there.
Matthias: I moved there shortly after March of ‘43.
Groueff: You established your home, headquarters, and everything. You had a family?
Matthias: I had just a wife at that time.
Groueff: And you moved the wife?
Matthias: We just moved out there. She had not come out until several months later after we started.
Groueff: Your director, contact, and superior was General Groves.
Matthias: That is right. Somewhere in some of these papers, I describe how I got to be assigned the construction responsibility. This was shortly after we had agreed on the site. I do not recall just when. I was in General Groves’ office outlining some of the arrangements we had made. He said, “Now we have to find somebody to run this job for us for the District. I have been promised by the Chief of Engineers that I can have any officer I want.”
He said, “I wish you would go out and give me some recommendations as to who we ought to have.”
I said, “All right.”
Then, as I walked out the door, he stopped me just before I left the office and he said, “If you cannot find anybody, you will have to do it yourself.”
I turned around right away and I said, “General, there is not anybody I can recommend.” [Laughter] Because I was real anxious to get out of Washington. Had been for quite a long time.
So he said just as promptly, “Well, it is yours.”
Groueff: So between Groves and you there was a very good understanding and cooperation.
Matthias: Oh, I think so, yes. I had done like this Pentagon building job for him and a few others. He seemed to be satisfied. I had no notion that he thought as highly of me as he apparently did.
Groueff: He was not the kind of man who would tell you too many compliments, no.
Groueff: He must have been very difficult to work for, but also.
Matthias: He was difficult to work for, but I think all of us had a tremendous respect for his capacity.
Groueff: He was a very hard worker himself.
Matthias: He worked very hard himself, yes.
Groueff: He liked people who take decisions and responsibilities without procrastinating too much, or going to committees and things.
Matthias: Actually, I think Groves sort of put all of us through some kind of a test without us knowing it. I think part of it was sort of riding us hard, and if we kicked back, then he would start having respect. If we did not, then-
Groueff: We’re talking about General Groves selecting his officers.
Matthias: Actually, I did not know until about 1960, when I spent a day with General Groves in New York, when he was planning his book, that he had planned on me being his executive officer on the whole program. He told me then.
Groueff: He never told you before?
Matthias: He had never told me before. I had no idea that he had that in mind at all. He told me then in 1960 and he has since mentioned it in his book. But I did not know it for 15 years. [Laughter]
Groueff: Your relation were strictly Captain to a General, no.
Matthias: Well, Groves was not very formal. I had been Major when we made this change. Groves did not stand much on military formality. Of course, almost the entire Manhattan District was staffed with reserve officers. With the exception of Nichols, I do not know of any others until General [Thomas] Farrell came in.
I think that—well, Groves has as much as told me that he preferred reserve officers in this particular program for several reasons. It was so different from an ordinary military operation, even the Corps of Engineers, that he did not want people that knew the rules too well, or the normal working procedures. He wanted people that maybe by ignorance of rules would go ahead and do things. [Laughter] Of course, none of us really had had a lot of military experience. We had training in correspondence courses and camp periods and things like that, but we had not been exposed to the routine.
Groueff: But once you were together, this authority – you had free hand there, you could-
Matthias: Very much.
Groueff: You did not have to report about every decision to ask advice.
Matthias: No. He wanted to be informed on things that might get back to him.
Groueff: That is terrific to give the responsibility.
Matthias: It was a wonderful working arrangement as far as I was concerned. I was really happy with it.
Groueff: In Hanford, you were the boss as far as the project went. The final decisions were yours. The boss of DuPont was Church.
Matthias: Church, yeah. We both referred back to our respective headquarters. Church depended on [Granville] Read for his direction and I depended on General Groves. Now, organizationally, I was just an area under the Manhattan District and in that respect, under Nichols. In effect, I was appointed a deputy district engineer. Nichols’ Oak Ridge office did a lot of administrative work for us that suited me fine, because I did not have to keep those people out there. Nichols was almost insulated from the problems of building the place. He was supposed to concentrate on Oak Ridge.
Several times General Groves asked me during this period if I was suffering any handicaps by being attached to the Oak Ridge administrative chain. If I was, he had no problem with making us a separate district. I kept saying, “No, that just means I have to develop a whole bunch of more people to conform to what Army regulations we have to conform to. I am real happy letting Oak Ridge do it all.”
I had a wonderful working arrangement with Nichols. This would not have worked with anybody of less quality. We were in a position where it could have been impossible to get along. But we never had the slightest bit of problem, never the slightest bit. It was a real good relationship.
The plant of course was responsible for the engineering and the construction. I had another job that I did not work at too hard, but occasionally demanded some fast footwork. I was assigned the job of coordinating between DuPont engineering design and the scientific work at Chicago.
Groueff: In Chicago. Was that touchy?
Matthias: At times, it was a little touchy. I did not ever initiate much direction over this work, but I go into a lot of problems. Some people would talk back again to each other and settle things out.
Groueff: Yeah, I know this. I have not seen the Chicago people yet, and from DuPont and from General Groves, I know that there were a few sort of frictions, conflicts, feuds, jealousies, some prima donna.
Matthias: There was some of that. It was surprising though how little there was. The opportunity was there for real tremendous feuds.
Groueff: Greenewalt was the liaison between them from the DuPont side.
Matthias: That is right. He did most of this work. I got into it when there seemed to be some snags and dead ends.
Groueff: Who was the top man on the scientific thing?
Matthias: Well, Compton was in charge of the overall Hanford program, scientific program. There was quite an extensive organization under him, and I do not remember all the people we dealt with. Norman Hilberry in Chicago was one of the key people in all of this.
Groueff: Groves advised me to go and see him.
Matthias: You should.
Groueff: He is in Arizona now. I presume.
Matthias: Yeah, I saw him just three or four months ago.
Groueff: Is he the kind of man who will tell me a lot of interesting stuff?
Matthias: I am sure he will.
Groueff: Groves said that he would be objective and interesting.
Matthias: I am sure he will. He is not what I would call a scientific type, if there is such a thing.
Groueff: I see.
Matthias: But I am sure you will find it well worthwhile to spend some time with him.
Groueff: What was his job, Hilberry?
Matthias: He was pretty much Compton’s right hand man, as I understood it, in just keeping things moving.
Groueff: But he was coming to Hanford?
Matthias: He was in Chicago. He came to Hanford, yes, occasionally.
Groueff: But the men who lived in Chicago and the men who lived in Hanford was who?
Matthias: We did not have anybody.
Groueff: DuPont was.
Matthias: DuPont was there. We did not have anybody permanently there.
Groueff: Jobs of the plant.
Matthias: And construction.
Groueff: [Walter] Simon in charge of the community there or what?
Matthias: No, Simon was in charge of the plant operation.
Groueff: The plant operation.
Matthias: Church in charge of the construction. It is interesting that we were in a few months of the same age, the three of us.
Groueff: So you became friends.
Matthias: Oh, we are friends, yes.
Groueff: A very friendly relation.
Matthias: Well, we had our differences. I remember at one point, DuPont complained that I was not doing something that I ought to do. We had had some arguments with Church about it. Groves says, “Well, if those two guys do not argue sometimes, they are both no good.” [Laughter]
By and large, our relationships were extremely good. Have you run across Roger Williams in any of this?
Groueff: I am going to see him. He is retired now.
Matthias: Roger Williams was another man that I had much contact with, with respect to the operation. DuPont has a system that their operating department really has much influence on the engineering with respect to what it takes to successfully operate in the future. Roger Williams was then manager of the explosives department, and he was assigned the job of being the senior operating man for the Hanford project.
Groueff: So he was the boss of Simon.
Matthias: He was the boss of Simon, right, direct. One of the factors that he devoted a lot of attention to was the community facilities and the housing, and what it takes to keep an operating staff. I got into a few real violent differences with him in the course of our work. We worked them out and our personal relationships were always, I thought, real good.
I will never forget that when I left the Army, on my way to Brazil, I stopped in at Wilmington for a day. Among others, I saw Roger Williams. We had a very pleasant visit and when I left, he said, “Well, I wish you luck.” He said, “I hope that you will feel as I do, that our differences were of the mind and not of the heart.”
I have never forgotten that. I have never heard it put so well. Roger is another you should certainly seek.
Groueff: Could you recall some of the main difficulties, like in the gas diffusion, for instance, on working on the barrier problem or the pumps. This practically impossible to solve problems. Which were the main difficulties you had at Hanford?
Matthias: From a technical point of view, of course, this canning problem was one that absorbed all our attention for many months. Another real serious problem that we worried about and we worked, and worked, and worked on was the business of building mechanical assemblies, and replacing them or repairing them completely by remote control, and completely by mechanical devices.
Groueff: I see.
Matthias: Our separation plant, for instance: we had these cells deep in the ground and with heavy concrete covers for shielding. The room itself was very highly radioactive. We had to plan that we could install centrifuges and vats and replace piping.
Groueff: Always by remote.
Matthias: Always by remote control and by mechanical devices. We dreamed up this thing and it was actually built and tested out in the Wilmington shops with blindfolded operators.
Groueff: I see.
Matthias: I mean blinded from seeing any of their operating devices. We had an industrial TV arrangement so they could see what their tools down there at the end of the crane hood were doing.
Groueff: We were talking about the difficulties and this remote control.
Matthias: We built a crane in the Wilmington shops and a cap with all the controls and all of the devices, and practiced. There were people that said no individual could ever acquire the physical dexterity of managing this thing to make it work. We proved in the shops that this was possible.
Groueff: You trained people entirely from scratch.
Matthias: That is right. Then at Hanford when we built these things, many of the pipe connections had to be embedded in concrete for these various kinds of processing devices in the cells. They had to be placed so accurately that if you dropped an assembly with maybe ten pipe connections, it would drop so that all those pipe connections were exactly lined up and exactly in the right place. So you could then drop another hook with a wrench, start turning it and it would pick up the thread, and it would close.
Groueff: It really sounds impossible to do it by remote control.
Matthias: Yeah, it does.
Groueff: With all the wrenches turning all the screws?
Matthias: But this was solved finally. We had to go to great lengths for accuracy at setting these pipes imbedded things in the concrete, as well as the unit. We did it by building up in the shop a template precisely measured exactly the way we put them in the concrete. Every piece of equipment that went into that chemical plant was first checked on this template and first checked with the same remote control devices to see that it would go together. Then, because they had to be kept very clean, we would encase them in cellophane, ship them to the place, and drop them in. Of course, the initial installation was no problem. It was not then radioactive.
Groueff: But the repair.
Matthias: But it was the repair and the maintenance and replacement.
Groueff: You could not stop it then for repair.
Matthias: Even if you stopped, the radiation would remain for a long, long time. It was just almost out of business. Then, to ensure that if something went wrong we had extra spare cells. In this building where if we had to abandon one, we could replace it with new equipment somewhere else.
Groueff: I see.
Matthias: But this was one of the real difficult problems.
Groueff: Was there any men, particular men who were most instrumental in solving that?
Matthias: You know, I am sure if you talk much to the DuPont people, you will find that they get results by concentrating a lot of people’s efforts. They are a true team operation.
Groueff: It is in the hundreds.
Matthias: I have never been able to find out one single thing that you can say, “This man did this.”
Groueff: There are hundreds of people and finally eliminating little by little the wrong solutions.
Matthias: I used to accuse them of solving problems by tiring them out. [Laughter] Just attacking them from so many directions that the problem finally gave up.
Groueff: But this particular solution goes to the credit of DuPont, not the scientists.
Matthias: No question of that. No question about it. It was DuPont one hundred percent. The canning problem was a completely different kind of a problem. This was both technical and mechanical. There it was a true cooperative effort between the engineers and the scientists to make it work.
Groueff: It was also solved by DuPont.
Groueff: Not by the scientists.
Matthias: Not by the scientists, but with—
Groueff: Their help.
Matthias: —the constant assistance of the scientists.
Groueff: Now, they all told me and it was written in a few paragraphs about the terrible day that the whole plant stopped because of the new gas xenon.
Groueff: Do you recall all the details? Because I want you to describe the scene.
Matthias: I recall this very clearly. Before we get to that, the real big problems of building this plant were problems of labor supply, of dust storms, of camp living, of rationing of food and gas and all the other things. Getting, of course, and maintaining them in a remote place. This is a problem that we tend to gloss over because you got the people and you did the work. It was not an easy problem. It was one of the things that worried us I think as much as any one thing.
The scientists were not involved. I recall that Gil Church and I made a trip of all of the western War Manpower Commission offices at one time armed with letters from [Robert] Patterson and from Admiral [Ernest] King that the Hanford project was most important in their program. To get recruiting arrangements set up to keep feeding the kind of men we needed into the project. This was a real difficult one.
Groueff: Especially in the wartime. Everybody was needed.
Matthias: That is right. Every place we turned, “Well, this is a critical area. We cannot let people go out of the area.”
“Well, you have to. We need them.”
In all cases, we were empowered to show these letters to the directors of the regions of the War Manpower Commission, but not to anybody else. We would get them, and they would get a lot of static from their staff. Many times, we would meet their key people. They would get a lot of kickback, they could not say what they had seen, and we could not either. All we had to do was to keep pecking at it until they gave up. [Laughter]
This was a real difficult problem. I remember when we were about to start up the first reactor. This is in line with your question. We had made all the arrangements, and we had this planned out very precisely as to just how we were going to operate. Groves called me from Washington a couple of days before we were going to load the first reactor, and asked me about how the plans were and did I think that they were adequate and all this. So I told him I thought we had it worked out pretty thoroughly, and that there should not be any complications except that nobody knew how the radioactivity or the actual activity in the reactor would develop.
He said, “I would advise you to be out there when they start running their plant, and if it blows up you jump right in the middle of it. It will save you just a heck of a lot of trouble.” [Laughter] This is a typical Groves remark.
We started operation and kept the controls down tight to absorb most of the activity as it started to react. We are building up at a rate as I recall about 5000 kilowatts in an increment. Our rating was something like 300,000 kilowatts. The plan was to bring it up in these slow increments. I guess it was going to be three days before we got to full power or two and half days or some such scale. We got up to about 120,000 and everything seemed to be working just right.
Groueff: How long did that take?
Matthias: I suppose 20 hours or something. I am just picking from memory. Then the activity started to go down even though the control rods were being pulled farther out, which should have increased it. This was a real staggering blow to everybody. It just was not anticipated.
Groueff: Who was watching that? A large group of people?
Matthias: Yes, it was the first reactor in the area to start. This was in September 1944. We had several representatives from the lab in Chicago. I do not recall who they were. At that time, we did have John Wheeler, who was out there almost—he had been there for a long time. I do not know just exactly what his official status was, but he was a real smart scientist. He is one I remember, because he came up I think with the first theory of what was happening.
Groueff: I am going to see him.
Matthias: You should see him. Maybe he will try to tell you how to solve the gravity problem. He is a member of a society, anti-gravity devices. [Laughter] Very competent man. I have always thought very highly of him.
Groueff: And DuPont people?
Matthias: DuPont people were there and I was around. I had my operations officer. I had an officer who was responsible for the operations at Hanford reporting to me. He lives down here about 20 miles south. He is retired.
Groueff: What was his name?
Matthias: Joe Sally. S-a-l-l-y. Anyway, the decision was that we had to call for help and it was arranged for Fermi to come out from Chicago. It was the first time he had been in an airplane. They let him fly.
Groueff: It was that urgent. You all thought it was.
Matthias: We thought the whole thing was going to pot.
Groueff: Everybody very depressed.
Matthias: Very depressed. A tremendous blow. Fermi came out there as fast as he could get there from Chicago. He started observing how this had built up and all of the detail of the operation. He came up I think the next day with a suggestion as to what had happened. He said, “I cannot prove it, I just feel it. This is what it must be. We must be making something that we did not expect to make in this reaction.”
By that time, we left the control rods where we were and the radiation kept on going down for several, six, eight, twelve hours, something like that. Then just about the time Fermi got there, it started to recover.
Groueff: Because the gas was.
Matthias: Of itself. A short live gas, a short-lived. When he got there, he had the benefit of seeing this return. Then he pegged from the time it started to where it started to recover. By this, he deduced that we were forming some kind of gas or some sort of a substance that decayed about at this rate, a half-life of ten hours or something. He pegged where it probably ought to be, what element it should be. What radioisotope it should be. It was not until months later that he was proved absolutely right in all he said.
Groueff: When he left, you tried.
Matthias: What we did then was to immediately load more quantity of uranium into the reactor. There again is a real interesting story because one of the arguments that developed between the scientists and DuPont on design was the amount of capacity there should be in those radioactive piles. This was a series of holes carefully spaced geometrically arranged to give the best effects. I do not recall the scale, but DuPont said, “We do not know just what is going to happen. We do not have any reason for wanting to put in 50 percent more, but we are going to do it and we have had experience in designing plants and this looks like a way to build in some safety.” Against the scientists, and it got to be a bitter battle, DuPont insisted on building this. That is what saved the situation.
Groueff: Because you could put more.
Matthias: Was more loading that would overcome this, and still carry on at the rate of capacity. It absorbed neutrons and decayed, and then it did not absorb neutrons. At some level of activity, the decay and the absorbing equalized this new material.
Groueff: It took a whole month before it worked again?
Matthias: Oh, no.
Groueff: It started working immediately.
Matthias: We started immediately. Fermi just deduced what this was. He said, “It has to be something like this. The thing to do is to put more uranium.” We did and it went. The scientists studied.
Groueff: It was like a doctor coming.
Matthias: Exactly. It was just a tremendous exhibition of real intelligence and training and discipline.
Groueff: I will turn this.