The Manhattan Project

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Fred Hunt's Interview

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Fred Hunt's Interview

Fred Hunt, a mechanical engineer who worked in the power department for DuPont during the late 1930s, arrived in Hanford in 1943. Hunt describes his interaction with Enrico Fermi, who occasionally visited the facilities to monitor their progress. He describes the ease at which he was able to procure materials and ordnance and offers his opinion on the use of the atomic bomb.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 2003
Location of the Interview: 
Hanford
Transcript: 

Hunt: I started working for DuPont in 1937 at Old Hickory [in Tennessee] in the power department. I was very anxious to do the best I could, so I made a special effort to learn everything.

Where were you when you were told to return to Wilmington?

Hunt: At that point I was a power superintendent at Childersburg Ordnance.

That was in Alabama?

Hunt: In Alabama.

When did you find out about Hanford?

Hunt: Lyman Darling was the general DuPont man for power for all the military explosives. I had worked with him at Old Hickory, and Indiana and Alabama. He kind of picked on me as his right-hand man. So when he started getting stuff together for Hanford, he came and that's when they picked me to be his understudy here during the construction period.

I was sent to Wilmington, works technical, and told about what the whole thing was, fortunately, which helped me deal here. Of course, people weren't cleared, mostly. After a little time in Wilmington, they transferred me out here. I guess that was in '43. I worked as a liaison. I was still an operations member but the only one for a while with construction.

What I did, my job, was to just stay with construction when they built all these facilities, and be sure that I knew how they would operate, and if there was a problem to get them to change it. That was how I started at Hanford.

You became involved with the construction and then the operation?

Hunt: There was an area engineer when he started building this area, named Litchfield. He was good to work with, but I almost became part of his crew because I was with him all the time watching what he was doing. That happened up until the time that we started operations and getting crews together to handle things. At that time, I knew what we had to do. My job then was to be sure the equipment was working right and the operators were trained. Whatever crew I had on at the time, we knew we had to keep this going once it got started.

I had four crews of about sixteen people. Of course, I had the river power facilities, which I didn't see here today. I didn't have any really responsible jobs with the reactor area, there was another group handling that. Mine was strictly power.

But there was plenty to do with river pump houses, reservoirs, filterization, on down. When the time came that the area was ready to go, Lyman Darling had been off and he was helping recruit operators. We got them from all over. I had to train them to run these things. I couldn't remember now what crew was on when this thing was started, because all four of the crews had to be competent.

All we did was get to running for several days so that we knew we could get cooling water to this reactor. The reactor supervisor was working with his crew here. I didn't know what he was doing, except I did have a hunch that he was going to head by that day. I didn't do anything that day but visit. I learned more today than I did that day. [Chuckle].

Were you present?

Hunt: I was present when they triggered it. But it wouldn't have made any difference; I could have been in Pasco or anywhere because all I did out here was just to stand by to see that if something happened, backing up my own operating crew. I had the crew to do the entire job.

What was the responsibility of your crew?

Hunt: The responsibility of the crew at that time was to be darn sure they could keep water coming to this reactor. That was their job.

Did you have occasion to visit or talk with some high-level scientists?

Hunt: Most of the people I knew and can remember, when I was getting the area ready, were high level. Gil Church was heading it for DuPont. He had various supervisors of which were doing various things. I needed their help when I was getting set up with equipment and things like that.

Did you escort Enrico Fermi through the area?

Hunt: Fermi made a number of visits out here and he came here regularly. He liked to check what was being done in the area as well as the reactor area. Of course, that was a power responsibility, so I kind of felt airy to escort him on most of the area when he was out here. Most people didn't know him. He was labeled as “Farmer” but I got to know him quite well, yeah.

Tell a little bit about him.

Hunt: Well, course he was very smart. But at the time he was just a kind of an ordinary—I developed a friendship with him because he's just a normal person and we got along pretty well.

As a matter of fact, on one of the inspections that I just mentioned, I saw the rod drop on this for this tank, because he was checking that, but he made an area inspection before. So I just accompanied him, and here I got to see that. That was really his observation, but I was just with him.

Did General Groves ever visit?

Hunt: I didn't remember ever seeing General Groves out here. But I did work at the 145 building before I got on and he was a constant visitor out there, as were a lot of the DuPonts and top level people. We experimented with trying to see what water treatment was necessary to be satisfactory for the cooling gel.

After you finished your work at the B Reactor, what did you do?

Hunt: Well, it was just another day at work. We were pleased that the reactor started. That was [chuckle] our first worry about it, because we had to keep water going until the reactor supervisor here decided to pull the rods, and we didn't know when that was. We didn't know what we'd have, and all I was doing was just visiting almost with my shifts they were working. Soon as they were done, I moved on down to the D area to work on there and do the same type of work.

Did you work on any other reactor sites out here?

Hunt: As soon as I got done with D, I went on down to F. That was just my job, to see that the cooling water supply was made right and that the power supervising crews could handle it, they knew how to do it. That took about four shifts per reactor area and there’s three of them, so we had about twelve shifts times the sixteen men each, to train. It was a pretty good training job, but I was pretty fortunate.

What were the problems during construction?

Hunt: One of the jobs that I was doing following the construction was to be sure that the equipment was constructed and set up in a way that would work. I had been through already several ordnance plants on this, so I had a pretty good thing.

I knew that there was a time when we had to have our lubrication order into stores, and it hadn't come from Wilmington yet. But I had had enough experience on the other plants that I gave stores full lubricating requirements for my power equipment. And there were times when—well, the pump wouldn't work right—I would have to get Litch to change it. He was much interested in getting something to work. The more he got upset about some of the things I asked, the quicker he got it done. [Chuckle]

Was there occasion to use alternate equipment?

Hunt: Well, that was over at 145. We used whatever we could get there. That was an early job and we used four steam locomotives for steam. And I tell you, we had all kinds of problems there because it was early, there was not much tools, but they were hauling materials in from all over the United States. We could go up and get anything we could find [chuckle]. So we were able to get a lot of things.

Did you have to obtain any special equipment for this area?

Hunt: I don't recall for this area. Well, I had to help Litch get some equipment for over there because at the time when we were building that and running it, the drawings weren't even all here from Wilmington. So Litch and I built part of it without the Wilmington drawings. I knew what was wanted and we were able to do it. And it must have worked [chuckle]. I didn't get any complaints.

Where did you live?

Hunt: I lived in Pasco. Lyman Darling had some places that he found that I could stay, and they put me in one of those. There was a railroad engineer and his wife and it was a nice place. I had the upstairs level with one other DuPont worker, which changed from time to time.

Did you ever live out here?

Hunt: Yes. I have stayed out here because our hours run eight to four. It was to get the job done.

What was your normal workday?

Hunt: For me? We started early to get ahead of the shifts. A lot of the times, I had a place in one of the men's barracks at Hanford. We would stay there or come out.

How long would you stay on the job?

Hunt: I guess I always mostly left with some—it would be maybe a couple hours summing things up and trying to think of what I was going to do the next day [chuckle].

Were you putting in 8 hours a day?

Hunt: I was out here I guess every day during the startup. But, yeah, I didn't stay real long hours. Later I was riding with some of the supervisors and I was given the company car, so I could go whenever I wanted to and come back.

Were you aware of what the reactor was being used for?

Hunt: When they transferred me to Wilmington to come on this job, they gave me a secret clearance and set me down to the table in a Wilmington works technical with all the story. I got the whole works, what they were trying to do with the plutonium and the urgency to get it and the size of the bomb they were trying to build. 

I was completely cleared when I came here on objects. But I was about the only one in operation that knew, and they thought that would help me deal with construction. I assume that Litchfield knew. I don't know who all knew, but mostly there wasn't many people on that knew what it was all about. They just did what they were told.

Of course, my job was pretty simple. I says, “Your job is to make sure we can get cooling water here and be consistent. “That's all I had to tell them. That's all my assignment was. I just had to keep them working and that was all. I had it pretty easy. [Chuckle]

Tell us how you got water from the river to the reactor building.

Hunt: There was a pump house down there, which I guess still exists. I had a pump operator down there and they were building that, and that's how it was. The full flow water was pumped from there up to—we had a reservoir, which I don't know if it's here or not, I guess not here—and that was kept filled. So we had gravity water from the reservoir there if something happened to the pump house.

That flowed over. Then, let's see where it went to—we had a filter plant. So we to filter the water and get it treated. I'm not sure about this, because most of the areas I think had de-airers. I thought we had de-airer here to de-air the water. But we didn't have chemical plants and the refrigeration that D had. We just hoped this would start up without it [chuckle]. The main building was our 190 building, where we really had to get them the water supply that they needed, and if anything happened, get them emergency water pressures.

I had an operator in the valve pit down here that could switch valves and bring in water from other spots if he had to. I did get into this area to see him regularly, but other than that I didn't know much; security was tight. I wasn't supposed to know much about this area. It wasn't my job. My job was simple: get the cooling water here so it wouldn't fail.

Were you involved with getting the water back to the river?

Hunt: Really I knew about that, but I don't think I had much to do with it.

They asked you to supply enough water that would cool a small city, right?

Hunt: I knew the amounts. I knew that before I came here. They gave me all that information before I left Wilmington, I think. I knew what we were going to have to work with and the water flows and the generation. We had an emergency generator in the power house to start up. I knew what the secondary circuits—that was all information I came out here with. No one told me about that. Just get the job done.

Were you free to do whatever you wanted to do?

Hunt: Yeah, I was free to do what I wanted. I didn't have a boss out here most of the time. Lyman Darling was my boss and he was traveling around getting operating crews and things like that.

Did you have problems getting material that you needed?

Hunt: I would say we did not because Litchfield—the area engineer doing the construction—if we needed something, he did nice jobs for us. I remember one time, I don't know, this was 145 getting their square D switch. I don't know if you need to know about that or not.

Tell us about it.

Hunt: As I told you, we had to do that building, a lot of it, without getting the drawings from Wilmington. One of the things that we knew that was required was a square D switch for the power. It wasn't there. Lynch said, “I'll get it.”

He sent an order for the square D switch. I don't if it was that afternoon or the next one, they called him up front and they said, “Litch, what in the world are you doing?”

He said, “What's the matter?”

He says, “Well, we just got a call back on that square D switch. The Army happened to open up a transport to get it out here.”

Well, we didn't visualize that. A square D switch isn't that big. But we were able to temporarily wire around and cancel that order, but that is the way we could get stuff. We had 100% priority, Manhattan Project did. Everybody else I heard of said, they run into a Manhattan Project, they just gave up.

Would it be different now?

Hunt: What’s the difference between then and now? Well, there's not much at the finish because I could visit the place [chuckle] and I didn't have to do anything, because I had crews doing all the work. Now, I come out here and I find the power equipment has basically been removed except for, I guess, the river pump house. I've been taken for a tour through the reactor area, which I didn't tour much at that time. I was busy with my own affairs and I let the reactor supervisor handle his. I've tried to find him some time. I think I know his name, but I'm not sure. I've never been able to locate him.

Compare the requirements of building this reactor to subsequent jobs.

Hunt: Well, we did everything we could to get this one done quick. It was simple in respect to some of the things but it was not sure that it would start. D area, the next one, had all the chemical water treatments and the refrigeration and things that we might need. That was a lot more work and equipment and would take a lot more time. So the effort was to get this area going fast. Get the others as well as we could but they had to lag, if we needed them. But it turned out we didn't need the water filtration—well, it had to have filtration—but the chemical water treatment big plant and the refrigeration we didn't need, and a few other things, so that went fairly easy too.

Was there a difference in rules and regulations in later projects?

Hunt: I can't think of many restrictions that were put on me. As soon as the war ended, Wilmington wanted to take me back. A lot of them wanted to take me back to Wilmington for something else and in 1945 they did, they transferred me back out there. But up until that time, my job was just trying to transfer records and get somebody as a replacement. They sent in somebody to replace me as a general supervisor for all the 100 area.

What was your feeling about the process of building a bomb?

Hunt: I didn't have any feelings about it. We knew we were trying to make plutonium, but the bomb hadn't been dropped. We knew they were going to try to build it because they told me that, but as far as any progress or anything on that, I didn't get any information on that, really. That was outside of my mind.

How did you feel after the bomb had been dropped?

Hunt: I felt good about it because we felt that our boys could come home. It might save us a million casualties. To get a surrender, we thought the bomb was a good thing.

Do you still feel it was a good thing?

Hunt: Yeah. But not everybody does, fortunately [chuckle].

How do you feel about the current attitude about the nuclear industry?

Hunt: I've run into that because I have been at parties or something with people and they can say, “How could you do that?”

Well, I says, “Yeah, I worked on it and I was glad to work on it and I did the best I could, because I felt it was the right thing.” But they now don't realize the conditions, I guess, we were working under. I've been criticized for even working on the bomb job.

Would you like to see more nuclear power plants today?

Hunt: After I went back there, DuPont kind of put me on as a troubleshooter because I could analyze situations. I got completely away from the nuclear industry. And no, I'm too old [chuckle] and too tired to do anything much more, and just take it easy.

Do you remember when the reactor came online?

Hunt: As far as I knew, the cooling water went fine. I went home. I don't know how long it takes a reactor to go down. I didn't about that until the next day.

What happened?

Hunt: I was told about it. In addition to all the work that the reactor people were doing trying to figure out what was happening, they thought it might be a possibility of the water treatment or something.

At first, everything looked okay?

Hunt: Yeah, I never knew when it came on.

So to you it was fine?

Hunt: It was just another work day. If he hadn't triggered it that day, he would the next day and he could. We just had to keep the cooling water going.

But you knew that it had been triggered?

Hunt: I did know that he might trigger it that day. I was just out there in case it did, not to do anything.

After it was triggered, how long was it until someone came to you and said there was a problem?

Hunt: I don't know because all that was done with the reactor group. They didn't know just which way to go. They were going to all the scientists and things like that and trying to solve the problem. Then they wanted to do anything they could with water to see if maybe it was laying down some sort of a deposit or something. So they did involve us in making some water checks, but really, we were not much involved in that problem.

So they contacted you to see—?

Hunt: As far as I was concerned or my crew, they didn't know it because their job didn't involve anything on the reactor. As long as we could keep cooling water, we were happy. That was an unfortunate situation when that reactor loaded, but it didn't really involve us at all.

You just made sure the cooling water continued?

Hunt: It didn't matter what the reactor did. They could shut it down if they wanted to; we had to keep the [chuckle] water going. So yeah, you're right. I didn't have to worry about that.

Were there any problems you could remember?

Hunt: It seemed like I must have not had much trouble getting things straightened out because I remember arguing with Weisz on whether they ought to tear a pump down to see what was the matter with it. They would do it, even if they didn't think they ought to. I remember we argued a while, and finally he said, “Okay, I'll take it apart.” There was a pair of underwear in it! [Chuckle]. I knew it wasn't working right. [Chuckle]

Do you remember needing something and not being able to get it?

Hunt: I don't know quite how to answer that, because if we needed something and couldn't get it—working with Litchfield, we had to improvise something to do that job and he'd get the stuff to do that. It's like that square D switch. We ended up just wiring that thing through manually. We didn't have to have it, because we knew what it should do. If we could rig up something that would do the same thing, we did it, if we couldn't get it.

So you did work-arounds if you had to?

Hunt: Yeah, right. There was stuff like pump alignment and settings and so forth that under certain circumstances, it would heat up and get out of alignment and the supports and stuff changed. That is something I was familiar with. They were always changing. I think I was very fortunate because the area engineer doing the job was very anxious to turn out a workable thing that would do the job. He would make those changes. I didn't have much contact with Wilmington or I'd call them, try to expedite some [chuckle] more information. But I knew what was needed to be done as well as they did, so if the design group was slow, we went ahead with it anyway.

Did most people have that same attitude of, “Just get it done?”

Hunt: The construction people with Litchfield, yes. They wanted to get it done. They wanted to do it in a manner that would make it work. I was fortunate that way. I didn't have to push anybody.

Was the morale high?

Hunt: Some, yes. We imported a bunch of operators from some of the DuPont plants to get some of the quality that could handle the job. Some of those to start with were not too happy, I don't think, about that transfer. But they did their job, and I guess later stayed on and appreciated it. But it took a while for somebody to come from, say, lush Tennessee, out here [to Hanford] and get in the dust storm [chuckle] or something, and think this was a good deal.

Did you have any problem with pumps in the dust storms?

Hunt: We had some. We had more with D area, for some reason, the refrigeration machines. We went through quite a session with those, but we were able to figure out a way to run them. We didn't need them [chuckle] so we made out all right. But, no, the equipment was pretty good. We did all right.