The Manhattan Project

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & HistoryNational Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Gilbert Church's Interview

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Gilbert P. Church was a civil engineer and Project Manager at the Hanford site during the Manhattan Project. In 1943, the DuPont Company selected Church to lead their Manhattan Project efforts. Church, along with Major Franklin T. Matthias and A.E.S. Hall, surveyed sites in Washington, Oregon, California, and California before choosing Hanford as the site for the world's first full-scale nuclear production reactor. In this interview, Church describes the challenges faced throughout the project, such as creating a community for up to 45,000 builders, training and providing for these individuals, and completing one of the largest construction projects of the era within tight time constraints.
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Gilbert Church: During the construction period there were several fellows that I could suggest you see. One of them would be Phil Gardner, for example. He was a recruiter on the road, and that was one of the biggest problems that we had, was getting manpower. He would know all the detail of that. So would Buster Harris, Bill Taylor—they were associated with the operation of the camp on Burton on a day-in day-out basis.

Stephane Groueff: Is there a movie about Hanford?

Church: There is, there is a movie that was taken during construction. But it is—

Groueff: It is classified?

Church: It is classified but—portions of it are.

Groueff: Because for some documents, for instance, I applied a couple of months ago to Atomic Energy Commission, and most of the documents that I applied for were declassified for me. But it takes time and red tape. So do you think if I apply, who would be the right authority? Would it be DuPont Services or—

Church: I think we can work out something for your seeing the film. For example, one thing we could do is cut this film, if we want to go this effort.

Groueff: Mr. Church, now if you can tell me a few words about your background, where you come from, your education, your youth, and how you happened to reach Hanford. 

Church: Well I was born in 1910 in Titusville, Pennsylvania. I was one of six children. I attended the schools in Titusville. I became interested in construction work by working summers for a local contractor. I decided I wanted to have construction as my career, and I went to Cornell University and graduated from there with a degree of civil engineering. Following my graduation in 1931, there was no work available to anyone due to the Depression, and so I had no work for one year.

Then I worked in New York City as an apprentice machinist with the International Business Machines Corporation. About one year later, [I] had an opportunity to join the DuPont Company in the construction division of the engineering department.

Groueff: Here in Wilmington?

Church: In Wilmington. My first assignment was in the construction organization at the Dye Works across the river from Wilmington. Then I had assignments in Arlington, New Jersey; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Seaford, Delaware at the initial nylon plant. About that time, 1939, the British French purchasing commission wanted a plant for smokeless powder, and the DuPont Company undertook the design and construction of this plant in Memphis.

I was assigned there as assistant construction superintendent. After three months at Memphis, the Charleston, Indiana smokeless powder plant was authorized by the federal government—the United States government. DuPont Company had the contract for design and construction of the Charleston plant. I went there initially as assistant project manager and later as project manager.

Following that, I went to Oklahoma Ordnance works near Tulsa as project manager. Following that job I went to the Gopher Ordnance works as project manager. Prior to completion of that plant, I was assigned as a traveling supervisor of the construction division on war projects over the United States. In 1943 when the Hanford project was started, I was appointed as project manager for the construction at Hanford and spent two years from the beginning until the end of construction at Hanford.

Groueff: When did you first learn about the building of this project and about Manhattan Project and about the atomic bomb?

Church: I first heard of the Manhattan project in early December of 1942, and was one of three persons selected to make a field survey to select a site for the plutonium plant. The other two members were A. E. S. Hall of the DuPont engineering department—

Groueff: Hall?

Church: Hall, H-A-L-L, who has now passed away, and F. [Franklin] T. Matthias, who later became the commanding officer at Hanford.

Groueff: Who assigned you to this job?

Church: I was assigned by the chief engineer of the DuPont Company, Mr. E.G. Ackart, as was Mr. Hall also. Major Matthias at that time was appointed by General Groves. We made a two-week survey on the west coast and filed a report recommending the Hanford site to the management of the DuPont Company and to General Groves.

Groueff: Do you remember the details of your first trip? How did you go? By plane, or your first impressions on your arrival there, how you traveled?

Church: The arrangements were made for our trip through General Groves’ office with the District Engineers of the areas in which we were searching for a site. We knew prior to looking that we would have to locate a site with a very large expanse of land, with a lot of power—electric power, plentiful supply of cooling water. Hopefully in a location where we could readily obtain the many numbers of construction skills that would be required.

We visited some eight sites in Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado. The Hanford site was outstanding among those. It eventually turned out to be an ideal site from many respects. The weather there is excellent year round with very little rainfall. There was available to us, throughout the site, construction materials such as rock and sand. The power was readily available since it was midway between Coulee Dam and Bonneville Dam, with the connecting power lines passing right over the site. The Columbia River water, of course, is cold, and there is plentiful supply of it.

Groueff: What did you see when you first arrived? There was just a small village?

Church: Matthias flew over the site in a military plane. Hall and I drove over the site or through the site by automobile, and we met that evening in Pasco.

Groueff: Arriving from where? From Seattle?

Church: From Yakima, Washington.

Groueff: I see.

Church: Yakima is on the western or beyond the western boundary of the site, and Pasco is just south of Richland. The site was essentially barren. There were a few farming operations along the river which were, of necessity, irrigated. There were three communities on the site: White Bluffs, population of 150, as I recall; Hanford, with a population of probably fifty; Richland had a population of I believe 800 or 1000 people. These figures bear checking, I do not recall exactly. So it was just a lot of sagebrush and sand.

Groueff: It is in the desert more or less?

Church: It is a desert, and few people recognize or realize that in the state of Washington there is an expanse of about thirty miles east of the Cascades which gets very little rainfall, about twelve inches a year, and it is a volcanic ash and gravel deposit and turned out to be ideal for the final objective of the work.

So there were two big handicaps to the site. One that it was served only by a seldom used light gauge rail spur of the Milwaukee Railroad of about forty miles south from their main line. This entire railroad had to be reconstructed and rebuilt by the Milwaukee before it could serve our purposes. The other handicap, of course, was its isolation from any large communities and any source of labor supply.

It was readily apparent that we were going to have to build our own community for construction workers. So that was our immediate problem, was to build a community for the construction workers and to set in motion machinery in order to get the workers.

The other obvious problem was to put together a construction organization. Fortunately, the DuPont Company’s design and construction efforts for the government in building smokeless powder and TNT plants was pretty well completed, and also the Remington Arms Company’s program of building and operating ordnance plants was well in hand, so that there was available a source within the DuPont Company of people who had been very active in war type projects.

There were no housing, or there were very limited facilities for management supervisory personnel which meant that, as far as the construction group was concerned, that the men who were transferred to Hanford had to leave their families back East and live as bachelors in camp conditions for a period of anywhere from five to nine months.

Groueff: Where did you live in the first weeks when you were the first one to arrive there?

Church: I shared a basement apartment with Bob Burton in Pasco.

Groueff: In Pasco.

Church: Right.

Groueff: How far is it from the site?

Church: Pasco, well it was a one-hour drive from Pasco to Hanford.

Groueff: So you established yourself there after the first visit with Matthias and Hall? You came back, reported, and when it was chosen you went and lived—

Church: The site was chosen in January of 1943, and then I visited the site on two subsequent occasions in February and in March.

Groueff: Flying from here or train?

Church: It was a combination of both. Flying at that time took twenty-two hours from Wilmington to reach the west coast by DC3s, and the train took about three and a half days. So I moved to the site in March of ’63.

Groueff: That is where you lived, in Pasco?

Church: I lived in Pasco throughout the entire two-year period that I was there. I had two other beds, one at White Bluffs in a bachelor quarters of a house that existed there, and another one in Richland. [laughter]

Groueff: Were you a family man at that time?

Church: No, I was not. I was single.

Groueff: I see. But the other people, the family people, did not bring their family?

Church: They were unable to bring their families. A few of them brought their families and lived in Yakima, which was some fifty-five miles from Hanford. There were a few facilities for families in Pasco, Kennewick, and couple other communities there. But by and large, those who did have their families there lived at Hanford in the camp and only saw their families on Saturday nights and Sundays. We were working a six-day week practically throughout the entire construction program.

Groueff: What was the nearest big town or city where people would go for relaxation on Sunday, like the big city?

Church: Spokane, Washington was about 125 mile distant. Seattle was over the mountains, and it was, I think, 200 miles. These distances, you better check them.

Groueff: So you were pretty isolated?

Church: It was isolated, very definitely. And we were working eight-hour days, nine-hours days, and ten-hour days.

Groueff: Six days a week? 

Church: Six days a week, so there was very little time for anyone to go off on holidays as such.

Groueff: But Mr. Church, when you first arrived there even to find the location, how much did you know about what was going on? Did you know that the DuPont contribution would be for plutonium and for the atomic bomb? Or you just knew that some big military installation had to be—

Church: In my assignment as project manager, I was told only what I had to know to do my job. I never heard or saw the word plutonium until about two months prior to startup of the first reactor.

Groueff: Really? So while you were building the whole place, you did not know exactly what it was for?

Church: No one ever told me what it was for.

Groueff: And the people around you on your level—

Church: In the construction organization at the site, no one was ever told anything beyond what they had to know to do their job. The compartmentalization of information, which was set up for the Manhattan District, was near perfection in my opinion.

Groueff: What was the speculation among friends there or people like you? What do you think was—or you did not—

Church: It was not discussed.

Groueff: Not discussed at all?

Church: It was not discussed.

Groueff: But you had not any idea about atomic developments—that was not actually in the knowledge of people?

Church: As I recall, there was nothing in the popular literature about atomic developments at that time. There had been some articles in the Scientific American, which some of the people had read, which as I recall were more conjecture than fact at that time.

Groueff: You could not connect it necessarily to what you were doing?

Church: One could.

Groueff: Some people were guessing, but that was just a guess?

Church: That is right.

Groueff: And what was the population saying and feeling about you coming there, moving them, chasing them out of their place and—

Church: There was some reaction, naturally, from the people who had lived all their life on the site. They could not understand why the government was taking over so much land, and it was done initially, they endeavored to do it through a negotiation and purchase. Incidentally, the purchase of the property was a government responsibility, [that] was not a DuPont responsibility.

Groueff: But there was some resentment of course, from people?

Church: There was natural resentment and there were some court cases, and that is all documented. I think your best source of information there would be the newspaper files in Seattle and Spokane.

Daniel Friel: What did they do, I mean, what did they live there for? There was nothing there, was there?

Church: Oh they had some sheep herding there. Along the river there was some farming.

Groueff: It is a poor country, no?

Church: Very poor country. In fact, some of the land as I recall was bought for twenty-five cents an acre.

Groueff: Was there salmon fishing?

Church: No. No, there is no salmon fishing there. That was conducted down below Bonneville Dam. The salmon came up the river, of course, all the way up into Canada. But fishing as such was not practiced along or near that area.

Groueff: But you being a specialist in construction and big construction, would you say that this job was the biggest job that you ever saw?

Church: It was certainly the biggest job that I ever had any association with. At the peak of construction, we had 45,000 men on the payroll.

Groueff: Construction men?

Church: Construction men. Which I think is the largest number of men that I know ever assembled at one time on a construction project.

Groueff: It is actually bigger even than the Egyptian pyramids, no?

Church: We do not know enough about the Egyptian pyramids to comment on that. [laughter]

Groueff: Right. It is one of the largest projects in history probably, I mean, as far as you know?

Church: At that time, I believe it was the largest single construction operation, yes.

Groueff: What were the main technological difficulties from the construction point of view? Was there anything without precedent or—

Church: There were many, many, many things without precedent from a construction point of view. On the other hand, while they were difficult construction problems, the problems were solved mutually during the design stage by having our construction people working hand in hand with the designers in order to—the design was such that it could be assembled and could be built sensibly and quickly and economically by construction.

In other words, construction planning was handled in the design phase so that the designers were not in the situation of designing something that could not be assembled or built. So these problems were resolved by men making visits back in Wilmington, and those men who were back here were the ones who were going to be responsible for assembling the plant at Hanford so that the construction planning and resolution of the construction problems, at many times, were mutually both design and construction.

Groueff: I see. Between Wilmington and Hanford.

Church: Now we also had many visits by designers out to the plant and solving problems, which were combination design and construction problems.

Groueff: Could you quote some of the major problems that you did not have any precedent to guide you?

Church: I think the major problem, which was very well expressed by our then assistant chief engineer Granville L. Reed, was that in building this plant in the critical areas of the plant such as the reactors and the separation facilities, we only had one chance. It had to be right the first time, because this was not like an automobile, which if it does not work you can take it apart and fix it. If a reactor, after it started up, became poisoned with radioactivity and was inoperative, it was lost and it just would not work. So the big problem was to make sure that the assembly—which was a precise assembly—was accurately and securely done. Cleanliness was the big problem. Boron is a material that could not be tolerated. As an example, most soaps contain traces of boron so that the clothing that men wore had to be laundered in soap that did not contain boron.

Groueff: They had to have special soap?

Church: That is right. And special uniforms. Everyone had to have special uniforms working in these critical areas. [0:27:00] That is a problem.

There were problems of assembly that the mechanics had no background nor experience in, such as the fabrication of graphite for the pile or reactor to very precise tolerances. This was something that had not been done before. Again, it was a combination of a design and construction.

Groueff: Was the graphite produced there in Hanford or brought by train?

Church: The graphite blocks were produced by the carbon industry of the United States from several sources to certain sizes, but they were all rough. They were shipped by rail car to Hanford, and in lots. It was essential that we keep the lots separate, because the various lots of graphite had differing purity of graphite, and certain poisonous elements were in them. So you had to select the proper and most highest purity blocks for certain locations in the reactor.

Then it was necessary for us to fabricate these graphite blocks very precisely. Actually, the assembly of them is something like these Chinese puzzles that you have, which are like this, and very, very precise. So you had to keep them tagged and identified from the day it arrived through the fabrication shop into storage and finally transport them and assemble them in the reactor. Of course, speed of construction was paramount. You could not tolerate any delay.

Groueff: So you had to teach the people first, because there was no precedent for that, for instance, for the graphite job?

Church: That is right.

Groueff: There were no specialized workers in the United States for that? 

Church: Not in that particular craft. 

Groueff: So they were learning the same time they were constructing?

Church: Well, they were learning prior to construction. We had mockups in many, many cases. Another big problem was welding. We had some very, very intricate welding that had to be performed. Welding of materials in configurations that never been done before. So we had to set up welding schools and train these welders in the skills that were necessary in order to accomplish the job that had to be done.

We also had to train many other skills. We had some training classes, I believe, in nearly every craft in one form or another. Now by craft, I mean the carpenters, the pipefitters, the millwrights, the welders, and the electricians.

Another major problem was the fact that before, all of us had been used to taking care of people’s welfare, safety, for eight hours or nine hours or ten hours a day. Our problem here was we had to take care of them 168 hours a week, including all their food and their living accommodations and their recreation. Those were some of the greatest problems we had. It meant that we had to create a large medical staff, for example, to take care of the routine day-to-day ills that people have, including surgery and things of that nature.

Church: Well, we started off recruiting through ads. A great many men, you might say, followed DuPont from the war jobs. So we started off on that basis but did not get very far naturally.

Groueff: Did you pay better than the others, or you offered more than them?

Church: No, our wage scale was a balance between the Seattle level of wages and the Spokane level of wages, and Portland was kind of a median wage. So we could not tell these people what type of a job it was or what kind of a plant. All we could say was a very important war plant. Then it was necessary that we very early in the game had to organize a recruiting effort, which I believe at its peak involved 150 people. 

A lot of this is in the history, but again the history is classified, but a lot of this unclassified information is documented in that history.