The Manhattan Project

James Cole's Interview

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James Cole's Interview

James S. Cole is an American engineer. He served as an airplane engineer during World War II, and began working at the K-25 plant at Oak Ridge, TN in 1945, shortly after the end of the war. Cole later worked at the Y-12 plant. In this interview, he recalls his early days at Oak Ridge and how he adjusted to the new environment. He shares several stories about his time working at K-25, including finding ways to fix broken pumps and valves. He also explains the importance of the Special Engineer Detachment and members of the military to the Manhattan Project.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 25, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

James S. Cole: I’ll put it this way. I was in Biloxi, Mississippi and getting ready to go overseas as a B-17 engineer. I was on the train getting ready to come here, not knowing I was coming here. An MP came on and said, “You’ve got another set of orders.” I figured I had done something bad, so I went in there and talked to the guy. He said, “You’ve got another set of orders.” He gave it to me. It was a telephone number, Knoxville, Tennessee.

I said, “What kind of orders are those?”

He says, “Get on a train.”

I got on a train and it drove day and night and got off in Knoxville, called up this number. A GI shows up in a beat up old Chevy and I get in it with all my junk, ditto bag. It seems like we drove and drove and drove. Then we went up over a hill and through a guard gate and looked down a hill. It looked like I was in daylight: Oak Ridge. That was kind of interesting. That was my first introduction to it.

They drove me up and left me off at F Barracks. They said, “You are going to bunk in there.” I went and found the first bunk right in the front. The guy on the top, Joe DeLorenzo, he was asleep. It was 6 o’clock and I hear a whistle or something, and you get up, as a GI. I saw my uniform was OK. I got out to stand in front of the barracks, nobody. I looked down and I saw a building. I said “Oh, that looks like a place to eat. That’s a mess hall.” I saw a couple of GIs going, but I saw a couple of regular people going in there.

I went down next door. There were just a few people. I got in the line. They had the best food lineup. I am standing up with a tray. I am putting everything on it. In the mess hall, you never pay for it. I got down there, they said, “A dollar.” All I had in my pocket was a dollar. I gave it. I said, “What kind of a place is this?”

There was a short hall, I walked up there and saw the officer. It was a GI actually. He said, “Oh, you’ll get $90 a month.” I don’t know how I got the money, but at some time. They said, “Well, you are supposed to get on the first bus and go ahead to K-25.” One of these buses, I get on, all sorts of people on it. We drove and drove and drove. Then we came to the guard gates and came into K-25.

They call it the U. If you lay it down and figure on this end, that’s where I was. I got up there. I didn’t know anybody. They said, “Well, you better go over to the engineering officer.” I went down, and they showed me a wooden building. I got in there and I was introduced to a guy by the name of Jack Mahoney. He was over in instrument engineering. He said, “Well, you are going to be a junior cadet engineer.” That’s like being a second-grade cowboy, I guess. But anyhow, they showed me how. I went back and went into the last end, which is in the withdrawal area. No uranium is supposed to be in that area.

I met three GIs and a civilian; the head of it over us was Will Morton. Then there was Lenny Troy, myself, and Tom – I can’t remember his last name [Wright]. That was the group that was up there doing work. I said, “What are we working on?”

“Well, you are working on a space recorder.” What’s a space recorder? Anyhow, there was this kind of a square building, small, and it had a door in it. It was heated on the inside. Inside of it was a cylinder. If you look on the top of a telephone pole and see a transformer, it was like that shape, only it was either nickel-plated or aluminum alloy. That was the unit. It took flows of gas into it from the withdrawal area. It had two pumps, and they are called B-4 pumps, and if you go in the end of this building in the first door, you can see one.

We needed the two pumps and I had a ’40 Ford convertible. I said, “Let’s go over to the warehouse.” We drove over to the warehouse. It was opposite 1401 Building. We drove in there and we went in the back and we found the two B-4 pumps. One of the guys learned then, I guess, how to use a forklift. We got the forklift and we drove it out the back. I said, “You are not going to put those things in the back of my—”

He got a big piece of plywood and put it in and we were able to lower them and manhandle the two of them on the backseat of the convertible. Then we drove that back over to the U and got some maintenance people to take them out. They took them up on the operating floor and took them down at the end where we were working.

 We even installed them on mounts on inside. I did all the silver soldering and the copper tubing on it because I was the only one who knew how to do it. I graduated from the Casey Jones School of Aeronautics in Newark. I spent two years there –– you learned to be a craftsman to work with the old airplanes –– so we got all those together. Then we got the electrical –– I didn’t know anything about that, but Will Morton did. They connected it up. If you look inside of an incandescent lamp and see the filaments in it, it looked like that. It had an electrode in the middle of it and it had a very high potential on it.

Then you took the gas that wasn’t supposed to have any uranium in it and flow it through and the pump circulated at the B-4 pumps. If a particle of uranium got in there, it would be shoved over to one of the filaments, give off an EMF [electromagnetic field], and go out to an amplifier to a recorder. That’s simple.

But the biggest problem in doing the calculations – I couldn’t do them, but Tom could. He almost graduated from Yale. If you take a slide rule, you can use it to about two places. We were screwed. That was the only thing we had. I went down the hall and I looked, and I saw an electrical calculator, a Marchant. I went and picked it up and said, “Maintenance!” and walked out with it.

I walked all the way down there and put it on. We had it for two weeks. We were able to calculate out to about eight points past the decimal. Then if it didn’t work – I mean, we would actually show that if something did come in, it showed it. It was a great success. It ended up –– they ran cables all the way to the control house so that they didn’t have to come up to look at it. They could see in their control room what was going on, if any uranium was getting out. But at that time, the only enrichment was about 93 percent, which ain’t  much. The funny part about it, Clark Center and Dr. [George] Felbeck said, “You let us have the plant for a year and let us run it, we will pull it up to at least 93 percent.” And damn, in a year, they did. That closed Y-12 down because they had the calutrons that did it — well, that’s another subject. Let somebody else tell you about that. So it was a success.

There were other things in K-25 that really amazed me. Every one of the stations, there were numbers. The ones we were next to I think was 3038 or something. If they had glass — I am trying to get the names of them. But anyhow, they used them in laboratories in order to separate elements. They were made of glass. Each one of the stations had one end.

I didn’t really realize what they were for, but I learned later on if one of the seals on the pump leaked, if it started to go up, it would go into a mass spectrometer and indicate it had a leak. Well, that’s damn bad because then you have to take the seals out and close off the pump. If you have that, an alarm went off and they told you where it was. You got on a bicycle and you went like mad. You found it. Then you turned them because they were all mechanical. Later on, they did make them electrical –– I think before I left.

I thought those things were absolutely amazing because there was mercury in them. The mercury was kept cold with dry ice slush. You might see one in a college laboratory, but to see them roll and roll all the way around the plant to me was kind of amazing. Now, let’s see, what else was I going to talk about.

The other thing that I got involved in: the valves in K-25 were actually gate valves. You have a pipe. The gates came out and stopped it. Then you had a wheel that went down a part and made them go in and out. The seals on those things were made of either Teflon or fluoranthene. Those are plastics that could stand UF6, uranium hexafluoride.

They leaked, they got hot. You had to take the pumps out and put those seals in. I had changed and went with development, and was working over in what they call the 1401 building in the basement. I was working in one of those things where they condition the converters. They said, “See if you can develop a seal.”

I said, “They are using plastic. Why don’t they use metal?” These guys, they don’t know anything about aircraft, but I knew there were three kinds, 17ST, 24ST, and 52/100. The 52 was aluminum that could be welded. When I worked for Republic Aircraft, I saw that stuff being welded. I said, “That must be pretty soft.” I went to my buddies in the machine shop and made a rough sketch of what I wanted. I had to go to stores and have them purchase this material. I got some material roughly about a sixteenth of an inch thick, maybe a little thicker. I said, “If I could get that and have two surfaces go like this, that may seal.” We had to really make a good seal.

They came back, and they gave me a little ring all made up. They took the surfaces and machined them so that they had a surface like this. We put it in there and we closed it down, and then we had one of these little 100 pumps. They would pump down to 15 microns, that’s pretty low. That’s as good as a little mechanical pump would do. That was good enough to test. I had that on there and I closed down good and tight. Turned on the pump and it was pumped down to 15 microns. I just watched it and didn’t move. I was going to leave it overnight, so I went home. Came back and it was still down to 15 microns. That solved it. They started getting great big plates and making rings down. But the funny part about it: when I took apart the ring, and I cut it in half and looked at the edge, I made an error on the drawing. What I did instead of these things coming together like this, they came like this. What that did, it made a long surface. That’s what made the seal. I didn’t know how to draw, I wasn’t a draftsman or anything. They started doing those. They ended up being put on all the valves in the plant. That was kind of interesting.

One of the GIs that I thought was a most marvelous engineer was – what was his name? Victor Hovis. He graduated from Georgia Tech. They gave me a problem, which I can’t talk about. It took me a long while to do. I finally got it done. I was checking the flow in a tube and trying to find a cut through the barrier. I found it, but it took me about six months to do. I said, “Look, I’ve got these numbers, Vic, on the flow. I know what they’ve done. I can tell you what they are and where it’s happening.”

He says, “Well, it’s in the mechanical engineering handbook.”

He opens it up and there is an equation: V equals the square root of 2gh. That did it. We used that.

The numbers came out and [W.] Cal Moore, he didn’t trust them. He couldn’t see how I could do that, but if I showed you how it was done, it was kind of amazing. The other thing on the pumps in the K-25, the biggest problem was the seals. The seal itself, at that time, was a secret. The thing that really was secret was –– when I wasn’t on first, Victor Hovis designed a pretty good surface. He was able to make a pattern on that would keep the stuff closer to the staff and not come out.

It was my job to take the original seal, and it was a round disk about that size, out of 52/100 steel, and put it in a gas furnace. We had a reducing furnace. It was sort of a high temperature, you couldn’t have a thermocouple that would stand up. It would melt in there. You had to use videos to look at it. I got so I could look at it and know exactly when it was at that temperature. When it was, you opened up the furnace, because you had to be sure it was closed off because it was being fed by hydrogen. You went in and take it off and put it in an oil bath that went back and forth. Then that oil bath, that was the first cooling of it. Then after that got done, we could take it out, we put it in a dry ice bath. That made it – that hardens. I forget the temperature. It’s like a 56 hardness, a hardness almost of a file. Those seals went into the seal room where, women hand lapped them, flipped them, hand lapped them, until you could put an optical flat on top of it and see it within one helium light line of flatness. That is awfully flat. But that amazed Vic.

He took off and went to Detroit, to one of the machine shops up there, to see how they work surfaces. They had the oil surface and so forth on your car, and they had them on big vertical boring wheels that had an abrasive on them. They sat in there. They were standing still. I was going around underneath them, and damn, they had flattened them pretty good. He came back and got a boring mill back there in the retubing area. He made a frame with holes to hold the disks. He put the compound down, and ran that going around. The disks were standing still, and you take them out and flip them. That worked. That saved a fortune. Just to think we must have had fifteen to twenty women sitting in there grinding and flipping, grinding and flipping. He was the guy that invented it. He did so damn many other things. I mean, he was good. What else do you want me to talk about?

Nathaniel Weisenberg: I was curious if you could tell me a little bit more why you were recruited to join the Manhattan Project in the first place.

Cole: You don’t want to know. My father and Dr. Felbeck were down in the basement in our home in Baldwin, Long Island. They had a big drawing table, half as big as this. My father had a drawing table. He could draw a whole ammonia plant with complete details and you could build from it. They were all talking about it. I heard things I wasn’t supposed to hear. They saw me. I went down the stairs. “Did you hear what we were talking about?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He said, “I’m going to tell you something, you keep your mouth shut. I don’t want you to say a word. Don’t you talk to anybody that you saw us down here or what we were doing!”

He said it almost like they were going to kill me. But I mean, they swore it. I realized how serious they were. My father designed the heat exchangers that went in K-25. They put me back into cadets. I didn’t want to go. They were going to make me be a B-29 engineer. I had already spent 400 hours on engineer on a B-17 and I didn’t-- 

I didn’t want to go back. I said, “Just send me overseas.” Another one of these deals where I got pulled off the train. The funny part about it, my wife came down and stayed with me for a while. We were in a waffle house and we were eating waffles. I was reading a newspaper. It said the bomb dropped and it named Oak Ridge. I said, “Dolores, I’m free. I can talk now.” That’s when I ended up on the train with another set of orders. Ended up in Knoxville with a telephone number and ended up there.

Weisenberg: One question I had is, could you tell me a little bit more about who Dr. George Felbeck was?

Cole: Dr. Felbeck was president of Union Carbide. I got his letter in here. He was a brilliant man. He told my father, “I am not going to go anyplace in Union Carbide until I am a Ph.D.”

My father said, “Well, quit and go to school.”

He said, “I’ve got a family.”

He says, “Well, you’ve got enough money, it most likely can last long enough.”  They got in the car and they drove all the way across the United States and to Caltech. He got his Ph.D. there. Then he came back and became president of Union Carbide.

The worst part about it – did I tell you about his daughter? He had a stepdaughter because his little girl, he had a baby that died. He was going to go to see her. She was in Australia. She had married. He hated airplanes, wouldn’t go near them. But he got in the airplane, and I think it was at Kennedy [then New York International (Idlewild) Airport] and they just got off the ground and the airplane crashed, and he got killed. I thought everybody knew about that. Anything else you want to know?

Weisenberg: Jumping back a little bit. Could you tell me a little bit about where you were born and about your childhood?

Cole: I was born in Hartford, Connecticut in a house. We lived in the top of an unfinished – well, an old farmhouse. My father was working for Whitlock Coil Pipe Company. When I was born, World War I was stopping, and they were making torpedo tubes at that time. I grew up in Brooklyn. That was fantastic. Anything else I can add?

Weisenberg: You grew up in Brooklyn and then you were in the Army Air Corps? Is that right?

Cole: What happened, I worked in Glenn L. Martin on the B-26, PBM-1 [Mariner] and the [JRM] Mars. I was an inspector. I lived in an unfinished attic and no heat. I got tired of that kind of stuff. I said, “I am going home.” I stayed there almost a year, I guess. So I went home. My mother looked at me, “You are going to work!”

I drove out to Republic Aircraft and became an inspector there. I had a small part crib and I had five men working for me. I could see that I was young enough that they are going to nab me for the service. I got on a train and went to New York and went down to the lower part of Manhattan. A building – I know it had a big auditorium. There was about 300 people in there taking their test. I was sitting there taking a test with them to get in the service. I wanted to be a pilot.

Then they called my name out. When I got up, I figured I flunked the test. I had my coat on and was getting out. I started to get out and he says, “Is there a James S. Cole here?”

I said, “Here.”

He says, “Come in.” I found out I passed.

I said, “Well, when do I get my uniform?” We went out to Governor’s Island, got all of our shots and everything and signed [inaudible].

“We will call you.”

I had to go home and go back to work. I ended up teaching school in Freeport, Long Island –– aircraft construction, and how to read a micrometer, and how to rivet. I was there for about six months. Then I got my orders to go. I went with my parents to New York, got on a train. I went three days and three nights and ended up in San Antonio. I could say it was A Barracks. In those days they had upper and lowerclassmen. That’s fairly what you call chicken. I hated that, but I got pneumonia. I was in 43K; when I came back, they put me in 43J. I finished graduating –– you got your year of physics in one month. I had geometry and I had some math in aircraft school, but that was kind of tough, to get through that test. Then we went and got on a train and we went to – let me see, it wasn’t Enid. I’ll think about it, but we went to primary flying. I flew PT-19s for a little over 100 hours. I graduated from there and went to on to PT-15s. That’s where I met my wife.

That was kind of funny. I was in the barracks and I came out and I tripped, and my hands went out like that. It was gravel and I tore up my hands. I went to the dispensary and they bandaged them up. I went to the USO that night. I got there and there was a dance going on. There was a little girl dancing there. I went over and said, “Can I dance with you?”

“How can you dance? Your hands are all—”

I said, “I’ve got a thumb.” So she grabbed my thumb and we danced. Twenty-two days later, I married her. I had wonderful times at Y-12, though. God, the things I did there, you wouldn’t believe.

Weisenberg: Let’s move into that. You were friends with Jack Case, who was the plant manager. Is that right?

Cole: Jack Case was the plant manager of Y-12. He was a machinist himself, and I believe his original place – he was someplace in St. Louis out where there were manufacturing stuff for armament. He was an excellent machinist in his own right. When I got there, they made a coordinator out of me. There were five of us. I can’t remember half of them, but I was assigned a weapon. I didn’t know what they were. They said, “That one is yours.” I had to learn all about them. I learned enough about that one, its assembly and so forth.

We made two kinds. One, that was to prove to the government we could make that kind, and I can’t tell you what they were. But that was quite interesting. The other thing I did while I was there –– one of the guys from X-10 said, “How would you like to go over and go up in the towers?” There are two towers that go up and it had an outfit that could hang up a reactor. If you had a reactor in an airplane, could it stand it? But we got there. Let’s see, Tommy Webber, myself, Bill Forrester, and one of the superintendents. We got in an elevator and went 300 feet high on this thing. You look out –– if you want to see it, just drive out to the dam out here and you can see it.

We swung out and we went across the middle of it. The other guys, they were all holding on. With the heights and usually flying, it didn’t bother me. But that was something to go up top of those things. You ought to go out and look at it if you’ve got a chance. It’s beautiful.

Anything else you want? Oh, this interesting thing. We were working with tungsten at Y-12, and I worked for a brilliant engineer, Trygve Myhre. He is still alive. He lives in Knoxville. One time before Christmas, a Dr. Brewer came from the Army and said he had some drawings. He said, “Can you make this for us?” It was out of tungsten. Trygve got Glenn Northcott out of development. He was a metal specialist. Instead of using the straight tungsten, they concocted their own, which wasn’t legal, but they did it anyhow. Then that stuff went in the furnaces, very high furnaces [inaudible], until little tongues came out in the end of them.

When they cooled off, we were able to machine them. We machined them to the shape of the penetrator that was going into the guns that were in the tanks. We forgot about it. We sent them to them – we sent ten of them. I was sitting in the office once time and I could look across at Trygve. He has the phone to his ear and he said, “Sit down, I’m talking to a general.” He was pissed off. Excuse my language. What had happened – they had used it and it went through all the test armor they had. The other ones they had broke up. This one, whomp, and if I told you the steel –– the first plate was this thick. The second plate was this thick. The next plate was about this thick and they were all at a slant and they were welded together with space in between them.

We had things called – it was a long gun. It was so long that it bent. We put an A-frame on it and we could adjust it and make it perfectly straight. They pointed that out, and it actually went through a building and came out and hit these targets. Where we were sitting, we heard it go, “Boom.” Then I went out and looked at it. I believed it. The first hole like that and the blast hole was about that big. It went through all of them. They wanted to know what the hell we did after. I guess those were the ones that were used in Iraq.

Of course, we also made uranium ones. They were mean. They were made of three quarter titanium, I think. When they went through a tank, it burned up. There was nothing inside. That burned up everybody, people and all. They were just dust. It was something else.

Weisenberg: I had one other question about Jack Case. What was he like as a person?

Cole: Neat. You had to know him though. Before him, we sat in a great big cushion. We all sat down. He pumped us. At that time, he was superintendent. Then he would go out in the shops and he knew everything that went on. The foremen on the shops, they couldn’t put anything over on him. He knew what was going on. When he came and got his forte ­–– when you machine some of the parts we had, the finishes were so good and the tolerances so close, the American lathes we had in the basement of H-2 weren’t good enough. I mean, the tail stock and the spindle would go together. You put a part there, you couldn’t machine it accurately. He got a bunch of the millwrights out from 9201-1. They came in. They glued them up with grinding compounds. They worked those beds so that you could take a spindle here and two on this end. It was a tenth of a thousandth. That’s what did it. Jack Case is responsible for that.

We had another thing: we were machining a special part. In order to machine it, you had to machine it off a template. You stuck it in a lathe and the little [inaudible] would machine the shape of the template. O. C. Willard, my buddy, was operating the lathe. He was getting wild with it. He ran the stop into the side of the template, which was plastic, and put a dent into it. He figured he was fired. Jack Case came to look at it, because it made a special part in some of the weapons we were building at that time. He took the template and I don’t know what happened to it. All of a sudden it came back, and it looked perfect.

After Jack retired and we were back at the Elks abiding a little bit, I said, “Jack, where did they get that template?”

He said, “I went up to the plastic shop. ‘You guys keep telling me how good plastic you got. I want you to put some plastic that’s exactly as hard as that plastic in that hole.’” So they did it.

Then he took it and put it in a vise someplace and using his hands and tools, made that perfect surface. We never knew it. It made the parts perfectly. Nobody knew it until we were all around the back of Elks Lodge. I am the oldest member of that lodge. I go in once in a while. I am a member of the Eagles, too. That burned down. We are just rebuilding it. What else would you like to know? 

Weisenberg: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about who Clark Center was and how you knew him.

Cole: Clark Center came with Felbeck to our house in Brooklyn, 104 Woodruff Avenue. That’s where those little engines were made. On New Year’s, Tiny, his wife, Felbeck and Betty and my mother and father – I don’t know who the other couple was – but on New Year’s they would tear up the rugs and go dance. I can remember, I lived up in the attic in the house that my mother was born in. I knew that’s how they knew each other long before the K-25 was a thing. Of course, K-25 was built in two years. It’s absolutely amazing. That’s when I saw the drawings with some of it on my father’s drawing table. That’s when I got shut up. They moved to Rockville Center and we moved to Baldwin. We came back and forth. We were good friends. I don’t know where the hell Center went. But I think Clark Center put himself through school. I think, Michigan, playing the trumpet.

He worked for Union Carbide in West Virginia. He was in the manufacturing building looking out. One of the buildings was on fire. He went out and went inside and turned off the valves in it and it kept it from blowing up. That made him –– I mean because some of the superintendents in the plant saw it. They figured that he was a pretty good guy. I guess Felbeck brought him down to K-25.

My father came there one time. It was kind of interesting. I got a call to the office and Clark Center – there’s my old man. I think he said, “Get Grantham’s car,” and gave me the key. He said, “Take your father around and show him the plant.” I showed him every damn classified thing in the place because I knew he could see it. But he didn’t have a badge or anything when I took him all around.

Another thing that happened there. We were checking the water in the Clinch River and it had a high level of copper. We couldn’t figure out where that would come. One of the GIs, he decided maybe we could do something. He found something messing around. I think it was Calgon, which is an ordinary soap they use in washing. He put it in the water and that put a very tiny film on the copper tubing and the heat exchangers. The copper didn’t come off anymore. That stopped it. That’s another GI that did that. And Victor Hovis, I never thought there was anyone more brilliant than him. 

Weisenberg: One other question for you. Clark Center was the top manager at K-25, was that right? What did he do, and did you work with him regularly?

Cole: No. He just would always come around once in a while. He had a terrific memory. He could remember every guy he met. He was odd – we didn’t ever see him much because he was top dog. We never saw Felbeck much because he was all over Union Carbide.

Weisenberg: Could you tell me what buildings you worked in at Y-12?

Cole: I worked in Beta 2, Beta 4, 9201-1. That was a funny thing that happened there. I got a call because I got into work for others. I got out of the weapons stuff. I was more interested in it. We got a call from General Electric if we could fix a part for them. We didn’t know. Jack Case called me and said, “Take it on.” This thing comes in. It was about that round. It was a steam splitter that came from a nuclear plant. When the steam came in, it split and went to a motor here and this one to this side. The surface had got bunged up and they didn’t tell me how. They sent an engineer down with him and he wasn’t cleared. So they had to clear him, and everywhere I went, he had to go with me.

 I figure, I saw this thing. I said, “Well, ship it up to Beta 4.” Beta 4 had some large vertical boring nails and they had plates that were six feet in diameter. I was able to put the face of one with the face sticking up on the other, so we could look at it. But if we machined on it, we would make it small and we couldn’t do that. I thought, “If I could weld on it and build up a surface, that might work.” But then I didn’t know what the material was. We dug some out and I sent it to the laboratory, and I sent it over to Dash-1 and they found me a welder who was qualified to weld on that steel. He got on a chair while this thing was rotating very, very slow. He used a Heliarc and he welded a beautiful bead all around both surfaces. Then we took the machine and actually machined across that surface and made it a perfect surface. I had it inspected and so forth. I called this guy up and I sent this engineer back. I said, “Did you want to inspect it?”

“No, it looks fine. Send it.” I never heard anything more about it. It left. That was some of the things that we got into, but that was an interesting one.

Then we made a thing. Let’s see, 9201-1 was the main machine shop. Tommy Webber ended up over that and took primarily what Jack Case used to do. He is still alive, and he lives in Knoxville. One heck of a nice guy. That was a tremendous machine shop.  All of the uranium was welded in carbon. It had big molds about this wide and this high. You put it in the furnaces like – how can I describe it? Like a microwave furnace. This carbon was in this microwave and then we melted the uranium. When we took it out of being a billet, we could take it and put a rolling mill, which was down in the basement, and rolled it down into sheet. With two mills, with the big mill, we could roll it down easily to a quarter of an inch. But the thing that we put in there, I mean, uranium in this thing and this high, just think how many tons that weighed. There was a lot of things we did.

One thing that we did: the armor on tanks is not a plate of steel. Part of it is, but then it’s got fins all the way around, covered over. So that if a penetrator hits it, and hits a high-density material, it’s just off to the side. It becomes a dud. They wanted some tungsten plate. We didn’t have any rolled tungsten plate. I had cast some little disks about this big and about this round, and put them in a lathe, and machined them until they were only sixteenths of an inch thick. I made about, I don’t know, ten of them. I just put them in a paper bag and stuck them in my pocket and walked out the gate. 

Trygve went, “Where the hell did you get that?” I guess I was a pretty sneaky guy. I don’t know what materials they are using now, but I know they were using aluminum once and I just told them –– I went to a meeting at one of the universities that had a bunch of them –– I just told them it wasn’t any good. They wouldn’t believe me. And they used it and it wasn’t any good.

Weisenberg: One other question I had for you was if you could tell me a little bit about what the Special Engineer Detachment was and why that was important in the Manhattan Project.

Cole: The Special Engineer Detachment. They were looking for people, couldn’t get any engineers. Everybody else was in the service. They looked all over the United States, and they found out that if they could get a guy that had two years’ experience, and still in school, they could get him in the engineer. If you look in this book, you can see right on the end. If I just open up a page, you can see. This one was at Saint Vincent’s. This was in Lawrence Institute. This was in Indiana University. This was in North Carolina. All of these different schools, the guys had some mechanical experience. If you look in that book, there is over 1,500 of them, and they were the guys you don’t know. They operated the plant. They were the ones that were doing it. Sure, we had a lot of civilians, but they were the ones.

We did funny things like they told me to go down and find out –– General Electric had made an instrument to check the plant air, the instrument air, because they were worried of being contaminated. They had this unit in there and it was always going bad. I didn’t know about that damn thing. I went down, and I looked at it. I saw it had a mirror about that big which the air was going on. I looked at it. I didn’t see any.

Then I was out one time – I think it was somebody came in the room, because it was right on the outside. It looked iridescent, so I took some paper or cotton or something and I wiped it all off and took it to the laboratory. They analyzed it and it was engine oil. The pumps that pumped the air, you couldn’t stop it. What you had to do was periodically go in and clean that mirror, and that’s all you had to do. That was what was one of the funny things we did.

I played on the basketball team at K-25. I played against Carson-Newman. I played against the University of Maryland. I wasn’t very good. I was too little. 

Weisenberg: How did you get involved with the basketball team?

Cole: I think it was in one of these gyms and I was playing. I knew enough about it. When I was in Brooklyn, I played a lot of basketball in church. I played two or three times a week, I loved to play. They gave me a blue uniform. I didn’t play much, because everybody was so big. My wife was with me when we were watching Carson-Newman play. I had brought the ball that way and faked a guy and to stop it, he put his fist out and hit me in the nose and made a dent in it and made my wife mad. She was going after him with an umbrella. We did a lot of crazy things. Yeah, it was something.

I remember one time I was driving my little Ford. The generator was getting screwed up. I got it in the kitchen. I lived at 111 Esper Road. I took it out of the car and I put it in the kitchen. I took out the brushes and they were worn. Where do you go to get brushes for a ’40 Ford convertible in the middle of Tennessee? They didn’t even know what the car looked like. I found a little place, some auto maintenance had some brushes. I took the brushes and with a pair of plyers, I [inaudible] one until it fitted in and connected in. When I sold, they were still in; they worked fine. But those are the things we had happen to us.

Weisenberg: You just kind of had to make do, it sounds like sometimes.

Cole: We always were doing that. We had a garden. I knew what a tree was, but I am from Brooklyn, I didn’t know how to damn garden, but that was fun. 

We were flying in a [B-]17 at night. The pilot was twenty years old. The copilot was nineteen. The engineer was twenty-two, that was me. We had been out doing our flying. We were coming in and we let the gear down. The guy on the left-hand side said, “I’ve got a gear” or “I’ve got a wheel.” The one on the right side said, “I don’t.” None of them knew about it, they didn’t know about the mechanics of the airplane. They could fly one; they knew how the instruments worked and how all the flying instruments worked. I opened the door. I went out into the bomb bay, and put my foot on the center. The bomb bay door, got it over, and up here was a clamp and I pulled out. We had a crank. I put it in the hole and 250 turns I turned that wheel down and then I took it out. We put it back in and the pilots came back and flew back over the tower and asked if the wheel was down. The guy said, “It appears to be down.” We landed and when I got in, I had to report that the landing gear motor was burned up. So it had to be removed and put in.

The other thing that is kind of interesting on those things. 3:00 in the morning, I got called up and said, “Your airplane is ready.”

I said, “That’s nice. What’s it ready for?”

“It’s ready for you to inspect it to get it back on the line.” I got in a tug with a guy and I went down to the maintenance building. There was my plane, H-95, sitting out. He said, “Go and inspect it.” I go in the back door and climb up, get in the pilot’s seat. Flick on the electric switch, closed and cracked the throttle, and put the mixture control in full rich. Pushed the starter. And boom, I’ve got number two engine started. I started that one first. The reason you start that one up first, the hydraulic pump is in there. The only hydraulic system in that airplane is in the brakes. You didn’t want to have the damn engine going without your brakes on. So I put that one on.

Then you start all four engines. Then you have got to check the mixture control. You have got to check all the instruments, see that they are all operating correctly. Change the [inaudible]. When it’s all done, I had a piece of paper in my lap, and I had to sign it off, buck private. I was at K-25 one month and I ended up as a T/5 [Technician Fifth Grade]. Everybody up there was either a Master Sergeant or better. They deserved it.

I had a weapon that I was in charge of and it shipped to Rocky Flats. There was a mountain. We drove up there and all the parts for that weapon had to go down a hole, which was about this big and it had two levels. It was on the end of a cable of a crane that was a back away. That lowered you down. The only light you had was a miner’s lamp. You went down 700 feet in the ground. You get out there, and there is the place where you are going to assemble the weapon. That was quite an experience. The funny part is you go up – the altitude. They had to go real fast because the air became lean and there wasn’t enough oxygen really to run the engines good. We would go wide open up that hill to get up to the top. That was fun to do.

I don’t know whether it was fun or not, but we were 100 miles out of Las Vegas. We went that 100 miles every night to play the machines.

Weisenberg: Were you stationed in Nevada for a time?

Cole: No, I wasn’t stationed. We just went there to do that and then went home. We flew out and did it. Most of the engineers and physicists on the bombs came out of New Mexico. They were pretty nice guys. There was one guy that came out. Had a partial wooden leg. He was weird, but a nice guy. He would be sitting at the desk talking to me, and he would go take a tack and tack his stocking when one of the girls would come in. “What are you doing!?”

 But Jack Case liked him. He brought a lot of work out to the plant, work for others. He was interested in having a blue hound. One of the guys in the basement raised him and he had one. They made a crate out with the carpenter shop out in the maintenance building. They had the crate. This guy comes in with the dog and puts it in the crate and they took it in the airplane. He took it back to Livermore. That’s kind of a weird one, isn’t it?

Weisenberg: About the exhibit [“Man and the Atom”] in New York. Was there anything you wanted to say about that?

Cole: When we got the job to do, some of the engineering on the shape and so forth came in, but to finish and to get the materials and get the pump, and put it together, we did that in the basement of 1401. We got it to run in there. The biggest problem was getting the balls to weigh right and all the same. We used hypodermic needles and Meriam red oil about a specific gravity of one, which is about the same as water. We would put them in there until we would get them and weigh them until they were right. We were able to get some to go through and some not to get through. We thought it was gone. All of a sudden, they told us to get down there and exhibit it. The worst part of that place, we ended up exhibiting everything. And X-10 didn’t have any people there, but they had some hands that weren’t worked – when you could work with contamination inside a glass place. We learned how to use them and exhibit them when people came in.

The other thing that bothered us was we had a little movie with a tape in it that was always breaking. We had to learn how to play that and all of the visitors were coming in one day and that damn thing was broken. We were in there working like mad to get that thing done. Just in time, we got it working so they could see the picture. I guess we had to go up there a couple of weeks. My wife wasn’t too happy.

Do you know where Madison Avenue was? I worked with my uncle who was in World War I. He was an artist and had a business up there. I did errands for him when I was a kid. He gave me ten dollars a month or something like that. Money was – you could get anything for a dollar. I mean for a dollar you could get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. You got anything else you want?

Weisenberg: I want to know more about what your thoughts are on the Manhattan Project and its legacy and if your thoughts about that have changed at all over the years.

Cole: I think it was maybe one of the marvels of the world. When you figure that thing [K-25] is almost a mile along all the way around and it was made in two years, and it stopped World War II. When they dropped those bombs on the Japanese, that was it.

 It was an amazing, amazing thing. Some of the things, the developing of the special materials that separated it, I mean some of the machinery that did that. Now, Gordon Fee was over that building. He might be able to pump in on that, but I don’t know how much he will say. I won’t; it was highly classified.

 There was another thing that Victor did. I don’t know if I talked about it. When they were going to use centrifuges to separate the U-2[3]5 and U-2[3]6 [misspoke: uranium-238], they were going to try to do it with centrifuges. Well, the Vilbiss made a centrifuge. They gave it to Victor to check it. He checked them. They wouldn’t run a half a day, and they would tear up. We wanted to them to run and run and run. He took them out and he went into the machine shop and he talked to Ben Clayton, the foreman. He found this old balancing machine. They put the rotors in the balance machine and cut the fins so that when it twirled, it was in perfect balance. Then he put them back into the Vilbiss with new bearings and it started to run. And it ran and ran and ran. He left overnight and came back in the morning and they were still running. That was the proof of that. He was one of the granddaddies, I always felt, because the centrifuges are the thing now.

 Of course, when we ran K-25 up to 93 percent, that closed up Y-12. The big problem there was we had to give the government back their silver. You had lots of the metal and the stuff we made out of it. We had to take it to the foundry and melted it back into bricks instead. That’s before they could take it to wherever they keep this stuff. But that guy was something.

Victor was really quite a guy. That’s a picture of him in there. I felt he was one of the top dogs. The instrument shop we had was excellent. When you figure they had to take care of all of those glass equipment that was up in the foundry. Think of something else?

Weisenberg: Do you remember where you were when you heard about the atomic bombings?

Cole: I knew it was a bomb when my wife and I were eating in a waffle house in Biloxi, Mississippi. That’s when I knew I was released. That’s when I knew pretty much about it. They were brilliant, brilliant people to do this. Certainly, where do they get all the mechanics and the people that could put that together? They had to find a place for them to live. They had hutments that had a little stove that not only heated the water for them, so they could take a shower –– you cooked in it. You did everything. They were something.

 The thing that annoyed me, I guess, living up in New England when I did, I knew there was a color separation [at Oak Ridge]. I didn’t like that. When I first got in the building, some of the toilets were marked “Black” or “White.”

Another thing, they couldn’t eat with us in the cafeteria. They had their own place to eat, at the other cafeteria. I didn’t like that. Because when I was in Erasmus Hall High School, we had people of color in it, damn nice people.

Weisenberg: What do you remember about the secrecy and the security at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project?

Cole: We kept our mouths shut. You didn’t talk about it. If you talked about something you should’ve kept quiet, the one you talked to shut you up. Everybody kept it quiet. There’s so much. So much happened.

Weisenberg: Are there other stories from K-25 or from Y-12 that you would like to share?

Cole: The other thing is we had bicycles. Everybody was stealing your bicycle. I don’t know. I would go by and somebody could take my bicycle. Heck, I snatched somebody else’s, because you know if you had to turn a valve, you had to get on a bike and go like mad and turn it. Get that set off. But they did a lot of stuff. 

Weisenberg: K-25 was so large that you needed bicycles to get around.

Cole: It’s like going around Madison Square Garden. I mean it’s large. I mean the width was about from there to there and you walked through. You would see all the way down. The little girls sitting in front of the mass spectrometers watching them. They had to be sure the dry ice was there and working properly. But it’s amazing that there were that many GIs here. As far as I’m concerned, they didn’t get enough. They did everything. I mean they did manual work, they did arithmetic, they did mathematics, they did inventing. They did everything. They were good. They came all the way from all over the United States.

Actually, I enlisted in ’42 because for six months I was on the loose, having to make a living. When I was working on a B-47, you would have to go out and work overtime. Then you would have to come early to get on again because they were so short of people. I used to go down to the shore, put a blanket out, and sleep on the sand. Go take a nap, get up and come back.

Teaching school was fun down there. How to use a micrometer. I had two black youngsters. They were the best riveters I ever had. They were so hand talented and they got so they were very quick. You had to put a lot of rivets in. A B-26 was made up of four sections. It was really a killer when it first came out. It had two R-2800 engines, which were 2,000 horsepower a piece. They would do 300 miles an hour and coming in on the ground, the wing was so short, they’d hit speeds of 150 miles an hour on landing. When you put the brakes on, you turn them up and they had accidents. I know in the future, I don’t know when it happened, they increased the area of the wing. But putting rivets or inspection of the rivets on a Mars up on that wing, I mean it’s scary looking down. You are so damn high. I never did much of that. They made an amphibian called a PBM-3. They made one, two, and three, but three was a fine one. 

Weisenberg: What did you do for recreation in Oak Ridge during the war and after? 

Cole: Played softball, gardened. Took the kids to school when they were old enough. We played softball. Dolores and I played tennis. We did a lot of dancing. They had good bands come here. It was very active. The people were active people. They were intelligent. The GIs were a lot of fun. We had all the usual and you know, we had our own place. We could shoot pool. Yeah.

 We did a lot of fishing. We used to fish and caught stripes and crappie. We used to catch about 300 pounds of fish and filet them. We would have a feed at K-25 for all the people. We did that. That was fun.

My son still fishes. He has got three boats. He has got a nice runabout – I think it’s got a 25. It’s pretty fast. It’s completely equipped with fish finders and all. Then he’s got a smaller one. A town boat, but its front is [inaudible] and he has a nine horsepower on that and it’s got all the equipment on it. They will go out on a Saturday and catch ten or fifteen fish. He goes out with his son-in-law.

Weisenberg: It sounds like he inherited that from you.

Cole: Oh, yeah. We were out below Melton Hill Dam with Dolores, my son, and we had the boat pulled up in the mud. We saw some rippling. It was cold, just before Christmas. We were fishing with light tackle, six-pound test lines with lures we made. The three of us, we took the fish we caught and threw them up on the bank and they froze. We took them home and it filled up a can about that high.

There was a guy in Clinton said, “Any fish you have just bring me.”

I said, “Well, come on.”

He said, “Don’t you ever do that again. We were up 3 o’clock in the morning cleaning fish.” I forget his name. They are still catching stripes just the way I showed him how to do it. But my son-in-law is a good fisherman. I have got a stepson and a stepdaughter, they are both nuclear engineers. They graduated from University of Tennessee. They went five years. One of them works on aircraft carriers. The other one works on submarines in Virginia.

Weisenberg: I think we are almost done. Is there anything else you would like to share?

Cole: I don’t know. I sit down in the corner and then I start thinking of a lot of stuff. Making the seals and the mass spectrometers, and making the gaskets to stop the leaks, those were important. Those were done by GIs. The seal work was done by a GI. I think one of the interesting things was the manufacturing of UF6. They tried to do it in vibrating trays, but they only ended up with one tray that would work.

I think they took the yellow UO2F2 and they hit it with hydrogen and that made it – I guess it was UF2. That was put in a column and we had trouble figuring out how fast to make it go up the column. We had they call a rage dry and we had a bicycle sparking on the bottom of it. And on this side, we had another bicycle and a bicycle chain and a handle on the rage dry so it could change the rates. Then the powder would go up and go into a splitter and drop down in the column where it was hit with fluorine and hydrogen. What could be worse? When it burned, it made a red spot on the side of the column and it turned to UF6 and it went out and went into the cooling. That was what went in the plant. But that was all developed by GIs and civilians, but mostly.

It was funny. One of the GIs that was there, Don Brader, he was qualified as an engineer, but he didn’t have a degree. But he was damn smart. When he got discharged, he comes in not as a civilian, but in an Army uniform. He was a spy. He belonged to the watchdogs, but he was awfully good, and he did a lot of good stuff. I know my father also, his company made one of those towers. I think they were made out of [inaudible].

Weisenberg: What was your father’s name?

Cole: Edwin B. Cole. He was one of the most terrific engineers I ever knew and I knew a lot of them. As far as handwork and using his hands, he could do anything. When I was a kid and I had a little, and it busted. Well, he went and got a – we had a coal furnace, anthracite coal. He went in there and made it. He went in there, banged one and made one. That guy, I mean he could do anything.

Weisenberg: A little bicycle for you?

Cole: Well, yeah, I had one bicycle and busted it up. My mother wouldn’t let me fix it. So I went around on roller skates. I would go in anyplace in Brooklyn on roller skates. A roller skate cost 15 a roll and I never had enough money. But if I had a dime or 15 cents, I would go by the cigar stores off of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, there was a cigar store that had a one-armed bandit. I put it in and I would always lose it, but every once in a while, I would hit it for a couple of dollars. Well, then I get a couple of dollars’ worth of wheels. I wore a set of wheels out every month. I mean I could go anyplace in Brooklyn, I knew it. When I got interested in airplanes, I used to go out to Floyd Bennett Field. Before it was there, it was just the sand dunes.  They had some old aircraft there, biplanes taking people up. Then they built Floyd Bennett Field. I used to hitch down there. I could take the trolley car down at the end, and I would get there. I would go and then I sold tickets for Jack Socky. He was a milkman during the night and he would fly during the day, passengers. Every six tickets I sold, I could go up with him for a ride. But that was quite a place. I saw the entirety of the United States Army Air Force land there. You know the bombers and the fighters and so forth.

That’s a lot of time here. But my wife was to me one of the most fascinating persons. She was only 19 when we got married. She was an excellent fisherman, a terrific baker. I got tapes of her showing how she made coffee rings and stuff. All our names are down here, you know. You know where that place is down here. 

Weisenberg: On the walk, the Secret City Walk?

Cole: Her name is there.

Weisenberg: You said her name was Dolores?

 Cole: Dolores. Yeah. She lived almost in poverty in the place. Enid, Oklahoma was such a poor town to have an airfield. You know, it was an oil town. So she was appreciative of everything she got. That’s what was nice.