The Manhattan Project

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Marilyn Hanna's Interview

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Marilyn Hanna's Interview

Marilyn Hanna was born on a farm in Spencer, South Dakota, and was trained as a clerk typist. She worked for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge and later for the Security and Patent divisions in Washington, DC. She remembers meeting General Leslie Groves and Glenn Seaborg, as well as an accidental meeting with Admiral Hyman Rickover while stuck in traffic, which resulted in Rickover offering her and her friends doughnuts.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
August 14, 2013
Location of the Interview: 
Palo Alto
Transcript: 

Emily Efland: I’m Emily Efland and I am with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. Today is August 14, 2013, and we’re interviewing Marilyn Hanna. 

So first, could you give me your name and spell it.

Marilyn Hanna: My name is Marilyn Hanna. M-A-R-I-L-Y-N. H-A-N-N-A.

Efland: And could you tell me about when you were born? Where you born?

Hanna: Yes. I was born on a farm in South Dakota; Spencer, South Dakota. And I graduated from high school in 1941.

Efland: So how did you first become involved with the Manhattan Project?

Hanna: It was through a civil service exam I took, and they sent me to Provo as a clerk typist, $1440 per annum.

Efland: So someone recruited you from Provo?

Hanna: Yes. A request came in for me to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, and there I was in the mail and records department. I loved the lady in charge, and I thought the Dewey Decimal System was interesting. And I met a good friend there, Dorothy Bryant. And one of our checks, we bought fur coats. And I was probably there a couple years. And then two requests came in from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, clerk typist, and we accepted. And when we got there, we lived in a dorm and both of us were sent to the personnel office in the administration building.

Efland: How much were you told about your job at Oak Ridge?

Hanna: Absolutely nothing, because we were all aware of security, of course. 

Our job at Oak Ridge, actually they did not tell us anything about it. When we got there, we lived in a dorm, and we both were sent to the personnel office in the administration building. I loved the people there. From the New Yorkers, they invited us to their city, and from Tennessee I met a great friend, Mary Tolliver. And one day, they asked Mary and me to ride some horses for a feature of “A Day in Oak Ridge,” and it is displayed there. We were very young, and we were very mindful of security, but we socialized a lot at the recreation hall and it was very—you can almost say it was enjoyable there. 

Efland: What kinds of activities did they have for the people living in Oak Ridge?

Hanna: Well, you know, we were all so young that, we only went to the rec hall, listening to music and dancing.

Efland: How old were you when you first got there?

Hanna: I must have been 19. I think I was—when I got there, I was 19 years old.

Efland: How long did you stay there for?

Hanna: I know I was in D.C. by 1945.

Efland: During the course of the war, did you learn more about the Manhattan Project? Or were you never aware what you were working on?

Hanna: No we were never aware, never asked.

Efland: So how did you transfer to D.C.?

Hanna: Two requests came in for Atomic Energy [Commission] for typist, and we accepted. And I was placed in the Security Division. Bryan LaPlante was in charge. All newcomers were sent upstairs to meet General Groves. And I actually—should I go on? I actually met by chance several historical figures. In the Security Division, one of the agents, Captain Blair, asked me to go to the Pentagon. While we were standing in the Pentagon, Field Marshal Montgomery comes in, and he and Captain Blair saluted. 

And then one day, a very surprise meeting was with Admiral Rickover. We lived in McLean Gardens, there were women dorms and men dorms, and we all ate in the same cafeteria. There was another AEC employee named Joe Deo and if we met at the same time, he would give us a ride to work. So we were on our way to work, traffic was terrible and we stopped in one lane and the car in the next lane was also stopped, Admiral Rickover was in the car, he got out with a box of donuts, and he gave Em, Dolores and I and Joe Deo a donut. 

So one other time, I had transferred from security to the Patent Branch and I was a receptionist for Roland Anderson from Brooklyn, New York. And a man came to my desk and I asked him his name and he said, “Seaborg.” 

And I of course did not know him, so I told Mr. Anderson, “Seaborg is here.” He jumped up and put his coat on, and I escorted Glenn Seaborg in to Mr. Anderson.

Efland: So going back to your time at Oak Ridge, can you talk a little bit about your living situation there?

Hanna: Yes. In the dorm it was sparse, but two single beds and a tiny closet. And it was comfortable. We did not mind at all.

Efland: Were the dorms similar in D.C.?

Hanna: Oh, in D.C., it was much different. At Arlington Farms, it was all single rooms, but small. But McLean Gardens was different. It was just nicer.

Efland: How long did you work in D.C. in the Security Division for?

Hanna: I worked in D.C., I would probably say, two years.

Efland: And when you were working in security, what was your job like?

Hanna: I was a clerk typist, just typing.

Efland: Did you learn anything more about your work and the Manhattan Project then?

Hanna: I think—no, I did not really learn any more. But when they actually knew that the bomb was being made, I had already left Oak Ridge. I did know that much, but that would be all.

Efland: When did you learn that you had been working for the Manhattan Project?

Hanna: I think I knew I was working at the Manhattan Project. There were a lot of New Yorkers there, but you got so mindful of security, you could just type something. Yyou would just only hope—you know, it was carbon copies then, and you would only hope that you did not make a mistake. Whatever it was about, I mean, you got so used to, you did not even pay it any attention.

Efland: So were you typing confidential information?

Hanna: Oh, everything was practically top secret.

Efland: What could you tell your family about what you were doing in Oak Ridge and D.C.?

Hanna: What did I tell them? I enjoyed it. I was typing a lot. I met a lot of people from everywhere. It was very interesting.

Efland: So my question, I was wondering if everyone got to know each other very well when they were working.

Hanna: Oh, yes, yes. I had lots of friends.

Efland: I know you mentioned you were horseback riding for that picture. What kinds of activities did you do? You said you went to the rec hall, but did you also go horseback riding or do more outdoorsy things?

Hanna: No. Like I said, we were so young; we just enjoyed meeting everyone and listening to music and dancing.

Efland: Were you married at the time?

Hanna: No, no, no.

Efland: And did you have any other connection to the war besides your work for the project?

Hanna: Oh, yes I had four brothers fighting, and two cousins from home fighting overseas. They were having a terrible time.

Efland: Did you ever speak to them about your work for the project?

Hanna: No. No.

Oh, after the war I did receive a certificate from Atomic Energy Commission, and actually I took it to my aunt’s home. She was going to get everyone who had been fighting together, so I brought it to show. Well, after I heard that Norman was wounded and Cyril was shot twice, Glenn was in prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, my cousin Gene was in the Ack-Ack [anti-aircraft fire], my other cousin Burl had flown fifteen missions. My life just sort of paled, and after that I did not keep the certificate. 

Efland: What was the relationship like between the military and the civilians when you worked for the Security Division in D.C.?

Hanna: Oh, in D.C.? I do not remember it close to the military. Like in Oak Ridge there was Navy, Army.

Efland: Were you in contact much with people who worked in the Army or did they keep—

Hanna: Only at dancing. And they were young people. 

Yes. When we were socializing, yes, I did meet people from the Army, Navy, all the young people.

Efland: Could you talk about what it was like to meet General Groves?

Hanna: When Mr. LaPlante said that we should go to see—all newcomers should go and see General Groves, I remember going there meeting him, but I do not remember anything about what he said even.

When I saw pictures of Hiroshima that came in the Security Division, it was horrifying, but I also knew how all of our men were facing terrible challenges and especially at Okinawa. It was not nice to see, but I also thought about all the fighting men.

Efland: Do you keep in touch with anyone from Oak Ridge or D.C. during that time?

Hanna: No, I wish I had. I wish I would have kept in contact with Em, Dolores, and Mary. I did hear she married a Navy officer. In fact, all of my friends did find someone to marry.

Efland: In Oak Ridge?

Hanna: No, later. 

Efland: Were most of your friends, had they come right out of high school then?

Hanna: Yes. We were all very young.

Efland: Do you have any other stories that you would like to share about your time either in Oak Ridge or D.C.? 

Hanna: Atomic Energy did have dances for everyone and it was very social. And I remember dancing with my boss, Roland Anderson. That is about all I remember. But it was—all of the divisions would get together.

Efland: Did you mostly spend time with people working on the project in D.C.? Because I know in Oak Ridge, it is a lot more isolated, so it is easier to confine people and have everything be secret.

Hanna: No. Actually I went on a blind date with one of my friends from—working there. And I met my husband.

Efland: Were people working very hard at Oak Ridge? Did it seem like there was stress to meet a deadline.

Hanna: Yes, you were very serious at work.

Efland: The same with D.C.?

Hanna: Oh, yes the same. Um-hm.

Efland: I don’t know if I asked you this exactly before, but do you remember the exact moment that you found out you had been working on the Manhattan project?

Hanna: The exact moment I found out was wwhen I read or heard about the people in Oak Ridge celebrating. Oh, not that is not it. That was when the bomb—they found out it was the bomb. But I do not know. Somehow or another, I knew that it was always the Manhattan Project. I do not know how, if it was from letters or what, but I knew that it was.

Efland: When you were working there?

Hanna: Um-hm.

Efland: But when did you find out that the Manhattan Project was to create the bomb?

Hanna: There was never any information on that and no one knew until it was dropped in Hiroshima.

Efland: Were you working for the Security Division when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima?

Hanna: Yes, I did see the pictures from Hiroshima.

Efland: What was the reaction in the Security Division?

Hanna: One of the security agents showed me the pictures and I said, “It is absolutely terrible.” 

And he said, “I think I will go to lunch.” It did not bother him at all. 

Efland: Did you find that most people had his reaction or yours?

Hanna: You know, that is the only person that I actually know who looked at it when I looked at it.

Barbara Hoffman (daughter): Well, the only other thing I can remember you talking about is how it was an exciting time to be a woman. I mean, there were so many opportunities, like you could go to Provo and then you went to Nebraska and then Oak Ridge and D.C., that it was an exciting time, all the jobs.

Hanna: It was because of the shortage of labor.

Hoffman: Right, and so in a way, you kind of entered the workforce at a time when there was great need for women and it gave a lot of opportunities.

Hanna: Yes, there were more women than men working at Oak Ridge, it seemed like.

Well, I actually enjoyed living on the farm when you could ride a horse every day. But when we thought of going to Oak Ridge, you know, nineteen years old, we thought of plantations, hoop skirts, you know. We are very excited about that, but I just totally enjoyed moving and meeting so many different people.

Efland: Did Oak Ridge seem very modern compared to where you came from?

Hanna: No, it seemed like a working place. No.

 Everyone I worked with was young and a woman. I enjoyed it very much.

Efland: Did it seem like a different environment compared to other places you might have worked? Were you surprised to be working with so many other young women?

Hanna: No I enjoyed it, but I knew that all the men were at war and I expected to see a lot of women. 

This is a picture from Oak Ridge. One day Mary—oh, did I do that—asked me if I could ride a horse and of course I said yes. So she said they wanted us to ride some Army horses for—depicting a day in Oak Ridge. So we agreed to.

But I wanted to tell you about the getting to Oak Ridge. The government made these accommodations on the railroad with a berth, and we were just fascinated. That was a long way from our farm in South Dakota. 

This picture of the Security Division at Atomic Energy Commission. Mr. Bryan LaPlante was in charge. The security agents were there, and this was me and this is a picture of McLean Gardens, where we worked. The government had made all arrangements, everything was great and we even—there was a cafeteria for us and everything. 

This is a picture of me that was taken at Oak Ridge, I was probably nineteen. My friend Mary Tolliver and I exchanged photos. That is it.

Efland: Do you remember what they were taking your photo for?

Hanna: We did this on our own.

Efland: Okay.

Hanna: Yeah. We were good friends.