Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy, and I’m in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, today. It is January 21, 2015, and I have with me Martin J. Skinner, Sr. The first question I’m going to ask him, though, is to say his name and spell it.
Martin Skinner: Oh, really. Martin Skinner, M-A-R-T-I-N. Last name Skinner, S-K-I-N-N-E-R.
Kelly: Terrific. Well, we are going to take about who you are and how you happened to end up on the Manhattan Project. So, why don’t you start with when you were born, your birthdate, and—
Skinner: I was born January 9, in 1923, in Michigan, just outside of Detroit. I went to the local high school. Went after four years there, I went to Michigan State University and was trained chemical engineering.
The fall of my sophomore year, all of us were given an opportunity to join the enlisted reserve and stay in school. Well, I stayed in school three months and the Army called me. I went through an induction center in Chicago, Illinois, and from there I was sent to Sheppard Field, Texas. It’s an Air Force base without any planes, or it had no planes at that time. They just had lots of dormitories with 100,000 people, mostly of Mexican descent.
One of the days, a few days after we got there, one of the other fellows from Michigan State came running and said, “There’s a sign up on the wall to sign up for additional education.” So all of us signed up. Well, they came and went and lots of people shipped out and nothing happened. And, suddenly, they put me on a bus and we went to—I can’t remember the name of the town in Texas, right on the Louisiana border.
From there, I was sent to LSU, Louisiana State University, as a student in the Army specialized training program. I was there nine months, three quarters, and then I was sent to Washington University of St. Louis, for the advanced Army specialized training program. We shipped out of there by train, and the next morning we were in a city. I didn’t know where it was. They put us in trucks with side curtains down. We couldn’t see anything. Drove us, or we stopped one time, which I think now was one of the guards’ gates at Oak Ridge, and then we went on to the Army encampment in Oak Ridge. Of course, at that time, it wasn’t Oak Ridge.
From there on, I was assigned to work in one of the production buildings as an electrical mechanic. Our job was to keep all the things with the calutron going. Since I’m going to be talking about calutron now, I think I’ll tell you a little bit about how calutron operates. First of all, the name, C-A-L comes from California, the ‘U’ comes from university, T-R-O-N comes from cyclotron, because the cyclotron at the University of California was where they demonstrated that they would be able to separate uranium-235 from 238, with u-235 being the material they needed for the bomb.
The calutron is a device which operates in an extremely high vacuum. There is a source unit here and a receiver up here. In the source unit, vapors of the material you’re going to separate are ionized by passing through an intense electron beam. They come out with applied voltages, and one of the nice things here, is that this is a magnetic field and the ions via physics go in a circular path. One of the parameters that determines the radius of that circular path is the atomic weight.
Since uranium-238 is slightly heavier than 235, it goes a little farther. So at 180 degrees from the beginning, there is a separation—not very much, but there is a separation. All of the material then can be taken out. The product is in a separate container at the receiver. It’s processed to recover the material, and then the process begins all over again. It looks rather simple, but here is a photograph of just the source unit, and these are, you can see the cooling lines and there’s heaters, and there’s filaments and electrodes, and all of these have to be very exactly placed to get the beam to focus on the receiver. Anyway, that’s how a calutron is.
But my job—and I was on the shift with another GI—our job was to keep all of the units running in that part of the building. There were thirty-six calutrons in the part of the building where we were assigned, and so there were thirty-six electrical cubicles. Each contained all the electrical equipment for a single calutron.
One of the most frequent problems we had was that mercury vapor lamps, bulbs, burned out, and they were positioned on top of a transformer inside of the cubicle, under a metal shield. It took time to take the bolts out that have the shield, replace the bulb, put the shield back in, put the bolts back in. You had to be careful that you didn’t drop the bolts down behind the transformer, or you had to go get another bolt.
I devised a little clip that would hold this cover in place adequately, that could be just slipped off with a screwdriver or a pair of pliers. I submitted that as a process improvement, and so I earned $75 for it. But, then I got a notice from the Army that I couldn’t be paid, because I was in the Army. But, that little clip is this and my key to each cubicle is this. I’ve tried this key in another building and it doesn’t work, so it must have been specifically for the building I was in. This is one of the filaments that was illustrated in the other photograph.
We worked shift work there in what we called the Beta-1 Building 9731, 9204-1, for about a year and a half. We were on rotating shifts. And near the end of 1945—I went to Y-12 first in 1944 in September, I believe—and in late 1945, the government announced that they were going to discharge all of the Army people. They took us off active work in the buildings and put us to making all Alpha, or first-stage separators, on stand-by. All we did was paint conduit, paint the pipes, paint. You painted as high as you could reach, because there were no ladders.
This got to be kind of boring, and so I heard that there was a possible opening in 9731 Building. Of course, it was the pilot plant building. They had begun work on the separation of stable isotopes. So two of us went over there and met with the director, Dr. [Alec] Proskine, and he hired us. Of course, that made the Army people mad that we had slipped out of line, but we knew we were going to get out of the Army anyway. So, we went to work for him, and then our discharge came about in March of ’46, I guess it was, yes, March of ’46. I went home for a week and then I was offered a job back in Oak Ridge doing the same thing as I had as a GI, but with civilian pay.
They were in the process of beginning the stable isotope separation research. One of the, I guess it was in ’47, a group was asked to enrich a sample that contained some uranium-236, a uranium isotope that doesn’t exist in nature, but is formed in a nuclear reactor. They had a sample, and they wanted to have the 236 enriched so they could see its properties.
So about the time that I went back into the stable isotope group, they were beginning that work. We had a very small quantity, something like fifteen ounces of material to work with, and that was just two or three teaspoons full of material. We designed and built a half-scale calutron, twelve-inch radius instead of twenty-four as in the Beta units. Because of the change in shape and size and everything, each part of it had to be, as I say, researched from the beginning.
Finally, after testing the unit with, I believe it was bismuth, because it doesn’t have an isotope, it was easy to follow the beam patterns. We finally began the production runs, and we circulated the materials through this special calutron eight times. The government had wished for material that had fifteen percent or better of uranium-236. We started off with about eleven grams of material, ended up with a little over 8 grams, but our material had over twenty-two percent uranium-236. We never did hear anything more from it, but that was the end of the project.
One Monday morning, Dr. [Samuel A.] Klein called me in said, “We’re having a budget crunch. We’ve made up two lists. One is the list of people we cannot do without, and you’re on the other list. But, the good news is, we’ve got a scheduled appointment for an interview right after noon for another job in Y-12.
So, I went to the appointment, and it was a job to work in the law department of Union Carbide, Oak Ridge, to do patent work. I hardly knew how to spell patent, but a job is a job, and so I said, “Well, I’ll take it and I’ll look and find a better job.” Well, I stayed at it thirty years, and finally, in 1980, I retired from Y-12.
Kelly: That worked out. So, tell us about, maybe you could go back to describing the calutrons a little bit. Some people may not know what a receiver is.
Skinner: Okay. It is just a receptacle into which the ion beam goes, and it’s difficult to describe. Material is made out of, normally made out of carbon, graphite, and the incoming beam deposits on that. Then that is taken out and the graphite is burned away at high temperature, leaving the material that’s deposited. There are slits in the face of it to catch the various beams. There was one primarily for the 235, one for the 238, and the rest of the material just hits the face of it and is deposited. It can be taken off, but it has no value, really.
So, the slits to help define the edge of the beam, because it’s not very precise, so that you get only the most concentrated portion of the beam in the center. If the atomic weights are significantly different, the space is more. If it’s less, if there’s only one atomic weight difference, they’re much closer. So, there’s more combining of the material and you get less purity. That’s the best I can describe it.
Kelly: No, that’s good. I’m just thinking, your tourists who come to visit the Beta 3 Building for the first time, can you try to remember what a new person might have to know to take it in?
Skinner: Well, after having worked in Beta 1 for a year and a half, you know every quirk and corner of the building. When I had a chance to go through Beta 3 the first time, I almost cried, because everything was almost identical. It was actually as if I had gone back in, I don’t, umpteen years, reliving my life again. It was a very strange feeling.
Kelly: So, that was just a few years ago? When did you go back?
Skinner: I can’t remember what year they opened. It was about five, it was 2009, I think it was, that they had Beta-3 open.
Kelly: You were invited to come back?
Skinner: Well, it was on, they had an open tour like they have had other years at 9731. It was, the public was toured through the building, and so when I saw that, like I go. As I say, when I walked in the door, everything, it was just a flashback, I guess, is a better word, of youth gone by.
Kelly: So, what did you want to do first when you came in, and saw this machine that you had known so well as a twenty-year-old, or twenty-year-old?
Skinner: Well, you just, I followed with the tour. I tried this cubicle key, for example, and it didn’t fit no one, so apparently, they had different locks on that building. I might point out that because of the extremely high voltage and some of the voltages were 40,000 volts negative, 40,000 volts positive, and this was DC, you had to be very careful.
Immediately inside the doors on the front of the cubicle, when you opened them, there was a grounding hook, and you had—there were places in the cubicle where you touch it to discharge any residual electrical charge. As an electrical mechanic, we had to get into the cubicle to do the repair, so we all carried the key just like you carry keys now to go into a workplace.
Kelly: So, there was a strong magnetic force, right?
Skinner: Yes, yes.
Kelly: And, here you have a metal key. Wasn’t that a problem?
Skinner: As long as you stayed outside of the—they had it marked on the floor with a red line a spot where that you should stay out of with any metal. In my job, I had rarely had any need to go to the calutron itself. I was back in the cubicle room by itself, so that was not a problem with me. But, occasionally, people wandered in there with a watch or some other piece of metal, and it was immediately destroyed.
Kelly: It would just kind of be pulled off the person’s wrist? What happened?
Skinner: It possibly could be, but it would just demolish the insides of it.
Kelly: I see. Wow. So, at the cubicle, describe your job. What did you have to do at the cubicle?
Skinner: Well, they were running twenty-four hours a day, as long as there was charge material going. There were operators, mostly ladies, who continuously monitored the performance of the calutron. And, they would call us when there was some aberration of that, and we had to diagnose what was causing that and then solve it.
As I say, most of the failure of a piece of equipment like an intrude in the power sources, but after a while, you just knew when this happened, you knew what was going wrong. So, you went to the cubicle, opened it up, went in, and there wasn’t much space inside. Half of the people couldn’t have worked in there. You went in and did whatever was necessary after you put the grounding hook in place. Then you’d come back and then you close up the doors and the operator would start up the operation again and hopefully, everything was working all right.
Kelly: So, you were a troubleshooter.
Skinner: Troubleshooter, yep, that’s a good term for it. A buddy of mine, we claimed that we were the best crew in the building, and it got to a point where if the engineering department wanted to modify the circuits in any way or do anything with the system, they gave us the job to install the first one to see if it worked. It was a nice feeling to feel that you were recognized to do that.
Kelly: So, most, you mentioned that most of the operators were girls.
Kelly: How did they do? How did the girls do as operators?
Skinner: Girls actually are more patient than men. Men wanted to jerk and the women were able to slowly change conditions, watching the output meter to get the optimal operation. Most of these were just high school girls, or just out of high school, very young. We had no, there was no air conditioning in the building, and with all this heavy electrical equipment and the magnet and everything, the buildings got very warm in the summertime. We had lots of fans on stands and wore short-sleeved shirts and they all rolled up the long-sleeved shirts, or rolled up your shirt to keep cool.
Kelly: Did the girls complain?
Skinner: I don’t recall that they did. My relationship with them wasn’t such that I would, that they would’ve complained to me. There were supervisors there to help with major problems, and they would’ve gone to them if they had a problem. So, I don’t know.
Kelly: Did you notice that they talked to each other while they were doing this, or are they sitting there eight hours a day, quietly fiddling with knobs?
Skinner: They were very good to stay attentive to their job. I’m sure there was chatter going on, you know, but not like in other type of work, like an office where they would’ve been gabbing at each other all the time. They were really very dedicated people.
Kelly: So, how long was a shift?
Skinner: An eight-hour shift, and then we were rotating, so we were on the midnight shift and day shift and afternoon.
Kelly: You rotated as well.
Skinner: Yeah. People who we were working with, very few of them knew we were in the Army, because on the job, we were using company clothing. A fellow I was very close with, I bumped into him in downtown Oak Ridge one day, and I was in uniform and he was amazed at that because he didn’t know that I was in the Army.
Kelly: You were in downtown Oak Ridge or Knoxville?
Skinner: Oak Ridge.
Kelly: Really. So, you wore your uniform when you were downtown, but not on the workplace.
Skinner: Whenever you’re away from Y-12, you were in Army clothes, and they provided blue clothes, much like they use today in Y-12.
Kelly: And, you say blue clothes.
Kelly: Dark blue, were they like a jumpsuit, or what, what were they?
Skinner: No, they’re regular shirt and trousers, but they were just a medium blue color.
Kelly: And, that’s what everybody wore.
Skinner: Everybody wore it.
Kelly: And, what did the girls wear?
Skinner: They wore a similar thing.
Skinner: Blue, with, and jeans and a shirt.
Kelly: So, they looked like men.
Kelly: The pants and their—I’ve seen pictures of the calutron girls, and they have, some of them saddle shoes. Do you remember that?
Skinner: Well, you know, I don’t remember that, but, you know, I’m sure that there was—well, I was wearing Army shoes, because I was, well, the other clothes, I changed in going in and going out. So, I didn’t ever notice that.
Kelly: Do you suppose people knew you were in the Army from your shoes?
Skinner: Not really. I mean, you can’t, you can’t tell.
Kelly: I see. They weren’t that unique, that one person had them. That’s interesting. So, did it take a lot of training for you to figure out how these things worked?
Skinner: Well, we were given about a two-week training on a dummy cubicle, but most of it was learning by the seat of your pants, so to speak. I mean, you saw a problem and you could see what was causing the problem just by the nature of the problem and after a while things came, were second nature to you.
Kelly: Did you have a means of sharing your solutions with other troubleshooters, who may be serving other shifts?
Skinner: Not that I know of. I mean, we just showed up, replaced the people who were there before us, and took over and they would tell you if there was a continuing problem. We had one group ahead of us that always found a problem just before they left. They were renowned in the place, that being their characteristic. We all hated to get on behind them, because they almost always had an unsolved problem.
Kelly: That’s funny.
Skinner: I think it’s like that in all the businesses. I mean, there are people like that.
Kelly: So, how many calutrons, or can you describe this whole arrangement? You had Alphas and Betas and so forth.
Skinner: Okay. The Alpha building calutrons were larger. They had a 48-inch radius beam, and they had four beams per calutron. In some of the Alpha buildings, there were two of these so-called tracks, arrangement of calutrons. I got the information this morning, I’ve already forgotten how many calutrons there were per track in Alpha.
In Beta, each of the Beta buildings, and there were—backing up, there were five Alpha buildings. One of them had one track and the others all had two tracks. In Beta, there were four buildings that were equipped. Each of those had 72, had two tracks with 36 units per track, so 72 separators per building. The Beta calutrons had a 24-inch radius. As I say, the special one that was built was a 12-inch radius.
Kelly: So, Alpha comes before Beta alphabetically, but which came first when you built them?
Skinner: Well, the product, the material was first processed in the Alpha buildings, and I can’t remember, the concentration was raised up to something like 15% uranium-235. Then that product went through the Beta process to get to bomb-grade uranium.
Kelly: Can you describe how it started? You know there were the four, well, I guess three separation processes that eventually were used in sequence. Can you describe that, starting with S-50 and then the—
Skinner: Other than the gaseous diffusion, I really had no contact at all with any of the separation things. And, I had very little contact with people in gaseous diffusion, because, again, you don’t talk with other people about your work. So there was no real sharing of information.
Kelly: So, you knew about the Alpha and the Betas, though.
Kelly: You understood all that happened at Y-12?
Skinner: Pretty much so, because the equipment was so similar, and I presume that they had electrical mechanics in the Alpha buildings. They would’ve had to, but I don’t know how many they had or how they worked. So, and I really didn’t know what was going on in the other—I was only responsible for one-half of a Beta building. So, I only had 36 separators and cubicles to help service. I didn’t really know what was going on in the other half of the building.
Kelly: So, there wasn’t a common lunch place. You kind of ate at your station or something.
Skinner: Well, you went to the cafeteria in Y-12.
Kelly: But, everybody was pretty strict about not talking about their job.
Skinner: I’m sure you’ve seen some of the signs that were around everywhere, and if people were found to have talked out of turn, they were no longer there the next day.
Kelly: Did you have a sense there were spies embedded in the workforce? People who were reporting? How did the officials know?
Skinner: I really don’t know, I really don’t know. I expected that there may have been people who were given the task of monitoring that, but I don’t know.
Kelly: So, apparently, you kept your mouth shut.
Skinner: Yeah. That’s why I’m still here today.
Kelly: You’re still here. That’s good. Were you given security lectures from time to time, just to reinforce this?
Skinner: We were at the beginning, when we were going through a couple of weeks of permanent training. It was beat into our heads. I mean, at the end of the day, you could quote every warning that we had all day long. And, then, of course, these big signs all over the area.
Kelly: Were there many newcomers? Was there a lot of turnover in at least the girls who were assigned to calutrons or your counterparts?
Skinner: There didn’t appear to be in the Army people. Of course, we were only active about a year and a half in the calutron business. I don’t, there was occasionally a new calutron cubicle girl, but most of them were there from the time I arrived to the time I left.
Kelly: So, if you had thirty-six units that you were responsible for, was there one girl per unit?
Skinner: Generally, a girl had two units. When a system was running properly, there was not much to do except watch the meters. The cubicles were arranged, they were set up 2x2x2. A girl could monitor the pair that she was assigned to very well.
Kelly: So, could you predict who was going to be the best at this? Or, were they consistently high performers and middle performers and—
Skinner: I expect that the supervisors were watching that, but, it was something that I wasn’t aware of at all.
Kelly: So, did you see these same women off duty? You might run into them in the—
Skinner: Possibly, but most of them bussed in from cities way out, an hour or more distance, so they, most of them, many of them came in my bus from Clinton, Oliver Springs and Lake City and Sweetwater, all around, some places up in Kentucky. So, you didn’t, there was no way you would run into them off the job.
Kelly: Where did you live?
Skinner: Initially, in what we called a hutment. There were four people in it. It was sort of a wooden tent with a central oil-burning furnace and four cots and four footlockers. Later on, they moved us into one of the dormitories in the west end of Oak Ridge, and we had a dormitory-type room.
Kelly: So, that was a big step up.
Skinner: Well, actually, it was to the extent of the availability of restrooms. When we were in the hutment, there was one central building where you went to take a shower and whatever. You walked on a wooden sidewalk between buildings and going to the washroom.
When we got into the dormitory, you had a lot more camaraderie with more than just the four people of your hutment. There was always a bridge game going, poker games were going, people would come and go, and players would change. But, the game would continue all day and night sometimes.
We had an Army PX where we could purchase things at a discount just like any other Army PX. And, were able to get things that some of our friends and family at home were not able to get. I was able to get batteries for my mother-in-law’s hearing aid. They were not available where she was, but I could get them, so I shipped her batteries for her hearing aid.
Kelly: So, were you married at the time?
Skinner: When I was in the Army, no. And, I married when, shortly after I was out of the Army and had worked back in Oak Ridge for just a few months. I left in June of ’46, and went back to Michigan and we were married. I’d known this gal since we were three years old. Her father was a minister in our church, and our families had always been very close. I guess everybody knew that we were going to get married someday, and so we were married in August of ’46. She was a teacher, and I enrolled back in Michigan State, so we moved initially into a little town near my college, and she taught in that school.
Then, I got my, finished getting my bachelor’s degree, and then I stayed another year and got my master’s in electrical engineering. She moved, we moved to a married housing on the campus, and she worked in the chemistry department, assisting with some of the setting up labs and things like that. I graduated then in May or early June of ’48 and we moved back down to Oak Ridge again, going back to the same job I had been doing when I was in the Army.
Kelly: So, you went back to the same, went to Oak Ridge, but what was your job? What did you do?
Skinner: I was back in the stable isotope separation, and that’s when we got on the special uranium-236 project.
Kelly: What was that about?
Skinner: Well, it was the one where we had to enrich the material in uranium-236 and the beginning material was less than one percent, and we enriched it over about twenty-two percent using the special, the half-split calutron.
About that time, I helped design this equipment that was actually hung on the wall in the 9731 when I was there. Basically, I think it was my idea, but I worked with George Wells and we designed what we wanted and the engineering people took it from there and put it into actual being, so that the operation of the calutron could be visual seen by tours.
Kelly: Oh, interesting. And, it worked pretty well?
Skinner: Yes, and it still exists.
Kelly: Oh, my.
Skinner: It’s in the Beta-3 now.
Kelly: For heaven’s sake. And, that operated until, or at least some of Beta-3 operated until 1998, is that right?
Skinner: I guess so. I had left by that time, and so I don’t know the timing. But, in fact, when I was there, they were not using any Beta-3. All of that came later after I left the department.
Kelly: So, what happened after the war with all the calutrons?
Skinner: Well, there was an immediate rush to get rid of everything and went to salvage. A few people, Leon Love and Wes Savage and Dr. [Samuel A.] Klein, were able to salvage what they could from being destroyed. Everything except Beta-3 for some reason or other, it was not touched. It’s just like it was during the war days. The Alpha portion of 9731, all the relays and magnets, all the other equipment was taken out. But, they were able to save most of the Beta equipment in the pilot plant.
Kelly: In the pilot plant building, yeah. So, is that where you were trained? You said you had two weeks of training.
Skinner: No, and I don’t remember where we were. We were off in a warehouse someplace. You got on the bus and the bus took you there and the bus would pick you up and take you back.
Kelly: So, what was the pilot plant used for then?
Skinner: Well, it was used to develop, to find process conditions for the production calutrons that were being built. That was the main reason it was built, so they could determine voltages and spacing and all the operating conditions. As I say, the mystery, the miracle, because they were building the production buildings and building the pilot plant, and none had operated yet. Yet, they were able to build them and they worked, and that is truly a miracle in my mind.
Kelly: So, it was from the theory, they figured out how it ought to function.
Skinner: Right. The work that they did at the University of California on the cyclotron, they developed some of the fundamentals. But, to scale that up to production size, in my mind it was a miracle. I mean, to do it and have it work.
Kelly: You don’t, yeah, you certainly don’t hear about wasted—
Skinner: On the tours, when people come through the pilot plant, I tell them this is not only Manhattan Project, but it’s a miracle project. We couldn’t do it again, there’s no way it can be done again. Things have changed so much in our life. We would not be able to keep the secrets that were kept. We would not be able to get the money and proceed as quickly as it was done then.
Kelly: Are there other things that have changed? What made it so special? How could it be that you were so much smarter than the people today?
Skinner: More diligence, I think, harder work, and fortunately, we were able to get the money to do it.
Kelly: So, what motivated you? Why were you so diligent?
Skinner: Really didn’t know what I was doing, or what I was doing it for. But, I knew it had something to do with war effort, and so instead of being put on active duty in Germany or wherever it might be, I had the opportunity to work there, to solve part of the problem that they were trying to solve.
If we hadn’t gotten that uranium at the time we did, in my estimation, the invasion of Japan would’ve already started. We would not have been able to use the bomb, because our people would be on the ground, and the war might have ended entirely differently. I’m a strong believer in that.
People ask me, “Well, aren’t you ashamed to have worked on something that blows up people?” I said, “No, at the time it was the most important thing that needed to be done.”
I still feel that way. That’s why I’m so anxious to have a park developed while I’m still on this earth. Because, I want other people to know it, and the things that I’ve given to Ray Smith is trying to educate people. When they leave here, have a touring, I want them to know what we did, how we did it, so it won’t be a big mystery.
Kelly: Now, how are people going to come away from this story about how you succeeded in doing something that we probably couldn’t do today? It’s pretty awesome.
Skinner: It is, and there’s no way really to explain it. But, it’s a gut feeling, I guess, that I have that if we can educate the people and educate them as to what the Atomic Age really brought to the world, not just the bomb, but all the other things that have come, it’s probably the biggest thing that’s ever happened in recent time in the world.
Kelly: So all these years, seventy years since the first atomic bombs, just a small percentage of people have really known much about it.
Skinner: That’s right, and there’ll be, year-by-year, there will be fewer and fewer of those people. And, one of these days the words Manhattan Project will be gone if we don’t do something about it right now. I mean, there are not many people left like me.
Kelly: So, there are, there’s a lot of interest in the national park by people in Japan. They’re very curious and they’re very worried that somehow the park will tell the story in a way that won’t be very sensitive to how they feel about it, or how—so, how do you answer this?
Skinner: Well, that’s something that needs to be considered very strongly, because we don’t want to alienate anybody. There are some people you’ll never convince that it was a good thing. Even a lot of scientists, afterwards, said that we shouldn’t have ever done this.
But, we need, the park needs to show it, show the side of it that has benefited the world, nuclear power, nuclear medicine, just umpteen things that we likely would’ve not had, at least at the time we got them. That’s something that needs to be shown, and that’s why I want these exhibits to show what we did, now we did it and what the results were.
I proposed some posters or whatever you want to call them that show radio isotopes, how they’re formed, what they’re used for. They need to see what, when they come to Oak Ridge, they need to see what they’re going to see if they go to Los Alamos. They need to see what they’re going to go to Hanford. So, there needs to be some of that here, just like some of Y-12 Oak Ridge has to be in those places so people have an interest in going to see the rest of the park.
Kelly: That’s a great idea. What are some of the most important things that people should know about the Manhattan Project?
Skinner: Well, I guess they need to know all of the things that were accomplished by the Manhattan Project, and the results of it.
Kelly: So, how would you characterize all those accomplishments? Why was it a miracle?
Skinner: Well, you have to go back to the beginning. If we had not gotten the bomb, the nuclear program would’ve died at that point. So, the miracle is that we were able to do all these things on the bomb side in such a short period of time with so much equipment that had to be constructed, and we were successful. Other than that, I don’t know how to answer your question.
Kelly: So, do you think, what role did the Army play, industry, the individual workers, how would you credit or what factors do you think were responsible for making this all worker, or people?
Skinner: Well, I guess you have to go back to the initial decision of pursuing, making a bomb. And, most of those were a mixture of scientists and politicians. The Army was given the job of, at least at Oak Ridge, of seeing that the things were done, General Groves and others.
We not only had some Army people in Y-12, but we had some Navy people as well, who were working in Y-12. Whether there was any other service people, I don’t know. But I knew the Navy as well as the Army people, and the Special Engineering Detachment was a part of the Corps of Engineers. But, again, the people who needed to make the decisions, made the decisions. They apparently relied enough on technical people that, yes, this is a possibility, yes, let’s go for it.
Kelly: So, you mentioned the original of the name calutron comes from University of California. What role were you aware of that other universities played?
Skinner: Well, of course, the first graphite reactor was the University of Chicago, and there were some up east things that I really don’t know about. Actually, working in Y-12 at the time, I was not aware of anything else that had been going on, because it was all secret.
Kelly: So, was there speculation in the hutment or the dormitory, what are we doing?
Skinner: Oh, yeah, always was, and I am told that if you went into a library and got out some chemistry books, the pages just opened, flapped open to uranium. I don’t that, but, I mean, that’s one of the tales. Some of the chemists, I think, probably had a better feel for it than other people, because they were having, because the chemistry was unique to uranium. So, they may have had a better feel for it than us electrical engineers.
Kelly: So, how did you react when you found out on August 6, that this was how we, the results of what this was.
Skinner: Well, I first heard of it, if I recall correctly, our immediate supervisor called us over in the corner of the building and told us about the test bomb in Nevada. And, then, of course, it wasn’t very long after that the bomb was actually dropped. And, so everybody knew then.
Kelly: So, you learned about the test in July of 1945 in the desert of New Mexico, is that right?
Skinner: Yeah, New Mexico, yeah.
Kelly: They told you that? They told you about the test?
Kelly: Interesting, because that was, did they tell you it was plutonium?
Skinner: No, in fact, I had always, over the years, I had always thought it was uranium from Y-12. Not too long ago, I read, I guess it was shown in that video, they said it was plutonium, and I questioned Bill Wilcox and others about it. Is that right? They said, yeah, yeah. Well, I thought it was uranium from Y-12, but it was, wasn’t in the first bomb, the first test.
Kelly: So, it would be interesting for you to see what this park says about what was going on in Los Alamos.
Skinner: Very much, because I’ve just heard smidgeons of things. We drove through Hanford, my wife and I, some ten, twelve years ago, and we didn’t stop and do any touring. I’m not sure there were tours available at that time. But, I could see the buildings off in the distance, that’s all I know about Hanford, and I’ve never seen anything out West.
Kelly: But, when you go back in the building, it feels like it was yesterday.
Skinner: Um-hmm, very much so. I mean, everything is the same place, the equipment all looks the same. You just feel transported back. It’s a strange feeling.
Kelly: Well, that’s really neat. So, let’s pretend I’m a tourist, well, I’m Sally. You know, Bill Wilcox always talked about Sally and Joe from Peoria.
Kelly: All right. I’m Sally, so tell me about what did you do here? What is this big machine?
Skinner: All right. Well, I’ll describe the two buildings I know about, and I’m sure that when it’s all set up, they will be viewed probably in a certain order, and that is the pilot plant building and then the production building, but I don’t know that. But, as people come in to the pilot plant building, to the left they will immediately see the magnets from the Alpha portion of the pilot plant with some pictures and drawings, I guess, that depict the Alpha buildings that are no longer there.
Then they proceed to the other end of the building, and there they will see the Beta portion of the pilot plant, with all of the equipment. They tell me that they will put a unit just like that’s at the museum in front of the vacuum tanks in the Beta part of the building. Again, with pictures and diagrams of what the parts are and have them explained. There will be, in fact, I guess it’s now in existence, a small theater in that building, where there will be a movie going continuously, as long as there are people in the building. So, you need someone along to point out these things, but those are the things you would see in 9731.
When you go to the production building, 9HO4-3 [PH], you’ll come in on a lower level, and I don’t know how they’re going to get people up to the operating level. When it was before, they used a freight elevator, and you come up right in the middle of the building. One side is one set of calutrons and on the other side is the other, thirty-six in each batch. The tour would take you past those and show you the components of the calutron that exists at the track.
They would take them in then to the control room and show them the cubicles. I’d recommend that the metal side be taken off one of them and plastic put there so people can see the inside of those buildings, I’m sorry, the cubicles. Explain, generally speaking—they don’t need to go into a great deal of the technology—but, there’s a power supply that was from such and such, and there was a power supply for such and such. Then, here’s the controls on the front of the door. There would be exhibits around, showing the big tubes that are there for the rectifier tubes and there would be this unit, again, giving a living demonstration of a functioning calutron. That’s what I think people will see if they come on the tours.
Kelly: That’s great. So, is there anything that you think that you could tell them about this experience or about what they’re looking at that would give them some insight, some idea about it that they shouldn’t miss?
Skinner: I really don’t know, other than give people my gut feeling of how I feel about the whole project. I shouldn’t say it’s the main thing in my life, but it’s close to me, the main thing in my life. I mean, although it happened all those years ago, being back on these tours has been, regenerated my interest.
Kelly: So let’s say, over sixty years in which you weren’t part of the tours and you had left the project, did you give a lot of thought to your involvement in creating the bomb?
Skinner: I guess, only when I was asked by people who, when they knew that I had worked in Oak Ridge, when I was asked, good or bad or ugly. A lot of the electrical equipment I was working with were electrical relays to operate this and that contacts that you had to do in certain sequence to make things happen.
When I went back to college, one of my courses was exactly that sort of thing, and I got A+ on everything, because it was exactly what I’d been doing, draw this up, draw how this relay works, how this has to close before this happens. Then I was on a speakers’ bureau, and only called on once.
I went to Upper Peninsula of Michigan in February, and snow everywhere and ice everywhere and cold everywhere, talked to a Rotary Club or some organization like that about my experiences. That was the only time I was called upon to speak out of the speakers’ bureau. It got up to zero that day when I was up there.
Kelly: You’re a brave soul. That’s funny. It’s interesting that you weren’t called upon very often then, to talk about the Manhattan Project. Did people not know that you were involved?
Skinner: Well, probably not. I mean, it takes certain conditions to communicate that to somebody else, and the conversation has to be—but, this last, about, oh, less than a year ago, my wife and I cruised to the Hawaiian Islands. They announced that there was going to be a gathering of all military people, servicemen, and I went to that.
People around the room told what they had done and where they’d been and all the things. So I gave my spiel and going out, I had two people pat me on the back and say, “Thank you.” The following day, I bumped into another one, one of the people who had been there, and he said, “Thank you.” He’d been in Vietnam, so he didn’t know World War II as such, but he knew of the bomb.
I have a brother-in-law who was on a ship in the Pacific going over there for the invasion. He tells everybody I saved his life. Did I? I guess so. On one of the tours, I think this last year—no, it was in the Smokies. I was at the mill _____, and for some reason or other, I got to telling people I was from Oak Ridge, the Oak Ridge area, and that led to talking about it.
The man’s father was same situation, his father had been on a ship in the Pacific when the bomb was dropped. So, he thanked me, thanked me, thanked me. I had one of my doctors say, “I wouldn’t be here today, because you saved my dad’s life.” It makes you feel good, it makes you think that all, it was all worthwhile. So, that’s why it’s building me up. I want to preach Manhattan Project anywhere I can.
As I said earlier, it’s necessary, positively, absolutely necessary that Beta 3 be in the tour, and you say it’s going to be. Thank you. You made my day.
Kelly: Well, as you say, there’s nothing like having something real that conveys what that project was about.
Skinner: Yeah. You got to see the immensity of it, and with K-25 gone, there’s nothing else that shows that. When you walk into that building and say, “That was built in a year? That’s a miracle.”
Kelly: Did you go down to the basement, where they have crates of spare parts?
Skinner: No, but there were a few up, just outside of the control room. I don’t think our tour took us—we went immediately up onto the operating floor.
Kelly: Can you tell what, tell the camera what the stenciled words were, the name. It wasn’t Oak Ridge, it was—
Skinner: Oh, it was Clinton Engineering Works. I had my, one of my aunts was going to send me something, and the postmaster in Michigan didn’t know where it was. She ended up by saying it was near Knoxville. I got it.
Kelly: So, what can you tell us about Knoxville, in terms of its importance to Oak Ridge during the war?
Skinner: Well, I think, I got the impression that Knoxville resented the work going on, because it was taking everybody’s money. They were spending it here and not coming, going to Knoxville. Everything was interrupted by having all this government work going. Yet, and the churches changed people, young people’s groups met, Knoxville and Oak Ridge. So, it wasn’t everywhere.
I think it was the older population that resented, and maybe I got the wrong impression, but that’s the way I feel about it. Yet, we’d go in there and we’d hitchhike, never have to wait more than two or three cars before somebody would pick you up, take you anyplace you wanted to go.
On our off weekends, we went to the Smokies often, and we’d get on the corner by the L&N station, put out your thumb, you were in Gatlinburg. The hotels gave you a special rate. They gave us a nice packed lunch. We’d get on the road, put out your thumb, and they’d take you up in the mountains, anyplace you wanted to go. When you get ready to come back, you get on the road. It was, we were treated very, very well by them.
Kelly: Now, were you in uniform when you were hitchhiking, so people knew you were military?
Skinner: Well, we were wearing work clothes.
Kelly: In work clothes.
Kelly: So, they knew you worked at the project.
Skinner: No. My terminology won’t come to me this morning. But, like fatigues, the fatigues.
Kelly: That identified you as servicemen.
Skinner: Showed me as military, I mean, you had a hat on, and—
Kelly: Right. It wasn’t just you were a young, handsome guy in their minds.
Skinner: No, they knew—
Kelly: You were that, plus—
Skinner: They knew we were military, they knew we were. It wasn’t the camouflage type of uniforms they use today. It was just plain khaki.
Kelly: So, it sounds, you took advantage of the opportunities, go hiking—
Skinner: Oh, yes. Say you go up there and get off a Friday afternoon and you didn’t have to go to work until the next Monday morning. Later on one of the fellows had a car, and sometimes we’d go up to the mountains in the car. But, that was our principle outside relaxation. Lots of people played, they played ball, they played all sorts of things.
I played on the basketball team. We called ourselves the Little Stinkers. We never won a game, but we had a lot of fun. I played a little softball, wouldn’t very good at it. I wasn’t good at the basketball either. I’d played football in high school and that wasn’t fun. I guess there were some touch games, but the biggest thing was poker games and bridge games going around the clock.
Kelly: Did they play for money?
Skinner: Not normally, I don’t think it was, because people kept coming and going and there’d be no way to really—one of my close buddies in the hutment with me, he’d go down to the PX and he’d cut cards for money. He was very successful, he sent home a lot of money. Different people have different habits or customs.
Kelly: So, lots of people talk about the social life at Oak Ridge, but maybe you were sort of not part of that, because you’re—
Skinner: I wasn’t, because I’m not a party-going guy, I guess. When I was off, I was usually in bed taking a nap or sleeping. I didn’t enjoy poker, I didn’t play bridge at that time. I’d watch sometimes, but, so I didn’t go to the dances and things that some of the GIs went to the dances and movies and stuff like that. I guess, I occasionally went to a movie.
Kelly: Can you remember some of the movies?
Skinner: No. My memory bank is worn out and they don’t make that model anymore.
Kelly: That’s great. Are there things that I should ask you now that we haven’t touched on about any funny stories, good stories or memories or things you want to share?
Skinner: No. A lot of the things have just gone in memory, and I’ve tried to touch on some of them, and beyond that, I can’t think of anything special.
Kelly: Well, you’ve done marvelously, you’ve done a great job. So, that was just, I always ask that at the end, just in case there’s something we didn’t bring out or touch upon. Keith, have you been listening?
Keith: Oh, yes.
Kelly: Do you have anything—
Keith: No, no.
Kelly: —that we might want to ask?
Skinner: I appreciate the opportunity, as I told you earlier. Anything I can do to promote this, I will attempt to do. I’m in the same church with Bill Wilcox. I’ve known Bill many, many years, and he was a dedicated ambassador of the Manhattan Project. I’m not that good at it, but I’ll speak up when I get a chance.
Kelly: So, do you want to, maybe you can make—you gave me a wonderful statement before we put the camera on, about the importance of the Manhattan Project Park, and saving the Beta 3. So, why don’t you say that?
Skinner: Okay. All right. Yeah, I’ll be glad to. The reason I say that it’s absolutely necessary that the Beta 3 building be included in the tours of Y-12 and as part of the park, is because the basic of the whole thing [The Beta 3 Project] is the miracle project. Starting from, it was a miracle to be able to design and operate the calutron on the basis of information that was available from the cyclotron, to the miracle of building all these buildings, huge buildings in not much over a year, and having them in operation.
It was a miracle we were able to get enough uranium at the time we did, because several months later, it would not have been able to be used. And all of this occurred because what went on in these huge buildings.
There’s no way to get a feel for that unless you’re in one of them. I mean, once you’re in one, you can begin to visualize, well, this, the next building is like that and the next building is like that. But, without the building, the Beta 3, there’s no way to give that feeling of the enormity of the project. So, that’s why I say that building, if it’s not included, it substantially almost eliminates the Y-12 story, in my estimation.
Kelly: And, the Manhattan Project story. It’s representative; it’s an icon. You’re preaching to the choir here, but thank you, well-said.
Skinner: But, that’s why I’m so upset when I heard that it might not be included. There are going to be problems, the security problem is a big one, getting people in and out, because there are crazy people in this world.
Kelly: But, there’s also 200 years, 400 years, a century, a millennium that we have to have that perspective. It’s just like the tombs of the pharaohs, it’s, these are for the ages. So, if we can’t open it up next year, then, okay. Hold onto it, let’s wait until it’s time, but don’t tear it down.
Skinner: The buildings are not that far apart, and it seems like you could develop a secure corridor between the two buildings, since they were moving out of other buildings, yeah.
Kelly: That’s a good idea.
Skinner: Taking my golf cart from one building to the other, whatever.
Kelly: Right, yeah.
Skinner: Said that to Ray. He’s talking about transporting from, what’s the new hoop building, whatever that building is. Well, you need to have a bus there and van and a golf cart. So at 11:30, you take whatever people have shown up, and if it’s two people, you put them in the golf cart. If there’s six people, you put them in the van. If there’s ten people, you put them in a bus. You take them to wherever it is going to begin.
Then somehow, you got to decide how you’re going to transport them from there to there, and how long they can stay and whether people can stay all day or whether it be—I mean, there are a lot of things like that that have got to be determined. But, it’s all possible, it’s all possible.
Kelly: I agree. I agree. Yep. So, that’s wonderful.
Skinner: What can I do in addition to help you, the cause? I mean, I can’t be Bill Wilcox, I don’t have that personality, I don’t have that drive that he has.
Kelly: Well, what you’re doing today is very valuable.
Skinner: Well, that’s why I was glad to have a chance.
Kelly: Yeah, yep. Well, this will be great. We’re going to make a lot of different products with this, and we’re going to get this out, this message in your voice, to thousands of people who don’t know about the Manhattan Project, or who are in positions to decide should we have this in the park.
Kelly: Educate them.
Skinner: I have told maybe a half dozen people, mostly family members about your website, and they’ve all been impressed. But, that’s what it’s got to be, lots of people look at your website.
Kelly: Yeah, we’re getting there, getting there, yeah. It’s exciting, because I think this park will make—
Skinner: You’ve got the drive and that’s what it takes. It needs somebody with crack the whip and—
Kelly: And, get it going.
Skinner: —and pat them on you know where.