The Manhattan Project

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O. R. Simpson's Interview

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O. R. "Big" Simpson was a second lieutenant in military intelligence in charge of convoys carrying plutonium from Hanford to Fort Douglas, Utah. In this interview, Simpson recalls about his days as a classified materials courier, when he frequently traveled to Utah and Los Alamos by truck and plane. He retired in 1972 as deputy director of security at Hanford.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
1986
Location of the Interview: 
Richland
Collections: 
Transcript: 

[Interviewed by S. L. Sanger, from Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford, Portland State University, 1995]

I am going to guess we started the convoys in May, of 1945. They took some of it by car for a couple of trips but I think it was May when we started the convoys. We had to get the trucks from Detroit, and get them all set up, with the racks and stuff in them. The containers we carried were wooden boxes about 16 inches square. They built a rack which the container would fit in, and the top would come down over it. The trucks were ton and a half vans. They were Chevrolets. Or were they Fords? Like field ambulances. No win­dows. Olive drab, no markings.

We loaded them ourselves. There was a metal container inside the boxes. I think, I don't know this, but I think a piece like a test tube was placed inside the metal container. The boxes were not heavy.

In a convoy, we had three panel trucks with a lead car and a rear car. The cars were ordinary Ford sedans. There would be two people in a truck and two people in each car. We drove directly through. In the trucks we had a bed in the back where a guy could sleep. Each convoy included 10 men. Everybody was armed. We carried shotguns and .38-caliber revolvers, and we had a submachine gun for each vehicle. When we stopped for chow, one guy would stay with each vehicle while the other guy ate.

A typical trip was we picked up the boxes at Gable Mountain, where they were stored in two concrete vaults tunneled into the mountain. We would take off for Pendleton, gas in Pendleton. We took U.S. 30, back in those days, we would go down through Idaho, Boise, to Mountain Home, into Bliss, and then we went down through the Hagerman Valley, by Twin Falls. From Twin Falls, we would go to Burley, Idaho, from there we cut down into Utah through Snowville, Brigham City, into Fort Douglas, which is in Salt Lake City. From here to there was something like 707 miles.

We had people ask us what we were doing. We ignored them. One time, in Payette, Idaho, a guy at a service station said "For Christ's sake, don't let those damn things go off in here." He had a pretty good idea what we had. With all the secrecy, they still gave us credit cards to charge gas with. They said U.S. Army. We weren't fooling anybody.

We were lucky. We seldom had any wrecks or breakdowns. We had a damn good record, because we were really careful. We had radio communica­tions between all the cars. We were told what to do in case of fire, or wreck. Get the hell out of the road and get up wind.

I think I knew what was in them. We all carried health badges. We were checked every time. We had monitors. When we unloaded at the other end, we put on protective clothing. Gloves, shoe covers, coveralls and gloves. We always wore the monitoring devices. I have always thought they were over-cautious at Hanford. I think we handled it more carefully than Los Alamos. The Los Alamos people never took the precautions we took. We even laid paper down every time we unloaded.

We tried to make the run all at once at first, all the way to Los Alamos. But we decided that was not the way to do it. So Los Alamos came to Fort Douglas to meet us. The Los Alamos crew would arrive a day ahead of us so they could get their rest. We switched vehicles, unloading our containers into their vehicles. We maintained our own vehicles. We liked ours better than theirs. It didn't take long to switch the 20 to 24 containers in each vehicle.

We never had any adventures. It was the dullest thing in the world. It was the most routine deal I have ever run across in my life. No one tried to steal it, or cause any problems. The roads were not too good, not too bad. For the speed, about 55, they weren't bad. It was sparse country, miles and miles of desert. I think then Boise was about 15,000 people. When we got to Salt Lake City we took the main drag right past the Mormon Temple on the way to Fort Douglas which was near the university.

We never worried about sabotage or hijackers. We had a capable crew, there was quite a few of us and we were all armed. They worry about it now, I don't think they should worry about it as much. What were you going to do with it, in the shape it was in?

We flew two shipments, I think, in July or August, to Santa Fe in C-47s. We took the containers, and tied them down. No racks. It was rushed. I know it was hotter than hell because the pilot was worried about getting over the bluffs out there.

Once, during the convoy stage, we had a wreck near the Snake River, some gal hit a fender, on our way back from Fort Douglas. And once in the Blue Mountains coming back, we were coming up out of La Grande on ice and we were coming good and the traffic ahead stopped and the kid in the last Ford sedan stopped and slid backwards into the brush.

We had a guy from Iowa, Cec Bell, who was one of the best truck drivers I had ever seen. We got soldiers who were ex-truck drivers, over the road truckers. We had a five-day turn around. We left here, get there, rest a day, and come back and rest a day here. It took 18 to 22 hours to get to Fort Douglas, depending on the roads and the weather. One stretch we went every week, later three times a month. I recall it was really busy just before the war ended.