The Manhattan Project

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

Ray Stein's Interview

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Ray Stein's Interview

A member of the Special Engineer Detachment, Ray Stein participated in the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, working at the Y-12 Plant. He tells the story of security and secrecy during the project. At Y-12, he and his fellow SED members donned civilian clothes and were told to keep an eye out for possible saboteurs or spies.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 18, 2008
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge

Ray Stein: Okay. Ray Stein, S-T-E-I-N. I came from Erie, Pennsylvania originally. Are we started now? 

Cindy Kelly: Yes, we started. Tell me your story.

Stein: Okay. I had originally tried to join the Navy. I was at Penn State at the time. I tried to join the Navy, which—they rejected me—didn’t have enough teeth, they told me. 

Anyway, after I had gone through the induction services, and they said—I ran into a friend at the induction center and he wanted—asked me what I wanted to do. He happened to be a captain there. And I said, “Well, I had a chemical training. I’d like to use that if I can.” 

Well, he sent me to—headed me for chemical warfare. And he said, “But I’m going to send you out to Sheppard Field [in Texas] first, and that way you’ll get two stripes and that will keep you out of KP [kitchen patrol].”

Anyways, after the basic training, which everyone went through, went out and then I came back to Camp Sibert [in Alabama] for chemical training. And while I was at Sibert, they screened the whole camp for a program called ASTP, Army Specialized Training Program. The whole idea was to keep the colleges open. They needed some students, so if you qualified, well, they’d let you go.

So I was qualified for that program and ended up at University of Pennsylvania in the chemical engineering course, which I was very happy to do at the time. And then, as time goes along, and the months—the war was not doing well, at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. So they needed more manpower, so they closed down the college program.

And it so happened that before they closed it down, why, they gave a hundred of us a test. And we had no idea—they didn’t tell us what it was for. So that was forgotten in a few weeks when they closed it off. And they took fifty of that hundred, and I happened to be one of the fifty, and sent us to Oak Ridge.

There was no preamble to this; they didn’t tell us what we were doing. But it so happened that the sergeant that was in charge of us to take us to Oak Ridge was from Clinton, Tennessee, which is right—a few miles from Oak Ridge. He said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do down there, but there’s a big building project and you’re getting a good deal.” So that made us feel real good.

So we came on down to—and found out there was a pool called the SED, Special Engineer Detachment. And they put us in this pool. They needed technical help also because so many of the men that had been in the Army had gone overseas.

After we were there a few days, we were surprised: one morning they told us to pack up our bags, we were going to—we were leaving. No word what we were going to do. So we got in a—just an ordinary Army car, and there was about three or four in a car, and they took us back to Knoxville from Oak Ridge, from the pool. And we thought we were going to the train station.

Well, we went right by the train station and here we—mystery! This is so much fun. We didn’t know what we were going to be doing. And took us to the Farragut Hotel. More mystery. End up in a big room, looked like a dormitory, and there was more men there that we didn’t know. Well, the group—we didn’t know each other either; we all came from different colleges.

There was a captain, or maybe it was a lieutenant, but he came in and he said, “I want you to send home for your civilian clothes.” More mystery. So we were really getting keyed up at this point. We had about a week that we just were around Knoxville.

They told us to try to be inconspicuous. Well, it’s hard to—it was hard for Army soldiers to be inconspicuous at that time, especially—we didn’t have anything to do. So we went to the USO [United Service Organizations], which we were not supposed to be doing. But we just got bored doing nothing.

So after our clothes came, then they said—got us together and said they were going to send us out to Oak Ridge two at a time to apply for a job. Okay, so we went out for a stay. Keith Kuchar and I went out—he’s gone now—but they rejected us, didn’t have our name, didn’t know anything about us. So we went back, called our captain, and he said, “Well, try again tomorrow.”

So we went back out the next day and things were a little smoother then, went to the personnel department. They knew what we were supposed to do, so they had a plan for us. So they told us where to go as far as dormitories and set us up for our living conditions. And we were not told anything at all at this point, what we were doing, except we were going to have a job in the plant.

So, as time went on, we went out to the plant, and they showed us what we were going to do. We were going to be filter foremen. So this is, of course, after we were back in civilian clothes.

So it was an intriguing experience, the mystery of it all. And just the air at Oak Ridge was so mysterious, and everyone just seemed to be so interested in doing their patriotic duty. They were just working for something, they didn’t—most of them, like probably ninety-five percent, didn’t know what they were doing. But they were given a job to do and they wanted to do it well. It was really a great experience all the way through.

So we went on for a period this way and did our job, and we just tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. And we met with the Army once a month. One of the interesting things about the work we did was we had to meet—Tennessee Eastman was operating Y-12, and we had to meet with the Army once a month and pay back the money that Tennessee Eastman was paying us.

There was no money transacted, but just a balance sheet of—and then, well, we did have to give some back, because we were making more than what the Army was paying us. We had a little allowance. We didn’t suffer any; we had a small allowance. But we had to exchange the Tennessee Eastman money for what the Army pay was. 

We made some strong relationships, as you might expect, some good friends, and we just tried to do our job, which was important.

And I’ll have to backtrack a little bit here. In Y-12 area was one of the processes for separating U-235 and U-238. We weren’t told any of this, but—I can’t remember that far back, but someone told me what book to go to. So I went to the bookstore and got this book he had told me, [James D.] Stranathan’s “Particles” of Modern Physics. Well it described Lawrence’s, E. O. Lawrence’s, process for separating [U-]235.

[Cell phone interruption.]

Stein: What was the last thing I said?

Kelly: Okay. Why don’t you start with describing the calutrons? You were talking about E. O. Lawrence.

Stein: Okay. All right.

Kelly: And why don’t you say that he was a professor and that—

Stein: Okay. This book described Lawrence’s process for separating [uranium-]235 and 238 in a small scale. And this was all theory, now; no one knew it was going to work. But what they had done, the government—General Groves was in charge of this program and their committee had decided there were three different processes to separate the 235 and 238 which they needed. And bear in mind that, at this time, they didn’t know it was going to work; they just had theory. They needed material to make an experimental trial, make a trial bomb. 

So everything was moving forward—what I’m trying to say is, everything was moving ahead at one time. Had to build a city, infrastructure, the whole thing, and we started—General Groves had picked this area, 59,000 acres in Tennessee, which was an ideal spot because it had the power. They were building the buildings and putting the equipment in, not knowing, really, what they were going to end up with, but fortunately it did.

So at their first building they had some problems, and it turned out to be that a lot of them were mechanical and problems in the manufacture of the calutrons, that they had to send them back to Milwaukee. And there was a period of time here where they had to shut the plant down.

And it so happened my wife was being trained—my wife-to-be, we were not married at the time. I met her here at Oak Ridge. But she was sent to school to learn how to operate these calutrons.

They thought this possibly could have been some sabotage involved, so that’s why they really brought us in, the Army, and put us back in civilian clothes to have a job at the plant to oversee this part of this process, the cooling process for the calutrons.

So after we were all set up in our jobs and things got back up running again. And they corrected their problems that they had found, and I still contended nothing happened after that, so they just forgot about us and left us there. But we continued on our work of—working shift work and just trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. And continued in this manner for—well, I was there probably over a year, on this job.

Kelly: How did you feel about working with other people? Did other people suspect that you were—

Stein: Well, that was a touchy point, especially after I had met Alice. She was a forelady, cubicle operator, and the girls that worked for her were wondering what Alice was doing dating a 4-F. 4-F, for those that don’t know, are the unsuitable for military service. They wondered what she was doing dating a person, a man like that. So she got a little heat on that. But it really wasn’t—people didn’t think anything about it really, because there were other people doing the same job, I mean, working in the plants.

It was just an, as I say, an electrifying atmosphere that everyone was just interested in—we were told it was an important job and not to talk about it. It was very secret. But the relationships were all so great.

There was unbelievable cooperation in all, anything you wanted to do as far as the plants, especially in the plant. I remember some of my bosses in the plant, if we had a shutdown, why, they kind of knew there was something a little different about us.

In fact, one of them went down through the logbook we had to write—log in every time we came in to work—and he would go down and see our names. And he’d pick out each one of us—it started out we were working four of us on a building and there were four of us in civilian clothes. And he could pick out by the signatures. He said, “These boys went to college.” So he was suspicious, but he didn’t say anything. 

The only one that knew about us was the superintendent of the building, and he knew who we were. In fact, at one point he called me in the office. He said, “We’ve got a problem.” We had made up a resume to apply for this job, make everything look normal. 

And I’d written up a resume, but our last job would look better if we had someone here in Knoxville. So I picked out a company in the phone book; it was a chemical company, and Fulton Sylphon, as I remember. And he said, “They don’t have any record of you.” So personnel was starting to investigate a little bit. Anyways, they got that calmed down. He said, “We’ll get that straightened out.” But that was one of the little incidents that came up.

But, other than that, people didn’t really pay much attention to us. They might have thought about, “Why are these young men here?” Because we were a little bit—looked healthy.

But then along came Alice. I mentioned she was a cubicle—she was a forelady, as I mentioned, in a cubicle. And we started dating and I couldn’t keep a secret from her too long after we started going together. And that’s when she started to realize that people were looking at her too, wondering what she was doing dating. But we enjoyed a good life.

Well, nothing really eventful came along. As I say, I think they kind of forgot about us because everything was fine, they didn’t have any more problems. And they were meeting their schedule, their production schedule, I assume. 

But it was just a fascinating, and really an important part of my life because it was really the first job I ever had. And I was getting experience working with men there. And these were all men that were local people, and they had interesting stories.

One experience I remember having came New Year’s Eve. And they were used to having a big time wherever they were working—well, they were used to having a few drinks. And so they brought their moonshine into the plant. And that was, of course, a no-no. But I knew I had to live with these men for all year long, so I tried not to be obnoxious and let them have their fun. I was glad when that night was over. [Laughter.] But, as I say, we made a lot of good friendships.

And we were so thrilled and so exhilarated when they dropped the bomb and everything came out in the open. It was just a wild time at Oak Ridge. It was unbelievable how—the excitement that was released when they found out what was going on here. And it was just such a great experience all the way around. It’s just hard to describe, really.

Kelly: Do you remember the—it’s a photograph that Ed Westcott took of people holding the newsprint?

Stein: Oh yes, I have that.

Kelly: Can you describe that?

Stein: Well, all I can remember is people just driving up and down the road, honking and hollering and shouting. And it was just like a New Year’s Eve ten times over. It was just a wild experience. People were just so—just letting out all this energy all at one time, and being so happy it was over, especially those that had loved ones overseas.

And I’ve had—since that time, I’ve heard from so many people, men—I belong to a World War II roundtable and several of them said, “We were on our way to Japan when they dropped the bomb, and they turned around and sent us home.” And it just saved so many lives, even though it was unfortunate having to use it. But it did save a lot of lives of Japanese people, and our men.

And I’m just glad now that we were able to get together. And it’s been a real great experience. I can’t think of anything else, Cindy.

Kelly: What do you think about preserving some of the properties at Oak Ridge, some of the—

Stein: I think it’s great what this organization is doing, the Atomic—

Kelly: —Heritage Foundation. 

Stein: —Heritage Foundation.

Kelly: Why don’t you start again since we interrupted? So Atomic Heritage Foundation—

Stein: I think it’s great what they’re doing, and also the other organizations such as—

Kelly: Can you use the name? I don’t care. But they won’t know—they won’t hear my questions.

Stein: Okay. And there other organizations such as—we’re having this reunion here at Oak Ridge for the sixtieth anniversary of it. And we’re hearing from veterans that have great stories to tell.

I’ve met one of my old friends; he’s the only one of our group of twelve or fourteen that we worked together—we’re the only two that we know of that are left. And it’s been a great experience just to sit down and talk all of our experiences over again. He met his wife here. He’ll tell you the story this afternoon.

Kelly: Were there any sort of ironic things that happened or other funny stories that you remember?

Stein: Just, on the spur of the moment, little things happened along the way. I remember one time when Alice and I were out on a date and I was taking her home. I left her at her dormitory and went back to the bus stop or whatever. You were noticed; you were watched. They didn’t like to see any unusual things going on, like a single man out that time of night. I think they questioned me, what I was doing out and this sort of thing. It was very, very close surveillance.

The common story we thought was, we don’t know who we’re talking to there, but we figured there was the FBI here, CIC [Counter Intelligence Corps]—we were part of CIC, but we didn’t know any others; we were counterintelligence also. But there was every type of enforcement agency, surveillance, security. Security was so tight. It was just unbelievable. You couldn’t be hanging around a bus station or anyplace and not be picked up and questioned.

My wife had the experience of trying to take a picture. She’d had a camera and, boy, they caught—she was just in her own backyard in the dormitory, and they—before she knew it, she said there were three or four patrol cars there. Took her camera and took her film.

The atmosphere was electrifying, really, because everyone was—knew there was an important job to do and they were just glad to do it, and did everything they could. The harmony was just unbelievable. There was no dissension, anything you did. It was just a great feeling.

Kelly: So what did you do for fun?

Stein: Well, we’d go into Knoxville and go bowling. A couple of us would get together. That was our, I think, one of our main activities, just getting together. And if we got two or three of us, we discussed what we were doing among ourselves.

And, like I said, it only took us about a couple months and we pretty much figured out what was going on because of the book I’d gotten that described Lawrence’s process, so we understood what it was. And after we figured that out, well it was—a couple of us had cars and we’d work on them, maybe played a little tennis. We tried to just lead normal lives when we weren’t working. We had our eight-hour shifts. On our long weekends, we’d go to Gatlinburg and do—had our fun that way.

Kelly: You said you figured out what the calutrons were doing. Did you know that the end result was to produce a bomb?

Stein: Well, being of technical background—most of us were—we realized. Well, in my mind, I went through the ancient chemical study—history books tell us that they wanted to turn lead into gold, so it was a transmutation of elements. Well, that’s a little bit far-fetched, but actually we were doing some of that with uranium. We were converting it into—changing—getting this [uranium-]235 to make the bomb.

And there had been articles I had read—in fact, I went back in my notes from high school and I had written a little paper on the energy that could be released from atoms, which surprised—I’d forgot about that. But I had written that from Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and some of the science magazines. So I had an inkling of what could be done, yes.

Kelly: Did you talk about that with your fellows?

Stein: We did. And also, some of the—a couple of the men were married, and they worked in offices, and they gave us a few clues. We got some little help along the way, not too much. Not too much. But of course, we didn’t know any of the details and we wouldn’t have been able to tell anybody enough to be of any danger to the process. But we did talk among ourselves, whenever we could, very quietly.

But it was a different life, I mean, after being in the Army for—most had been at least nine months, maybe, and going back into civilian clothes was a big change for us. And then, of course, after the—when V-J Day came, they put us back in uniform right away. And this was a revelation for Alice. She enjoyed that because then she could show her girls that she wasn’t dating a 4-F. [Laughter.] That was a big time for her. 

And we went through the normal process after we left here, discharged. Some of us got jobs—in fact, Hal [Hoover] will tell you about his job. He stayed here a while longer. But I went on. Well, it was right after that we got married, after I was discharged. And I went to Florida; Alice had gone to Florida to be with her sister. And we were married down there.

But, all in all, it was a big part of my life, and there’s nothing really more significant, I’d say, in my life that happened to me than being at Oak Ridge and being a part of the Oak Ridge Y-12, and working with the Manhattan Project.

And work with you’re doing in the Atomic Heritage Foundation, I think it’s great. In fact, the World War II group that I belong to in Atlanta, that roundtable, their mission is to keep alive the memory of World War II and get their stories, just like you’re doing, to keep it alive for the next generation because they just haven’t—aren’t aware of what happened in World War II. And of course this was a big part of it.

Kelly: Can I ask you, once again, to talk about the actual properties? You know, whether you think it’s significant that there be some properties that remain from the Manhattan Project?

Stein: Properties.

Kelly: What we’re trying to do is, you know, create a national park and have, maybe, the Y-12 calutron building preserved. It’s almost a museum now. So that a hundred years from now people can see what this looked like, what it did, and have that complement, you know, have something of a physical reality of this huge plant that we spent billions producing. So when you answer—they won’t hear my question so try to think about, you know, saying—

Stein: This will be the first time that I’ll be back in the building, and I’d like to see it preserved for future generations to see what we were doing there. I have no idea whether the racetrack that’s pictured in this book here, whether it’s still there in Y-12—I don’t know. I’m hoping to find out today. We’re going to see the Beta [racetrack], which was a complement to this building. And I’ve never been in a Beta building before.

But yes, I think it’s great that we should hold on to what we’ve got; we’ve probably lost some already. But especially the stories, like you’re trying to do now, preserve those as much as possible and get all these pieces of information together for future generations, I think it’s a great idea.

Our roundtable in Atlanta, that’s their mission, is to go out to the schools and give talks. If they had some film or some DVDs to show, I’m sure it would be of help, to show what needs to be preserved. I think it’s great what you’re doing.