The Manhattan Project

Richard Shepard's Interview

Printer-friendly version

Richard Shepard's Interview

Richard Shepard joined the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, working in the K-25 Plant as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment. With many family members serving overseas in the military, he explains his personal reaction to the end of the war. He discusses his later work in nuclear science, including the Bikini Tests.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 18, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Richard Shepard: I’m Richard Shepard, S-H-E-P-A-R-D.

Cindy Kelly: Okay. And now why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you came to the Manhattan—come into the Manhattan Project, and how that happened.

Shepard: I graduated from high school about three or four weeks after I was seventeen in 1943. I had been an amateur radio guy, having been licensed in 1941 with a station I built myself from money made with paper route money. And heard that Auburn University in Birmingham—Auburn of course, being in Auburn, Alabama, but they had an extension center in Birmingham that had a night school thing. And I went to that when I was in high school.

And when I graduated, I started to the University of Alabama and then, within about two weeks, got a letter from the Army and Navy saying you can be in ASTP [Army Specialized Training Program] or V-12 [Navy College Training Program]. ASTRP was reserve until you were eighteen. I couldn’t pass the Navy physical, but I did pass the Army one by drinking a lot of milk and eating enough bananas to weigh 126 pounds at five feet ten and a half.

So that was six weeks in the summer term of the University of Alabama. And I left and, in the Army, went to NC [North Carolina] State in engineering until I was eighteen. And then was in the infantry, basic training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia.

At the end of basic training, or near the end of it, I got a letter after being interviewed by the camp board saying I was going to go to Infantry OCS [Officer Candidate School]. The next day, I got another set of—the first one was a letter, the second one was a set of orders that sent me to Penn State instead, in the ASTP, for six months. And I finished that in the late winter or early spring of 1945, and then was sent here. My roommate was sent to Los Alamos.

Here, when we were waiting to be cleared by the FBI, I didn’t know what was going on. I went to the commanding officer, I believe Captain [William] Barger, and asked to be put back in the infantry, because I had bonded with these guys and knew by that time, I thought pretty surely, that because of things that were written in the infantry journal, that a good many of them had been hurt or killed in the Battle of the Bulge. And you’re really bonded to these people. But he said, “You’re here. You can’t go anywhere else.”

And I got assigned to K-25 with a nice bunch of guys. And I worked on the line recorders, which were the mass spectrometers we mentioned a few minutes ago. When the war ended, I stayed here, and then the Bikini Test planning was announced, and the people here asked for people who were willing to go to sign up. I did.

We went to the Oakland Army Base. I was with several people who went down to San Diego and put instruments on a destroyer squadron—the [U.S.S.] Laffey, Lowry, Moale, Ingraham, and [Allen M.] Sumner were some of the destroyers—to measure radiation underwater, on the surface, and in the air.

Then went back to the Oakland Army Base and we went to Bikini on the ship [U.S.S.] Haven, H-A-V-E-N, which was a converted—wasn’t converted—it was a hospital ship, a wonderful ship. It was probably the only air-conditioned ship that there was out there, I suppose.

There I worked in the instrument group with a fellow named Don [Donald L.] Collins, who had been in the SED [Special Engineer Detachment] in New York, who had been discharged and was now an engineer, the manager in Bikini for the Victoreen Instrument Company that made the instruments. So I worked in his group there and as a radiation monitor.

For the Baker test I was on a destroyer, the Laffey, which has a distinguished wartime history. We chased the cloud. Those guys on that destroyer were so glad to see somebody who had been associated in any way with the atomic bomb, because they had been so clobbered [by the war].

I was an enlisted man then, a staff sergeant, a T-3, I guess it was, and they put a chair—you know, this was after the war so they could have movies on the deck at night when nothing else was happening. They put a chair in the front and hung a sign on it, “Reserved for the U.S. Army,” and that was me! [Laughter.] You can see it, just how glad they were that that war had been stopped.

For the second test, I was on a little PGM [Patrol Gunboat, Motor], which is a small, very small Navy sea-going ship. And we went in right after the underwater burst to measure the radiation. There’s a book, Operation Crossroads, published by the Naval Institute Press that mentions that in a paragraph. It just says that people were sent in forty-one minutes after the bomb went off. That was a very interesting day.

My instruments were really reading off scale just about all the time. We had an ionization chamber and various—two kinds of Geiger counters, as I remember. We got rained on, saw the [U.S.S.] Saratoga, from a reasonable distance, settling down to sink.

And then we were all taken—went off that ship at night. I don’t know where the regular crew went. The navigator on it was a fellow named Don Wasson, who I had known, sort of peripherally, in high school. And this was his first trip on a ship like that as a navigator, and he was so glad to have even gotten to Bikini, I think, as a navigator.

But I don’t know where they went, but we went back to the Haven, and there I worked in the monitoring of the various ships, the beautiful Prinz Eugen, been on board that.

Kelly: Can I interrupt for just a second? And this is a great story, but can we get back to the Manhattan Project? That’s going to be the focus of what I’m trying to do right now. 

Shepard: Sure.

Kelly: Okay, so can you talk about the K-25? And remember that we’re going to—my voice will not be part of this, you know, no one’s going to hear anything I say. It’s just so—what you have to do is make sure to talk about whatever without reference to, you know, the question you asked a while ago. In other words, we have to make sure that everybody can understand, you know, what you said. So let’s talk about the line monitors, if you would, what they were, explain what the K-25 did and why you need—

Shepard: K-25, as I’m sure anybody watching this probably knows, was a monstrously large plant that separated uranium hexafluoride gas into uranium hexafluoride with the 235 and 238 isotopes. The separation was made by diffusion through barriers. There was only a small gain in concentration of the desired isotope with each barrier, so the concentration was measured at various stages along the way.

And also, the place had to be leak-proof. Uranium hexafluoride is a toxic gas. It’s a gas when it’s heated; it’s not a gas at ordinary temperatures or slightly lower than ordinary temperatures. At any rate, there these little spectrometers were, the spectrometer itself, they had to be in a—ionized gases that were in the plant stream had to be—go through the electromagnetic field, the mass spectrometer, in a very high vacuum.

The vacuum was maintained by diffusion pumps and a forepump, a diffusion pump with each device and a forepump that lowered the pressure the diffusion pump worked into. The instrumentation associated with these mass spectrometer stations, called line recorder stations. It was a bank of recording devices. They would print dots on a piece of paper, a roll of paper about twelve inches wide. And these were made by the Leeds and Northrup Company, as I recall.

These mass spectrometer stations were scattered in the plant stream. The people who worked with them had bicycles, so we would ride on bicycles to where we were going. Each station was run by—there was an operator in the station. They were usually young women or young ladies, mostly from this part of the country, I think.

The supervisor of my group was a man named Poole, P-O-O-L-E, who was a civilian. He was a pleasant guy who didn’t react to being called “Cesspool” by everybody who knew him there at work, so that was sort of fun. [Laughter.] And the other guys were really, really—they were all people who would be called sharp people, and they were fun, so that was very fun.

We were young enough so that rotate—working—rotating shifts didn’t bother us at all. You’d get on the bus—at first, we were in barracks. It was just a long Quonset hut with cots, and later on, moved into dormitories. From either the barracks or the dormitory, we would get on the bus and go down to K-25 and work and then come back, except that occasionally there would be a dance after the eleven o’clock shift, so that was very interesting to—and fun—to go to.

That’s about what I would have to say about that, except the whole place was—all the people in the SED that I knew were just very interesting people, and fun to be with. That’s what it amounts to. All kinds of people, all kinds of characters, and different sort of personality characteristics that go with the kind of jobs they were doing—we were doing, I suppose. But all in all, it was—although I was very much bonded to the people I’d been with in the infantry, that was, I guess you would say, a little bit grimmer, and this was much more fun. That’s about it.

Kelly: Can you describe being on a bicycle? And what did it feel like to be going by these—going down these long alleyways? If you were kind of putting yourself back in that, what was it like? Were these big fat-tired bicycles with baskets or, you know, can you describe the bicycles and what you carried in them and how far you went?

Shepard: Well, the part of K-25 I was in was the third floor. As you face the “U”, from the top of the “U”, looking down on the plant from above, everything I did was on the right side. I didn’t go on the left side. So I don’t recall anything about the bicycles except they were handy. And there was a little office that we had that was about halfway up the “U” from the top down toward what, in a normal “U”, would be considered the bottom.

I do remember there were some jokes. We used liquid nitrogen as part of the methods of working with the pumps. And I remember one guy, when I was sitting at the desk in the little office, the guy poured some liquid nitrogen in the back of my shoe, which really made me jump.

But, right now, most of the things we worked with, you would get in trouble with the government for handling the way we handled then. You certainly couldn’t pour liquid nitrogen in somebody’s shoe. And trichloroethylene, which we mixed with dry ice as a coolant, would require more stringent controls to use the way we did. And I suppose that mercury would require more controls too, although we had very little exposure to that.

Kelly: But what happens when you put liquid nitrogen in your shoe?

Shepard: It tends to freeze the bottom of your back of your heel unless you get it off right quick, which is not hard to do.

Kelly: Did you know what it was on your heel?

Shepard: No. It’s like somebody does something to you that feels very different, very rapidly, and you just respond by reaching down and yanking off your shoe. [Laughter.]

Kelly: So then did you throw your shoe at him? Did you know who did this?

Shepard: I think it was a guy named Bob Bryant, but I may be wrong. There was another fellow there who was—Bryant was a fairly big guy, and I don’t know what happened to him. There was another fellow who was about a foot or a foot and a half shorter, whose name I can’t recall, who may have been the guy who did it, but I’m not sure.

There are a lot of specifics that have faded from memory. My memories of Bikini are much more vivid in some ways than those here.

Kelly: What were the dormitories like? You said you first you lived in a Quonset hut?

Shepard: Yes. The Quonset huts, you could—you know, with rotating shifts there was always somebody asleep and always somebody getting up, so the Quonset huts were very interesting. And when you’re as young as we were, you didn’t mind all of that. The dormitories were nicer.

I had a roommate who’s still my friend, a fellow named Bill Tyson, who had worked with uranium chemistry at Columbia. He had a chemical engineering degree from Purdue. And he was a great roommate. Once, we had a three-day pass and went on a hike in the Smoky Mountains up the Appalachian Trail in the middle of December with another friend who was a naval aviator.

And Bill and I, several years after we got out of the Army, went on a canoe trip in the so-called Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, which was very interesting. So he’s been a lifelong friend, although we don’t see each other very much. He lives out of San Francisco now.

There was a cafeteria adjacent to the dormitory we were in. I think the meal allowance was $1.65 a day, something like that; I may have the figure wrong. But the food was fine from my point of view, although I’m sure from a lot of people’s it wouldn’t be.

I mentioned being in the infantry and having to drink milk and eat bananas to weigh 126. When I got through basic training, I weighed 146, I believe. At that age, when you were active, you would eat anything that was eatable. And from my point of view, the food here was very good, although I’m not aware of any specifics now.

Kelly: Now, did you—you say the dances were fun. Were you a bachelor at this time?

Shepard: Yes. Certainly, I mean, very much a bachelor. I was, by the time I got here—I was still eighteen when I got here. And I was nineteen most of the time I was here. I made friends with a girl and went and spent a weekend with her and her family in Nashville, but that didn’t lead to anything serious. 

Kelly: When you talk about the shifts, there were three shifts? They were twenty-four hours?

Shepard: Yes.

Kelly: The entire war period?

Shepard: The entire time I was working there—I don’t know about before and after. They were seven to three, three to eleven, and eleven to seven.

My roommate worked in some sort of control facility for the plant. We never talked about individual jobs. I guess we were both pretty curious people, but we just didn’t do it and didn’t give it much thought to discuss what each one of us was doing.

Kelly: What did you think you were doing? Did you have any idea what this was about?

Shepard: Yes. During the orientation, they—in a little building in the middle of the “U”, there was a man giving a talk to a small group of us who said, “Read this chapter in this modern physics book,” and we did. And the chapter was about the packing fraction and about getting the energy by fission from uranium. So we were aware that we were involved with that, but did not pursue it any further, at least with anybody else.

And I think that people in general, with probably—if you think of a normal probability curve, the one end of the curve is going to be very questioning about anything at all. But if you’re full of activities, most of the people on the probability curve will sort of accept what things are like and just work on it.

That’s very much true in medicine. I’m an emeritus professor of surgery now, and people accept that medicines work, that medicines have side effects, but very few people are so inquisitive that they can—that they get to the bottom of everything that they’re concerned with. And in fact, in real life you can’t, because you have to pick one particular thing and become an expert in it if you’re going to become an expert at something. Or maybe some extraordinary people can be very expert at several things, but not many. What about you?

Kelly: That’s well put. What did it feel like when they announced that the war was over?

Shepard: It was very good. There was a big celebration. I was working and a guy came along on a bicycle with a—handing out little pieces of paper that said “Part of the Biggest Secret of the War is Known.” And there were words to the effect—I don’t remember the exact wording—that, “We trust you will not talk about what you are doing.”

So, you know, there was a sort of a party outside the plant. I think this was—I forget whether—which shift it was, but I know when I went out there were a lot of people having a good time. 

Kelly: There’s a famous picture with Ed Westcott. Ed Westcott took a—you know, “War Over”: everybody’s holding the newspapers. Do you remember that scene?

Shepard: I don’t. I just remember being very happy, that’s all. I think that my attitude toward the war was a little different from the people who hadn’t ever been in an outfit that was really going to fight people. You know, if you were a civilian working in a civilian job or an engineer who was drafted and was sent directly here without having been through some kind of serious military outfit training, you didn’t feel the war in quite the same personal sense that you would.

For example, the commanding—one of the company commanders where I was had been through Africa and Italy. And of all his people, only three got through it intact, you know. So that meant that that man, who we respected very much, was going to be pretty tough on people.

And really, it was his attitude that he didn’t mind—not that he did—but he didn’t mind having a few people die during basic training because it would save more lives later. And we could understand that and respected it, and it made one feel different about the war. 

In addition, I had seven male first cousins of military age. One was 4-F; all the rest were in service. One was a Naval Academy graduate who got a Navy Cross. Another was an MIT graduate who flew a [P-47] Thunderbolt fighter airplane and was killed six days after D-Day over the French coast region. And two were doctors. One was in the Army and was on a ship that was sunk in the Pacific but survived. Another was a doctor on a destroyer. And one was a VMI [Virginia Military Institute] graduate who was an artillery spotter in France, and later in Korea. One was in the Air Force in England.

So I had a personal investment in having the war over. In fact, they would have considered me a slacker, I suppose; you know, working in a job where you could come out and go to a dance. [Laughter.]

Kelly: Did you ever talk about it with them?

Shepard: No, really. Since I was—only had some stripes on my sleeve without bars at that time, once when I saw my first cousin who was a doctor—and I only saw him once when he was in the Army and I was still in—I wondered whether or not to salute him, and he would have thought that was ridiculous, you know. [Laughter.]

Doctors are very un-military. I spent ten years becoming a surgeon after I got my physics degree at Penn State and went to med school at Penn. And, during the Vietnam War, a lot of the residents we were training went off in service, but the doctors in general are doctors; they’re not military people, which is good. But it also means they may seem a little strange sometimes in their reaction to military things. That’s neither here nor there for your point of view now, I guess. 

I think some of the people here would have seemed strange from that point of view to G.I.s, you know, too. One Yank cartoon sticks in my mind. It’s in a big long procession of American infantry and trucks and tanks going up some mountain in Italy. And right at the very apex of this procession going up this long mountain road was a guy called “Sad Sack,” who was famous during the war. He was made by a cartoonist [George Baker].

And Sad Sack was in front of this long line of armor with a mine detector walking up the road; you know, that was the infantry that sort of bore the real burden. And our guys are doing that now too, in Iraq.

Kelly: Well, one kind of last question, because I know you have to get going. If you could just talk about what you think about the importance of preserving this history for future generations.

Shepard: I think that preserving the history is important in at least two senses. One is that a certain percentage of the population is naturally curious about what happened in the past. The other reason is that we learn some things about how to behave in the present from the results of how we behaved in the past.

So then, my wife is an example of a naturally curious person about history. She had a Fulbright in history and has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. So our house is full of history books; and it’s full of technical, engineering, and physics books, and medical books and journals. And my wife has commented that if we get any more books, we’ll have to move out, you know.

So I think you’re doing a good, a great thing to have this foundation and preserve the history. 

[End.]