The Manhattan Project

Robert Ellingson's Interview

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Robert Ellingson

Robert Ellingson came to work on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he met his wife and has lived ever since, and speaks fondly of life and work—he was employed in the Y-12 plant—in the “Secret City.”
Date of Interview: 
September 22, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge

Robert Ellingson: My name is Robert Ellingson, and it’s spelled E-L-L-I-N-G-S-O-N. 

Kelly: Great. Now if you could just tell us where you’re from, and how you happened to end up in the Manhattan Project.

Ellingson: I am from a little town in Idaho, and Idaho is west of Wyoming if you’re not familiar with the geography of the country. Most people look quizzical and say, “Iowa, that’s north of here, isn’t it?” But this is the one in the West. 

My friend and I, whose name is Virgil Hanes, who is still here by the way, were going to the University of Idaho at Moscow, and we graduated in 1943. And he received an application blank from the university, and it was an application blank to work on a project called Clinton Engineer Works, Tennessee Eastman Corporation. And he knew that Tennessee Eastman was a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak, so he convinced me that I should write my uncle, who was president of Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, and see if I couldn’t get an application blank to come on down here too.

So I did, and he did, and we finally got on the train to come on our grand experiment.  I was twenty-one at the time, and I believe he was twenty, and we road the train from Boise, Idaho to Chicago—and neither one of us had been any farther east than the edge of Wyoming, and we even stayed an extra day in Chicago to look at the big buildings. And we changed train stations, got on the train, and it was absolutely a bedlam, everybody who was trying to get on that train.

And we finally ended up in the baggage car, and I don’t know whether you realize how many tunnels there are between Chicago and Knoxville, but there are a lot of them. And the baggage car would fill up with smoke and all sorts of things flying around, because all of these trains were coal-fired, so we—took us twenty-four hours, I believe, to go from Chicago to Knoxville.

And we got into Knoxville early one morning, and got our suitcases, and started up Gay Street— and it did go uphill at that day and time— and saw a hotel off to the side street and said, you know, we better go and rest and get cleaned up, because the soot was all over us. So we did. And it was the St. James Hotel, and we got up after— I think we must have slept ‘til about one o’clock in the afternoon, and then got up and decided to find the New Empire Building, which was the building that we had in our paperwork that we were to report to.

So we asked the hotel clerk if he knew where the New Empire Building was, and he looked around the room and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t.”  So we went back out and got on Gay Street and started looking for a policeman to ask him, and as we were walking down Gay Street we went by Miller’s Department Store, and apparently they had just gotten in a shipment of white suits. So we looked at each other and said, “Well, we’re in the South, we might as well get a white suit,” so we went in and were fitted out, and we told the clerk, “Now, you hold them, because we’ll be back for them.”

And we went back out onto the street and found a policeman, and he didn’t know where the New Empire Building was either, but he said, “Back over a block over, there’s a building that’s called Empire Building, now it’s not the New Empire Building,” so we said, “Well, we’ll try there.” And we went over, and sure enough that was where we were to report to. 

So we reported there, and this was about the third week in June, that’s the best I recollect, and they said, “Now, we have dormitory space just opened up in Oak Ridge for you to live in.” We said, “That’s fine, we’ll have to go back to the hotel and get our suitcases and stop by Miller’s and get some things,” and they said, “That’s fine.” So we walked back and got our suitcases and our white suits and brought them to the Empire Building, and they said, “Okay, one of our drivers will take you out to the project,” and we said, “Okay.”

[Interruption with Kelly and cameraman] 

Kelly: Take off where we left off.

Ellingson: Our driver was named Mrs. Justice, and she was from a farm that was located on the area before they condemned the area and made the farmers move off, so she knew all the back ways to go to Oak Ridge. In the package we received a paper pass and she said—now, when we got to the gates, she said, “You have to show your paper pass to these guards,” so we got them out and I handed mine to the guard. 

And I noticed that he held it upside-down, and I thought to myself, well, that’s a little strange, and he kept it for a minute or two and then gave it back to me. And I said to Mrs. Justice after we got down the road inside the area, I said, “What about that guard, has he got a vision problem?” “Oh,” she said, “He can’t read.” So he was one of the people from Appalachia who had not been availed of our fine educational system in the United States.

And we moved into dormitory M4, and when they named the dormitories I believed they named it Cheyenne Hall, and the name has been carried over to the hospitals, Cheyenne Ambulatory Service. In that time all of the dormitories had housemothers, so we checked in through our housemother and left our key with our housemother, and she sort of watched out after us. And about that time it was getting near suppertime so we asked our housemother where to eat. She laughed and says, “I’m going up there, I’ll take you,” and we walked up from our dormitory to the central cafeteria and went in.

We still had our suits on— not our white ones, we were saving those— but we had our suits on and we walked in the cafeteria and she took us over and introduced us to three charming young ladies, one of whom I married. [Laughter.] She told them, “Now, these boys are a long way from home and I want you to take care of them,” and Evelyn, being a nice young lady, believed her, so she did. But so ends our first day in Oak Ridge. 

[Speaking to Evelyn Ellingson, his wife] Evelyn, did you tell them about Café Coca Cola, by that name?

Evelyn Ellingson: Well, I told them about the dance hall.

Robert Ellingson: Well, it was named by one of the girls, I believe. Wasn’t it Martha Lou Jones, the one that named it Café Coca-Cola? But anyway, that was all we had for entertainment, was Café Coca-Cola, on area. It had a counter, at one corner of the area that we danced in, that sold toothbrushes and combs and Band-Aids and stuff like that. And we inquired, you know, why was he doing that? And we were told that that was the only drugstore available in Oak Ridge. And all of the stores in Jackson Square, in that U-shaped Jackson Square, were under construction. There was nothing up there that was finished.

And we went to—when we got up the next morning and went to the office—we were housed in those buildings that were immediately behind the Federal Office Building, those ceramic block buildings, which had been finished, and we sat around and read the paper and talked to each other. There were about twenty of us in the class, and we had an instructor and he finally came in, and it seemed like we were just piddling around. And we’d go home and talk about— is this the way you operate in the normal environment? We didn’t know.

After about three weeks they told us what we’d been doing is just killing time while our clearances were completed. And so they said, “Now, Mr. Hecker,” who was John Hecker, who was second-in-command to Dr. Conklin from Tennessee Eastman, “Wants to talk to you all.”   And so we said okay, and he came in and sat down and said, “Look, we have over-trained on hiring of chemists and chem. engineers. We just have got too many of them, and we’d like this class to go in to what I shall call process, and that’s the operation of these units,” they called them, and he says, “It’s a little incentive: we’ll send you to the University of California at Berkeley to learn how to run these things.” And so we said all right, so they did, and we left for the University of California in mid-July and spent a summer out there. 

And when we came back they moved us into a house. There were five of us in the house and we all could cook, so we started cooking our own meals, and we had several parties. I remember, we had one Thanksgiving party where we cooked a turkey and invited our dates in. And Evelyn appeared at the door wearing slacks and a fur coat! And boy, we thought that was pretty bad and almost sent her home to get more appropriately dressed, but we finally let her in. She also had her hair done up on top of her head, and she looked cute as a bug’s ear, but we didn’t think she was appropriately dressed. 

As she told you in her interview, we did have a good time. We have been fortunate to be allowed to grow up in an environment like Oak Ridge, where we had excellent school systems and we felt quite protected, really. In fact, when our children started coming along and we were then eligible for a one bedroom house, we moved into a house on Georgia Avenue, on the top, Georgia Avenue.

And the houses were even placed nicely. They had several houses around a court in the middle where the children could play, and they didn’t have to run up and down the streets and things like that. And all of these things made for happy living for us. 

Now, we wore the white suits twice, once at his wedding, and once to a party. That’s it.

[Interruption, inaudible]

No, we got married in Alabama, the whole bunch of us. The man’s house we were living in at the time had a Lincoln Continental, and I had a LaSalle automobile, and my friend Virgil had a Packard. So Larry Parson said, “Look, you take the Lincoln Continental and take a few of your friends down with you,” and so we said okay.

They drove me down, taking good care of me, and took the Lincoln Continental with us and we went to Alabama. And Evelyn’s father had rented a number of rooms in the local hotel at Coleman and we stayed there and were married there and then honeymooned in Atlanta, Georgia.

Now, as a part of the going-away present, my friends had stolen my pajamas out of my suitcase. So we stayed at the Ambassador Hotel— that doesn’t sound quite right— the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta, and I remember looking around through my luggage for my pajamas that night, going to bed. So the next day I sent them a famous postcard, “Where the hell are my pajamas?” [Laughter.] And they preserved that and gave it to me when we got back to Oak Ridge.

We spent a week in Atlanta and dropped by Evelyn’s home on our way back to Oak Ridge. And Mrs. Martin wanted to know if we’d seen any good shows in Atlanta, and we both said, “No, I don’t believe so.” That’s all I know or am willing to tell you. 

Evelyn Ellingson: Don’t you want to say anything about your work? Because I did.

Robert Ellingson: Well I went to work at Y-12 and was in the Refining Division, which was the second stage of the calutron process, and was what they called a technical supervisor. And the duties of the technical supervisor was to help the operational foreman, who had all the cubicle operators under his control, with the units that didn’t quite operate properly. And if we terminated the runs, we’d pull those units out and examine them to see why they wouldn’t run properly.

And the University of California maintained a staff that was knowledgeable about the building of calutrons, and they actually redesigned the source unit after we had started into production. Those first units didn’t operate very well, so they just had to, and the trouble was the insulators. They had big long insulators that kept breaking, and they finally found an insulator made by the Coors Brewing Company. I didn’t know they made insulators but they apparently did, that was very fine and worked and saved the day for us. 

So then we went on to operate and, as the second stage buildings opened—there were four of them—they kept taking the foreman and would send them on to the new buildings. And finally they got it down it to where they thought we were smart enough and good enough to be operating foremen and they didn’t give us any technical assistance. So that’s what we did until they shut down the process in 1946.

Kelly: So you continued to stay here. What did you do after ’46?

Ellingson: Let’s see, from ‘46 to mid-’47, the population at Y-12 went from 22,442, or something like that, down to about 1,600, and we were trying to develop a calutron that was cost-effective with the gaseous diffusion plant. Well, we were sort of beating a dead horse because no batch process can ever beat a continuous process, such as the diffusion process was, and they finally gave up on that.

And I went from there up to the building which was called 9212, which was the chemical end of the business there. Now worked up there for several years and then the assembly business came along and I worked in that up ‘til the time I retired, I guess.