The Manhattan Project

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

Robley Johnson's Interview

Printer-friendly version
Robley "Rob" Johnson arrived in Hanford May 2, 1943, at the age of 35, one of the first DuPont people on the scene. He came from Gopher Ordnance Works, a powder plant near St. Paul. At Hanford, Johnson supervised DuPont's photo crew. The War Department photographs of Hanford released after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were his, although he did not receive direct credit.
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]

White Bluffs was a little bitty town of maybe 150 people. It was an orchard town, a ferry crossed the Columbia there. White Bluffs had a drug store that sold the best milkshakes I ever had, and an ice house, a train station. It was strictly a fruit-staging area, and a lot of orchards around there were just comĀ­ing into their own when the government came in. I remember when I first came, we had a picnic at White Bluffs, near the ferry landing, on a Sunday and the next day I went to work.

We operated at first out of Pasco, until we opened the employment office at Hanford. I got here the second day of May in '43, and it couldn't have been more than a week later we started hiring and shipping people out to Hanford. We had recruiters all over the country. It was kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel you know, the war was on and a lot of people were gobbled up by the Army.

The people were met at the train, fed and put up temporarily and sent out to Hanford by bus. A lot of them would get off the bus, stand around for a while, see a dust storm coming and get on the next bus back to Pasco. They never even stayed overnight, a lot of them.

People, including me, came out here thinking Washington was the Evergreen State, and got dumped in a desert. I remember my boss came in one day and he said, "Well, Rob, we got two people on the rolls today. We hired 650 and 648 quit." The reasons for quitting were isolation, dust and no place to live. For a while, we couldn't hire enough carpenters to build bar-racks. We got over that hurdle and made progress, and eventually I made 145,000 ID photos. We used to have a saying, if you quit Hanford and joined the Army, you were a coward.

I had a Q clearance, the highest they were issuing at the time. It allowed me access to most any place. My people and I did everything. There were 50 to 60 of us, working three shifts. We used 4x5 Speed Graphics. If there was an accident we rushed out. I took some pictures of the face of the pile and the loading, but that was getting close to operations, when I was at the end of my tenure.

During the construction time, we had murders, we had rapes, it was a microcosm of society. I have pictures of stabbings, suicides, robberies, auto wrecks, a collision of two steam locomotives, on their sides, belching steam. One after a train engine hit a car and killed two occupants, Christmas gifts all over the place.

I went into operations for a while, as an operator at the 200 Areas, but I hated the goddamn work, it was so repetitious and boring, so when Colonel Matthias asked me if I wanted to do some publicity picture work for him, I jumped at the chance.

You know, it was a most unusual situation back then. You couldn't repeat it to save your life, not even if you had unlimited funds, because you had a world situation that affected it. It was just the experience of a lifetime. I enjoyed every minute of it.