The Manhattan Project

Virginia Coleman's Interview

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Virginia Coleman's Interview

Virginia S. Coleman grew up in Louisburg, North Carolina. She was a chemist at the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project, and was one of the women featured in Denise Kiernan’s book “The Girls of Atomic City.” In this interview, she remembers arriving at Oak Ridge and her wait in the “bullpen” until she could be cleared to work there. Coleman describes the projects she was involved with and remembers some of her colleagues. She also describes riding the bus at Oak Ridge and her experiences as a social worker after the war.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge

[Note: This interview contains graphic descriptions of a car accident and a discussion of sexual abuse.]

Nathaniel Weisenberg: My name is Nate Weisenberg. I am here with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. We’re in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It is Wednesday, April 25, 2018, and I am here with Virginia Coleman. My first question for you is if you could please say your name and spell it. 

Virginia Coleman: Okay. My name is Virginia S. Coleman. V-i-r-g-i-n-i-a, S stands for Spivey, S-p-i-v-e-y, Coleman, C-o-l-e-m-a-n.

Weisenberg: Why don’t we start at the beginning. Can you tell me when and where you were born?

Coleman: I was born in Louisburg, L-o-u-i-s-b-u-r-g, North Carolina, June 1, 1923. Was born at home. The family doctor lived in the next block. I was the fourth of six children. I weighed 13 ½ pounds. The doctor kept telling my mother she wasn’t drinking enough water. She told me that she set an alarm and every hour she drank a cup of water, glass of water. But he kept telling her she wasn’t drinking enough. Anyway, I imagine I lost that pretty fast, all that fat.

My siblings and I, we were all very competitive. We were all very bright, although I didn’t know it. I learned to read before I went to school, and I learned a lot of words, but I didn’t know how to pronounce them. My siblings were always laughing at me and calling me stupid. I would call emergency “emersy.” I didn’t realize until much later that that was a sign of brightness.

My father was killed by a drunk driver when I was 12. We were all in the car except my oldest brother, who had learned to drive by that time and wanted to be with his friends. We had gone to Virginia Beach to celebrate my father’s birthday. On the way back – I think it was about dusk, which is the most dangerous time – and before seatbelts. That was a bad time.

My mother and father had eighth-grade educations. My mother really resented the fact that her father didn’t think girls needed to go to school, they just needed to get married. She wanted to go to school and she determined that we were all going. I have no idea how she did it, but I grew up knowing I was going to college. We never talked about how we would pay for it. All six of us went to college, and all six were very successful. 

Things were very different after my father died. My mother just cried every time anybody mentioned his name, so we never talked about the wreck or anything, or got any of the psychological help that would have helped us. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I had gone into therapy for depression. After I’d been in therapy for just maybe three or four months, I went to bed early before Charlie [her husband] did, and all of a sudden, I was just walking around and around the car. Then all of a sudden, I was inside, and it was right after the wreck and everybody else I thought was dead and blood was everywhere.

My mother’s head had gone through the windshield. I felt my left foot slide off of my sister, who was on the floor of the car. I could hear my voice. It sounded like it was hanging in the air as I shouted, “Mommy, Daddy.” Then just this dead silence, and I tried to open the door, but I couldn’t open it. It just wouldn’t open. Finally, somebody came and opened the door, but first they opened the door for my father. He fell out on the pavement, and then they opened my door and I went over and put my head on my father’s chest. And I knew he was dead.

It was crazy, but I went around the back of the car. We were in Virginia, and here was this other side of the road and there was this, I’m sure, at least a thousand-foot drop with trees. But anyway, I didn’t have on my shoes and I took off my socks and threw them down the hill. It was crazy. Then I went around and checked on everybody, and they had taken my mother out and put her on the side with her head on a log. I went over to tell her that we were all okay, because I knew she would want to know. She just stared at me and didn’t say anything. It was terrible. I thought, “My father’s dead, and my mother doesn’t love me.” It was just awful. 

My therapist said, “Don’t you know your mother was in shock?” I didn’t, of course, at 12. That was a big relief when she told me that.

Coleman: Well, anyway, North Carolina at that time only had eleven grades. One teacher said, “We’ve got the best roads in the country, and the poorest teachers and poorest schools.” I finished high school when I was 20 – I mean 16. We had a junior college there. It’s the oldest junior coed college in the country. It was started by Methodists. The Methodists actually started in Louisburg at a place called Green Heights, where they met and started.

I went to junior college. I graduated summa cum laude, if I pronounced that correctly. My oldest sister was already at the University of North Carolina, so she helped me get admitted there. I was in an accelerated class at the university, because this is 1942, and they had already switched over for the war effort, to speed students through. There was no summer vacation, so I was one quarter ahead.

The chemistry department had a notice one day that there would be a recruiter there if anybody wanted to be interviewed. I signed up for that. It was a woman interviewer from here, and she just wanted to interview people who were graduating in March. She described Oak Ridge as this 90-square mile place with free buses running night and day. If I wanted to come out for an interview between Christmas and New Year’s, I could do that, which I did. I had never been on a train before. I had a friend from Chapel Hill who came down from New York and met me in Asheville, and we traveled together after that. She was hoping to get a job as a secretary or something like that. She just had an English major, but she didn’t get the job. She was disappointed.

Anyway, we traveled together, and I was going to meet a boyfriend of mine named Johnny. He was at the train station when we got to Knoxville with a flower for me, which he always brought when we had dates. I only saw him for a minute and they whisked us away to what I learned later was a boardinghouse. It was too late for them to have anything for dinner, so I didn’t have dinner that first night. We were up at 6:00 the next morning and there was a car to bring us to Oak Ridge, but we spent the night in Knoxville.

Coleman: I had my interview, I was offered a job and I accepted it and set a date to come back. I think it was April the 5th. It turned very, very cold and that night it started snowing, and the next morning my train was supposed to leave at 6:00. I think we left something like 8:00, 8:30. There were all these soldiers who were home for Christmas. Oh, what a mess. We managed to get on the train. We were just jammed tight in the middle, standing up or sitting down on suitcases. I got to Durham. No buses, not anything was running. Durham is twelve miles from Chapel Hill. But there were three cadets there who had to be back by 6:00 in the morning, and they hired a private citizen to drive to Chapel Hill and let me ride with them. That was the beginning, and then I came out in April.

My security clearance was here when I arrived, but they didn’t find it for six weeks. So, I was in the bullpen all that time. You know what the bullpen is?

Weisenberg: If you were working there, but you hadn’t been officially cleared to work there, you were just sort of waiting. Is that right?

Coleman: That’s what they thought, but I had been cleared. They just didn’t have the paperwork at the right place. So, I’m at the bullpen for six weeks. What they did there was just keep people until their clearances came through. A lot of people would just get tired of waiting and leave, so they tried very hard to entertain them with movies and things. They took all the college students who were waiting to teach classes. It was crazy.

People were coming in and leaving, and finally, I got through all that and finally got to come down to Y-12. While I was in the bullpen, I met a man named Nick Piper. He was scheduled to be head of human resources for the chemistry department. I was surprised, he asked me if I would like to be his assistant. What that meant was I could work days instead of having to rotate. I jumped at that opportunity, but after a few months, I found out – he told me I could never get a promotion, because I wasn’t trained for that.

I decided to switch over to the chemistry, and that’s when I got into the lab, and I was working under Dr. [Clarence] Larson. Dr. Larson later became head of Union Carbide [misspoke: president of Union Carbide’s Nuclear Division]. He was very smart. He had a lot of engineers who had come down from Yale and Harvard, new graduates. They were chlorinating uranium, trying to work out the right temperature and length of time and everything that you do for that. I was analyzing the chloride to see how completely they had chlorinated the uranium.

Dr. Lawson would come by in the afternoon and he’d say, “How did that last sample go?”

I’d say, “Oh, it was 98 point something, and I’ll write it down for you."

“Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “I’ll call you in the morning and get the results.” 

Well, first time this happened, I wasn’t aware of what was going on. But he would call the next morning and I would hear him yell, “Whoo! 98 point!” I’d find out later he had all these bigwigs sitting in the office, and he went on up the ladder. But he was very smart, very nice. I babysat for him some.

Actually, I don’t remember too much. There was one other girl in the lab, Emily Leyshon. Em had come from the University of Chicago. She was very smart. We became good friends. When we would go out and there was ever a booth where you could sit and have your picture made, she would have her picture made as a profile. Then she would sit and draw how she wanted her nose to look. It was a little bit long and [inaudible], but she didn’t like it. Other people didn’t mind it. Her father was a surgeon in Chicago, and she got him to find a surgeon to operate on her nose. She didn’t tell anybody but me.

She goes up to Chicago, she has her nose operated on. I wish I had saved her letter, it was the funniest thing. She said the doctor who operated had been a prize boxer, and his nose had been broken and was way over to one side. He said, “Well, I don’t care how I look. I just fix other people to look the way they want to look.”

When she came back in two weeks, maybe it was longer, my supervisor said to me, “What’s different about Em?”

I said, “Well, I don’t think there’s anything different about Em.”

He said, “Something’s different.” People just didn’t almost recognize her. A little bit of a change in her nose, and it was so cute, you know, kind of up-tipped a little bit. She had a boyfriend, her self-confidence went way up, and she was married shortly after that. Her husband was a scientist, too. GE hired him as soon as the war was over to work for them.

But actually, I didn’t think too much about what we were doing. I had dated a PhD from Yale while I was at the bullpen. He had asked me one night if I knew what we were doing here, and I said, “No.”

He said, “You’re a chemist, you ought to know.”

I said, “But I don’t.” He told me, but I never mentioned it to anybody until after the war was over. Denise [Kiernan] asked me a lot of questions about people who were disappearing. But I didn’t know anyone who disappeared. I just never talked. And I didn’t know what my friends did. I think that was the biggest, most amazing thing, that so many people here didn’t talk. And I guess they were smart enough to pick up the ones who did.

Weisenberg: When you disappeared, you’d get fired or you’d get reassigned, right, if they caught you talking too much about it? Is that it?

Coleman: Yeah. I mean you didn’t get reassigned, you just disappeared. What they did with them, I don’t know. Someone who was I guess very talkative or something. Denise talked to people who knew people who disappeared, but I didn’t.

I was really much more interested in the social life, you know. The cafeterias were open 24 hours a day. We had dances on the tennis courts. I was in Tennessee Eastman’s, on their [tennis] team, and we had regular competitions. The rec hall with a library, and we just walked everywhere.

When I first got here, they took me to WV-25, West Village 25 dormitory. The first morning I was going to work, I walked up to the road and there is this huge cattle car, and I got on the cattle car. Going to work was okay, because everybody went to the same place. But coming home – the cattle car had a very high, higher than your head, windows, not very big. You were holding onto a rod, but you couldn’t see when you got to your stop. When people got off, they would yell back where they were. After you had made the trip a few times, you knew when to expect maybe one, two, three stops and you’d get off. But when I moved to Townsite, then I could just walk to the bus station to get on a bus to go to Y-12. 

I don’t know what else you might want to know. When the bomb was dropped – so while we had never talked about it at work, one of the engineers came by. I was going to go on vacation with a friend. We were going to go to Washington for a week. One of the engineers stopped by and said, “Well, it won’t be long now.” That was it. My friend and I rode the train to Washington and walked, walked, walked everywhere, and every night the bands were playing and everything. Then the bomb was dropped. I was in Washington when it dropped.

The next day, we were leaving on a ferry to go to Norfolk to visit my sister. We get on the ferry and everybody’s talking about this. One woman says, “Nobody knew about it.”

For the first time, I said, “Well, I knew about it.”

She said, “You did not! The paper said nobody knew about it.”

I thought, “Hmm, I wonder how she thinks it got made,” but I didn’t argue with her.

Weisenberg: What was your reaction when you heard about the bombing of Hiroshima? 

Coleman: I was so glad the war was over. So many people had been killed, not just our people. The knowledge that the Japanese would fight to the end. All those pictures of the Japanese and their dive-bombers were terrible. I never regretted that we dropped the bomb, particularly after the first one when they wouldn’t give up.

But it certainly is a terrible thing that so many countries have that bomb now. You worry that some crazy person would use one. I worry about the international situation today and all the things that are going on all over the world.

Weisenberg: Do you remember what the mood was like in Oak Ridge after the news of the bombings and then a couple of weeks later, after Japan surrendered?

Coleman: Well, when I came back, everybody was just so joyous. I think it continued that way for quite a while. Then reality set in about what’s going to happen to Oak Ridge. All the people – particularly the scientists who had come here not wanting to, perhaps, and just anxious to get back to their schools and their professorships and things that they were doing. So, a lot of my friends left. I didn’t know whether my job would continue or not. But Em and I stayed on for a while. She left later, within a year. I continued to work for nine years.

Weisenberg: Why did you decide to stay?

Coleman: I didn’t have anywhere else to go. This was my only job. I really liked Oak Ridge. I still do. I married in 1952 and I retired six weeks before my first child was born. That was a lonely period, because I didn’t have any friends who were at home taking care of kids, because I hadn’t known the people that had. It wasn’t until I joined the League of Women Voters that I finally started making friends with intelligent, interesting people.

Weisenberg: You’ve been involved with the League of Women Voters for a very long time. Is that right?

Coleman: Yeah, over 50 years. They have a 50-year League of Women Voters, 50-year Smoky Mountain Hiking Club. We hiked a lot. That’s one of the really nice features here is this Hiking Club is still going. I think it started in 1923 or something, and it’s been very active. A great group of people from all levels, socio-economic levels.

I started doing volunteer work after which for Planned Parenthood, and then decided to go back to college and get a master’s in social work. I did an internship at Child and Family Services, and at Helen Ross McNabb Mental Health Center. Then I was hired by Child and Family Services to work in a research program that would interview people who had been sex-abused, and also the sex abusers. It was a federally-financed program for three and a half years. Usually, they didn’t finance something for more than a year at a time. Then there was a group from the University of California at Berkeley that was overseeing the research, and they would come three or four times a year and test us.

There were seven brand-new social workers and one experienced social worker supervisor. There was only one male in the seven new ones. It was extremely stressful. It was just when sex abuse was beginning to be somewhat talked about. I learned very quickly that when someone asked me what I did, if I told them, then – you know. So, I just said I was a social worker.

The stories were terrible. One day a week I’d go up to Union County, which is adjacent to Knoxville, north of Knoxville. It was a century behind, literally. Incest was rampant. I went by to see the school superintendent and he said to me no one in the county wanted an outsider coming in. He said to me, “Here’s what you’re dealing with. I had a girl go out and have sex during lunch. I called her father to tell him, and he said, ‘Good. I hope she has twins, so we can get more money from the government.’” 

I had one boyfriend of a woman there – she had two daughters. She had tried to prostitute them. Her mother worked at the courthouse and had a lot of power. I was leaving one day, and the boyfriend pulled up in a car next to mine, where I had stopped to make a turn. He said to me, “You know, I don’t really believe in killing people, but sometimes that’s the only way you take care of a situation.” 

Whew. Well, Charlie didn’t want me working like this, of course. The two little girls told me the next time I went up that they had come by my house. Well, they had just burned the building that we had for this project. I thought, “Oh, gosh, they might burn my home!”

I said, “Well, what color is it?” 

They said, “Brown.”

I said, “Oh, no, my house is green.” Anyway, they didn’t.

Weisenberg: One question I wanted to ask you is your husband also worked on the Manhattan Project, but he came here after World War II, right? How did you meet?

Coleman: He was my supervisor, but he was here during the war. He left to go to Purdue, then came back.

Weisenberg: Oh, I see.

Coleman: By this time, Dow Chemical was putting out resins, and so we worked with dye-1 and dye-2. They were very murky, not very good to work with. But then they cleared it up some and were using that resin to try to absorb uranium from different solutions, trying to find what was the best. So we had these small plastic, clear plastic tubing, and we’re trying to get the uranium out of these solutions, these long tubes running around the lab. Eventually, a plant was built to – I mean, this was basic work before it was built. 

Then after I was engaged, I couldn’t work in the same building with him or in the same division. I went to work for Warren Grimes. Charlie and Warren had been roommates at Purdue. There I worked on the plane, trying to figure out the right material to use for the plane that never flew, because it was too heavy. The panels to protect the pilot had to be so heavy that the plane wasn’t practical.

Anyway, I was working on that molten salt [reactor], to try adding different ingredients and taking it up to melting point, and then watching it cool and getting the waves and things that would show how that went. That’s what I was doing when I left. 

Weisenberg: Under Alvin Weinberg, Oak Ridge, the laboratory worked on molten salt for a while. Is that right?

Coleman: Right. Recently, they had publicity about going back to that. 

Weisenberg: What did you think about that?

Coleman: Oh. Well I didn’t know enough about all the different reactors, but from what I read in the paper, it sounded like a good idea. 

Weisenberg: One other question that I had for you is did you encounter any particular challenges because you were a woman scientist?

Coleman: I’ve had that question asked before. I was unaware of any problems. The male workers were friendly, cooperative. I did have one man who said he thought women’s place was in the home. But no, he was cooperative. I went out to California after the war, and on the way back I stopped and stayed with him and his wife. They had moved back after the war. That was the only occurrence I had.

Weisenberg: Do you remember which buildings you worked at Y-12?

Coleman: I know that it was 9204-, but I can’t remember what the dash number was.

Weisenberg: One thing I wanted to ask you was when you were in the bullpen, you were teaching courses to some of the other folks who were there?

Coleman: Well, what I did was I made up some little experiments to show people that were associated with cooking. Rising, how you could mix things and get them to – I no longer remember exactly what I did, but that was one thing I did. I also had to teach how to read a yardstick and a meter. I didn’t know that when the people actually went to work they were going to be doing the calutron meters and things. It just seemed so obvious to me how you would read a yardstick. That was in the bullpen.

Weisenberg: Do you remember how many other people were in the bullpen while you were there, how many people you were teaching? 

Coleman: That could be as many as 40. It was an enclosed room, no windows, because of the movies. Usually, a class would be about 45 to 50 minutes. If it were a movie, it would be a lot longer. 

I set myself a goal for a while, to see if I could learn the names of all the people, because they had to check in. I would try to find some facial feature that would help remind me what their name was, some association. Then people would [0:51:00] leave and I’d have to learn new numbers, new names. That was just a little thing I tried to do myself.

Weisenberg: Do you remember what some of the movies were?  I was just curious if they were films that were trying to instruct people on what to do, or instructional–

Coleman: No, no, no. They were just movies, just entertainment. 

Weisenberg: I had read somewhere that your sister was also a chemist. Is that right?

Coleman: Yeah. She had her master’s in chemistry. Every time I graduated, she graduated. Of course, her degree was always ahead of mine, and I was a little jealous. I thought my mother always paid more attention to her, but she really was my mentor in college. That first semester there I took organic chemistry. No. I was going to be an English teacher, and I found I could not stand the rote learning to be an English teacher. I switched over to chemistry at that point.

The second quarter, I had organic. Well, all the people in the class except eight students had failed it the first quarter. The teacher talked to them, and the eight of us who were new were just lost. I would never have passed that if my sister hadn’t helped me. All through, she was just very helpful to me. She died last year. 

Weisenberg: I’m sorry to hear that.

Coleman: Yeah, almost 98.

Weisenberg: Her name was Sophia. Is that right?

Coleman: Yeah, Sophie. Her husband joined – he had volunteered for the war. He was very idealistic. So he joined in, I forget, ’42 or ’43, and she had a six-month-old baby. And went into a deep depression after Bill died.

She was living with her in-laws. Finally, her father-in-law said, “Well, Sophie, why don’t you come down to the office and let me teach you real estate?” She did, and she went on to be very successful. She stayed there a year or two and then she set up her own practice. For five years in a row, she got this recognition for  being the best real estate dealer in Winston-Salem. 

She was very generous, helped out, she started Goodwill there, was very involved with the arts. Went to Italy after they had a big flood, helped work on restoring some of their manuscripts and things that had been damaged by the flood. This is in Florence. 

Weisenberg: Changing tack a little bit, how do you feel that living here in Oak Ridge has affected or impacted your life? 

Coleman: I’m sure it influenced how I think about the war. It’s been interesting to watch the changes in Oak Ridge. When they wanted to open the gates, we voted against it. We liked the security of having the gates and not knowing when people were coming to visit you in advance. But the city didn’t always go by voting. One example is the swimming pool. The swimming pool was the largest in the world, I think, at the time it was built. All these things that we had to keep us happy during the war. They wanted to make it smaller. 

Weisenberg: A couple of other things I was curious about: do you remember some of the segregation here during the war?

Coleman: Yes. I have a good friend, Diantha Paré, who worked very hard for integration. I thought it was terrible that the blacks had to be bused into Knoxville for high school. Although they were still segregated, they still had to go there for high school. The integration here, they were, I thought, very careful about it, because they put just a few students in each elementary school. My daughter had a very good black male friend. She was really color-blind. I thought that’s great, the way kids if they grow up with each other, it doesn’t matter. That’s what we need, and so it’s most unfortunate that we still have so much bias in our society. In Clinton, they had to call in the National Guard. But I think here it went pretty smoothly. 

Weisenberg: What are your thoughts about what the Manhattan Project represents and what its legacies for today are?

Coleman: I really don’t know. I think the fact that it was kept secret was quite a phenomenon, and that it could never happen again, with cellphones and all the changes. It’s just really incredible how Hanford, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge – and then there were a lot of other little places that were doing things – how all of that was going on secretly and then came together successfully. That so many brilliant German scientists were able to get here and work and help us.

What its legacy will be, I wonder. As time goes on, things in the past shrink and shrink and shrink, and so I sometimes wonder how students – more and more history to learn and less and less time to. But I do think that you can see movies. That’s a much better way to learn than the way I did, just reading it.   

For the first time, last night I heard this person on TV. He was calling it “destructive creatism.” He was talking about civilizations. We have a war, both a victor, victim, there are big changes afterwards. I never thought of it in that way, and I don’t like to think of it that way.

He’s saying that over the centuries, there’s always a big combat, and out of that comes new things. But I hate to think that that’s the only way new things can come. I don’t know why we couldn’t have a peaceful world. Sometimes I think if there were an enemy that was going to attack the whole globe, then we’d cooperate. I don’t know why we couldn’t do it without a threat. I just have never understood why countries want to get bigger and bigger and bigger.

Weisenberg: Do you have any other stories from the Manhattan Project years or other stories that you would like to share?

Coleman: I think about funny things that happened. Jane Greer Puckett – her husband, Jim, we called him “Puck.” He had a boat up on Norris Lake called Scheherazade. It would sleep six people. We could go up there on weekends, and just go up the lake somewhere and anchor. Well, one time, Jane’s holding a watermelon and the keys. Someone shouts, “Drop the watermelon!” She drops the keys in the lake. She was called “Calamity Jane." 

One time, they were having a dinner party, and she had put the tossed salad up on top of the refrigerator. People have arrived, the tossed salad gets dropped on the floor. Puck says, “Oh, Jane, I thought you’d already tossed that salad.” 

They were so quick with their jokes, and they were a wonderful couple. There were a lot of funny things like that. I think it was a happy time here in Oak Ridge.