Cindy Kelly: All right, I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and today is Wednesday, March 20, 2013. And what I’d like to do is first have you introduce yourself. Tell me your name and spell it.
William Schneller: Well, my name is William F. Schneller, and it’s W-I-L-L-I-A-M, F, S-C-H-N-E-L-L-E-R.
Kelly: Terrific. You did very well. [Laughter]
Schneller: I still remember it.
Kelly: You still remember. So now, if you can tell me your birth date and place of birth.
Schneller: Yes, my birthday was February the 25th, 1920, and it was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Kelly: Terrific, not very far from here.
Schneller: No, that’s true.
Kelly: That’s great. Well, tell me, how did you get started? Where did you go to school, and things like that?
Schneller: Well, I, of course, was in Bethlehem as I started school, and I went to the school in Bethlehem for the lower grades. And then I went to Liberty High School, where I graduated. And then when I graduated, I went off to Muhlenberg College, where I was there for—I graduated in ’42. And then, well, my wife went to Cedar Crest College, and a group of girls from Cedar Crest came over to Muhlenberg for an inter-fraternity dance, and that’s when I met her, and we were married. When we were married, she was a senior at Cedar Crest, when we were married, then I was off working. It was during the war and DuPont was looking for male people to do work in their various industries that were for the war effort, so that I was hired and immediately sent to Birmingham, Alabama, where they put me to work at a smokeless powder plant that they had going there for the war.
And that’s where I started working for them, and then I stayed with them for my entire working career, but in many locations. They kept sending me here, there, the other places where they were doing work for the war, and I was helping them. There weren’t that many male people. Most of them were in the service, so that I was one of the few that they had to send around and do various things where—if they had problems in certain of their industries and whatever. I guess we moved, I think it was nine times all through the South. And then finally, of course, I went to the Manhattan Project, and we then eventually moved out to the West Coast, where the atomic bomb was being set up to run. And that’s where we were for a time as I worked on the bomb.
And this is a big fruit area. They had orchards as far as you could see, wonderful fruit. Big sign: Don’t eat any of this fruit, it’s radioactive,” because of the nearness of the atomic plant there. And eventually, it was moved back to New Jersey. And then, well, I stayed with them until I retired.
Kelly: Okay, that’s a great overview. Tell me a little bit more about—what did you major in in college?
Schneller: In chemistry.
Kelly: And how did you get interested in becoming a chemist?
Schneller: Well, my father was an educated chemist. That was what interested me, too, so that when I went to college, that’s what I got involved with.
Kelly: You were probably way ahead of the class.
Schneller: Well, [laugh] I don’t know about that, but that’s where it was.
Kelly: That’s great. So did DuPont have a big ramp-up then in World War II for this munitions work?
Schneller: You mean—
Kelly: Did they build new factories or expand them?
Schneller: Well, yeah, they took over numbers of factories and did more work for the government. And they didn’t build buildings, necessarily. They took over a lot of the industry, and that’s pretty much where it’s at, I guess.
Kelly: So what do you remember of being asked to go to Hanford to be part of a secret work out there?
Schneller: Well, I know that my wife—I told my wife what we were doing, and so she was informed of it. I don’t know, we moved around to different industries. And finally, I was told that they wanted me on the Manhattan Project, and that I could tell my wife, but no one else, what I was doing and why and so forth.
Kelly: What did you know? I’m curious. What did they tell you that you were doing?
Schneller: Well, I knew that we were attempting to build an atomic bomb, and this was—the procedure had to be finalized before we started making this thing, because it would be quite an undertaking. And we were told that if we didn’t, that there were other countries in Europe that were saying that they were going to be building this atomic bomb and that we had better get this thing going. Because if we could get it working and they would know about it, then that would block them from—because they’d be afraid we’d catch them before they caught us with a thing like that.
And I guess the one thing that was kind of scary and I, unfortunately, as I was in the laboratory – and this is a pretty big laboratory out at Hanford—and I was working on an experiment in this area. And it was a big table, there were a number of chemists that were working at the same time doing various tests and so forth. And I was having a radioactive solution that needed to be boiled for just a certain length of time, and then I was to take a sample out of that and that would be continued later on some part of the program. And I had it all set up, and there was another chemist alongside of me, but at a distance and doing his own work. And I had a rubber ball and a pipette, and at a certain length of time—and this was boiling—at a certain length of time, I was to take a sample out of there and put it in another place and then later, that would be continued. And I had this at the exact time that I was supposed to take this sample out, and so many cc's [cubic centimeters].
And I put the pipette in the boiling mixture, and I reached over here to get this bulb that I had set there, and well, the person that was working over here had picked this thing up and was using it and here, I had no way of getting a sample out of this boiling mixture. So I took the pipette and I sucked it up, it was the only way I could do that. And when I sucked it up into the pipette and had so many cc's or whatever it was, I don’t know, I got a hiccup or did something, and I had a big mouthful of radioactive material. And well, I quickly spit it out, but I had a mouthful left. I had swallowed half of it and the rest, I spit out, and that was down here somewhere.
And so I quickly went to the medical area—and they had a big medical setup there—and told them what happened, that I had swallowed a pretty good size of radioactive material. And they said, “Well, that’s unfortunate because there’s no way we know of to remove it from your insides. It’s all spread out and we don’t know what effect that’ll have on you, but it won’t be good, and we’re going to send you home. And stay there for two weeks and then see what’s going on.”
So I went home and well, of course, I had to tell my wife because I was—each morning, I’d wake up and try to see if there’s any problems. And luckily, I didn’t feel any problems of it. So I called them and they said, “Well, we’re certainly glad to hear that but we’re somewhat surprised. You’d better come back to work and so you’ll be close to us and we’ll see how things go.” Which I did, and they said—well, it surprised them. They thought it would be more serious.
And I continued to work then, and that was about it. Then later, they sent me home and, that is, back to New Jersey, and I continued to work with DuPont until I retired.
Kelly: And they took good care of you all those years.
Schneller: Yes, they did, yes. And we moved all over the South and could see what’s happening all over there. It was kind of interesting, the type work that I was doing. So that was pretty much it.
Kelly: So did anyone ever X-ray you and see if there were radioactive—?
Schneller: Oh, they did all kinds of tests on me and they said that—nothing they could do, “But we’ll have to just see what happens as time goes on.” And well, as time goes on, I’m still here. [Laughter.]
Kelly: That’s wonderful. That’s great, wow.
Schneller: So that was kind of the story of my life during those years. Then I retired eventually and came here.
Kelly: All right. Now, let’s see. In the newspaper report, it said you and your wife drove across the country, is that right?
Kelly: Tell us about that.
Schneller: Well, I wanted a car when we got out there. I wanted a car to use to go to the store or do whatever I wanted to do. And in those days, they stopped making cars, and you couldn’t buy cars and all that. And we had to actually buy a used car because there were no new ones available to me. And instead of flying out there, I said I wanted a car when I got out there. So I had this car and I said, “It’s in good shape, I want to drive out there, then I’ll have a car when I get there.” And we did drive out, my wife and I. And well, it was interesting because although we had tickets to buy gasoline, most stations, when you’d drive into them, they were either just about out of gas or didn’t have any—gas stations. And we, a number of times, were lucky to have enough gas to get to the next station down the highway somewhere. And we picked our way all the way out to the Hanford area, then we had a car.
Kelly: So what was the name of the car? It was some unusual—
Schneller: It was a Terraplane, which, I forgot—I think Dodge people made it, or at least that company, Terraplane, it was. They had them for a certain period of time, and then they stopped making them. And we had that. It was okay.
Kelly: Do you remember what color it was?
Schneller: It was black.
Kelly: And four-door?
Schneller: No, no, it was a two-door. It was a coupe. And it took us out there, so it was okay.
Kelly: How many cylinders?
Schneller: I think six.
Kelly: Six, oh.
Schneller: I think it was six, yeah.
Kelly: Was it good gas mileage?
Schneller: Yeah. Yeah, it was fine. I had no complaint on it. When I got out there, I had it for a while. Then finally, I guess we got rid of it before we came back to—I guess we flew back to New Jersey.
Kelly: So what year was it that you went to Hanford?
Schneller: Gosh, I’m not sure. I don’t know, I’m not sure.
Kelly: So you said you worked in a laboratory?
Kelly: Was that in the 300 area? Do you remember? Was it just north of the City of Richland?
Schneller: North of what?
Kelly: The City, the village of Richland? There was an area set aside for laboratory work. It was called the 300 area.
Schneller: Yeah, okay.
Kelly: Because otherwise, you had to drive a total of twenty-six miles to get out to the river where the B Reactor was.
Kelly: Did you work in the reactor building, or around the B Reactor?
Schneller: No, I was in the front area there where all these orchards were, and I worked in the lab there.
Kelly: So where did you live?
Schneller: We lived in Richland, I guess, was it? Yes, we had a prefab there that they had built for the employees, a bunch of prefabs, which is kind of interesting. I know that they had these big signs—“Don’t pick this fruit because they’re radioactive”—and there was always somebody picking them and taking them [laughter].
I know the one time, even though my wife knew all about that, “Don’t take the fruit,” there was a neighbor that she had met—because everybody was new around there—and she met this person. And they had stores in the Richland area there that they would import fruit from the East somewhere, and they’d sell that. And my wife knew that and, of course, didn’t do any picking of fruit or anything, but she would buy similar fruit in one of these stores. And so I came home from work this one day and she had a nice bowl of fruit and I said, “Well, you didn’t pick that, did you?” No, no, she met a neighbor that lived just down one or two houses and the neighbor had a big thing of this fruit. And I said, “Well, did you ask where she got it?”
And then my wife said, “Well, no, everybody knows you don’t pick the fruit.”
And so I did a little checking and actually, that was the fruit that was picked, and she had eaten one of these. And I thought, “My God, that’s all we need.” Well, we told the doctor that we were going to there, and he kept his eye on her and it didn’t hurt her. But we got rid of that fruit. So that was sort of an interesting thing that happened.
Kelly: So was that before or after you drank the radioactive solution?
Schneller: That was before.
Kelly: So you’re quite a couple. [Laughter] Radioactive pair.
Schneller: There was one other interesting story, if you want to hear about it. When I went to the first, down South, and I was working at a smokeless powder plant at DuPont, and there were a number of girl chemists there because it was during the war when there were very few males available. And what you do is—this smokeless powder plant was a great big thing and it was running numbers of programs in it, making smokeless powder for the government. And there were quite a few women chemists, and there was only one other male chemist that was there, and Linda and I had come. And what you’d do, you’d get samples from the plant at the various stages of their different programs that they were running at the time and you’d run them. And if they met the prescribed—they were okay, then you’d take the sample into the supervisor’s office and put it on a place where they told you. And then he would—the supervisor would take a sample, and if it was okay, he’d call the plant and say, “You could continue with that batch, it’s okay,” that type thing.
And this one time, pretty early, I took a sample in that turned out okay. I took it in and put it where I was supposed to, and the supervisor wasn’t in the office. He was in the next room doing something, I don’t know. But as I came in, there was a girl chemist in back of me bringing her sample at the time, and there was a girl chemist just leaving the office and she had put her sample there and so forth. And the girl that’s leaving, she said, “You know, I ran that damn thing four times and it didn’t come out, so I just fudged it.”
Now, this is a smokeless powder plant [laughter], and it could’ve gone up at any minute and that would’ve really had a—because this was a big plant, and all the powder in there. And the other girl said, “Oh, you did? Oh, my gosh.”
And then actually, the supervisor was in the next room and he was bending over getting something down under, and he heard every word she said. So the next day, I came to work and she wasn’t there. [Laughter] And I never saw her again. But that was quite a story—she fudged it. So it’s about where it’s at.
Kelly: That’s great. So that was the way—DuPont could not afford anybody who fudged things.
Schneller: Oh, yeah, you bet. It was a good company, very good.
Kelly: You were dealing with unknown dangers, obviously, with the radioactivity out at Hanford added to the chemical hazards. You mentioned the medical unit. What other precautions did DuPont take to protect worker safety or the environment that you might recall?
Schneller: Well, they certainly called you in when you first arrived and went over as much as they could as to what you should not only do, but how you should do it, and what not to do and things of that sort that were very—that was very important to them. I think it was certainly important to me and any other people that were just coming in. And we survived.
Kelly: Do you remember any other similar incidents that might’ve happened at Hanford where somebody failed to measure up?
Schneller: No, actually, we didn’t get real chummy and stuff. We pretty much did our thing, and that was it. And when it was time to do something else, we were told what we should be doing, and it was pretty well controlled. And it was good that they were that way.
Kelly: Were you discouraged from talking to your colleagues?
Schneller: Yeah, we were told that—don’t disturb somebody else, and don’t get them excited about something. Rather, just do your thing, and that’s where it’s at. And I think that was a good idea.
Kelly: Was that something that was peculiar or special about Hanford? Or since you worked for DuPont for many, many years, were they like that in other situations after the war?
Schneller: No, after the war, it was new. There was any number of things that needed to be improved in various plants. For instance, I’d hear that they’d want to—well, it’s hard to remember really. But things that needed to be done in different other plants, and they needed an extra person because again, the war effort, there were not that many people that they could switch around from here to there to the other. This plant was doing something that needed to be improved upon. And I’d be maybe sent there to work as an extra person there in their procedure, whatever they were making, and we’d work for a period of time, and then somebody in another plant over here needs somebody else to go there. My wife was going crazy, we did all this moving, but that was it.
Kelly: So when you were at Hanford, did you and your wife have any children?
Schneller: No, we didn’t have any out there, no.
Kelly: So was your wife also working?
Schneller: No, she was my wife [laughter] out there. And she was educated as a schoolteacher but she didn’t get a chance to do much along those lines because we kept moving so many times, so that she was pretty much my wife.
Kelly: Well, that’s a big role. That’s a very important role.
Schneller: Well, I certainly agree and right now, she’s in medical and that bothers me very much because I miss her.
Kelly: I’m sure. That’s what, seventy-some years?
Schneller: Well, close to it. I think it was like sixty-eight or sixty-nine, I forget. So it’s essentially seventy.
Kelly: Wow. So people talk about the termination winds, all these winds blowing down from Canada that pick up a lot of dust and get into your clothes and your house. Did you remember the discomfort of the winds and the dust?
Schneller: I don’t recall. The winds didn’t come up that I’ve ever noticed. But it was interesting, and that was—well, where it was [laugh]. And we did get around to see the country because we had been all over the South, and we drove out to the West Coast so we went through a number of states as we got out there. And then we were in the West Coast and saw what that was like, pretty much.
Kelly: During the war, were you able to use your car and take trips to, say, Mt. Ranier or nearby places?
Schneller: Not really. It was mainly—we used it to go to the stores and stuff for our meals and things. But we didn’t take any side trips.
Kelly: So did you shop mostly in Richland or did you go to Pasco or Kennewick? Do you remember those places?
Schneller: Well, I know about them, yes, and we did drive around a little bit. But we were pretty much there, and did the local stores and stuff. It was, well—I guess that’s it.
Kelly: So did you work five days a week? Six days a week? Do you remember?
Schneller: Six days, yes. We were off Sundays. Yeah, six days.
Kelly: And regular daytime shift?
Schneller: Yeah, yeah.
Kelly: Were there others that worked at night?
Schneller: Well, there may have been, but most of the people that I was aware of were there each day, and we would do our thing each day and that would be it.
Kelly: So do you remember how you got back and forth from your house to your laboratory?
Schneller: They had transportation. They would come and pick you up and take you, of course, as well as other people that would be close by. They would pick you up in the morning.
Kelly: So do you remember, was it a bus?
Schneller: Yeah, it was a semi-bus. It wasn’t a big thing, but it was a bus-type vehicle, you know.
Kelly: So it was kind of a short trip out there, half an hour?
Schneller: It would be maybe twenty minutes or twenty-five. Close to a half hour maybe. But it was good, nice that you didn’t have to do the driving. But I was glad when we got back to New Jersey. [Laughter.]
Kelly: What made you happiest about leaving Hanford? Or what kinds of things did you miss?
Schneller: Well, I just felt it wasn’t healthy to continue and continue and continue to work with radioactive materials. And I thought that sooner or later, it would be something that would not be good happening. But I’m ninety-three and I guess it didn’t hurt me so much. [Laughter.]
Kelly: So after the war, you weren’t working on radioactive things for DuPont?
Schneller: No, no, not at all. No, no. I would be whatever the plant would be making in that particular time. I had to fill in to try to improve it or whatever the problem was.
Kelly: So do you remember when it became public, what you were doing? The August 6 announcement of the bomb on Hiroshima?
Schneller: Well, of course, when I heard about it, I quick contacted my wife because she was wondering all this time what was going on and I couldn’t tell her, to a point. But she was happy to hear. And we, of course, wanted to have this bomb ready to keep it. Several countries, supposedly, were working on a bomb, too, and we didn’t want that to be dropped over here in this country. And we knew that when we’d have this ready and we could say we had it, then that would faze them because they’d think if they tried to drop on us, we’d retaliate and whatever. So that’s about where it was.
Kelly: So how soon after the end of the war were you able to leave Hanford?
Schneller: Well, when we felt that we had the bomb ready if we needed to use it, and I don’t know how—but once it was announced through the Manhattan Project, I guess, we felt safer because they knew we had it and if they would try to drop it on us, we’d retaliate as soon as possible and they didn’t want that either. So I think that was like a stalemate. And I don’t know what the status is right now. I don’t hear anything.
Kelly: It’s an uncertain world.
Schneller: Yeah. [Laughter.]
Kelly: Hard to know.
Schneller: That’s probably true. [Laughter.]
Kelly: Yeah. It’s still a threat.
Schneller: Yeah, yeah. Well, anyway, we both were raised with dogs and we missed not having one when we were at Oak Ridge. So somehow or other, we got to know if we’d take a bus out of Oak Ridge to, I guess we said to go to some store, we knew where we could get a dog. But then we had a problem of bringing it back into Oak Ridge, so we devised the fact that when we’d get it on this bus to come back, that she would be putting it—this is just a little baby dog—putting it under her dress, and they didn’t look that close at her. And so that we got on the bus, and then when we got back into Oak Ridge, she had to still keep it under her dress. We left the bus, but then we had the problem of being there and this dog, and if they’d come around and see the—if you had a dog when you were first going into Oak Ridge, you were allowed to keep it for a period of time. And so we tried to set it up so it looked like we had this dog and we wanted to keep it. And I guess that’s pretty much where—they knew we had it and that we took good care of it and didn’t bother anybody. And well, we had a dog.
Kelly: And what was the dog’s name?
Schneller: Oakie. Oakie for Oak Ridge. That was the dog’s name, yeah.
Kelly: So tell me about Oak Ridge. When were you there?
Schneller: Well, we were at Oak Ridge. Early in my employment with DuPont, they sent us to Oak Ridge for—well, we worked in that area, and this is when we wanted the dog and we got it somewhere out of Oak Ridge and brought it in pretty much hidden. And then we named it Oakie for Oak Ridge, and we had it for quite a period of time. And it was a nice dog.
Kelly: And were you being trained at Oak Ridge? Or what was your role there?
Schneller: Well, they had a plant there close by and I was working at that, and I’m trying to figure out what we were working on. It was something for the war effort, but I don’t remember exactly what it was anymore. We moved around so many times. Then each time it was because they either were having some difficulty with what they were doing, or they would want to start anew this site or other. But I remember one thing that they wanted—DuPont was supplying automotive finishes when they were still building the automobiles, but they wanted to have this new situation ready. And somebody got the idea that they would like to spray the car with automotive powder; that is, basically paint powder. And then they would move the car into the oven, and then this would melt out and they’d have a shiny, nice—supposedly nice—car. But we were having quite a bit of trouble with their experiments, and that was going on while, even though they weren’t building a car right then, but they wanted to have it ready when the time came.
And I know I was sent there and we did a lot of experimenting on panels and things. And finally, we had a pretty good way of doing this. And General Motors was building a big plant in Texas where they heard about this, and they wanted the use that as—when they were doing their work on redoing cars, or eventually they were making cars again, they’d like to do that type of a paint job. And I was doing a lot of work in the lab with big panels and so forth.
And then finally, they were going to set it up in this plant, how to do that, and I was almost ready to go down there and work with them, and they decided I had to do something else and I went to another place. But I had it pretty well worked out on large metal panels, which would be the side of a car, and it did well. General Motors was going to use that procedure when they could start doing cars again. And that was one of those things.
Kelly: So that’s very inventive. Can you think of other things that you might’ve been responsible for or things you had to invent, or that were being developed for the first time?
Schneller: Oh, let me see. Well, you know, that I worked on finishing cedar chests for—who’s the company that’s known for their cedar chests?
Schneller: Yeah, Lane cedar chests. I worked at Lane’s for quite a while to improve all their finishes on cedar chests, and they were making those by the—I won’t say hundreds—but a lot. And they had some problems with the finishes on some of them, and I worked on improving on the finishes for them for Lane’s cedar chests. That was something.
Kelly: That was really very different from what your role was at Hanford.
Schneller: Oh, yes. Well, as I was moved around, as they had a problem here or a problem there or something, it would all be different things and I’d be on there for a very short period of time. And then somebody would be screaming that they were having trouble over at this place and then they’d move me over there. And as I say, we moved something like nine times and my wife was going crazy. [Laughter] But that was what we were doing.
Kelly: So you were kind of a troubleshooter.
Schneller: Yeah, [laughter] that’s about it.
Kelly: That’s great.
Schneller: Okey, dokey, that’s about where it’s—that I can recall, anyway.
Kelly: So looking back, are you proud of the work that you did for the country in World War II?
Schneller: Yes, I think I am, and that it was mostly important work for the time being. So it’s something I got involved with and I was with a good company, and that’s what I always felt that I could fall back on, because they were a wonderful company to work for.
Kelly: I have heard that from so many DuPont employees.
Schneller: I bet, I bet, yes.
Kelly: I did a film on Crawford Greenewalt.
Kelly: Do you recognize that name?
Schneller: I do, yeah.
Kelly: He was a chemical engineer and was responsible for overseeing the Hanford operations.
Schneller: Oh, okay.
Kelly: Maybe not the top role but very near the top. He worked with University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi, and the design team for the reactor and the buildings, the chemical separation plant.
Schneller: Well, I worked at Chicago for a short period of time, too. It was time to go out, so I worked on some of that at Chicago.
Kelly: Doing chemistry work for—?
Schneller: Yeah, for the bomb. It was part of, I believe, the Manhattan Project work. But it was a short time that we were in Chicago and then we were—from Chicago is when we drove out to—
Kelly: So did you get to Los Alamos?
Schneller: Yeah, I can’t remember too much, but I know that we were through that area.
Kelly: But in terms of work, you were under DuPont at Oak Ridge, Chicago, and Hanford.
Schneller: Yeah, mm hmm. Yeah.
Kelly: And you won’t tell me what you did.
Kelly: [Laughter.] It’s a secret.
Schneller: I think so. I don’t want to be crucified. [Laughter] So it’s pretty much the story.
Kelly: So what about the life of a chemist?
Schneller: Yes. Well, actually, it’s been a long time. I’ve worked for DuPont and I would certainly, if I had to or wanted to or could do, I would pick being a chemist for Dupont again because they’re a wonderful company.
Kelly: That’s great, that’s great.
Schneller: All righty.
Kelly: Good. Well, thank you very much. This was a wonderful interview.
Schneller: It’s confusing at times, I know, but…
Kelly: Well, it gives people the idea that you were sent here and sent there and did this and did that.
Schneller: Yeah, the thing is, we moved so many times and it was for so many different reasons that after all those years, it’s hard to remember what was the main reason that took me there for six months or whatever it was. And as I said, my wife was getting pretty upset on all these moves, [laughter] which was affecting her because she’d just about have her place all set and then all of a sudden, I’d come home and say, “You know what? We’re going to have to move again.” She’d say, “Oh,” [laughter]. But we managed, and she’s, unfortunately, here in the medical area. But I don’t know how something can happen that she can get over what she apparently has—pardon me.
Kelly: So you have a daughter, a lovely daughter.
Schneller: Two daughters.
Kelly: Two daughters, oh.
Schneller: One lives in Canada and Linda, of course, lives locally. And then we have a son living in Bethlehem.
Kelly: Any chemists in the family?
Schneller: No chemists but he has his doctorate and works with people similar to what his mother’s involved with over here. He works in that area, and has come over to see her, of course, recently. And Linda, of course, is a retired schoolteacher and Bonnie, the one that’s in Canada, she’s now in Maui because Canada’s so cold in the winter. And they have a place in Maui to go to during the winter period and she’s still over there. And that’s about the family.
Kelly: Well, that’s great. Well, they all survived the moves, sounds like.
Schneller: Yes, they did. [Laughter.]