The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project

By Elton Camp

            Tens of thousands of people unwittingly played minor roles in the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb used against Japan to end World War II. 

            My father worked as a security guard in an Alabama plant that produced gunpowder.  U.S. involvement in the war changed abruptly when Japan made a “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor in which it destroyed a goodly part of the American naval fleet.  “It is a day that will live in infamy,” Roosevelt announced.  The Congress of the United States declared war on Japan.  The proclamation flooded the airwaves.  Upon hearing it, Mother drove to the power plant to notify her spouse.  “I guess you can go on inside,” the guard at the front gate said uncertainly.  “We’ve had no orders to the contrary.”  Within minutes, he received word of tightened security so that she was the last civilian admitted to the grounds until the end of the war. 

            After a few months, my father quietly disappeared, but because I was a toddler, I didn’t question it.  He just vanished as far as I was concerned. 


            He, along with four other men from Alabama, had gone to Washington State at the behest of the federal government. It was his belief that he was to work at a gunpowder plant at Hanford, Washington.  For many years, it seemed strange to me that the government would move him thousands of miles to do the same thing he was doing at Childersburg, Alabama.  He never questioned it.  To the end of his life, he continued to believe he merely had worked at a powder plant and rebuffed my attempts to explain the true nature of the place.  “It was just a powder plant,” he insisted.  He was greatly mistaken.

            As an adult, I learned that the facility he helped guard was actually a part of the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. The main task at that western location was the production of weapons grade plutonium.  The concrete and block buildings were deliberately designed to resemble a large industrial complex.  Behind the facades, in the deepest secrecy, was developed the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor. 

            The work at Hanford was one of the biggest scientific experiments of modern times.  There were many uncertainties and dangers associated with the developing technology.  Because of this, the facilities were grouped into several clusters with extensive areas of open land between.  If one cluster was destroyed in an accident, the others might survive. 

            Plutonium produced in that reactor powered the first atomic explosion, the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945.  On August 9, 1945 an atomic bomb containing plutonium from the Hanford reactor was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The tritium used in the first hydrogen bomb tested at the Pacific Proving Grounds on October 31, 1952 was irradiated within the same B Reactor.  Hanford played a significant role in one of the major events of world history.

            Fewer than a dozen people who worked on the Manhattan Project knew of its actual goal.  The project was spread all around the United States to maintain secrecy, but the facility at Hanford was the largest. My father was a security officer who walked and rode a bicycle along miles of tall hurricane fence.  As such, he had to punch a series of time clocks that showed he made regular rounds on a scheduled basis.  He reported that on the coldest nights he sometimes took refuge in an underground chamber.  I realize now that it was provided for protection in case of the accidental release of radioactivity.  He never seemed to question the reason for its existence. 

            “It was cold, exhausting, and extremely boring,” he later reported.  “I hated working there.”  I wonder how he’d have felt had he realized its true nature. 

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Tens of thousands unwittingly played roles in ushering in the atomic age.