HANFORD REACH > Oral Histories

Bob and Viola Smith

I came out in this area back in 1951 with my Kansas National Guard unit. I was about nineteen, at the time. I got called into federal service during the Korean War, so we wound up at Fort Lewis, Washington. And we would come over to Yakima Firing Center once in the spring, and once in the fall, and practice firing.

I had read an article about Hanford being a secret location and that fascinated me… What's so secret about atomic energy? I wanted to know more about it.

So when we got the Yakima firing Center, my buddy and I were hitchhiking in to Yakima for the weekend, and now this nice-looking Oldsmobile convertible pulled up, let us hop in, and was taking us to Yakima. One of us said to the driver, “You must have a good job to afford a car like this.” He said, “Oh, yes, I do.” We weren’t bashful about asking questions; we said, “What you do?” He said “I'm a guard over at the Hanford Engineer Works, that’s about eighty miles down from here." “Well how much do you make?” And the guy said, “I make a hundred dollars a week.” We said “Holy mackerel!” When I left Kansas as a clerk typist, I was only making thirty dollars a week. I wanted to check that place out…

Eventually, I [applied and] got an application back, and they said they could use me: “It will take several weeks to get your clearance through and then, you can come to work.”

All the single people, they had dormitories; it was still a government town. So I was living in this dormitory. Once a week they’d have a dance on Saturday night; single people were invited to go down there, put a nickel in the Nickelodeon machine… So I went down there, and I saw this nice looking lady sitting over on the other side, went over, and asked her to dance. 'Cause I could dance a few steps. One of us asked the other, “Well where are you from?” She says, ”Well I’m from Cherryville Kansas.” “You’re what? That's where I'm from!” The town was only three thousand people. We parted ways when the dance was over. I went back the next week... Sure enough, she was there. So I asked her again to dance, and we did…

Everybody was from somewhere else, no-one was from here, so that was the first question you asked, was “Where are you from?” It was just a common question… You always were trying to look for someone who came from where you did.

I had a job called, “Field Assistance.” Well that’s just a fancy name. You’d spend four hours a day typing up construction schedules for the job superintendent. And the other four hours I would go out in the field, and be a radiation timekeeper... for the radiation zones, for the construction workers.

It was up to me to keep track of the time in the zones. I would go out in the field... Radiation monitors, they would tell me how hot the area was, and I would calculate it out, how long [they] could stay in the zone: about fifty MR per day. And when they got to fifty I’d go in and get them, “Gotta come out, you’re burned out.” So that's what I did for five years.

And then I had a chance to be a radiation monitor. I would go in with my Geiger counter, my “CP:” it’s actually named a “cutie pie.” I would check the radiation. If I could set it up and leave it, I would... And it was my job to keep the book-work on these guys, how much radiation they would receive each week, and month. We already knew that in order to get enough radiation to kill you, it took between four hundred fifty to six hundred REM; REM included gamma, beta, alpha. So that's why they had the limits set at five REM per year, here, for the workers, in 1959.

On the radiation zones, some people in the lab, all they needed was maybe a lab coat, a pair of shoe covers, and a white cap. Unless they were going to be working on a sample: then, they would have one pair coveralls, and gloves. If you were working in a high-level contamination zone you’d have two pair of coveralls, two pair of gloves, and a hood and a cap, and then a mask if necessary… Then they would go in, and do their work.

They had a building called “Hot Semi Works.” They would run their chemical reactions and test them in the “Hot Semi” building. Sometimes you’d have to take the portable roof off the building... We had pretty bad winds around here sometimes; a whirlwind might come whirling along and go right over that open building, pick up some contamination and spread it around…

They opened up this Hot Semi Works after five or ten years, probably closer to ten years, our biggest hazard was Black Widow spiders. [Your shoes], you got so you shook 'em out good, maybe turned 'em wrong side out to make sure there wasn’t some Black Widow spider… At that Hot Semi Works, the biggest hazard was Black Widow spiders... And I’d sometimes survey them out and bring them home, make sure they were clean. Check them with both alpha and beta, gamma, to show the grand-kids some Black Widow spider or scorpion.

Sometimes at the Redox facility, the stacks would be thirty, forty, fifty feet tall. Sometimes when they would be changing out the stack filters, with the monitors that would filter out the contamination before it would get airborne, they might get some contamination that would come out and fall off over the sagebrush and everywhere else… Over the streets.

When I was in the tank farms, we would have to take the concrete lid off of them to change the filters out. To do that, there's always the possibility that a wind gust could come along…

So I would periodically take my outside rubbers off and I’d have a pair of clean shoe covers that I would put on; I would check them, before I put them on.

Viola: "He came walking home one morning, I think he’d been working night shift. And he’d get a bus that would drop him at the corner here. He came stomping in with his shoes loose. He had gotten his shoelaces contaminated, and had to leave his shoelaces. I just remember the shoes… He came walking back, shoes loose… You left them out there…"

Bob: "It was near the end of the shift; I didn't have time to clean up the bottoms of them. The way you would clean them up was either soap and water, or a file brush, you would pound them on the floor about three times... Sometimes the bus left at maybe four a.m. and you might be working right up till three-thirty am. And you didn't have time to clean your clothes, if they were your personal clothing, you’d just bag them up in a plastic bag, and leave them out there, and come back the next day and you would clean ‘em up."

Viola: “I think that when he walked home with coveralls, and he’d say, 'Oh, I got my pants contaminated,' or something, 'My shoelaces;' the day he came home with no shoelaces... You know, growing up in this area, I don’t think I gave it much thought. I don’t think I really understood. We were busy raising children... And I don’t think I really worried, that much.”

We had the best radiation protection people on the job, they hired this guy from England to come over and tell us what we needed to wear. He was well respected, world renowned; that was back in the forties… Remember that we if didn't get started on that, we’d probably be speaking German, or Japanese, about now…"

And they had a unit called the F farm. They would buy these little pigs, and dogs, and snakes, and they would expose them to exterior radiation, or internal radiation. They had little white pigs, small ones, because they had a digestive system and everything else similar to humans. And they would feed them radiation to see how much it would take to make them sick or to kill them, even. And the same with the dogs: they would put a mask on a dog, and have him breathing in strontium 90 or cesium 137, and see how much it would take to get to get in his lungs, and what kind of damage it would do.

It’s better to experiment on animals than humans. So that’s why they had to go that route. You’re talking about 1945, at that point in time. This high-powered doctor from England knew as much as there was available in the world to know; how he learned that… He had a doctorate, in whatever he did. So evidently he went to school enough to know.

And anyway people like us: you might say we were guinea pigs. Because we were the ones working out there with it…