Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Book Review: Made in Hanford. The Bomb that Changed the World by Hill Williams
The focuses on the history and the science of not only how the atom was first split, and how plutonium was made, but the take-over and creation of an entire government town. Hanford was a tiny farming community near Richland, Washington. Several small communities were "commandeered" for the war effort (ie, the government took over lands privately owned to created a nuclear plant).
I live about a two hour drive from Richland, Washington and my family has history linking it to the Hanford, or "Manhattan Project". In 1942, Richland had a population of 250. By 1945 the population had soared to 15,000. That's mind-boggling.
I didn't understand one wit of the science in the book. Not ANY. It was like reading a foreign language, even though the author did a very nice job of writing in layman's terms. It's still way beyond me. Like magic. The vast secrecy of the project and the reach of government power is jaw-dropping. Very few of the thousands of people employed at Hanford knew what was being done there. Nuclear waste is still to this day in the clean-up phase with untold health damage from radiation exposure to the area and other areas within the wind current path.
The book was a little dry going for me, but it sparked more questions and I read many articles online and am still seeking more info. For example, I will be requesting employment records from the Department of Energy.
The housing in Richland, the original old housing, was built and furnished by the project (or by DuPont who was the first company partnered on the project). Other articles show that the government kept a set of keys to all the homes the workers lived in. There were "informants" in the workplace and in the community at large and anyone discussing the project, or speculating about what might be happening there, were sanctioned. Newspapers were silenced from reporting or speculating. It is a fascinating story once you start digging.
Prior to 1944, my maternal grandparents were living in Nebraska, and my paternal grandparents and paternal great aunt and uncle were living in Mississippi. Somehow, nationwide advertising or recruitment efforts reached them. DuPont, had a project which was "contributing to the war effort" in Washington. They were offering $8 a day plus overtime for laborers during a time when the going rate was $4. Overtime was a given. Work days typically lasted 10 hours, 6-7 days a week.
My paternal grandfather and great uncle came as cooks in the cafeteria. The cafeteria fed thousands of shift workers a day. My maternal grandfather was an engineer/surveyor. Many promises were made. Housing was next to non-existent at first. Many, my family included had to temporarily rent rooms in the homes of others (those with large homes or who had empty rooms were "encouraged" to assist in the war effort by houseing the workers until housing could be built).
So in a way, this story is my story. While I'm admittedly less interested in the science bit because I can't understand it at all, it has sent me on a journey of discovery.
For example: I'm aware that in 1945, my grandfather, who was employed in connection to the Hanford project until his retirement sometime in the 1970's, had a major depressive episode. He was hospitalized. He may have had shock therapy. It wasn't something people liked to talk about and my grandparents are dead now so we can't ask them (assuming they would tell us). My mom was very young so remembers very little of it. She says the story was, he went into a deep depression because this was the year his father died suddenly of a heart attack. I recently asked her "what if...just what if...since this was the same year the bomb was dropped on Japan, AND the first clue many Hanford workers had of what they had been contributing to...is it possible THIS contributed to his break-down?" We just don't know.
The nation was more patriotic (and read into this, subservient to government, pro war, and anti...whoever we were fighting). Many people thought that winning at all costs and "better them than us", was all acceptable. But some people, realizing the devastation of the bomb, were themselves traumatized by the extent of the loss of life...innocent life...collateral damage. I don't know which group my grandfather was in. And we do have hereditary mental illness in the family. Will we ever know??
I want to ask more questions and seek out more information. I have already spoken to someone at the Department of Energy Hanford. I have to gather the death certificates of my two grandfathers and my great uncle and submit them with their SS numbers, and presumably, I will then receive their Hanford employment records. What will be in them? I have no idea. But I'm fascinated.
My grandparents and my parents lived in Hanford housing. Their moving expenses were either paid or advanced to join the project. Someone had keys to their house. They shared party telephone lines that were no doubt monitored. DuPont supplied some basic furnishings for the house. I still have a piece or two of this historic furniture. Houses were listed by style or by ranking of workers job status and were labled with letters of the alphabet. My mom called her childhood home a "B house". There are online sources showing what each letter and each house style meant. The house of her childhood is still standing as are many others. Check this link, starting on about page 104 of the document, it describes the housing. Later in this same document it outlines food served in the cafeteria.
If you've lived your life in the Pacific Northwest, you're a "downwinder"...someone who may have had your genetic material altered from radiation exposure. It might impact you or your offspring. Many lawsuits are still pending. The rates of cancer in downwinder areas is much higher than would be expected normally. The story of Hanford may be your story too. Many documents are being declassified as time goes on.
It is a fascinating story. Of government power. Of innovation and genius. Of human hardship. Of our capabilities for destruction. It's like science fiction when you read it. But it's real. Start with the book. Find some YouTube videos. Read some online documents.