Interview with Curt Donahue
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Donahue_Curt
Camera man: Rolling here. I'll set this while you do your--
Bauman: Okay. We'll go ahead and get started. I'm going to start by just having you say your name and then spell it.
Donahue: Oh, okay. It's Curt Donahue. It's C-U-R-T D-O-N-A-H-U-E.
Bauman: Thank you. And my name's Robert Bauman. Today is August 7th of 2013. And we're conducting oral history interview with Mr. Donahue on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. And we'll be talking about Mr. Donahue's experiences working in the Hanford site. So I'd like to start maybe with having you talk about how you came to Hanford, what brought you here, when you came, and that sort of thing.
Donahue: Okay. In 1944, my father was out of work, and we lived in White Salmon, Washington. And the superintendent of schools was receiving a job here in Richland as the principal at one of the schools and asked my dad if he was interested in having a custodian job here. And he was. He wanted any job. So we moved here in September of 1944 and lived in one of the original houses. I was nine years old, and I tell people now I used to roam the streets of Richland before they were streets. It was a very unique period to grow up and a unique town to grow up in. There were so many things that we were able to do that kids just can't do today. So when I graduated from high school, I went to work in the 700 Area to begin with. And, after a few months, transferred out to the 300 Area and ended up working really all over. I was in regional monitoring and then radiation monitoring.
Bauman: So let's talk a little bit first about your years growing up here. You mentioned that there were sort of things that kids could do here that—
Donahue: Yeah, we—
Bauman: Do you have any stories or memories about that?
Donahue: Yeah, one of the things that I remember most, and that was to be able to sleep outside. Just take a blanket and a piece of canvas and roll up in the backyard and sleep outside. The only hazards were the mosquitoes, and sometimes I'd wake up with an eye shut and a fat lip. And then there was a stream from an irrigation flue that ran along Wellsian Way. And my wife doesn't believe me, but there used to be a lake there. And there was a wooded area right where the flue emptied. And it was kind of a pool there and a sandy beach. And several of my friends and I would go camp overnight there, three blocks from home. But we were off in another world, and we really enjoyed having that freedom.
Bauman: So this is near Wellsian Way? Is that sort of near where Fred Meyer is now?
Donahue: Yeah. Where Fred Meyer is right now is actually the spot that had the sandy beach. And we would bring potatoes from home and bury them in the sand, build a campfire over them, and then have a potato snack before we went to sleep. [LAUGHTER] It was a lot of fun.
Bauman: And you said you moved into one of the early homes. Where was that, what complex?
Donahue: That was on Fitch, right on the corner of Fitch and Douglass. And the people that lived in the other end, the Browns, actually had the first option to buy, but they chose not to, so my parents bought the house and remodeled it and lived there for a good many years. 38 years, I think.
Bauman: So what schools did you go to then?
Donahue: I went to Lewis and Clark. In fact, that's where my dad was a custodian in those early years. And then I also went to school at Bethlehem Lutheran in Kennewick a couple of years. And my freshman year of high school, I spent at Concordia Academy in Portland, and then came to Columbia High School in Richland for the last three years. In fact, we're having our 60th anniversary this year.
Bauman: So '53?
Donahue: '53, yeah.
Bauman: How big was the class, do you remember?
Donahue: I think the class was 159. I know I graduated 59th out of that group. I was kind of in the middle.
Bauman: Other memories of Richland at the time? Were there community events, any sort of special events that you remember?
Donahue: Yeah. Atomic Frontier Days, of course, was our big event every year. And the church that I went to, the youth group usually put together some kind of a float. Sometimes it was maybe dressing up in something patriotic and riding on the back of a flatbed truck. But it was fun, and the people enjoyed it. And also, there was a group called the Mini Singers, and I was a member of that group and put on concerts every year until I outgrew it and was no longer considered a Mini Singer. When your voice changes from soprano to tenor, you are no longer invited. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: My sense of Richland at the time, especially in 1944, there's still wartime--'45, that there were people coming from all over the United States to work here. Is that your experience growing up?
Donahue: Oh, yes. Yeah. Every other classmate was from a different state, and it made for interesting living. They all had stories. Some of them were worth retelling, [LAUGHTER] and some of them were not.
Bauman: Let's talk about your work, then. You said you started basically right after you graduated high school, working at Hanford, 1953.
Donahue: Yeah. Actually, in August of that year, I got hired on. I worked in the reproduction shop in the 700 Area. My first job was a back tender on an ozalid machine. And that merely meant that when the ozalid prints came off that machine, they'd come out in a continuous sheet, so you'd have to trim each one, fold it up, and package it according to the orders. So you had to be rather speedy to keep up with the machine. And I managed to work my way through several different promotions in there and got to run a good number of the machines—Photostat machine, offset printer, things that we don't use anymore, really, because of the new reproduction facilities.
Bauman: So what sorts of things were you printing up there?
Donahue: It was configurations of equipment that was being built out at the project, buildings, and a lot of floor plans and that sort of thing. You really didn't have time to look at what it was, other than here’s the edge of it, cut it, and fold it up and keep moving.
Bauman: I want to go back quickly to before you started working there. Growing up here, how much did you know about Hanford and what was going on there?
Donahue: We knew nothing until they dropped the bomb. And then the Villager newspaper had that massive headline, and the word got out what was going on here. And there was a parade leaving town. There were, I guess, a goodly number of people who wanted no part of it or were afraid of it, essentially.
Bauman: So your recollection is a lot of people left at some point after that.
Bauman: But by the time you went to work in '53, obviously, you knew what was--
Donahue: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we did.
Bauman: So you said you started the 700 Area, and then at some point, you moved to the 300 Area?
Donahue: 300 Area, and a group that was called regional monitoring. And the function there was to gather samples of vegetation, water, soil, and air samples and bring them back to the lab. So all we did was drive around the country, collecting samples and bring them back.
Bauman: So you would get samples from various parts of the area?
Donahue: Yeah. One route might be picking up water samples in all of the 100 Areas. Another route would be vegetation samples along the highway from 300 Areas to Two West. Soil samples in most anywhere. And then we'd do, with a Geiger counter, monitor about a 100 square foot area plot, here and there. And if we found large radioactive particles, we’d scoop them up in an ice cream cup and bring them back to the lab for their analysis.
Bauman: So at that point, it’d go to someone else who would do the analysis? Or were you involved in that analysis?
Donahue: I'm sorry. I didn't hear.
Bauman: After you brought it back to the lab, that would go to someone else?
Donahue: It would go to the lab. Yeah. We were not really part of the lab, other than we were the collectors. So we didn't know what the results were.
Bauman: And so if you detected something that seemed to suggest that there was something present, you would scoop it up and--
Donahue: No. On one trip—it was a cross country trip through the sagebrush. And on my way to Rattlesnake Mountain, and an eagle, a golden eagle, jumped up alongside of me and got about five feet off the ground and right back down, and running, and it turned in front of me, and I hit it. And it was injured, so I killed it and brought it into the lab, and they did an autopsy on it and gave it back to me, frozen. And so I had it mounted. It was a 59 inch wingspan. Beautiful bird. It was a shame to have hit it, but I didn't know why it wasn't getting off the ground until they gave it back to me. It had a whole rabbit in its stomach. It was a little too heavy [LAUGHTER] to lift off the ground, I guess.
Bauman: Too much weight. [LAUGHTER] So about how many people were, in terms of number of people, were involved in going out and giving this monitor?
Donahue: As I remember, about 15, I think.
Bauman: And so how long did you do that?
Donahue: Oh, almost two years, I think. And then I went into radiation monitoring.
Bauman: Okay. And so with the radiation monitoring, what did that involve?
Donahue: Dress up and tail a pipe fitter. Make sure it's okay where he's at, what he's doing, that he doesn't get over exposed. And just keep monitoring that process. And that was primarily what I did in the Hot Semi-Works in the 200 East Area. And then the last months that I worked there, I was going school at CBC and wanted to be on a rotating shift. And so then I monitored for the mobile x-ray crew. And we might end up anywhere in the area to x-ray something that they were interested in.
Bauman: And so your job was to make sure that people didn't too much exposure?
Donahue: To set up a barrier, and we'd find out what it is we're going to x-ray. And the technician would say, well, I'm going to have to use this much amperes and so on. And so I'd get an idea of, really, how far away do we need to keep people? And we'd set up that kind of a barrier and then do the job and get out of there, go do another one somewhere. It was interesting.
Bauman: Yeah. And were there dosimeters or something that you would check out? Was that part of it, as well, or--?
Donahue: I had a—I don't remember the name of the instrument now. That's a long time ago. It read rads, rather than millirads as a gauge. And so that's the tool that was used to monitor that operator and myself. And also would walk the perimeter to make sure that we had the level as low as we needed to.
Bauman: So this was in sort of mid to late 1950s?
Donahue: Yeah. I left in November of 1957. I got caught in an ROF and, having just got into radiation monitoring, I was in the lower 10%, and that's about—I think I was the last one in that group to be laid off.
Bauman: And what did you do, then, after that?
Donahue: I went into fraternal life insurance for a short time over in Olympia and applied at Boeing. And because of the time I spent monitoring for mobile x-ray, I got on as an x-ray technician in the Boe-Mark tank shop. And then worked my way from there through engineering. And then my last assignment before I retired was the engineer operations manager for Commercial Avionics Systems.
Bauman: And that was all at Boeing and--
Donahue: Spent 36 years there.
Bauman: So during your time in radiation monitoring, was there ever an incident where someone did—was exposed to too much or anything along those lines and sort of incidences?
Donahue: We had a problem—excuse me. At the Hot Semi-Works, there was a rupture in one of the lines going to tank farm. And so they brought in a big drag line to dig that up and connect to it and get a loop around the other side of where the break was. And I was monitoring that, and—it was a TP instrument that I was trying to think of earlier—and had it on a probe, a 30 foot probe. And I was halfway down in the hole, monitoring every scoop that the drag line brought up. And he finally brought up one that meter went off scale, and I come scrambling up out of the hole to get to where I could get a reading to determine what exposure I had and what the people up around it had, because there was 15, 20 people watching this excavation. And when I come running up out of the hole, they went running away. I was in the office, I think, for two weeks after that. Just kept me out of any more exposure for that length of time.
Bauman: Right. And was that sort of the practice if someone had been exposed, they had to stay--
Donahue: Yeah. Depending on what level of exposure you got, I knew guys who had to sit for a couple of days was all. And some had even longer than I did. Those things happened in that kind of business. And you deal with it the best way we know how.
Bauman: Yeah. Obviously, secrecy, security were very much a part of Hanford. Did that impact you at all?
Donahue: Well, security was, I think, very good, and you were checked everywhere you went. And by the time I was working out there, there wasn't so much secrecy anymore. Processes were, and it didn't seem like any one person knew the whole process. And the kind of work that I did, I was not interested in the process. I was interested in keeping somebody safe and myself safe. So processes weren't high on my priority list.
Bauman: Did you have to have special clearance to--
Donahue: Oh, yeah. I had a secret clearance.
Bauman: In terms of getting on the site, did you drive your own car? Did you take buses?
Donahue: No, drove cars and Jeeps and Dodge Power Wagon. I had the distinction of getting a Dodge Power Wagon stuck twice. Once because of a coworker told me, oh, you can get through there, and got about 15 feet into this wash that soaked to the running boards. It took two of those large Mack wreckers to lift that thing out of there. And then the other time was down by Horn Rapids. In the wintertime, the ground had frozen and then had thawed, so there was about an inch of thawed mud on top of the ice, and you could not get any traction at all. And it had to drag it out of there. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: What you would say were sort of the biggest challenges in working at Hanford for yourself, and what were some of the best rewards about your job there?
Donahue: I think the challenge was—particularly the jobs that I had on the project—were one of being alert to whatever radiation aspects, whatever exposure you were getting. Make sure you were alert to it so that you knew how to deal with it, how to handle it. And, of course, out on the project, when you're running around with a Geiger counter out in the sagebrush, you're pretty alert for rattlesnakes, too. And some of us had those experiences. But I guess I never considered what challenges we were facing. I have a very healthy respect for radiation, radioactive material. I was never afraid of it. And I think that the guys I worked with had the same attitude.
Bauman: And so the most rewarding part of working there, then?
Donahue: I think that when you took a guy into a cell in Semi-Works or a PUREX facility, and you brought him out, and you could tell them that, hey, you didn't get anything significant today. And the thanks that they showed and displayed, thanks for watching my back, so to speak. That was the most rewarding. That, and just the people you worked with. I can't recall anyone I worked with that I had really dislike for. Everybody was fun to be around.
Bauman: A lot of the students that I teach now were born after the Cold War ended. Obviously—you were working at Hanford in the 1950s, which was, really, in many ways, the height of the Cold War. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that in part for people who were born post-Cold War, things that you think would be important for them to understand about that period and working at Hanford during that time?
Donahue: I don't think people who were born really do understand. We grew up having the fear—in fact, the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we lived in White Salmon, and we went to church in Hood River, Oregon. And that toll bridge that we crossed, the toll taker told us that we had just been attacked. So on the way back from church, as a six-year-old, I'm looking downstream, afraid they're coming up the river. And that's kind of what we lived under for the next several years. And, of course, when those wars with Germany and Japan were ended, and it wasn't very long and we were into the Cold War. And lived again with, get under your desk, and this is what you do, and we practice it. And then the whole time working out here, well, until Gorbachev became the Premier of Russia, we lived under that threat. And so that was just the way you grew up, and I don't think people who have lived since then or even were real young in those latter years can really comprehend what that was like. And would I live that way again if I needed to? Yes. It was a time when everybody pitched in and did their part.
Bauman: I wonder if there are any other incidents or events or humorous things that happened during your time working at Hanford that sort of stand out to you?
Donahue: Yeah. The night after we found out the Russians had launched Sputnik, the x-ray technician and I, at the time that we were told it would be passing over, we stopped and got out where we were away from light, and we saw it going across the sky. And I just remember the eerie feeling to be able to look up there and see something that people had put up there. And it was working. And what did that mean? Where are we going to go from here? And of course, we've gone a long ways from there. And fortunately, we caught up and passed everybody. That was probably the thing that I would say stuck out most as a happening.
Bauman: Sure. And then how would you overall sort of assess Hanford as a place to work during your years there?
Donahue: I'm sorry. Say again?
Bauman: How would you assess Hanford as a place to work? How was it as a place to work?
Donahue: Oh, I was happy there. If I hadn't gotten laid off, I'd have retired there, I'm sure. I think it was a good place to work. I had fair management, and I thought I was paid a fair salary for what I was doing. I was very happy there. And I was disappointed to get caught in that kind of a situation, but I understood that it was seniority, and so you just roll with the punches and deal with it.
Bauman: Is there anything that I haven't asked you about or that we haven't had a chance to talk about yet that you'd like to?
Donahue: Hm. I have to tell one story. We were about 11 years old, I guess. The superintendent of schools at that time was Mr. Fergen, and his youngest son was the same age as me, and they lived in the house next door to the first house we lived in, one of the original homes, just east of the laundry dry cleaners. And Truman and I would wander, like I said, the streets before they were streets. And he was just wild about animals and plants and that sort of thing. And that's what he ended up doing in life, too. He studied biology. And one day, we were wandering around, and here was an irrigation ditch that had pretty well run dry. There was a dead muskrat. And he got so excited, and he picked that muskrat up, and he cradled it like it was a little baby, took it all the way home, and I thought, Truman, you're nuts. You have no idea what that thing's been—the next day at Lewis and Clark, he had it on a cart with the principal and going around to each classroom and giving all kinds of details about how the muskrat lived, and showing them their teeth. And I just—blew me away. I thought when he got home with that thing, his parents were going to tell him to throw it in the garbage can. [LAUGHTER] Here he showed the whole school!
Bauman: Good story.
Donahue: Ah, there's lots of other stories. My first job was selling newspapers in the cafeteria. And the cafeteria is the old buildings right across from the Federal Building. And I'd sell a Spokesman Review, and there were a number of men who would, when they finished reading their paper, as they went out to get on a bus or on one of the stretch cars, would give me the paper back, resell it. So it was kind of fun.
Bauman: This was a cafeteria for Hanford workers?
Donahue: Yeah. There were some big shots in there that would, because they had these stretch '42 Chevys, I think they were, that they'd piece together, and they had about four doors, five doors on each side. And some of these guys rode those, so you knew they were pretty much up there. And I believe that one of my customers was Enrico Fermi, because he was here incognito, and when I see pictures of him, I guess one of the guys that gave me my paper back. You don't forget those guys.
Bauman: So what year would this have been around when you--
Donahue: Well, that would have been in '44, early '45.
Bauman: Shortly after you got here.
Donahue: Yeah. And then about mid '45, I got a paper route of the whole south end. Then I was in the big money. Right? [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: So what paper was that?
Donahue: Spokesman Review. Yeah. I earned enough to buy a brand new Columbia bike, and I used that for the next several years, delivering papers. That was a proud moment.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Sure. Well, I want to thank you for coming in today—
Bauman: --and sharing your experiences and memories. I appreciate it.
Donahue: I'm glad to be here, and it's fun to reminisce, too. So it's been fun for me.
Bauman: Good, great.