Hope Amacker Oral History
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Tom Putnam: Well, if you could start by just telling me your name and spelling your last name, and then tell me when you arrived, how you first heard about what your job was and how you got the job. Just a little background like that.
Hope Amacker: Mm-hm. My name is Hope Amacker, A-M-A-C-K-E-R. I had never heard of a construction camp until I joined the Army. Before I finished my basic training, I was told that I was going to be assigned to the Manhattan Engineer District. I had joined the Air Force, so of course I was disappointed. I came through Oak Ridge, Tennessee and was indoctrinated there by Captain Scheidenhelm. And she then made it sound very important and exciting and told me that I was one of a few who were handpicked to work with the Manhattan Engineer District, and that I would be stationed where there was sand up to my boot tops and an hour-and-a-half away from snow skiing. So I had no idea where I was going. It was Richland, Washington.
Putnam: That’s all they told you?
Amacker: Hanford, Washington. That’s all they told us, that’s right. Well, when we got to Oak Ridge, she did say we’d be going to Pasco, Washington. But that was like the end of the world in 1943, to me, from Ohio. I’d never been further west than Chicago.
Putnam: What was your job description, and how did you come out?
Amacker: I came on the train. Spent five nights on the train coming out. Traveled with another girl who had been stationed at Oak Ridge. I came from Daytona Beach, Florida, where I had just finished my basic training. At Hanford, I worked in the transportation department. Then when I moved to Richland, I was in military intelligence—until we got a public relations officer. Then I went to work for public relations, and that’s what I did until the end of the war and after.
Putnam: Do you remember the exact date when you arrived?
Amacker: January 1st of 1944.
Putnam: That was pretty early.
Amacker: That was early. We lived at Hanford in the barracks behind the barbed wire fence that everybody’s heard about.
Putnam: Oh, yeah.
Amacker: With a guard at the gate and tarred floors. We didn’t have any floor covering at all, so if we walked barefoot from our rooms to the shower, our feet were black.
Putnam: How many women were in that complex?
Amacker: I don’t really remember—oh, in the whole complex? I don’t know. In the WAC dorm there were probably 22 of us—or barracks, we called them then. They were dormitories after we moved to Richland. I did know at one time the number of women that were there, but I don’t remember now. There were a lot of us—a lot of women. But only one barracks of WACs.
Putnam: And what was the job that the WACs did, basically? It was unusual to be a woman here, wasn’t it? I understand the ratio was pretty high—
Amacker: There were a lot of women at Hanford, even though there were only a few of the WACs. We did a variety of things. Most of us were secretarial. Some of them worked in recreation—I remember one girl that did. And then after we moved to Richland, and the plants were constructed and were into production, the girls worked in the Areas, some of them did. I never did.
Putnam: What was your job?
Amacker: After we moved to Richland, it was, for a short time, in military intelligence, and then public relations for Lieutenant Milton Cydell. He was the public relations officer.
Putnam: How much public relations was there to do? I understand the secrecy was—
Amacker: Well, most of it was no public relations. And that was his job, to talk to all the newspapers, radio stations. And I can’t recall what he told them; he told them something very important was going on here, but there was no—we were keeping a lid on it. It was amazing, though, how you could go to Portland or Seattle and mention Hanford or Richland, and they had never heard of it. Even Walla Walla. They’d say, where’s that? Word didn’t get around. You just kept the lid on it. People didn’t talk. We were instructed not to talk about the Plant when we were traveling by train or car, whatever.
Putnam: And people here didn’t know much either, did they?
Amacker: No. Very few people knew what was going on. I don’t think any of the WACs did. Maybe one or two, but I doubt it. I don’t know. I’d say that none of them knew.
Putnam: And what were conditions like when you got here?
Amacker: Well, pretty rugged at Hanford. Nothing growing. Streets weren’t paved. And I’m sure you’ve heard about the termination winds. Every Thursday, it seemed we had a termination wind. We’d eat in the mess hall at Hanford. When we moved to Richland, we had a cafeteria, which is right across the street here from the Federal Building. It was pretty rough, pretty rugged.
Putnam: I’m not—what was the chronology, how—I know Colonel Mathias came here to check out the—they did a survey and finally identified this as the ideal site, and then what happened after that?
Amacker: Well, I think the first thing they did was build Hanford for a place to house the construction workers. Then they went to work on the plants. Then—of course, they had subcontractors doing Richland, building the dormitories and the first houses in Richland. I think I moved to Richland in March of ’45. So I was at Hanford over a year—a year and about three months.
Putnam: So Hanford was a construction camp, but Richland was more the administrative center, is that correct?
Amacker: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Hanford was the construction camp to get the plants built. When we came to Richland, I suppose there was still construction going on out in the Areas. But the bulk of the construction had left Hanford by the time—well, not when I left. I was one of the first of the WACs to leave Hanford. And I don’t recall now how long the Hanford Camp was in operation. I don’t think much past the summer of ’45.
Putnam: No, the construction was pretty well done, actually by then.
Amacker: Pretty well done, mm-hmm.
Putnam: What was the camp itself like?
Amacker: Rows and rows of barracks and the mess halls. We had a post office and a bank and a big recreational hall, which they built in 12 days. You’ve probably heard all that stories—the stories about all of that. It was dusty. Everywhere you looked, it was dusty. For recreation, we used to go across the river and picnic because there were more trees across the river than on this side of the river—on Sundays. We worked six days a week, so we really didn’t have much time to think about recreation. And we worked nine hours a day. So we were busy.
Putnam: You were working for the Army then—I mean, in the Army. How did the—but the contractor was DuPont.
Amacker: It was DuPont, mm-hmm.
Putnam: So what were the relations like? How did that work?
Amacker: Well, at Hanford, when I was at Hanford, I hardly knew who the contractor was. After we came to Richland, it worked very well. Colonel Mathias was at one end of the second floor in the Administration Building, and DuPont was at the other end. I worked next door to Colonel Mathias’ office. It worked very well. DuPont was a superb company. And Colonel Mathias got along with everybody; he didn’t have any problem with Army or civilians. He just did the job.
Putnam: He was a heck of a guy, wasn’t he? We have about—
Amacker: He was—when I think of him, I think of the old saying, there’s nothing so strong as gentleness. I never heard him raise his voice. He never was military, in the sense that if you were placing a telephone call for him to a lower ranking officer, most military men would insist you get that man on the line first. Colonel Mathias wasn’t like that. He wasn’t military or petty or—he just got the job done. He did what he came to do with very little fanfare.
Putnam: He was pretty young for that position, too, wasn’t he?
Amacker: He was. I think he was 34 when he came here.
Putnam: And so you worked right in the same—
Amacker: Well, our office, the public relations office, was next door to his. His secretary’s office was between us and his office. Sometimes I would relieve her. If she was away for a day or two, I would work in that office. So that’s how I got to know Colonel Mathias, and to appreciate his abilities. He was a superb man.
Putnam: What do you think made him so effective?
Amacker: Oh. I can’t—he was very unassuming. He knew what he was about. He knew his job. He knew what he had to do. And he just did it.
Putnam: He must have had some good help, too.
Amacker: He had some good help, he did. He had some good military help, and he had good relations with DuPont. DuPont actually built—did the work, but Colonel Mathias was the—well, he just oversaw everything. He made sure it was getting done.
Putnam: Okay. The camp itself was a pretty rough and tumble place, wasn’t it—
Amacker: It was.
Putnam: --as far as the people. What kind of people were there?
Amacker: All kinds. All kinds. The rec hall was all the entertainment you needed. You could just go to the rec hall and sit there and be entertained. Even the waitresses were colorful. We had one waitress that we called the Vitamin Girl. Closing time, she came around with juices—a huge tray of juices. And she’d give us the old, get your juices here! And then of course there were lots—I suppose there were a lot of fights. I always heard there were, but I never did see one. I never saw any—just—I didn’t see any brawling. Everybody had a good time. And you had to be seated to be served. So there was a lot of people waiting in the rec halls to find a seat. Because you couldn’t get a drink unless you were seated. And there was people from every walk of life at Hanford. 40,000—45,000 people were there at the peak of construction. And I have no idea how many came and went. They were coming and going every week.
Putnam: Quite a turnover, I understand.
Amacker: Big turnover.
Putnam: How were they recruited, do you know?
Amacker: They were recruited from just about all over the country I think. Because there were people here from everywhere. I think DuPont must have sent out recruiters. I don’t—of course the Army didn’t. They just took who they wanted from wherever they were stationed. I’m sure it was DuPont that—or maybe the construction contractors.
Putnam: Well, it must have been—coupled with the fact that nobody really knew what was going on, what the Project was, what the scale of the construction was—it must have been pretty willy-nilly a lot of the time. Just—oh, we need 150 carpenters. Just according to demand. But on the other hand, it sounds like both the Army and DuPont were incredibly well-organized.
Amacker: They were, they were. I think that the turnover was due mostly to housing and the dust storms. But men with families had a hard time finding somewhere for their families to live. They had a trailer court at Hanford. And some people lived in Prosser and Sunnyside and all the little towns like that. But I would say that’s the reason for the turnover, mostly, was housing and dust storms.
Putnam: Just feeding that number of people [INAUDIBLE]
Amacker: That was an experience, too. And entertaining.
Putnam: Tell me about that. Tell me about the mess halls.
Amacker: Who was it? Olympic Commissary Company had the mess halls. And we sat at long tables—the Army people always sat together, even though the military intelligence people were in civilian clothes, we still all sat at the table. When a bowl was empty, you held it up in the air, and the waitresses would come and refill them. And they—people complained about the food, but it was pretty good food. For that many people, when you consider, in wartime, I’m sure we were fed better than most people in the United States. Because we always had steaks. And we had a lot of something that was supposed to be chicken, and people would say that it wasn’t because it was too big. But it wasn’t as bad as we made it out to be. That was part of our—that was normal, to complain. That was just part of the scene. We used to—everything all snafu, you know.
Putnam: Well, actually, in talking with people who were there, everybody remembers the food being very good.
Amacker: At the time, we complained, because we thought we were supposed to. But in hindsight, it was wonderful. It was good food. We always had pies, always had meat, always had—I’m sure they had all the sugar they wanted, whereas other people were rationed. And Hanford had whatever it took to keep people working. That’s what they did.
Putnam: Well, it’s true, I think of materials and it evidently had the highest priority.
Amacker: I’m sure it did, mm-hmm. Even though we didn’t—we were told that it was very important, and that very few people in the United States knew. In fact, I was told only four people knew what was going on at Hanford, but I’m sure there were more than that—quite a few more than that. And we didn’t talk about our jobs. We were told not to, and we didn’t. The patriotism was so high in those days. It was unbelievable compared to the way the country is divided now. We were all on the same side—win the war, win the war. And we would have done whatever we were asked to do. And camaraderie was great. It was a wonderful experience.
Putnam: Well, I think that’s part of why—part of what interests me in doing this documentary, is that I think it’s hard for a lot of younger people to understand that kind of solidarity.
Amacker: I’m sure it is.
Putnam: And the feeling of the war threat during the war, and how strong that must have been.
Putnam: I talked to my—I was born in 1945, so my parents were—and my parents were both involved in—my father was in the Air Force. So, of course when I was growing up, everybody talked about the war. But do you think there was a feeling—it’s hard to realize how extreme that must have been in 1943 when—
Amacker: It was, it was. A Day’s Pay, for instance. That was a tremendous effort. For people to donate a day’s pay to buy an airplane. I don’t think you could get people to do that today.
Putnam: Well, they’re probably doing it, but they’re not doing it voluntarily. [LAUGHTER]
Amacker: Oh, well, right. Yeah, we’re all doing it. But not voluntarily.
Amacker: Not actually seeing that deducted from your paycheck.
Putnam: Requesting it.
Amacker: I was telling my husband the other day—I really don’t know how I did it, but I bought war bonds on $21 a month. When we were married, I had bought enough war bonds to pay for our wedding. But I had my housing and my food, so that $21 was a good amount of money then.
Putnam: Did people read the war news a lot and were pretty conscious of what was happening?
Amacker: Yeah, yes. Yeah, we did. And when the story broke on what he had been doing, it was celebration time. It was just—well, it was just indescribable, the feeling of relief that it was over and that we had played the biggest part in ending the war. I have never for a moment thought about it being wrong. It was right. It was the thing to do as far as I’m concerned. And those of us—I would say, all of us who worked here would feel that way.
Amacker: He’s sitting over there.
Putnam: Okay, let’s see. Where was I? Well, we were talking about patriotism and—
Amacker: Oh, yeah.
Putnam: Do you recall getting the news, when you first learned—
Amacker: Well, as I said, I was in public relations at that time. Prior to the—it was early spring, probably March. Bill Lawrence, who was a science writer, came to Richland, and he wrote the release for the day that the bomb would be dropped. I had not seen it before that day, though—before the day it was dropped. Even though I was in public relations, I had not seen it until we started releasing it. It was bedlam, the morning that—and my boss had told me that I might be called in to work at any time. And he didn’t say why; he just said, when this story breaks on Hanford, you may be called in to work at any time. Well, it was about 7:30 in the morning as I recall that I was called in. The phones were ringing, and it was just the two of us for the first three or four hours. And then we had a headquarters set up over at the transient quarters in those days—it’s now the Hanford House. And then we had more telephones and the radio people started coming in, and we get a lot more help in reading the releases. In those days, we didn’t have fax and all these wonderful things. We had to do it all by telephone. It was a very exciting, exhausting day. Long, long day. But there was such exhilaration with it—we were just high all day long, just giving out the releases.
Putnam: And then that evening, did you celebrate?
Amacker: No. No, we were—no. I think we were all too tired. And it wasn’t over. We had to get back to work the next morning, too. I can’t remember when we did start—really celebrate. There were lots of celebrations, but it wasn’t that first few days. We were too busy. That was exciting, though, meeting Bill Lawrence, who came out from New York. And I didn’t know why he was here; I just knew he was an interesting man.
Putnam: Who is Bill Lawrence?
Amacker: He was a science writer for the New York Times, I think. He’s the one that wrote the release for the story. So he knew all about it.
Putnam: One of the few, probably, in the media circle.
Amacker: I suspect the only one. Because it was ready on the day the bomb was dropped. We had that release and lots of copies of it. So he had to know sometime. I think he was here in the very early spring. So he had to have known what was going on.
Putnam: Did you continue to live—when you were in the dormitory then—the barracks—
Amacker: Well, when we came to Richland, we were in the dormitories right over behind the—oh, the building across from this Federal Building which was the cafeteria in those days. All of that area was dormitories—the women’s dormitories. And that’s where I lived in Richland. And then when I was discharged from the Army, of course, I—[COUGH]—excuse me—went back to Ohio. It rained every day for 30 days. And I’d had a job offer to come back here and work with the same man that I had worked with in the Army. So I came back, and the day I arrived I met my husband. So here I am, 50 years later.
Putnam: Did you make a lot of friends, I mean, was there—
Amacker: Oh, yes.
Putnam: Tell me about the camaraderie.
Amacker: Lots of friends. Both civilian and Army. We weren’t just our little clique of 22 or 24 WACs. We had lots of civilian friends, and we were treated very well. We weren’t made to feel inferior or that we were unimportant. We were made to feel that we were contributing. Oh, yeah. Lots of friends.
Putnam: Essentially, it was just a huge construction project for the first part of the time so you had to—
Amacker: Well, at Hanford it was essentially just construction. But then after we moved to Richland, it was different. It was becoming a town then. Because they’d built all of the AJ houses—no, not at that time, they hadn’t built the AJ houses. They came later. AJ is Atkinson and Jones. Before that—who built the houses? Most of them were in the south end of town. I remember all the letters of them that were in the south end of town. There were the A, B, Ds and Es and Fs and Ls. And then Atkinson and Jones built the other houses—the Ms and Qs and Rs, Ss.
Putnam: There really wasn’t much here though at first, was there?
Amacker: Nothing. Well, there were a few orchards. But there was no grass, no shrubs, no trees. Just dust.
Putnam: Did you know any of the people who—did you meet any of the people from Hanford and White Bluffs who moved, and who owned land?
Amacker: Yes. I knew the Weirs, who lived here, lost their homes, their land. And the Dams. There was a ranch out at West Richland—Snively Ranch. I didn’t really know them, but I knew the ranch—I knew where it was. They were pretty bitter. They felt that they had been robbed. Well, Annette Heriford. You know Annette.
Putnam: Yeah, we interviewed her.
Amacker: She lived at Hanford—White Bluffs.
Putnam: I’ve actually been to a couple of the reunions, yeah.
Amacker: Have you?
Putnam: Yeah. And they—you know. Most people are pretty philosophical about it now.
Amacker: Well, they are now.
Putnam: But still—there’s some bitterness.
Amacker: Still a little bitterness, yeah. I didn’t realize how little they were paid for their places until much later. At the time, I just—I knew how they felt, but I didn’t know a dollar figure on them. And since I’ve heard, I agree. They were certainly underpaid.
Putnam: I guess some of them were able to appeal later and get a little more compensation but a lot of people--
Amacker: Yeah, they didn’t get as much--
Putnam: --didn’t know about it, so—
Amacker: They didn’t get as much as the Japanese got 20 years later for going to the camps. They didn’t get anything like that. Which I think’s unfair. But it’s all over. That’s in the past.
Putnam: Yeah. Let’s see.
Amacker: Well, we had good entertainment—when we were talking about entertainment at Hanford, I did forget we had big name bands come out there.
Putnam: Do you remember some of the names of the bands?
Amacker: Guy Lombardo was there and John Payne, the movie star. Oh, gee, who were some of the others? Then after we moved to Richland, we had Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden—you probably don’t remember them. That’s before you were grown up.
Putnam: Well, my parents listened to that music.
Amacker: Oh, yeah. Let’s see. Who else did we have? “Does Your Heart Beat for Me?” Whose theme song is that? Henry Morgan.
Putnam: Oh, I don’t know that one. So there was quite an effort to—
Amacker: Every effort was made, really, to keep people happy and to keep them on the job. That was the big thing: keep them on the job. And another thing DuPont stressed was safety. I was really impressed with their safety program. And we did have a minimum of accidents, I think. I don’t remember any figures, but I’m sure we—it was a minimum.
Putnam: Well, it was quite a time in history.
Amacker: It was. It was very—it was an experience that I’m glad I was able to be in on it—take part in it. I don’t think there’ll ever be that same strong feeling of patriotism and camaraderie that we experienced. And it kind of keeps us all tied together. When you see somebody from the old days, you are truly happy to see them. It was just a great experience.
Putnam: Gosh, I want to ask so many questions, I don’t know—it’s—let me think.
Putnam: --Colorful characters who are—I mean, I think of the famous people like Colonel Mathias or—you must have met quite a lot of the top brass, then.
Amacker: I knew most of them. Not well. Oh, I should have told you—when I came out here from basic training, I told you I stopped in Oak Ridge and was indoctrinated. Then we got on the train in Knoxville to come out here, and the president of DuPont was on the train—Mr. Carpenter. He invited my traveling companion and I—her name was Libby Woods—to come have a happy New Year’s drink with him in his compartment. And he told the MPs that he’d invited us and he left the door open. He was a real gentleman of that era. We exchanged family pictures and had a nice visit and a nice New Year’s eve drink. That was a highlight, just meeting him. He was a lovely man. I can’t remember any other—well, I remember when Fermi visited here. He came by the name of Farmer. Oh, gee, there were a lot of—Dr. Coolidge, who was the father of x-ray. The thing I remember most about him were the burns on his hands from x-ray. Let’s see, who else?
Putnam: Were you here when Harry Truman came out?
Putnam: I remember hearing a story that he came out at—
Amacker: No. John Kennedy came.
Amacker: But that was in the ‘50s, of course. No, I don’t remember Truman coming.
Putnam: I think he was set out to investigate something. This may have been earlier. To find out why so much money was being spent or something like that.
Putnam: But he was sent, turned around or something like that. Colonel Mathias said that he made a phone call and President Truman went right back to Washington.
Amacker: Oh, yeah, that would happen. Well General Gross came while I was here. I can remember being sure everything was ready for the white glove inspection when he came. Because—oh, you stood at attention when he was in the room, or around.
Putnam: He was—
Amacker: He was very impressive.
Interviewer: In what way?
Amacker: Very military. Big man. And he demanded that you be aware of the fact that he was the General. [LAUGHTER]
Putnam: Quite the opposite of Mathias.
Amacker: Very, very different from Colonel Mathias, yeah. I think he only came once while I was here. He came back for the 25th anniversary. I remember we had a big party at the Hanford House. And Colonel Mathias came for that, too. I can’t remember any other famous names right now.
Putnam: Well, the WACs in particular—tell me about your unit and what your assignment was, and—
Amacker: Well, there were never more than 24 of us. Most of the time, there were about 22 of us here. And we all had our assigned jobs. Some were out in the Areas; some were in town; some were—well, several of us worked in the Administration Building which was right in this location. We had a commanding officer. We had three commanding officers while I was here. They just came and went. We did have drill once in a while, not very often. We didn’t have bed check. We lived as the civilians did. And we had a very comfortable dormitory. We had anything we wanted: washer and a dryer and a stove and a refrigerator. We were permitted to cook there, which we did very little, because the cafeteria was so much easier. But we’d have holiday dinners there and invite civilians. We had a room set up for a dining room. We cooked turkey and all the trimmings.
Putnam: I understand you were the cream of the crop, too, to get this assignment.
Amacker: We were told that. We were told that we were the cream of the crop, handpicked especially for the Manhattan Engineer District. And I don’t know whether we were the cream of the crop or not, but it certainly was a privilege to work with the Manhattan Engineer District. We had some pretty nice girls, so I guess maybe we were deserving. I made lots of friends with—well, we were all friends. I think we all got along very well in the dormitories. And the civilians, I believe, did too. There’s a little animosity here and there, but I think mostly everybody got along very well.
Putnam: There are a lot of stories about how rowdy everything was, with the gambling and—but still—
Amacker: Well, that was at Camp Hanford. But I didn’t know anything about that. I hear all those stories, too, but I was unaffected by it because I didn’t even know it was going on. I don’t know whether I had my head in the sand or where it went on, but I was unaware of gambling and I never saw fights, I never saw a brawl, I didn’t see—I heard about people getting shot and cut up and all those wild stories, but I never saw it.
Putnam: I live in Seattle and I hear about the same things and I don’t—
Amacker: You didn’t see it either, did you? [LAUGHTER] Sometimes I think those things are—oh, speaking of funny things, they had a horse out at Hanford—anything the least bit different was entertaining because we were so isolated from the world—who could count. His owner would tell him, now count to eight, and he’d paw on the ground for eight times. That was one thing I used to watch every Sunday. I’d go out and watch that horse.
Putnam: Pretty entertaining.
Amacker: But anything that went aside from the business world was entertaining because we were just not—we were isolated.
Putnam: Yeah. Did you find—did you get used to the dust—I mean, it’s hard to be used to the dust but did you grow so that you liked the country?
Amacker: I loved it. I was appalled when I got off the train and saw the Pasco Depot. It was terrible. People were sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, and they were mostly construction workers and they looked pretty ragged. But then, when we started to cross the old Green Bridge and I saw that gorgeous river, and the drive out to Hanford—it was real early in the morning, maybe—it was just daybreak. I fell in love with it. I just loved it. I love the barrenness; I love the desert look of it. It looked like it needed people. And it was all so new to me and exciting. I’ve always loved this country, from the day I arrived, in spite of the dust storms. And I’ve grumbled about the dust storms just like everybody else. But in between has certainly made up for it. Beats the heck out of Ohio. [LAUGHTER] We have terrible winters and weather there. So I love the country. And the people. I’ve never been unhappy or sorry that I stayed here. Course, I met my husband and that made it that much better. And our children love it. I think the young people—I’ve seen lots of them grow up and leave and pretty soon they’re back. Same with when GE left, a lot of people left with them. And before long, a good many of them were clamoring to come back. There’s just something about it, this place. It grows on you, even those who didn’t like it. They learned to like it.
Putnam: It’s a special place.
Amacker: It is. Mm-hmm.
Putnam: Beautiful country.
Amacker: In spite of the wind.
Putnam: Yeah, the river and all. You say you used to go across the river on ferries?
Amacker: On a ferry, mm-hmm. Usually on Sundays. We’d just go across the river and picnic. We could get a box lunch at the mess hall. They were so generous at the mess hall. You could go in there any time in the day or night and get something to eat. So, they really made it as appealing as possible for people to stay. Of course, we weren’t going anywhere; we were stuck, being in the Army. But we still had the advantages that all those people had.
Putnam: Well, thanks very much for talking to us.
Amacker: You bet.
Putnam: Is there anything else you want to say?
Amacker: I can’t think of anything. It was a pleasure.
Amacker: Thank you very much.
Interviewer: It’s nice when--