Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Matthias

Dublin Core


Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Matthias


Hanford Atomic Products Operation
B Reactor National Historic Landmark (Wash.)


An oral history interview with Lt. Col. Franklin Matthias for the B Reactor Museum Association. Matthias was the Corps of Engineers Chief at the Hanford Site during the Manhattan Project.


B Reactor Museum Association


Hanford History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project.





Oral History Item Type Metadata


Tom Putnam


Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Matthias


FRANK MATHIAS INTERVIEW- Recorded on 9/26/92

Tom Putnam: All right, first, could I ask you to state your name and what your relationship to the B Reactor was?

Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Matthias: Oh. Yes, my name is—at that time I was Lieutenant Colonel Matthias when the B Reactor was started in the Corps of Engineers. I was a reserve officer on duty.

Putnam: How did you first become involved with the Manhattan Project?

Matthias: Well, it really started by getting involved with General Groves. When he became the boss of the Manhattan Project, he got me involved in a number of things, and finally to find a site for the Hanford Project and to start building it, contract with DuPont and many other things.

Putnam: And you started with General Groves on the Pentagon?

Matthias: Yes, I started with him on the Pentagon. He was—I never reported to Groves, but, he was head of the end of the operations branch of the Construction Division of the Corps of Engineers. And I was in the Engineering Branch. And we brought all kinds of construction projects for the Army, at that time, to the point where there was money for them and authorization for them. And then they were turned over to the operations, and that was General Groves. So, my group, the group that I was in and the group that Groves was in charge of, did a lot of work together, but I didn’t work for General Groves. And then he kept borrowing me for the Pentagon Building and that started in the middle of June when the Pentagon building got started. I worked on Pentagon problems quite a lot of the time from then on until oh, the middle of ‘42 when we started, well, almost finishing the Pentagon Building.

Putnam: How did you begin to hear about the Manhattan Project?

Matthias: Well alright, I heard about that because General Groves—one time I heard about it, because he gave me some scientific reports on uranium-235 and asked me to describe the construction—evidence of construction of a project that would take that scientific approach into construction. And I didn’t know ‘til later—I did that, and I spent several days trying to figure out and I finally had it—did figure that it was going to be a tremendously big operation. So I just described a big construction operation, camp and everything, and railroad tracks and sidings and all sorts of things. And I found out later that Groves wanted that to give to the Air Force to look for a place like that in Germany. Because we were--at that time, we were behind the Germans in this nuclear effort. We soon left them behind in the next, first six months after that. But we were behind at that time. And we weren’t in the Germans’ problem, because they never did get going.

Putnam: Yeah.

Matthias: On a concerted effort. A lot of people just—a few independent ones were trying to make a reactor.

Putnam: And you were primarily involved in the—

Camera man: Go ahead.

Putnam: You were primarily involved in the search for the site, too, weren’t you?

Matthias: Yes, I was, I was asked by General Groves first. I didn’t know what it was all about, until General Groves got me to go to Wilmington to meet with the DuPont Company. He had already made a deal with DuPont that they would take over the design and construction. This was a meeting with mostly the scientists from the lab in Chicago—the Metallurgical Lab that we were operating, our district group. And the purpose of the meeting was to establish the requirements for a site. And it included water supply, power, kind of a--not too many people living in it—we could build reactors and be 20 miles away from a town of maybe 2,000. And we had to be 15 miles away from a main railroad or a highway. And they wanted us to be more than 200 miles away from the ocean. But we never did quite meet that require—that was just kind of a little phony. Anyway, all of those requirements were developed by the scientists in their calculations and in their votes and by everything else. And everything they told us, they said, they kept assuring us, were—what is the, the meaning when it’s—this is what we think it is but it might be 10% minus or 10% higher.

Putnam: Oh—

Matthias: T there’s a definite name for that kind of—and that’s what scientists all said, that we don’t know, sure, this is our guess and it ought to be somewhere in between. 100% or 10, 1% if it’s 10.

Putnam: Oh, order of magnitude.

Matthias: Order of magnitude, that’s the expression.

Putnam: Yeah, yeah. So you set off then to search for a site?

Matthias: Well, then I went back to—yeah, Washington, and General Groves met me when I came back from that meeting, and he told me what it was all about. That’s when I really first knew what this Manhattan Program was all about. And then the next day, he said, now the two DuPont guys are going to come: their chief civil engineer and the guy they pegged for construction manager of Hanford. And you’re going to go out, you’re going to find a site for this project. So we spent a day with the Corps of Engineers and talked about our power possibilities and where we might get the biggest amount of labor easily and a number of things like that, that would influence us some. And then that night we started out—the next night we started out—no, that same night; that was the second day after the meeting. We started out to Spokane, because we knew it had to be in the Northwest; that’s the only place there was power, the only place there was water of any consequence. And so we got a hold of these big flight maps that the Air Force used. The whole country was covered by these, and we made a template with six reactors three miles apart, three separation plants six miles apart. And the separation plants, at least three or four miles away from the reactors, and a lot of things like that. That we made on a template that fit those flight maps. And then we got out first into Washington State and we borrowed Captain Hopkins from the District Engineers Office who knew that country cold, grew up in it and everything. So we could ask him, now, this map doesn’t show it, but what’s the agricultural program in here? What it is it? How big is this town? All that business. He was a big help to us. We spent a whole day in Spokane, just working over those maps. And we covered the whole west and down into southern Oregon that one day, and the next day we started out looking at all we could get within reach. We drove all over, or clear over to the east side of Washington and all that country in between. And then we drove down to the south and we borrowed a plane, an Army plane, to get—I was the only one that could go, because the others were not in the Army. But I borrowed a plane—

Putnam: Excuse me just a second. We’ve got an awful lot of—


Putnam: You had—you were taking a plane. You had borrowed a plane.

Matthias: Oh yes, I got a plane and went down over Oregon and the set planes, it was obvious that the sites we’d identified were not attractive. Then we—I went back to Pasco and met my partners who’d driven over through the Hanford area from Yakima. And I met them at the airport for the Navy flight system in Pasco. And they were just as excited as I was, I just said, this is it. There has to be—there’s nothing like it in the country. And they confirmed it, and they’d done some poking around at the soil and everything else. They say this whole basin is full of gravel: that’s wonderful building support. Everything was good about it.

Putnam: When was this again?

Matthias: This was just before Christmas, 1942. And we went down to San Francisco and we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant--Christmas dinner. And then that night we went to Sacramento and we had a meeting with their district engineer in Sacramento and dinner at his house, a second Christmas dinner. And then we got the plane there and went down to Los Angeles. And we borrowed a car from the Corps of Engineers and drove out all through the eastern part of the Los Angeles area, in the desert and we didn’t find anything. And we knew that if we did, we were going to have to take water away from either the Colorado River or the canals to the Los Angeles area. And then if we wanted to keep this project secret, that was not the way to do it. Because there’d be a tremendous citizen uproar if we started a project that wanted to drain one of those canals. So then we went back to Washington that night and wrote our report to Groves on the plane, and we landed the New Year’s Eve. And I called Groves right away and he said, well, let’s get together tomorrow morning. And so we did.

Putnam: So you were flying around the country in what, DC-3s?

Matthias: DC-3s, yeah. That’s the only thing there was then, that was long distance. And that was like, 200 miles was a long flight before you landed and refueled. But we spent all night New Year’s Eve getting to Washington.

Putnam: Mm-hmm, boy.

Matthias: And then--

Putnam: What was the--at that point there was a real feeling of urgency about the project--

Matthias: There was a real feeling of urgency, yes, and that was expressed. When I got back from my meeting, when they had established the site requirements, Groves told me all about it, and the urgency and everything else, he stressed. And that’s why we—we would have liked to have spent a month looking for a site. But we knew that we’d had the best one in the country in just that time. So we went ahead with that. And Groves was out on the 9th of January to see it, because he thought he had to before he went in to testify that it had to be that place. That week, the next week, they got authorization to acquire 600 square miles, which is what we needed for the Hanford Project.

Putnam: And so what was the next step then?

Matthias: Well, the next step was to go ahead with DuPont and get the design going and the construction going. Now in about mid-February, Groves asked me to come in, and we had nobody in charge of it. He said, I’ve got a promise from the Chief of Engineers that I can have anybody that you want in the Corps of Engineers who’s not on combat duty. And he said, I wish you’d review the possibilities and recommend somebody to me. And as I left the office with my hand on the door I said—he said, by the way, if you don’t find somebody I like, you’re going to have to take over that project. And I shut the door and I said, General, there isn’t anybody I can recommend. He said, all right, you’re it. That was how I got into it, the middle of February. Then I went—worked hard on working out with DuPont the contract terms, the systems—business control systems that we would use and how much they could do themselves and how much they had to check with me. And in early March we moved out on the Project and started construction.

Putnam: What was the terms of their contract?

Matthias: The terms of their contract was one dollar fixed fee for managing the project and designing it and everything and operating. And finishing the project in four year. A one dollar fee, and the guarantee that they would not lose money.

Putnam: All costs would be paid.

Matthias: All costs would be paid. And the DuPont Company, when they got to collect their one dollar fee, the government paid them back 72 cents because they finished the job and was operating in three years instead of four. So they managed that only three years in four and weren’t entitled to a whole dollar. And the DuPont president framed that and put it in the office in Wilmington and I think it’s still there, probably. Then the Pasco Chamber of Commerce heard about that and thirty two members each—28 members each contributed one cent to fill out the full fee to the DuPont Company. And they sent that to the president of DuPont, and he had a great time getting that and making a demonstration or something that he could hang on the wall, this 28 pennies.

Putnam: That’s a great story, I haven’t heard that one before.

Matthias: He thought that was great. And I have a sound tape now of him talking about that, the president of DuPont.

Putnam: Well then, the next step was to go to the site and begin to recruit workers?

Matthias: Yes. We started in—DuPont’s field construction superintendent arrived early in March. And we occupied some of the empty houses in Hanford, up in the Hanford area, near the river, and used them to house his first construction workers and they started building barracks for the labor men--group. And mess halls and all that stuff. And that started, and then we also, in March, started excavation for the reactors—for the B Reactor first. And we didn’t have any design except a conceptual drawing. We didn’t have design for it, and we get design dimensions from the Wilmington Engineer Office. And it took them--it took—we got way ahead in our excavation and stuff on dimensions we’d guessed were right. And they caught up—the designers caught up to us about June and we hadn’t wasted much of anything. But we also did a lot of exploration about foundations and we found that there was anything from 50 to 300 feet of gravel under maybe a foot-and-a-half of top soil in that whole valley. So that was great support, you know, just about the best foundation support you can find. And earthquake depressant, too. And so we just got going building. And we kept increasing as fast as we could get housing for camp, for men and got our mess halls operating, we kept getting all the people we could get. And DuPont had a system of—an engineer on every phase of the work was working out things so he could tell the fore, the labor people—carpenters and pipefitters and everything—what they had to do the next day. Everything was laid out like that. DuPont did a tremendous job of managing that. So they always knew what they were supposed to do, and they just kept doing it.

Putnam: So the DuPont Company—how would you describe the job that they did?

Matthias: DuPont Company gave us their very best people in management, in engineering. I just can’t ever say too much about how DuPont operated. They were great, absolutely great.

Putnam: Now in recruiting—how many people did you need to do it, and how did you recruit them?

Matthias: Well, in the whole project, in the three years of real activity, construction, we hired—we had 130,000 people on the rolls during that time. We never had more than 45,000 at any one time. And that was about, oh, the seventh—August or so, July or August of ‘44, when we had our peak.

Putnam: And how did you—that’s a tremendous number of people. Where did they come from?

Matthias: Oh, they came from all over. Gil Church, who was the DuPont Project Field Manager—Construction Manager and I made a trip to the War Manpower Commission Officers, east of the Mississippi—we didn’t get into the Far East. But we went to all the ones in and got them to help us get men and labor. And we worked it through the unions and we did everything to get enough. It was tough. We ran a shortage of plumbers and pipefitters at one time. And we even got some Army people, pipefitters, off of duty and put on reserve and got them into our forces as a morale builder and a pressure thing, coming out of the Army, and they got paid civilian wages for that time. And that caught up a big shortage of those kind of people. But we did everything to get people.

Putnam: What was a typical day like for you during that time? What was your role?

Matthias: Well, my role was really to work with DuPont Company and get the job going, keep it going. And sometimes I had some differences with DuPont; I’d have to go and argue about something they were going do that I didn’t think they should. We’d settle it and go ahead with the next thing. But I spent a lot of time working with the DuPont Project Manager and his staff. And I spent a lot of time talking to General Groves. But General Groves never did give me many instructions—hardly any. He was not a—he really didn’t tell me, hardly ever, to do some specific thing. But I had to keep on doing things to keep everything going.

Putnam: How did you like General Groves?

Matthias: Well, I didn’t like him, but I admired him. I have a tremendous admiration for him. But no, I wouldn’t say I liked him. But I appreciated the fact that he seemed to have a lot of confidence in me.

Putnam: Was it difficult to motivate the workers? What was the mentality like then?

Matthias: Well, I don’t know. We did give some speeches. Groves would come out a time a give a speech to the laborers on a safety—a day or an hour or so, at one place where he had a lot of people--a safety meeting, we’d charge it to. And I did quite a bit of promoting the patriotism. We did a lot to maintain morale. For instance, the ‘44 year-end we had a nationally known band come to the Hanford Camp and play for the laborers. We had about a 1,000-capacity rec hall in the camp. And we had a lot of setup—some of the materials, war materials, for them to look at that—something on museum style, but telling them, this is the kind of stuff we’re making now. We had one—in the middle of ‘44, we had a contest—not a contest—well, it was a contest, to find something that the laborers could do for the war effort. And it turned out that they wanted to buy an airplane, a bombing plane for the Air Force. We held a big contest that excited a lot of people, and it was about what it should be called, so it got the name of A Day’s Pay. And that was done. That was bought and paid for by the one day pay of the laborers—all of the crafts. I remember that well, because I checked what the average was and it was just about exactly what I was getting as a Lieutenant Colonel. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: Now, at this—you want to come up a little?

Camera man: Yeah, he’s set a little bit. We have three minutes.

Putnam: Our focus is primarily on B Reactor. That was the first reactor built, wasn’t it?

Matthias: Right.

Putnam: How did that progress?

Matthias: Oh, well, it all progressed pretty fast. In fact, we had it—it went into operation in October of ’44.

Putnam: Wow.

Matthias: It started building up flux level of neutrons ‘til it got to about 120-some kilowatts. And then it started to die down. The activity started down and we kept opening up the control system, and it still went down. And we thought we were done. We thought we were absolutely done, in the whole business of the Hanford Project. We got Fermi and John Wheeler, who were both top-grade scientists, and they spent about two days analyzing what was happening and how fast it went down and all kinds of things that they could think of. And they came up with the idea that because—after two days it started come backing up again, on its own. And that indicated to them that there was something absorbing stray neutrons inside the reactor. And that that could only be cured by adding more plutonium. Our first loading of the B Reactor loaded like 2,000 tubes through the reactor, and there were holes for 500 more that the DuPont designers insisted on putting on. The scientists didn’t like it because they had said they’re guessing, super-guessing us, and we don’t need that; we need 2,000. Anyhow, that 500 extra tubes saved the day. And it took us about six weeks to add them. And by that time, we had the next reactor almost ready to go. And we of course put in the 2,500 rods or holes for them, right away. And as soon as we got the thing into operation with the added uranium, it went right up to full level--300,000—controllable by the control rods perfectly. And Fermi and John Wheeler had exercised a very smart guess. Really, really sharp.


Matthias: All right, when they had analyzed this thing and came to the conclusion because of how fast the excess degraded—how much the flux inside the pile--reduced and then came back. That meant it was some product, efficient product, that had a very short half-life, two or three days, just quick. And it was xenon and iodine, they thought. And they still think that and I don’t know if anybody knows it for sure. But that cured the problem.

Putnam: Were you there at the startup?

Matthias: I was there. I was there when they put—talk about precision. Here we have a forty-foot cube of solid—not solid, but solid materials—mostly carbide—mostly carbon and 2,500 holes in it and they couldn’t, weren’t to be drilled after you erected that forty-foot cube. It was built in bricks, in blocks, with the holes worked into those blocks. I was out there when we put the first tube in the B Reactor. We were all out there. We had to unwrap the tube; it was a forty-foot long aluminum tube and we unwrapped the paper off of it. It was made in Canada; the Aluminum Company of America didn’t know how to do it. And we unwrapped the pipe and started pushing it into one of the holes. And we couldn’t get it in. We got it in a ways, and then it sort of hung up. So we pulled it out and we cleaned the pipe carefully with cloth rags and things, and when we came again to that hole, you could push that whole forty feet in and out like this with your hand. And that’s the precision they had. Imagine, 25 holes, forty feet long each through that mass of carbide.

Putnam: All carefully machined.

Matthias: That was really an accomplishment to do all that—putting it all together and having it fit within thousandths of an inch.

Putnam: And the day that when it actually all the tubes were filled and the first time the reactor actually went critical, was that quite an event?

Matthias: Oh yes, that kept, that worked right away and it went right up to the rated capacity.

Putnam: Were you there?

Matthias: --and it was controlled.

Putnam: Were you at the—

Matthias: Oh no, we did this slowly. We only moved up about a little bit an hour, until we got up to 300,000 kilowatts of heat. And then that was where it sat and kept working.

Putnam: Did you have any contact with the scientists at that time then? What was their reaction?

Matthias: Yeah, I always had contact with the scientists. The scientists always did approve all of the working drawing of the mechanical and the theoretical physics parts. And so they had to approve all of the designs. So I always had contact with those people.

Putnam: Were they living there at Hanford?

Matthias: Not very many. Most of them were at the University of Chicago in the Metallurgical Lab. And I had the problem assigned to me by General Groves to be sure that the Metallurgical Lab was doing the kind of scientific work that the engineer designers at Wilmington needed. That was another little duty, besides your others. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: What was their reaction? Was everybody aware of the momentous nature of this? What was their reaction?

Matthias: Oh gosh, yeah, we thought we were done. We thought the whole thing was a failure. Then we had another interesting one that—this must have—yeah, it must have been the B Reactor. About the time we got it going again, we had the next one just about ready, but we had a—the Japanese had sent over fire balloons. And one of those fire balloons is supposed to burn the forests of the Northwest and give us a lot of distress, as a nation. One of the balloons came down on the transmission line between Grand Coulee and Bonneville. And it cut out our power and we had put some fast breaking things, fast correcting things in the switch yards, at both ends of our transmission line that came right past us. We lost about ten cycles of power before it corrected itself and that was six seconds of—it meant a tenth of a second—yeah, a tenth of a minute. Those fazes shut down the thing completely, our safety thing shut it down. And we were delighted because we probably didn’t—wouldn’t have had courage enough to try them ourselves. We never did anyhow, but the Japanese tried it for us. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: Great. Yeah, I think there’s a wire coming loose there on the back of the chair, on the side.

Camera man: Oh, I missed it. Excuse me.

Matthias: --Sixth of a second, you didn’t know it happened. It just cut off our reactor.

Camera man: Excuse me.

Matthias: So, there wasn’t any excitement about it, it just died for that long. And it was such a short time, we didn’t even know it except by the measurements that we had in our control room. We knew that it had been out, short-circuited, for a tenth of a second.

Putnam: Was there any time for example, the starting of the reactor when it first went critical and you knew that you had—that it was a success, what were those kinds of milestones, the times that were really important to you during that--

Matthias: Well, we spent about—we had the real scientist people there at the start. And they would start it with a control rod, they’d pull it out a little bit and leave it there until it went up maybe ten degrees and then they’d pull it a little more out and it would go up and they’d spend a whole day building up the load. Because they didn’t ever know what might happen, you know, until we got experience in that business. But after we found the failure in B Reactor and added the uranium to it, then that went on all right and the next was coming along right with it. They’d build up, they’d take a whole day, to get up to full speed. And there was nothing moving it, except these neutrons bouncing around.

Putnam: Mm-hmm, just looking at the dials and it seemed to be working. And so how long was it before fuel was—how long did it take to irradiate fuel and what was done with it after that?

Matthias: Well we did a little short—I don’t know just how long. But I think it would have been fairly somewhere near the efficiency level to have it exposed in the reactor for maybe two months or three. Now, we shortened that period because Los Alamos was desperate for some plutonium. And to get the plutonium out we had to age these for a while. And we would like to age them for a couple months as they progressed from an intervening element that was formed to plutonium. We kept it in deep water, just let it cook there and it would react by itself: a fast movement, or decay, of the intermediate element which was called neptunium. That was a very short life. But anyhow that had to develop, to cook on its own. And we sent—we dissolved and extracted the uranium out of the first batches earlier than we should have for an efficient operation. But we were trying to get the thing going fast to Los Alamos.

Putnam: Now how did that first batch of plutonium get to Los Alamos?

Matthias: Well, I took it in a packing box in a locked compartment in the railroad car down to Los Angeles, and turned it over to an officer who was sent from Los Alamos to pick it up.

Putnam: Pretty expensive suitcase, huh?

Matthias: Pretty expensive yes. At the railroad station, this officer came up and I said, well, have you got a locked room to go back to New Mexico? No, he said; I had trouble getting it so I have a berth—an upper berth. So I said, well, you know what you’re going to be carrying? And he didn’t know. And I said, well, it cost $350,000,000. That was the cost of our project up to that point. So he kind of got a little bit shaky and went back to the station and came back with a locked room that he could use to get back. And then I sent the next kind back with my administrative officer, Harry Riley, the same way. And after that, we had our regular system. We operated with the ambulances, Army ambulances, one every—or two a week, that would take a charge of plutonium to Camp Douglas in Salt Lake City. They changed to another car and go back to Los Alamos. And then those two sections, groups of drivers never saw each other and we always had them accompanied by an officer of—oh, one that we knew real well. So that’s how we delivered it, just in an Army ambulance.

Putnam: We’re talking about preserving the B Reactor. Do you think that is a good thing to do? What’s the significance of the B Reactor?

Matthias: Well, I don’t know. Its significance is that it’s the first full-size, full-scale reactor that was ever been built for the kind of the reaction. It doesn’t exist anywhere. The first one. Now, there’s nothing to maintain it—almost nothing. You could keep it, and it’s just a very interesting historic monument. And I’d be all for it. I’d like to see that preserved.

Putnam: And moving through then, during the war, was it fairly routine, then it just sounds like a construction—it sounds fairly routine at that point. Any other big challenges or big surprises?

Matthias: Well, there was always very much concern that we could achieve the kind of dimensional control of everything. Big buildings and equipment and the cells, the chemical cells, that we had deep in the pit, 22 of them in one building. I don’t know of anything that would decay in the B Plant. Just let it sit there. Keep it clean on the outside, keep the aluminum tubes in it. You just don’t have to keep any uranium in it.

Putnam: In the times of processing, this was a totally new technology. Nobody really knew the scientific and day-by-day you were validating scientific hypotheses, and providing actual material for the scientists to study. What was that like? I mean, what did people—safety for example. How did you handle that? How did you know what you were handling?

Matthias: Well, we had a doctor in the Manhattan District, Stafford, Colonel Stafford Warren, who was supposed to be the most knowledgeable guy on nucleus—atomic nucleus kind of a system. And we had him—he was in the Manhattan District and we had him in charge of all of the safety devices. And then the scientists knew something about it, but we didn’t really know how much hazards there’d be, you know, when we built that. Because it had never been done before. What are you going to have? You guess. And the scientists guessed for us and they did pretty good guessing.

Putnam: And everything with the processing plants and all, you had to come up with new ways of handling this material. Just phenomenal.

Matthias: Yes, that’s right. They kept working at that on a laboratory basis, to improve the thing and do it better. You know, a bomb, only about two—only about two or three ounces of plutonium actually exploded out of a 25-pound bomb. About two or three pounds, out of a 25. That was the amount of plutonium in a bomb. And its efficiency was 2.3%. Imagine, three pounds, or six pounds maybe, five pounds of uranium—of plutonium would give you an explosion as big as 20,000 tons of TNT.

Putnam: Where were you when you heard--well, you knew about the Trinity test at Alamogordo.  

Matthias: I wasn’t supposed to know about it, but I did know that it was happening. I helped Colonel Parsons, who was their security officer, helped him write a cover story report of a big explosion that they could give to the newspapers if the test worked. So we’d done that a couple days earlier, so I knew that we were about to do it. And then General Groves and Conant and Vannevar Bush came through Richland on their way to that test. And they stopped there Saturday and I took them to the Navy for lunch. And then they went on and I asked—I told Groves, I said to Groves, I’d sure like to go down to see the test. And he said, what test? I said, well, isn’t that where you’re going? Well, yes. [LAUGHTER] And he said, well, I’m not letting you and Nichols go to the test. You’re the ones in the production of this thing now that are important; we aren’t important. He had his deputy with him. And he said, I just want to be able to keep on with it if we get blown apart. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: A practical man.

Matthias: It was. And I told Nichols that he had told me that, and Nichols said he couldn’t believe it. So he’d braced him once about it and the guy said, yeah, that’s why. Groves told him that was why.

Putnam: And then, so just three weeks later the bomb was dropped on Japan?

Matthias: Right, it was the 19th of July, I think, the test.

Putnam: The test. Then the 6th of August the bomb was dropped.

Matthias: Well, that was an Oak Ridge bomb.

Putnam: Oh, that’s right.

Matthias: That was the uranium-235. And then the next one was our bomb in Japan.

Putnam: Did you know that one was coming up?

Matthias: Oh, sure, sure I did. And when the first bomb was dropped, a guy in Groves’ office, his security colonel, called me about 7:00 in the morning and he said, be sure—no, earlier than that—he said, listen to the news at 7:00 on radio. And that’s when they announced that the bomb had been dropped in Japan and all the doubt—everything successful. Now that was a relief cause that knocked off the real security pressure.

Putnam: What was the reaction of the camp and people there and yourself? How did you feel at that point?

Matthias: Well, we were smothered by news and people like you taking pictures and stuff that we didn’t have time to think for about three days. [LAUGHTER] Richland was swamped with people and I had made arrangements anticipating this. With—oh, what outfit of the Army? The Signal Corps. To arrange for some extra telephone coverage into our place. So I had telephones every place, before that happened, and this was all right there when it happened and it only took an hour or so for people to come pouring in. That was quite an excitement.

Putnam: And with the finish of the project, what was, did you have a feeling of personal satisfaction then that it was a job that was finally accomplished?

Matthias: I certainly did. Exactly. I felt very good and I felt it complete. And I was not—as I stayed on and all we were doing was operation, no more exciting construction work, I got tired of the place. I spent the last six months—the last four months at Hanford mostly giving speeches all over the states. About Hanford, about the program. And I still had—it was still under wraps to some degree. But I didn’t have any interest in operation. Hell, it wasn’t fun.

Interviewer: In terms of the overall and the history—the historical context—the big picture so to speak, in your own words, what is the significance—it was really the entrance into the nuclear age. What’s the significance of that, what do we learn?

Matthias: Well, I thought that there would be some improvement in this whole system. As the years went on I didn’t expect anything much to be done importantly for ten years or so. That’s why I went to Brazil for an engineering job. But I did think that there would be some more work done and some more discoveries. And they didn’t happen. Everything went to the business of a reaction from the other end of the scale. Of atoms. That would be not—of what do they call them—one is fusion—a fusion thing. And I still think that that’s going to be the important solution; sometime, they’re going to find something that they can operate that way. Because a fusion process would not develop a lot of spare radiation, like the fission product does. And I had hoped that that would be important. Well, they’ve used it for power at the South Pole, nuclear power, they’ve got a lot of power plants going. They’ve never done anything with the fusion system, because it takes more power to get a reaction than is produced in the reaction. So, you’d get no gain. And until that is cured, it isn’t going to do anything more. I think the fusion is the process, sometime, but they haven’t learned how yet. Westinghouse has been trying hard for how many years? To find a way to do that. Fast neutrons.

Putnam: Well it’s an interesting time now, 50 years coming up—50th anniversary and almost coincidentally, it’s kind of—suddenly, the Cold War is over and the events that, at Hanford, really started the Cold War--or led to eventually the evolution of—led to the winning of the war. And that—I think that people lose sight of that in the depressing quality of the Cold War and the kind of nuclear fear, nuclear attack, and we lived under that for many years. And I think that the magnificence of the achievement in the Second World War was kind of lost in that, that people forget about what was at stake during the Second World War, and what is the scale of the accomplishment.

Matthias: Well, I think that guys like me that had all this to do with the thing, felt that this was a tremendously successful operation, and that it should keep on being studied and worked on until it could do more for civilian population—civilian operation. Now, they used to say, Seaborg for instance, used to like to say, we ought to have about 20 years, we ought to be able to get a lot of things done by the nuclear systems that we will have discovered. Well, they haven’t done it; it just hasn’t come. And they still don’t know anything better. And I feel disappointed, and I would be tremendously happy if they could turn up a good fusion process. But it’s not been the picture yet. And I don’t know how to answer your question, really.

Putnam: Yeah. It’s a hard one to answer. Jay, do you have anything to comment on?

Jay: One aspect of B Reactor that had an influence on the people of the river—influenced the Wanapums, the people that fished on the river, and that kind of thing—and you had to address that issue, same as you addressed that establishment of the studies of the fish and so on, you also dealt with the Native Americans here.

Matthias: Yes, I had—I used to talk to Johnny Buck quite often.

Putnam: Can you speak to me, into the camera here?

Matthias: Yes. Johnny Buck was the chief of the Indian tribe. And the first time he came to see me, he had an interpreter, an Indian agent, and he didn’t say one word in English. And he showed me the treaty he had for fishing in the Columbia River and the islands just opposite White Bluffs. And he told me about their process: they come up to the island to fish and they dry it, and take it back to their huts and store it for winter. And he said, we usually move up to one of these islands for a couple weeks and catch enough fish. And it’s out of season for those salmon, but the Indians had the rights. So I arranged for it; I told him, well, we can’t let you come up here anymore at this place unattended, or to live here, because it isn’t going be safe for you in a year or so. And I worked out with them a system where we went down and picked up a gang of the people that fished at their village way down in the west side of the Project and took them up to those islands in a pickup, and then we’d take them back at night and they’d do their fishing and storing and drying fish. And while I was there, that worked. Now, I don’t know what happened after that. But I had a deal with Johnny Buck and his Indians that satisfied them. But I’d also gotten Johnny’s Indians to do a job, to work for us, when we work fixing up the Milwaukee Railroad Branch. He had—I’d offered to put his guys to work and get good pay, but he didn’t want to have to bother with social security and all the reports, if his people worked or if he acted as a foreman, an owner. So, I fixed it up so that he wouldn’t be subject to any of that.


Matthias: Nice. They had a lot of good stuff, interesting stuff. They had a guy who—their medicine man was a respected doctor from, I think, Yakima. A well-educated Indian, he was their priest. And they were nice. I liked them, that group. And I had a little trouble with Johnny Buck getting them controls to get into the Project. They had to come in the west gate to get to their camp. And I told—I went down and had a talk with him and told him that, you know, you’re going to have to be in some trouble, because our people are going to have to arrest everybody that doesn’t have a pass. And I’d like to send somebody down and get passes for all of your people in your tribe, because we want you to come through. And he didn’t like it a bit. And I said, well, Johnny, if you don’t do this, somebody’s going to break in here and steal something, and you’re going to be blamed. And I made that a terrible thing for him, and he agreed and he gave up. I sent a couple WACs down to photograph them and make badges for them all and they had a great time and so did the Indians.

Putnam: That’s something we haven’t talked about, security. Was security difficult? What were some of the aspects of security there?

Matthias: Well, security was—I don’t know how you could say it was difficult; it was extensive. And we had a military police detachment assigned to me that did the outside business of controls and not much access. DuPont had a police system of their own, security, that secured each of the working areas and the Hanford Camp. But the west gate on the main road and down towards Richland was controlled by the military police group most of the time. But I didn’t have them the whole three years. I had them, I guess, about the last two. I don’t remember exactly.

Putnam: What was the biggest problem you had during the Hanford Project?

Matthias: I haven’t any idea what was the biggest problem. I had so many, really, so many problems came up. And sometimes I’d think I’m never going to get this one solved and somehow we’d work it out.

Putnam: What’s an example?

Matthias: Well, I really don’t—I really haven’t thought of that much.

Interviewer: Just to—but there were construction—was it getting material?

Matthias: Oh, material, not so much. I worked close with DuPont on construction methods and construction programs. For instance, our separation plants were, what, about 60 feet wide and about 800 feet long and a four-foot thick concrete. I talked DuPont into them. They decided they wanted to pump the concrete up to that arch—the top. And then I talked them out of the idea of building scaffolding. And I got them to build the two outside walls completely, then they could put in the big power crane and they could build forms for the bottom of the roof on that crane and just, with jacks, poke it up into place, fill it full of concrete, and the next day move it on for another 20 feet. And they thought that was great. But they hadn’t thought of—that’s a tunnel process that I’ve had a lot of experience in. Well, that was a big help in the construction method. I don’t know. DuPont—a cute thing that DuPont did—they had a travel transportation guy, on their staff, in charge of all the buses. We had 900 buses at one time taking men down to work and back. And the last batch of buses, we couldn’t get good ones with seats, they were standup type. And the construction stiffs just hated those buses and kicked about them all the time. So DuPont’s transportation man cured the whole problem. He would have these standup ones the last ones that left Hanford Camp to work, and on the way back he’d have them the first ones to pick up at the job site and take back to the camp. So that earmarked the guys that were trying to loaf. And there was no more kicking about it, stopped it completely. I say, ingenious, people thinking, you know, of something. That’s the kind of people we had around there. They’d get a problem of some kind and figure out how to cure it. And I didn’t have to cure it for them. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: Well, thank you for spending so much time with us, and one thing I thought was that perhaps—I know you had a lot of anecdotes in your notes today, it might be interesting to—if you had any of those that you wanted to tell. Do you have any of those stories, or would you like to look at those, and tell us of those stories?

Camera man: I’m losing a wire.


[Woman off-screen]: Frank? One of the stories that you told me that I thought was interesting was—


Camera man: We’re rolling.

Matthias: Yeah, we had—yeah—this was one of the tough things that happened. It must have been about, in early ’44, and I had some friends from Portland who had invited me down to Astoria for a weekend fishing there at the mouth of the Columbia. And I finally arranged that my assistant, Harry Riley and I would go down there and get there Sunday morning, early. We left Saturday night and drove all night almost. And we went out fishing about 5:00 in the morning on Sunday. And we were out in the boat, out in Astoria, off west area and a shore patrol boat came up looking for me. They had a message for me from Hanford, that I needed to call back real importantly. So, they took me back to a telephone. And here the problem was, that the pipefitters were going on strike the next morning, and they had agreed—not agreed—they demanded that they would all be in the recreation building the next morning and they would get a couple of international officers there, and they were going on strike. So we went right back to Richland, got there first thing in the morning. I went out to their camp to meet the strikers. And they had 500 or 600 of them in the theatre, and about five or six guys up on the stage that were talking and they had a loudspeaker and trying to work up feeling about it. And there was one young guy that I knew in that group. And I knew he was a union man and I’d had some dealings with him. So I got him to help me get control of the microphone. So I finally got it, and I was very short to them, I said: you know, you guys, somebody in you guys is violating your promises. We have a contract with you that you do not strike. That we have other ways to solve your problems. And I said, some of you also have been told that this project is very important and we need you and the country needs you. And I said, you know, I think you knew all that; there must be some people that are leading you into this, and they’re wrong and they’re against us. And I’d like to have them all be picked up and sent back to Germany where they belong. And I think, if anybody’d had guns they would have shot me, it was such a violent complaint. And I got them all quieted down and I said, look, I didn’t call you guys unfaithful and unpatriotic, but there must be some of them, some of you, that are promoting this. And how about living up to your contract? I’ll meet you all this evening about your problems; how about going back to work? I’ll have the buses at the door in ten minutes. And they all cheered. And they went back and got in the buses and left. And as they were rushing out of that door, the two international officers came in and they wanted to get them back in so they could talk to them. They just paid no attention to them. So we solved the problem; it wasn’t a bad problem. That afternoon and the strike was over. Well, those are the kind of things that you hit sometimes. And I was kind of tired after I got through with that. I’d been up the night driving there and the night driving back. So, that was quite an interesting case and the DuPont people just felt that was great, that I had jumped in on that one.

Putnam: Yeah, it sounds like it. Well, you had a crisis a day, it sounds like it. You needed some action there.

Matthias: Oh, we had, we didn’t have that many. But we had quite a lot. I had a close call with the electricians, at one point, but I happened to know real well the electrician president in the east and he corrected it for me awful quick.

Putnam: So labor management was a good deal.

Matthias: But I didn’t have a lot of labor management. Really, DuPont handled most of that. They were employees of DuPont and I was really sort of butting in when I got into it, but I could do things as an officer that they couldn’t.

Putnam: Mm-hmm. Well, any other thoughts?

Matthias: Oh gosh, I have so many things that I could talk to you about but I don’t know what.

Putnam: Well, if you think of anything else then we would like to hear about it. I know that all this—


Matthias: One day I kept getting telephone calls from the security officer under General Groves in Washington. He said, there’s a report that a girl was killed on the railroad track, on your project. And I said, where’d the report come from? Well, I don’t know, he said; it’s come to us as a valid report. I said, well, it didn’t happen, because I’m sure I would know about it within five minutes after they were found, and you couldn’t have gotten the news that fast. All right. So then a little while later he called me again. And he said, they’re very positive this happened. And I told him not. And the third time he called he said, look, Jack, I’ve just gone out and put a marker on the railroad track where that gal was not found. Now that’s all I’m going to do about it. [LAUGHTER] And I never heard about it again. [LAUGHTER]

Putnam: That’s great.

Matthias: There were quite a few funny things. But I don’t remember many of them anymore.

Putnam: Well, from the people we’ve talked to it sounds like a real take charge—just people wanted to get the job done. And it seems like those were the days when you could actually do that and there was no red tape.

Matthias: Yeah, that’s right, we didn’t have anybody that held us back. It was great. And all of that was simply because Groves had been put in full charge of this project and he could sneer at almost any other government agency, because he had the President’s backing.

Putnam: Sounds like he was pretty good at sneering, too.

Matthias: Well, he was pretty good, but he knew when not to. He was a very intelligent man, really a very, competent. God, if he’d been just one yard better, he would have been a divinity, I think. But he was really a genius.

Putnam: That’s what I’ve heard.

Matthias: He didn’t spend much time trying to make people like him.

Jay: One thing I remember in our conversations here, at Hanford, you made the comment that you had so many people under your command. In fact, you had more people under your supervision than any other colonel in World War II, if I remember.

Matthias: Well, General Groves—one time I was out with General Groves and sort of in late—in the fall of ‘44 and he said, you know, I’m trying to get you promoted. And he said, it’s awful hard to convince the Army authorities that anybody that’s just in charge of a construction project should be promoted to full colonel. And he said, I can’t tell them what you’re colonel of, or what you’re commanding. And that bothers me. But then he also told me about that same time that no reserve officer should ever be more than a major. [LAUGHTER] That was like him. But it was only a few weeks later that he called me one day and he said, there’s some news about you, and you’ve just been promoted to full colonel. And that was Election Day 1944. So he was trying to get it fixed for me all the time, but he had to get in a few, you know, things about it.

Putnam: So how long did you stay on then?

Matthias: Well, I left in March, but my replacement came in and spent two months learning the job before I left. But he was responsible then. So I was through with direct responsibility about January—early/mid-January of ‘46. Then I left entirely in March of ‘46. I spent about six weeks teaching my successor.

Putnam: Did you have any regrets when you left?

Matthias: No, not really. And I liked the guy that they sent to take my place, he was a West Pointer, regular officer, ended up Chief of Engineers, did some high class duty in Europe and in Washington, DC, he was Mayor of Washington about four years. When the military appointed one. So, that’s the way it was. And I didn’t have any fun really after the construction was done; it was operations. And we had all that so well organized that I didn’t have any problems, hardly. I ran around giving speeches for a long, couple months.

Putnam: Sounds like you saw a challenge and you took it and met it very well.

Matthias: Well, I guess that’s right, yeah. But I didn’t seem to see any challenge anymore when everything was smooth and working.




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B Reactor Museum Association, “Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Matthias,” Hanford History Project, accessed May 28, 2024,