John Rector Oral History

Dublin Core


John Rector Oral History


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


An oral history interview with John Rector for the B Reactor Museum Association. Rector was a Graphite Machinist 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


John Rector


[partial transcript received 9/7/99)



Okay, well I am John Rector, R-e-c-t-o-r. I was working for DuPont in the Kansas City Small Arms Plant, which was run by Remington Arms as a division of DuPont. I was called into the office and they says we want you to go out to Hanford Washington for a three months’ job. (Coughs) And well, that was during the war, you just didn’t ask, you didn’t question, they wanted you to go, you go.


So I arrived out here on February 29, 1944. I was brought out here to actually machine or work for the tooling for machining the graphite for the reactor core. At that time I didn’t know anything about what it was doing or anything else, it was just a job that had to be done.


I didn’t know what the product was, and really didn’t want to know, because security was very very tight. And I was here and lived in the barracks for six months before they had a house ready in Richland so I could bring my wife and family out.


My three months was up when we had the graphite all machined, and they were looking for people to go into operations, and I signed on in the maintenance department of operations.





I was in the tool room of the Remington Arms Plant, with an extensive machining background. That was a plant that had a little over twenty thousand working there, and we were in the tool room building, there was over twelve hundred working in there to make the tooling just to make the thirty and fifty caliber ammunition.




Well, the graphite came in to us in the 101 Building in Hanford in square blocks a little over four foot long, and a little over four inches, maybe four and a half inches square. Now these were not smooth, not uniform, they were just rough castings. Castings is probably not the right word, but rough blanks. Now these blanks had been inspected prior to getting to us in the 101 Building, for purity. They had to make sure that each block we machined was a block that would meet their reactor standards.


They did not want any foreign material contaminating the blocks, or machines... had to be very careful that when they were using any oils to lubricate the machines that they machined only, lubricated only the machines and not any blocks. Or left any around that could potentially contaminate...Coughs again) Don’t know if this is going to work or not...


Now the graphite purity was certified before we ever received the blocks. I don’t know whether records were kept of them or not, as to how, but I was sure there were records of some kind. But things moved so fast you just had to make every day count, you had to make some progress.


First the holes were drilled and then they were machined on the outside square with the hole concentric to all four surfaces. So that way when they were put together they would all align. Some of them had keyways in them and some of them were just like blocks. The samples that we have been able to get on this do not have a chamfer on the outside of them, the units originally each had about a 45-degree camfer on those. And this was for the internal cooling by air, Helium, maybe CO2, they used several things.


But there was additional atmosphere flows around the reactor. The tolerances on the squareness of the graphite was less than the thickness of a sheet of paper. They had to be square, and they had to be exact size, and the hole concentric. And the lengths all had to be, we had micrometers that was four inches long, they were special micrometers that were made just for doing that. Because a normal four-foot, try to go around a four-foot round part, takes a great big U, well these were tubular micrometers. frames that would only go a little over four inches. They had a real little depth of capability.


But probably the thing that impressed me more than anything else was the procurement that they had. Purchasing, the procurement people...working in the tool room, every once in a while we would come to a situation that, here come a new size block, a new description of a block, that we didn’t have any cutters for, and invariably, if I needed a cutter one day, the next morning when I come to work, we had it. It might not be a new one, but it was one that would get the job done. I might have to sharpen it, or even make it down a little thinner, for a specific dimension. But very seldom did they ever delay acquiring anything that you needed.




DuPont. I know in one instance we needed a milling machine that we didn’t have. And within a week, we had it, but it had been on a train headed for a plant in Los Angeles. They detoured it en route, it came to here instead of Los Angeles, because the case around it had the markings, Expedite, Hanford, Manhattan. Manhattan took priority over everything.


I’m still amazed at the short period of time that they could get whatever you needed if you didn’t have it. Course there were some times that we made tools that you could have got if you waited long enough.




Yeah, my experience with graphite prior to this was as a lubricant, graphite dust, like we used in the locks. I knew that graphite was used in the chemical industry, in high temperature vacuum furnaces, but it was a new experience for me.


And I was amazed that when we started making tooling that we used out on the line, that it just didn’t last, that the graphite was extremely abrasive to cutting tools. Course we were running cutting tools at woodworking speeds; maybe if we could have slowed it down...


We would take that four foot piece and we were drilling the hole through that four foot in less than a minute, with vacuums pulling all the chips out and everything else. Then when we started using the planers to go over that, it was woodworking speeds. And obviously, it worked as long as the cutters were sharp. And our job was to keep those cutters available so they could do what they needed to.


And most of the equipment we used was not metal-working equipment, it was woodworking equipment. So we might have been trying to do something a little beyond what was intended. But basically we machined an awful lot of blocks.




Well the reactor was essentially a forty foot cube, with holes going through it on a horizontal, and looking at it from the front face there were over a thousand and four tubes in there, but the corners were cut off which were full of solid graphite, in other words they were trying to simulate a circle.


So essentially it took literally hundreds of thousands of these four and three-sixteenths by four and three-sixteenths by four foot blocks, whether they had a hole in them or they were solid. The design was such that the horizontal had the fuel elements; from the left side were opening for the control rods that would move in or out. From the right side were special experimental tubes that were put in there, strictly for research, that was their only function.

And then coming from the top of the reactor there were holes for the vertical control safety rods. So even though it was a solid block, it was pretty porous, with many holes, many ventilations.




Well I had nothing to do with the layout, that was all done back in Wilmington, Delaware, the design was all done back there. But if they run into problems there were a lot of parts made from sketches. We would run into a problem, we would machine several of the individual units, and they would lay it out on a flat surface. And this surface was exactly the same as the surface at the base of the reactor.


Supposedly we would get enough blocks made for one level, one layer, a four and three sixteenths inch layer. They would lay this up in the 101 Building, in the mock-up, every one of them, in there, to make sure that everything fit, everything was in line. And they would make sure that there were no mismatches of all the pieces going together.


And after we got the first layer done they would start the second layer, same thing. Every piece by piece was laid as they would be in the reactor, exactly. And we did this up, I believe it was six layers high. There were a few instances it was less that because after we machined them they started assembling them and the reactor before we were through machining.


But we would lay out up to six layers of it, six or seven, I’m not sure just what it was, and they would be totally inspected that those six meet all the criteria of the drawings. Then they would start disassembling those one layer at a time. They would take one block, they would wrap it, they would identify it as to its number, its location, and where it was. And they set the first layer aside. Then the next layer down, say that first layer was six. Then they would take layer number five. And it was disassembled, and individually wrapped, every block every component of it, and identified. And it was sent out, it actually left our building and went to a warehouse in the various areas. And they’d keep working all the way down till they got all six layers, every block identified as to where it went in the final assembly.


So then we would take this top layer that we had of the last stack, and put it back down on this pad, and then we’d lay the next group of blocks to make the seventh or eight layers and just keep on going up with it. And we’d get a few of them, usually we were trying to get six or seven layers.


And sometimes the assembly, the fabricators out in the area, were moving faster than we were, by the time we got all the blocks machined, maybe we only went through four, and they would take those out... It was just a fantastic scheduling job to be able to get all those components, with all of the variations, and sizes... tape ends.




...people that were used to building chemical plants. They also knew that there was maintenance to be done. So everything they did, there was maintenance to be considered.




Actually the things were moving so fast and they were so well coordinated, that I don’t believe any company could have put this whole complex together in the time frame that they did other than DuPont. DuPont had their own construction crew which was familiar with working with chemicals, ammunition, they had many different... craftsmen that they used, expertise of different qualities. And they had people that really knew what they were doing. They worked quite well...


The one thing they did do that was quite unusual for an operation of this type, everybody was hired in as a mechanic. But they would try to put you in, whether you was a millwright, a machinist, pipefitter, electrician, or instrument... but your classification, you were a mechanic. That gave them the option that when they need a body they could pick up anybody, we want you over here. They could move people around and it just expedited, there were no delays. In other words, if somebody was working as a janitor he was still a millwright, or a craftsman. In other words if they needed a body, he could do it. Of course they never tried to put somebody on a job that they didn’t know what they were doing if they required a certain skill. But I know an instance that we had, in the 101 Building, basically we had all the millwrights were actually running the woodworking machinery. And I as a machinist, we were working in tooling for this production run. But the fact that DuPont was able to put together and coordinate all of this I think was a fantastic achievement. Because things got done.




I arrived at Hanford on the last day of February 1944. And to show us what we were doing or the overall purpose, my supervisor and the particular building supervisor went out to B, this is B Area. And they were looking and checking things around, and at that time B Reactor was just a big hole in the ground, a deep hole in the ground. And they were just beginning to pour concrete. That was probably the second week of March.


My graphite machining job was supposed to last three months, which it did, and we did have all the graphite machined within a three-month period.


But after the three months was up I transferred from the construction crew to the operations crew, I was in the maintenance crew. I was working the first day shift out at B Area, then they got a few more people so I was assigned a graveyard shift on the maintenance crew, working in the machine shop. We came in one night, midnight, and they said don’t open up your tool boxes, we want everybody over in the 105 building. What we want, what the engineers want, is four plumb bobs on the corner of this reactor, inside of tubes, so that we can run a plumb bob down on all four...I didn’t know this was a reactor, and we want it done by eight o’clock in the morning. At one graveyard shift between the people that worked in the machine shop, the people that worked in the welding group, or wherever they could come from, we fabricated and put in those four plumb bobs, in an eight-hour shift.


There were elevators both the front and the rear, but they worked very slow. We recognized that there was no way we could be done by 8 o’clock. There was just too much ups and downs. In certain instances we were going up and down the pigtails, the reactor face, anyway we could do to get there, there were stairs you could go around, and put down a plank to get to where you needed to get the anchor for that housing for the thing.


But anyhow that job finished up, we finished it a t 8 o’clock, we was done. And they had their zero marks where it was... What the plumb bobs were for, I didn’t know it at the time.


But the next night when we came in, again, they said don’t open your tool boxes, they want you over at 105 building. So we went back to the same building. So this time they had table after table after table out there in what’s known as the loading area, the front face. And a bunch of chairs, and the set you down, you had a counter, you had a timer, and a clipboard with instructions on it.


And they said, you look at your clipboard, and it said set your timer for so many minutes. So you set your timer, reset your counter, and when it come all set, then record what the treading was in that minute interval. Then you set the next one. And we did this for eight hours.


And all the way down, somebody would come along and pick up your clipboard, and give you a new sheet, to go. What was happening was they were actually starting up the reactor for the first time, and these were additional sensors that they had places in various locations.


Of course they had all the regular operating sensors inside the control room, but they were all working inside the control room.


But the way the whole thing was put together, the way the whole thing was planned, was fantastic as far as I was concerned. Everybody was given a specific job that they could understand what that job entailed. So they didn’t have to have a particularly qualified person, an instrument man to be there. So we did this.


The counts, I know now what happened but I didn’t at the time, the counts were gradually increasing. I knew the numbers were getting bigger. And they put a new sheet down, and for the first time the counts were getting smaller. So what it was, it was the xenon poisoning we were seeing.


Now let me backtrack. A week or two before we were in the reactor starting it up, now this was in early September of 1944, they called us individually into the superintendent’s office, and he talked to us himself, there was nobody else. And he says well, we want you to be aware that this operation is a little bit unusual. But I can, I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s about the same as x-rays. Well at that time, x-rays were common, every shoe store in the country had an x-ray machine. So that was the comparison that they made to the lay person that didn’t know anything. Pooey, you walked in a shoe store and got your shoes and put ‘em, walked over and wiggled your toes, and well, this is not explosive anyhow.


But that’s the only indication I had as to what they were doing. I didn’t know. Even after they had the reactor running and we were working in maintenance, of course, I didn’t know, the security was fantastic. I did not know what the end product was until the bomb was dropped in Japan, and I was working here all the time.


How they was able to maintain the secret with so many thousands of people working, is an astronomical responsibility.




Oh, there was rumors. Most of the rumors were coming out of the 200 West Area, where they were building buildings with concrete walls that was over four foot thick, and they said boy, I’m gonna get out of here before they start using those, if that’s what it takes to contain it.


But rumors were flying... but basically you didn’t talk. You just didn’t talk. The rec hall that we had at Hanford was about the only place you had to go to relax a little bit; if somebody in there got a few too many beers and started talking, first thing you know he was gone! You never seen that fellow again. They had security... you just didn’t talk. If you had a question you needed to know, they would answer, but you just wouldn’t ask what the next guy was doing.


So my hat is off to the overall Manhattan Project for being able to complete this project, get it onstream get all the facets put together, and come up with an end product that most people that worked on it didn’t know what it was up until it was actually consumed, actually used in the first one over Hiroshima.




It came out in the paper, it was on the radio. It hit the news media all at once. There was no press leaks, so to speak. It came out, I was out there, I was working, I didn’t know what we were making.




The only thing we were told was do the job you’re told to do. You don’t ask questions what it’s gonna do. You just didn’t ask. Far different from the ammunitions plant, that was a technology which was known. All I knew is it was important enough to have top priority as far as priorities go. And if it had that much military application it had to be something important.


And of course I had three brothers that were in the service, I wasn’t. I had one in the Europe theater, and one in the Pacific theater, and I lost my brother just older than me before he ever left the states. That was a sad story but it has nothing to do with this.




Yeah, when I arrived out here in February or in early March, I saw the 105 hole in the ground, just really getting started under construction. Pouring concrete and some steel work. So that was in early March. In September of 1944, I was in the front face of the reactor when it first went critical. And one had never been built before, it was a first big industrial... They had a little laboratory data and that was all.


And how they were able to scale up from a little bit of data they got in the reactor in Chicago to that, is amazing. To run all the calculations, theories, to make sure they get the instrumentation, as far as that converting the Uranium 238 to Plutonium 239, in that frame time, just get that reactor going...




Well we had over fifty thousand people working on the job. And nobody knew what we were doing. There was just a handful of people that knew what the product was. But looking back, I think that one of the problems...      (tape ends)


NEW TAPE... as to the results of real tight security by the military to begin with and then it was the Atomic energy commission. Because all of the Plutonium sites or anything had to do with it was top secret. But they had let enough of it out they were starting to build it commercially, commercial reactors. But it didn’t get to the public, that there is a big difference between a bomb and a reactor, a fuel reactor.




Yeah, but really, see we first started the reactor in September of 1944. It was only a year later, we’d only been in operation a year, there was very little maintenance to be done. Most of it was modification of facilities. We didn’t get into, or at least I didn’t get into any positions where I needed to know. I was in the machine shop, making who knows what. Anything they needed, we made a lot of the tools or special fixtures, I know now what they were doing, they were doing it for, was making tests using these special research test holes in the reactor, but I did not have any exposure to radiation until after the bomb was dropped. And then we knew what we were up against.


But to my knowledge, there was no, the reactors were so new that there was no real problems, other than shutdown crew, and I didn’t have anything to do with that.




They had enough of the radiation monitoring group working there that I don’t believe there was any possibility of anyone in those early months least in the reactor portion of it, the separations end of it is a whole different ball game. The chemical end of it, cause at that point you’re taking spent reactor slugs, I say spent, that’s probably not right, and dissolving them down, chemical reactions.


But later on I got out of the maintenance group in about 1948 or 49, late ‘40’s, early ‘50’s, I had switched over to engineering of the ?Technology Group. And in this group I was developing all types of different types of tools for doing routine maintenance on the reactor. Probably the closest I ever came to it was they were removing one of the tests from the research opening, and they didn’t have enough people so they shifted me over there. But we had radiation monitoring, he says, do not get your hands in front of that hole.




Well the Hanford Camp was a military camp with roughly 50,000 people there. Barracks, strictly military barracks. In fact when I first arrived here I was put into a brand new barracks that had just been completed a few hours before. I checked in, they gave me a bed roll, they says go over to, I don’t remember the number now, but you will eat in Mess Hall 8.


And I spent my first night in there, brand new, two to a room, but it was strictly military, no locks, no nothing. Essentially wooden floors, standard bunks, but it was clean, it was comfortable.




DuPont ran everything. They had patrolling, security, well the military was really in charge. But I’d catch a bus going out, well I could walk to the 101 building, but when I went out to B Reactor I had to catch a bus. But... I missed one phase....


I did spend the first two weeks in 2 West Area, in the maintenance Department. And that was because they didn’t have 101 completed enough to have me a place to work.


And when I was riding a bus out to the 2 West Area, this would be in March of 1944, I came in, I checked in to the barracks and I caught a bus the next morning to go out to the 2 West Area, the 2 West temporary machine shop. And we’d take the bus out there, come back... I checked in on the last row of barracks. I left that barracks in the morning, went out and worked an eight hour shift; when I came back there was two more rows of barracks there! And guys with bedrolls coming in!


How they scheduled all this is amazing. My hat’s off to DuPont.




Well, there were no environmental regulations, there was nothing. If you needed to do something, you did it. If you needed to dig a ditch, you dug it. You needed a road to go across over there, you put it in. There was actually hundreds of miles of railroads, highways and railroads all put in in a very short period of time.


Well maybe this is a good point to mention this. We talked about the dust storms that we have around Richland. They haven’t seen a dust storm, the newcomers. With everything torn up in construction, if we’d get a thirty-mile an hour wind, you couldn’t see across the street. I mean really couldn’t see. And you come back to your barracks, maybe there’s a sand drift in front of your door, to get into the barracks.


And the next day after one of those dust storms the average was about eight thousand terminations. They called that the Termination Wind. It was horrible, I’ll tell you. Guys had to work out in that stuff with ditch-digging stuff, roadmaking, wind blowing, dry, it was miserable, working out there. But next day, I’ve had enough, there’d be about eight thousand of ‘em check out after one of those windstorms. Of course they had to have another 8000 coming in.




After one of those bad dust storms they said about 8000 left the next day, said I’ve had enough.




The Hanford Camp was what you made it. There were all kinds of people there. There were roughnecks, and skilled craftsmen. About the only recreation was the rec hall. There was a movie theater after a time, I’m not sure when it came. But you could go to the rec hall, I don’t know how many people fit, I expect several thousands would be in that total rec hall drinkin beer. Well if somebody wanted a fight he didn’t have to go very far to get it. So you could be sitting at one table and the first thing you know a couple of tables over a couple of them would hard at it, patrolmen would come in and grab everybody involved and off they’d go.


But on the other hand if you were just sitting in there, talking to somebody, just to relax, there was no problem. The problems were made. It was a rough camp, there’s no question about that. But the mess halls as far as I’m concerned, a fantastic job done. I was in Mess Hall 8, and I don’t know how many thousands of people they served in breakfasts and dinner, lunch was available in certain places but most of us took box lunches. How would you like the job to make fifty thousand box lunches. Or feed 50,000 people? Are you aware how the mess hall worked?




It was a large mess hall with tables roughly twenty foot long and benches. Most of them had, these tables were in line, and I would say may twenty tables. Then there’d be another row of twenty tables and another row of twenty tables. If I remember right there were five or six rows. And you would go in and you would go down to the front table on the left. You filled that table completely. And as soon as it was full they would start filling the next one. No empty seats, you set down wherever, you couldn’t go in a group and pick out a spot. And the minute the table was full, here come the waitress, would put the platters of food on there. The table would be set with your plate and your silver ware. But, family style. Soon as that was full, the next one would fill up, and this proceeded. You didn’t go over to the next aisle until this one was full. Then you went to the second one, and fill up that one. But the first table up here, if somebody would empty a plate they’d hold up the platter and the waitress would be right there to give you a new one, full. Immediately. They would keep filling up till everybody there got full, then they’d get up and go out.


By that time maybe they’re on their third or fourth one over here. But they would clean those off as soon as the guys left, reset it, and soon as this last one over here got full, these were ready, so there was a constant stream going in.


And they were all fed just about as fast as you could go in. You would hear guys complain, but it was good palatable food, considering it was high volume.


But, pie, they always had pie for desert, or nearly always. But you’d be sitting there at a table, you might see, aw, this pie’s awful. But maybe you’d already had two pieces. Give me another piece. This is awful.


But you might be sitting next to an iron worker, or maybe an office worker. But most of the office workers were down at Mess Hall 3. But just feeding that many people.




Oh yeah, there several women around. In fact, we had the military camp portion of it, and then there was a great big trailer park. We had the military portion of it, and then we had a great big trailer park, where people that actually lived there with their wife and family. I don’t know what they did for schooling for kids that were there...




Yeah, in a trailer. And that trailer, I don’t know, thousands and thousands of them. You either lived in a barracks or you lived in a trailer. Or you, from there you went out to the area. Now if you lived in Richland there were buses going out to the various areas.


But just the magnitude of ordering all the bedding, getting it all washed, getting all the food, the right variety of food, in the quantities that they needed, I know at the time I was impressed.




About fifteen miles. You had B, D, and F, and they were five to eight miles apart. That was done because they didn’t know what was going to happen...




Well they started B but the other two were started almost simultaneously. It was just a short period of time after B was running till D was running. And F was the last one.




Yeah, from Hanford. Cause there’s no place... they were building houses as fast as they could build them, but not fast enough.


There’s one thing I missed. The transportation from the Hanford Area to the various work areas was basically in buses, but many of us were hauled in what they called cattle cars. And they were literally cattle cars....(TAPE ENDS)






Okay. If you lived in Hanford and were working out at 2 West Area or B Area or any of the other outlying areas, they would bus you from Hanford there. Well they didn’t have enough buses to go around so they found a bunch of cattle cars. Cattle Trailers. They were actually a trailer. and they had cleaned them up and put benches along the side. There would be twenty to forty of us in there along these benches along the side. No heat. You just rode the cattle car out to work. They were enclosed, and you’d go in through the back, but that’s all, it got you out of the weather, and out of the wind. But they were actually cattle cars.




Well the general attitude of the people, we’re in this thing, let’s get it over with. We’ll do what we have to do to get it done. Now while I was working at Remington Arms, we were making the 30- and 50-caliber rounds, we were making eight million rounds a shift in that one plant. It was a important job. Early in the game after the Europeans... the supply of rubber had disappeared. So gasoline rationing and food ration was in, they put it in real early in the game. And I don’t know that I ever heard anybody complain about it, because it was all part of the effort.


The average person with a car, you got a stamp for three gallons a week. That’s all the gasoline you could buy, unless you worked, and needed more, or rode to a defense plant, which all plants were defense plants at that time. The auto production all that stuff stopped and they started doing everything.


But I would say the attitude of the people then was supportive of the overall action.




Course we were already in Europe before that. Gasoline rationing, it was not because of the gasoline, we had enough oil here to do it, it was because of rubber. Speed limits were thirty-five miles and hour. I made two round trips to Kansas City at thirty-five miles an hour.




Well that’s what it amounted to, you just couldn’t buy new tires. You had to get a special permit to authorize you, your tires are gone and you need your car for defense applications.




Organization, and their people. Their people were topnotch. Well let me give you an example. Those two weeks that I spent out at 2 West in the construction machine shop. In the corner of that shop was the mechanical superintendent’s office. And then there was an assistant mechanical superindent. And I hadn’t been in the shop two or three days and hey, there’s something not normal here. And it turned out that the assistant superintendent was the boss. The superintendent was there to attend all the meetings, and these kind of things, gripes and what-have-you. That left the assistant superintendent free, and he roamed every job. He’d come in with something, with some sketches, and something happened. And I don’t know if it was done in all instances, but I suspicion that it was.


Because the guy that was there had the authority but he wasn’t saddled with all the administrative things. It makes sense, and it made sense to me.




Well we were getting instructions to get the job done, out in the machine shop, out at 2 West Area, I would say 90% of our stuff was nothing but hand sketches. Hand Sketches. But these were the details not handled at DuPont headquarters in Wilmington Delaware.


Thing of it is, there is no way they could have put everything documented on prints beforehand. In other words, DuPont put a lot of authority in their superintendents. They were well experienced, they had to know how to do it. they knew how to get the job done.






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B Reactor Museum Association, “John Rector Oral History,” Hanford History Project, accessed May 28, 2024,