"That Was an Exciting Time in My Life"
Working on the Early State of the Development of the A Bomb
F. Winfield ("Bill") Michael|
June 11, 1980
Interviewer: Robert M. Copeland
"Bill" Michael was born in 1918 in Nashua, Iowa, and was reared in Pomeroy, Iowa. He came upon Fort Collins when he was playing with an exhibition baseball team passing through town. The team stopped long enough for Bill to see the campus of Colorado A & M and pick up a catalogue. Soon after starting college, he ran into financial problems but took advantage of an opportunity to work for the Du Pont Company. The company offered students work and an "educational possibility," which developed into a "greater educational adventure than I had anticipated." Du Pont selected a number of young men in their late teens or early twenties and trained them on something called the "Manhattan District Project" for the use of the U.S. Army Engineers. He worked on the construction phase of the first process lot that produced the first plutonium for the first atomic bomb.
"That was an exciting time in my life," Michael remembered forty-some years later. "To think they (Du Pont) would take a group of young men without degrees and teach them what they wanted them to know. But of course, you have to realize that this was all new to everyone anyway . . . There was no academic education that would prepare you for this work, because it never had been done before."
The project site was on the Columbia River in Washington State. Michael recalled that the construction work was both difficult and hot. Their need to work in a positive air pressure to keep the process block they were laminating free from contamination was exacerbated by the outside temperatures. Michael recalled an incident, which showed both the difficulty of the work and its significance: He had left specifications in a little sketch for a "skip" that was to be used to take laminations to the top of the block. "When I discovered they'd made the skip longer than I had specified, and the cables on the skip were stressing these precision laminations, I took off my helmet and threw it down. I said, 'for two cents, I'd quit.' And I realized that someone had followed me through this air lock and the voice behind me said, 'Well, son, that would be easy enough to do, wouldn't it?' And I turned around and it was General Groves, who was then Commanding Officer of the Manhattan District."
When Michael apologized, General Groves remarked that it was difficult for everyone, but "six months after we get the 'bugs' out of this block we can see the termination of the war."
Michael had difficulty in believing that the process he was working on could be so important. He eventually left this work to join the Navy, where he found he would not be allowed to serve in the southern Pacific because of his connection with the Manhattan Project. He was assigned as a command engineer at a destroyer base near San Diego. Michael kept a diary of interesting events and recalls that when he checked his diary it was indeed, "just five months and two weeks from the time they got the first 'bugs' out until they dropped the bomb. Then, if you add to that the actual capitulation of Japan, why it's six months almost to the day."