The Manhattan Project

Jack Keen's Interview

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Jack Keen is the son of Lester Orlan Keen, an engineering draftsman at Hanford during the Manhattan Project. He was three when his father took the job at Hanford and spent a couple years at the Hanford site as a young child. In this interview, Keen talks about his childhood memories of Hanford and his family’s living situation at the site. He discusses his father’s work and dedication to secrecy. Keen also reminisces about visiting the Hanford site as an adult and learning about the environmental impact, as well as the sheer scale of the project.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 3, 2015
Location of the Interview: 
Washington DC
Transcript: 

Jack Keen: My father was an engineering draftsman at Hanford. I was—depending on what the months were—probably three or four years old.

Richard Rhodes: When you went there?

Keen: Right, when I lived there in one of those big, duplex houses. My mother, father and I lived in those duplexes for a time when I was a little kid.

Rhodes: What was his name?

Keen: His name was Lester Orlan, O-R-L-A-N, Keen, K-E-E-N.

Rhodes: And what was your mother’s name?

Keen: It was Doris Bramhall Keen.

Rhodes: Spell that.

Keen: Bramhall was B-R-A-M-H-A-L-L.

Rhodes: Family name?

Keen: Yes, right.

Rhodes: How old was he when he went there, do you know?

Keen: He was thirty years older than I was, so he would have been thirty-three or thirty-four, something like that. I know he was four years younger than—

Rhodes: Great, where did he come from?

Keen: I was born and actually ended up growing up in Walla Walla, which was only thirty miles away, a nice little farming community—not that little, 30,000, I guess. At the time he got to Hanford, I am fairly sure he was working as draftsman up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the Farragut Navy base because he talked about that, and he showed me pictures of it.

What kind of intrigued me is that fact that when I was born in 1940, he had a house built for the three of us, a brand new house, so that after my mother came home from the hospital, we could move into this house and be a family. I am not sure if we moved in and then we moved out to go to Coeur d’Alene and then to Hanford, or what the story was. But I am pretty sure that ended up for rent.

In reflecting upon it afterwards, it was interesting to me because my mother nor my dad were ever really complainers. They would kind of suck it up. I never remember my mother or my dad complaining about how cramped it was or how small, because the duplex arrangement must have been about a quarter of the size of the house that we had in Walla Walla.

Rhodes: Sort of like an apartment.

Keen: Yeah, exactly, but for some reason they never complained. But the story that I remember vividly, because my dad told it over and over—and he passed away about nine years ago. The first day that they moved into the complex—and of course, they lived in Walla Walla so they knew that Hanford was kind of a dusty, hot place, so that was no surprise. Their particular bedroom was on a corner so it had windows on each wall. It was very hot, so they threw the windows open and went to bed. When they woke up in the morning, according to my father, there was an inch of dust all over them: on their faces, on their beds, on the clothes that were on the side of the bed, the whole thing. They just thought, “Whoa, what is this?” Welcome to Richland.

Rhodes: I can believe it.

Keen: And my mother, cleanliness was always a big deal with her.

Rhodes: What did she do?

Keen: I do not know because I did not recall the stories after that. The thing too was, Richard, that as with almost everybody, they took the security, the secrecy, so seriously that even decades later when my dad was in his nineties before he passed away, we had a very hard time getting him to talk about anyone.

Rhodes: So there was never a time after the war when he was told, “Okay.” Because they opened it up after the war.

Keen: I do not think they told him. I honestly do not because I thought to myself, “When does this secrecy stuff expire?” I was reading it in the newspapers and everything. I tried to explain to my dad, but he just was not sure about having the story right.

So what he did tell me was that—and I thought it was an insight into his work—as a draftsman doing blueprints, he said, “We never knew what we were doing a blueprint for.” He said, “All I knew was it might be a three foot corner of some building for some undetermined purpose, and maybe it is only three feet by three feet that I am drawing. So it is just like a little piece of the bigger jigsaw puzzle.”

Rhodes: Strange.

Keen: Yeah, then he said also that they had different groups of draftsmen in probably a big room, I would guess, and they had teams. He could not talk to another team of draftsmen. He could talk to his team, I believe, but even at lunch, they could not have lunch together.

Rhodes: Not even socialize?

Keen: Yeah.

Rhodes: Wow.

Keen: Maybe within his own team, I guess. We certainly we socialized with neighbors. We lived on Farrell Lane in Richland.

Rhodes: Farrell was spelled how, do you remember?

Keen: It is F-A-R-R-E-L-L.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Keen: So we are the “Gone with the Wind” mansion that I just showed you there at the end.

Rhodes: Oh, so that was this house in the photograph?

Keen: That was our neighbor’s house because we lived in the B duplexes, so they were just very small. I always remember those in my mind, the grey shingles and a just kind of a box with a roof on it, and that kind of stuff.

I do remember that I had a friend, a guy I liked to play with or a girl, I do not know. We walked into the mansion and knocked on the door. “Can they come out and play?” I remember many times doing that and thinking, “Well, this is a big deal; I get to go down to the house at the end of the street.” But then I thought, “If I were only three or four, would my mother let me walk down there because it would have been almost a block, or would she have taken my hand?” But I have a memory of being unaccompanied like a big kid on my own, I guess. 

Rhodes: So tell me when you were born, what year?

Keen: 1940. October 2, 1940.

Rhodes: So that puts you three or four years old.

Keen: Three or four, right.

Rhodes: 1943 or ‘44, that is when Hanford really opened up.

Keen: Exactly, yeah. Since he was in the construction side, my guess is that it would have been 1943 and maybe early 1944.

Rhodes: His drawing and plans were not for the machinery, it was for the actual buildings?

Keen: Yes, that is the way that he described it. Yes, I would guess, because that is why his work was not design work. His occupation was buildings, blueprints for buildings.

Rhodes: How did you get there, just by car?

Keen: I am fairly sure, but honestly, I do not remember that. We did have a 1939 Terraplane, which was kind of a cool car.

Rhodes: Great car.

Keen: Very ‘30s, ‘40s. I do remember my dad telling me that before my mother and I moved over there with him—I do not know what the delay was, maybe getting the duplexes built. He talked about having to drive every day from Walla Walla to Richland, which was thirty miles each way and in those days, old roads, cars, and that kind of stuff. They had five or six guys in a car and they just did that every day, back and forth. So it must have been a really long, tiring day.

Rhodes: Yeah, and then put in a full workday around that.

Keen: Yeah, exactly. I am sure he was glad not only to get us over there, but to be able to live at least—

Rhodes: So was this a big complex of houses? Was it like a suburb or a housing development, I guess?

Keen: Well, it was a housing development, yeah, because the Corps of Engineers built these developments specifically for the workers. I am fairly sure that our portion of it would have been just like a U with a mansion at the bottom of the U and then all of the B duplexes, little duplexes, alongside. The best that I can tell, there might have been five or six duplexes on each side of the street and the mansion at the cul-de-sac, but that was just one of many. I do not really have any memory of anything except those houses, and then maybe going to a movie or a bowling alley or something like that.

Rhodes: Things that they had built as part of the complex.

Keen: Exactly, to make it a town. It was a town from scratch.

Rhodes: Where did you go for groceries?

Keen: I do not remember.

Rhodes: When do your memories start? What are some of the earliest memories you have of this time?

Keen: It would be like walking down to the mansion with my friends and playing on the porch, this little one-foot, three-foot step to go into the front door. I do remember playing in the backyard. It seems to me that behind this row of duplexes, there was an open space that I think was a play area, and I think that was exactly what it was for. It seems to me that we used to go out there to play with other kids and maybe the guys would play a little baseball of something, but it was kind of a little park.

The picture that I showed you of the mansion, in my mind up until about a month ago when I found that picture—so it has been going on a long time in my mind—it was a four or five-story mansion with these great “Gone With the Wind” three-foot diameter pillars.

Rhodes: Like a Southern plantation.

Keen: A Southern plantation, exactly. I mean, what else did I have to reflect on? So I knew when I saw that picture I said, “Oh my gosh, those are two little four by four posts there holding up that little roof.”

Rhodes: What was the function of this particular house?

Keen: I was trying to figure that. It was a living place because I went down to play with the kids, right? But I am thinking that maybe it was somebody who had some extra status or responsibility. Would you think so, maybe?

Rhodes: Yeah, just the way at Los Alamos they had Bathtub Row for the big guys. Everybody else got duplexes.

Keen: Exactly, exactly. I just remember that we had, of course, neighbors, but I do not really remember what they were doing or who they were. Somebody had to have some status somewhere; I mean, that house was twice the size of our B duplexes in terms of square feet, I am sure.

Rhodes: And it was new? It was not just something that—

Keen: Yeah, I think they were all new.

Rhodes: Yeah, they would have been.

Keen: They all were brand new.

Rhodes: I wonder why they built them like that. That is great.

Keen: I know.

Rhodes: These housing developments both at Oak Ridge and at Hanford were some of the first planned suburbs in the United States.

Keen: I did not know that.

Rhodes: Yeah, with fire department and grocery store. Those were all built in as part of – the schools. They were some of the first planned communities in America.

Keen: Which means that they did not have a lot to go on, in terms of learning how to do that.

Rhodes: No, that is right.

Keen: Just like building the bomb.

Rhodes: Yeah, innovation again, right. 

Keen: Yeah, exactly. So that is definitely kind of cool.

Rhodes: Do you remember the day they announced what this whole installation was for, after the bombs were dropped?

Keen: No. I did not ask my dad that because again, he was so skittish about the secrecy of it, but I was very curious. I wish I could ask him now.

Rhodes: Yeah, because I have seen photographs of screaming crowds around Hanford, cheering and throwing their hats in the air.

Keen: Yeah. What strikes me, though, is on the secrecy point of view. Would you really want to instantly tell the enemy what this was and where it came from?

Rhodes: Well, which enemy? The war was over. We had not officially stamped the Soviets as enemies yet.

Keen: Right.

Rhodes: I remember vividly—I am about three years older than you are. I was born in 1937. I remember puzzling it at the age or eight and nine, “Wait, the Soviets are our noble brothers. What did they do wrong?” [Laughter] And I think there was a lot of effort to publicize because [General Leslie] Groves was keenly aware of how much money he had spent. He wanted everybody to be sure that it was well used. 

Keen: Today, were you there when Alex was talking about all this research he had done? Alex Wellerstein?

Rhodes: Yeah, some of it.

Keen: So he said that it was about a two billion dollar project in U.S. dollars in 1943, 1944. That seems low to me; it really did.

Rhodes: Well, that works out to be twenty or thirty billion. I always say that it cost about the same as it cost to put a man on the moon, which I think gives you a better perspective on what it cost.

Keen: And what would that have been?

Rhodes: Sorry?

Keen: What would that have been, to put a man on the moon?

Rhodes: Well, that cost us about twenty or thirty billion dollars.

Keen: Back in the 1960s?

Rhodes: Yeah, 1960s dollars. Today it would probably be sixty or seventy billion.

Keen: Yeah.

Rhodes: Somebody told me that it was almost one percent of the US national—

Keen: A noticeable amount, right?

Rhodes: Yeah.

Keen: That is for sure. I had an occasion about eight years ago to finally get on the Hanford site and take the Department of Energy tour of the nuclear reactor, which was just an outstanding experience because they only have those tours open certain months and certain days of the year.

Rhodes: Yes.

Keen: Not only just because my parents were so much a part of it, but also just to actually go to the nuclear reactor and look at those control rods, the control room with the crude, crude dials, and it just boggled my mind. It was awe-inspiring. It really was like a skyscraper in its own time.

That is another reason why I am so happy that you and Cindy [Kelly, President of the Atomic Heritage Foundation] and some of the other people have just made this Manhattan Project Park happen. It is just an incredible contribution to the U.S. and to our future generations.

Rhodes: What did you guys do for recreation? Did you ever go to the river, or anything like that?

Keen: We did when I got home, but at Hanford, I just do not recall. That is what my dad did with me and my mother, would be picnics on the river. I am sure we would have in Hanford. It is right there on the Columbia. I am sure we would have gone down there for picnics and that kind of stuff.

Rhodes: It is just a little early in terms of memories. So when did you guys leave Hanford, or did you? I mean, did you stay there for—

Keen: No, we left, I am guessing sometime in 1944, because when I was five in 1945, I went to kindergarten. I am pretty sure I went to kindergarten in Walla Walla. Then the construction—you know Alex’s timeline, if you know—kind of tapered down in 1944. I am thinking—and because he was just working on the blueprinting, which is even before the construction. I am thinking we probably came home early in 1945 or probably late 1944.

Rhodes: You know, that surprises me. I did not even think about the fact that some people would have cycled in and out according to the phase of development and what was going on. 

Keen: Right, exactly. It is hard, because my father went on to take over his grandfather’s construction projects. They were the leading contractor in Walla Walla, and I became part of that and saw what that industry was all about. Construction is not an easy task. Even to put together a building like this one, it is tricky. To do it in the Manhattan Project at Hanford and Oak Ridge, it boggles the mind because it is all of these little pieces and only a few people know how to put it together. It is hard to do it right when you know how to do construction!

Rhodes: Yes, right.

Keen: So it was just another admirable quality of how they somehow really pulled it off.

Rhodes: There must have been someone higher up who was looking at the whole thing from one point of view, would you think?

Keen: But even then, just like my dad knew that the three-foot sections on some buildings—but surely there were mistakes. In construction you have to get the seams right.

Rhodes: Right.

Keen: I have heard that generally speaking, the construction, at least around Hanford, was really quite well done, all things considered. So they must have had to have some re-dos and said, “Oh man, there was some communication problem, and the draftsman did not quite understand or whatever.” Yet, as Alex pointed out today, it still was done within the time before the invasions.

Rhodes: That is true, yeah.

Keen: It is just really outstanding. Let me see, those are really the main points, Richard, that really stuck in my mind.

I guess when I am thinking about my mother, every now and then through the decades, I do think the dust was really the one thing that was the hardest for her to do. Here it is, the mother of a three or four year old, in a strange place, and hot and dusty, and you did not know anybody. Just like so many other tens of thousands of families, it must have been really difficult. It had to have been a culture shock, too, but she never complained about it afterwards.

Rhodes: I think there was a certain amount of depression and difficulty with some people who just could not face the stress of this place, the loneliness, the isolation, and as you say, the dust and wind.

Keen: And the dust storm, because we had those same dust storms in Walla Walla when I was growing up. Those dust storms are like a tornado with dirt, except it is so fine that you literally cannot shut your windows tight enough to keep it out. It is quite an experience, to say the least, but it was a good experience. It was something that my family was always proud of. Even though you kind of stumbled upon it by accident, but at least you were there to kind of—

Rhodes: So your dad was not enlisted or drafted in the war?

Keen: No, he was not.

Rhodes: Was he too old, too young, disabled?

Keen: I think no, he was not disabled or anything like that.

Rhodes: Or special skills?

Keen: He was born in 1910 so he was like thirty when we went or even twenty-nine—excuse me, thirty-three. Somehow or another, he slipped through the cracks. He might have been just a little bit too young for the drafts, and too old to be recruited except through this project.

Rhodes: Well, thirty-three would have been old.

Keen: Yeah, that is right. 

Rhodes: Until later in the war, by which time he would have had some kind of exception because of his work.

Keen: But as far as I know, he did not take that job to stay out of the war. He just took it because it was a good opportunity and maybe because of the fact it was close to home. Maybe that was part of it too. So it was a big adventure.

Rhodes: Wonderful. Is there anything that you can think of that we have not covered?

Keen: Probably when I walk out the door.

Rhodes: Well, you have notes there. Is there anything in your notes?

Keen: Yeah, absolutely. I asked my son—I am thirty years younger than my father, and my son is thirty years younger than I am, and my grandfather is thirty years older, so it is kind of amazing that we went through four generations. I asked my son if my father had ever told him, as they were just together one-on-one or something through the years, anything about this. He reported the same thing, “No, Lester did not talk about it much.”

But then he did say that he told him about building pieces and doing blueprints of pieces. He told my son that it was a concrete wall, like a three-foot concrete wall. It could have been the reactor, or the basement on a canteen, who knows. But that is all he would share with me. It was not just me; he was mum to everybody.

Rhodes: You wonder who built that huge Queen Mary [T-Plant]. Mostly they poured concrete, to be sure, but still.

Keen: That is another thing, pouring concrete is a very big deal in construction. I saw my father build buildings in Walla Walla where they poured concrete multiple stories high. So that is a process that is very easy to screw up too, if you do not do everything right. Once again, this whole piecemeal approach for secrecy, somehow they got it all together and it came out on time. It is a total miracle.

Rhodes: I always remember the story of how they assembled the equipment in the Queen Marys, which had to operate by remote control once they started processing spent fuel. They had the guys use the remote control to assemble the equipment. By the time they got everything built, they really knew how to run the remote control systems.

Keen: I will bet they did.

Rhodes: Which would be early television cameras and everything.

Keen: Yeah, television in the early 1940s.

Rhodes: It was not very high resolution, but it worked.

Keen: I do not think anybody understood how dangerous the whole thing was. Maybe some of the physicists suspected, but generally speaking, I do not think so.

Rhodes: They knew the kind of energies that were being handled. But a lot of people did not.

Keen: When you go through the B Reactor, they showed us the rods and then how the spent rods were then processed in some kind of a liquid. These were all great opportunities for people, and I am sure probably from time to time, they did get excessive radiation.

Rhodes: There was a reason they put those things out in the middle of nowhere.

Keen: That is right, and I just read that there were nine of those reactors operating at the same time.

Rhodes: Yeah, by the end of the war.

Keen: That is a lot of reactors.

Rhodes: Yeah, it is, cranking out plutonium and not all that much. We really had enough for two bombs at the beginning of August.

Keen: Yes.

Rhodes: That is fifty pounds, maybe less—well, six kilograms per bomb core.

Keen: Is that what it is?

Rhodes: So they had twelve kilograms.

Keen: Wow. Thank goodness at least they saved the B Reactor because when I took that tour, I think there was still one other reactor that was still standing but it was encased in concrete, it was entombed. The other reactors—do you know about the other seven, are they gone completely?

Rhodes: I think they were taken down long ago.

Keen: Maybe so. I guess the radiation from that one they entombed was a problem.

Rhodes: Well you know, they dug huge trenches near the sites and put the cut-up pieces of—actually, I am thinking of something slightly different. Naval reactors are cut up in huge chunks and put in a trench with the trench open to the sky so that the Russians, because of our treaty agreements, can confirm that those ships’ reactors were dismantled and are being thrown away. Then I guess eventually they will cover them over.

Keen: When I took the B Reactor tour—it must have been 2006 or 2007, something like that. They also showed us where they were still monitoring and reclaiming all of the radioactive waste because that is now going to the Department of Energy Superfund site, right? It really hit home how radioactive and how difficult it is to handle those things. They showed us some drums that they had dug up because the drums were leaking. Then they had to re-encase them and do other kinds of stuff too. I do not know how much we are spending every year on the cleanup for Hanford, but there has to be some idea.

Rhodes: The estimate is that the cleanup for the whole Manhattan Project’s sites will cost as much as the Manhattan Project did.

Keen: I can believe that, just even seeing all the work that was going on there in 2006.

Rhodes: The official explanation that I have always heard is, “You know, we thought there is a war on, the Cold War, and as long as we kept it inside the fence, it was okay.”

Keen: Who knew?

Rhodes: They knew they would have to clean it up eventually. But that was the attitude, and it was a pretty cavalier attitude.

Keen: Yeah, I am sure it was. Some of these leaking drums that they dug up fairly recently. They lasted a long time, but once they started leaking, then what do you do? You have the whole problem all over again.

Rhodes: They are going to glassify all of that stuff.

Keen: Is that right?

Rhodes: Build a big plant too and convert it into glass, which is a good technology because glass is a very permanent material. The French use that to put away their commercial nuclear waste. They glassify it.

Keen: Is that right? So we do not just have to keep trying to bury them.

Rhodes: Once it is in glass, it will stay there and then they can really bury it.

Keen: That is great.

Rhodes: Good, thank you very much. 

Keen: Thank you, Richard, very much. I appreciate the opportunity.