The Manhattan Project

Jane Yantis's Interview

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Jane Yantis was the wife of a petroleum engineer, Carl Yantis, who worked at the Oak Ridge site during the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Yantis discusses how she and her husband ended up at the Oak Ridge area. She remembers accidentally fermenting apples in her pantry, the difficulty to find adequate housing, and how friendly everybody was. She also discusses the alcohol restriction at Oak Ridge, the tight security, and creating ornaments for her Christmas tree.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 3, 2015
Location of the Interview: 
Washington
Transcript: 

Richard Rhodes: Would you say your name and then spell it to start with?

Jane Yantis: It’s Jane Yantis, J-A-N-E, Y-A-N-T-I-S.

Rhodes: Good, thank you. Where were you born and when, if you want to tell me?

Yantis: I was born in Center, Texas.

Rhodes: When?

Yantis: In 1920.

Rhodes: Good.

Yantis: March the 23rd, 1920.

Rhodes: So you married someone who was involved in the Manhattan Project, right?

Yantis: I married another Texan. When we married, he went to Shreveport, Louisiana. We were there just a few months when the war started. And he signed up that Monday, after Sunday.

Rhodes: Yes, Pearl Harbor.

Yantis: They didn’t call him until March of ’42. From there he went to the Air Force and completed that. He decided that he didn’t want to be a pilot so he just got discharged from that, honorably. Then he was on the tarmac, with his backpack, ready to get on and be a bombardier or navigator, whichever they said. They called about I guess about six or eight other men, and he was one of them. They took them in and told them that they were going to Amarillo.

So we got on the train to Amarillo, and we had to stop in the middle of the night to catch another train. There was no station, no lights, no anything, but we caught it. When we got to Amarillo, he had to report in a certain time, and I had a ticket to go on to San Antonio. We wasted time because he decided he wouldn’t check in until I got on the train. The minute I was on the train, then he checked in. Then he went from Amarillo to Stillwater, Oklahoma, from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Knoxville, Tennessee. In both places, he was put in the university to study more math and more science.

Rhodes: Ah.

Yantis: He was a petroleum engineer, with his degree.

Rhodes: What kind of engineer, petroleum?

Yantis: Then from Knoxville, Tennessee, he was sent to Oak Ridge. [00:03:00] The first I knew of it was when he called me to send all of his map books to him. I packed them up and took them down to the post office, and told the man—of course, I had the address. He said, “Just a minute, lady,” and he goes to look for mail for the zone.

Comes back and he said, “There’s not city like that.”

I said, “Yes sir, there is.”

“No ma’am, there is not.”

I said, “Okay, we’ll make a deal. You let me send the books, and if they come back, I’ll come down and pick them up, no sweat, okay?” And he got them.  

Rhodes: Where was he at this point?

Yantis: He was in Oak Ridge.

Rhodes: Oh, okay.

Yantis: He was in Oak Ridge. Of course they didn’t have any housing and all, so he wanted me to come and he called. I said yes, I’d come. My dad heard us talking so he got on the phone. He said, “Carl, she isn’t coming if we don’t know where she is.”

I don’t know what he told my father but finally it was, “I’m her husband, send her!” So I got on the train, the only time I was in New Orleans. I spent twelve hours waiting.

But I got there, so he sent me out to find a house or find an apartment. I came back the second day looking, and I said, “Carl, I’ve looked at four houses, four apartments. They all have outhouses. I’m not living here.” Well, we went out on a Sunday and we found a house in Fountain City that a man had built for his home, but he was making it into apartments. So we got a bedroom and bath to ourselves and shared a kitchen. Another couple, Army couple, took the other part.

Rhodes: That was pretty good in those days.

Yantis: Yeah. I got out to Oak Ridge only one time after that, and that was when, if you want to hear it, that was when we were about to leave Oak Ridge. Everybody was sitting there [inaudible]. This dear friend of ours, Beaker, who worked in Extend, anyway, his wife had offered to have three couples come out and spend New Year’s Eve with them. So Doris Temin lived in the little apartment behind us, so we were going out together, and we were going to take the food.

We had cakes and pies and hams and eggs and bacon. She had put a couple of bottles of wine and one of liquor down in the bottom of hers. And she told me, she said, “Now Jane, when we get there, we’re going to be checked at the gate.”

I said, “I know.”

She said, “Now, if we make it through, I’m going to get off the bus before you. If those bottles break and spill, you walk around me and keep going so you can tell. And I’ll faint and you can tell Temin where I am.”

So we head over, but we got through. He came through, he went through my bag, I was on the end. He looked through my bag all the way. He reached over to get hers, and he said, “Is this all food and you’re going to the same place? Okay.” And we got by.

Rhodes: They didn’t allow whiskey or alcohol?

Yantis: Not on the base.

Rhodes: Oh right, of course.

Yantis: And then the other party we had: our kitchen was huge with nothing in it particularly, and so we were having a Halloween party. The boys were going to pick up the apple cider. Fresh apple cider at that time was wonderful. And they picked it up and we would heap it. We had three closets, as you would call them, they could have been pantries, and nothing in them, so we had plenty of room.

So about three days before the party, we had the apples, we had the tank to dip them in. We heard, about four o’clock in the morning, “Bam, bam, bam.” All our cider was running out. The closets that we thought were just empty, had the heat ducts in them. But we hadn’t known that because we hadn’t had the heat on. And so the boys brought us the cider again.

Rhodes: The cider was fermenting, that’s why it blew up?

Yantis: Yes, with the heat, yeah. Well, it went up good. But the boys found a vacant lot, and we fixed up a badminton set and we played badminton on the weekends. We went hitchhiking to different parks and things. The public was wonderful, they always picked us up, so there was no problem there. 

It was a wonderful time. People were wonderful. We’d got acquainted with five couples, and every one of them we kept in touch with until 2005. Then the last girl called, and she had passed away. But we kept up with all of their families. Everybody knew who was having a baby and birthdays and weddings and so on.

Rhodes: What did your husband do? What was his work, do you know?

Yantis: He was a petroleum engineer. That was what he came and that’s on his list, by his name, and I don’t know what he did.

Rhodes: Don’t know what.

Yantis: I surely didn’t. I was told not to ask.

Rhodes: Oh yes.

Yantis: And he didn’t talk that much about it afterwards.

He left every morning about 6:3. We were in Fountain City, which was five miles out of Knoxville. They got the bus there, and then they traded to the bus that took them to work.

Rhodes: Oh, so really secret, yeah. What’s the name of the city?  

Yantis: Fountain.

Rhodes: You want to spell it?

Yantis: F-O-U-N-T-A-I-N.

Rhodes: Oh Fountain, okay.

Yantis: Fountain City, yeah, it’s a suburb now.

Rhodes: Yeah, but it was a small town then?

Yantis: Very. I mean, there was a post office and a barbershop and grocery store, and I think that was it. Oh, they had a church or two, I think.

Rhodes: I always wondered what happened to the people who lived in that valley when they put in the Oak Ridge installation.

Yantis: Well, that’s a sad story. I had never known that that happened. I figured it was all spare land when they – but they did disperse many, many families. I don’t know what happened to them.

Rhodes: But was Fountain City, for example, were there a lot of people there or was it pretty empty?

Yantis: No, I think there were maybe three other houses besides this one that we lived in. There was a beautiful little lake there, with three of the meanest geese you’ve ever seen. They would attack you every time you went by.

Rhodes: Oh yes, yes.

Yantis: And that was on a hill in the little town.

Rhodes: You said that the big cupboard was empty. Was that because of war rationing?

Yantis: No. That’s another tale. There were two couples upstairs that had apartments. One was from Tennessee and one was from Kentucky. And we would play bridge or what we called hell, which is solitary. Everybody has their own deck, and you play out, put your aces out, but anybody could play on that deck.

So you get lots of hand slapping, so you come out. Our games would last maybe two minutes because it was so fast, because we’d have about twelve people playing. And this lady upstairs from Kentucky was very nervous, and she wanted to play very badly, but she’d last about two seconds and she’d have a nervous attack.

The nicest, I guess one of the stories you’d like to hear, comes Christmastime. Someone gave us a Christmas tree, but there no ornaments to be had. So we made our own.

One of our little boys that we adopted, one of the young guys that didn’t have any family here, was going home to Kentucky. So everybody in his barracks and our group gave him a list of what to buy for it. Now he has to go out and come back in and not get caught.

He takes all of the upholstery out of the sides of the car and comes back in and clears. He delivered everything. But it was interesting in so many ways, because I had never run into the blue laws, and the blue laws were in effect at that time.

Rhodes: Oh yeah.

Yantis: You couldn’t buy safety pins for baby’s diapers on Sunday.

Rhodes: Oh really? Oh those blue laws, I was thinking about the prohibition kind of laws that Tennessee used to have.

Yantis: Oh they did have [them]. If we went out to eat, and we were allowed to bring a bottle, you brought it in a sack and you put it on the table. And then you ordered your coke or whatever you want, and then you took your glass and put it down underneath and poured your drink. I mean, it was that strict.

Rhodes: So it was all kind of hush, but it was okay. People linked that.

Yantis: You know Army boys, they’re going to get by some way.

Rhodes: Yes, of course. Did your husband like his work?

Yantis: Oh yes. It was so cute because these couples that we had, they were in different places. Two of them would be here and two over there, and Carl over here. So when we all pitch in and have picnic lunches or dinners on the weekend, and those guys would be so nice and talking to us, and so glad to speak with the family, until it came to clean up time. But they got so handy to come in and offer to take out the trash, so they would go out to the trash and have their little meeting, and switch tales of what was going on. They knew long ago what was going on.

Then when Carl calls me one day and says, “Jane, turn on the radio.”

“I don’t want to turn on the radio.”

“Turn on the radio.” So I did, and of course, nothing was on. A few days, when he called again, he said, “Turn on the radio now.”

“I don’t want to.”

“NOW!” So I did, and that’s how I learned. I mean, totally way out.

Rhodes: Yeah, what did you think?

Yantis: Shock, I mean absolute shock. I don’t think any of us, the war was ending, we knew.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Yantis: Cause everybody was talking, you know, that it was getting so close where you were going to get there some way, somehow. I don’t think any of us realized the damage that was done until much later. Then you had two feelings. Either you thought we should or we shouldn’t. But I think most of us, at that time, thought we should have, because it cut it so much shorter.

Rhodes: So many people I’ve talked to said, “Thank God for the atomic bomb,” because they were going to go. Your husband at that point, where was he, was he discharged quickly?

Yantis: No, they discharged them in different—he was discharged about the time that he went in.

Rhodes: Yeah, so it was based on his day of enlistment?

Yantis: I guess, uh-huh.

Rhodes: Yeah, it probably was. And how did you occupy yourself during that period? What did you do?

Yantis: Well, one day I had to go out to the Oak Ridge to get my wisdom teeth taken out. Now Carl had had his taken out a couple of weeks before, and he really suffered, they had to work and work. He was worried about me, so he got permission to come home to see how I was. And he found me stretched out on the bed with “Forever Amber,” in case you’ve ever heard of it.

Rhodes: I know.

Yantis: I was eating an apple. He wasn’t pleased.

Rhodes: Oh, you were eating an apple?

Yantis: He wasn’t pleased at all.

Rhodes: Did you work during the war?

Yantis: Well, I applied for dental work because I had worked for my family dentist. And they weren’t pleased; I had only made a salary of $15 a week and she thought I didn’t know anything.

Rhodes: Oh.

Yantis: So no, they wouldn’t take me and too, I had gone and I forgot that everybody needed a badge and I had no badge. It was easy getting in on the bus when I told them I had an appointment to see, and then getting out was something else again. So Carl was sort of provoked that time too. Because I hadn’t told him I was going to do that.

When Carl got there, they had a – whatever they call them in the Army. They got them up at 6:30 and they had to march and exercise.

Rhodes: Yes.

Yantis: And so this went on and on, and the guy was really rough on all of them. And so one day they said, “Okay, we’ll take a sit down.” Because all of them were in Fort Oak Ridge, which they didn’t know. This was at the University of Tennessee and they had this group that were going, but the Army boys that were in the real Army didn’t know. So anyway, the boys got out there and they were singing this song, “You can make us do this and this and this, but you can’t make us think.” And it worked, they shut the little guy off. They were happy, they were able to sleep in.

One day, when I went in, I was going to work for one of the wives that we knew, didn’t feel good. So I went in, and she said, “Now he is awfully nosy, so be careful.”

Carl has said, “Don’t ever tell anybody what I do or where I am.”

I go in and I’m doing my little work and minding my own business. He’s kind of pushing, pushing, pushing. I just didn’t worry, and answer what comes in my head.

About the second or third day, he comes right out after pushing and pushing, he comes right and says, “What does your husband do out there?”

Just like this, I said, “He’s a plumber.”

I get home and Carl says, “Couldn’t have said I was a master plumber?”

I felt sorry for him, when I realized what I had said, but it just came out. You know, you have to practice those things.

Rhodes: Yeah, right. Was that a burden? It must have been a burden to be constantly having to kind of—

Yantis: Well I was so afraid that I’d say something wrong, you know. No, it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.

Unidentified Female: Can you tell him the story about the thing on the weekend, and the guys following him for a week?

Yantis: I did tell him about “Turn on the radio.”

Unidentified Female: No, turn on the radio for the story on the radio you weren’t supposed to hear.

Yantis: Oh, that was a horrible experience. One night, I was asleep and Carl was, I guess, having a hard time going to sleep, he was awake. About 12:30, on the radio, some announcer was blabbing about things that shouldn’t have been blabbed. Carl sat straight up and says, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get to the officer in charge.” He called and they didn’t think it was necessary for him to come in, so he got up early the next morning and went in, and was finally taken into the right person. They kept him all day long, he got home about 7:00 o’clock at night, and he was white as a sheet.

I said, “What happened?”

He said, “I have been interrogated all day long.” He said, “I want to tell you, I may be court martialed. And if I am, you’re to go straight home, okay?”

He gave me the money then to get a ticket. Nothing happened for about, I would say three or four days. Then he was called in again. They had found part of what he’d said he’d heard, and they found the guy that had done it. I haven’t heard anybody that’s heard from him, but you don’t know what happened.

Rhodes: But they blamed Carl for what this guy did?

Yantis: They wanted to know they –

Rhodes: Oh, where he heard it.

Yantis: They connected it to Carl, you know, why was he listening or something, I don’t know what it was. But for about a week, we had an FBI guy following us. He thought we didn’t know but Carl recognized that he was following us. But then that’s the last we heard of it. But Carl was really just white sheet. I mean, when you’re going to be court martialed.

Rhodes: I’m quite sure. So after the war, where did you guys live?

Yantis: Well, that’s another one, one of the young fellows, knew that Carl wanted to get back in the business. He said, “My uncle just called me and said he’s got a job with an oil company that is opening up the West.”

Carl said, “Who is it?” So he called the oil company and the guy interrogated him on the phone. He sent him a ticket, which he did, and the next week Carl went to Tulsa, got a job, came back home. We got discharged, we go home, and we’re there a week because he got discharged on about the 20th, and we were to be in Billings on the 23rd. So we left Billings, and his mother said, “Carl was so lucky. He got to stay on this side during the war, and now he’s going to do foreign duty.” And she believed that.

Rhodes: Foreign duty? Meaning Montana?

Yantis: Montana. She was sure that once the snow came, you closed the doors and lit the fire, and that was it. But we moved up there and lived there for fourteen years. And then guess where they transferred us? Back to Texas.

Rhodes: No!

Yantis: That’s what I told Carl, I didn’t want to live in Texas, I had had enough of Texas. We had a wonderful growing up, but at that time, there were no jobs for him in Texas.

He was in oil, and he had all of Montana and nine other states.