The Manhattan Project

Luzell Johnson's Interview

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Luzell Johnson joined the Manhattan Project at Hanford in the spring of 1944. Johnson worked as a cement finisher and helped with the construction of various site facilities, including the 100-F Area reactor building. As an African-American, Johnson discusses what it was like for blacks working on the project and recalls some of the illicit activities that took place in the barracks. He also discusses his experience playing center field for the Hanford baseball team, which included both blacks and whites.
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[At top is the edited version of the interview published by S. L. Sanger in Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford, Portland State University, 1995.

For the full transcript that matches the audio of the interview, please scroll down.]

Book version:

I was working in Mobile, Alabama, at a creosote plant, 35 cents an hour. I heard about the job out at Hanford, you could get tires and gas to come out here, from Du Pont. I was classified 1-A in the draft. By the time I got to Hanford in the spring of '44, I had my draft call, and I went to the office and they got me a deferment.

I knew something about concrete work, and I became a cement finisher. After the laborers poured it, we finished it. Before that, the laborers had dug it out and leveled, the next crew was the pouring crew, next was us. We worked with trowels, 12-inch trowels and 18-inch trowels. I made $1.75 an hour, six days a week, eight hours.

I lived in the barracks, they was segregated, blacks from whites. There were quite a few blacks working out there, laborers, lots of them in the con­crete department, and quite a few in the mess halls, cooks and waitresses. The barracks was kinda exciting. I didn't drink. My roommate drank, and he gambled. I was disturbed all through the night.

And, every weekend, there was somebody coming through with goods, through the barracks, you understand that? Prostitutes. They would start at the head of the barracks, put a girl in a room. They would come through and ask, room by room if we was interested. They got $10. Since we worked six days, usually they come through on Sundays.

There weren't no restriction on gambling. Shooting craps was the main thing. Professionals ran the games. I imagine they had card games too, but they was kinda private. With craps, anyone could come in. My roommate would run a game some night, and I would go somewhere else.

I didn't run into much racism at Hanford. Everybody was working to­gether, and everybody was eating together at the mess halls. White and colored could go in together and eat. I didn't go to the beer halls, I didn't drink beer, so I didn't have no experience with that.

Everybody played baseball together, the teams was black and white. I played baseball, there was pretty good ball players from all over the country. Like on Memorial Day some big team from back East would come out and play the best Hanford players. The professionals usually won. I played center field, not regularly. The manager would play maybe me this week and some-body else next week. The catchers and the pitchers and the first baseman and shortstop were regular, all the others traded off.

When my wife come out, she lived in a room in one of the old farm-houses on the reservation. I had saved $700, and we drove around and found a trailer at the trailer camp for $600 and some dollars. We bought it, and moved in. Hanford was a big town, like. Everything was there. Banks, drug stores, grocery stores. We went to the stores and went back to the trailer and my wife cooked. After she started cooking, I hardly ate in the mess halls.

I was a little surprised when the bombs were dropped. When I got back to Alabama, they knew more about Hanford than I did. That's what you all was making, they said, something to kill people. That shocked me.

They laid us off after construction was finished, and give us certificates for tires and stamps for gas so we could go back where we come from. I went back to Alabama. I didn't do anything there because the pay scale was what it was when I left, 35 cents an hour. The same as I was making when I left Mobile. They said I could have my old job back at the creosote plant, but I decided to come back out here, where I was getting $1.75.


Full Transcript:

S. L. Sanger: This is an interview with Luzell Johnson at his residence in Pasco August 6, 1986. Now, you said that you were born in Alabama?

Luzell Johnson: That's right.

Sanger: Mobile.

Johnson: Banksburg yes, about 100 miles out from Mobile. Mobile is the biggest town.

Sanger: Oh, what's the town?

Johnson: Lynchburg.

Sanger: Where's that? Is that up North further?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Then, how old are you?

Johnson: Seventy-five.

Sanger: How did you happen to get our here?

Johnson: Well, it was – they had recruiting.

Sanger: Yes. Where were you working?

Johnson: Before I came out here?

Sanger: Yes.

Johnson: I was working in Mobile.

Sanger: Oh.

Johnson: At a creosote plant.

Sanger: Not a war plant?

Johnson: No, sir.

Sanger: They came around recruiting or what?

Johnson: Yes, I heard about it and so we could get tires and gas to come out here. So.

Sanger: Is that DuPont that was doing that?

Johnson: That's right. Yes, DuPont.

Sanger: Yes. You were what, a little old to be drafted, or what?

Johnson: No, I was drafted.

Sanger: Oh, you were?

Johnson: I mean, I was in 1A.

Sanger: Yes, so you were about ready to go, I suppose.

Johnson: I was ready to go. Yes. The place where I was at—by the time I got to Hanford, I had been classed from 3A to 1A when I heard my call. And so I went to the office and they got me on that job.

Sanger: Oh, I see. You got a deferment with that?

Johnson: Yes that’s what happened, yes.

Sanger: How did you get out here? You drove out or what?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: With a bunch of other guys or what? Then when you got here, you went out what? Where they would go out to the site, and then you got signed up and so on?

Johnson: That's right.

Sanger: Then you went into concrete? Had you done that sort of work before?

Johnson: Not all the time. I knew about it, just. Yes.

Sanger: So then, you lived in the barracks I suppose, right?

Johnson: That's right.

Sanger: And, those were segregated? Do you remember?

Johnson: Well, yes.

Sanger: Yes.

Johnson: It was black from then on. Yes. It was segregated.

Sanger: Were there quite a few black guys working out there?

Johnson: Yes there was.

Sanger: What were they mostly in? What sort of work?

Johnson: Labor.

Sanger: And what concrete, and that sort of thing?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: I know that in the histories I've read, there were barracks or living quarters for, I think that it was almost 3,000 blacks, and I guess that that must have been pretty much full? Did you? When you're working in concrete like you were doing, what exactly were you doing?

Johnson: Well, we were finishing. I was.

Sanger: You mean, smoothing it and all of that?

Johnson: Yes, “cement finisher” was the name of that.

Sanger: What does that exactly mean? What'd you do?

Johnson: Well, after the laborers poured it in, we conditioned it and finished it. Then, after the walls were finished, we plugged the she-bolt holes.

Sanger: Oh. And the guys who were conditioning? What does that mean?

Johnson: That was the pouring crew. You had a crew we called the “pouring crew." They did concrete. Concrete was poured out into the on surface where it's going to be finished – that was called the pouring crew. The first thing that happened is that the laborers would come along and condition it. So they'd dig the dirt out and level it off and everything. The next crew would be the pouring crew. They'd come through. And, the next would be the cement finishers.

Sanger: And then, what'd you do there?

Johnson: I was a cement finisher.

Sanger: Yes. What kind of tools would you have for that?

Johnson: Trowel, margins trowel. Yes, twelve-inch trowel and an eighteen-inch trowel.

Sanger: Was that more money?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: How much did you make? Do you remember?

Johnson: Well it was $1.75.

Sanger: $1.75?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Do you remember how much? You worked quite a bit of overtime, I suppose?

Johnson: No.

Sanger: Not much?

Johnson: No overtime.

Sanger: No?

Johnson: Because we had a shift we'd go 7:00 to 3:30 or either 4:30, just eight hours.

Sanger: Five days or was it six days?

Johnson: Six days.

Sanger: Six days a week. When did you get out there originally?

Johnson: It was in the spring of '44.

Sanger: Do you know which? Where'd you work first, which area?

Johnson: 100-F.

Sanger: 100-F?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: What shape was that in when you got there? Had they just started it?

Johnson: It was pretty well—some of the construction and the brick work was already done.

Sanger: Yes.

Johnson: They were just pouring the floors and [00:06:00] different places around.

Sanger: Yes. Were you working in the reactor area or this outlying building?

Johnson: It was one of the reactor buildings we were working on.

Sanger: Yes. And then, how long did you stay out in the construction during that time? Until '45, or what?

Johnson: Yes. I stayed out there until just before D-Day.

Sanger: Yes.

Johnson: They laid us off and gave us stamps for tires and stamps for gas for us to go back to where we came from.

Sanger: Oh, and then you did that?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Where'd you go then?

Johnson: Alabama.

Sanger: So, that would've been what? Just after the end of the war or just before?

Johnson: Yes. Just before the war won you got laid off. But when I got down there, was V-Day, declared V-Day, so those stamps and things were no good after that.

Sanger: Oh, is that right? Well, what'd you do when you went back to Alabama then?

Johnson: I didn't do anything because the [wage] scales were still what they were when I left there.

Sanger: You mean pay?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Not very good?

Johnson: No, $.35 an hour. And then after I got back there, it was the same thing. It was just the same, so I decided I'd come back out here. So I come.

Sanger: Oh, so you were making $1.75 out here compared to $.35 in Alabama? As far as a black man working out here, was it better than back there as far as conditions and treatment and all of that was concerned?

Johnson: I wouldn't say that the conditions were any better actually because I thought it was a little different when we were out in the area. But after I came back, I went to working with cement finishers out here and I found out that it was, if anything, it was worse because anywhere a job was at back there we all could work together. We worked together. Of course we worked together after I came back, and I didn't see anybody. I guess what I'm trying to say is we working up here on this ditch line in Pasco. And after we got through this ditch line we [inaudible]. It was just one black man in the group. Every place that we went in they would refuse to serve me.

Sanger: You mean like a café or something.

Johnson: I figured that all of that was over with.

Sanger: That would've been when, '46 or something or later?

Johnson: Yes 1946.

Sanger: Yes.

Johnson: But I had good cooperation with the fellow who I was working for. We'd go in, and they'd say they couldn't serve [00:09:00] me. They'd say that I'm sorry. I can't serve him. All of us would get up and walk out.

Sanger: The white guys? You mean, the other workers?

Johnson: The white workers.

Sanger: Who you were working with?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: So then, what would happen?

Johnson: Well, I guess. The word got around. By the time we got to the next place, they probably had called and told them what these fellows were doing and started serving them.

Sanger: Oh. What in the South, though, I mean all of the black guys would tend to work together, huh? So, you'd go to places like for lunch or something where it was—

Johnson: Well, you know that we couldn't go any white places.

Sanger: Yes, but here it was more uncertainty.

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: What about during the war when you were out at Hanford? Did you run into much racism there?

Johnson: No, because everybody was working together and everybody was eating together. We had this mess hall called mess hall five, mess hall one and number two. The white and colored would go in there together and eat.

Sanger: Did they?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: So the only real kind of separation was in the barracks, huh?

Johnson: Yes, they had them separated.

Sanger: So then as far as what? Did you go in the rec halls or the beer halls at all?

Johnson: No. I didn't go to the beer hall. I didn't drink beer. So, I did not have experience on that.

Sanger: Yes. Recreation, what about that? Like baseball and so on, was that integrated?

Johnson: Yes. Everybody would play together. The teams were black and white.

Sanger: Did you take part in any of that?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: What, baseball?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: The concrete people had their own team or what?

Johnson: Well, it was a mixed team, the laborers and all the other folks. There were pretty good ball players from all over the country there and when they were working out, the best ones, they would get them. Some big team from back East would come out and play.

Sanger: Oh, is that right?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Who would usually win?

Johnson: The professionals.

Sanger: Which team did you play for?

Johnson: I played for the Hanford team.

Sanger: What'd you play?

Johnson: Centerfield.

Sanger: You mean, regularly?

Johnson: Not regularly. There were too many. The manager, he would play maybe me this week and maybe somebody else. The catchers and the pitchers and the first baseman, they were regular.

Sanger: Oh, I see. How old were you when you were out there during the war?

Johnson: Well, I must've been about twenty-seven, something like that.

Sanger: One of the Dupont people said that one of the baseball teams out there, I think that it was the Riggers, they were constantly losing. And so, the next time they went around to recruit some people all they recruited were Civic-Coast League players. And, they came back and they went right up to the top of the standings. Had you played quite a bit of baseball before?

Johnson: No, nothing but sandlots. No. There was none.

Sanger: Did you ever go back to Hanford to work after that?

Johnson: Yes. I went back as a bricklayer.

Sanger: Oh. That during the other construction period after the war?

Johnson: After the war.

Sanger: Where did you work?

Johnson: 100-N. That's the biggest job I worked on, 100-N out there and also the 300-Area, I'd worked quite a few jobs there.

Sanger: Oh, did you?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Well, did you retire from out there?

Johnson: No, I retired from The Bricklayers' Union.

Sanger: So, you got into bricklaying later. And then, got in the union and then worked around other various jobs?

Johnson: I had a cement-finishing card from Alabama. The cement-finishing in Alabama had the same local as The Bricklayers' Union, so I didn't have any problem getting into the Bricklayers’ Union. All that I had to do is have my book paid up on Dothan, Alabama. That's where the union is. You have to break into the union here, and they accepted. But, I didn't have the experience of bricklaying like I should. So, I had to get worked up on that, and get into. But, that's what I retired from.

Sanger: Once you came back in '46, you stayed here then?

Johnson: I came back in '45.

Sanger: Oh, in '45, you came back.

Johnson: After V-Day, and I went to the plant where they told I could have my job back.

Sanger: That creosote plant?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: In Mobile?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: You had found out you were going to make $.35 an hour?

Johnson: My wife wasn’t going to like it back there either, she thought she was going to like it back there. When we went, we thought that we were going to like it, but things were. The money was the main thing.

Sanger: Yes, that's ridiculous isn't it?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: What were you making when you came back then?

Johnson: I was making $1.75. But after I got into the Bricklayers, it was a little more.

Sanger: Now you lived in the barracks, I suppose, during the war?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: What was that like?

Johnson: Well it was all kind of exciting. I was living in the barracks, and I didn't drink. My room buddy drank and he gambled. And that would disturb me all through the night and stuff like that.

Sanger: Yes, I mean, noise and carousing and so on?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Yes, go ahead.

Johnson: Every weekend there would be somebody coming through with girls. They would come up through the barracks. Well, you understand that I guess.

Sanger: With what?

Johnson: Prostitutes.

Sanger: Oh, they did? How did they handle that? They just came through or what?

Johnson: They would start at the head of the barracks, they'd put the girls in there. I don't know what happened to the men, but they would come through when no one asked them to.

Sanger: Oh, is that right?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: So, they just bring the women kind of through room-by-room or they'd ask if you were interested.

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Oh. I never heard that. How much did they get, do you know?

Johnson: Ten dollars.

Sanger: Oh? Was that every what? Once a week?

Johnson: Yes, mostly weekends.

Sanger: Weekends.

Johnson: We'd be working six days and all. You'd be in the barracks. They'd usually come through weekends like Sunday.

Sanger: Would they ever get in trouble for doing that? Do you know?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: It was kind of, I suppose, sort of under the table?

Johnson: Yes. It was.

Sanger: Yes. Did that happen in the white barracks too, do you know?

Johnson: I don't know.

Sanger: What about gambling?

Johnson: There was no restriction on gambling. Well, the barracks would be in a line and there was a whole bunch of them on this line, you know, and a whole bunch on another one. There'd be gambling in any of them.

Sanger: Oh, what did they do usually?

Johnson: Shoot craps.

Sanger: Yes, I've heard there were a certain number of professionals involved in that.

Johnson: Yes. They would keep running the games.

Sanger: Mostly craps, though?

Johnson: Yes. I've never seen anything else but that. I imagine that they had card games too, but they were private also. You know craps, anybody could come in.

Sanger: Where would they do it, just in one particular room?

Johnson: Yes. Just like, if my buddy wanted to have a crap game, I'd go somewhere else. He'd run a game that night.

Sanger: Oh, I see. What did you do for recreation beside baseball?

Johnson: Well, we'd go out to different outings and things.

Sanger: Did you get off the reservation very often?

Johnson: No. I would come to Pasco every once and a while. I would see the reaction and right back over there was a concentration camp.

Sanger: Oh, was there?

Johnson: And, the concentration camp is a trailer camp across up A Street. This one guy, I remember having a trailer and some girls in that trailer. Those concentration people would be lined up. They'd be going into that trailer.

Sanger: Oh, they would? What were they, from Germany or what?

Johnson: No. I don't know where they were from. I thought that they looked kind of like Chinamen.

Sanger: Oh, maybe they were Japanese. Do you suppose?

Johnson: I wouldn't say it because I think they were mostly fellows who were picked up around in here.

Sanger: Oh, you mean like the Japanese.

Johnson: Comprehensive objection they called it.

Sanger: So, you would have stayed out there until what, about the middle of '45? That's when you went back to Alabama?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: And, stayed what, just a few months, or not even that long?

Johnson: I wouldn't say I was there a month. It was May when we got back there. It was still was May, I believe.

Sanger: Yes, VE Day?

Johnson: Yes. By the time I got there, I was there one day and I was in this tavern. I didn't have quite enough. I had delayed it and it was going to be mine when I got there when I was coming back. But, I didn't have enough tickets and so I made arrangements to buy some tickets from this tavern owner. The next day declared V-Day. I didn't buy them tickets. I was paying $1 a piece for these tickets.

Sanger: And then the war was over? That's where you were when the bombs were dropped, the atomic bomb?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Were you surprised about Hanford's connection with that or not?

Johnson: I really was surprised. I didn’t think I had nothing to do with that at all. All of that was kept from us.

Sanger: What did you think? What did you and the other guys with whom you were working think they were doing out there?

Johnson: We didn't know.

Sanger: No idea?

Johnson: No idea.

Sanger: Yes.

Johnson: No idea. All of that was surprising when we found out that because, in the first place, the construction workers didn't ever get a chance to go back in those plants after they finished them. Every once in a while we'd go back to repair something. We’d have to put on them shoes, and coveralls and things. But, I didn't know what all of that was about.

Sanger: Yes. Hardly anybody did. I think.

Johnson: No. I didn't know what all of that was about. It was really surprising to me. When I got back to Alabama, people there knew more about what was happening out in [00:21:00] Hanford than I did, and I was working there.

Sanger: Oh, they did? How did they find out? In the newspapers or what?

Johnson: I don't know.

Sanger: What did you think of it when they dropped the bombs?

Johnson: It just surprised me. Someone said, “That's what you were all making”—we killed people.

Sanger: Yes?

Johnson: That really shocked me!

Sanger: Well, they said that that shortened the war, so probably worth it. Now, were you married when you were out there?

Johnson: Yes, I was.

Sanger: What your wife lived in the women's' barracks or what?

Johnson: No. She didn't come out until later.

Sanger: Oh, she didn't? She stayed back in Alabama?

Johnson: And when she came out, I rented a room. There was one big house on the Hanford reservation, and I rented a room from them.

Sanger: One of the old farm houses or what?

Johnson: Yes. And, there's a long story there. I had bought her a bracelet. The lady who rented the place, the bracelet got missed. She got unhappy. And so, I had and saved about $700 when she came out. But, she couldn’t' stay there anymore, she said.

Sanger: Because the bracelet got stolen?

Johnson: Yes. And, we went out that Sunday evening, drove around through the trailer camp. We found a trailer for 600 and something dollars.

Sanger: To buy it?

Johnson: Yes. I bought that trailer and moved in the trailer.

Sanger: Oh, then you moved in that?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: But, that was in the big trailer. That was on the site in the trailer camp?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: What was that like?

Johnson: That was just a whole bunch of trailers kind of like trailer camps now. Hanford is just a big town like anything. There are banks and drug stores and everything. Folks are doing the same thing. We'd go to the store and go back to the trailer. My wife would cook. After that, I hardly ate in the barracks anymore.

Sanger: Oh, you didn't. Was that segregated in the trailer camp or not?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Were there a number of blacks living there?

Johnson: Yes, but they were in one spot. The trailer camp was in one spot.

Sanger: I talked to a lady last night who lived out there for about ten months. She said that she really liked it. It was quiet. Everything was well run and orderly.

Johnson: Well, I think that the trailer camp was. But, you found everything in those barracks.

Sanger: I'll bet, yes. Well, you know. A bunch of single men with quite a bit of money living together out in the middle of nowhere, I suppose that it did make it exciting. What did you have to pay? Do you remember, for the trailer? The park, where you parked? Did you have to pay something for that?

Johnson: No we didn't have to pay anything for the trailer park. That was set up there by the government for the workers.

Sanger: How was the food in the mess halls usually?

Johnson: It was pretty good food. I kind of enjoyed the food until my wife came.

Sanger: Yes. It was better I suppose. Were there also a lot of blacks working in the food service, cooks and that sort of thing?

Johnson: Yes. Some spots had lots of blacks. It seemed like it was more black waitresses and people working in the mess hall than there was white.

Sanger: I guess the company came from Chicago, the one that ran the food end of it, the Olympic Commissaries.

Johnson: Yes, they did. And, the black women—after I was fired—was there a long time after I moved away from there. I found out different places they came from, but they were recruited from St. Louis.

Sanger: Oh, were they?

Johnson: Yes, and everybody said they were from St. Louis, and it seemed like St. Louis had a record of people working in places like that.

Sanger: Are any of those women still around here?

Johnson: Yes, [there is] one who I can remember, Christine Guy. She worked there. Kisiola James worked there too.

Sanger: Yes, I talked to a couple of women who live in Yakima or one, I guess, who was in the mess hall. It must have been quite a place to work?

Johnson: Yes.

Sanger: Let me see if I've got anything else here. I don't want to take too much of your time. So, you probably would've been out there, during the war for what, about a year? Or it would be from you say, spring of '44 until about a little more than a year maybe. If you went back there in May, I guess, that'd make it maybe fourteen months or so. Did you always live over here then after the war was over in Pasco?

Johnson: Yes, I lived in Pasco.