The Manhattan Project

Seth Wheatley's Interview

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Seth Wheatley worked on the Beta calutrons at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. He talks about African-American segregation, an often forgotten aspect of life in the city during the project. He discusses worker safety at Y-12 and raising a baby in the secret city of Oak Ridge.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 22, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge

Seth Wheatley: My name is Seth Wheatley, and it’s S-E-T-H W-H-E-A-T-L-E-Y.

Kelly: Okay. Now, can we start with your telling us where you’re from and how you happened to get involved in the Manhattan Project?

Wheatley: Well, I was at Purdue University. I got married in my junior year, and I tried to join the V-12 Navy [College Training] Program in order to try to finish my studies and then to go into the Navy. But, before I was married, I went through the process of joining and found out that I could not get in if I was married. So I had a decision to make and I chose the marriage.

Okay, then, about a year later I graduated, after being interviewed by Eastman Kodak to go to some unknown location to help the war effort. And so I signed up and found out that we would be going to Oak Ridge. We purchased a car for 150 dollars and loaded up what little belongings we had, and after graduation in August of 1943 we traveled to Tennessee.

My wife’s decision was to go with me, even though she was pregnant by three months. And on the way down we came to the beautiful town of Norris, which we called our Shangri-La. And we loved it so well that we were able to find an attic to live in, which had no bathroom or anything like that. But it was a blessing for my wife because she was in a peaceful locale, and the wonderful friends that we made that housed us was a big plus.

So when the time came for delivering our son, I started talking with the housing people because we could no longer live in the attic. So they had the indecision, “Well maybe, maybe not.”

Well, the Friday before she was to come home from the hospital in Knoxville on the following Tuesday, I went into the housing office and told them that, “Well, make up your mind. The ambulance is going to bring the son to your doorsteps on Tuesday morning.” Later that afternoon I had the choice of three houses, so we moved to Oak Ridge. That’s how we came.

Kelly: That’s a great story. So tell me what your assignment was; what did you do here?

Wheatley: I was assigned to be an engineer in the engineering department at Y-12. And I worked in machine design, also with some knowledge of electronics, and so I was privileged to get to work on the Beta calutron and help design that for the Beta production buildings. I count that as one of the highlights of my experience at Y-12, and I put it probably below the friends that I made, and maybe the opportunity to witness for human rights during my stay at Y-12.

Kelly: Did you say you were—your opportunity to witness for human rights in—you know, that would be after war, right? Or what did you mean?

Wheatley: Well, let’s see. What I mean is—by witnessing for human rights is, that I was unused—I was not used to a lot of the—sorry, I’ll start over?

Kelly: Yes.

Wheatley: In Oak Ridge, it was such a cosmopolitan city that there were so many different ideas about living and people and mixing. And we had Sundays without grocery stores opening and no movies, and we had the racial issues at that time. And I guess the one instance I remember so vividly was that, in riding the buses, which were so well provided—we had sold our 150 dollar automobile at that time and were riding buses. 

On the way to Knoxville I happened to get on and sit in the last remaining seat, and a Negro was sitting there halfway back in the bus. And shortly after we started out, the bus driver noted that a black man was not sitting on the back row where he was supposed to be, and he stopped the bus along the side of the road.

And I can still see him getting up and walking back and almost grabbing the guy to make him get back to where he’s supposed to be. And of course I had to get up to let him out so it kind of angered me very much, for my background. And I went back to the back row with him and sat down with him.

That’s just one instance of what I mean.

Kelly: That’s a great story. Do have any other remembrances along those lines? How about Oak Ridge? How did the racial segregation or integration work?

Wheatley: I thought it worked very well in general at—I know of very few instances where there were problems. But of course, I just saw a small part of it.

Kelly: Were there any blacks in the Y-12 area where you worked? Were they—did they have—

Wheatley: Yes, well, there were lots of blacks in the Y-12 area, and I guess the majority of the blacks had labor jobs. And of course they had a segregated hutment area where they lived, which was, I think, unfortunate, but it was just a part of life in this area at the time.

Kelly: Did you ever go to the Alexander Inn and have dessert? I just interviewed this woman whose grandmother was the dessert girl at the Alexander Inn, swore by her grandmother’s desserts.

Wheatley: I knew about the Alexander Inn but I never did go there, I guess because it just wasn’t in our path to do so. We were in a furnished prefab house on East Drive near the radio station, and my wife had quite a rude awakening when she had to move there, because of the problems that she had to face as a new mother.

And she had to wash all of her washing on a washboard in the sink. She had poison ivy all through the backyard where she tried to hang her clothes. She had to go to the grocery store by walking or hitchhiking since we had sold our car, things like that. And so I guess we both, during this period, graduated from the remnants of adolescent into young adulthood.

Kelly: Tell me more about your job. You were an engineer; you were helping design the Beta calutrons. And what did you have to work with? A slide rule? Can you describe how you—what you did every day?

Wheatley: The engineering department is where I started to work, and I worked for a very fine supervisor who had come from Mississippi State University, and he was over about twenty people in our group that was assigned for design work on the Beta project.

At that time it had a lot more than just a calutron to work with—parts of the process, piping. And my job was essentially to design and improve valves, which was a vital part of the process. And then later I was moved with a small group of about twelve people across the street up on the hill in a building, to work on the design of the calutron itself. And I was happy to be selected for that job, because we primarily worked on the collector end of the calutron and designed that portion of it where it collected the uranium isotopes and separated them from each other.

And so we got to build, then to follow up. And my time was spent between the design of it and the building of the prototype. And testing is the next step, and then the production phase, so that pretty well took care of the rest of my time at Y-12.  I left Y-12 after the war ended in February of 1946, when a lot of people were leaving.

When I started work, I was assigned to the engineering building in 9731, I believe. And it was a unique experience because of the size of the drafting room that I worked in. And that was only a part of the building. The metallurgical consultants from the Navy had a portion where they were in an entirely different group that we could go to for assistance on questions about metals and how they could be worked together.

The group I went with was a group of about twenty people in the northern end of the building, I believe. And then there were other groups next to us in the middle of the building and on down to the other end, which probably consisted of—I’m just guessing—200 people or more, which was a fantastic effort that was produced to get things done fast and make them work. 

And when I came in August and the first Alpha building was starting to be built—or being finished—the process wouldn’t work. So everybody then was really pulled off of their—not everybody, but a lot of people—were pulled off of their regular tasks to try to figure out why the production building did not go and would not work.

I did not have as much input into that as one of my carpool members, who later became pretty famous as a scientist, EP Epler, which I know is well-known worldwide. And he helped find out exactly what the problem was in the obstruction of the cooling system, by the iron filings that got into the copper cooling system. But everybody was really concerned in doing what they could from that standpoint.

Kelly: Did you know that they suspected sabotage, that there might have been some sabotage? Was that ever talked about?

Wheatley: Yes, I heard that that was a possibility.

Kelly: Can you repeat—because no one will hear the question. Just say—

Wheatley: Yes. During this effort to get the—for Alpha One building going, there were a lot of ideas of what might have happened. And one of the things we heard, that possibly sabotage was involved, but I never heard definitely that that was true or not.

Kelly: That’s good. I interviewed someone else who then was hired—two other people who were hired as part of the SED [Special Engineer Detachment] to be part of counterintelligence that were placed in the Y-12 plants to keep an eye on—

Wheatley: Oh!

Kelly: So that’s good.

Wheatley: That’s interesting. [Laughter.]

Kelly: Yes. Can you talk about security?

Wheatley: One of the things that was interesting to me was how well security was handled throughout my work. Of course, a lot of people that were hired as guards had to be trained because of the number required.

And I had one personal experience where I was involved with security in a way because we were instructed, in wearing our badges, to put the badge on our collars and clip it on. The metal used in the badges created real dirty spots on the collar so, since all the engineers that were not in the military were instructed to wear white shirts and ties, I just clipped my badge on my tie pin to protect my shirt.

But they—guards had instructions, which they followed very seriously. And one morning as I walked in and showed my badge, he said very abruptly, “Put that up on your collar.”

And of course being a young squirt I said, “Why, what’s wrong with it where it is?”

And the guard pulled out his revolver and stuck it in my face and said, “I said put it on your collar!”

And I said, “Okay!” [Laughter.]

So I mean, that is the way security worked, and after that I was a much better person for it.

But anyway, in general, I knew that there were a lot of people that, unknown to me, were doing work in security. And occasionally we’d see somebody missing from their workplace and never come back. And we’d hear a story about, well, he had done something wrong that had interrupted and disregarded their plans. I believe that. And later I seemed to feel that there were more people than I thought there were in the general populace that were really keeping track on everybody.

Kelly: Did you feel as a scientist, as an engineer, that the compartmentalization was a problem in your work? That this concern with secrecy and keeping everybody slightly in the dark about the project, in whole or in part, was a problem?

Wheatley: When I started work the first week or so, we were given a training up in the training building in the center of Oak Ridge. And during this first week I met one of my real great friends that later became life-long friends. And we discussed privately what was—what they were doing, because I had no idea.

And of course the policy was to only teach people what they needed to know. I think the policy was a good one, but I was fortunate that my friend came from the University of Minnesota and graduated about the same time, and had worked under Professor [Alfred] Nier, who was in on the whole business at Oak Ridge. In fact, his work at the University of Minnesota helped lead to the Y-12 project in the method of separation of isotopes of uranium. And so he confided in me what was going on, so I knew within three months of the time I got here what was going on, but a lot of people never did know, I suppose.

But I think the policy was good. My feeling was it didn’t interfere with progress, the way it was handled.

Kelly: Good. Let’s see. Well, you’re good at funny stories. [Laughter.] Can you think of any more funny stories?

Wheatley: Is it okay to work those in?

Kelly: Absolutely! It’s wonderful. You know, the more you have the better!

Wheatley: Okay, I didn’t know.

Kelly: No, absolutely. It really makes it come to life and it’ll be really helpful to have some funny stories. It’s pretty serious.

Wheatley: You ought to hear the story of my 1937 Ford, the reason I sold it. [Laughter.]

Kelly: Good, yes. Sure.

Wheatley: We lived in Norris. When we lived in Norris at first, as I mentioned—well, we lived there seven months in the attic on Pine Road across from the—David Lilienthal, who was—David was in charge of the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority], and we had good neighbors.

But, with my 150 dollar Ford, I’d had to spend three or four hundred dollars trying to get it—everything fixed so it would be reliable, and I had a carpool for seven months. And, let’s see, we had three other people beside myself.

But this particular—this 1937 Ford, even with new brakes, would go out of adjustment. That particular year was noted for that, and so for three days we would drive with brakes, and the last two days of the week we drove with an emergency brake only because of the adjustments that had to be made. And then on weekends I’d spend a lot of my time getting under and adjusting cables so it would run next week. 

Well, none of my carpool ever left me and I never understood why because of some of the experiences we had, three notable ones. I almost drove a fire truck off the road. The second one was, in the old road going in to Clinton you have to go over a hill down to the center of the city, and every dike we would shift gears into second as we started down the hill, as we came up over the hill.

Well, there was a stoplight at the bottom right where the courthouse is. And one day coming up and automatically shifted into second, but the traffic had backed up clear to the top of the hill and I couldn’t stop. So I had to go into the left lane and pray that no one was going to come up the left lane while we were going down. And it worked out, but things like that you never forget. [Laughter.]

Kelly: Well, how do you feel about, you know—how did you feel when they announced that the war was ended and the atom bombs had been dropped?

Wheatley: The day we learned that the atom bomb had been dropped and the war was over—the second atom bomb had been dropped and the war was over, of course, there was a lot of elation throughout the engineering department, and I suppose all of Y-12 and the world.

But even though we were instructed to come in the next morning and work as usual, I don’t think half of the people came in and I was one of them that didn’t. I went fishing instead and just—it felt like a burden lifted off of your shoulders.

And also I went to the barbershop, and of course the barber had the morning paper. This was after the first one was dropped, that’s when I went to the barbershop. And in the headline it said, “Atomic Bomb”—I can’t remember just what it said. But the barber, of course, didn’t know anything about what was going on and I remember him asking me as I sat in the chair if I knew what an “atomic” was. [Laughter.] I thought that was interesting.

Kelly: “Atomic.” Whose “Atom” is it? That’s great. Good story. Let’s see, how about—how did your wife manage with this little baby and her walk? Can you tell me more about her life?   

Wheatley: Well, my wife really had the job to raise a young baby, and when we moved to Oak Ridge, into the prefab on East Drive, she had to take the role of a—like a pioneer woman, because she had to walk to the grocery store or even hitchhike. Everybody was so friendly. They picked up people to help each other, so that was a big help, but she also had to do the washing with a scrub board and do it in the sink. She had to hang out her clothes that were washed on a line in the back.

The flat-tops in the summer got so hot that the interior of the house was over ninety degrees, and as an engineer I said—I thought of evaporative cooling to help. So I got a step ladder—bought a step ladder, and I started pouring buckets of water on the roof, the flat-top roof, which really helped to cool the house. Well, some of the neighbors saw what I was doing, and pretty soon everybody up and down the street was pouring water on their roofs to keep cool.

So she had to put up with those kinds of living conditions. We were in a lower place, being at the bottom of the hill. When it rained it was—the front yard was mud. We had wooden sidewalks, where rats inhabited underneath the sidewalks. She had few outlets because of being a mother, where a lot of the single women had places to do things together, so she was sort of isolated after being our—in Shangri-La in Norris.

So at the age of two months of our new son, he was not doing well at all. And we went to—we took him to the hospital. He’d been going to an Army doctor where she’d been taking him. Well, the Army doctor that we’d had—I don’t know about others, but he did not know much about babies and it turned out that he was—the baby had severe malnutrition.

And she thought he was being fed but was not being—getting enough to eat, so it ended up that we had to take the baby back to my home—my parents’ home in Indiana. And so she had to—as soon as they got him up there, why, he responded to treatment very rapidly. And so for about a three-month period, why, he had a turnaround in his health and then was able to come back to Oak Ridge.

And as we made friends things improved greatly. I think the salvation for my wife was the great friends we made with our next-door neighbors who had come down from Virginia. He’d worked at an ammunitions plant in southern Virginia and had transferred down. They were about our age and they had a new girl that was just less than a year old, so then my wife had someone to relate to.

One of the interesting stories about these neighbors: he worked in one of the Alpha buildings as an electrician, and one day he was inside the racetrack on a ladder and was working on the electrical system. And some other worker short-circuited the safety feature for preventing the electricity to go into the system where he was working. And 35,000 volts of current, electric current, hit him through his hands, came out his elbows and his chest. He showed us later the big bruises. But of course it knocked him unconscious, and the only thing that saved his life was being on a ladder, I guess, but he was unconscious.

And he found out later that a Secret Service man followed him for thirty days after he got out of the hospital because they didn’t know exactly how he lived and they didn’t know what would happen over the short term from this accident.

It was a very unfortunate accident but he lived to be—many years later, he lived into his seventies and was a friend for life also. But he was very fortunate to be alive after that. And they moved back to Virginia and he went into dairy farming there.

Kelly: Wow, good story. Were there many safety problems like that? I mean, do you recall other incidents where people were in harm’s way?

Wheatley: The question of safety was of importance to all of the supervisory personnel.  The pressure to get everything done so fast, though, probably caused some omissions of things that should have normally been done in the way of safety. But I never—I did not hear of a lot of incidences where there were safety problems that affected people’s lives. I don’t know the statistics; I’m sure there are.

Kelly: What else can you think of? I mean, you’ve got some great—you have some great anecdotes and great stories.

Wheatley: Thank you.

Kelly: You really do. Is there something else that I should try to make sure we record?

Wheatley: Let’s see, can I look at my notes?

Kelly: Absolutely.

Wheatley: Just a moment.

Okay. I mentioned about enjoying my supervisor very much and his direction. He was probably in his mid-20s, or maybe late-20s, and loved to drink Scotch whisky. The city of Oak Ridge was set up so that booze was prohibited, but I’d forgotten that. When we went—when my wife and I took a trip home at Christmas, I remembered how he liked Scotch and I thought, “Well, I’ll just take him a bottle of Scotch.”

So I bought the bottle and we had our infant son with us, who was at that time about nine months old. So, coming back, we got off the train in Clinton, and the horrible thought came to my mind, “Well, I can’t get the Scotch into Oak Ridge.” [Laughter.] And so the only way—we were waiting for the bus to go to Oak Ridge, but like all friendly Oak Ridgers, a fellow said, “Well, I’ve got—I’m going that way; just ride with us.”

So we got in the backseat, my wife and I and the baby, and we rode. And as we come to the gates of Oak Ridge I didn’t know what to do with the bottle of Scotch. So we were instructed to get out of the car and they opened the trunk up to check all of our luggage, and I guess that’s about the only time I remember of doing something that was probably not approved. But what I did was hold the baby in his blanket—it was cold weather—and I put the bottle of Scotch in with the baby.  And they looked—checked the luggage and they didn’t find the bottle of Scotch. [Laughter.] So my boss got his bottle of Scotch.

Kelly: That’s great. That’s terrific.

Wheatley: The only other story is that—I think for people who might not know—this friend that was from Minnesota and another friend, the three of us all liked music. And I played the piano somewhat and so the others—Tolly, the friend from Minnesota, and Nick, from Vanderbilt, the three of us would come out.

My wife and I had bought a piano. The first two pieces of furniture we had was a piano, of all things, because she liked music, and we bought a floor lamp, because the rest of the house was furnished. So our recreation consisted of Tolly and Nick coming out to the house, and the three of us would compose music as a hobby. I would compose the music and they would supply most of the words, which—later, two of our songs we got copyrights on.

And the point I wanted to mention was that they later went on to become the first owners of the Music Box in Oak Ridge. And most people do not know that that was true, because they didn’t have it only a couple of years before they passed it on to Horace [Cerruti] and Bill [Pollock]. 

That’s about all I have here.

Kelly: I’m just curious—did you write any pieces about Oak Ridge?

Wheatley: No, no, we didn’t do that. It was more popular music, well, one of the three knew Dinah Shore, and had become interested in that popular-type music so—[laughter.]

Kelly: Do you have any recordings of it?

Wheatley: Yes. We still have—my wife still has recordings of some of the music that we composed together because, when they started the Music Box, we would go down, then we’d go down to their store. It was in Jackson Square, where it was for many, many years, up until just the last few years.

And we would record there, and at that time, Horace, who later bought into it, was working with them. So we had a lot of fun together that way, and since my wife liked music too, it worked out real well for her, singing and everything, because she had done a lot of singing during her earlier years there.