The Manhattan Project

Vincent and Clare Whitehead's Interview

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Vincent "Bud" Whitehead met his wife, Clarebel ("like the cow'), in 1944 when they were sergeants in military intelligence. Both were from Portland, Oregon. Bud, a civil engineering graduate, was working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he was drafted in 1942.
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[Interviewed by S. L. Sanger, from Working on the Bomb: An Oral History of WWII Hanford, Portland State University, 1995]

BUD: I was a counter-intelligence agent at Hanford. Everybody was suspi­cious but mostly it was unwarranted. Everybody was spied on. I had my own network worked up, mostly women. They liked to play cops and robbers. Some of them were stenographers, or women who worked at the hotel. If I were curious about somebody at the hotel, I would ask the girl on the desk what she knew.

I never ran across a spy at Hanford. One German showed up. I pitied him. He was a craftsman and we had a tank that had to go up. It was stainless steel, which was like using gold in those days. It was about 80 feet high, and it had to be exactly plumb. They looked all over the United States for someone who could make stainless steel wedges that could make this thing plumb. And the guy turned out to be this German. He went to his work one morning, then he was on a plane and he was at Hanford. He had been in this country long before the war, but he still spoke with an accent. My orders were to see that he wasn't fooled with. I was to shoot anybody who made any motion toward him. I had that damn Tommy gun cocked and ready to go. People thought I was pointing a gun at the German, but actually I was there to pro­tect him. He was a nervous wreck.

CLARE: I went into the Army training center in May, 1943. That was down in Georgia, Fort Oglethorpe. I was in the WAAC (Womens' Army Auxiliary Corps) at the time. After that they sent us to New York. They wanted us in the Manhattan Engineer District. I learned a little bit there, and then they sent three of us to Tennessee. We worked there, at Oak Ridge, in classified files, and at the last of October, they talked about sending some of us to Hanford. I wanted that, because it was close to Portland, my home. They said no. But I wouldn't sign up for the regular Army unless they sent me to Hanford. Guess where I ended up? We were the only WACs at Hanford for a while.

The head of intelligence came to me and said he needed a receptionist and somebody who could type. I was tickled to death. It was a new experi­ence, so I moved to his office at Hanford Camp. I was a secretary for safeguarding military information. After that, I worked at the military intelli­gence office in Richland. I was the first WAC there, and they treated me nice. Bud and I worked in the same office, and that's how we met. I didn't know what he did, because nobody asked anybody what they did.

BUD: I got calls at all times of day and night from informants. I told them they were working for the U.S. government, in a highly-classified job. And not to tell anybody what they did because it might get them killed. I had two old ladies there in their 60s who were especially active.


BUD: They were dears, I'll tell you that, and they gave me some awfully good information. I would just ask them and they would check it out. They knew a lot of people. They lived in a little house just outside the project. They belonged to every knitting society and blanket society. They were busy. If they came across any little thing, they told me. One story they picked up was that we were making rockets, anti-personnel rockets. They told me who had said it. I told my office this person was starting rumors and they took care of it. The guy was young, and unmarried, and he got drafted real quick.

CLARE: When I was in files, I didn't know what was going on. But there was a job in intelligence, where each of us was assigned so many periodicals and newspapers and we had to watch for words. One of the words was "atom."

BUD: That reminds me. I got a lot of information from files. They put me in charge of headquarters, everybody had to take their turn, answering the phones, a 24-hour service. I went through all the files. Of course, they were under lock but I could pick the locks. I found out from reading the files that they didn't fancy me much as an agent. Once, soon after I first hit the project, I was not invited to a party. But I put bugs in the house where the party was and I got some very enlightening information. They all hated the officers in intel­ligence, and they said some very uncomplimentary things about these officers. I got the agents together and I played this thing for them. I was included in every party after that.

CLARE: I didn't know what Bud did. I thought he was the office photogra­pher.

BUD: The regular photographer went to another base, and I had to pick up his job. Being a photographer was part of my cover. I carried a detective special pistol. I would rather have a brick. In my car was a carbine, a Tommy gun and a gas gun. I was an arsenal. I had an intercept car, a Ford, that thing would do 102 miles an hour.

We had a little plane. An artillery spotter plane. The pilot had been in Europe, and he was wounded and lost an eye. I used to fly with him every morning, to check the fence all around. It took about an hour and a half. We were looking for tracks. We never found any.

CLARE: Has anybody ever told you about the milk shakes at White Bluffs? It was just a little drug store, these people were still there and hadn't been moved out. The officer of the day would stop at the WAGS barracks and take two or three of us up there for milk shakes. I have never tasted a better shake.

BUD: We did spot checks on telephone conversations. Not everybody, but there were some trunk lines we listened to. Maybe some colonel's wife talking to another wife. The purpose was to find who was breaking security.

CLARE: I took my turn listening to conversations. The room was right across from the military intelligence office.

BUD: I would record a violation, and the man would be charged or scolded. For instance, there was a code name given to each piece of apparatus, and some of those professors for Christ's sake would just in the clear say the description. We had a mechanical hand that was used to pick up objects in the separation facility. They spent a lot on that, and that damn fool used the name and mentioned delivery dates. We didn't have conversation scramblers in those days.

CLARE: But after the Smythe Report was out, secrecy was out. (Henry DeWolf Smythe, a Princeton physicist, wrote the official government publication on the bomb, and described the project in detail. The book was published in 1945, soon after the war ended.)

BUD: Have you ever tried to get an egg back in a hen?

One thing I recall, before the bombs were dropped. I remember a Du Pont guy got up to give a speech and he said, "Folks, I can finally tell you what we are making here. We are making horses' asses and they go back to Washington, D.C. for final fitting." You could hear a pin drop, and then that whole crowd fell over. Everybody got drunk after the bombs were dropped on Japan. They finally found out what they were making.

CLARE: Do you remember that wild party? That was a shameful affair.