Interview with Sue Olson
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Douglas O’Reagan: Okay. Well, thanks for being here, first of all. To start off, would you please pronounce and spell your name for us?
Sue Olson: Sue, S-U-E. Olson, O-L-S-O-N.
O’Reagan: Okay, thank you. And I am Douglas O’Reagan. I’m conducting an oral interview here as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. It’s February 5th, 2016. This interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. So just to get us started, would you please tell us something about your life before you came to Hanford? Where you were growing up and so on.
Olson: I was born in Claude, Texas. I graduated from Panhandle High School as valedictorian in my class. I went to Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. Then went to University of Texas in Austin, Texas. I was—[COUGH] Excuse me. I was in college in an accounting class at the University of Texas in Austin when World War II was declared. I heard the President declare World War II. So at the end of that year, I took a civil service test as clerk typist and I started working for US Corps of Engineers. I first worked at Pantex Ordnance Plant in Amarillo, Texas, and I had to transfer to Tyler, Texas to an army replacement training. And then after that, I received a teletype that I was to enter in for Hanford. We had received a teletype from a lady who had transferred up here, and she had said, don’t come here. It’s rattlesnakes, sagebrush, and dust storms. [LAUGHTER] So I transferred to the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. And Manhattan Project had three areas—I worked for the army major who was in charge of one of the areas there. DuPont was the contractor there. And at Oak Ridge, I met Robert Olson, who was with me at DuPont. Before I met him, he worked at the University of Chicago to work on the Manhattan Project—he worked on at the University. And he transferred to Oak Ridge; I met him there. We were married there, and then we transferred to Hanford, with DuPont. We arrived here October 1st, 1944.
O’Reagan: What sort of work did you do at Oak Ridge?
Olson: Well, he and I were at DuPont getting ready to work. The work on the Manhattan Project was to develop the bomb. That was what it was for. And he worked at Oak Ridge.
O’Reagan: Do you know what sort of—was he working in chemicals or physics? Do you know what sort of work he was doing there?
Olson: No, because it was all secret.
O’Reagan: I see. And did you say you were also working there as a clerk?
Olson: I worked as a secretary for the Army Major, who was in charge of the X-10 area in Oak Ridge.
O’Reagan: Okay. When you arrived at Hanford, what sort of work did you undertake here?
Olson: Oh, I signed up to be secretary and DuPont was the contractor here for the first year or so. And they sent me out to 200 West Area to be in the stenographic pool. I was the only secretary there. There were several departments, and all the departments brought their paperwork in to me. [LAUGHTER] And I took dictation for all of them who wanted to write letters of any type. Then they sent another girl out—another secretary out, but she couldn’t take dictation. So I did all of that. There were several departments. I don’t remember the names of all the departments, but it was a major process.
O’Reagan: Was it similar to what you were doing at Oak Ridge, or was it a new kind of work?
Olson: It was the same kind of work, secretarial work.
O’Reagan: Right. What was your impression of the Tri-Cities when you arrived? Was it like you had been warned?
Olson: No. [LAUGHTER] We drove along the highway south of town, and Bob looked over and said, there it is. And we could see a few houses. We went to the hotel to check in at the hotel, and the hotel was called the transient quarters. [LAUGHTER] The hotel in Oak Ridge was called the guest house. We were in the hotel about three days. Then we moved into—at that time the houses were assigned to people. There were only the two of us, and so they moved us into a one-bedroom prefab on Winslow Street.
O’Reagan: In Richland?
Olson: Winslow Street in Richland. And there was one street behind that, and behind that street was desert, all the way out to the river.
O’Reagan: What were your impressions of the house? Did you like the house?
Olson: Well, the house was adequate. It was 600 square feet.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. Had a question and it went right out of my mind. [LAUGHTER] Okay. So could you tell us, what was an average day at your job? You said you took dictation, but what other kinds of work—
Olson: Typing. In 200 West Area in 1944, it was typing. Except for the people who dictated. One man came in one day and he dictated the evacuation process, which took him several hours to do it. And the evacuation process—if it had ever had to happen—the process was that it would be on buses—cattle car buses. [LAUGHTER] The seats were on the sides of the bus, vertically, not horizontally across as they are in most buses. But there was never an evacuation process. There was preparation for it, if it had happened.
O’Reagan: Interesting. I understand the transportation to get to jobs on the Hanford site was difficult. Did you take buses?
Olson: Well, there were buses. There were buses, yes.
O’Reagan: Was that a long commute?
Olson: Yes. I don’t remember the number of miles, but it’s a long commute from Richland into the West area.
O’Reagan: What was your husband working on?
Olson: He worked on—it was a group of scientists that were—13 or 14 or 15, something like that—and they wrote the separations process. Which was part of the process.
O’Reagan: I guess that was probably a different part of the Hanford site from where you were working?
Olson: No, it was in 200 West Area, too. Yes. And it was a group of scientists who had transferred from Oak Ridge along with Bob.
O’Reagan: Right. Could you please describe Hanford as a place to work? It’s a broad question. Let’s see—what were some of the more challenging aspects of your job?
Olson: Well, that I typed for eight hours a day. I typed or took dictation eight hours a day. No coffee breaks, nothing like that, and everything was confidential. Nobody discussed their job with any other person.
O’Reagan: I would guess you would have had to have had pretty high clearance to be taking dictation on all these sensitive matters. What was that process like?
Olson: Well, I worked in Two West and then I transferred to B Plant, and I went to 300 Area. My next job, I worked for Wilfred Johnson when he was assistant general manager. And I worked in the 703 Building. I had Top Secret clearance there. So I had kept the filing cabinet locked. I took dictation from him. The rest of it was the type you’re making phone calls.
O’Reagan: When did you find out about what the goal of the Hanford site was, to make the weapons?
Olson: When the bomb was dropped, I read it in the local paper.
O’Reagan: What was your reaction?
Olson: I was happy. That the US was going to be safe.
O’Reagan: Right. Do you—trying to think how to phrase—is that your impression of that’s when everybody around you found out as well, or was it sort of a general surprise that the—
Olson: Yes. It was a surprise to everybody, I think. That’s my opinion. Except the men like my husband who were working on it.
O’Reagan: Did you continue working at the Hanford site after the war?
Olson: Yes. I worked there for ten years.
O’Reagan: Did your work change substantially once the war was over?
Olson: Well, as I said, I worked as a secretary in 200 West, and then I moved to B Plant. And I worked in B Plant, and then I went to the 300 Area and was a secretary for the head of metallurgy. And then I had the job as—I was then an executive secretary for Wilfred “Bill” Johnson. And I retired after that period.
O’Reagan: Did the workplace environment change in that time? You mentioned there were no breaks at first.
Olson: Change in what way?
O’Reagan: You mentioned it was very focused work during the war, no breaks, really concentrating to get the job done. Did that become more relaxed eventually, or was it still the same pace?
Olson: Not in the jobs I worked on. Everybody was there to work.
Olson: No coffee breaks, nothing like that.
O’Reagan: Interesting. How about—can you tell us something about your life outside of work during the wartime?
Olson: We skied. Bob was from Wisconsin. He was a skier. And I grew up in Panhandle, Texas, and I did not ski. But I took lessons. And we skied on weekends.
O’Reagan: Where would you go?
Olson: We went to the closest one, over by—the closest one, which was south of East Richland. Tollgate. We went to Tollgate and skied there. And then we went up to the Snoqualmie Pass, and we skied there when it had only three rope tows. Before they put in any kind of lifts. It was—and I don’t remember the year for that, but—shortly after we got here, we went to Snoqualmie Pass.
O’Reagan: Did the social environment—did life in Richland change for you outside of work once the war was over?
Olson: Well, there were a few more activities, because while the war was going on, there was nowhere to go. [LAUGHTER] We had a friend from Oak Ridge we played bridge with part of the time, and then we skied weekends.
O’Reagan: Did you feel it was easy to meet new people when you moved here?
Olson: Did I feel--?
O’Reagan: I’ve heard some people say that when they first got here, they had a very easy time meeting people; I’ve heard other people say when they got here, they were so focused on the work, they didn’t get to meet as many people—
Olson: Oh, no, no, because we had friends from Oak Ridge who were transferred who were scientists. And people who were at work in that kind of work. So we visited with them, and they—we all had a little group, all the people that came from Oak Ridge. So we had several friends.
O’Reagan: Let’s see. Could you describe any ways in which security or secrecy at Hanford impacted your work?
Olson: Well, of course. [LAUGHTER] No visiting, no coffee breaks—we worked.
O’Reagan: Did the secrecy continue outside of work? I’ve seen in some communities that people feel that they can’t talk about the work, and that sort of gets—someone last week was describing how she sort of felt she had to be on her guard about speaking about her work. She was afraid of that. Did you feel any sort of sense like that?
Olson: We didn’t discuss—we did not discuss work, because we were busy with whatever we were doing—playing bridge or dancing or skiing. So there was no reason to discuss work.
O’Reagan: Sure. When you retired from being a secretary, you mentioned you eventually got into real estate. Is that right?
O’Reagan: Was that right away, or did you have a [INAUDIBLE]
Olson: No, it was not. My husband died in 1974, and so I was at home. I did volunteer work for 20 years. I had no plans to go back to work, but after his death, I decided to work in real estate.
O’Reagan: Will you tell us about your volunteer work?
Olson: Oh, yes, Kadlec Hospital Auxiliary, and Mid-Columbia Symphony Guild, and Girl Scouts. All types of volunteer work.
O’Reagan: Great. What kinds of things did you do at the hospital?
Olson: Volunteer work. I would go down at 7:00 in the morning, and I answered the phone in one of the departments—I think it was the children’s department, that was part of what I did.
O’Reagan: And when you started getting into real estate, can you tell me about that?
Olson: Yes, yes. I took classes at CBC. I studied hard for it, and I passed the test. I started to work for a company called—let’s see—Sherwood and Roberts. They were a company that had offices in this state and California and some other state. I worked for them four years, and then I transferred to other companies.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. Did that job change over time? I know the communities started expanding during that period—
Olson: Oh, well, yes, there was more work as the company got larger.
O’Reagan: Could you describe any ways in which you think of the Tri-Cities as changing over the first couple of decades you lived here?
Olson: Well, it got larger. Larger, and they built more houses out past Winslow [LAUGHTER] Winslow Street. Well, of course it changed. There were more activities. Everybody was more—and there were people transferring in and out from large companies. There were a lot of people who came here who had worked for other companies that came here. And some had worked for General Electric or whoever the major contractor was.
O’Reagan: Let’s see. Of course, during a lot of this era, the Cold War is going on as well. Did you feel that that was something sort of just off happening in the world, or was that something that you felt impacted your life?
Olson: The Cold War?
O’Reagan: Yeah, of course, there’s sort of this global conflict going on. There’s a lot of still building nuclear weapons, there’s thinking about use of nuclear weapons. Some people have described sort of a fear during that time, and other people have described they were happy—they went about their work and it didn’t bother them.
Olson: No, there was no fear to me personally. I was happy to see that the US was doing a job extremely well. I hoped it would continue to be good.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. Let’s see. This is a general question. How would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford and living in Richland during the period that you lived here?
Olson: I think they should all be very proud of it, because it ended the war.
O’Reagan: Right. Is there anything that you think children growing up today might not know about this period?
Olson: I have no idea whether they know or not.
O’Reagan: Sure. Is there anything you think, beyond—sorry, I have to—trying to think through, just—as people have lived here for some time start thinking back on their lives in the community, how they would like people to think about the history of the local community? I guess you’ve answered that to some degree: we should be proud about the contributions of the time. I guess what I’m trying to get at is—what was different in, say, the ‘60s or the ‘70s, in living in this era than it is today? Anything come to mind?
Olson: I don’t think there was anything different from living in any good community or city.
O’Reagan: One of the local community leaders here—we understand you knew Sam Volpentest—
O’Reagan: --who contributed a lot to the local history. Would you describe your knowledge of his impact, what he was working on when you got to work with him?
Olson: He was a major impact. He saved the Tri-Cities time after time after time. He made contacts in Washington, DC and he kept them. He flew back and forth frequently. Without his perseverance, the Tri-Cities would never have become as good as it had been. He kept sure that Hanford was going, which, at that time, was a main project in the Tri-Cities. And the best one producing.
O’Reagan: I always like to ask—what have I not asked about that I should be asking about? What else should I be asking you about?
Olson: Oh, I don’t know. Nothing else. [LAUGHTER] I think you asked very well, thank you.
O’Reagan: Well, if anything comes to mind, or anything you’d like to expand upon comes to mind, we’d of course love to hear it.
Olson: All right, thank you.
O’Reagan: But otherwise, thanks so much for being here. It’s been very interesting.
Olson: Thank you.
O’Reagan: All right.