Interview with Jack Armstrong
Civil defense drills
An interview conducted as part of the Hanford Oral History Project. The Hanford Oral History Project was sponsored by Mission Support Alliance on behalf of the United States Department of Energy.
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: Are you ready?
Tom Hungate: Yeah.
Franklin: Okay. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Jack Armstrong on May 30, 2017. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I’ll be talking with Jack about his experiences working on the Hanford Site. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?
Jack Armstrong: My real name?
Armstrong: Okay. John Armstrong. J-O-H-N, A-R-M-S-T-R-O-N-G.
Franklin: Great. But you prefer—
Franklin: You usually go by Jack.
Franklin: And so Jack, where and when were you born?
Armstrong: February 25, 1942.
Armstrong: In Ilion, New York.
Franklin: Ilion. Is that in Upstate?
Armstrong: I believe it is. I’m not real familiar with it. I was two years old when we left there.
Franklin: Sure. So tell me how and why you came to the area.
Armstrong: Well, my dad came here in ’44. We came in to Richland, and we rented part of a B house down on Douglas in Richland. Then later on, he got offered an H house, which is located at 407 Delafield in Richland. We lived there until they passed away, and then we sold the house. But then of course I had a brother which was a machinist out at 272-W in West Area. And my two sisters, one’s in Arizona and one’s in North or South Dakota. And I’m here.
Franklin: Okay. And so why did your father come to the area?
Armstrong: He was working for Remington Arms back there, and he heard there was some jobs out here, and he moved here and got on. He actually retired at PUREX where they got the little problem there. But I didn’t know anything about it or anything like that. He never talked about it, like a lot of them didn’t.
Franklin: Even after the war?
Armstrong: Yeah, it was just, he had a job. Just like when I got on out there, I just took whatever I could get, which was in the mailroom and the carpool out at 100-N in ’63. I saw Kennedy fly in to break ground. That was quite an experience. And then, over the course of years that I worked out there for 39 years, I held about seven different jobs, because I got bored where I was at. I did road crew, I did bus driving, storage delivery. I just had the best of it all, as far as I was concerned.
Franklin: Right on. So no idea of what your dad did?
Franklin: Do you know what he did at Remington?
Armstrong: I have no idea.
Franklin: Okay. Sounds like maybe something with machining maybe, because he worked for a gun—
Armstrong: I don’t know. All I really know is that at PUREX he was mixing some chemicals and he was pushing some levers or something like that, and he was mixing some chemicals to do something. I didn’t understand any of it.
Franklin: Sure. How long did your father work out at Hanford for?
Armstrong: Oh, I have no idea. He’s been gone for quite a few years.
Franklin: But it was well into the Cold War, though. Because PUREX didn’t—I believe PUREX came around in the early ‘50s, and so—
Franklin: So, tell me about, what were your first impressions of—I know you would’ve been very young, but what were your first impressions of Richland and the Alphabet Houses and kind of the unique community here?
Armstrong: Well, there was a lot of the barracks. A lot of the barracks that people would—and in fact, my dad was telling me about out at Hanford where they had confiscated the property out there and all that. It was just so much going on. In fact, you look at Richland today to what it was before, and you wouldn’t even recognize it. There’s a lot of history that the older people still hang on to. The 703 Building down behind the Federal Building, I mean, that all just engulfed that whole area, and it just changed so much. How many times has the post office moved from where it was, and stuff like that. That’s one of the things that I remember, right, I mean, every time I come into Richland, something’s changed.
But it’s been interesting, the growth. I don’t know, I get a lot of questions about that. But I moved to Kennewick and I’m glad I’m there. But I had to drive al the way from up near the Home Depot all the way out—and lucky I didn’t have to drive all the way out to the Area like some of the people did. I think this bus service that they got rid of might have been costly to them, but the thing is, it sure saved people a lot of fuel, a lot of—I mean, we were busy just keeping the roads clear when it was the winter time. And trying to get people to work and stuff like that. But the buses took a lot of that away so that it was easier for people to get on a bus and go off to work.
Franklin: Right, and there just wouldn’t be that Hanford traffic—
Armstrong: Right, right.
Franklin: Yeah, if the Hanford bus service was still around.
Armstrong: Yeah, yeah. So it really, I mean—and then, of course, along came the hours that was limited on drivers to drive. So we couldn’t do any of that. We had to go home, take a rest for six hours or eight hours or whatever, and then come back. I gave up my CDL when I retired. I didn’t need it anymore.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Armstrong: But I was one of the first ones that ever got it. And I was proud of that.
Franklin: Oh, that’s great. And so how long did you—do you remember when you moved into the H house?
Armstrong: Oh, gosh. I was so young.
Armstrong: I don’t remember.
Franklin: What schools did you go to?
Armstrong: I went to Lewis and Clark, which, none of it’s there. And there used to be, right there on Fitch, when you run Fitch right into the school ground, there was a building there, and I can’t remember what it was. It’ll probably come to me later, but that was right there at the end. Collum was the one that T’ed right there. And I’d walk over to the school and go to school. Then I went to Carmichael, and I went to Col High and graduated in 1960.
Franklin: Okay. Do you remember anything about when Richland privatized? Did your parents purchase the home that you were living in, the H house?
Armstrong: Yeah, we did. Yeah. And we dug the basement out and added to the basement and all that, compared to what—most of all the houses, the B houses and the A houses and all that had part of a basement that was still dirt or sand or whatever you wanted to call it.
Armstrong: But, yeah, a lot of good memories.
Franklin: Yeah, well, can you share a couple with me?
Armstrong: Well, we just basically—in fact, I still have association/contact with some of the people that lived in the neighborhood and have gone over and helped them out and do different things, repair things for them and stuff like that. But I get over to the neighborhood. My brother built the carport on the side of the H house for my dad for the car. And it’s still standing, and it’s doing great. But life goes on and everything changes.
Armstrong: But other than that, we used to be able to walk over—well, over Wellsian Way there used to be a pond there that they used to stock fish with. And we used to walk over from the house and fish in there every year. And then they—it was a kids’ fishing pond. And they turned around and covered that all up and put businesses in there. And so on like that. A lot of things have changed that I think they lost their hand on it, because it would’ve been something that the kids today would’ve had something to do. And so—
Franklin: Do you remember much about the incorporation, or kind of the general attitude of the town, how people felt about the government kind of getting out of the housing business?
Armstrong: I don’t really know too much about that. I know that I didn’t even consider buying a house in Richland. My first marriage, we bought a house in Richland, and then when we divorced, I went, moved over to Kennewick. That worked better for me. But I still know a lot of the streets and which way to go and all that stuff.
Franklin: Right. Do you remember—do you have any memories of doing civil defense drills when you were in—
Armstrong: In school, we were, in Lewis and Clark, we’d always go in and line up in the hall and lie down and put your hands like over your face and all that stuff. Yeah, that was interesting. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Because you would’ve been in school, then, really during that high point, the real high point of tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Was that ever talked about often? And was it still—how much did you know about what went on at Hanford at that time?
Armstrong: I had no idea.
Franklin: No idea?
Armstrong: I had no idea. But I know that I was working at Safeway, that I was a carryout—
Franklin: This was during when?
Armstrong: This was when I had graduated from high school.
Franklin: Okay, so in the early ‘60s?
Armstrong: Yeah, and I went and I went into the Navy and went in—I was a reservist for six years and two of it was active. Wouldn’t ya know I get stuck in Hawai’i at Fort Island. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Fort Island.
Armstrong: Yeah, I know. So I was there, and my brother got brother duty and came on the ship that I was on for a while. But I came back and I got on at Safeway and was still a carryout. Then, somebody said, well, you ought to apply out at Hanford. Just get anything you want, just to get in. So anyway, just happened to be lucky that the gal I was married to, she worked at Fashion Cleaners over in Kennewick. This guy that interviewed me took his suits in there. So anyway, he went and told her before—after I got the interview done and everything. And he said, well, he’d call me tomorrow or the next day. So anyway he goes by the Fashion Cleaners, which I don’t even know if it’s still there, but he said, well, he’s got the job. So I got that, and once I got in the door, I had different things that I was able to get into.
Franklin: Right. And so what was your first job out on Site?
Armstrong: That was mailroom and the carpool. I took care of lubing the vehicles to the garage and stuff like that, and also delivering the mail to 105, 1100 Building, let’s see, I can’t remember the other ones. But there’s numerous buildings there that I would carry mail to, and I had that responsibility. I had a clearance where I could have people sign for things that they were mailing from one place to another, and I would make sure whether they were Secret or whatever, and I would deliver them. I had no idea what was in there, didn’t care, just delivered it.
And then there was a guy that they were going to be laying off, and this guy was a control room controller. He couldn’t do it down in the Federal Building in the mailroom, so he wanted to switch with me so that I could do the mail down there, and he could possibly get—And then everything fell apart for him, but I walked right into it, because I got the job downtown and then I put in for a lube and tire job. Yeah, it was a lube and tire job out, there at 1170 Building. And I drove bus for five or six years and totally loved it. It was a ball.
Franklin: What did you love about driving bus?
Armstrong: What did I like?
Franklin: Yeah, what did you love about it?
Armstrong: Well, you got to know the people. It was just a lot of fun. I got rotated around the areas, so I would be able to—I had to know all the routes. In fact, the thing is is what a lot of people don’t realize is that all those bus drivers had to memorize the routes in town. Richland was the only one that would take the routes through the town. So, it took a while to know them forward and backwards. If somebody changed the color of their house or something like that, you had to make sure you knew that house was changed colors so you didn’t want to make a wrong turn.
Plus, then you had the routes out in the areas, which you had to run. They had it set it up to where when you get to the main gate, one goes this way, and one goes this way, and they crisscross and then they meet up at the front of the Area. Some of those drivers get out of some of those buses leaving there and get back in the bus and go back to town. Then they’d be off for four hours during the day and then be on in the afternoon to go back up to pick up their bus and bring the people in. Worked real good and I really liked it a lot. Then I turned around and put in for the road crew. And I did that for five or six years, totally loved that.
Franklin: Describe road crew to me, what kind of activities—
Armstrong: Okay. You pump septic tanks out there.
Armstrong: It’s not the best job in the world, but somebody’s got to do it. Then, we patched sidewalks, roads, small things that we did. Sprayed weeds out there. Since then, they’ve turned around and put it in to where they have a little more advanced equipment to do that. Believe it or not, we were out there with an old tractor on the front of a tank, and there was somebody on the back with a hand wand, and somebody was driving the tractor, whether it was me or somebody else. We’d drive through and spot-spray or whatever we were doing. Since then, they’ve actually went and put helicopters or whatever out there, and they spray and do so much quicker job and better job than what we can do. But we pretty well did it all.
Especially when wintertime came, we had some salt mixed in with the sand, so that it wouldn’t freeze. But the thing is that a lot of people didn’t understand—and I learned a lot from this guy from Idaho, he was my boss for a while, and he said that actually, he said, the salt only works down to a certain degree, and after that it’s no good. And then they had dry pavement blades, which they finally eventually got away from. But they were, I thought, a lot more cost effective, because you didn’t have the shoes down there that would wear out. But they changed—with everybody they switch out with managers and stuff like that, everybody’s got a different idea. But we would—we’d be out there all night, trying to keep people to where they could be safe going out to work.
There was one night that I was called out there and it was just below the east hill. We had heard that there was a gal that was coming from the power plant there at West Area. We all knew her. She was coming down the road and slid off the highway. Anyway, I was the only one out there, and I was going down the road, and I thought, well, I’ll stop and see if I could help her. Well, I put on the brakes and I didn’t stop. I mean, I had a whole load and everything on, and I was just sliding down the highway. I got out and had to hang on to the dump truck because it was so slick out there. So I finally figured out that that’s what was going on, so I started sanding there and that helped.
And there was another time that a lot of people were having—they called it the first railroad crossing past 300 Area, and we were told that there was people having a heck of a time making it out of that little hill. So anyway, I whipped around and started spraying the sand right down in front of them, and they just all started moving. Made me feel really good, like I did something right, you know? It’s always nice that you get appreciation from people like that.
But it just gave you so much enjoyment, doing a lot of that stuff. Some people out there had a lot of that with some of the jobs they did. That’s one that I really liked. But I’d just get bored after a while and decide to jump into something. I got out of the road crew and ended up going into the warehouse that all the main stuff came in there and they got sorted by the storekeepers and stuff like that, and then it would be put—we’d put it on our truck. We’d have 28-foot trailers with side racks that would lift off, and we’d turn around and deliver it to the different places that we’d go to. I was delivering to 200 West for about, I think it was about six years—16 years. 16 years, I did that.
Franklin: Oh, wow. And that’s where you got your CDL?
Armstrong: I actually had to get it—I think that’s where I got it from, yeah.
Franklin: How was that? How was the warehouse work?
Armstrong: It was okay. We would load up—well, they came up with the idea that they all needed water out there in the Project. I never agreed with that. But they would say that some of the pipes were rusty and all this kind of stuff. And they’ve got all kinds of filter plants out there and all this. We took a tour, the wife and I, and the guy went by with our bus, and he was saying, well, they’re building a filtration water plant here. I says, oh, is that for the water, so you don’t have to buy bottled water? And he says, no, it’s for something else. And I thought—there was one trailer that specifically started that, years ago. The big 5-gallon—and they’re heavy. The thing is you’d take a pallet or two out to somewhere and deliver it to them. Well, people were having to lift them and put them on top of their little cooler things. But it gave us a job.
We did a lot of janitorial supplies out there in the Area. Paper. You name it. I had a combination of steel and some of the paper goods and stuff for different trailers and stuff like that. I enjoyed the big part of that. I had a lot of people that, when I was gone, they were glad I got back. There’s several drivers that had that same situation. When I retired—there’s a lot of people that still call me. And say, you know how this is, you know how that is. And I say, yeah, but I can’t help that; I’m retired. [LAUGHTER] But I tried to make friends with people that I worked with and stuff like that. I enjoyed most of it, I really did. But I’m finally got it through my head that 39 years was enough and that was it.
Franklin: Okay. Yeah. How did—did working out there change when Hanford stopped production and kind of moved—the Tri-Party Agreement was signed and moved into clean up? Did that affect your job in any significant way?
Armstrong: No, not really. The machine shops were still going out there. We’d haul steel out there. The real—in fact, my brother ended up—he was a machinist and he worked there at 2-West at 272-W. He was given the job to set up in 300 Area that used to have a machine shop down there and set it back up with him and another guy. They did a lot of machine work down there. A lot of it. So it really didn’t change too much. There was always special things that had to be made. And I was amazed—I would go into the shop to make my delivery where he worked, and I was really amazed some of the things they can make. It just took me—I couldn’t believe it. There was different things that he could do that I couldn’t even think of doing. But then, of course, he probably couldn’t jump in the truck and deliver like I do, either.
But the thing is, you see so much that other people do. I would go into PFP, where the Plutonium Finishing Plant was, and they would check me up and down and everything else. And I’d meet the storekeepers that would take the material as I went into the area there. And it was just so much that you had to be an in-between, between the warehouse and the people that you were delivering to. The thing is is I enjoyed that part. I always have enjoyed that part. So it’s just like the buses, the same thing. It was so much fun.
I was glad I got out of it before they shut everything down, because all those drivers that didn’t have seniority went out to the Area. That was extra driving and all that kind of stuff. They took all that away, because they used to be able to get a certain amount of money toward the fuel that they were having to drive out to the area but they took all that away. I can’t remember what they called that, but it was some extra money that they were getting, and then they took it away.
Franklin: For folks that have to drive out there?
Franklin: Like a mileage cost.
Armstrong: Oh, yeah. And the thing is, one time—well, since we all got moved down—I got moved down to the warehouse, the guys out in the Area would need to call some drivers to drive out there and get some of the salt on the sidewalks and stuff like that. They were wanting us to get in our private rig and drive from the warehouse, or from where our house was, all the way out there. And I decided after the first time I went out there, I says, no, I’m not going to accept that. Because if I get stuck out there, they’re not going to pay me anyway, and I’m going to have to pay for a wrecker to get me out. So there was no real consideration, you know, for the person that was going out of their way to do their job. But if they turned around and have a government rig sitting there, and I got in it, I’d get paid. So your private rig, whole different ball game.
Armstrong: I think they’ve taken a lot away from some of the people out there. And the machine shop, I think it’s gone out there. They moved it over to Pasco, and all the guys with it. So there’s a lot of changes. But maybe they didn’t need it, that’s the whole thing. But so many things have changed. The wife and I took a couple of tours out there, and she really enjoyed it, because she’s from the other side of the mountains. So, this was all new for her. Of course, I could explain some things to her, but some things the narrator had to explain because so much of it’s just changed.
Franklin: Which tour did you take?
Armstrong: We took the B tour.
Armstrong: That was the best one I could tell her to do, because you get to see just about everything. In fact, the old bank down there at Hanford, I don’t know if it’s still there or not. I know they fenced it because people were going in there and taking things out of it, I guess, or whatever. But you used to be able to see the deer and the elk and all that stuff. Years ago, there was horses out there. They had it in their mind that they had to get rid of the horses because too many people were going down to the river and watching them. That happened. And that was bad, because I really enjoyed, when I had to run down through there, I could maybe see the horses.
Franklin: Oh, yeah.
Armstrong: But that’s when, even 100-F was even working. I was delivering to that one time. That was a long time ago. Then when they’d come out with saying that there were alligators or something. I think it come out here, about ten, 15 years ago, something like that. And I had no idea there was anything like that. The beagles were there, and, of course, they were down at 300 Area too. But I never knew that much about any of that stuff. I don’t know, I just thought I had a good time when I was there.
Franklin: Oh, great. And so you said you retired after 39 years, so that would be—
Franklin: 2002, okay. So, let me see here. We’ve covered a lot of my questions. Oh, we talked about JFK’s visit. Were you working on site when JFK came to visit the N Reactor?
Armstrong: Actually, I was in the audience with everybody.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Armstrong: I was out there at 100-N. Yeah.
Franklin: And what do you remember about that day?
Armstrong: Oh, I remember standing there and watching the helicopter coming across the Columbia River. And you know how you get that feeling, your hair standing up on end? And that’s about the way I felt, because it was so neat. I really liked the guy. It was just a neat experience that I went through.
Armstrong: It was good.
Franklin: Okay. I’m wondering if you could describe the ways in which security or secrecy at Hanford impacted your work in any of your jobs.
Armstrong: It—[SIGH] Well, there was one time that they actually brought the dog in, down there at the warehouse. And they would go through the packages, just walk the dog through there. They started doing that before I left. It was amazing what the dog could do. That’s what sort of blew me away. We had a picnic down near the pumping station there, North Richland there. There was a park down there. They had the dog there. And the guy took the clip from his pistol and stuck it out in the parking lot on top of a wheel. And that dog walked right over there and found it. Never saw him do it or nothing. And I thought, wow, that’s cool. So they were really emphasizing that, that you don’t want to bring anything on there. I asked the guy, I says, well, if I had a pistol in my pickup that I drive to work, would I be in trouble if you found it? And he said, well, it’s on our property, so you’d want not to have that. Well, there’s some people that do that. Anyways, it worked out, I went home that night and made sure I didn’t have anything under my seat. [LAUGHTER] But the thing is, some of the things that the average people don’t know that those dogs can do, and that’s what they relied on.
There was one incident when I was driving out to 100-N, there was a guy named Cotton, he was a patrolman. He was charged with letting a van come through the barricade. Because there’s a lot of vehicles in the morning going through there. So anyway, I went from 100-N over to 100-D and I noticed this van sitting off to the side of the road, like, there’s people over there trying to tie something down. And I went over to D and did something, came back, went to 100-N, went in and told the patrolman I saw a van sitting over there with some people tying something down to the roof. I said, they don’t look like they belonged here. So anyway, gave him my name and everything.
Well, then I got a phone call. They charged their own patrolman with letting them through. They had no proof of it. It was really sort of funny, and I hope I don’t get in any trouble with this, but it’s a long time ago. But the thing is, I went down to the Federal Building and they had a hearing with Cotton. They had me as a witness. They said, well, which way would you have thought that van would’ve come in, the Yakima Barricade or the Wye Barricade? I says, I have no idea. I said, I don’t know. I know it was aimed towards 100-D, but I don’t know which way they could’ve come in. So anyway, these guys were bringing charges against Cotton and they said, well, you’ve got to say that he was the one that did it. Well, no, I can’t say that.
So anyway, we went to take a break, and those guys that were in the Federal Building, they had their badges like here. Or no, they pulled them out of their pocket and put them on them when they went through the security thing. And I said, why aren’t they wearing them all the time? That’s what we have to do when we’re delivering mail or whatever. And the union person that was defending Cotton said, don’t say anything. We’re doing fine. [LAUGHTER] I says, well, that makes me mad. They have these ideas, but they don’t follow through on them. So—do as I do, not as I say, type-thing. It just gripes me to no end.
But he got his job back. And he thanked me very much for that. He says, you stood up for me. He says, they were going to can me. And he was old enough to retire, but he just didn’t want to retire. So, he’s probably gone now, but I felt good that I was able to help save his job.
Franklin: Any idea what the people in the van were doing? Did that ever come up?
Armstrong: I think they got through and somebody just didn’t do their job. That’s all it was. Plain and simple. Sometimes, they would pull you off to the side and just go through your whole rig. You would never know what was going to happen. It didn’t matter if I went through there two or three times a day. They would still check you out. And that was just their job. If you went out there to Dash-5—sometimes I would have an escort that had to ride with me just to go inside the gate. Probably no further than from here to the parking lot. And then I’d turn around and get it unloaded and then head back to town. But you just never know. And that’s what they have to go for, you know, just to be able to check you, you have no idea they’re going to check you.
Franklin: Sure, I mean, that’s the whole concept behind randomized screening is that it makes everybody want to play by the rules, right? You never know if you’ll be the one who gets checked. So what would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford during the Cold War?
Armstrong: Well, I don’t know. I didn’t get too bad in what I did, but I’ve had a little bit of cancer on my nose and a few things. I’m going down to a Jewish hospital in Denver every two years. I’m beryllium sensitive. That just allows me to be able to go—I pay for it, they reimburse me. So far, I’m in pretty decent health. And I’m 75 years old. I never thought I’d live that long, but you never know. [LAUGHTER]
But, no, it’s a good-paying job. I can’t complain at it. They did some benefits and stuff that they changed and stuff that before I retired, I had 15 weeks of vacation that I was able to stack up. I got up to 20 weeks of severance pay, which made a pretty good little pot when I retired, so that helped me a little bit. And I don’t know if those benefits keep going with some of the people that are working out there now. I know a lot of jobs have went away and stuff like that. I’m just glad I got into it and did what I did and had a good time doing it. Made a lot of friends. So that was pretty good for me as far as I was concerned.
Franklin: Okay. Great, well, thank you so much, Jack. I really appreciate you taking the time to come down and talk to us today.
Armstrong: Glad to.
Franklin: Okay. Awesome.
Armstrong: Thank you.
Franklin: Yeah, thank you.
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PFP (Plutonium Finishing Plant)