Interview with Monte Stratton
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Stratton_Monte
Camera man: Okay. I say we record.
Robert Bauman: Yep. All right. All right, let's go ahead and get started. Get some of the official stuff out of the way first. My name's Robert Bauman, and I'm conducting an oral history interview with Mr. Monte Stratton. And today's date is July 16 of 2013. Our interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. I’ll be talking with Mr. Stratton about his experiences working at the Hanford site. So first of all, thank you for coming in and letting us talk to you today.
Monte Stratton: Well, first off, you can call me Monte. I like to go by my--
Bauman: Will do.
Bauman: All right. Well, Monte, I wonder if you could start by just telling us how and why you came to the Hanford site and when you came here.
Stratton: Well, going back to the early days of my working career, I was at an ammunition plant in Kings Mills, Ohio. This would have been in 1943. And at that time, the war was in its heyday and actually beginning to wind down to some extent. And I had been given a deferment up to that point, because I was at an ammunition plant. But they needed some personnel here at the Hanford site which was being built, and I was interviewed by the person who eventually became the plant manager to start with. That would have been Walt Simon. They were looking for people that had backgrounds similar to mine. I was an amateur radio operator and had some electronic experience. I'm an electrical engineer by profession, and they needed someone with that background for the instrument field. So as I said, I was interviewed and accepted the offer. I came to the Hanford site in February of 1944, and that's when I got started here at Hanford.
Bauman: And what was your very first impressions of the place when you arrived?
Stratton: A long ways from home. [LAUGHTER] I don't recall any particular impressions. I know that I arrived in the wee hours of the morning, came in by train into Pasco. And were met by plant personnel who escorted me over to Richland, and I was given a room in the—trying to recall what—the hotel that was originally in Richland. And I spent a week there and then I was given a room in the last men's dormitory that was built. This was K8. But my first impressions of this place were so different from the East Coast, where I'd grown up. So it took me a while to get used to it. But I soon learned to survive.
Bauman: And so you stayed—you were living in a dorm, a men's dorm at the time then. Could you describe that, like--
Bauman: --the size of it, or anything along those lines?
Stratton: There were eight men's dorms here in Richland. And there was a two-story building. I don't think any of them are still around, but they used some of them for facilities afterwards. I was on the second floor, and it was--I don't remember too much about any particulars of the dormitory. At this point, I might mention something about the dust storms that were prevalent in those days. They were called termination winds, and I recall one day I was laying across my bed. This was probably a Sunday afternoon, just resting, left the window open, and one of those termination wind dust storms came up. And when I woke up, I was covered with dust. [LAUGHTER] That was one experience that I had in the early days. Another experience that I had while I was there in the dormitory, and this relates to security—in those days security was very prevalent. There were a lot of security agents assigned here as everybody knows. And one afternoon once again I was laying across my bed and I got this strong knock at the door. When I opened the door the person walked right past me and came over to a radio receiver that I had on the table. And this receiver had a send/receive switch on the front. And he says, we have to put a seal on that. This happened to be the receiver that I'd brought out with me. Being an amateur radio operator, I brought my receiver along. We were taken off the air, of course, during the wartime, but I had my receiver just to listen to whatever was of interest. Well, I had a hard time explaining to this security person that this switch on the front of this receiver did not do any transmitting. That's what he wanted to make sure, that there was no transmitting involved. So I opened it up and let him look in and explained as best I could. Actually, the switch only controlled some external device if you wanted to hook it. But I managed to get past that one.
Bauman: And how long did you live in the dorms then?
Stratton: About one year. As I recall, I was in the dormitory for approximately one year. During that period, I met the person that I ended up marrying. And when I married this person, I moved from the dorm into a house that had been assigned us.
Bauman: And where was the house?
Stratton: The house was a duplex, a B-type house located on Judson Avenue in Richland. And we ended up having two children and we moved out of that B house to where we're presently living, which is an H-type house, [INAUDIBLE].
Bauman: And how did you and your wife meet? Was she working there as well?
Stratton: Oh, now you've asked a nice question. [LAUGHTER] It just so happens that I had a crew of people maintaining doing repair work on some of the instrumentation which I was assigned to. We had a shop in Richland, and one of my personnel was this girl that I became acquainted with affectionately and ended up marrying her. She was one of my, actually one of my workers.
Bauman: And where had she come from to work Hanford?
Stratton: She had come from Denver Ordnance Plant in Denver under similar circumstances that I came. At that time—this is a matter of interest—ammunition plants in different parts of the country had stockpiled their ammunition to the point where they were slowing down. A lot of the plants were either closing or slowing their operations. And the girl that I married had been working at one of the ammunition plants, and she was transferred here to the Hanford plant under very similar circumstances that I was.
Bauman: So, let's talk about the work you did then at Hanford when you first arrived. Could you describe the sort of work activities you were involved in?
Stratton: Well, when I first got here, I was assigned to a shop activity in the 300 Area. It was an instrument shop. And they were maintaining instruments that were being used throughout the project. And after that latter part of 1944, I was transferred to a new shop that had just been built in the 700 Area, an instrument shop. And that's where we were maintaining instruments that were being used throughout the project.
Bauman: Okay. And how long did you end up working at Hanford, and what other sorts of jobs did you have?
Stratton: Oh, I worked at Hanford here until I retired in 1982. I worked in all the different areas, starting at the 300 Area, then to the 700 Area. I was sent out to F Area at the startup of that reactor. And then came back to the 700 Area and was there for several years, and finally was sent out to the B Reactor. The B Reactor started up and operated for a short period of time. Then it was shut down—I don't recall for how long—a year or so maybe. And I was sent out to the B Reactor about that time--or was at B reactor about the time that it started up on its second run of operation.
Bauman: And about when would that have been?
Stratton: I'm guessing, and I was looking at my notes the other day, trying to figure out exactly when that would have been, but I'm guessing around 1949. I could be wrong on that date, but that's approximately.
Bauman: And what was your jobs at B Reactor when you were there?
Stratton: To start with I was actually a mechanic doing maintenance activity. But after being there for a while, I was elevated to a supervisor again. And I worked in B Reactor and several of the other reactors over the years. I went to the K Reactors when they were just being built and followed those from ground up, spent about roughly ten years, either as a supervisor or in maintenance engineering at the K Reactors.
Bauman: So you worked at several different areas then on the site.
Stratton: I did. I sure did. After the K Reactor started slowing down and—I'm trying to recall the date. I think it was 1972 when my work in the K Reactors had gotten to the point where I was no longer needed there. And so I came to the 200 Areas and spent another ten years there in field engineering.
Bauman: So could you maybe explain a little more, what would field engineering entail? Like, what sort of things might you typically do on a work day when you were working in the 200 Areas?
Stratton: Well, for instance in the K Areas, it would be going out and checking on the operation of the equipment, seeing that it's functioning properly and making repairs if they were minor, or otherwise I'd call a mechanic to come and do the repair work. In the 200 Areas, I was doing both field engineering and field inspection for new instrumentations that were being put in place.
Bauman: I want to go back a little bit to you said you first started working in Hanford in 1944. Right?
Bauman: Did you know what you were working on? Did you know it was--
Stratton: I've been asked that question many times.
Bauman: A lot of times?
Stratton: When did you find out that the—what they were doing here at Hanford? I might say this. My background being an electrical engineer and ham radio as a hobby, I had enough electronic experience in my background to begin to figure out from the instruments that we were using pretty much what was being done here at Hanford. So it took a while before I got all the details, but I started figuring out in the early days what was really happening here.
Bauman: And do you remember when you first heard the news that the war had ended, anything along those lines?
Stratton: I might relate one interesting experience. When they first made an announcement of what was being done here at Hanford, it was just a limited amount of information that was released to the news media. It so happened that my wife and I—this was in 1945—my wife and I were on a vacation trip, and we were at Mount Rainier. And when the news came out, of course, being the closed-mouth person I am, I didn't even say, boo, that I had worked at Hanford. However, my supervisor back in Richland was so afraid that I was going to start talking and say things that I shouldn't about the work that was, that he frantically got hold of me there at the—I think we were at Paradise Inn at the time. He was all concerned that I'd start talking. And I let him know right off the bat that I know not to keep—to keep my mouth shut and not talk—[LAUGHTER] other than what's official or released.
Bauman: So he called you while you were on vacation to make sure you--
Stratton: He called me to make sure that I didn't blab my mouth, something I shouldn't say.
Bauman: So you sort of mentioned a couple of times the security at Hanford, obviously. I wonder, and you lived in the dorms initially and then lived in a house in Richland. So in terms of security, getting onsite to work every day. Did you drive your car? Did you take a bus? How did that work?
Stratton: As I recall, I was using the transportation that was provided, bus transportation. Speaking of security, reminded me of another instance. I might back up a bit here. The people that I had working with me in the 700 Area were available to maintain instruments out on the Hanford Project. We had certain instruments that we would go out and take a look at. So one day I sent one of my personnel out to look at this equipment out in one of the remote areas. And she had a run-in, so to speak with the guards at the gate. She had been doing this job quite a bit, got to know quite a few of the guards at the gate, and she would kid them going through. And this particular day there was a guard at the gate that apparently she had not become acquainted with. And she made—when he asked her something about the equipment that she had—some of the equipment would be taken out for maintenance purposes. He asked her what she was carrying, and she made some remark about it being explosive or something along that nature, which—that was the wrong thing for her to say. And she had quite a hard time explaining herself out of that one. Another instance of security that I can recall—we had some instruments that were manufactured and when they arrived, the meter on the front of the instrument read millirankines. That was a no-no from an information standpoint. We did not want people that were not familiar with what was going on—that was the very early days—what we were actually measuring. And we had to take every one of those instruments out of the case and blank out the word, paint over the word millirankines to keep people who were not privy to the information to be able to read it, know what we were measuring. That gives you an idea of how strict security was in those days.
Bauman: And did you have to have a special security clearance to do the job that you had?
Stratton: I was issued what was called a Q clearance at the time. I think it was the popular security clearance for most people that would have access to classified information.
Bauman: Sure. I want to go back a little bit, again, to that first period during the war when you were living in the dorm. What sorts of entertainment was available on site for all the workers who were living in the dorms? Were there things to do for entertainment?
Stratton: [LAUGHTER] I don't recall too much that I got involved in as far as entertainment is concerned. I was never much of a entertainment type person. I didn't do carousing around like some people did. I don't recall too much in the way of entertainment. I might say took some hikes. Four of us actually climbed up the side of Rattlesnake Mountain. That would've been in the early part of 1944. And on another occasion I got out and hiked up to the top of Badger. But I don't recall too much in the way of entertainment that I got involved in in those days.
Bauman: And you said that you moved to Richland. You and your wife got married and moved to Richland. What was Richland like at the time as a community in the 1940s and the 1950s?
Stratton: Well, in the early 1940s, it was a closed town, of course. And you had to have a reason to be here. I don't remember too much about the details. It just wasn't a lot of interest from my standpoint in the early days.
Bauman: Can you think of any events or significant happenings, things that happened at Hanford while you were working there. I know President Kennedy came in 1963 to visit the N Reactor. I wonder if you were there at that time or any other events that stand out in your mind?
Stratton: I remember going and seeing Kennedy when he came. I was off at a distance. I was working out in the 100 Areas at the time. And I remember going and seeing him at a distance. I'm trying to think of any other events of particular interest. I can't think of anything to mention right at the moment, Bob.
Bauman: Okay. Were there ever any emergencies, fires or anything along those lines that happened while you were working that stand out at all?
Stratton: Gee, I can't think of anything of particular interest at the time, Bob.
Bauman: You worked, so you worked at Hanford basically from 1944 to 1982, right?
Bauman: That's almost 40 years. My math.
Stratton: Almost 40.
Bauman: Long time. You must have seen a fair amount of change take place on the site, in the technology that was used or maybe some of the procedures or policies. I wondered if you could--
Stratton: Probably the biggest change would be in policies—that I can think of. Of course, equipment was updated tremendously over that period of time. And what we started with in the early days was antique by the time I retired. But I think maybe policies were some of the biggest situations that I can relate to.
Bauman: Are there any particular policies or practice that stand out that changed?
Stratton: Nothing that I can relate to right at the moment. I can't think of anything in particular, but—
Bauman: Hanford obviously at some point, it was for years about production and at some point shifted to clean up. Had that started to happen when you were working there?
Stratton: Not really. No. There wasn't a whole lot of that activity. Clean up pretty much started after I retired.
Bauman: I wonder if there's—what you would like future generations, people who never worked at the Hanford site to understand, to know about working at Hanford during World War II and the Cold War era?
Stratton: Well, the thing that some of the people wonder about—we were producing plutonium. Was that a good thing? Well, you have to look at it from the standpoint that the war effort was brought to an end primarily because of the work that we started here with the production of plutonium. It undoubtedly brought the war to an end. That's what the way we have to—the way I would like to look at it.
Bauman: And you said you worked there almost 40 years. There were a lot of people who didn't. The termination winds sent a lot of people packing.
Stratton: Those were—that’s true.
Bauman: You know, what was it that kept you here for almost 40 years?
Stratton: Probably getting married. [LAUGHTER] That would be probably the main reason that we decided to stay and raise a family here. I was working in a field that was of interest to me. Like I mentioned, I was a ham radio operator from way back. And I was in the instrument field and the work that I was doing was of real interest for me. And so I had no particular desire to move away from here. So I think that is one of the things that kept me here. Of course, we started our family and from then on this was home.
Bauman: So overall, how would you describe Hanford as a place to work?
Stratton: Well, for me it worked out to be a very good place. Young people that came along after I'd been here for a few years, like tech grads coming in for a short stay and they wanted to know, do you think this is a good place to try to continue working here? And I would always encourage them to go ahead and apply for employment here at the Hanford Project. Because I think if it was in their field of interest or field of training, that would be a good place for them to work.
Bauman: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you think would be important to talk about or any special memories or specific memories that you think would be important to talk about?
Stratton: I think you've covered it very nicely. Well, I can't think of anything in particular to add to what we've covered so far.
Bauman: Well, great. I want to thank you, Monte, for coming.
Stratton: Oh, you're sure welcome.
Bauman: I really appreciate it.
Stratton: Only too happy to do what I could to--I don't know whether this will help the cause very much.
Bauman: It's terrific. Yeah. Thank you very much.
Stratton: Oh, you're sure welcome.