Interview with Leroy Noga
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Noga_Leroy
Leroy Noga: Leroy Noga. But I usually go by Lee all the time.
Robert Bauman: And your last name is N-O-G-A?
Noga: N-O-G-A, yeah.
Bauman: Okay. All right. My name's Robert Bauman. Today's date is October 15th of 2013. And we're conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. So let's start if we could just by having you talk about how and why you came to Hanford. When that happened, what brought you here?
Noga: Well, I had hired--in the state of Minnesota. And they painted a picture of all the pine trees and everything, and several of us come out here in 1955. So I drove out here--it was January in '55. And from Spokane to here—it was at night and it was foggy where you could cut it with a knife. I couldn't even see the white line on the side, hardly. Anyway, I stayed at the Desert Motel in Richland. And next morning, got in the car and I see all this stuff that looked like I was on the moon or something. Sage brush. Where's all the pine trees, you know? I couldn't believe it. Everybody's got a picture of Washington with the beautiful pine trees and everything. [LAUGHTER] Including us from Minnesota. Anyway, so then of course I hired in with GE. And stayed in the dorm, men's dorm. And that was another shocker because I'm a ballroom dancer and used to going to several ballrooms in Minneapolis. Big ones--the Prom, the Marigold. And I would always never have a problem to pick up a woman--a nice looking woman to dance with. And here everything was--the women were afraid to go out. They stayed in the dorm and there wasn't anybody to dance with. I was very disappointed and I thought, as soon as I get enough money, I'm leaving town, and I'm going on. I was single at the time, of course. But then I went to work in K Area and K-West. Around suddenly and after I got to see the area a little bit. Of course, I'm from Minnesota, land of the ten-thousand lakes--we actually got a lot more than that. But here it was rivers, and I was unfamiliar with rivers. But after I got acquainted just a little bit, and found out how the hunting was--very good duck hunting and pheasant hunting at the time. I thought, hey, this isn't so bad. And then I tried the river fishing, which was quite different. And that wasn't so bad either. I was able to catch fish. And then I did dance with a local girl that said, well Lee, just stick it out a little while. It kind of grows on you. And I still remember that statement, and I'm still here—
Noga: --after all this time. And I wouldn't move. Of course the area has changed a lot.
Noga: And we had dust storms then. A couple of us bachelors, we stayed in a Bower Day House. And after one dust storm, I think we had about a half of inch of dust on the floor the next day. And that was typical. They weren't too well built, as far as keeping the dust out. And I can remember another time there living in the same house where we had a big snowstorm and then we got a chinook after that, chinook wind. Which we used to get a lot of those warm chinook winds, of course. And I remember the water had melted so fast, that the water had washed a full six pack right in front of our house. And I thought, well that's nice. [LAUGHTER] And anyway, as far as--you were going to ask me some questions.
Bauman: Yeah. Well I going to--about how long were you in the dorms then? And then how long did you live in the Bower Day House?
Noga: Well, I was in the dorms--gee, that that's going way back. I don't remember. Maybe a year a year or maybe a little longer. I remember I missed a piano, because I used to play the piano. And I rented a piano and put it downstairs in a dorm. It was kind of something you don't usually do. But I did it anyway and played. And we ate breakfast every morning at the Mart which is now the Davidson Building, I think it is--right there across from the post office.
Bauman: Oh, okay.
Noga: Big mart, everybody was eating there.
Bauman: What was Richland like as a community in the 1950s?
Noga: Well, everybody kept their doors open. Never locked them. It was a government town so it was very safe. With no crime like there is now. You remember the officers’ club and stuff out the area where they had--well the government tried to keep us here, and so they had big functions out there. Dances and name performers out there. And I was out there a few times--out here in north Richland. The government, of course, didn't want us to quit. And some of us stuck it out, like myself. And I worked for ten years for GE and then GE pulled out. And that's something that really irritates me to this day because--I don't know if--you probably don't want to televise this, but anyway, I think that was timed. The government always has these contractors come in and then they change. And I was—they had a ten year contract to be vested. But they had an age clause. You had to be 28 years old and I was a one month away from that. So I either had to go back east and work for GE back there—but I had a family of four now. And of course I didn't want to go back there and leave my family here. So I didn't get vested. And then different companies come. And Westinghouse, and on, and on. And every time I really had a nice job—I really loved it--a different company would come in. I had to change companies or I had to change jobs. I finally got tired of it and I quit. And I started my own business. And I might mention this--while having my own business, I did security systems, and fire systems, and stuff like that. And I was the first company that installed the first security system out here in the 300 Area. It was ultrasonic over the fuel rod of the pool. And so I thought that was something that maybe someone else didn't do out here, related to the area.
Bauman: Right. And so what year was that then? Roughly around the time period that you quit and started your own business?
Noga: Well, it had to be after ten years. I quit—I don't remember just exactly what year I quit out here. I worked for Battelle. And then I think Westinghouse come in. I think that's when I quit. Rather than change companies again, I just got tired of it.
Bauman: Let's go back--if it's okay to go back a little bit. You mentioned your first job was to K-West.
Bauman: So what sort of job was it? What sort of work were you doing then?
Noga: Well I was instrumentation, of course. And did all the instrumentation out there. It was a very--I liked it because it was such a variety of different instrumentation. And then some of the really nasty work we had to do as an instrument person was go on the rear face with the water dripping down. All dressed up in rain gear, gloves, and everything double, you know. And the radiation was so intense back there that you could only spend about 15 minutes, 20 minutes, or something. And you were back there to replace these bad thermal temperature devices on the rear face. I didn't really like the working in the reactors too much. And I tried to get into the 300 Area labs, which I finally was able to do. They didn't like to let us go out there in areas, but I finally made it. And then we--in the 300 Area that was very interesting, too. Because there we got the moon rocks and we analyzed those. And I worked with chemical engineers and whatever to get the right instrumentation. Whatever they needed to put that stuff together so they could do what they want. It was interesting work.
Bauman: Yeah, right.
Noga: We had what they called multi-channel analyzers at that time. We didn't have computers yet. It was—the computer age was just starting.
Bauman: If we can go back again to talking about working on the rear face of the reactor. You said, you could only be there for about 15 or 20 minutes. Was that only 15, 20 minutes that day, and then you couldn't go back in again that day?
Noga: Yeah, you were burned out for--well I can't remember the period. You were burned out. You couldn't go back there for maybe a month.
Bauman: Wow. And so I assume you had some sort of dosimeter, or badge, or something like that?
Noga: Yeah, you had pencils and stuff.
Noga: Mm-hmm. Which they read when you came off the rear face.
Bauman: Were there ever any times working there that you had an overexposure, or anything like that? Or any of your coworkers, or anything along those lines?
Noga: Well, I was never overexposed, I don't believe. I think there probably were some incidences but--
Bauman: None that you were--
Noga: They were pretty careful--radiation monitoring were pretty careful to always check the time and they always read the dosimeters. And that was pretty well adhered to.
Bauman: And then you said you moved to the labs. Is that the 300 Area, or--
Bauman: And you worked there for several years, or--
Noga: Yeah, I worked there for—I don’t know—eight years or so, maybe. And then when I quit, I came back as the--I quit for, I think 12 years, when I had my own business.
Noga: And then I came back as a manual writer. It was an engineer’s title. I forget the glorified name I got. [LAUGHTER] But it was a manual writer writing procedures N Reactor. Instrument procedures for the--because I was an instrument person. It was an ideal task for me, as an engineer to write the test procedures for instrumentation. For the instrument people there at N Reactor.
Bauman: And which company was that, for then? Which contractor that--
Noga: Phew. UNC.
Bauman: Oh, okay.
Noga: My mind isn't very good as far as old stuff because--
Bauman: That's good.
Noga: I just remember the stuff—lucky to remember the stuff today.
Bauman: One of the events--sort of big events in this period--President Kennedy came to visit in 1963. Where you working at--
Bauman: Yeah. President Kennedy.
Noga: I remember that.
Bauman: Were you on-site? Did you see him?
Noga: Oh, yeah.
Bauman: I was wondering if you could talk about that at all and describe your memory of that.
Noga: Well, I just remember that he was here and I saw him. That's about all I remember about it. Yeah. That was quite an event.
Bauman: Do you remember anything about the day at all, or--
Noga: Well, everybody was just really happy and pleased that he came. He was pretty well loved, you know--as a man.
Bauman: I wonder--you mentioned earlier--some of the security at Hanford and obviously it was a place that emphasized security, secrecy. Did that--in what ways did that impact your work at all? The sort of focus on security or secrecy?
Noga: Well, I don't know how far you want to digress from—wherever I want to go?
Bauman: Wherever you want to go, yeah.
Noga: Well talking about security brings up something that I thought I'd mention. And that is after I got to work there at GE for a while, and talking with regional monitoring people, and stuff like that. They got to know me, and I got to know them, and they found out that I was interested in old cars—antique cars. So one of them told me about--there's an old Chevrolet cab convertible out there in the boonies. Somewhere between H Area and F Area. And I said, oh really? And I thought the guy was just blowing wind maybe. I didn't really believe him at the time. But then I got still interested. I got to talking to him and maybe another monitoring guy, and it sounded like there really was one out there. So I looked into it further and I thought, well if there is, how do I get it? How can I get it? So I talked to Purchasing and Purchasing says, well you'll have to bid on it. And I said, can I bit on it? And if so, I don't even know if I can find it. I said, is there a minimum that I can bid for it? No, no minimum. Just fill out the papers. So I bid a minimum of $25. And I got a security clearance to go off the road. Because this was just out in the boonies. No roads, just out in the sage brush to look for it. Somewhere between H Area and Rattlesnake. So I asked a friend of mine who had a Jeep if he'd go out there with me. And we used his Jeep and we hooked a trailer behind, and off we went. We got permission to go out there. And we drove around quite a bit. And we finally found it. And we winched it on. And then I thought, well now I wonder if I can get a title for this thing from the state? [LAUGHTER] But being the contract from the government, and that I bought it--the state didn't hesitate at all. And I got a title for it. And this is one of the originals from an old homestead out there. You could still see some remains of the homestead. Of course the government went and destroyed everything. And most of the automobiles--I don't know if you know this--but most of the automobiles that were out there, the government made a special attempt to destroy all the engines. They took sledgehammers and busted the engines up. They made special attempts to--so the automobiles would never be used again. I don't know why, but that's what they did. This one somehow escaped. And the engine was still in it. But the head was off of it. But it was still restorable. And I have not restored it yet, after all these years. But now comes a time when I'm trying to get somebody interested in it. And if so, restore it and give it to him. Because I don't have that many years left. I'm hoping that somebody might help me a little bit financially to do it. And I would then donate it to whoever.
Bauman: But you still have it after all these years?
Noga: I still have it. Yup. It's been in the garage for all these years.
Bauman: Yeah. That's interesting that it was a car from one of the old town sites—old home sites there that was still sitting out there.
Bauman: I had not heard that.
Noga: Yes. I brought it up because it is a very rare incident. And I think I'm probably the one and only that has done something like this. At least maybe the first one.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Right.
Noga: And I'm also the first one, like I say, to put a security system out here.
Bauman: Mm-hmm. So thinking back on your years working at Hanford, what were--and maybe you've already talked about this--what were the most challenging aspects of your work there and the most rewarding parts of working at Hanford?
Noga: Well, most challenging? Hmm. Oh, you know, it was all challenging, really. [LAUGHTER] It was very different. The instrumentation—when I first went out there, I was not a technician. I was a trainee--I had to be a trainee first. And my technician was not all that—didn't seem like he was there that long either. He didn't know all that much either, I don't think. [LAUGHTER] And I can remember one incident, they had an instrument that had mercury in it. We had to be careful how you calibrated it. And it wasn't my fault, because I was just a trainee. But my technician blew the mercury out. It went all over the control room which was not a big--nobody really appreciated that too much. That was challenging. That was kind of challenging. You had to be very careful, as an instrument person, with what you did. And if you worked in the control room, like in--what's the first--the reactor they're making a--
Bauman: B Reactor?
Noga: B Reactor. If you worked back there at the panel gauges, you had to be very carefully that you didn't bump something, because they were very sensitive. Any movement, jar or something--and you could trip the reactor while the reactor was up. And you had to calibrate some of those things while the reactor was up. You actually had a lot of responsibility there. If you knocked the reactor down--and you could--you didn't hear too many good comments. [LAUGHTER]
Bauman: Yeah. How about the most rewarding part of your work in Hanford?
Noga: Well, when I—I don't know. There was a lot of rewarding things. When I came back to work again after a 12 year hiatus, so to speak, they closed N Reactor down, and I had to find another job. There weren't that many jobs available at PUREX because there was a lot of people looking. PUREX had a job for a project engineer job. And I interviewed for it and I said, well I'd kind of like this. But I don't think I'm qualified. I said, I'd like to have it, but I'll be honest with you, I don't think I'm qualified. Because I don't have a degree. A chemical degree is what you should have had for that job. But down the senior engineer that was doing the hiring--he called me and he said, Lee, you've got the job if you want it. So I thought, what the heck, I'll try it, you know? [LAUGHTER] But I was able to find the niche there where I was needed. And it just so happened they were replacing all the electrical main panels, you know--and everything like that. So I was then the project engineer for doing that. And the people from Kaiser, who actually came out and did tests and everything--I had to approve everything that they wrote up. And from the PUREX standpoint to see if it was safe, and so on, and so forth. That was rewarding. It was a challenging job. And then from there, I went to Kaiser. And there I got a job writing procedures for electrical code violations. So I had to write procedures to correct all—bring all the stuff up to code. This was a little bit out of my element, because I was an instrument technician. But I just got the code book out and learned quick. And that was rewarding, too.
Bauman: I wanted to go back to--
Noga: I wore a lot different hats out there.
Bauman: Yeah, right. I want to go back to almost sort of first question I asked you. You said you came from Minnesota and you'd heard these sort of stories of Washington State, or whatever. What were you doing in Minnesota before you came here? And how much--what did you know about the Hanford site itself? Did you know what was being done at the Hanford site, and that sort of thing?
Noga: Well, I guess I should have known more. I really didn't know anything about it, particularly. I was just young, I guess. The recruiter came through and it sounded good. The money sounded good. And some of my--I went to Dunwoody Institute there. That's where I hired out from in Minneapolis. And some of the other students also hired in with GE. So I thought it probably was a good thing to do to start out. Good experience. That's actually what I trained for there at Dunwoody was instrumentation. I went there--I tried to go to college, but I didn't have any money really to support myself. And it was even tough to support myself at Dunwoody because I didn't have no help at all. I had to work part-time every night.
Bauman: Do you remember how much your first job at Hanford paid?
Noga: Oh, boy. [LAUGHTER] I don't. But there was overtime, of course. It paid pretty well. Although I've made more even before that, one time. It's a little off the subject again. But I worked on the Garrison Dam in North Dakota. And here again, I wore a different hat. Me and a buddy of mine, we hired in--we bought a brand new toolbox, put it a saw in it, hammer, and blah, blah, blah. And hired in there at the Dam as journeymen carpenters. The union--which is real strong--they'd been needing people so bad that the union official didn't check us out, which he should have. And big money. I saved the checks for a long time. We went double-time. Worked on Sundays. An astronomical amount of money. But then we got greedy because we heard they were making even more on the outlet side. I think I worked on the inlet side, and we when on the outlet side. Well, I worked there about two weeks and then union guy got wise and we had to quit. I can't remember but I it was a couple of hundred dollars a week, which was pretty good money at that time. I don't remember.
Bauman: You talked earlier about finding the car, and being able to purchase the car, I guess.
Bauman: Were there any other sort of unique things that happened or things that stand out in your memory during your time working at Hanford?
Noga: No, other than meeting a girlfriend out there. [LAUGHTER] I don't know. I worked in almost every area out there. I worked in all the hundred areas. I worked at PUREX. I worked in 200 Areas, 300 Areas. I worked in almost every lab in 300 Area. I worked in 325, in all of them, 329.
Bauman: Of all the different places you worked, the different jobs that you had--was there one that you enjoyed the most, that was--looking back on it, you'd say it was maybe your favorite job that you had out there?
Noga: Well, all the work I did in 300 Area was very pleasing to me. And of course after that things changed a lot when they start shutting down things. I really did like N Reactor. I will say that. They were the--of all the places I worked, it was like a family. They were the friendliest, nicest bunch of people to work with. Everybody seemed to know everybody, and you know, it was very pleasant.
Bauman: So it's a group of people you worked with that made that so enjoyable.
Noga: Yeah. Yeah, the whole N Area was just--I really hated to see that close. It was, like I say, like a family.
Bauman: So if you look back at your time working at Hanford, overall, how would you assess your experience working in the Hanford site?
Noga: Well it--other than what happened to me changing jobs all the time, other than that bitterness--really my employer was the government. And they should be the ones that--I shouldn't—break in service, and all that stuff. You shouldn't have lost it like I did. I lost it when I quit. And then I went back to work there again. But that's the bitterness I have.
Noga: Which you'll probably leave out of this interview. [LAUGHTER] But other than that, it was a--I'd never tried it really. It was a wealth of experience and rewarding. Like I say, we did interesting things. Counted moon samples and it was very interesting--always. All the experiments we did, it was different. The engineers were always trying to think of something different to do. How to lower the background so that you could count very low background stuff and radiation. It was always interesting, always challenging. And then after that when the work there at 300, when I quit and went back, it wasn't fun anymore then. I mean, then things are closing down, pretty much. I closed PUREX down. I worked there and then they quit. They closed down. N Reactor closed down. And everything was closing down. That's when the fun stopped, kind of.
Bauman: Yeah, I was going to ask you then obviously, at some point, the effort shifts from production to clean up. And I wondered how that impacted some of the things that you did? Was it that you saw a lot things shutting down at that point?
Noga: Well, after things started shutting down, of course just overall morale went down. And the sense of purpose didn't seem to be there anymore.
Bauman: I teach a class on the Cold War. And a lot of my students that I teach were born after the Cold War ended. And obviously, you were employed at Hanford in the 1950s and 1960s--the height of the Cold War in many ways. If you were talking to someone who didn't really know much about the Cold War, or was born after it ended—how would you explain or describe Hanford during that time?
Noga: Well, let's see. That's a big question. How do I feel about it? Do I approve of how the government just took over things and ordered everybody out without any money? Reimbursement until much later? How do I feel about that? Well, I've got mixed emotions about some of that stuff. How do I feel about dropping the bomb on Hiroshima? We made the stuff and how do I feel about that? I still have probably mixed emotions about that, too. But I guess it's something we had to do. I have to accept that. One thing I will say, what went on at Hanford could never have happened in the time frame that it happened there at Hanford. How they designed and built like the PUREX Building, for instance. It's simply amazing. Outstanding workmanship and performance. It's unbelievable, almost, what happened in that short period of time. And it was a very dedicated workforce. Of course we didn't know a lot of what we were doing when we first came out here really. But we just did our work. It was interesting. And we all really were dedicated and liked our job.
Bauman: Is there anything I haven't asked you about yet? Or is there anything else about your experiences at Hanford that you'd like to talk that you haven't had the chance to talk about yet?
Noga: Gee, I don't know. I have a son that still works out—more or less works for Hanford. And he is getting a furlough, maybe today. Because our government’s shutting down. Mixed emotions again. [LAUGHTER] As far as Hanford, like I say, it was a good experience for me. And I'm not sorry I came out here. Not sorry I went to work for Hanford. Lots of good memories. And a lot of my friends, a course though who are gone. I'm one of those hold-outs. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, just so many of my friends that hired in when I did, they're no longer around. I'm 83 right now, so. Yup, time goes fast.
Bauman: Well, I want to thank you for coming in today and sharing your memories and experiences. I appreciate it.
Noga: Thank you.