Interview with Norvin Sasser
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Northwest Public Television | Sasser_Norvin
Robert Bauman: We’re pretty much ready to go?
Man one: Whenever you're ready.
Bauman: All right. Okay, we're going to go ahead and get started. So we could start by having you say and spell your name for us.
Norvin Sasser: My name is Norvin Sasser. N-O-R-V-I-N, S-A-S-S-E-R.
Bauman: Great. Thank you. And today's date is October 23rd of 2013. And we're conducting this interview on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. So I wonder if we could start by having you tell me how you came to Hanford, when you came here, what brought you here.
Sasser: Well in the spring of 1943 I graduated from high school. And I was expecting to be drafted into the military service. But Uncle Sam said I was physically unfit for military service. So I started looking about for some way to support the war effort. And I learned from McQuinn’s that there was a recruiter in town recruiting people for a highly secret defense job at a place called Pasco, Washington. So I had somewhat of an agreement with the guy that told me about this that we would meet in town on a certain date and sign up and ship out. Well, he didn't show. So at the end of the day I struck out on my own. And I arrived at Hanford on the 27th of September, 1943. All by myself, no buddies, no friends, no relatives.
Bauman: And what was your first impression when you arrived?
Sasser: Well it was all strange to me. I grew up in the Ozark Mountain region. And the desert was all new. However, I had seen part of it before. But it was exciting. I was on my own, no obligations to anybody. And I just took it as a great adventure.
Bauman: And did you have any idea of what sort of work you would doing, or what was being done at Hanford?
Sasser: Well I knew that I was signing on as a laborer. And that meant probably a pick and shovel. And that's what I started doing, digging ditches around Hanford.
Bauman: And what sort of housing was available when you--
Sasser: We lived in the barracks, lived in the barracks and ate in the mess halls. The project had been going about six months when I arrived. And I was never a tent resident or anything. But they had the barracks going when I arrived.
Bauman: So where did you start working? Where on site did you start working here?
Sasser: In the town side of Hanford. And then after a few weeks I was transferred into what they called the 101 Building, or the 105 Craft, where they were fabricating the graphite to lay up the reactor cores for the D and F Reactors. Then a short time after I was transferred into there, they gave me a clerical rating and moving me into the superintendent's office as a clerk. And the work was a lot easier, and they paid me more money.
Bauman: And how long did you work there?
Sasser: Well let's see. I was in there a short time, a few months. And then I went out to another fabrication shop out at White Bluffs as a clerk. Then, when all of this was winding down, in the end of '44, I was transferred into Richland, where I worked for what they called special construction, where we was moving the government furniture into the government housing. Each piece was identified by a number. And you had to record the street address that you put that piece of furniture in. And each house was set up for a certain amount of furniture in a certain arrangement. And then after that finished I went back out to a place they call Leisure Spur, railroad siding, where they were handling excess material and shipping out the leftover materials that they had. And then in a few weeks their office ended up in Hanford. And I was in Hanford when they--the last group to move out of Hanford when they closed it up in the spring of '45. And lo, in the spring of '45 I had an offer to go to a job in operations. And then they released me from construction. And I went over into operations and moved into Richland in the spring of '45. And the organization that I was in eventually ended up in transportation. So I spent the rest of my working career in transportation and administrative work and in management. I spent 30 some years associated in the management of the plant bus operation.
Bauman: Oh, okay. And so when did you retire? When did you--
Sasser: I retired after the 30th of November, 1988. I was at Hanford 45 years, two months, and three days.
Bauman: So going back to when you first arrived, you talk about living in the barracks and eating in the mess hall, what was that experience like? And was there entertainment, things to do for fun?
Sasser: Yes, they brought in name bands, name entertainers, movies. They built a movie theater. When I first arrived it was an outdoor theater. Then when it was in a tent, and then they got a theater built. Then they'd have dances on Saturday nights in building mess halls as the camp grew. And they'd get the mess hall built before they got the barracks occupied. And that's what they would use for the dance hall. They'd bring in bands, name bands, local bands, stuff like that. Hey, it was exciting, as far as I was concerned. I had one person to call me on an interview on what hardships that the Hanford workers went through. And I said what do you mean hardships? I had three hots and a cot. I had a good paying job that wasn't too hard. I was free to come and go as I pleased, and nobody was shooting at me. I've seen a lot of the articles. A lot of people complained about the dust storms. Yeah, they was dust storms. But I don't remember them as being all that terrible.
Bauman: And so at what point--how long did you live in the barracks then?
Sasser: I was out there about a year. I moved in when I first arrived on the 27th of September, got married on the 1st of September the next year. And then in a couple of weeks so I moved out of my barracks and we got a trailer over in Pasco. And then in the next spring, after it went into operation, we moved into Richland in the B house.
Bauman: Okay. Oh, a B house?
Bauman: What was Richland like as a community in those early years?
Sasser: It was nice. At that time, at one time the average age of the tenants in Richland 35 years old. Everybody had kids. Great activities in school, scouting and church activity. I must have been pretty well satisfied with it. I stuck around a long time.
Bauman: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. You mentioned when you first started working that you were--you said White Bluffs at some point?
Sasser: Well, I first started in Hanford. And then went through the 105--the 101 Building, which is 105 Craft, and then they had a metal fabricating plant out at old town side of White Bluffs. I went out there for a few weeks, a short time. And incidentally, the drug store in White Bluffs was still open, still operating when I was working out there. Because I was working the swing shift. And we'd go over there and buy stuff.
Bauman: Were a lot of the residents still there at the time?
Sasser: Well, I don't know where the guy was living. But he was still operating--the drugstore was still going. And that was in the spring of '44.
Bauman: Were a lot of the other buildings still around on those town sites, or had they--
Sasser: Oh, they were all still there. I won't say all of them, but yeah, the main buildings were. There might have been some removed to make way for progress of building. But the main street of it was still pretty much intact. I think the old bank building is still standing.
Bauman: Right, yeah. So what sort of work schedule did you have? How many days a week were you working, how many hours a week?
Sasser: Well I'll tell you a story. When I first started to work our regular schedule was six ten-hour days. And then they came around on Saturday afternoon and if anyone wanted to work on Sunday, be down at the bus lot number one, catch the bus, go out to 200 West. There’ll be somebody there to show you what to do. Okay, I didn't have anything better to do. So I worked on Sunday. That went on for my first seven or eight weeks I was in Hanford. I worked a 70-hour week. So the first full paycheck that I got I looked at and I thinks oh my gosh, what's wrong here? $90? I only worked 70 hours. And I was getting $1 an hour. Bright kid--I could figure that out. So I went to my boss and I said hey, something's wrong here. They've paid me all of this money. I only worked 70 hours. And he said well, you worked Sunday, didn't you? I said yeah. He said well, that was double time. And what you worked over 40 hours was time and a half. It's your money. I wasn't used to that. Hey, someone told you they was going to pay you so much money, that's what you got. But it was a surprise to me.
Bauman: So when did you find out what the purpose of Hanford was, about the atomic bomb?
Sasser: When they announced it after they dropped the bomb. We was working in Richland then. And we got out in our vehicles and drove around town honking our horns. That's the way we celebrated here.
Bauman: And then you said at some point you moved into transportation?
Sasser: Well, when I went over into operations, it was handling the personal effects for people that was on a contract they're shipping in or out. And it was part of traffic. But then transportation absorbed traffic. And then I changed jobs within the organization and ended up in what was transportation then. And that's where I spent the rest of my working career. This was just a short time that I worked in traffic. It was combined with transportation. Later there was a function of it pulled back and put back in traffic. But then the part I was in stayed in transportation.
Bauman: Oh, okay. And so what did your work in transportation involve?
Sasser: Well I was an administrative clerk for a while. And then I went over with the bus and rail operation, where I was listed as a routing and scheduling clerk. And from that I went to a shift manager. And from that I went back under the administrative side as a staff assistant.
Bauman: Obviously, Hanford was a very secret place, a lot of security involved. I wonder if you could talk about security or secrecy at all?
Sasser: Well, yeah, you were warned just not to talk about it. And I'd only assumed got to be a condition. You never really thought about it one way or the other. You went through the security check. But I would never worked in a secure area, other than going in and out of say, the administration building. And then after, on lesser occasions, I went out to the production areas to check on transportation requirements. But I had a Q clearance all the time. But I never worked in any of the secluded areas.
Bauman: I wonder, during all your years working at Hanford, there were any part of the jobs that you had that was the most challenging or anything that was the most rewarding about what you worked on?
Sasser: Well that'd be hard to say. I think the most rewarding part that I had, I was privileged to work on the transportation to accommodate the visits of two Presidents to the Project. When Kennedy made his visit here, I worked on making up the schedules for transporting the people from the production areas to the N, where they were to attend the celebration. And then when Nixon made his appearance here, I was coordinating the transportation to transport the people from the Richland area out to the Battelle area, where he was making his presentation.
Bauman: And were you present when both Presidents were here?
Sasser: I got to go to the Kennedy presentation under the N. But during the Nixon I was involved in transportation, so I didn't get the opportunity to go out there.
Bauman: Do you have any specific memories about when President Kennedy was here, about the day or anything about that?
Sasser: Well one thing I remember about it--getting out of the traffic, getting on the way home, listening to him making his speech in Salt Lake City. And that's still on the road trying to get from 100-N back to town.
Bauman: So it was really crowded. How did you feel about Hanford as a place to work? What was it like?
Sasser: It was great. It afforded me the opportunity to make a worthwhile living, to raise my kids, send them to school. And the benefits were good, a nice retirement. And Hanford was very good to me. I never explored any possibility of leaving.
Bauman: And you were there during World War II, the Cold War. You saw a lot of things happen, and also Hanford going from very early construction and production and then eventually a de-emphasis on production and starting to focus on cleanup. But I wonder how any of those changes in mission affected you at all, or what you thought of any.
Sasser: Not really. I worked for six different contractors. But I stayed on basically the same job and a different contractor. But no, I don't—let’s see—I retired in '88. They had not started a lot. They had shut down 100-N. But there was not much of the cleanup work started at that time. It was still pretty much in production. But of course, there was the diversification. At one time GE had the entire contract. And then they split it up and whatnot and just melted into different companies. Instead of dealing with the chain of command or whatnot, you had cross-relations with different companies. So that was about the only thing that was different.
Bauman: Were there any events or things that happened--special memories that really stand out in your mind during your years working at Hanford?
Sasser: Well you may have read about where that Hanford workers contributed a day's pay to send a bomber on its way. Well, I participated in that. And I got to take a walking tour through that plane when it was on site, before it was turned over to the Air Force. They had it in Hanford. And so I walked through the Day's Pay.
Bauman: That must have been a special feeling for you.
Sasser: Well I think it was a unique experience.
Sasser: But there was probably so many of them, it's hard to—
Bauman: I teach courses on recent American history, on World War II, on the Cold War, and of course most of my students were born after the Cold War ended. What would you like current young people and future generations to know, remember about what it was like to live at Hanford during World War II or the Cold War?
Sasser: Well, I think there’s a lot of young people gave up their life and their time and whatnot to continue to maintain the freedom that we have. And what they have now has been earned by their predecessors, their parents or grandparents, like that. They shouldn’t take a lot of things for granted.
Bauman: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you think is important to talk about, about your years there or that you’d like to talk about?
Sasser: Well, I know that atomic energy and the atom bomb has come under a lot of criticism. But I think that we didn’t start the war, and by dropping the bomb on them, we ended it a lot sooner than it would have, and saved a lot of lives. So, I think the good exceeds the bad.
Bauman: Well, I want to thank you very much for coming in today and sharing your experiences with us. Really appreciate it.
Sasser: Well, I’m glad to do it.