The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was established in 1943 on the Columbia River in the town of Hanford, Washington State. It became home to the "B Reactor", the first large-scale reactor for the production of plutonium necessary for the construction of the atomic bombs that were soon to be used against Japan. The development and purpose of Hanford was classified Top Secret.
Located some 60 miles northwest of Hanford was the Pasco Naval Air Station. Pasco was responsible for the training of navy pilots in carrier-based combat flying.
In 1945, after a series of "unidentified aircraft" were detected overflying Hanford's highly classified location, Pasco was tasked by Headquarters, Fourth Air Force, to employ both radar and fighter aircraft in an attempt to intercept the mysterious intruders.
Without giving any clue as to the purpose of the Hanford plant, the military declared the air space over the facility a "Danger Area", with military pilots authorised to open fire on any unidentified aircraft intruding into it.
Throughout the latter part of 1944 and early 1945, a number of "unknowns" were detected by radar, flying over the Hanford facility. Aircraft were dispatched to intercept them, but without success. One such attempted intercept was carried out by Commander R.W. Hendershot who revealed details of his mission many decades later.
For years all we had of Hendershot's statement was a quarter sheet of typed paper in the CUFOS files. Now we have Commander Hendershot's original handwritten statement from the Donald E. Keyhoe Archives.
An attached note stated that Aerial Phenomena Research Associates [APRA of Seattle, Washington] would undertake a tape recorded interview with Commander Hendershot at a future time. If such an interview did take place, the recording might yet be located among the Keyhoe Archives tape files, or among the holdings of the Robert Gribble collection.
A transcribed copy of Hendershot's letter appears below the original.
Further confirmation of the Hanford aerial intrusions and emergency installation of radar coverage of the facility came from Colonel Franklin T. Matthias, Officer in Charge of the Hanford Engineering Works. One day after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Colonel Matthias convened a press conference to reveal the previously Top Secret activities undertaken at Hanford.
The Seattle Times carried the report of the conference by Times Associate Editor, Ross Cunningham. In an article published on August 8, 1945, it was publically revealed that there had been suspected aerial intrusions over Hanford, that radar was hastily
installed to detect such intrusions, and that an arrangement was
made with the Navy to intercept the intruders. This confirms that
the plans described within the 4th Air Force documents were
actually carried out, supporting the testimony of the Naval officers
Hendershot, Clem, and Powell regarding encounters by Naval aircraft with intruders
over Hanford. (see Hanford entry in Naval Chronology.)
Excerpt from the Seattle Times article:
1. The atomic material for the bomb which launched the “finish Japan” attack Sunday was produced in this project.
2. The Hanford project and its principal counterpart in Tennessee operate independently and if either were closed down the other could produce the material, although by a divergent process.
3. No plans have been made for the peacetime use of the Hanford Engineer Works.
4. It is probable that preliminary studies are under way for adapting atomic energy to peacetime use, but no work along that line is under way here.
5. Commercial representation is present on the top-flight committee studying the potentialities of the energy so that the greatest good possible may be accomplished.
After these statements by the Army officer here in the position to project the future of atomic energy, newsmen made the 30-mile drive north from Richland to the center of the production area, where the “ghost town” of Hanford lies virtually empty.
The newsmen stared at huge cement plants with smokestacks towering against the sky as workmen within them spin the dials to produce atomic energy to press forward the attack on Japan. They were not permitted within the plants, which are within wire inclosures and Colonel Matthias explained it thus:
“The disclosure of the nature of their work and its effect upon the enemy has had a stimulating effect and we must get on with production. It was a terrific relief to the staff to learn the details and they are proceeding, I’m sure, with renewed zip.
“Besides,” he added, referring to the decision not to allow internal plant inspection, “these men are working with delicately balanced force and I don’t think there should be anything to distract them.”
Colonel Matthias' press conference — in which he stood for an hour on a raised platform behind a counter, snapping a cigarette lighter but never getting around to lighting his smoke — covered a wide range of subjects, even including the question as to whether the colonel’s experience with atomic energy led him to conclude a projectile could be made of it in the United States and shot to any place on earth.
The colonel smiled, snapped the lighter a couple of times, and replied slowly:
“We have nothing to lead us to believe it could be done with any degree of certainty.”
Good nature was applied by the colonel when someone quipped about how he kept from revealing the secret while “talking in his sleep.”
“I don’t talk in my sleep — and my wife was just as surprised as any one when she learned Monday what we had been working on,” the colonel smiled.
But the more serious questions were answered in rapid-fire order, the gray-haired colonel seldom avoiding an answer, and then only when security was involved, or the top committee in the East had ruled that the subject was not to be discussed.
After discussing how the present Hanford site was selected because of the availability of huge quantities of electrical power, an abundance of pure water, isolation and cheap land, Colonel Matthias said that the late President Roosevelt was in close touch with the project from the beginning, as was Secretary of War Stimson.
President Roosevelt wanted to visit the project but decided against it because it would focus too much attention on it. The Truman Senate investigating committee, too, withheld visiting Hanford, the colonel said, for the same reason.
“The then Senator Truman probably had some inkling of it through Secretary Stimson.”
Reluctance to emphasize the project also prevented it from beginning with a triple-A priority for materials, he said, and work was begun with a third-rate priority. It later was raised when the pinch of materials threatened to slow construction and it was possible to increase the priority without emphasizing the project.
Actually, Colonel Matthias said, he didn’t know the exact nature of the project when he and two other officers selected the site.
“We had only an approximate idea,” he explained.
“We knew that we had to have firm ground for massive buildings,” he said.
These were the towering buildings which newsmen saw from a short distance.
The looming chimneys cast their shadows in points toward the old construction town of Hanford, where row on row of Quonset huts; large square dormitories which once housed tens of thousands of men and women; the commissary which once fed thousands of the employes (sic), and the research and administrative buildings spread over scores of acres.
Officers explained that they were left standing for two reasons. Construction changes might at any time up until a few weeks ago have necessitated their being used again to house more workers. The second reason was the reluctance to divert essential manpower to their demolition, although much of the critical electrical materials have been stripped of(f) and shipped to the South Pacific. To get on with Colonel Matthias' revelations, he spoke of the independence of the Hanford and Oak Ridge, Tenn., plants in response to a question.
“Could the material for the atomic bomb be produced in either Oak Ridge or Hanford?”
“Yes, all of the essential materials,” the colonel replied, adding that the processes employed in the two projects differs.
“Have you had any trouble with sabotage-spies?”
“The word spies needs defining — but I can say that when the project was in its early stages we had some people here who were here to try to find out something.”
“And I can add with certainty we haven’t any now,” Colonel Matthias said with emphasis.
“You know, when some of them applied and found they had to have their fingerprints taken before they came to work they didn’t show up again.
“The project,” he said, “had a low rate of injury among workmen, and only 16 of the thousands of men and women who worked on the project were injured fatally — 11 in two accidents, the collapse of a big tank and a train-wreck.
“It''s unusual but we are not eligible for the E award given by the Army and Navy,” the colonel said. “We’re too far along — 90 per cent — with the construction to win a construction award and not far enough along to get an award through comparison with other plants.
“Throughout the war, the project has had no direct protection against external enemy action — no anti-aircraft; no protective troops and no aircraft.”
Colonel Matthias explained that radar was installed at the project hurriedly, “when we saw or thought we saw unidentified aircraft operating.” Defensive plans, not to be confused with internal security, rested in an arrangement with the Navy to send fighter planes if needed and arrangement with the 9th Service Command to “send us all the troops they had if we needed them.”
“Do you see any peacetime use of the plant?” he was asked.
“Well, they used to say that there was no future for the horseless carriage, but you know what happened,” he laughed. “I can't answer that question and I don’t think anyone else can because no one knows.
“The project was not built with the idea of being part of any projected Columbia River development.”
He said that the project was a round-the-clock operation, meaning that it is like an aluminum plant in necessity of continuous operation, which brought out that for a time there was an outside chance electrical power interruption by an accident might break off production. But precautions have been completed now to insure against this.
“I cannot over-emphasize the importance to the nation of security on this project,” he said.
“On the committee working with the future of the process there are commercial interests because it is hoped that it can be handled to the best interest of the country.”
Colonel Matthias said that it is common belief that atoms other than of U-235 uranium — which is used in the present process — can be utilized as research progresses.
“I did not think that the public could so quickly realize the importance of the development of atomic energy,” Colonel Matthias replied in response to a question as to whether it was being over-emphasized.
“I think it is the biggest thing that has happened in many years.”
“The project was financed at first from President Roosevelt's special fund to exploit war production,” Colonel Matthias said. “But later the funds were obtained from a regular congressional appropriation. This involved letting key members of the appropriations committees know of the importance of the development, but the key secret was withheld.”