When Sue Olson started working for the U.S. Army Corps as a young woman, she first heard about Hanford in an urgent message. “Don’t come to Hanford -- it’s rattlesnakes, sagebrush and dust storms.”
It was 1943 and her friend was working there already. Olson still remembers the yellow paper the message came on.
So she took a different job at another Manhattan Project site -- Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Getting off the train in Knoxville, Olson said, “there was a nice lady from the personnel department who met me there.”
The women slipped into the back of an olive-drab car.
“And she said, ‘This will be one of the most interesting times of your life,’” Olson recalled.
Oak Ridge is where Olson met her husband Bob. In less than a year they were married. And within a few weeks they were transferred to Hanford. She didn’t want to go, but her husband said it would just be a few months.
A one-woman typing pool
It was October 1, 1944 when they drove from Tacoma to Richland. A few days later, they got the keys to their dust-laden tiny government prefab home.
“We had no telephone, couldn’t get a phone,” Olson said.
Many everyday things were rationed. She packed a lunch each day and rode a bus to and from work. A busload of workers rattling through Hanford. A busload of workers who didn’t talk about work.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was brand new. Olson worked as a young secretary, taking shorthand, pumping out calculations and locking up top-secret papers. For months, Olson worked six days a week as a one-woman typing pool for several departments.
“Finally they sent another girl out to be with me and help me with all the typing,” Olson said. “And she didn’t take shorthand. I still took all the shorthand.”
And she did a lot of computations on a manual calculator. She still won’t say what the numbers were about.
‘I knew it was extremely important’
When Olson was a newlywed, her husband never asked about her work. And she knew never to bring up his.
“And I never ask[ed] but I knew it was extremely important,” she said.
It was that way for a year. Until the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II.
They both worked at Hanford -- where the government made plutonium for bombs. Olson was a secretary. She earned top-secret clearance. Her husband was a scientist who worked on refining plutonium. And she said they never talked about it until that day.
Olson said the whole attitude of wartime Hanford was pure urgency. She locked her filing cabinet up tight. She didn’t even leave it unlocked when she went to the restroom.
At the office there weren’t sheet cakes, team-building exercises or office pranks. No jokes a la The Office or MASH. She said everyone was anxious to do the best they could in wartime.
“And so when we went to work, we worked,” Olson said. “We didn’t … sit around and talk to each other. Not anywhere.”
Sometimes there were breaks: Skiing, hunting. Lots of bridge. And every once in a while Olson said, “there would be a dance band come to Richland to play. And my husband and I did go to those dances. Those were rare.”
Olson quit Hanford to have a daughter -- who’s grown now. Bob died decades ago. Olson retired at 87 from a second career in real estate.
At 94, Olson still has a top-secret mentality. She’s asked me more than once if I thought we were giving up any government secrets. This time -- I think we’re safe.
Photography by Kai-Huei Yau, audio and story by Anna King, design by Doug Gast. Family photos courtesy of Sue Olson.