Category Archives: War Work

Louis P. Dolbeare ’36

Dolbeare '36

Louis P. Dolbeare '36

(1916–    )
Office of War Information, Code Clerk

Impact of World War II Upon a Civilian

My 1942 response to classification as 4-F (poor eyes) in the draft was to migrate to Washington, D.C., to peddle my slimmest of résumés to government war agencies. I was accepted by the Office of War Information (translation: the U.S. propaganda agency).

Volunteering for OWI overseas service, I became a code clerk and was taught to use a ciphering machine and how to placate its peculiarities (careful maintenance).

With visions of overseas service in some foreign battle zone overheating my anticipations, I was assigned to London. My innate optimism was not smothered by two years in war-torn Britain, experiencing manned bombing, V-1s and V-2s before the end of war. I returned to New York in 1945 aboard the troopship RMS Queen Mary.

That is a précis. Save by tenuous implication, I have not responded to the question of how WWII had an impact on me. My frivolity will show, with all its saving graces, when I soberly state that my individual war was a rich experience.

I lived with the brave and dogged Brits, aping their resolution. I made friendships and, a lasting grace—the Germans never having succeeded in shutting down London—The Theatre. That is what sustained my wartime spirits and has been the strongest of lifetime markers.

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Joseph D. Averback ’38

Averback '38

Joseph D. Averback '38

Atomic Bomb Project Engineer

From Recollections of World War II, compiled by J. Read Murphy ’38; pages 6–8

After graduation from Yale I worked for Chemical Construction Corporation whose business, oddly enough, was constructing chemical works. Not only did we build them, but we also hired and trained the personnel and started up the plants.

We had just finished Lake Ontario Ordnance, a turnkey TNT plant, at the end of 1942 when I was asked to report to the personnel office. There I reluctantly agreed to work for the SAM Labs at Columbia University on some project the recruiters couldn’t mention, to do a job they wouldn’t discuss. I was helped in my decision by asides such as, “Well, if he doesn’t want to work for Columbia we could always draft him and assign him to Columbia—we’ve done that a few times.” So I signed on and when I got to Columbia I eventually realized that this was part of the Manhattan Project and we were trying to do what was described in my Physical Chemistry textbook in my sophomore year at Yale: “If some day you wake up and find half the State of Connecticut blown away, somewhere, somebody had harnessed atomic energy.” I didn’t understand my involvement until later when I was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to do what I did when I worked for Chemical Construction Corporation.

What we had at Columbia was a pilot plant for developing the barriers used in the gaseous diffusion method of separating the isotopes of uranium. The people involved were most interesting. Urey was there on a daily basis with George Murphy, the Yale professor who shared the Nobel Prize with Urey, and Fermi occasionally. The Works Manager was Ed Mack, head of Ohio State’s Chemistry Dept.; the Plant Manager was Frank Vilbrandt, head of VPI’s Chemical Engineering Dept. Pat Welles, who built huge projects worldwide, constructed this little electroplating pilot plant, and I ran three shifts loaded with degreed engineers, some Ph.D.s, all of whom were greatly underemployed in terms of their capabilities, but didn’t mind because we were able to develop prototype barriers that were the forerunners of the thousands needed to build the plants in Oak Ridge.

Oak Ridge’s site in the Tennessee Valley was originally chosen for all the Manhattan Project plants, but the plutonium plant was constructed elsewhere. Oak Ridge is on the Clinch River about 30 miles from Knoxville. The choice was made because of the availability of water, TVA power, and the fact that, on the greater than 70-square-mile tract, the plutonium pilot plant could be located in one valley, the electromagnetic separation plant in an adjoining one and the diffusion separation plant in a third.

The first family moved in on July 3, 1943, and the population grew to 75,000 in two years. Up to 1,000 houses per month were built and in 1945 spring term there were 11,000 pupils and 320 teachers in the high and grammar schools.

Not only did most of the workers not know what they were producing in the mammoth plants that used tremendous amounts of electrical energy, but the vast majority weren’t sure they were actually producing anything. They would see huge quantities of material going into the plant, but nothing coming out. This created an atmosphere of unreality in which the plants operated day and night producing nothing that could be seen or touched. The first bomb weighed only 400 lbs. in total and the bomb material, which came from the Oak Ridge electromagnetic plant, was only the size of a grapefruit.

What’s remarkable is that the secret was so well kept. The people of Oak Ridge avoided discussions involving secret projects and cooperated in maintaining security even after they left the project. President Truman didn’t learn of it until after FDR’s death. The word “uranium” was never mentioned. Even in chemical equations describing chemical reactions the letter T was used instead of U for uranium.

I arrived in Oak Ridge from Columbia University in October 1943. The city grew by almost 50,000 during the time I lived there. The gaseous diffusion plant had not been built yet, but the electromagnetic separation plant was ready for startup. So I did what I did for Chemical Construction Corp. I assisted the startup and operator training and then I worked on ways to make the plant more efficient.

The plant, as its name implies, was equipped with huge electromagnets and the amount of copper required in the plant would have hurt the war effort, so silver from the U.S. Treasury was used instead. All the bus bars had the U.S. Treasury stamp. This plant was later closed because it couldn’t compete with the gaseous diffusion plant.

My next assignment was the NEPA (Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft) project. Thank the Lord we didn’t get that one off the ground, but some of the work my group did was extremely valuable in the development of shielding for the reactors in nuclear submarines. After the war this group started G.E.’s Nuclear Power Division.

I received a Presidential Citation in August 1945 for my work on the Manhattan Project.

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Nancy Kincaid Breslin ’37

Breslin '37

Nancy Kincaid Breslin '37

(1920–    )
Tracking the French

Pearl Harbor erupted six months after I graduated from college with a degree in piano. I had been working in a nursery school in a Washington suburb to which we had moved during my freshman year in college, when my father, a World War I flyer, accepted a job there as Operations Director at Washington National Airport. In the fall of 1941, I began working as a pianist and “helper” at a nursery school near our apartment in Virginia.

I was encouraged by a neighbor to apply for a job at the newly formed War Production Board and became a receptionist, referring people from industry to one of the three experts whose responsibility it was to give guidance to leaders from U.S industry on ways their companies might best participate in or cope with the war effort. My tasks were not very time consuming, so I was able to teach myself to type as well as to handle the routine responsibilities.

One day the consultant whose desk was nearest to mine said, “Come along with me. They are assembling a staff at a new agency, the Office of Strategic Services, in which you might be interested. After a brief interview I was assigned to a job at the OSS as assistant to the former head of the French department at a major women’s college. The position required my collecting, carding, and updating information on the whereabouts, movements, and occupations of key French citizens around the world, and responding to requests for data on them from such organizations as the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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Sumner McKnight Crosby ’28

Sumner McKnight Crosby '28

Sumner McKnight Crosby '28

(1909–1982)
Advisor to U.S. State Department on Restitution of Cultural Materials

After graduating from Andover, Crosby studied art history at Yale and then in France. He returned to teach at Yale. According to the National Archives, from 1944–45 Crosby was appointed special adviser to the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe, which had been set up the year before to monitor cultural artifacts in war zones. The Commission was responsible not only for identifying and protecting monuments at risk but also for overseeing restitution for any looted or destroyed artworks to their governments of origin. Today there is an art gallery named after Crosby at Yale.

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