Preserving the voices of Hanford’s unique past
When Miles Pasch began working at the Hanford nuclear plant in 1945, most of his job in communications involved openly installing telephone lines throughout the site. One project, however, was top secret.
When Bob Petty was 11 or 12 years old, his father worked in transportation at Hanford. On more than one occasion, Petty’s father disobeyed his employer’s rules by smuggling his son onto the site in the trunk of his car.
Both men shared their stories of secrecy, intrigue, and even humor as part of the Hanford Oral History project being led by Robert Bauman, associate professor of history at WSU Tri-Cities. The project is part of the larger Hanford History Partnership, which launched this spring and is coordinated by WSU Tri-Cities with outreach through its website and “Our Hanford History” Facebook page.
The partnership is a team of 11 area agencies united to preserve the unique history of the Tri-Cities as it relates to the Hanford site back to 1907, well before the Manhattan Project of World War II. Their shared mission is to preserve and showcase the evolving story so that a lasting legacy of Hanford’s contributions may benefit and educate future generations.
“Hanford is a locally, nationally, and internationally significant place with a unique history,” said Bauman. “The oral histories of people who lived and worked in the area add greatly to our understanding of World War II, the Cold War, early 20th-century culture and agriculture, migration, racial segregation, labor, and a whole host of other themes, including science and technology.”
The project aims to create a permanent, accessible oral history archive of the personal experiences, stories, and memories of a wide variety of individuals.
“This collaboration will capture, compile, and document the diverse stories of life in our region before they are lost to time. And the public’s help is needed to make sure the legacy endures,” said Michael Mays, assistant vice chancellor of College of Arts and Sciences programs at WSU Tri-Cities.
The Oral History Project is the first phase of this long-term collaboration. It has six goals:
- tripling the existing collection of oral histories
- organizing the collection so it’s globally accessible
- showcasing the history through lectures and public television
- establishing WSU Tri-Cities as an interdisciplinary teaching and research center
- developing a plan to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Manhattan Project in 2018
- establishing the Hanford History Collection as a permanent archive in the Max E. Benitz Library at WSU Tri-Cities.
The Oral History Project focuses on two primary groups of potential interviewees: pre-1943 residents of the area; and individuals who worked at the Hanford site between 1943 and 1963.
“The project will allow students, professionals and visitors to explore the interconnections of Hanford’s evolution, including agriculture and the environment pre-1943, the link between science and war, the sociology and politics of the Cold War, the impact of technology on the American West, the migration stories of those who came to work at Hanford and live in the Tri-Cities, and the cultural contributions of its indigenous and settler cultures,” Mays said.
“It is vital that the voices of the people who lived and worked there are preserved,” Bauman said. “Through this project students, scholars, family members, and anyone else who’s interested will be able to learn about the human experiences of the Hanford site.”
Hanford secrets revealed
The first person Bauman interviewed for the Oral History Project was Pasch, who recalled installing not only telephone lines but secret listening devices, too.
“Apparently, the FBI recorded all phone calls at the Hanford site during World War II and the early Cold War using wax cylinders. Pasch was one of the few who knew about them because he helped install them,” Bauman said.
Considering the tight security at the plant, Bauman found Petty’s colorful memories of being a stowaway in his father’s car especially humorous. Once, while Petty hid in the car’s trunk, his father momentarily forgot and stopped the car to pick up a dead deer, which he naturally tossed into the…you guessed it!
Not everyone’s memories are imbued with secrecy; many current and former residents also share stories of joy, kindness, struggle, and success.
Historical learning opportunities
The Hanford History Partnership and Oral History Project provide many ways to connect students of various disciplines with the community. History doctoral student Laura Arata is assisting Bauman on the project, conducting interviews and background research. Undergraduate student Sarah St. Hilaire began working on the project in January, helping to identify, research, and locate pre-1943 landowners and early Hanford workers. Other WSU Tri-Cities undergraduates will have opportunities to help develop the project website.
WSU Tri-Cities offers bachelor’s degrees in history, humanities, social sciences, and digital technology and culture, plus bachelor and graduate degrees in engineering and environmental science.
Bauman teaches American history and public history, including courses on the civil rights movement, immigration, migration, ethnic identity, and the Cold War. He plans to teach a Public History graduate seminar course for spring in which students will develop an exhibit on the history of the Hanford site utilizing the oral histories and materials collected through the project.
Anyone who wishes to share historical details or tell a story—or knows someone who might—can contact the Hanford History Partnership at 509-372-7306, firstname.lastname@example.org, or ourhanfordhistory.org.