A Secret Mission

Week 50: #52 Ancestors – Naughty

By Laurence M. Smith (May 7, 1985)

Laurence M. Smith with my mother and aunt about the same year this story takes place.

At times there are unusual experiences involved in being an Electrical Engineer. It was the time of World War II. I had just transferred from Portland to Spokane, Washington, to work on the design of the Spokane Army Air Field. It was February 1943, amid some of the worst winter weather imaginable. It was one of those evenings when the temperature was about 20˚and with blowing snow it was not fit to be out.

I was just finishing dinner when the phone rang. My wife answered the phone and said, “It’s for you.”

“This is Colonel Nauman,” the man said.

I said, “Who?” (I had been back only a month. I didn’t know who the commanding officer was.)

“The commander at the base where you work. As the electrical engineer for the project you are to go on a secret mission for the Army Engineers as of right now.”

“What’s this all about?”

“Can’t tell you,” he said. “My orders to you are this. Within the hour a car from the motor pool will arrive at your house. At that time you should be ready to go to Pasco, Washington. When you arrive there, regardless of what time, you are to place a call to a Major Sullivan. Tell him you are the electrical engineer he is in need of. Is that all clear?”

“My Gosh!” I said. “What kind of clothes will I need?”

“You had better have warm clothes because you may be working outside as far as I know. And Smith, good luck to you and remember not a word of this to anyone, especially not to anyone at the office.”

He wasn’t kidding! About an hour later a car stopped in front of the house and honked the horn. I grabbed my suitcase, kissed my wife goodbye and went out to the car. I asked the driver if he knew anything more than I did.

The Smith house in Spokane, Washington

He said, “My orders are to deliver you to the Pasco Hotel and to stand by to take you any place you need to go.”

Pasco is about 200 miles southwest of Spokane and we skidded the entire 200 miles. The cold dry snow was blowing across the road forming layers of ice on the surface. Fortunately there was no traffic on the highway, because we were literally all over the road.

I had a chance to ask the driver if he had been cautioned not to disclose where we were going. He said that he had, in no uncertain terms. He said that he had been told of the absolute necessity of getting me where we were going and also of the necessity for secrecy. You can imagine how that made me feel.

We got to the Pasco Hotel about 2:00 A.M. I did as I had been told; I called Major Sullivan. He told me that the way we would work it was this: He would appear in the lobby at exactly 8:00 in the morning and open up his newspaper. At that time I was to identify myself to him. There were no rooms available so the driver and I were provided a cot apiece in the downstairs hallway. As I remember it, I slept all right because I was totally exhausted.


The next morning after breakfast I sat in the hotel lobby. Sure enough an Army officer came in at 8:00 and sat down. I introduced myself to Major Sullivan. He looked me over and explained that the reason I was called down from Spokane was that the winter storm had made it impossible for anyone to get to Pasco from Seattle over the Cascade passes.

He also said that my services were desperately needed. He asked me to follow him, which I did, up to the second floor of the hotel. That is when I learned that the Army had taken over this hotel lock, stock and barrel.

I was ushered into one of the rooms. The shades were all drawn and all the rooms were interconnected. There were people working at desks in every available space. The man at the desk where I was taken told the major that he had a telegram from Seattle which gave a clearance for me and that I could go on into the briefing room. We walked through several rooms where people were busy at desks and some of them looked as though they had been sleeping in their clothes. It was a scene of organized confusion.

In the briefing room I was confronted by a man who explained that what I was to be told was top secret, that I was not to disclose information furnished to me to anyone, and particularly not my supervisors and fellow workmen when I returned to the Spokane office. Major Sullivan, whom I might add was about my own age, took me to a wall map of the area.

“Smith,” he said. “You are here because we have hit a snag in a most important project. The President of the United States has authorized the construction here in this area (pointing to the Hanford, Richland area) of a large production facility. This facility will produce an essential material for a new and sophisticated armament which will aid us in the prosecution of the war.

“Our problem is that in this area (he pointed to a spot on the Columbia River) is a small dam and powerhouse owned by a cooperative irrigation district. This dam and powerhouse has to be demolished and removed from the area. (This left me with my mouth open.)

“It is your task to evaluate this entire hydro-electric project and come up with a figure by tomorrow noon, so that the government can buy this property and obtain title to the land in the area. We have another electrical engineer, a Lt. Long, who will work with you. We have paved the way for you. The project manager will be available at eleven this morning to show you what data they have on the cost of the project.”

Within an hour or so I had been introduced to Lt. Long and he and I were on the way to the Richland Irrigation District office. I said to the Lieutenant, “I assume that you are the expert on evaluating power plants.”

“You have to be kidding,” he replied. “I haven’t the foggiest idea of how to evaluate a power plant.”

That comment set the stage for a most interesting day.

It was a bit after eleven o’clock when we reached the office of the irrigation district. The project manager was cooperative for a very good reason. All of the farmland that was supplied irrigation water from this project was in the process of being sold to the government.

We explored the power plant and the dam and spent about six hours going through their records which were really quite complete. I got the lieutenant cranked up to copy a lot of figures in the six hours we were there. The evaluation wasn’t all that big a problem. It was like most engineering; it required the use of some common sense.

We got back to the hotel about dinner time and had something to eat. We were furnished a couple of desks and we went to work compiling cost figures. It was somewhat ridiculous the hurry that everybody was in. Someone would stop by every hour to ask if we were through yet. By eleven o’clock we had come up with a total figure.

Do you know? As soon as they had the total (which was somewhat more than somewhat!) they teletyped it to Washington D. C. for a check to be written and forwarded to the irrigation  district. These people were really in a hurry.

When I got back to work in Spokane I had a new set of problems. The fellow workers in my design group told me, “Man you are in for it, the boss is hopping mad.”

The boss wasn’t long in calling me into his office. “You left us in a real bind here, you know, and exactly where have you been?”

I told him that I was sorry but I couldn’t say a word. With that we went on up the line to his supervisor, where I repeated that I couldn’t tell them anything. That is when he got on the phone to the commanding officer. It was interesting for me to watch his face. The conversation was quite long. When concluded he looked at me and my boss and grinned.

He said, “Well, we know one thing, whatever he was doing it was involved with the war effort. Forget it and get back to work.”

In case you are still wondering what this was all about, suffice it to say that the “Hanford Project” was built. It produced plutonium used in the first nuclear bomb.

The Hanford N Reactor site and Columbia River (Wikimedia)

The Hanford Nuclear Site is the world’s largest environmental clean-up project. It remains a major public health issue.

Hanford High School in 1925 and after it was used for military training. (Wikimedia)

Feature Image: Hanford area World War II billboard (Wikimedia)

26 thoughts on “A Secret Mission

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  1. Wow! How about a superfund movie? We have a site in Maine that was sending a toxic plume toward the incoming tide. Actually, I’ve heard nothing about that cleanup for years. And Yucca Mountain in Nevada—after millions was spent to designate it as the safest U.S. nuclear storage space— was mothballed during the last administration. What will be the “environmental cleanup site?”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really intriguing! I just recently read _The Atomic Girls_ which touched on some of the same. Wanted to let you know, I just nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award. I know it can be time consuming, but also kinda fun. No problem if the whole award post isn’t your style…just putting it out there! You’ve got a really great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. I appreciate the shoutout! I don’t really have time or inclination to participate these days. After I finish the last two “52Ancestors” prompts, I will be taking a break.


  3. Wow!! What an amazing story! Sometimes I don’t know how people did the things they did back then – just getting in a car and going who-knows-where to do who-knows-what! And then not be able to tell anybody not even your family!

    Liked by 1 person

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