Fifty years ago this week a helicopter landed in a remote part of the Hanford nuclear reservation and 37,000 people watched as President Kennedy stepped out in a cloud of dust.
On Sept. 26, 1963, Kennedy stood before the crowd young, tanned and hatless on a speakers’ stand by N Reactor.
For 12 minutes he talked about natural resources and nuclear energy, bringing the 1,500 dignitaries who had been assigned to the chairs in the front to their feet.
The president called Hanford a “great asset” and said, “I can assure you it will be maintained.”
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The atomic work done at Hanford in the past 20 years had changed the world, he said, but bigger changes were yet to come.
There was no telling what the atomic age, “a dreadful age,” would bring. But the nation could lead the world in producing low-cost nuclear power.
Then, in a bit of showmanship choreographed by the Washington Public Power Supply System, he waved an “atomic wand” over a Geiger counter.
The sound of the counter’s rapid clicking was broadcast over the crowd as the wand’s uranium tip set in motion a clamshell crane. It lifted the first shovelful of dirt to build the steam-power facility that would make N Reactor the world’s largest nuclear-power plant.
“I assume this is wholly on the level, and there is no one over there working it,” he joked.
The speech and the president’s visit were a triumph for Tri-Cities leaders and Washington’s U.S. senators, who had fought since 1957 to get N Reactor approved for dual use — commercial power generation and the production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear-weapons program.
Day to remember
It also was a day that most in the crowd would remember the rest of their lives.
Jeff Curtis, who now lives in Seattle, heard that the president was coming when Scoutmaster Ed O’Claire announced at a troop meeting that the Scouts had been asked to help.
Curtis’ family, Roman Catholic and Democratic, were thrilled that Kennedy was coming, he said.
He was disappointed to be assigned to direct parking, about as far from the speakers platform as was possible. But when the traffic subsided after hours of flagging cars to the left and right, he wandered into the crowd.
He didn’t stay in the back of the crowd for long. An organizer, spotting his Scout uniform, sent him up front to help usher people assigned to seats.
There he had a close-up view of the president’s visit.
Dust, tumbleweeds and paper hats flew as the president’s helicopter touched down, he said.
After the speeches were done and the president stepped off the platform, Curtis squeezed to the front of the crowd, sticking his left hand between two large men and across a railing toward Kennedy. The president grabbed the back of his hand and shook.
First look at Hanford
It was the first time the general public had been allowed on the Hanford reservation, and they made history just by attending.
Some people went to see the president, but spouses and children piled into family cars for a first look inside the barricades where their relatives went to work each day. Tours of the N Reactor area were offered.
“We were scared of Hanford,” said Jacqueline Britton, of Kennewick, who was 9 when she visited the nuclear reservation and saw Kennedy in 1963.
Children didn’t open their mouths when snow was falling so they wouldn’t catch any radioactive snowflakes, she added.
It was the first time Kathryn Fox, the wife of current Richland Mayor John Fox, had been to Hanford, where her husband worked as an engineer. She didn’t return for nearly five decades.
The Department of Energy started public tours of B Reactor in 2010.
It wasn’t so much Hanford Fox remembers though, as the president.
“One thing that impressed me was he was very handsome and beautifully sun-tanned,” she said.
Maynard Plahuta, who had just started work as an intern for the Atomic Energy Commission in 1963, said the security forces at Hanford were “as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof.”
The traffic jam was massive as buses and cars drove to the northern end of the sprawling reservation on two-lane roads. They were lined up bumper to bumper for almost 15 miles, according to news reports.
It took nearly four hours for all cars to clear the parking area after Kennedy left, the Tri-City Herald reported. Some families listened on their car radios to another speech the president gave later that day in Salt Lake City before they had reached Richland.
Organizers had been given just three weeks to prepare. They bulldozed and burned 125 acres for the event, then put in 3,000 feet of water line to run sprinklers over the last week.
It didn’t do much good, people remember now.
An area had been paved for the president’s helicopter, which had flown down from a military base at Moses Lake.
But the helicopter still sent up a huge cloud of dust, Plahuta said. People on the speakers stand had to wipe the grit off their foreheads.
So many people asked, cajoled and issued ultimatums to be allowed to sit with the president on the speakers’ stand that organizers joked they should have the speakers and the audience switch places, the Herald reported.
About 70 people in the crowd required first aid, most because of the heat, and 25 were “stretcher cases,” the Herald reported.
Dignitaries and kids
Those on the speakers stand included Gov. Albert Rosellini, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, other senators from Western states, and officials from the Bonneville Power Administration, the Atomic Energy Commission, General Electric and WPPSS.
When the president came to Hanford, school let out early so children could go with their families to see Kennedy.
“I think everyone in town was there — Pasco, Kennewick and Richland,” Plahuta said.
Some of the many helicopters that flew in likely carried members of the press. But Mike Wingfield, of Richland, who was 7 then, remembers his father saying they were decoys so the president would not be killed.
“I thought, ‘Why would anyone kill the president?’ ” Wingfield said.
Eight weeks later, Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas.