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Chih Wang Oral History Interview, February 26, 1986

Oregon State University
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Elise Hargreaves: This is an interview by Elise Hargreaves for the Horner Museum. On Tuesday, February 26, 1986 I interviewed Dr. Chih Wang, professor of nuclear engineering at OSU. Where were you born? Were you born in this country?

Chih Wang: I was born in Shanghai, which is the seaport in the middle of the channel in the Jiangsu province. Shanghai now is a municipal. It's the city of Shanghai.

EH: It's still called Shanghai, right?

CW: It's called Shanghai. The name hasn't been changed.

EH: Okay. What year were you born?

CW: I was born in 1917.

EH: Okay. So you were born in Shanghai with your family. What was it like back then?

CW: Well, of course, I don't remember too much of my younger days. My father he was working for the railroad as an accountant and my mother, beloved mother, died probably something like 2 weeks after birth due to infection. So I was 00:01:00brought up by a nanny and a nursemaid until 4 years old and then my father married again to my stepmother. She was the one that brought me up. So the only thing I can remember is we lived in a place very close to a railroad station because my father's office is close to, it's in a station. It's kind of a small place but it's no longer there. I went back there in '72 to look for the place and it's already burned down by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese war. Not 00:02:00much I can tell you at that time.

EH: Do you remember what the city was like back then when you were younger?

CW: Well, I don't remember so much of the... the only thing I know is that because I moved when I was 7 years old, moved to a place called Qingdao, it's another seaport up north. That was a time when Japanese agreed to return...they controlled the city of Qingdao. It used to be spelled T-s-i-n-g-t-a-o, and the new spelling now is Q-i-n-g-d-a-o. It literally means "green island." It's a pretty place. When I was 7 years old my father was a member of a team. They took 00:03:00over the administration of the railroad from Qingdao to Henan, about 500 kilometers. So I was there ever since then until I was 21 years old. During that time I went to a primary school. I was a Boy Scout at one time as I recall. I was kind of naughty boy, pretty hard to manage. My stepmother took care of me very well and so I was kind of spoiled in those days. And during the period between I was 7 years old all the way up to 20 years old (I graduated from the university at 20 years old), I went to a primary school close by to home. I 00:04:00remember the home which is still there is the two places that they used to be occupied by Germans, and then after the First World War was taken over by Japanese and during the '20s return to China, so it has a lot of flavor of a European town mixed up with some Japanese flavor. So I went to high school there for 6 years.

I was not a very good student, almost flunked out during the second year of my junior high school. But I managed to graduate and went to a University of 00:05:00Shandong, which is a national university right in town. For some reason I did very well. I even got a scholarship for the junior and the senior year. During that period I recall we left Shandong twice, due to crisis. Because when the Japanese, especially with China with the invasion and the war, you know the Manchuria incident and so on down the line. Eventually in 1937 we were forced to evacuate. So I took my mother, my half-sister, two of them, and my half-brother 00:06:00all the way, using the railroad system, all the way moved west. And then turned down south and then eventually get to the town which is my step mother's hometown. And I went back all by myself to Qingdao again, because at that time I was appointed as a teaching assistant, so I had a job, so to speak. Before too long I couldn't stay there too much because we were just packing ready to move on. One day I recall it was in August 1937 Japanese fleet came into the harbor with [unintellible], so I followed my father's instruction to went to see a man 00:07:00in the custom house was his friend. I arranged for me to get on board a British ship flying a British flag and left that day for Shanghai. That was what happened during for the first 20 years of my life.

EH: Okay. That's interesting. Okay, where did you go once you'd left from there? How did you get over here?

CW: That's a very long story.

EH: [Laughs].

CW: I was in Shanghai for almost, just about over a month. Shanghai at that time was surrounded by Japanese, but at Shanghai I was staying with my aunt who later 00:08:00on turned out to be my mother-in-law, because I married her daughter. I was staying in their place, very crowded. It's a 3-story apartment-type, also called a flat, three flats. But there was a lot of people there and not much to do waiting for the situation to improve. Before too long it looks like a pretty bad situation, I think it was sometime in August, actually, Japanese decide to invade Shanghai and from Shanghai go into inland, started a so-called military 00:09:00invasion. At that time, just a few days before that there was another critical date. I got a word from my father, who worked to the southwest of Shanghai who was then promoted to be the highest person of the railroad. In those days railroads were owned by the state. He told somebody to bring word to me that we have a convoy truck leaving Shanghai for his place, for headquarter, would be last evacuation possible.

So he asked me to decide if I want to take a chance to get out or stay behind. I thought about it for quite a while, decided that it's no place for me to stay here. Before too long we'd be all surrounded by Japanese, even I will be safe 00:10:00for that time in the so-called international settlement and French Concession, there's two conquests. Japanese would not come in at that time because that was before second war. When I was there, there was no hope, nothing I could do to find a job, to do something useful. So that's why I decided to go along with the plan. I contacted a truck driver in a convoy of really 6 or 8 trucks and he told me we're going to move out the next morning at 2:00 because we want to get out from Shanghai as far as possible, otherwise we'll be waiting, we will be bombed by Japanese airplane. So we did leave the depot on time but by that time the 00:11:00whole city of Shanghai was, the settlement and the French Concession, was surrounded by fire. They had started a fire all the way just like a ring of fire. We had to break through it like a blockade. In doing so we did get out, but it slowed us down quite a bit so we didn't get too far, maybe about, not even 100 km, which is about 60 miles, when the town broke. Right after that of course, bombers started coming and we were bombed 3 foot high. I was sitting on top of the truck in the cab. And I had a spot up high, seating on a roof so that 00:12:00the driver could stop the truck and everyone'd run like mad to the field and hide yourself underneath a bush or something, whatever you have. So I was one crew up [?], the bomb came down just in a straight line maybe a few 100 yards, go across our path, on the highway. That was pretty close but it didn't hurt us. We managed to get out by the next of middle of the day. The driver was a so tired and eyes were all red. She was swerving all the time but nonetheless she just keep on going. Finally arrived to the place, the small city, just coming 00:13:00off another railroad. We united with my father.

So that was a... later on I stayed there for almost 2 or 3 weeks waiting to get news about a university. We heard the university's moving now [?], a university will be set up eventually, but before too long Japanese army advanced to Nanking, which is very close to the place I was staying at that time, so we decided, my father said well, you either you'll go with me we'll go back westbound, or you can try to find a university. Finally I got a word the 00:14:00university had moved to a place not far from where I was staying, but it was very tricky to get there. I decided not to go with my father, who will... I'll have nothing to do... not useful to anybody, so I took the tricky route, took a trail for about 100 km to the Yangtze River dam, and I was supposed to take a ferry boat, go across the river to the other side and took another train to another town and doubled back by highway to go to this place where my university was at that time.

Well, I got to this place on a...right along the river. The Japanese Harbor was 00:15:00only about 30, 40 km away and bombing like mad and there were literally tens of thousands of people waiting for a ferry to go across the river. Pretty desperate. Impossible it was to get out of there. During that time a siren sounded. When the air raid siren sounded everybody, the crowd scattered. Everybody's trying to hide. I decide, well, it's too late for me to run. If they want to bomb I actually couldn't get across anyway. I stayed there. Only a few of us stayed there. When a ferry boat arrived the bombing was over, we were the 00:16:00first few on board the ferry so we got across safely and took a train about 150 km away to meet my classmate.

My classmate was my roommate on the campus. So I didn't realize he was from a well-to-do family. His family owns quite a few shops and pawn shop and a local bank, so he treat me with very good food, having wine at every meal. But I told him we have to go to university. He said, well, I don't want to go because I have no job. You have no apartment. I said, well, you stay here you won't get anywhere either. I decided we would go, but by that time we realized, we learned 00:17:00the bus system was not operating anymore, it was not operating. So we had to hire a so-called rickshaw to carry our bags, and we just walked, which is about 170 miles far. Took us 3 days to get there, but the first day we were in serious trouble because the rickshaw man, he was up to no good, you see. So the closest, as soon as he stopped there and he wanted to simply want to do away with that. Fortunately I did have a tube of a... a glass tube of a chemical in my pocket, 00:18:00which was the only weapon I had. It was liquid bromine, which when you put it out in the open space kind of a brown fume coming out of there very, very potent. So I said well, we have a new choice. If you don't do anything, we're going to give you this stuff, throw it on your face, then you'll be either blind or dead. And he looked at us, he decided, well, it's not worth to take the risk so he just dropped everything and left.

EH: Oh.

CW: So we had to get some help to getting to a city, a small town, hire another rickshaw. Eventually 3 ½ days later we finally arrived at a place which was 00:19:00back along the Yangtze River again, but it's about, oh maybe, a couple hundred kilometers west of the place I left on a ferry boat. At that time there were quite a few professors and students gathered there, but it didn't take too long to realize that I could not stay there because Japanese coming again. So we were put on a riverboat and went to Hangzhou, just farther north, quite a few hundred kilometers. This time more people from the university gathered together there to stay in a French Concession in Hangzhou.

In those days foreign concession all over the place. We stayed there, and the Japanese planes could bomb the place all the time. Eventually the military at 00:20:00that location at that time arranged to move us out by another riverboat and was going westbound and there's a place called Guangzhou. It's a few, I think it's about a few, couple hundred kilometers away. We stayed there for only a couple days and get on a boat, another riverboat. This was the type of boat can go out by way of the Yangtze Gorge, which has to be high-powered. This boat belonged to a British-owned company. So we were there, we got on board, but before we finished loading the siren sounded again so the captain decided we'll just get 00:21:00out of there because he has no protection on a dock. So we went straight to the Yangtze Gorge, which is only 100 km away. At that time the Chinese system for air raid alarm was pretty good. So you have about a couple hours of warning. They know when they took off and they know where they're going. So he was able to get to the Yangtze Gorge just by the gorge, miles of the Yangtze Gorge when the Japanese plane finally arrived. And we realized down below underneath the deck it was 600 miles moved up for future use. So we were, either you were hit, 00:22:00there would be no hope. But they managed to get to the gorge. The gorge is very, very, even much more steeper slope than the Columbia Gorge. So the planes could not, in those days, planes could not dive down so they were watching...there were two or three bombs dropped, but they didn't hurt us.

Eventually after two days we finally arrived in that place which is called Chongqing. That's the place the military application had managed to get hold of a big house, a house that belonged to a warlord. I would say probably 5-600 rooms in that house way up on a hill. You had to walk for 6 miles, not 6 miles, 00:23:002 miles, 16 Chinese Li to get there. So we were up there for a couple, three months. Nothing to do. Just wait. A student arrived who--what can we do? We can't even go to class there couldn't do...depends on the course. I think there was 2, 3 months after that the military decided to merge us with another university called Central University. So we move again westbound to Tonkin, that's the capital of the Republic of China during those years, during the war 00:24:00years. They didn't have any use for us, so they put us in an institute of translation compilation, which means, translate the English word; try to devise a dictionary, English-Chinese dictionary of chemistry or natural science. So I spent a lot of, oh, at least 6 months doing that kind of a job getting paid by staying in a small apartment with four people in a room. But that was after that point.

EH: Okay. How did you get to the U.S. and to Oregon State?

CW: After that, one day I got a letter from my friend, really a friend of my 00:25:00father, but he is quite younger than my father, saying that at that time he was in Hong Kong managing an office for purchasing and evaluation, technical evaluation for the Minister of Communication. So I need help. I know you know some English and you can, if you want to help me, you come to Hong Kong. So I grabbed the opportunity. I traveled by bus for 4 or 5 days from Tonkin all the way to Hong Kong, and then I got the job there for, let me see now, for about a year and a half, almost two years, at which time my assignment was to purchase trucks, well, equipment apparatus, fuel, tire and also oversee the 00:26:00transportation move to Haiphong. Haiphong is very close to Hanoi, it's in Indochina. In fact, there was a travelling between Hong Kong and Haiphong seven times. That's a long story. I don't want to go into detail, but it was kind of a funny operation there. Actually not funny, it was kind of scary because Japanese spy were after us. So our office has no sign, it's built inside a barber shop. In fact, the sabotage in Indochina was pretty bad. They burned about 20,000 tires that were put in the storage yard. One time we moved 1,000 trucks from 00:27:00Haiphong to inland to China with the highway, northbound from Hanoi.

By the time we get to China, to the border line, we lost probably; oh, we lost maybe one third. Factory stolen, punctured tires, Japanese be hiring a lot of Vietnamese to do a job, which at a dime a piece they would puncture tire, take care of the sabotage. I get the impression Vietnamese was heavily suppressed, very poor. But that's the reason why later on when we had a war in Vietnam, my 00:28:00statement at that time was in part with the wind because people over there they had sunk to the bottom now. They had nothing to - they don't even care about their own life. Anyway, after almost a year and a half in Hong Kong, my fiancé taken from Shanghai, this was my aunt's daughter, but we don't have any blood relations because it was my stepmother's sister's daughter, talked to me and also a professor of mine came back from Indonesia-based on their advice I decided I'd give up the high-pay job to go to a university, called West China Union University, a Christian university as a research assistant, which wasn't a 00:29:00high paying job. I think my pay rate was dropped by a factor of eight.

EH: Oh boy.

CW: At that time my father was not too far away from the university. So before too long after I took a job, I think it was about a year, not even a year later, I got married with my wife. So I stayed as a research assistant for about a year. I met a chairman by name of Roy C. Spooner [?]. He said, well, I think you can do some teaching for us. So I will have to teach general chemistry for home 00:30:00economic students and pharmacy students. I [unintelligible] until next year he promoted me to instructor to teach general chemistry for science school, for science student. That did not make a lot of people happy, but anyway, but I did have a good relationship there which was Spooner and at that time my wife, this was my first wife, also was teaching at another university on the same campus. This is the university called Nanking University, moved from Nanking to merge with West China Union University. In fact, there was four universities together at that time. So my son was born at that time. And to make a long story short 00:31:00after five years, after four years, Roy Spooner told me one day, he said well, I think it's about time for you to get some advanced education, and I'll send out some letters to find out. He did send some letters out, and I did get two offers: one from Oregon State and one from Penn State.

Right after we left Hong Kong, which was before the second war was declared. So of course Japanese took over all the concessions in China. There's a number of international French concessions. Of course after Pearl Harbor... no, I need to 00:32:00go back. When I was in Hong Kong, war was declared between Great Britain and Germany so that when doing my studies at West China Union University, the Pearl Harbor event, or rather the tragedy happened. So from there out there were quite a few American, the squadron of American bombers were in town. The Chinese farmer... 300,000 square feet, four outfield for the B-29 these three months, so 00:33:00during that time I think we had as many as 200 B-29s. So it's very sad to see the young pilots get drunk because the next day or so are dispatched go to fly to Manchuria out of Tokyo to go bombing. In those days the B-29 was automated, where when it took off sometimes the engine would catch fire, so they lost quite a few people there. It's pretty sad. But eventually of course the situation turned better, and the U.S. dropped the atom bomb and the Japanese army surrendered so let us see.. that would not be '45 yet. So it was during that 00:34:00time I got an offer as a teaching assistant at Oregon State or Penn State. I accepted the job at Oregon State because it's closer to China on the west coast and applied for a passport and foreign change. It was a very difficult job. He says pure luck I was approved. You were supposed to be approved by the highest leader. I don't know who he is, but he's only approved about 30 people out of a few hundred.

So I took the, I left my wife in Chengdu, and I took my boy, our son, to fly to Hong Kong by way of the China Airline, which they have a room with a bucket 00:35:00seat, and from Hong Kong took a boat to Shanghai and left my boy with my in-laws, and then I got on board an army transport, a U.S. army transport, General Scott. It took me... the concourse left Shanghai I believe it was in 1946, March 21st and arrived in Seattle. During those 27 days it was very tricky because we really don't understand the slang language and we were first time 00:36:00mixed up with a lot of GIs. They're pretty rough character. They gamble. They brag. They do other things, and they used a lot of slang from back home. I remember when we got ready to eat and I remember they'd say "six bacon come to a mess hall" that means Cabin 6B. Mess hall is a dining area. My vocabulary I think is twenty, 5 years older than I am and someone the same age as mine, while they_just lost. But I had a few years' experience teaching at a Christian university, so I was able to make out some things. But anyway, finally we got into Seattle and I was very much impressed by that Olympic mountain range. It 00:37:00happened to be a fine day, so it was impressive. And also of course we were shocked by the can-can dancer on board of a tug boat who walked some GI home. We were taken care dockside by the Red Cross people, and they took us up and put up in a hotel. It's kind of a pretty, pretty not very good hotel but in those days it was pretty good. Later on when I went back I had a difference way of looking at it. Anyway, then I took a train to Albany, arriving on Oregon State campus probably March 23rd.


EH: Okay.

CW: I was told the next day I would take a qualified examination. It was kind of a... that's how I got to Corvallis.

EH: Okay, so when you got here you started studying and teaching both?

CW: I was a teaching assistant. I was assigned to take of some laboratories. It was pretty easy for me. Academically I didn't have any problem, but I certainly did have a problem with culture. I recall in April sometime one day in the afternoon while guiding chemistry, all the people came in, all the students came in dressed very funny, you know, so called, the Sadie Hawkins day. The girl students wearing hardly any shoe. I said well, this will not do to do 00:39:00experiments with ether, you're going to catch fire with nothing to protect you. No die. Of course they all laughed. Oh, they said, you just don't understand, you're foreign, you don't understand our system. I said, well maybe I don't understand the new system but I do understand safety. But they went to department head, Dr. Gilbert. Gilbert after listening to my case, he said Wang you're right. Told me I'm right. The lab was closed. That was my first contact with the American culture. Pretty kind of a college in my, in the rooming house and I ate at a boy's house, what was called Heckert [?] place.

That was in '46. by '47 I arranged to have my wife arrive here as a teaching 00:40:00assistant in a physics department. I got my master's degree, she got hers. Unfortunately at the stroke of... by 1950 my wife became pretty ill and in '51 in May she passed away. At that time I was just graduate, and China was by that time under the control of the communist regime government. So not much I could do, so I stay here as an instructor, and that was the beginning of the long stay 00:41:00for 31 years until I retire from Oregon State.

EH: Okay.

CW: Does that do the job for you?

EH: Why don't you tell me a little bit more about what you do here now?

CW: Huh?

EH: Tell me a little bit about what you do here at Oregon State now.

CW: Well, you see after I got an apprenticeship I taught for one year. I started doing research with two professors and I started using radioisotope as a research tool. And before too long we were able to get grant money from the atomic energy commission, so we did very well and then we published a lot of papers. I was promoted to assistant professor and then associate professor. Then I taught a course in an area of how to use radioisotopes that was forefront in 00:42:00the country. So I also published quite a few papers, so I was promoted, in a few more years was promoted associate professors. Four more years I was promoted full professor. In 1958 I realized that this campus we do not have a facility to the job in teaching or research in the area of using radiation. So I proposed to get federal money to build a facility and there were quite a few friends here, my colleague helped out, we had a committee, and we were sending applications to the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, and the Atomic 00:43:00Energy Commission. We were turned down by either one agency, other agency a couple times, but I was kind of stubborn. The third time was a charm. Finally we got money. So we build a radiation center as the one build in here now. We by '62, we started construction in '64 we moved in. So the center began to expand. It was simply another application to National Science Foundation getting more money to build a reactor, to the Atomic Energy Commission also. So we were able to get the money by '67 the second portion of the radiation center was complete. The reactor was built and the reactor wasn't critical, so it became the one of 00:44:00the few radiation center on the university campus in the country.

So we keep on going through the '70s. Nuclear power was very popular. In fact, at this point I should, you probably, you may not know, we will have about 100 different power plants going on in operation right now. In those days were highlight, the highpoint of the nuclear power. So the College of Engineering, Dean Burgess, talked to me and decide to set up a department of engineering so we have a department.

I will have, in Engineering, a radiation center with two operation. So that was 00:45:00going on in the '70s. During the second half of '70s the environmentalist come and began to cause problem. Nuclear power plant people just couldn't afford a building, just takes too much time and too much money. So despite the fact in Oregon we built a treatment plant in early '70s, it was a bargain, for only $500,000,000. Nowadays it will cost over $2 billion. At that time also I was serving as the member and the chairman at one time on state energy facility siting conference, so I was go out to see [unintelligible] . So the nuclear 00:46:00power had begun to, nobody can afford to build any power plant anymore in the late, by '79 all it stopped. However, there was still quite a few of course under construction, and of course also in this country relies heavily on nuclear submarine in defense program. So the student of course could get very good job and enrollment dropped but still managed to stay at a steady state now. Of course the center has many other activities, not only provide a space for teaching, research, serve all the different state agency and even have a lot of 00:47:00international involvement with quite a few foreigners. So this wasn't too long until 1985, by 1984 when I realized that it's about time for me to retire, because I was already past 65. So I retired in 1985... 1984, December 21st. So this is my second year of retirement now.

EH: It seems like you're still busy.

CW: Well, I'm not doing too much now but just try to help the American Nuclear Society, which would [unintelligible] nuclear industry. If we have another energy crisis, we will need a nuclear power. If we do not continue our effort to 00:48:00have a group of people remain to be active, before too long all the people will be scattered. If we want to start again, we'll take another 6, 8 years to build up industry. Currently we're trying to win some foreign market. In the open market will not get anywhere because French people licensed from the United States they can do on their own now. By year 2000 the French people will rely 80% of their electric power be nuclear power. So currently the U.S. Nuclear Industry is looking for marketing third world country and small countries like Taiwan, Korea, and originally go to China and will of course face tough 00:49:00competition from French, from German outfit. Those outfit learn that license from the United States to get technology, and in Taiwan they competed with us. So that's a pretty good complete story, actually.

EH: Okay. Do you have anything you want to add?

CW: I don't think so, unless you have any questions.

EH: What are you going to do in the next three years? Are you going to stay busy?

CW: Hmm?

EH: Are you going to stay busy in the next three years?

CW: Well, I hope so if my health, right now I'm having hearing problems but if that can be stabilized, I suppose I will stay active professionally.

EH: Okay.

CW: Okay?

EH: Thank you.

CW: Very good.