We are sad to report that our friend Colleen Black passed away on March 19, 2015. Colleen was a veteran of the Manhattan Project who loved to share her story. She was one of the women author Denise Kiernan profiled in her bestselling The Girls of Atomic City. She helped many a National History Day project by answering students’ questions about the Manhattan Project.
When Colleen’s brother was drafted into the Army in 1942, she and her family decided to move to Oak Ridge to contribute to the war effort and bring her brother home. Black's family joined 13,000 other workers at the construction camp in Happy Valley Tennessee, where the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant was being built. Black worked in the leak-testing department, ensuring the efficiency of pipes used during experimental testing. After the war, Black remained in Oak Ridge, where she married her husband and raised her children.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation recorded two interviews with Colleen, which can be watched on our “Voices of the Manhattan Project” website here and here. She recalled, “K-25 was the big U-building and we did not know what was inside, but they were still building it when I was there. I walked to work, and it was the four to twelve shift at the time, although they had three shifts going around the clock all the time. They put me in the leak-testing department, and I would see all these big pipes come in and we would test them for leaks in the well. We did not know where they were going or what they were going to do, we did not ask; because all the posters said do not tell. Everything was a secret, security was tight, we all wore badges and you had to wear them everywhere – to the laundry, everywhere you went you wore your badge.”
Colleen concluded, “I am proud of being a part of it. That is why we want to get the National Park here too, because to think we were part of that history is wonderful.”
Colleen and her husband, Clifford, wrote a poem about their Manhattan Project experiences, “Ode to Life Behind the Fence.” The poem was published in the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s anthology The Manhattan Project.
Ode to Life Behind the Fence
We’re fighting the war in a secret city.
It’s crowded, it’s muddy, and it ain’t pretty.
We’re fenced in: in barracks, a hut, or a dorm;
Army life here is not exactly the norm.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee is the city. It’s not on any map.
We can’t give you directions; we don’t want to take the rap.
Nearby residents will not say,
Nor the workers who commute every day.
We’re secret. Security’s tight.
Guards on horseback patrol at night.
MPs guard the seven gates and search cars, too.
No cameras, firearms, or firewater get through.
We’re fenced in behind barbed wire, and, by the way,
We’re paid the usual Army pay.
No, GI calisthenics must we do
And ID badges must be worn in plain view.
We work with civilians, helping each other.
Our mission is secret, can’t even tell Mother.
The mail is late, the laundry’s lost,
Meat is rationed; no steaks at any cost.
We chow down three times a day, but not the usual Army mess.
We eat in cafeterias with civilians, no less.
We slosh through the mud to get anywhere,
And we have mud on our feet clear up to our hair.
It’s hot. Buses are crowded. Some workers smell.
“Don’t open the windows,” the women all yell,
“Or you will be covered in dust head to toe,
And we’re out of soap, to add to our woe.”
We work in shifts. We do what it takes,
Making whatever our plant makes.
We’re special GIs. The chosen few
Selected for our knowledge and high IQ.
We work hard all day, and play hard all night.
But don’t worry, we never get tight.
The project is dry, no liquor allowed.
But that doesn’t seem to bother this crowd.
We head for our PX. It isn’t far.
And we settle for a beer at the Casablanca Bar.
Or we go to the Rec Hall for dancing or ping-pong.
Or maybe join the girls for a sing-a-long.
We love this life, the work, the softball games.
The girls are pretty and wear badges with names.
We love the tennis court dances, bowling, the spirit.
We’re happy behind the fence. We do not fear it.
We attend church each Sunday at the Chapel on the Hill.
It’s for all denominations, with different hours to fill.
Many G.I. weddings take place here—so sweet—
Brides in white satin dresses with muddy boots on their feet.
Whatever we’re making…shhh! We’re making it well.
And someday we’ll be able to tell…
How we built something that helped win World War II,
And I hope that everyone will be proud of us too.