On October 5, 2016, Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) staff were privileged to meet with four Manhattan Project veterans from Oak Ridge who were participating in an HonorAir Knoxville program. The veterans were Ed Westcott, Virginia Coleman, Christine Higgenbotham, and Peggy Stuart.
Honor Flights are organized by nonprofits around the country to bring World War II veterans to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, along with other national memorials. The HonorAir Knoxville flight included 130 World War II, Korean, and Vietnam War veterans from East Tennessee. After arriving in Washington, DC, the veterans were taken to see the United States Air Force Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, the Marine Corps Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery.
Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cindy Kelly, Program Director Alexandra Levy, and Program Manager Nathaniel Weisenberg met the veterans as they were coming off the bus at the National World War II Memorial. Members of the public applauded the veterans as they walked toward the memorial. The veterans went to the Tennessee pillar and had their photographs taken, and then toured the memorial.
Ed, Virginia, Christine, and Peggy all were in great spirits and were pleased to be visiting the the memorials in Washington, DC. Virginia was accompanied by her two sons, Peggy by her daughter, and Ed by his daughter and son-in-law. They were all excited to be part of such a special day. Cindy, Alex, and Nate spoke with the veterans about their Manhattan Project work and took their photographs. Alex found it especially thrilling to take a photograph of Ed, the great photographer.
Honor Flights have 130 “hubs” in 44 states, and flew 20,886 veterans to DC in 2015. HonorAir Knoxville has flown 3,000 veterans to DC. Each veteran is accompanied by a “guardian” – a friend or family member who helps the veteran during the trip. While the program was initially focused on World War II veterans, Honor Flights have expanded to bring veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam to their respective memorials as well. If you are a Manhattan Project veteran and would like to participate in an Honor Flight, please contact your local Honor Flight program.
AHF was honored to have the opportunity to meet Ed, Virginia, Christine, and Peggy during their HonorAir Knoxville flight. For more about the HonorAir Knoxville flight, please see the WATE news article, East Tennessee women who helped on Manhattan Project to take 22nd HonorAir flight.
Ed, Virginia, Christine, Peggy, and the Manhattan Project
The four Manhattan Project veterans who participated in the HonorAir Knoxville flight each made unique and significant contributions to the Manhattan Project.
Ed Westcott went to work for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1941. The following year, at the age of 20, he became the official government photographer of the Manhattan Engineering District in Oak Ridge. Among the first in the new secret city, Ed shot thousands of photos documenting the construction and operations, as well as the lives and times of Oak Ridgers from the beginning. He shot hundreds of exposures and processed over 5,000 prints before the war even ended.
After the war, Ed stayed in Oak Ridge as an employee of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), until he was transferred to AEC headquarters in 1966. Westcott retired in 1977 after a phenomenal career as a photographer. He is regarded as a national treasure for capturing so many vivid images of Manhattan Project work and life.
Peggy Stuart worked as a “Calutron girl” at the Y-12 Plant, which separated the fissile uranium-235 from uranium-238 for the atomic bombs. The Calutron girls served as operators at the electromagnetic separation plant, adjusting the knobs on their “cubicle” machine to keep everything working smoothly. Although Peggy and her colleagues were not told what they were producing, they proved adept at the controls and played a crucial role in the Y-12 Plant’s uranium enrichment process.
The other two women have been close friends for over 70 years, and used to play tennis together. Christine Higgenbothom was a lab technician during the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge. Virginia Coleman, a chemist in the Y-12 Plant, worked with uranium yellowcake during the war. She continued to work at Y-12 for many years, and met her husband Charlie, a physical chemist with a PhD, in the lab there. Virginia’s story is prominently featured in Denise Kiernan’s bestselling book The Girls of Atomic City, published in 2013.