“There was construction going on everywhere you looked,” Bill Wilcox remembered, describing his first impressions of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “Trucks and people just crawling all over the place, hammers and banging. Wooden structures going up everywhere. Nothing was paved, and there weren’t any sidewalks.” Wilcox was one of the thousands of people who moved to the new “Secret City” of Oak Ridge to work on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret World War II effort to develop an atomic bomb.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) is pleased to launch a new online interpretive program on Oak Ridge with 16 audio/visual vignettes. This beta program is part of AHF’s “Ranger in Your Pocket” series on the Manhattan Project, which focuses on former Manhattan Project sites and features vignettes with eyewitness accounts and expert commentary. AHF welcomes feedback and will improve and expand upon the program over the next year.
In September 1942, Manhattan Project director General Leslie Groves designated “Site X,” approximately 59,000 acres of land on the Clinch River in rural eastern Tennessee, as the site for the project’s uranium production facilities. Approximately 3,000 people living in the area in five small farming communities were forced to leave their homes and land with minimal compensation. Construction of a new city began at breakneck speed. By the end of World War II, some 75,000 people would call Oak Ridge home, making it the fifth-largest city in Tennessee.
The program includes firsthand accounts from Oak Ridge workers and residents. It highlights the historic X-10 Graphite Reactor, a prototype plutonium production reactor and the first nuclear reactor designed for continuous operation. The program also focuses on three uranium enrichment facilities that employed different methods to separate uranium isotopes for an atomic bomb. The Y-12 plant used a technology called electromagnetic separation; the K-25 plant, gaseous diffusion; and the S-50 plant, liquid thermal diffusion. These plants produced the enriched uranium for the atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945.
In the vignettes, former workers and Oak Ridge historians explain why the plants were built and how they operated. At Y-12, young women, who were not told what they were working on, were hired to operate the control panels for electromagnetic separation machines called “calutrons,” earning them the moniker “calutron girls.” “You had a board that stood about ten feet tall, and you had to turn these gauges constantly,” remembered Gladys Evans. “You’d have to try to raise a needle up to get the highest production that you could get.”
After hearing that the K-25 plant was running into trouble, physicist Philip Abelson notified Manhattan Project leaders about his recent success with the thermal diffusion technology. Abelson had designed a separation facility for the Philadelphia Navy Yard. “I got word one day that I was to go to the Warner Theatre that evening,” he recalled. “At eight o’clock I was to go to the balcony. I would be approached by a man who would identify himself.” The man turned out to be Los Alamos laboratory associate director William S. “Deak” Parsons. The information Abelson gave him convinced General Groves to order the construction of S-50 in record time: less than eighty days.
The vignettes describe what it was like to live in the muddy, frontier-like city. Bill Wilcox arrived in Oak Ridge in 1943. He called the city a “remarkable place.” “Groves realized that it was important to have the feeling of a community,” he explained. “He wanted it to have the feel of a normal town. It was a great place to raise kids.” Wilcox worked at the Y-12 and K-25 plants and later became the City of Oak Ridge’s official historian. He stayed in Oak Ridge for the rest of his life, marrying and raising his family in the town.
The stress and secrecy of the top-secret project could take its toll, however. “The experience that individuals had when they came to Oak Ridge did vary,” explains Denise Kiernan, author of the bestselling book The Girls of Atomic City. “For a lot of people, the shock was just too much. You get here, and there are gates and there are guards and there are badges. You’re not allowed to talk about what you’re working on. Some people felt quite isolated.”
Many people at Oak Ridge did not know that they were working on an atomic bomb. Bill Wilcox recalled how a Manhattan Project recruiter repeatedly refused to answer his questions: “No, can’t tell you. It’s secret! It’s secret, it’s secret, it’s secret!”
“Everything was a secret,” remembered Colleen Black, who was a leak detector at K-25. “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.’”
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 revealed Oak Ridge’s secret. More than 200,000 people were killed directly or indirectly by the bomb’s effects, including burns, radiation sickness, and cancer. In the vignettes, workers recall their joy at the end of World War II and their feelings over the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Japan surrendered, “It was just like a New Year’s Eve ten times over,” veteran Ray Stein remembered. “It was just a wild experience. People were just letting out all this energy all at one time, and being so happy it was over, especially those that had loved ones overseas.”
However, not everyone at Oak Ridge was in a celebratory mood. “It bothered me to know that I, in my very small way, had participated in such a thing,” recalled Mary Lowe Michel, a typist. “And I sat in my dorm room and cried.”
“Ranger in Your Pocket: Oak Ridge” will be an educational tool for students, online audiences around the world, and visitors to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. AHF is grateful to William H. Wilcox, son of William J. (Bill) Wilcox, Jr., the Wilcox family, and Ellen Cherniavsky, daughter of Philip Abelson, for their valuable support for this program.
Over the next year, AHF will expand the program to incorporate more stories and perspectives that reflect the complexity of this history. New vignettes will include testimonials from some of the thousands of African-Americans who worked at Oak Ridge and endured segregation there, as well as accounts of people displaced by the Manhattan Project.
AHF recently received a generous grant from the IEEE Foundation to develop a “Ranger in Your Pocket” on “Oak Ridge Innovations.” In partnership with the IEEE East Tennessee Section, AHF will highlight Oak Ridge’s legacy for science and society today, from the development of nuclear reactors to particle physics, computer science, health physics, and medicine.
“We are looking forward to working with AHF on the Oak Ridge Innovations project,” said Justin Baba, Chair of the Oak Ridge IEEE East Tennessee Section. “From high-speed computing to biomedical imaging, this program will help the public better understand the many ways that the innovations developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory can be used to address today's global challenges.” AHF looks forward to sharing different perspectives on Oak Ridge’s history and legacy today.