My research into Tennessee’s contribution to WWII is not complete without a chapter on Oak Ridge, undoubtedly the largest and most significant war project in Tennessee. And the most secretive.
The first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. The uranium isotope U-235 used in that bomb was produced at the Clinton Engineering Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Yet a mere three years before that ominous event the town of Oak Ridge and its massive plants did not exist.
Much has been written about the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. There are the scientific aspects and the military aspects. But my interest lies in the people – who they were, where they came from, how the war affected their lives, what their lives were like at Oak Ridge, and of course the possibilities of romance.
Recently I read two books about Oak Ridge that provided fascinating insight into the town and the people who lived there. “City Behind a Fence, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 1942-1946” by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson tells of the origin of the town and how the people lived in Oak Ridge. “The Girls of Atomic City, the Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan recounts the stories of several women who worked at Oak Ridge during the war while relaying the tale of the progress of the atomic bomb during the war years. Both books are fascinating and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in Oak Ridge.
In the fall of 1942 the Army Corp of Engineers began acquisition of 59,000 acres in Roane and Anderson counties, about twenty miles from Knoxville, Tennessee. With no negotiation, the Army informed land owners that their land was to be taken for a government project and gave them from two to six weeks to vacate. No information was provided about the project. When Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper learned of the government actions construction was already under way. He was understandably furious and accused the Army of establishing a New Deal experiment in socialism disguised as a war project. This sentiment persisted among people of the area for years.
All types of workers made their way to Tennessee to work at Site X for the Clinton Engineering Works or one of their contractors. The original estimate of 13,000 residents grew until the population reached 75,000 in 1945 making Oak Ridge the fifth largest city in Tennessee. Recruitment advertising for workers was of necessity intentionally vague. Scientists and construction workers, guards and secretaries, and many more traveled to an unknown non-existent destination to work on a war project. Soldiers preparing to go overseas were reassigned to the project with no explanation. Many young women from Tennessee and the surrounding states sought the good paying jobs without questioning what they would be doing. To these workers the secrecy of the project meant it was important to the war effort.
Johnson and Jackson describe the development of the town of Oak Ridge, with planning for housing, shopping, schools and recreation. As the demands of the project grew the challenges of running a town increased, especially with the tight security. With housing a constantly increasing need and continuously under construction, many workers lived off-site and either drove or rode the extensive bus system to and from work. The Oak Ridge bus system became one of the largest in the entire country. Housing within the reservation consisted of pre-fab single-family homes, small apartments, dormitories, trailers and hutments.
This is only a sampling of the fascinating information in the book “City Behind a Fence.” Definitely worth the read.
“The Girls of Atomic City” is also fascinating and well worth the read. Kiernan tells the stories of several women from different places doing different jobs all brought together in this one very unusual place. The writing style resembles that of a novel with plenty of personal detail and emotions from the viewpoint of the women themselves. Two secretaries, a leak tester, a chemist and a statistician are some of the ladies who tell their stories of a place where the one question they couldn’t ask a new acquaintance was “where do you work?” Limits on what could be discussed didn’t prevent friendships from forming or romances from blossoming.
Kiernan alternates chapters about the women with chapters about “tubealloy,” the code name for uranium. As in a mystery or thriller, Kiernan unveils the story of the scientists, the research and the conversion of theory to production under the pressure of war.
The locals often commented on how much material went into the site and nothing came out, no planes or ships or tanks or anything. Another memorable feature of the town to those who lived and worked there was the mud. Everywhere the workers went, the mud covered shoes and trousers identifying them as being from behind the fence.
Information was so compartmentalized that workers only knew what they needed to do their job. Very few knew the overall purpose of the project and the veil of secrecy prevented any open discussion or speculation. So most were as surprised as the rest of the country when President Truman announced that the bomb had been dropped on Japan and mentioned Oak Ridge’s contribution.
Both books provided me with much food for thought as I craft my love stories during World War II. Don’t be surprised if Oak Ridge shows up in a future romance novel.
On a personal note I will share my small connection with Oak Ridge. In the 1950’s my uncle worked at Oak Ridge. As children my sister and I spent a week with our cousins there and had a wonderful time. We had no idea of the significance of the place. We just knew if was very different from the small town where we grew up. When our parents came to get us, I remember my uncle driving us to the gate. Flanked by fences, guard towers, and armed guards, even to a small child it was ominous and memorable. Our parents spoke of the high security at the facility but it was much later before we understood the significance. A later visit to the American Museum of Atomic Energy explained some of it. I still have my souvenir from the museum – an irradiated dime. They told us the dime would always be radioactive but it would diminish over the years. A simple way to explain radiation to kids. My uncle transferred to the facility at Los Alamos and my sister and I were lucky enough to go there for a visit, too.