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VOL. 43 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 24, 2019

Spilling the secrets behind Oak Ridge, the ‘Secret City’ built to build 'the bomb'

By Tom Wood

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By 1947, when this image was shot (looking east at the Y-12 works) by famed Manhattan Project photographer Ed Westcott, Oak Ridge was well established, even though it wasn’t on any maps until 1949. There were 75,000 workers living there then. The city’s population is now about 27,000.

-- Historic Photograph By Ed Westcott

Who knew the beginning of the Atomic Age was so funny? Sort of like the Humor in Uniform section of “Reader’s Digest,” Oak Ridge historian Ray Smith uses homespun humor to tell a condensed version of the key role his city played in the development of the atomic bombs that ended World War II.

Instead of dwelling on the horrors of war, facts and figures or sobering statistics, Smith combines well-crafted anecdotes, perceptive wit and superb oratory skills to present an informative, inspirational and entertaining multimedia narrative of the founding of Oak Ridge.

Like a modern-day alchemist, he deftly changes atomic matter into a laughing matter.

“(The lecture style) comes natural, it’s a skill that can’t be learned,” says Smith, who was in Nashville recently to discuss the history of “America’s Secret City,” as it is often called today. “I think of myself as a natural storyteller. People will remember the stories and the anecdotes long after they forget the facts or the names.”

That was certainly the case during his recent appearance at the Tennessee State Museum about those perilous times when the clock was ticking on the first nuclear arms race between the United States and Germany.

Now don’t get the idea that Smith is in any way disrespectful of the work done in Oak Ridge, or the brave people who carried out their assignments without knowing exactly what they were doing – only that it was important and imperative to winning the war.

On the contrary, the Vietnam War veteran who grew up in Marshall County tells their stories in an empathetic manner with an often-amusing slant.

“Those stories are the heart of the matter. People may not remember the name of Sen. (Kenneth) McKellar, but I guarantee you they are going to remember the story of how he brought the Manhattan Project to Tennessee.”

How was Oak Ridge chosen?

Long before Oak Ridge, Smith says, the region was inhabited by the Yuchis, a small band of Native Americans drawn to the valleys and mountains for natural protection and water. White settlers began arriving “in the late 1700s,” Smith adds, and by 1942 there were 1,000 farms and 3,000 people in the several communities that had cropped up.

Secret City Festival

Celebrate history, science, food, music and more June 7-8. Free except for headline concerts: Loverboy on Friday and .38 Special on Saturday. A.K. Bissell Park, Oak Ridge. Information

“Oak Ridge is named for the ridge that it’s on. Black Oak Ridge,” Smith explains. “And (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) just picked that name because it wouldn’t bring a lot of attention to it. It would be similar to other names around in the area.”

That drew a few chuckles, but Smith was far from finished. He mentioned the proximity of Norris Dam and the role of Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, who was put in charge of Oak Ridge construction.

“Did President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt have a role in it? Maybe. Senator McKellar might have had more to do with it than anybody,” Smith says. “When Albert Einstein (wrote in 1939) to President Roosevelt saying Germany is buying up all this uranium ore, they were afraid they were trying to build a bomb out of it.

“Roosevelt knew it would be an expensive undertaking, so he put Gen. Groves in charge of the Manhattan Project. Groves had just finished building the Pentagon, so he knew how to put a large construction project together. He knew how to get private industry involved, and he knew how to spend money.

“So President Roosevelt called in Sen. McKellar (ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee) and he said, ‘Senator, I need to put a large amount of money into the war effort, and I can’t let the press or anyone know how much it is or what it’s being used for. Can you help me with that?’”

A jovial smile as a pregnant pause moment passes, and then Smith delivered the punchline.

“He said, ‘yes, Mr. President, I can do that for you. Just where in Tennessee are you going to put that thing?’ Now that likely had more to do with us getting selected in East Tennessee than any ridges and valleys and proximity to a dam or anything like that,” Smith continued, smiling.

Story doesn’t end there

Smith then quickly relates the time he interviewed Sen. Howard Baker for a documentary about Oak Ridge.

“And he said, ‘First, let me tell you how that place was chosen.’ And he went through that Sen. McKellar story in the most flamboyant way you’ve ever seen,” Smith added to more laughs.

“When he got through, I said, ‘Thank you, Senator, for putting on video the story that I tell everyone who comes to Oak Ridge.’ He replied, ‘Where’d you get that story?’ And I said, ‘I got it from Dick Smyser, the longtime editor of the Oak Ridge newspaper, The Oak Ridger. He said, ‘That’s where I got it, too!”

Shift change in 1945 at Oak Ridge. Female workers outnumbered men at the facility.

-- Historic Photographs By Ed Westcott

And that’s not the end of the story. He noted that Oak Ridge was a city the world didn’t know existed until the first bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.

“During 1945, there were 75,000 people living there. Fifth-largest city in the state of Tennessee, and it wasn’t on any map until 1949,” Smith explained. “In March of 1949, they opened up the roads to let people come in and they built the little guard shacks that you see standing there still today … and that’s the first time the public could see what’s going on in Oak Ridge.”

Get it built yesterday

Smith’s lecture includes a visual presentation featuring of the works of Ed Westcott, the official photographer of the Manhattan Project, who died on March 29. He then offers an easy-to-understand explanation of the differences between the Y-12 (the calutron process was a batch operation for uranium enrichment) and the K-25 (gaseous diffusion of enriching uranium) buildings.

He discusses the building of the thermal diffusion plant (speeding up production of K-25 enrichment material), focusing a conversation between theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory and often called “the father of the atomic bomb,” and Gen. Groves.

“So Groves went to the contractor, M.K. Ferguson, and said, ‘Look, I need you to build me a thermal diffusion plant. I need it built right by that steam plant, and I need it in 90 days.’ The contractor said, ‘It can’t be done.’ Groves looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’ve got 80 days.’

“They built it in 76 days and operated it for three months, projecting that it shortened the war by about three weeks because they had that little bit of enrichment on the front end.”

A comedy team

Former Tennessee state archeologist Nick Fielder – now the special projects adviser for the State Museum – was able to secure several Oak Ridge artifacts for the museum’s exhibit.

“And one of the things we have on display up there (on the second floor) is a book that Gen. Groves had written at the end of the war, well, before the end of the war. It was basically ‘Atom Bomb for Dummies,’ and it had all the information about how you build a bomb and it was published two weeks after the bomb dropped,” Fielder explained.

Calutron girls at their cubicles in the Y-12 Plant in 1944.

-- Historic Photographs By Ed Westcott

“And all these people who had not known what they were doing could take this book and find out. And there was lots of consternation, that we were telling the world how to build a bomb.”

“So the name of that book is not ‘How to Build a Bomb for Dummies.’ But it is an example of what Groves did,” Smith said with a laugh. “Groves knew he was creating something of enormous historical significance, and he captured everything as he was running through it, he was having (his collaborators) to write it down.

“He knew that it was going to be important. He wanted pictures, he wanted videos, he wanted documentation. And that’s why that book was published almost immediately.”

What did Truman know?

Following the death of FDR on April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as president. And it was only then that he learned of the existence of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project.

“When he was vice president, he did not know about it. After he became president, then (Secretary of War Henry) Stimson and Vannevar Bush (head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development) briefed him on it,” Smith explains.

“But the interesting thing about (Truman) was that when he was a senator, before he became vice president, one of the things that he was looking into was unusual expenditures. And he saw unusual expenditures and he started checking into it,” Smith continues. “And Bush and some other influential folks went to him and said, ‘That’s not something you need to be looking at.’ And he quit!

“Then when he became president and learned what it was, I’m sure it clicked, that he knew exactly what he … what was happening, that Sen. McKellar was hiding that money that he was investigating.”

So how much did Truman have to do with the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima?

“There was a book written about ‘The Most Difficult Decision,’ and that was the decision,” Smith says. “Gen. Groves and Stimson were the ones to decide where the bomb was going to be dropped. Hiroshima was the first target. Nagasaki was not the second target, but the second target, a coastal city, was enclosed in clouds on that day, and they chose the second target of Nagasaki. All President Truman had to do was to not say no.

“It was already in motion. It was already designed. It was already intended when the drop was going to be. The Army had the authority to move ahead. And (Truman) said, ‘Yes, continue.’ Now it was obviously a difficult decision.”

The Calutron Girls

That’s what they now call the nearly 22,000 young women – known then as cubicle operators – who worked in the Y-12 plant operating the 1,152 calutrons in the electromagnetic separation batch process.

Smith has met a number of those women over the years – those still alive are now in their 90s – and recounts conversations with a couple of them, Gladys and Ruth.

“She said to me, ‘Ray, I never did know what I was doing when I was working here. Can you show me?’ So I opened one of the cabinets and said, ‘Gladys, when you were working here, you were adjusting these knobs. You were changing the value of a rheostat down here.’ She reached over and tapped me on the arm and said, ‘Ray, I still don’t know what I was doing.’

“But I know if I had any bobby pins in my hair, they’d just go wffft and stick to the walls somewhere.’ Largest magnets in the world at the time.”

And then there’s this poignant story.

“When we have these (interview) sessions, I ask her, ‘Ruth, what did you think you were doing when you were working on those calutrons?’ And she’ll always say, ‘I didn’t have a clue. I just knew I was doing something to help win the war.’

“And I’ll say, ‘what did you think when you got word that what you were doing had just been used to make the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima?’ And she’ll say, ‘I was glad, because I could see that it was going to end the war, and my boyfriend was in Germany and he’d already told me he was headed to Japan. So I didn’t want him to go to Japan.’”

A pause. No laughs this time.

“And then I went home that night and heard it on the radio and read it in the paper how many people we’d killed – 70,000 people. And I got so depressed I couldn’t sleep for a week because I’d been part of killing those people.’ …

“… Ruth is an example of what happened to these people who didn’t have a clue what they were doing, but on the day they could read that book, on the day the newspapers came out, they knew they had been a part of killing 70,000 people.

“And our hope is, at Y-12, is that we never, ever have to use nuclear weapons, and that eventually we’ll be able to do away with all of them.”

Oak Ridge today

If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of Oak Ridge, there are plenty of museums – from the Manhattan Project National Historical Park to the Department of Energy Museum, from the Children’s Museum to the Friendship Bell to the Secret City Commemorative Walk – and much more.

Oak Ridge’s K-25 History Center debuts in September.

Smith touts the ways Oak Ridge continues to grow and benefit the world through ongoing work at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“Y-12 is still a functioning nuclear plant, and it’s still there. Three of the nine buildings are still being used. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory … it’s the largest national laboratory in the Department of Energy complex,” he says. “Y-12 has produced products for every nuclear weapon that we’ve ever made. They’re now storing all the highly enriched uranium that’s coming out of nuclear weapons.

“And the largest construction project in the history of the state of Tennessee, the uranium processing facility, at $6.5 billion, is being built at Y-12. It’s coming out of the ground now. (ORNL) has the world’s most powerful, fastest, supercomputer (and Y-12) has the world’s most powerful pulse-neutron generator.”

He then highlighted the region’s positives.

“So quickly:

• “30,000 people in Oak Ridge

• “The economic impact to Tennessee is $5.6 billion

• “12,000 direct jobs from 20 counties, 22,000 indirect jobs

• “$943 million non-payroll spending in Tennessee, $2.4 million charitable contributions

• “Patents, the world’s largest, most-powerful super-computer, neutron source, nuclear health components all from Oak Ridge

• “All the highly enriched uranium is there that is in the nation.”

A woman in the back raised her hand. She was curious how we know it’s ‘the world’s largest, most powerful supercomputer (called Summit).’

“Cause they told us it was. There are people who keep up with that,” he told the audience. “China led for a little bit. We’re now back in the lead now with Summit. And not only that, but we’re building the next generation that’s going to leap over China. Way over.”

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