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

Engineer, 96, recalls in early Oak Ridge, ‘beautiful women’

By Tom Wood

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Historian Ray Smith, left, and Monroe Malow, 96, a retired chemical engineer who worked at Oak Ridge during the development of the atomic bomb. He now lives in Nashville.

-- Photograph Provided By Beth Malow

Some “Secret City” memories stand out more than others for Monroe Malow. The 96-year-old retired chemical engineer, who now resides in a senior assisted-living home just outside of Nashville, was brought to Oak Ridge from New York in the early 1940s to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project.

Malow and family members recently attended a lecture by Oak Ridge historian D. Ray Smith at the Tennessee State Museum, and afterward he reflected on facets of ordinary life under the most extraordinary circumstances – working under top-secret conditions to help develop the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

Oak Ridge didn’t exist before 1942 and quickly became Tennessee’s fifth-largest city with a population of 75,000 – though the world didn’t know of its existence.

Malow says he worked at the mammoth K-25 gaseous diffusion plant where the uranium enrichment process took place, “concentrating on uranium 235 and 238 using the barium material.”

But when he wasn’t on duty, he recalls life had a semblance of normalcy.

“We had the barracks (for) the scientific soldiers, and they’d bus us over to K-25. I wrote the operating instructions for the plant,” Malow adds. “We rode on bicycles because it was the largest building in the world, you know, a half-a-mile long.

“It was a normal type barracks that the Army had. But the surprise was that there were so many beautiful women,” Malow remembers. “The men like me, the supervisors, rode on bicycles to K-25, and the women had roller skates. Most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. Young and beautiful. And pretty.”

“Well, yeah!” Smith retorts. “Most of them were just high school graduates, young and pretty.”

Malow, who wasn’t married at the time, says he once invited his future wife Teresa (wed in 1946, they were married 70 years) for a visit to Oak Ridge to stay at the guest house.

“I have a lot of beautiful pictures of her,” Malow says. “I wasn’t married then, and so we wrote each other. And I tried to have her come down for a few weeks to the only hotel, but her parents said no.”

Most of those first Oak Ridge residents were female, Smith says, with five barracks for men and 10 for women.

“Bill Wilcox, the historian before me, checked out the 15 dormitories. They noticed ‘M’ and ‘W’ on them, and being pretty smart, they figured it out pretty quickly. They went back and counted, and there were 10 for women and five for men. And they thought that was pretty good odds,” Smith says.

Adds Malow: “And when it came time for the MPs to re-enlist, there was a big, long line of them because they loved having the women around them.”

Those back-and-forth zingers drew a lot of laughs, offsetting Malow’s more somber recollections of their mission at Oak Ridge.

He says the goal wasn’t to end lives, but to save them by ending the war sooner rather than later.

The uranium-enriched atomic bomb that was nicknamed “Little Boy” decimated Hiroshima. It killed 70,000-plus people instantaneously and an estimated 200,000 total over a five-year period from radioactive fallout and related health effects.

Three days later, the “Fatman” plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, racking up similar numbers of death and carnage. The Japanese surrendered unconditionally Aug. 14, 1945, ending World War II.

“One thing to keep in mind that the feeling was that we were ready to invade Japan, and that we thought that 1 million Japanese and 1 million Americans would have perished, and that the numbers (of deaths) are much lower than 1 million each. And that’s the excuse for what we did,” Malow acknowledges.

“I was glad to be a part of something. I didn’t like the idea of introducing a bomb like that into the world. But as I said before, the Japanese and Americans were poised to attack in Tokyo. And they had 5 million men on their side and 5 million on ours and the assumption was that a million men on each side would have been killed thus by normal fighting, so you can say it was merciful to have the Japanese surrender and not have that.”

Smith confirms that fight-to-the-last-man theory that American leaders shared.

“That’s right. They have released those plans – Operation Downfall – and they did have those plans that he’s describing, to invade Japan. And they would have fought to the very last. It would have been horrible to have done that,” he says.

Malow has been back to Oak Ridge once in all these years, says his daughter, Beth, who is a professor of neurology and sleep medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“It was sometime in the 2000s, shortly after my husband, sons and I moved to Tennessee,” she wrote in an email. “He really enjoyed the science museum and purchased a commemorative brick in the park.”

Smith adds he enjoyed talking with Malow after the Tennessee State Museum presentation in Nashville.

“He was proud to be the only one in the room who actually lived there (at Oak Ridge),” Smith says. “There are so few of them still with us. They’re all up in their 90s now.”

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