Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has the dubious honor of having been one of the few places in the United States that qualified for the label of “secret city.” What we usually have in this country are secret sites, but Oak Ridge was more than a site. During World War II, Oak Ridge had a population of 75,000 people, making it the fifth largest city in the state — one that didn’t appear on official maps.
The Department of Energy has recently been digitizing a large number of photographs of life at Oak Ridge, and it seemed like a good time to talk about the place. I would be remiss not to send interested readers to Frank Munger’s Atomic City Underground, which is a site that lives and breathes Oak Ridgery seven days a week. Some of my favorites from the new photos:
- A very cryptic security billboard from 1970. An eclipse? The moon? What does it mean?
- A handshake in from an Atoms for Peace emblem that has seen better days. (Perhaps I should say, a godawful Atoms for Peace emblem.)
- Santa and his Irish elves.
- Cool dog. (I like cool dogs.)
- There are atoms in your autos! But the kids don’t look that convinced.
- The Atoms for Peace van. Great for cross-country trips. Compare with the more touchy-feely ERDA truck.
- “Oak Ridge Needs Centrifuges.” (That’s what they all say.) But also check out the seal of the City of Oak Ridge, on the podium.
- Ed Westcott, the Oak Ridge photographer, testing a strobe light.
Oak Ridge was big for a secret city. Even the presence of “secret cities” or secret sites on a massive scale were pretty novel for the United States at the time. The only pre-World War II analog that I’ve come across is the lewisite (chemical gas) production facility during World War I known as “the Mousetrap” (once you enter, you never leave), where James B. Conant (future atomic administrator) worked as a young chemist.1
Most of the personnel at Oak Ridge were in construction of some sort. It’s easy to see why, when you look at what they made there. The job of producing fissile material (enriching uranium, in this case) was mostly a construction job. No shock, then, that it was the Army Corps of Engineers who were called in to run the project in 1942, and that the guy they chose to head the whole project (Gen. Leslie Groves) had recently constructed the Pentagon — still the world’s largest office building by area. I like to point out to students that all of the world’s nuclear fission research in 1938 could fit onto an average-sized dinner table; in less than a decade, it spanned an entire country.
The level of secrecy and compartmentalization at Oak Ridge created a number of practical problems for those running the site. It wasn’t just that Oak Ridge was cut off from the outside world, which it was. It was also cut off from the rest of the Manhattan Project, kept under tight compartmentalization restrictions.
The vast majority of those working at Oak Ridge during the war had no idea what they were working on. They knew it involved building very large facilities, that there were various health hazards involved, and that supposedly it was an important war project. All of those who were there thought they had signed up to do their part, yet the war in Europe seemed to end without any intervention on their part.
The National Archives has a great transcript of a radio show from 1947 that sheds a lot of interesting light on what it was like for your average technician to work at Oak Ridge. Here’s a quote from George Turner, who apparently managed workers:
Well it wasn’t that the job was tough… it was confusing. You see, now one knew what was being made in Oak Ridge, not even me, and a lot of the people thought they were wasting their time here. It was up to me to explain to the dissatisfied workers that they were doing a very important job. When they asked me what, I ‘d have to tell them it was a secret. But I almost went crazy myself trying to figure out what was going on. One man came up to me and said, “I thought this was a war job.” “It is,” I said. He looked at me very unbelieving. “Well I’ve been here two months now,” he stated, “And I’ve been watching those two smoke stacks outside every day, and no smoke has ever come out of them… There’s something funny going on around here and I’m getting out.”
The smoke stacks, it goes on to explain, were intake stacks, pulling fresh air in to the plant. It also describes how the railroad cars full of freight — uranium — always left empty, another suspicious looking thing.
Rumors abounded about what the plant was meant to accomplish, both inside and outside of it. These rumors were, of course, carefully cataloged by Manhattan Project security officials. The most amusing one I’ve come across for Oak Ridge was that it was actually a model socialist community being created by Eleanor Roosevelt as a prototype for future Communist domination of the United States. Nothing encourages nonsense like a vacuum of information.
Here’s Mary Anne Bufard’s perspective of being one of these compartmentalized workers:
It just didn’t make any sense at all. I worked in the laundry at the Monsanto Chemical Company, and counted uniforms. I’ll tell you exactly what I did. The uniforms were first washed, then ironed, all new buttons sewed on and passed to me. I’d hold the uniform up to a special instrument and if I heard a clicking noise — I’d throw it back in to be done all over again. That’s all I did — all day long.
Everyone reading this today knows immediately what she was doing: screening for radiation. But she didn’t learn about that until after the bomb was used, and didn’t realize how important the job actually was. From her perspective, it was just a strange laundry procedure — and a dull one, at that.
Interestingly, the story of Oak Ridge’s laundry was leaked during the war to Business Week. An article from 1943, described the “Secret Project’s Wash,” calling attention both to the fact that many handicapped laborers were used for the laundry service, and that the project was “probably the Army’s most secret project.” James B. Conant forwarded the above on the General Groves in August 1943; Groves replied that, “We have taken steps but the press must remain free and untrammeled.”2
From the radio program again, here’s Bill Ragan’s perspective, working in the plants themselves:
For three years I worked in the Carbide and Carbon Chemical Company Plant where they put me in a room with about 50 or 60 other guys. I stood in front of a panel board with a dial. When the hand moved from zero to 100 I would turn a valve. The hand would fall back to zero. I turn on another valve and the hand would go back to 100. All day long. Watch a hand go from zero to 100 then turn a valve. It got so I was doing it in my sleep.
The plant Ragan described was probably K-25, the gaseous enrichment facility. I’m not totally sure what he’s describing doing, but it sounds like he was pressurizing a chamber, evacuating it, pressurizing it again. There were similar boring jobs at the electromagnetic (Calutron) enrichment facility, where women technicians would manually help to focus the ion beams. Tedious work.3
As mentioned, all of this secrecy created tremendous morale problems. The job was boring. The purpose was unknown. The staff sizes were huge. What’s an administrator to do?
One of the most amazing documents I’ve come across in my work is a report that NARA has put online from the “Recreation and Welfare Association of Oak Ridge.” The problem was secrecy; the answer was… sports.
The war worker in Oak Ridge, Tennessee has been working under some of the most unique working conditions ever known. Due to the secrecy surrounding the nature of the Project, he never saw the results of this labor. There was nothing in which he could take pride. Thus, one of the common incentives for work was not present. No sense of satisfaction could be realized in a job well done. Naturally, this created quite a problem of morale not commonly experienced. In seeking to cope with this condition, it was recognized that it was imperative that an extensive program of leisure-time activities be planned that would reach all possible interests.
A lot of sports. You’ll notice that many of those newly released Oak Ridge photos show baseball and football teams? Just the tip of the iceberg.
As part of their intermural sports program — designed to make the workers happy despite the secrecy-caused morale problems — Oak Ridge hosted (just to pick a few from the linked-to report):
- A baseball league with 10 teams.
- Badminton, shuffleboard, bowling, golf, tennis, and horseshoe tournaments.
- Hiking, casting, riding, roller-skating, and mini-golf clubs.
- 26 teams of touch football.
- 10 softball leagues with 81 teams. That’s a lot of softball!
Baseball for bombs. As I’ve said before, nuclear history can be wonderfully surreal.
Though the atomic bombs — and the subsequent publicity barrage — put Oak Ridge on the map for the first time (literally) in 1945, the entire city remained gated and “closed” until March 1949. Even after its gates were removed, of course, gates still surrounded the plants themselves, and it was still run by the Atomic Energy Commission until 1959.
Oak Ridge is still an odd place, a company town saddled with both a legacy of secrecy, labor disputes, and environmental harm. I’ve only had a chance to go there myself one time, but I was amazed by the existence of the Y-12 Federal Credit Union. Do other countries name their banks after facilities that produce weapons of mass destruction? Somehow I doubt it, but the nuclear world is strange enough that I try not to be surprised by anything.
- This period of Conant’s life is covered wonderfully in James Hershberg’s James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (New York: Knopf, 1993), chapter 3. [↩]
- Note from James B. Conant to Leslie Groves, and Grove’s reply (3 and 24 August 1943), in Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., Roll 7, Target 10, Folder 75, “Espionage.” [↩]
- Why didn’t they automate this work? I suspect they would have loved to, but it would have taken extra time. Time was the one resource they lacked acutely at that point, and the only one they couldn’t bully out of other government hands. Three years ago I was called in as an expert on the PBS show History Detectives regarding an Oak Ridge patent that was developed towards the end of the war that would have automated the electromagnetic enrichment process. They don’t seem to have used this method (at least not at the time), but they were certainly thinking about the problem. [↩]