After being discharged from Oak Ridge hospital, following my birth, mother and I returned home to our trailer. It was located near the east end of the K-25 construction camp, dubbed ‘Happy Valley’ by the workers and families living there. The camp was south of and across Gallaher Ferry Road from the K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant, eleven miles west of Oak Ridge.
Life at the camp was fairly primitive when the first 450 hutments were built for construction workers in the fall of 1943. The square residences were 16 x 16 feet, un-insulated plywood structures with no plumbing, heated by pot-bellied stoves.
A year later when I was born the camp had become a sizeable provisional satellite city with a population larger than Clinton, Tennessee, Anderson County’s seat of government. Along with the original hutments housing 2500 construction workers, there were 900 families living in trailers, eight huge barracks accommodating both men and women in separate wings, 12 large dormitories for 1200 men and 100 ‘victory homes’. In all, nearly 15,000 people lived in Happy Valley.
This hastily established community had a large cafeteria, several recreation halls, a movie theater, barbershop, bathhouses and even a bowling alley. In addition, there was a dispensary, a drug store, a service station and a bank. Across the road there was a Town Hall with a Post Office, Laundromat and icehouse. Several hundred yards east stood the old Wheat School that served as the education center for the children living in the camp and as a training facility for incoming Carbide supervisors.
It was there I spent the first year and half of my life. The impressions of that time are vague. I was told I was a very active and agile child even before I began walking at nine months – although not as precocious, spirited and strong-willed as my sister who began walking at six months.
The defining tale about me from that period is how I came to be called ‘Monkey.’ My seven-and-half-year-old sister, Alice, was instructed by my parents to keep an eye on me while they visited with friends in a neighboring trailer.
Positioned so that my parents could easily see us, I was put in my playpen outside our trailer. It was not long, though, before some other children distracted my sister. Seizing the moment, I used the monkey-bar hanging from my playpen to swing out of my enclosure.
When my sister returned, I was nowhere to be seen. Frantically, she began calling my name. Hearing her cries, my parents came running. The search began.
Believing that I could not have gone far since I had not, as yet, started walking, the range of their search was limited. That was a mistake. When they finally found me, six trailers away, I was still crawling.
For over a year my father had supervised the splicing and laying of miles of underground cable throughout the massive K-25 complex. The pace of the work was unrelenting, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; the complexity and scope, unimaginable.
When completed in 1945 in just 270 days without blueprints, the gigantic U-shape structure, consisting of 50 huge connected, four-story buildings, measured a half-mile long by a 1000 feet wide. At the time, it was the largest building under one roof on the face of the earth, covering 44 square acres.
The separation process used at the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant was based on Graham’s Law, where by, molecules of a lighter isotope pass through a porous barrier more readily than the molecules of a heavier one. The process required a massive facility to house the myriad cascades, pumps and membranes to separate the lighter u-235 from the heavier u-238. The plant also consumed enormous amounts of electricity, while producing only minute amounts of weapons-grade material. To accommodate the electrical needs of the gaseous diffusion plant the largest steam plant in the world was designed and built next door, with a 238,000-kilowatt capacity.
The residents of Happy Valley were constantly reminded that the facilities being built across the road was crucial to ending the war and “bringing the boys home.” No one, however, except a few in top-level positions, really knew what the mission entailed. Most of the workers at K-25 knew little to nothing of or about any of the other enrichment facilities.
Security throughout the Oak Ridge reservation was extremely tight. Workers were forbidden to talk to anyone about their jobs, even their spouse. Periodically, polygraphs were given to those in sensitive positions. Although no one knew at the time, everyone was under the watchful eye of military intelligence and government informants. There were agents everywhere watching and listening, posing as coworkers, bus drivers, shopkeepers and teachers.
There were large billboards with the Three Wise Monkeys reminding workers and residents:
What you see hereThose living in surrounding communities had no idea what was going on behind the barbwire fence and security gates. They saw trains hauling in hundreds of boxcars loaded with ore and other raw materials, yet never saw anything leave the compound.
What you do here
What you hear here
When you leave here
Let it stay here
The Manhattan Project was so secret that when FDR died on April 12, 1945, his Vice President, Harry Truman, had no knowledge of the project. It was nearly two weeks after Truman took office that he was informed of the project and its mission.
The first covert deliveries of weapons-grade uranium, u-235, left Oak Ridge for Los Alamos in the winter of 1945. The radioactive material was delivered in specially made briefcases hand-cuffed to couriers. Though the quantities of the shipments were measured in grams, by July of 1945 Los Alamos had received 30 pounds of the enriched uranium. At last, it was time for the bomb makers to test their design theories.
On July 16, 1945 the first nuclear weapons test, nicknamed ‘The Gadget’, lit up the morning sky in a remote area of central New Mexico above the Jornada del Muerto Desert. As the fireball shot upwards at 360 feet per second, the characteristic mushroom cloud blossomed at 30,000 feet. All that remained of the soil at the blast site were shards of green radioactive glass created by the heat of the explosion. The Atomic Age was born.
Eight days later, on July 24, 1945, in Potsdam, Germany, the United States and Great Britain demanded that Japan unconditionally surrender.
Four days later, Japan refused.
On August 6, 1945, President Harry S Truman made a radio announcement that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, equivalent to 20,000 ton of TNT. During his address, Truman revealed that the atomic bomb was developed at several sites in the United States, including the secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, near Knoxville.
As soon as Truman finished his address, the sounds of car horns and fire hall sirens began to wail. People spilled into the streets, dancing with one another, forming long snake lines. They were, at last, free to talk without fear of jeopardizing their unknown mission. The secret had been exposed – to them, as well as the entire world.
In a special edition that evening, the headline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, read “ATOMIC SUPER BOMB, MADE AT OAK RIDGE, STRIKES JAPAN.” The account gave workers at Oak Ridge their first official description of the top-secret project on which they had all been working.
In his address, Truman described the development of the atomic bomb as “the greatest achievement of organized science in history” and that it should give the Japanese the necessary impetus to surrender unconditionally to Allied forces, warning that if they refused, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
The code name for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 bomber, was “Little Boy”. Even though the simple gun-type nuclear bomb had never been tested, the eventual death toll was estimated to be nearly 150,000 people. The bomb’s explosive energy and massive shockwave flattened the entire city, igniting a raging firestorm and bathing every living thing within miles in deadly radiation. Sad but true, the weapons-grade uranium-235, used to make the bomb was partially processed across the road from my family’s trailer home in Happy Valley.
Despite the carnage and Truman’s warning, Japan still refused to surrender.
On August 9, 1945, ‘Fat Man’, code name for the third man-made nuclear device, a plutonium implosion-type atomic bomb much like the ‘Gadget’, was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Fortunately, because of poor visibility due to cloud cover, the bomb missed its intended target, diminishing the damage and death toll. Nevertheless, 39,000 innocent people were killed, instantaneously. Thousands more died later from blast injuries and radiation illness.
On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered. At Last, World War II was over.
While the citizens of Oak Ridge and the rest of the world celebrated, the ‘Monkey’ stood erect and began to walk.