We never expected to be back in Oak Ridge so soon…and we certainly did not expect to have “Security Clearance” to visit the new K-25 History Center that opened on February 27, 2020. For this visit we even brought along our friend June who is a former American Museum of Energy Science Director. She shared stories with us of the town as it was during her tenure as well as historic notes that we weren’t going to find in any travel brochures.
Thus armed, we drove up to Oak Ridge and then set our GPS for the new K-25 History Center, which is eleven miles away from the town of Oak Ridge! When we toured the American Museum of Science and Energy just weeks before, we looked at the different complex facilities on the museum map and saw that there were good distances between them, but nothing gave us the impression that they were MILES apart. As we drove the through the unpopulated, wooded landscape, June explained some of the efforts the government had taken to keep the site and its activities secret, even from those working in separate parts of the plant. In the day, no one drove to the site. Employees were loaded onto buses back at the edge of town and transported to work. This meant that no one lived close enough to watch any of the comings and goings and gather clues or secrets that could potentially be shared with the enemy.
We passed abandoned Guard Shacks with gun ports at entrance points along the road. Buses filled with employees were allowed to pass, but everyone else was stopped, checked and cleared before they could proceed.
She also told us that people in Knoxville could easily identify shoppers from Oak Ridge by the mud on their shoes. It seems that Oak Ridge was under construction right up until the war’s end. Residents walked through churned mud everywhere they went and their shoes were permanently encased in red clay Tennessee mud.
When we arrived at K-25 we found ourselves in a parade of cars and followed to an aging asphalt parking lot. Most of our fellow visitors were of the graying generation and I wondered how many of these men and women had worked at the facility or had grown up in Oak Ridge. As we walked from the parking lot to the museum, we passed the last checkpoint with its narrow railed turnstile where everyone entered the facility.
A brisk wind kept the flags waving and there was a colorful display of apparatus in front of the fire station adjacent to the museum. A black vehicle parked on the street had a state senator’s license on it, and I guessed that the suited men in the growing crowd were officials who would appear in newspaper photos the next morning.
We quickly moved past the bunting hung from the chain-link fence outside the center. In the lobby we wormed our way through the tightly packed crowd, past a couple of rooms that were too new to even have furniture, and into a gallery with a photo exhibit entitled “IN THE DAYS OF MUD.” June’s story of muddy shoes was on display. The text in the accompanying brochure began: “Oak Ridgers during WWII who ventured into Knoxville were easy to spot…” and the photos in the exhibit spanned from 1942 through 1949. From one of the many quotes included in the piece I learned that the streets were wet even in the driest summer to help keep down the dust from all the construction vehicles…so there was never relief from the mud.
After passing vintage security warnings we entered the next gallery, which had a room-length timeline that begins in 1935 with Hitler’s rise to power followed by Germany’s first fission experiments in 1938.
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the Manhattan Project was officially begun on August 13, 1942. Oak Ridge appears on the timeline April 1, 1943, when the fence was closed, encircling and locking in nearly 59,000 acres of land. The speed of this undertaking is mind-boggling when you think that a site had to be identified, planned, and cleared of inhabitants.
Our eleven-mile drive from the town had underscored the size and scale of this massive undertaking, and K-25 was only one component in the process. Construction of what was to become the largest manufacturing building in the world began in September of 1943 and by January 20, 1945, the first gaseous cell was operational.
The timeline continued to the end of the WWII and went on to through the Cuban Missile Crisis and Ronald Reagan’s presidency and up to the end of the Cold War with the demolition of the Berlin Wall starting November 9, 1989. For K-25, the end of that chapter of the story came on August 27, 1985, when the plant was shut down, ending uranium enrichment in Oak Ridge.
Moving further into the exhibit area we learn about Wheat, the little farming community that was evacuated and demolished to make way for the secret project, leaving behind only the Baptist church.
The Clinton Engineer Works was responsible for the development of S-50, K-25, Y-12, X-10…an alphabet soup of project sites with labels to help maintain their anonymity as well as the town (that would eventually become known as Oak Ridge). The architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was hired and given four days to create a layout for a town with 3,000 homes, a shopping center, schools…without even knowing the site location.
The overall project ballooned to 75,000 residents with multiple town areas within what would ultimately become the town of Oak Ridge. Construction went on twenty-four hours a day for the entire length of the project. Recruitment activity was intense since a diverse workforce had to be hired for this top secret project and the ongoing war efforts made this task difficult. Construction workers, scientists, engineers, skilled and unskilled labors were hired from local communities and from across the country to do whatever was needed.
Housing and living conditions were unique as one museum sign announces:
Welcome to Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Picture life in a city, bursting with people. The site is constantly changing, constantly growing. Muddy. Temporary. Your family back home doesn’t know where you live and you can’t tell them. Censors open and read all your letters. Thousands of people work around the clock at classified sites around the city. You don’t know what they do or why this city is even here. You only know that you are helping to end the war. Security guards patrol the streets day and night. A guarded gate separates you from nearby towns. Your city is not on any maps, hidden from the outside world. Welcome to the secret city of Oak Ridge.
In spite of the difficulties, people came looking for jobs. Residents were making more money than they could back home. There were churches, schools, movie theaters, ball fields, bowling alleys and organizations…even a Girl Scout Troop that didn’t have a number because of secrecy concerns. People found ways to make life bearable and they became a community. This vast workforce was assembled for one purpose: although most of them didn’t know it…they were here to create an atomic weapon.
The enormous K-25 building that housed the uranium refining operations was designed by Kellex Corporation.
Most of the uranium came from the Belgium Congo and it had to be refined down to the point where its isotopes could be separated. At this time the science relating to “nuclear fission” was still in its experimental period and it was unclear which of three envisioned enrichment processes was most efficient for separating isotopes of uranium-235.
The size and scale of the Manhattan Project is especially mind-boggling when you realize that it was built based on new and unproven science. Facilities within K-25 were built for testing the three experimental refining processes: Liquid Thermal Diffusion, Gaseous Diffusion, and Electromagnetic Separation. Gaseous Diffusion proved to be the most efficient method for extracting uranium-235 isotopes, but all three were ultimately used to refine enough isotopes in time to build “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945.
The museum does a good job of giving visitors glimpses into the plant environment. The yellow “Criticality Unit #1” thankfully was never used. It was ready to spray borated water in case of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, and the bicycle in the photo was one of many used to span the vast distances within the plant.
Looking at the size and scale of the entire project at Oak Ridge is it hard to imagine that this was only one of three secret sites being built simultaneously in the country…the others were Project-Y in Los Alamos, New Mexico and the Hanford Site in Washington State. There were other locations that played important roles in the work as well as indicated on this glass map with a mockup of “Little Boy” in the background.
The dropping of Little Boy, the first atomic bomb, helped lead to the end of the world’s deadliest conflict and ultimately led to a new era of science and technology. The U.S. had raced against Germany for the creation of this weapon. It was believed that the side that won this deadly race would also ultimately win the war. Germany was defeated in this race as well as the war effort, but the Japanese were still intent on fighting on to the last man. They did not initially respond to the dropping of this first bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but they did surrender after the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9.
One of the most amazing aspects of the Manhattan Project is the level of secrecy that was maintained by thousands of people for more than three years. Vice President Truman was not even aware of this work until he was sworn in as president after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Everywhere we toured in the center there were reminders not to speak of anything related to the work being done, and internal security agents were hired to further assure that secrets weren’t being discussed.
At the end of our tour we gathered, like a batch of new recruits, in a mockup of a briefing room. A photographically created Army officer enters and stands in the doorway adjacent to the movie screen. He explains that the film we are about to see will introduce us to the level of security that is paramount to achieving the task at hand. The short film and the creative presentation was a perfect way for us to close our visit to K-25.
Even after the war was over so much surrounding Oak Ridge has remained a mystery. The new K-25 History Center provides an opportunity to learn more about the plant’s operations. It is also a marvelous opportunity to better understand the history of that era and to “meet the thousands of people who came together to work and live in a locked world so secret that it didn’t even have a name.”
For more information on Oak Ridge you can visit my previous post on our first visit. Also, I’ve included a list of two highly recommended publications: City Behind a Fence by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson; The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan.