The Oak Ridge Story

Oak Ridge Story book coverThis book was referenced in an article provided by a friend, and it contains some extraordinarily interesting aspects for a book published in 1950. For example, the Introduction describes how the Japanese, when they were in control of Southern Luzon in the Philippines, conducted a roundup of “…persons suspected of unfriendly attitudes.” An elderly American who had lived in the Philippines for many years was questioned about his nationality. “The man replied he was from Tennessee. A perplexed look crossed the (Japanese) officer’s face. Then he decreed. ‘You may depart. You are of a non-belligerent nation. Japan has no war with Tennessee’.” The irony is that activities in Tennessee would lead to the first atomic bomb used in warfare that was detonated over Hiroshima in 1945.

The book describes how John Hendrix was a devoutly religious person who lived in Eastern Tennessee at the turn of the Twentieth Century and described visions that caused people to laugh. He described a railroad that had yet to be built but was eventually built. However, that isn’t the most remarkable vision described by the “Prophet.” He described visions he had during a forty day self-imposed isolation in the woods. He emerged from his isolation to tell neighbors the valley, “…some day will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be…Big engines will dig big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake…I’ve seen it. It’s coming.”

Many of the neighbors of Hendrix undoubtedly considered him to be hopelessly delusional, or perhaps they just passed him off as an interesting eccentric. There is no doubt his visions, perhaps by sheer luck or by actual prophesy, accurately predicted the building of massive Manhattan Project installations in Eastern Tennessee. I find the prediction that, “…the earth will shake” to be the most compelling. The detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 indeed caused the earth to shake along with other effects that killed or injured tens of thousands of people in that Japanese city. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did indeed, as prophesized by Mr. Hendrix, “…help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be…”

Many residents of Eastern Tennessee had been displaced by the decision to construct dams for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the decision to construct the Clinton Engineer Works in 1942 resulted in another 1000 families being told they would lose their homes and farms. Property owners received notices of condemnation. The “cover story” was that the government was building a “demolition range.” The average cost of acquiring land was about $45/acre. The War Department was viewed by some as an “invader,” but that would not deter the land needed for the massive project from being acquired (taken).

There are some interesting antidotes about how some people dealt with the requirements for secrecy when they worked at the Clinton Engineer Works, later to be known simply as “Oak Ridge.” One mother wrote to her son who had said he couldn’t explain what he was doing to admonish, as only a mother could, “…I do hope it is honorable.” A husband gave his wife, who complained that she wanted to know what he was doing, two choices. “I’ll tell you exactly what I’m doing, but then you can’t breathe a word of it to a soul. Or I’ll continue to keep you in the dark and you can make up all the stories to tell your friends. She thought it over, and…took the choice of not knowing and being able to speculate.” The secrecy requirements could never overcome the suspicion about a massive government funded operation where huge amounts of materials and thousands of workers were flooding in with nothing coming out. The secrecy worked well to protect the Germans from knowing what was going on. They believed to the end of the war that the U.S. had not progressed beyond the research stages in development of the atomic bomb. Security measures were so intense that the “…Office of Censorship asked Superman’s creator to delete mention of atom-smashing cyclotrons.” The desire for secrecy resulted in examples of paranoia. Workers were finger-printed when they moved from department to department. One worker reported that he “…was finger-printed 27 times in a single day.”

A company named Roane-Anderson “earned” the responsibility to manage all of the “…facilities—houses, stores, utility and water systems, dormitories…” at Oak Ridge. It was an impossible task to accommodate the influx of thousands of workers who needed to have places to live. The outcome is explained by an antidote about a wife of a Union Carbide (a major contractor on the project) executive who wanted to invite the wife of the manager of Roane-Anderson to a party. She was told the number was unlisted. She said she wasn’t calling about, “…business, and I am sure they will not object. Besides, I’m one of their friends. The operator was courteous but firm. ‘Madam, she replied, for your information, Roane-Anderson has no friends’.”

The book describes the planning to bomb Japan with the atomic bombs built by the Manhattan Project. Jack H. Lockhart of the Scripps-Howard Newspapers (in what might have been the stupidest journalistic decision in history) declined the assignment. William L. Lawrence, science writer for the New York Times, was selected as the replacement. He observed and later described the Trinity test and was an observer of the Nagasaki blast. Detailed preparations were being made for the announcements about the atomic bomb while the last shipment of uranium 235 was leaving Oak Ridge and on its way to Tinian to complete the Hiroshima bomb. President Truman gave authorization to “…the 509th Bomb Group to attack Hiroshima, or, as alternates Kokura, Nigata or Nagasaki.”

Descriptions of Trinity are given in an appendix.”At the appointed time there was a blinding flash lighting up the whole area brighter than the brightest daylight. A mountain range three miles from the observation point stood out in bold relief. Then came a tremendous sustained roar and a heavy pressure wave which knocked down two men outside the control tower. Immediately thereafter, a huge multi-colored surging cloud boiled to an altitude of over 40,000 feet. Clouds in its path disappeared. Soon the shifting substratosphere winds dispersed the now gray mass.” A significant event recorded by the press “…was the experience of a blind girl near Albuquerque many miles from the scene, who, when the flash of the test lighted the sky before the explosion could be heard, exclaimed, ‘What was that’?”

There is an appendix that gives a brief history of the discovery of fission and the evolution of the Manhattan Project. There is a jewel of an appendix titled “An Accounting of the Successful Operation of the First Self-Sustaining Nuclear Chain Reactor in World History” written by E. R. Trapnell and Corbin Allardice and officially released December 1, 1946. It is the most detail account I’ve read describing “Fermi’s Pile.”

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