Accessibility links

Breaking News

Oral History Program Tells Tale of America's 'Secret City' - 2003-04-18

Imagine taking a job without being told what task you would perform or even what city you would work in. As World War II raged in the early 1940s, 20-year-old Joanne Gailar took just such a job in a city without a name. Not until the war's end would Ms. Gailar discover that she had helped to create the world's first atomic bomb. Her story is one of many being brought together in an oral history program that's documenting what it was like to live and work in America's "Secret City", Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In the autumn of 1943, more than 30,000 Oak Ridge residents were going to work each day as unwitting participants in the U.S. government's ultra-secret program to develop the world's first atomic bomb. It required millions of hours of their labor to synthesize just a few kilograms of uranium 235, the fissionable material used in the bombs later dropped on Japan to end the war.

Sixty years later, the Oak Ridge National Laboratories are documenting the lives of the men and women who built the bomb in secret. Joanne Gailar is just one of dozens to be interviewed. She recalls the day she arrived at the secret city's gate.

"When I came to Oak Ridge there was very little to love about Oak Ridge," she said. "We came here in a bus and we stopped at the gate, of course, and identification was sought… they looked at my pass. Then the bus pulled away from the bus terminal in a cloud of dust and I found myself coughing and choking. Little did I know then that when winter came and the rainy season, that dust would turn into slushy mud."

Mud churned up by construction crews trying to convert empty countryside into a fully functioning city for 75,000. Workspace, housing, schools; even theaters, all constructed in little more than a year's time and everything done in absolute secrecy.

"There were posters all over town, any place there was a billboard in the recreation hall, on the buses telling people to keep their mouths shut about project information," Ms. Gailar said. "The only one I remember at this late date is a poster of four monkeys, 'What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here!'"

Ms. Gailar has collected this and other remembrances in a book titled Oak Ridge And Me: From Youth To Maturity. In it, she recalls being just one of 12,000 workers in the now-famous K-25 building where uranium 235 was painstakingly collected through a process called gaseous diffusion.

"K-25 was the longest building in the world under one roof, one fourth of a mile (.4 km) from one end of the 'U' to the other. It was U-shaped and people got around in bicycle lanes. There was a bicycle in front of every office and that's how we would ride around at K-25," she says.

With the country on a war footing, Ms. Gailar and her co-workers labored long hours, but the secret city did provide opportunities to relax. "They had three or four recreation halls in town and dances were held frequently on Saturday nights. That was fun. They had several movie theaters," she says. "So there was certainly things to do in Oak Ridge. And not too long after that a symphony orchestra came into being."

On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, and Oak Ridge workers were finally told of their part in the ultra-secret project. "The reactions were different from different people," she says. "Most people were rejoicing. One very sober person said, 'Well the genie is now out of the bottle.'"

It was a nuclear genie that within a few years of Japan's surrender would become the focal point of a cold war between the communist and free worlds. With the guns silent, however, one third of the Oak Ridge complex was converted to more peaceful pursuits and renamed the Oak Ridge National Laboratories. The labs were engaged in research ranging from nuclear medicine to environmental science.

But Ms. Gailar would return, years later, to work at the labs doing civil defense research. "And the civil defense research project was established by a Nobel Prize winner, Eugene Wigner, with the purpose of protecting our country from chemical, biological and especially nuclear warfare. The very kind of warfare which was the reason for Oak Ridge's existence 20 years earlier," she says.

Ms. Gailar eventually became one of America's foremost authorities on Soviet civil defense measures. She found herself writing papers for prestigious journals and giving briefings at the CIA. Her 30-year-old recollections are, surprisingly, very timely. "They had very good material," she says. "They told housewives what to stock, what foods. They had instructions on quickly constructed shelters. They had instructions on how to evacuate. School children were taught how to use gas masks of all things and teachers were taught how to instruct them."

Ms. Gailar worries about the future. She says she feels more vulnerable now than she did at the height of Cold War. "I didn't use to worry as much for my children as I do for the ones, my grandchildren and my great niece and nephew. I see these bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kids and I think, 'Gee, I sure hope they have a world that's gonna' be safe.'"

Safeguarding America continues to be the mission of the once-secret city. Among other things, the National Labs are aiding the war on terrorism by improving the nuclear materials detectors now in use at most American ports.