In April of 2012 I posted about Oak Ridge, Tenneesee, one the U.S. government’s secret Manhattan Project sites that was established to produce the fuel for the first Atom bomb. The post was spurred by the Department of Energy and the digitization of their photo archives, which included a lot of long classified photos of the secret town. You can read all about it here.
That post got a lot of attention and people all over the world were curious to see the photos and learn about how a town of over 80,000, which was home to the largest building in the world at the time (the K-25 enrichment building at CEW, which is pictured above and below), had the 10th largest bus network in America and used more power than the whole of New York City managed to remain a closely held secret.
I had known a bit about Oak Ridge and the Clinton Engineer Works before the DOE sent me the old photos (apparently, someone at the department understood well my affinity for such old photography), but I certainly was not a Manhattan Project expert. Coincidentally, around that time of the Oak Ridge post, I heard about the book The Girls of Atomic City, which told the story of the project in the hills of Tennessee and the many women who were so important to the success there.
I didn’t actually read the book right away and soon my interest in Oak Ridge was diverted to other historical distractions. In the fall I was visiting Cambridge, Mass. for the Harvard vs Yale game and I noticed the book Ike’s Bluff by Even Thomas in the window at the Andover shop and eventually bought it. Eisenhower is a personal hero and my most admired President and I was keen to read it right away. The book details much of Ike’s foreign policy and talks a lot about “The Bomb” and Eisenhower’s work to prevent the country from wasting massive amounts of money on defense (which it ultimately did anyway, something Ike warned against in his farewell address) and plunging the the globe into World War III.
After reading all about Ike’s determination to spare the world from the use of atomic weapons, I eventually went back to finally read The Girls of Atomic City and was further fascinated by the sheer scale, sacrifice and secrecy of the program. Due to compartmentalization of the project, very few people in Oak Ridge actually knew what was being made in the massive buildings of the Clinton Engineer Works. The book was a really interesting read and I recommend it for anyone interested in the everyday life in Oak Ridge in the early to mid 1940s. After I was done with that book, I went back to look at the DOE’s photos from Oak Ridge and CEW to align all that I had learned about the insane scope (in dollars, science, labor and secrecy) of what happened in Oak Ridge during World War II with the actual photos from the era. It’s pretty crazy that it was a success and I can’t even image what it must have been like for the thousands of workers at CEW when they found out on August 6th, 1945 what exactly they were all working on.
More about Oak Ridge during WWII here.