Secret City

June 29, 2006
Filed under Destinations

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Where in America can you hide a city of 75,000 people for three years, and not permit the
rest of the world to know it exists? No, this is not a trick question. In fact, it happened
in eastern Tennessee, during the days of World War II. A community that was only a few
miles west of Knoxville, it sprang up literally overnight (houses were completed at the
rate of one every 30 minutes) and was given the code name Clinton Engineer Works, for no
other reason than it was located near Clinton, Tennessee. This unparalleled undertaking
that in 1945 dollars cost $1.1 billion was a direct response by President Franklin D.
Roosevelt to a letter written to him by Albert Einstein that detailed how Nazi Germany
intended to build atomic weapons, and that the United States must not permit the European
country to develop this technology first. The city and surrounding area was but a part of a
much grander scheme: a highly secret, highly urgent program called the Manhattan Project
(so named because New York was the location the plan officially came together). Other
components of the top-secret undertaking included Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford,
Washington; and several universities across the country, such as the University of
California at Berkley; the University of Chicago; Columbia University; and others. After
the war, Clinton Engineer Works was renamed Oak Ridge, Tennessee. As good fortune would
have it, we bumped into Bill Wilcox, who was having breakfast at the Jefferson Soda
Fountain, a coffee shop that today is still housed in its original building, built in 1943.
Ordering our own Southern country breakfast, we talked with Wilcox about the history of the
“Secret City.” Turns out that as a young chemist, Wilcox worked from the very early days of
the Manhattan Project at Clinton Engineer Works. He was 20 years old and fresh out of
college, and he worked at the first plant built here. Wilcox explained that General Leslie
Groves was in charge of all aspects of developing the bomb, including building the
facilities and recruiting the brilliant scientists who advocated different approaches to
uranium enrichment and bomb design. To hedge his bets at Oak Ridge, Groves decided to build
two plants, Y-12 and K-25, each with their own strategies to enrich the uranium 235 (U-235)
needed to build the atomic bomb. It was Groves’ thought that if one plant were to fail, the
other might work (remember, this was entirely new technology). The first plant built was
Y-12, where Wilcox and thousands of others worked to separate U-235 from uranium 238
(U-238) using “Calutron” D-coil magnets. (The word “Calutron” comes from California
University Cyclotron.) The second plant was called K-25, and it came along about a year
after Y-12. The K-25 plant utilized a strategy developed at Columbia University that
required its own steam-powered electrical generating plant to facilitate a gaseous
diffusion process. K-25 and Y-12 were built at opposite ends of the Clinton Engineer Works
reservation. In the end, the process that supplied the U-235 for the first weapon was Y-12,
but K-25 proved much more efficient, so Y-12 was shut down a year after the war and K-25
continued to operate another 20 years. Oak Ridge veterans are very proud of the city’s
history and the role that Secret City played in bringing peace to the world after six years
of World War II. Wilcox articulates this very well and, at the age of 82, works feverishly
with the folks at the Oak Ridge Visitor Center and the East Tennessee Tourist Council to
promote the city. Today, self-guided driving tours take visitors out and around K-25, where
a new town had to be built for its 12,000 workers. Residents quaintly call this “Happy
Valley.” The K-25 plant was huge — the largest process building under one roof anywhere in
the world in 1945. It housed more than 40 acres, built in the form of a huge letter “U”
with legs a half-mile long each. Wilcox explained that during the Manhattan Project, the
Oak Ridge plants consumed one-seventh of all electrical power generated in the United
States at that time. He described how at the Y-12 plant, the windings to make the large
magnets for the more than 1,000-plus devices required would have used so much copper that
it would have seriously hurt the rest of the war effort. So, someone hit on the idea of
using silver — which is an even better conductor of electricity then copper — to make the
wire and the bars. And where did they get the silver? They went to the U.S. Treasury and
borrowed 14,000 tons of silver ingots that were turned into the forms needed to make the
magnets. At the end of the war the silver was returned to the U.S. Treasury. All of what
Wilcox explained to us, plus much, much more can be seen and experienced at the Museum of
Science & Energy in Oak Ridge. The lower level is dedicated to the history of the
Manhattan Project and, most specifically, what happened at Oak Ridge. The second level is a
children’s museum dedicated to understanding various alternative energy sources. A
self-guided driving tour takes visitors past the Alexander Inn, where Groves, Robert
Oppenheimer and all high-ranking movers and shakers stayed when they were in Oak Ridge
during the War. The chapel directly behind the Alexander Inn was also built in 1943, and
has been the place for more than 6,000 wedding ceremonies, many of them during the war
years when thousands of young single men and women came here to work on the project, met,
fell in love and married. One of the interesting legends told about this era is about
General Groves himself. When he was in desperate need of sleep and uninterrupted rest, he
would check himself into the maternity ward of the Oak Ridge Hospital, where no would think
to look for him. Many of the original houses in Oak Ridge that were built by the government
in 1943 have been attractively updated and are occupied. The exterior walls were built out
of a wartime product called Cemestos board, a sandwich of cement and asbestos boards, with
insulation in between. The floorplans are timeless, with some resembling the California
ranch-style layout that is popular today. We asked Wilcox how the 75,000 folks who lived
and worked here were able to keep the secret from the outside world. He explained that
every day, the Knoxville newspapers and the radio broadcasts would tell of the horrendous
atrocities the Axis powers continued to inflict on the world. This simply reinforced what
they were told in security briefings — that their work and mission could not be
compromised. And when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, it was then that the
majority of the 75,000 people inside the Secret City finally found out what they had been
working on for so long, and how important their efforts had been. Wilcox also told the
story of how during the war, residents would go to Knoxville to shop, and people would
recognize that they were from “that government project” because their boots and shoes were
covered with mud from the construction. They were naturally curious and would ask
questions, but workers were cautioned against telling anything that would give away how
large the town or plants were. “Ridgers,” as Wilcox refers to them, “became adept at
fending off such queries.” To a question such as, “How many people do you reckon are
working out there?” Bill and others might answer with something like, “Oh, I’d guess maybe
about half of them.” During the war years, one out of every seven people at Oak Ridge was
part of an intelligence network that kept tabs on and reported anyone who was talking
inappropriately about their work, or trying to get information they had no need to know. It
was forbidden that the word uranium ever be used. Instead, it was referred to as “tuballoy”
throughout the war. High-school-football-team players had only numbers on their jerseys (no
names) and the high-school yearbooks gave only first names of students because their
father’s names might give away the information that many nuclear physicists were at work
there. An excellent place to begin your visit to Oak Ridge is at the Secret City
Commemorative Walk, a scenic walk that tells the story of the war years, and the more than
100,000 people who came here at the call of their nation to take part in the top-secret
Manhattan Project. The wall pays tribute to the men and women who sacrificed and made
contributions to the success of the project. A visit to Oak Ridge puts perspective into the
urgency of those ominous and dark days of World War II, and how Americans rose to the
challenges they faced. As we also discovered, Oak Ridge is a beautiful city nestled in low
rolling mountains, a garden spot on the face of the Tennessee map.

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