OAK RIDGE, Tenn.
Bill Wilcox is not eating his sandwich. Bow-tied and bespectacled, he's the most dapper man in the room. Waiters come and go, the tinkle of iced teas being refilled adding a musicality to the lunchtime noise at the Flatwater Grill perched at the edge of Melton Lake. Wilcox, 87, squints down at the chicken salad on white toast, but what swims before his eyes is a city of mud, a city erected almost overnight, a secret city — the birthplace of the Manhattan Project.
In the summer of 1939 Albert Einstein penned a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was crucial, he said, to be the first to make use of a new discovery: If you bombard uranium with particles, the nucleus splits and creates a huge amount of energy. Einstein and his fellow physicists were persuasive. Things got going fast.
"In May of 1943 they grabbed up all the graduating chemists from around the country and hired us. We said, 'What for?' They said, 'We can't tell you.' Eastman Kodak hired 50 or so of us and we spent the summer working behind locked doors," Wilcox recalls, his plate still untouched. "They said, 'You'll be working with uranium, but you're not allowed to speak that word until the end of the war.' "
And so it was that the Manhattan Project began, eventually employing 130,000 workers and costing $2.2 billion (the equivalent of more than $20 billion today) to create the atomic bomb. According to Wilcox, who retired years ago as the technical director for Oak Ridge's Y-12 and K-25 plants but continues as the Oak Ridge city historian, 60 cents of every Manhattan Project dollar was spent in Oak Ridge. An East Tennessee city about 25 miles west of Knoxville, these days the city's population is a modest 28,000. But back in 1943, new arrivals picked their way over 100 miles of hastily erected wooden boardwalk, wood used because concrete didn't have time enough to harden before 75,000 pairs of feet set down in the city, the name of which was never spoken.
Young Bill Wilcox, age 20, arrived. He counted 10 women's dorms and five for men. He felt good about those odds. According to Lissa Clarke, the public information officer at the American Museum of Science and Energy, women were employed running the calutrons (mass spectro- meters used for separating the isotopes of uranium) because men fiddled with the knobs too much. Wilcox spent his days purifying uranium and his evenings wooing a flamingly redheaded secretary. Sixty-seven years later, long after the significant brain trust assembled for the Manhattan Project had scattered back across the continent, he and his redhead remain.
When I was a child, many years after Bill Wilcox arrived in Oak Ridge, my father worked at X-10, the hush-hush nuclear plant at which the Manhattan Project's graphite reactor was built. The X-10 supplied Los Alamos with its first source of plutonium. What my father did in Oak Ridge was a mystery. But let's face it, what most of our dads did during the long days of our childhoods was mysterious. They went away in the morning and then they returned, sometimes cheerfully, sometimes with furrowed brow.
In honor of the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, I recently drove to East Tennessee, to revisit historic sites and favorite haunts, and maybe to get a glimpse of the young physicist my father once was. Wilcox, with whom I had lunch one day of my visit, gave me a glimpse into that world.
Oak Ridge was chosen because it was nowhere, he told me. It was poor, isolated Appalachian farmland, with a plentiful source of electricity from the nearby Tennessee Valley Authority's Norris Dam. According to Wilcox, the laboratories were set down in the gullies of long parallel ridges, the idea being any radioactive leakage would be fairly contained by the topography.
Sound grim? Get that many smart young people in one place (median age 27), and things start to hop.
"We worked our tails off during the day, so we played hard at night. We had dances and they brought disc jockeys in with big band records," Wilcox says, a couple of bites into that sandwich.
Cinemas, community theater, ballet and orchestra were set up pronto "behind the fence," a tradition of cultural patronage that persisted beyond 1949 when the gates to the city were thrown open and "Oak Ridge" first appeared on maps. At the American Museum of Science and Energy you'll see the photographs of Army photographer Ed Westcott (the only person allowed to carry a camera in town). Kids on school buses, high school football players, Girl Scouts — no one identified by name and individuals' ID badges carefully obscured (even Santa Claus had to wear a badge when visiting Oak Ridge).
Still, 1,000 families were among the city's residents, kids going to school and dogs eating homework just like elsewhere in the country. At what was Highland View Elementary School during the Manhattan Project era, the Children's Museum of Oak Ridge now sprawls, an absolutely amazing afternoon for young children. Educational exhibits about Oak Ridge history and ecology pale a bit in the face of the child-sized dollhouse, the walk-in rainforest and Nanook, the polar bear. From exhibits on Appalachian handicrafts to a gargantuan model railroad, civic-minded local clubs have contributed their talents. As museum director Mary Ann Damos jokes, "If you get a couple of Oak Ridgers together, they start a club."
This community spirit is still palpable today, and its origins seem obvious: A common secret is a powerful bond. In truth, most Manhattan Project workers knew only their little piece of the project, as early Oak Ridgers were strongly discouraged from talking with each other about work. Only in recent years has there been any access at the labs to outsiders, a "Behind the Fence" tour running early June to early September. So popular that there is often a wait list, the tour includes the New Hope Visitor Center, the Spallation Neutron Source, X-10 Graphite Reactor and an overlook at K-25's Gaseous Diffusion Plant (at one time the largest building in the world under one roof). Because it's a pilgrimage for scientists from all over, questions asked on these tours can get unnervingly cerebral, but my guide, Fred Strohl, was able to break it down for us.
Wilcox has a favorite souvenir. It's the Knoxville Journal from Aug. 14, 1945. Even yellowed with age, the 8-inch headline is arresting. "Peace," it says. In the ensuing decades since the war's end, Oak Ridge has grown up.
In the early 1970s the Tennessee Valley Authority donated 780 acres to the city, which created Haw Ridge Park across the lake from Bull Run Steam Plant. There avid mountain bikers test their mettle with 18 miles of trails. Melton Hill Lake is known nationally as one of the best 2,000-meter rowing courses in the country, each spring playing host to one of the largest regattas in the Southeast. And the Oak Ridge Playhouse and Junior Playhouse, which anchors Historic Jackson Square, is one of the oldest continuously-operating community theaters in the country.
But what makes Oak Ridge a great place to visit is the locals' eagerness to tell their tales. Years of staying mum can do that. (New York Times science writer William L. Laurence spent three months keeping his mouth shut and writing the press releases that announced the "Little Boy" drop on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Silence being no small feat for a journalist.)
Only one local blabbed about Oak Ridge's important role, and that was 40 years before the fact. John Hendrix, a mystic who roamed the east Tennessee woods around the turn of the 20th century, had a vision after sleeping in the woods for 40 nights. He burst from the thicket to predict, "Bear Creek Valley someday will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that will ever be. There will be a city on Black Oak Ridge . . . I've seen it. It's coming."