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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Secret City

Like Arthurdale, West Virginia, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was created by the federal government. Unlike Arthurdale, its creation was a closely guarded secret.

Home to some 75,000 workers and site of the largest building in the world, Oak Ridge didn't appear on maps during World War II, and was separated from the outside world by barbed wire and security fences until 1949. Many of the workers didn't learn what they were working on until the bombing of Hiroshima. Jay Searcy described the moment in his 1992 article, "My Nuclear Childhood."

On Aug. 6, a Monday, we were just sitting down for lunch when my father heard President Truman come on the radio. We huddled around the set. A B-29, he announced, had dropped a new kind of bomb on Hiroshima, a bomb more powerful than 20,000 tons of conventional explosives - and the main component had come from Oak Ridge, Tenn.

"It's a bomb!" my father shouted. "We've been making an atom bomb!" My sister, Mary Glenn, began to cry, partly out of fear and partly because she had been told by my father that they were making paper dolls at the plants.
The natural uranium that went into the plants by the boxcar-load was code-named "tuballoy"; the enriched uranium that came out by the ounce was called "oralloy." Keeping the purpose of the plants under wraps required absolute secrecy.
Phones were tapped. Mail was inspected. Some top scientists used aliases, and names of other key project personnel weren't allowed to appear in newspapers (only first names were used in reporting the high school's first football games). Death certificates of employees accidentally killed on the project were classified and weren't delivered to next of kin until after the war.
Due to security precautions, the football team never played home games.

Curiously, a Tennessee mystic named John Hendrix predicted the creation of a city at Oak Ridge forty years before construction began.
One day, after weeks of absence, Hendrix reappeared at a crossroads store and told a group of neighbors he'd seen a startling vision.

"In the woods, as I lay on the ground and looked up into the sky, there came to me a voice as loud and as sharp as thunder," Hendrix reported. "The voice told me to sleep with my head on the ground for 40 nights and I would be shown visions of what the future holds for this land.... And I tell you, Bear Creek Valley someday will be filled with great buildings and factories, and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be. And there will be a city on Black Oak Ridge.... 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," he concluded. "It's coming." [Link]

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