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The U.S. Government’s Top-Secret Town
April 14, 2012 4:47 PM   Subscribe


 
Wow, neat post. Thanks for sharing this.

I wonder- how did they really keep it a secret? It would have been painfully obvious to locals when they tried to drive down that road and ran into armed guards.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:27 PM on April 14, 2012


You should take a look at the condition of rural Appalachia in the 1930s and 40s. I assure you, heavy auto traffic there was not.
posted by absalom at 5:31 PM on April 14, 2012


"I wonder- how did they really keep it a secret? It would have been painfully obvious to locals when they tried to drive down that road and ran into armed guards."

One of the big reasons they picked Handford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos is how painfully obvious any non-locals would be, and how reasonably unlikely Tennessee hill farmers would be to have any international connections.

It didn't end up that secret anyhow, all the major powers including the Japanese and the Germans knew we were putting lots of effort into the bomb. The big coup was that we managed to not let on to anyone but the Soviets that the bomb was possible with dozens of pounds of Uranium235 rather than the thousands of pounds it was believed to have needed before the war.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:44 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I come from a rural area and can well imagine. I also know how locals are, how they notice everything and talk about it. My guess is a lot of people had to be bought off, like they did when people witnessed experimental plane crashes back in the day.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:46 PM on April 14, 2012


This is a fascinating picture. I can't understand why they made them wear the flag paraphernalia.
posted by crunchland at 5:50 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good that it's not a secret, 'cause we need a new T-437 Safety Command Console stat
posted by mattoxic at 5:53 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


"OAK RIDGE NEEDS CENTRIFUGE"

I like to imagine this centrifuge rally as a musical number from The Music Man.
posted by the jam at 5:53 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I toured the Oak Ridge reactor in the late 1990s with a friend's dad who had worked there. Lots of interesting stuff but one thing that stuck in my mind was the hand-painted letters still on everything - one door for example was marked "EMEREGNCY EXIT" and they had just left the typo there all those years.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:56 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


crunchland: "This is a fascinating picture. I can't understand why they made them wear the flag paraphernalia"

4th of July parade?

"I played with matches - Look at me", the sign says. I hope that wasn't some reference to their skin color. I really hope.
posted by dunkadunc at 5:57 PM on April 14, 2012


I think the kid closest to the camera is wearing a "torn" shirt over his regular shirt - and if you look at the girl close to him, she seems to be holding a bandaged baby doll... so I bet it was some kind of safety themed educational skit they were doing in conjunction with the fire dept.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:08 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


awww, firehouse dog
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:12 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Blasdelb: "One of the big reasons they picked Handford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos is how painfully obvious any non-locals would be, and how reasonably unlikely Tennessee hill farmers would be to have any international connections. "

Where I live, the Germans brought a sub into the bay and dropped off a couple spies, who then got away by hitchhiking. What's really wild is that what gave them away wasn't their accents or just seeming totally out of place in downeast Maine (they can suss it out if your parents weren't born here) but that they were wearing brand-new shoes, which nobody had.

If you want to spot an agent, always look at the shoes.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:17 PM on April 14, 2012 [17 favorites]


Towards the end of the video at 42:00 there is a reference to a wager between 'scientists' about the yield of the bomb where one of the bets involved a reaction between the oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere that would cause a total conflagration. There is more to that story.

Before the detonation Enrico Fermi himself was said to have started a betting pool on the outcome of the Trinity nuke test between some of the gentlemen present. In his macabre fashion, he bet that the bomb would ignite the Earth ending life as we know it, with special odds on only destroying New Mexico. Oppenheimer, in his own macabre fashion, bet that the yield would be only that of the TNT and that the bomb wouldn't work. Isidor Isaac Rabi ended up winning with his guess of 20 Kilotons being the closest.

Everything that we knew about how Oxygen and Nitrogen work did indeed tell them that there really shouldn't be any significant reaction even at the extreme temperatures and pressures of an atomic explosion, and that even if there were a reaction that it should not be self sustaining. However, no one could really be absolutely certain.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:25 PM on April 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


so true, dunkadunc. At my Quaker Meetinghouse in the 80s during the Sanctuary Movement, FBI agents would join for silent worship from time to time. Not many Quakers bring briefcases (with tape recorders in them) to Meeting, and of course no one would be moved to speak from the silence because everyone knew who they were. Other times, they tried harder to blend in, but the giveaway was that they wore new Birkenstocks.
posted by QuakerMel at 6:30 PM on April 14, 2012 [15 favorites]


My grandfather worked and lived at Oak Ridge, and my uncle was born there. My grandmother found herself moving to Oak Ridge as a new bride. The streets did not have signs, and all the houses looked alike. Though she was far from family, they were unable to visit. In fact, she was not allowed to take any pictures for herself or to send back home. She was a housewife, and there was very little to do. She knew that my grandfather was working for the war effort, but he could not tell her anything about what, exactly, he was doing. It must have been a very lonely time. One day late is the war she was listening to the radio, and heard that the bomb had been dropped, and ran out of the house: then she knew. She almost never spoke of her time there, or of anything else having to do with the war, but she did become a Quaker and brought her children up as Friends - perhaps Oak Ridge had something to do with that. I am looking forward to sending the pictures to my mother...I don't believe she has ever seen any photographs from this time in her family's life.
posted by Ausamor at 6:47 PM on April 14, 2012 [17 favorites]


Fermi:
Okay, Oppy, I'll give you 2 to 1 odds that New Mexico won't be here after the detonation, but 1 to 3 that the whole world will be destroyed.

Oppy:
Hmm, that's 1 to 3 that we'll survive. You're faded, Enrico.

Hey Lorne, start the countdown.
posted by mule98J at 6:49 PM on April 14, 2012


I wonder- how did they really keep it a secret?
Even we children were taught not to talk about things we saw, no matter how strange. And so, when I almost stepped on my elementary school teacher and a soldier making love in the picnic grounds behind a little white chapel, I never uttered a word. The Germans never found out.

One in four adults was a government informant, many of them enlisted from the workplace with orders to file weekly reports of any loose talk or security breaks. Even our future mayor was a spy. We didn't know it then, but intelligence agents hung around cafeterias and restrooms and dormitories watching and listening. They posed as bus drivers and waiters, scientists and librarians. A loose tongue could get you a trip out of town. No one ever seemed to know where.
posted by Knappster at 6:50 PM on April 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


"Choose your enemies wisely, for you will come to resemble them." Don't know why but that just kind of springs to mind here.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:13 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


However, no one could really be absolutely certain.

In the same sense that I can't be absolutely certain the baseball I release from my hand won't jump upwards rather than fall downwards.
posted by Justinian at 7:15 PM on April 14, 2012


Seriously? You're Godwining Oak Ridge?
posted by Etrigan at 7:17 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Um, no--just pointing out that in our efforts to defend our way of life against more oppressive systems like the Soviets and the Nazis, we often found ourselves adopting oppressive techniques of our own.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:33 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


(I was actually thinking more that this sounds like something the Soviet Union would have done... But I guess they were allies of convenience at the time.)
posted by saulgoodman at 7:35 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Trying to keep the atom bomb secret, during an actual war, doesn't really compare very well to sending people to the gulags for being related to people who said "Hey, Stalin might not be 100 percent right all the time."
posted by Etrigan at 7:44 PM on April 14, 2012


I'm not drawing a moral equivalency--just a tactical one. Disappearing small town folks who ask too many questions is not exactly something a person can read described without it conjuring up images of a police state--I'm not suggesting these creepy ass operations made us the equivalent of the Third Reich, just finding it interesting that Sun-Tzu's words seem to resonate so well when you consider cases like this.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:49 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


My grandmother was single mother in East Tennessee in the early forties; she had kicked out her no 'count traveling wrestler husband and was working in an ordinance factory when she was recruited to go to Oak Ridge. She had to take some tests and get training and they moved her there and gave her a place. The entire town had a fence around it; anyone over 12 had to have a badge with their photograph to go through the checkpoints at the gates (I'd love to find my grandmother's badge!).
My father says no one knew exactly what they were working on, and just performed specific tasks within a system. When she was alive she told me that she mixed and tested chemicals that were used in the detonator; I don't know if she learned that afterwards or guessed or what. The stuff was highly explosive. She would have dried flecks of it in her hair from the mixing when she came home at night, and would entertain my dad by throwing them on the stove where they would pop like little firecrackers.
posted by Red Loop at 7:56 PM on April 14, 2012 [17 favorites]


Seriously? You're questioning references to Hitler and Stalin in a thread about nuclear secrets in World War II? You know that Godwin's Law isn't really an actual law, right?
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:20 PM on April 14, 2012 [5 favorites]




I work with a vertical software application developed in Oak Ridge. I remember Googling the town at one point and as I recall they were billing themselves as a sort of new Silicon Valley.
posted by aydeejones at 9:14 PM on April 14, 2012


Are these photos government works (public domain in the US)? They aren't marked that way on Flickr.
posted by jsturgill at 9:31 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


And to this day, Manhattan has a close association with New Mexico and Tennessee.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:33 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I visited Oak Ridge a number of times, though not for a few years now. I remember visiting the badging office one time to get credentialed so I could go do my thing and suddenly heard an alarm go off.

I looked up at the desk clerk and said "What's that alarm?"

"Oh", he said, "Looks like we've got a leak. You'd better leave …" and I immediately start imagining all sorts of dire consequences of sticking around, when he continues "… or you'll be here for hours, they lock everything down and you just have to wait it out. It's real dull".

So I left.
posted by kcds at 10:37 PM on April 14, 2012


saulgoodman, Sun Tzu didn't say that. In the first place, there probably wasn't a "Sun Tzu". In the second place, I have read several translations of the Art of War, and nothng close to that appears in any of them. In the third place, a quick Google attributes that quote, or something very like it, to Michael Ventura.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:30 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


My grandfather also worked at Oak Ridge. He was a chemical engineer who worked on the enrichment of uranium.

Back then, they weren't using centrifuges. They were using gaseous diffusion. They started by converting solid, metallic uranium into uranium hexafluoride gas, which they fed into a chamber with a semi-permeable membrane on one end. The membrane let through a bit more U235 than U238, so the gas on the other side of the membrane was slightly more refined than the input gas. The other side was, in fact, another such chamber with another membrane on its far side.

The building in which this took place was designated K-25, and it was* about half a mile long. They ran separation chambers all up one side and down the other. There were actually bicycles in the building which employees used to get around, the thing was so danged big.

On a more personal note, my grandfather only made it to Oak Ridge by the skin of his teeth. He was finishing up basic training when his sergeant took a look at his file and noticed that he had an engineering degree. He asked my grandfather if the infantry was really the thing to do. Grandpa said he'd be happy to serve wherever, and the sergeant apparently made a few phone calls, because my grandfather was reassigned. His unit deployed a short time later and its first engagement was the Battle of the Bulge.

*Currently being demolished.
posted by valkyryn at 3:13 AM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Children in line to get their molecules scrambled
I love that it's parked outside a Kinney Shoe and National Shirt stores. Childhood touchstones and all that...

Judging from the photo, you go in the truck as a woman, get irradiated, and exit as a young, draft-age man.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:08 AM on April 15, 2012


Are these photos government works (public domain in the US)? They aren't marked that way on Flickr.

A bulk of the photos were taken by Ed Westcott, so I think it's probably safe to assume flickr user doe-oakridge represents DOE–Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 8:56 AM on April 15, 2012


saulgoodman, Sun Tzu didn't say that. In the first place, there probably wasn't a "Sun Tzu". In the second place, I have read several translations of the Art of War, and nothng close to that appears in any of them. In the third place, a quick Google attributes that quote, or something very like it, to Michael Ventura.
Not to mention, it makes no sense for someone from Sun Tzu's era to have said anything like that. Before the enlightenment, pretty much every ruler was despotic. I can't recall ever hearing about any wars that were fought over something like "ideals" or "freedom" for the common person before, say, the revolutionary war or maybe the English Civil War?
posted by delmoi at 9:52 AM on April 15, 2012


oh wait: user doe-oakridge designates them as © All rights reserved. Weird.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 9:54 AM on April 15, 2012


My mother grew up in a C house in Oak Ridge in the 50's, after the secret was out but before they opened Elza Gate for good. Though the houses were put together quickly to a limited set of floorplans (making it like Hanford and Los Alamos Levittowns before Levittown was), by the time I saw them they'd all been so renovated and added on to that the street my mother grew up on looked like any old (prewar) suburb.

My grandfather was sent as an engineer at Y-12 in '43; my grandmother would tell stories of trips he'd take out to New Mexico as well, and that she (sadly for the sake of history) always followed his instructions to burn his letters home after she read them. Unfortunately, though I did once find a written reprimand my grandfather received from Tennessee Eastman management about not taking the security regulations seriously enough, he apparently never talked much about what exactly it was he did, and he passed away before I was born so I never got a chance to try and pry any good stories out of him.

I spent a week or two every summer in Oak Ridge with my grandmother and great aunt in the '80s and '90s. AMSE was always a stop on the trip. The museum was getting a little threadbare by the late '80s - there were lots of games which had more or less to do with energy running on ancient Commodore PETs, and the last time they'd redone all the exhibits was right in the middle of the oil crisis, so there was a lot of optimism about shale oil. I do remember that this exhibit was still there.

Great post, thanks!
posted by Vetinari at 10:48 AM on April 15, 2012


Another Y-12 engineer's grandkid here...

My brother and I spent a lot of time in Oak Ridge during the summers in our pre-teen years, even though my dad had fled to the west coast in his mid-20s and had a pretty mixed emotional and political relationship with his hometown.

I remember being exposed to a lot of great science education during the summers I spent with my grandparents. We spent got to take our pick of classes in computer programming, model rocketry, robotics, etc. One year I even joined a microbiology seminar that culminated in using a scanning electron microscope to photograph live cultures...pretty heady stuff for a 10-year-old nerd.

The flipside, of course, was that my grandpa wore a radiation exposure badge for his entire working life, and a suspiciously-high number of his + my grandma's friends died of cancer in their 60s.

I haven't been back since both my grandparents passed away a few years ago, but the last time I was in Oak Ridge, it seemed to be gradually turning into yet another economically-depressed southern "company town" with no big employer left (albeit with a unusually well-educated retiree community).
posted by rcoder at 3:03 PM on April 15, 2012


The used bookstore in Oak Ridge has an amazing selection of gently read science fiction books.
posted by crunchland at 3:37 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the third place, a quick Google attributes that quote, or something very like it, to Michael Ventura.

Well thanks for the correction--I'd picked it up somewhere secondhand, apparently incorrecly attributed to Sun-Tzu. Either way, the point seems to be a sound one--we frequentlyn seem to end up adopting the tactics of our enemies.

Not to mention, it makes no sense for someone from Sun Tzu's era to have said anything like that. Before the enlightenment, pretty much every ruler was despotic. I can't recall ever hearing about any wars that were fought over something like "ideals" or "freedom" for the common person before, say, the revolutionary war or maybe the English Civil War?

This comment I really don't get. The quote had nothing whatsoever to do with ideals or freedom or any of those other things you're going on about.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:13 PM on April 15, 2012


Damn tiny keyboard. (Now fer chrissake can we drop the derail?)
posted by saulgoodman at 7:18 PM on April 15, 2012


sigh. I can't help myself. Apparently, according to several of the search results I found, it's an old Arabic proverb of unknown origins, a variation on which even shows up in a U2 song. So not Sun-Tzu, but also not Michael Ventura
posted by saulgoodman at 7:46 PM on April 15, 2012


Lost Worlds - Secret Cities of the A-Bomb

Does America make documentaries that aren't completely vapid and filled with more padding than a schoolkid faking homework they didn't do?

The subject would be fascinating but it's so hard to watch when they're telling you the same thing they already told you twice already, while replaying the same footage they've played five times so far. It's maddening, and it's every American documentary I've seen (with the possible exception of message-pushing docos). I grew up on other countries' documentaries, which seem to be put together with more effort in comparison, and treat you a lot less like a complete moron. Is there an American source of documentaries that aren't idiotic? Something to restore my faith? :)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:57 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


-harlequin-: "Does America make documentaries that aren't completely vapid and filled with more padding than a schoolkid faking homework they didn't do?"

That was a documentary from the Discovery Channel. They've worked out padding to a science so that you watch through all the ads to the end to find out what happens. They treat you like a moron because they know you aren't very educated, are probably drunk and they don't want you to get confused and change the channel.

It depresses me the same way the celebrity gossip mags at the supermarket checkout do.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:16 AM on April 16, 2012


Does America make documentaries that aren't completely vapid and filled with more padding than a schoolkid faking homework they didn't do? --- Some of the basic cable channels, like Discovery and History, can churn out some pretty dumbed-down documentaries, but there are still sources of American documentaries that are well worth watching. The PBS, for example, produces Frontline, Nova, Nature, American Masters, and The American Experience, and there's also the Smithsonian Channel as well as National Geographic -- but the stuff they air can be more spotty.
posted by crunchland at 3:13 PM on April 16, 2012


There's a nice blog post on Flickr about these photos today - thanks for the inspiration!
posted by pkingdesign at 2:05 PM on April 17, 2012


Wow! This is pretty cool - I've driven from Eastern Indiana to Atlanta and back twice in the past couple of months, so I've driven right past Oak Ridge and the tantalizingly named Y-12 Security Complex exit four times. It's my favorite exit name in the entire Interstate network.
posted by Michael Roberts at 5:34 PM on May 9, 2012


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