Pondering over Coffee: What's a Calutron Girl? And the Secret City the Government Built That Helped Us Win WWII

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. 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 and the center of authority will be on a spot middle-way between Sevier Tadlock's farm and Joe Pyatt's Place. A railroad spur will branch off the main L&N line, run down toward Robertsville and then branch off and turn toward Scarborough.
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. It's coming.
- John Hendrix

I'm one of those people that will have a random word, topic or thought pop into my head and feel the need to look it up to find out more about it.  Or, I'll be reading a simple paragraph, see a word or a phrase or even just have something 'else' related pop into my brain while reading and I just have to quickly look it up. That's what kind of a reader I am.  

But then... one thing leads to another. Before I know it I'm often so far away from my original topic, I usually forget what it was I wanted to look up in the first place; so lost I am in the new and wonderful information I've learned or re-learned when I realize I knew this 'once' a long time ago (sometimes it's something I learned back in elementary or high school and hadn't thought about since.)

Often times I'm soon on a wild goose chase or I've clicked on a link which led to another link, to another link and soon I'm completely engrossed in a topic that 30 minutes earlier, I didn't even know existed.

That happened tonight.

With "Calutron Girls".  I didn't know what they were but it came up after I thought about... well, here.  Let me start from the beginning.

  • I think this all came about because I briefly thought about the musical group The Oak Ridge Boys.
  • That led me to thinking about Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
  • That led me to remembering it was once a 'secret city' built by the government.
  • And I wondered when it was made 'public' and the secret lifted.
  • So I looked up Oak Ridge, Tennessee quickly (ha ha) and then suddenly before I knew it, I was reading about Calutron Girls and then was watching video interviews about them.
  • That led me to watching a video describing exactly what the calutrons did (separating the uranium 238 needed to build the atomic bomb) and how the women (girls, really - some straight out of high school) were hired to run the machines that previously, only PhD holders and scientists were operating.
  • And... then so much more.

Now, I didn't dig deep on this particular topic, as I study at least one random thing every evening and often, end up teaching myself two, three or even four new random topics each night.  Sometimes it's a 10 minute overview; other times it's 3-4 hours, 3-4 days or even a month or a year of study.  

I grab one of my many hand written notebooks I keep near to jot down pages of notes on things I find interesting.  (Yeah, my husband thinks I'm weird too....). 

This was one of my 30 minute studies... just enough to get an overview.  But I thought it interesting enough that perhaps someone else would think so to.  So....  I've included some very simple, and quick links for a simplied overview of the topic of The Secret City that the government built in Tennessee and... what's a calutron girl, anyway?

The Secret City

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the area that would become Oak Ridge was 59,000 acres of century-old farmlands and rural communities. But in 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers purchased the land that would become the first and largest of the three Manhattan Project sites. But just two and a half years after Oak Ridge was founded in 1942, the city skyrocketed to a population of 75,000, making it the fifth-largest city in Tennessee and the largest of the three Manhattan Project sites.

To accommodate the massive influx of workers, the government had to build the Secret City from scratch. Engineers decided to create three neighborhoods, each with an elementary school and essential shopping within walking distance like a drug store, dry cleaners, shoe repair, grocery store, beauty parlor, and barbershop.
To save money on time and labor, an Indiana factory manufactured 3,000 prefabricated single-family homes for the Secret City, complete with walls, floors, cabinets, interior wiring, plumbing, and furniture. During the height of the production, one home was created every 30 minutes. Trucks hauled completed homes to the Secret City, half a house at a time.

Despite the rush of activity and population explosion, the top-secret work behind developing the first atomic bombs managed to stay a secret. A billboard erected in Oak Ridge during the war, typical of the secretive nature of the city, read, “What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, what you leave here – let it stay here.” The fact that the Secret City was created and worked under a cloak of secrecy is a testament to human ingenuity and efficiency.



Calutron Girls

Ted Rockwell and Gladys Evans describe the important roles that young women, known as “calutron girls,” played in the operation of Y-12.

"What's going on over there?" -- The Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Denise Kiernan, author of "The Girls of Atomic City," interviews Ruth Heddleston, Peggy Stuart, and Hazel Franklin, three of the "Calutron Girls" who operated the machines that produced uranium for the first atomic bomb. The three were teenagers when the U.S. entered World War II and were among scores of women hired to monitor calutrons at the Y-12 plant. They carefully monitored gauges on the electromagnetic separators to ensure the machines remained within the range needed to separate uranium 235 from uranium 238. The rare isotope was used in Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The women shared memories with Kiernan for an audience at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on Sept. 23, 2015.

Alpha & Beta Calutrons

Bill Wilcox describes how the calutrons at Y-12 separated uranium.

John Hendrix
According to local legend, Hendrix was just an ordinary farmer until he started having visions in 1900 about the future of Bear Creek Valley, which became Oak Ridge. After sleeping in the woods for 40 days and nights, Hendrix apparently had a vision that “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.” (The Story of John Hendrix - The Prophet of Oak Ridge)

Civilian Displacement: Oak Ridge, TN

“The principal comes and takes the phone call. He comes back to the school, calls all the students together in an assembly, and says, “I have just gotten a phone call from Senator McKellar. He wants me to tell you to go home and tell your parents you are going to have to find another place to live. The government is going to take your property for the war effort.” – Ray Smith telling the story of how Lester Fox, the patriarch of Fox Automobile Dealerships in the Oak Ridge area, learned how his family was going to be displaced by the Manhattan Project. 

Oak Ridge site - Manhattan Project National Historical Park

The Clinton Engineer Works, which became the Oak Ridge Reservation, was the administrative and military headquarters for the Manhattan Project and home to more than 75,000 people who built and operated the city and industrial complex in the hills of East Tennessee.
The Oak Ridge Reservation included three parallel industrial processes for uranium enrichment and experimental plutonium production.
The Oak Ridge site includes
  • X-10 Graphite Reactor National Historic Landmark, a pilot nuclear reactor which produced small quantities of plutonium;
  • Buildings 9731 and 9204-3 at the Y-12 complex, home to the electromagnetic separation process for uranium enrichment;
  • K-25 Building site, where gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment technology was pioneered. Buildings 9731, 9204-3 and K-25 together enriched a portion of the material for the uranium bomb.
Tour Information
Oak Ridge Reservation bus tour is included in the price of admission to the American Museum of Science and Energy, and includes a 3-hour tour of:
  • X-10 Graphite Reactor
  • New Bethel Church at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • The visitor overlook at the East Tennessee Technology Park (former home to the K-25 gaseous diffusion building)
  • Y-12 New Hope History Center
The tour runs March through November. Dates and times vary from week to week. Please contact the American Museum of Science & Energy for the latest information.

 You might also be interested in some related items available through Amazon;

20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection: Best Of The Oak Ridge Boys
City Behind A Fence: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1942-1946
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Oak Ridge (TN) (Images of America)