Manhattan Project: 20 Black and White Photos Document Everyday Life in the Secret City, Oak Ridge, in the 1940s

Starting in 1942, the U.S. government began quietly acquiring more than 60,000 acres in Eastern Tennessee for the Manhattan Project — the secret World War II program that developed the atomic bomb.

The government needed land to build massive facilities to refine and develop nuclear materials for these new weapons, without attracting the attention of enemy spies. The result was a secret town named Oak Ridge that housed tens of thousands of workers and their families.

The entire town and facility were fenced in, with armed guards posted at all entries. Workers were sworn to secrecy and only informed of the specific tasks they needed to perform. Most were unaware of the exact nature of their final product until the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945.

Photographer Ed Westcott (the only authorized photographer on the facility) took many photos of Oak Ridge during the war years and afterwards, capturing construction, scientific experiments, military maneuvers, and everyday life in a 1940s company town (where the company happens to be the U.S. government).

The Manhattan Project was a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory that designed the actual bombs. The Army component of the project was designated the Manhattan District as its first headquarters were in Manhattan; the placename gradually superseded the official codename, Development of Substitute Materials, for the entire project. Along the way, the project absorbed its earlier British counterpart, Tube Alloys. The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939, but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion (equivalent to about $23 billion in 2020). Over 90 percent of the cost was for building factories and to produce fissile material, with less than 10 percent for development and production of the weapons. Research and production took place at more than thirty sites across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

Two types of atomic bombs were developed concurrently during the war: a relatively simple gun-type fission weapon and a more complex implosion-type nuclear weapon. The Thin Man gun-type design proved impractical to use with plutonium, and therefore a simpler gun-type called Little Boy was developed that used uranium-235, an isotope that makes up only 0.7 percent of natural uranium. Since it was chemically identical to the most common isotope, uranium-238, and had almost the same mass, separating the two proved difficult. Three methods were employed for uranium enrichment: electromagnetic, gaseous and thermal. Most of this work was performed at the Clinton Engineer Works at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In parallel with the work on uranium was an effort to produce plutonium, which was discovered by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1940. After the feasibility of the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1, was demonstrated in 1942 at the Metallurgical Laboratory in the University of Chicago, the Project designed the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge and the production reactors at the Hanford Site in Washington state, in which uranium was irradiated and transmuted into plutonium. The plutonium was then chemically separated from the uranium, using the bismuth phosphate process. The Fat Man plutonium implosion-type weapon was developed in a concerted design and development effort by the Los Alamos Laboratory.

The project was also charged with gathering intelligence on the German nuclear weapon project. Through Operation Alsos, Manhattan Project personnel served in Europe, sometimes behind enemy lines, where they gathered nuclear materials and documents, and rounded up German scientists. Despite the Manhattan Project’s tight security, Soviet atomic spies successfully penetrated the program. The first nuclear device ever detonated was an implosion-type bomb at the Trinity test, conducted at New Mexico’s Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range on 16 July 1945. Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were used a month later in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, with Manhattan Project personnel serving as bomb assembly technicians, and as weaponeers on the attack aircraft. In the immediate postwar years, the Manhattan Project conducted weapons testing at Bikini Atoll as part of Operation Crossroads, developed new weapons, promoted the development of the network of national laboratories, supported medical research into radiology and laid the foundations for the nuclear navy. It maintained control over American atomic weapons research and production until the formation of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in January 1947. (Wikipedia)

Military Police man Elza Gate in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1945.
Early Construction of the K-25 uranium enrichment facility (background), with one of original houses of Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the foreground, in 1942. That year, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began quickly acquiring land in the Oak Ridge area, at the request of the U.S. government, to build production facilities for the Manhattan Project. The K-25 plant, when completed, was the largest building in the world for a time.
Lie detection tests were administered as part of security screening (U.S. Department of Energy)
A billboard posted in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on December 31, 1943. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
Calutron operators at their panels, in the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. The calutrons were used to refine uranium ore into fissile material. During the Manhattan Project effort to construct an atomic explosive, workers toiled in secrecy, with no idea to what end their labors were directed. Gladys Owens, the woman seated in the foreground, did not realize what she had been doing until seeing this photo in a public tour of the facility fifty years later. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
Workers perform maintenance on a cell housing in the K-25 uranium enrichment facility, in Oak Ridge, Tennesee. (James E. Westcott/DOE)
A caultron “racetrack” uranium refinery at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the Manhattan Project. The light-colored bars along the top are solid silver. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
Temporary Housing (Hutments) fill the formerly empty valleys of Oak Ridge in 1945. The sudden growth of the military’s facilities caused the local population to grow from about 3,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 in 1945. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
A young entrepreneur during the days of the Manhattan Project, in Oak Ridge, Tennesee. (James E. Westcott/DOE)
Shift change at the Y-12 uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge. Notice the billboard: “Make CEW count Continue to protect project information.” CEW stands for Clinton Engineer Works, the Army name for the production facility. (Ed Westcott/US Department of Energy)
A billboard in Oak Ridge, photographed during WWII, on January 21, 1944. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
The main control room at the K-25 uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
Welding at the K-25 facility in Oak Ridge, in February of 1945. At the height of production, nearly 100,000 workers were employed by the government in the secret city. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
Kiddy Club at the Midtown Recreation Hall in Oak Ridge, on January 6, 1945. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
A Link Trainer, a type of flight simulator produced between the early 1930s and early 1950s, in Oak Ridge, in September of 1945. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
This 1945 photograph shows the giant 44 acre K-25 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the uranium for the first atomic weapon was produced. (AP Photo/U.S. Department of Energy)
V-J day celebration in Jackson Square in downtown Oak Ridge in August of 1945. When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan on August 6, 1945, the news reports revealed to the people at Oak Ridge what they had been working on all along. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
Oak Ridge’s Grove Theater shows “The Beginning or The End” in March of 1947. (Ed Westcott/DOE)
Oak Ridge’s X-10 graphite reactor, in 1947. X-10 was the world’s second artificial nuclear reactor (after Enrico Fermi’s Chicago Pile) and was the first reactor designed and built for continuous operation. (DOE)
An employee at the Oak Ridge electromagnetic process plant, where stable isotopes are concentrated, holds a vial containing the stable isotope Molybdenum 92, on January 22, 1948. Stable isotopes can be handled without risk to the person. In contrast to radioactive isotopes, they do not emit radiation and can therefore be safely handled.

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