In the Atomic City

Life in a Secret Nuclear Facility
at the Dawn of the Arms Race

by Millicent G. Dillon

MILLICENT G. DILLON + THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE

In January 1947, when I was twenty-one, I went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to work as a low-level physicist on a secret project, NEPA. I knew nothing about NEPA except that it was an acronym for Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft. As for Oak Ridge, I knew from accounts after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945, only that the project had produced fissionable material for the atom bomb.

I had accepted the Oak Ridge job after a single telephone call from an official at NEPA. My name had apparently been plucked from a roster of junior physicists who had worked on defense contracts during the war. My employment background was not a sterling one, as I had a history of rebelling against my supervisors. But the caller seemed to know no more about me than I knew about him, so I supposed he just needed to recruit bodies. I had run out of money, and my projected salary, two hundred dollars a month, sounded like untold prosperity to me. Uncertain and confused as I was about my future, perhaps I thought chance was showing me the way.

I arrived in Oak Ridge one wet January night to find a still-secret enclave, access rigorously monitored at its gates. My first night I spent at the Guest House, a two-story white building fronted by a covered porch with rocking chairs. The simple room with a shared bath was $1.50 a night, and included cockroaches climbing the walls. In the morning, my new boss, Sol, appeared. He was a small, nervous man, visibly preoccupied as he took me to an office where I filled out the necessary forms asking for the history of my life.

The rest of the day I was left to my own devices, and I walked around the center of town, called Townsite. It had small wooden buildings, which looked as if they had been erected in one day only to begin decaying the next. The storefronts and interiors of the shops were as colorless as the gray day. I ventured away from the center to an area of two-story buildings that looked like apartments, with unpaved streets and wooden sidewalks. It had begun to rain again and there was mud everywhere, like a dark overlay, the physical counterpart to the prevailing secrecy. (The plants that produced fissionable material, code-named K-25, Y-12, and X-10, were at a considerable distance from the center of town.)

As a single person, I was assigned a room in a dormitory, Chester Hall, a shabby building housing 140 women, mostly service workers but also several secretaries and a few teachers and librarians. My room was in the back wing of the first floor. It had two single beds, a table, a lamp, and a small closet. The information guide I was given stipulated: “All dormitory rooms are on a cash basis. A new resident must pay in advance a five dollar ($5.00) deposit to cover any undue damage that may be incurred to the furniture or room by the occupant.… The unused portion is returned when the occupant vacates the room.” My rent was fifteen dollars a month.

Forty-two women in the back wing shared one lavatory, which had four washbowls, three toilets, two showers, one tub for washing clothes, and one washing machine. I happen to know the precise numbers involved, since I still have a copy of a letter I wrote some weeks later to the Oak Ridge Department of Public Health, protesting the unsanitary conditions in the dormitory.

...there is terrific overcrowding which causes filthy conditions. The four sinks for the forty-two women serve the following functions: brushing teeth, washing hair, doing small laundry items, washing incidental dishes [though eating in one’s room was forbidden], putting on liquid make-up, etc.
The showers are often not functioning and when they do function, the water only trickles out of the shower head.… Cockroaches and other insects have full run of the lavatory.… There is never enough toilet paper supplied.…

In my letter I acknowledged that some of the residents washed their feet in the sinks. I was too embarrassed to mention that I had seen feces in the sink. I never did receive a response to my protest.

There was, from the beginning, the question of finding or acquiring a social life. Here, too, there was a hierarchical structure to contend with. Single people, separated by gender, were housed in dismal dormitories. Married couples with and without children were housed in small prefab cottages, distributed on the lower slopes of the hills. Important administrators were housed in larger cottages higher up on the hills. Most social interaction took place with the members of one’s residential group. Age was not a crucial factor, since there were essentially no old people in Oak Ridge at the time. There were, of course, various social groups like Rotary, and there were also church groups, but I could not see myself joining any of those.

I had grown up in New York City in poverty; my father was an alcoholic, a relatively rare occurrence in Jewish, even non-practicing Jewish, families. I had graduated from Hunter College in 1944, taken a job on a government project at Princeton, then migrated to California after the war, where I did a short stint of graduate work in physics and went to work as a technical assistant in an oil field before finally returning to New York. Along the way I had a couple of misguided love affairs that had done nothing to increase my knowledge of the world or of my place in it.

Self-preoccupied, but with little capability of self-examination, I was an unwieldy combination of shyness and intensity, of brashness and unease with the prevailing social mores. I was not, however, drawn to a bohemian lifestyle. In fact, I had no idea what lifestyle, if any, might suit me.

As I became more familiar with Oak Ridge as a community, however, I became increasingly incensed at the ever-present racial segregation. When the city had been created, the decision had been made by the authorities to construct it in accordance with the prevailing mores of the surrounding communities. Everything was segregated: housing, schools, transportation, etc. Even at the nearby Norris Dam’s recreational facility of the TVA (the Tennessee Valley Authority, created during the Roosevelt administration) there were separate drinking fountains for “whites” and “coloreds.”

On my daily carpool ride to NEPA, I railed at this situation. Two young Southern boys in the carpool, Mooneyham and Jared, took special delight in mocking me for my opinions. I left that carpool but was still tormented by the injustice of the situation. Having never been a political activist, I had no idea how to become one. One day someone told me of a group in Knoxville—I don’t recall the name—that was dedicated to the fostering of civil rights. So one Saturday morning I took the bus to Knoxville and presented myself in the small office of this organization.

I approached a large white man sitting at a desk and said I’d like to volunteer to help. He smiled benignly and said they welcomed all the help they could get. He suggested I fill out a form, but when I returned it to him, he blanched.

“You’re at Oak Ridge?” he said.

I assured him that I was.

He said something like “Please, do us a favor and go away.”

I did not have the presence of mind to ask why, so I just left. It had not occurred to me that any civil rights organization at the time would be wary of someone working at a secret facility who might bring unwelcome attention from a government investigative agency. Discouraged, I made my way back to Oak Ridge, convinced that this was the end of my activism.

I was determined to focus on work, where I hoped all sorts of unanticipated possibilities might unfold even though Sol’s department carried the uninspiring name “Information and Handbook.” As the days went on, no precise definition of our basic role in the project was forthcoming, though each of us, my colleagues and I in the department (mostly men), did receive assignments to provide information on atomic physics and other technical matters as needed by the engineering staff in other divisions of NEPA.

I recall that for one of my assignments I was sent to the Clinton Labs at X-10 to attend a course on basic atomic physics given by one of the senior physicists. I was to take notes and come back to NEPA and expand those notes into a full-fledged report. If this report was ever even looked at by anyone else, I was never told.

Beyond that, secrecy and a concomitant vagueness were the rules of the day, but as this was a secret project, why should I have expected anything different? We were part of a structure, of a hierarchy. Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation was the prime contractor, its detailed functioning not for us to inquire into. I saw how others at their desks around me accepted or even fell contentedly into ignorance, and perhaps I did the same. Certainly no one speculated on the plausibility of a nuclear-powered airplane.

One evening in February, I found myself attending a meeting of the executive board of the Association of Oak Ridge Engineers and Scientists (AORES), a chapter of the Federation of American Scientists, a quasi-political entity devoted to dealing with the consequences of the atom bomb.

I recall sitting in a small room, not at the large table where the twelve executive committee mem-bers sat but on a chair at the periphery. As I listened, I felt myself being drawn more and more deeply into this world of strangely apolitical politics. I remember paying close attention, even taking notes at times on what was being said. My notes have long since been lost, but the minutes and newsletters that I saved attest to the fact that at these meetings there was some focus on budgetary issues (AORES had a pitifully small budget), as well as discussions about contacting local and state representatives, emphasizing the importance of civilian rather than military control of atomic energy. There were reports of contacts being made with scientists in the international community. But again and again the discussion was brought back to unresolved questions about the bomb and its consequences.

As I listened, I found my thoughts reverting back to August 1945. At that time I was working at Princeton on a government wartime project, but I had taken a few days’ vacation to visit relatives in Pittsburgh. Almost immediately upon arriving, I became ill with strep throat. Penicillin was not widely available at the time, so I was given a sulfa drug, which had the effect of sending me into an almost-catatonic state while it did nothing to ease the strep throat.

Benumbed, in a strange bed in my relatives’ house, barely able to react to my surroundings, I heard a shout. My younger brother, George, rushed into the room and announced that we had dropped an atomic bomb on Japanese cities and destroyed—

Then he ran out again.

“Wait!” I called out, but he did not come back.

An atomic bomb? Cities destroyed? Chosen to be destroyed? Who chose? Who decided? What did he mean, “we”?

In my befogged state, I thought of electrons spinning around a nucleus, held in place—could one speak of “place” in such a small universe?—by the forces binding the atom together, an enormous energy locked within. But now that energy had been unlocked in a sudden, violent release that brought about the annihilation of a city….

And, later, a second city—to show that the annihilation could be repeated?

Even later I would learn—we would all learn—of the many thousands dead in an instant, of survivors walking in a daze, their skin stripped, hanging, some walking with their eyeballs in their hands, of the many dying thereafter, slowly, of radiation.

Until then, ordinary daily life served to blunt the impact of events in the world. But at that moment, out of touch as I was with daily life in my stupor, a naked knowing penetrated through to me, bypassing all defenses. An action had been taken, originating in the infinitesimal, culminating in the immense, followed by death and destruction and disorder, presaging an unimaginable future….

I was given penicillin. I got better. I went back to Princeton, to daily life.

In time, another kind of numbing began. The impact of that event receded, fell away, became peripheral and then less than peripheral. I had come to Oak Ridge, the atomic city, to work on a nuclear airplane, but I had not been thinking about the bomb.

But there in that room, listening to those at the long table, a group of scientists who had participated in the creation of the bomb, I was being visited once again by my own first knowing. Of course, it was all gradual and would come and fade and then come back again as I attended meetings over the following weeks. It was like many experiences, when only afterward can one say, “Yes, this is what was happening.”

As for those scientists I was observing, the eleven men and the one woman who made up the executive committee, for three or four years they had been isolated in Oak Ridge as they worked obsessively on their secret assignments. During that time all of their activities had been scrutinized by the military, and there was a pervasive sense that one had better be careful what one said, especially on political subjects. Still, wary as they were, they threw out ideas and discussed possible solutions to the immense problems they could not help but see looming before them.

Each week they met and discussed an agenda and adjourned, and then the next week they met and discussed and adjourned again. And I, as an observer, not yet a participant, simply a low-level scientist working on a project out of someone’s outlandish dream, went to the meetings and listened.

Behind the ongoing talk, even the occasional talk of trivial things, there were always the substance and shad-ow of the bomb, a force immensely complex and yet primeval, energy harnessed for a violent outcome.

I still went to my job at NEPA in the Information and Handbook department, subject to the day-to-day effect of an organization with all its layers, its complexity, its seeming inaction. It was hard not to ask if this was what I should be doing. It was hard not to wonder if this was what I really wanted to do.

As for my housing situation, by the spring of 1947, having escaped from my squalid dormitory room, I was living in a two-bedroom apartment with two young women who worked at NEPA. To a certain extent we lived communally—we had a few parties, we went on several local expeditions—but, on the whole, we lived separate lives. It is surprising to me now to recall how little we knew or inquired about each other. It was as if the secrecy that prevailed in the atomic city had somehow penetrated even into our private lives.

In the late spring of 1947, those of us in AORES learned that there was a growing movement, backed by certain officials in the government, particularly in the Air Force, to take precipitous action with the atomic bomb. With the U.S. as sole possessor of the bomb, this faction was urging the government to start a preventive war against the Soviet Union before it, too, achieved an atomic weapon. General Curtis LeMay, later the head of the Strategic Air Command, was the most influential military leader to advocate preventive war, although his role was not known at the time to the general public.

The question before AORES, as well as the other organizations that were part of the Federation of American Scientists, now became how they could affect public opinion to turn it away from preventive war. It was a question that they were not well equipped to address.

The executive committee, twelve members out of a total membership of several hundred in an organization with a total treasury of two hundred dollars, met constantly, discussing, arguing, and trying to find a definitive answer. With no knowledge of public relations, and their means of communication rudimentary (no email, no internet, no television), they met and deliberated over and over again.

As I tell of myself as a witness in that meeting room, I have to remind myself how much has changed over the years in seemingly superficial ways. The style of dress at the time was far less casual than now; the style of talking and even the words used were constrained—no four-letter words; the way we moved was not as loose-limbed, not as much at ease with our physical being as the young are now. In our dress, in our language, in our sense of ourselves in the world, those on the executive committee, as well as I, reflected our own individual history as well as the history of the world we had lived in.

The committee members had been young adults during the Depression; they had experienced the war in Oak Ridge in a secret facility. Before them was a potentially terrifying future, which they felt they had to make some effort to affect. They were, on the whole, self-controlled and intelligent, not given to wild outbursts of emotion. Though imagination had a place in their work—for scientific work demands a particular kind of imagination—they were not given to flights of fancy.

And yet for me and perhaps for them, despite the repetitiveness of the meetings, despite the sense of frustration, of futility, even of boredom, something never stated, never even hinted at, was trying to break through that room, a fusion between the infinitesimally small and the immense unlimited.

Would the word mythic ever have been voiced in that room? Never. Not by them, certainly not by me. And yet the effect of being in a living myth was there in that room, week after week, while those controlled discussions went on.

In June 1947, AORES was beset by a new threat. Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, the head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, attacked Oak Ridge scientists in an article in a national magazine, REDS IN OUR ATOMIC BOMB PLANTS. Thomas’s article began with an accusation:

The Atomic Energy Commission must come to grips shortly with pro-Soviet infiltration of our own organization. Fellow travelers, if not active members of the Communist Party have, for instance, ensconced themselves in the great plants at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where U-235 is separated for use in the atomic bomb.… A Communist policy enforces concealment of party membership on persons holding responsible government jobs, and there can be no doubt that, in addition to the adherents, many others are on the payroll. I examined Army Intelligence reports on a number of men holding strategic positions. Several of these dossiers showed, in my opinion, very serious cases.…

The dossiers he examined, Thomas said, showed membership in organizations that he deemed to be communist fronts. He further attacked the “scientific societies of Oak Ridge,” noting that AORES had been particularly active the previous year in opposing military control of the atomic project. He insisted that “atomic production and research should remain for the present entirely a military province. We cannot afford to lower our guard for a moment.”

Many in Oak Ridge were worried that there would be immediate repercussions from the article. They were fearful that harmless events in their own lives could be twisted to give a false impression of disloyalty. However, Representative Thomas suddenly switched his attention to Hollywood. He was after much bigger game: subversives in the film industry.

Not long after sending the Hollywood Ten to prison, Thomas himself was called before a grand jury to answer allegations of fraud and corruption. He was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to eighteen months in the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut. It so happened that serving their sentence in Danbury at the same time as Thomas were Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr., two of the Hollywood Ten.

Though Thomas himself was no longer a threat, other security problems soon arose. In late September 1947, two scientists were suspended from their jobs at Clinton Labs under the newly devised loyalty program of the Atomic Energy Commission. Initially, they were not allowed to know the specific charges, but once they were called up before the judging board, the charges were revealed to be unconfirmed data from FBI files—suspicions about their character, associates, or loyalty.

One charge, for example, read: “A former landlord of yours has reported that in 1943, after you moved from the premises in which you had been residing, certain magazines and pamphlets which may have been left on the premises by you may have included a copy of the [communist] magazine NEW MASSES.” Another charge read: “A neighbor has stated that she believes (a close relative of yours by marriage) is a Communist.”

After the initial two cases of suspension, three more scientists were called up to defend themselves against “loyalty” charges, and as many as thirty more cases were scheduled to be heard soon afterward.

By this time I had become a member of AORES’s Executive Committee and had been appointed the chairperson of the Security Committee, a job that I suspect few were eager to take on. My committee was charged with coming up with minimum requirements for an equitable procedure for security cases that would satisfy the requirements of the AEC Loyalty Program and yet would insure the civil rights of those who were accused.

I had no legal knowledge to rely on, so I corralled several friends from NEPA and their wives to help me come up with a recommendation that would be acceptable to the scientists as well as to the AEC. Working feverishly night after night, we eventually came up with a series of recommendations, which were presented to a joint meeting of AORES and other groups within the Federation of American Scientists. Our proposals were not accepted.

Meanwhile, there had been a change in my situation at NEPA. The Shielding Group had been assigned the most difficult problem of the program, to come up with the material and the size and conformation of a barrier to absorb the radiation from the nuclear reactor, and I had been loaned out to them to help write reports and memos and act as a liaison between them and other technical groups. This transfer may have been part of an attempt by the management to institute some communication between various departments. Though I was beginning to become more informed about the project, I was still far from convinced that my efforts had any real purpose.

Then sometime during the early fall, Sol called me into his office and advised me that my security clearance was being downgraded. He did not say why, nor did he say I was being suspended, only that from that point on I would not be allowed access to classified information previously available to me. Among the documents I could no longer consult was that long summary of the lectures on atomic physics at X-10 that I myself had written.

Why was this happening? I had had no previous involvement with political activity. I certainly hadn’t read any communist literature. What about my relatives? My alcoholic father? My harried mother? My brothers and sister? They’d never been involved in anything political. As for our more distant relatives, we hardly ever saw them.

Was NEPA trying to get me out without saying so? No. Otherwise, why would they keep providing me with unclassified assignments?

It took until 1987 for me to get answers. In response to my request for my FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, I received several folders with long sections blacked out. On one page with only a few deletions was a memo dated July 23, 1947, from John Edgar Hoover to the SAC (Special Agent in Charge) in New York re: Millicent Gerson. “You are invited to conduct an immediate, thorough, discreet investigation concerning the character, associations, and loyalty of the above named individual in accordance with the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.”

A subsequent memo from the Washington Field Office of SAC to the director of the FBI detailed an interview with a Colonel MacKenzie of the Air Provost Marshal’s Office, saying that I had been issued an interim clearance in January but that in August my name had appeared on a list of persons of whom special investigations were requested.

The cause of this investigation, it turned out, was a letter I had written to my older brother, Bob. At the time, he was working as a chemist in Brooklyn for A. Brothman and Associates, a consulting firm. What Bob and I didn’t know was that several members of the firm, including Brothman, were or had been members of the Communist Party. Furthermore, an obscure chemist who worked at Brothman’s, Harry Gold, had come under suspicion for possible involvement in espionage. As a result, the FBI had instituted a mail cover on all mail received at the firm.

And the letter? A letter addressed to a firm under suspicion of espionage from an address in Oak Ridge, the Atomic City?

It was a letter that had nothing to do with atoms or with the atomic city. Instead, it was focused on my family and finances, specifically our need to help support my mother after my father left, though the FBI didn’t know that. They knew only that the Brothman firm had received a letter from me, sent from Oak Ridge between February 3 and March 10 of 1947. To make their suspicions seem even more well founded, it turned out that a woman named Millie was part of the espionage ring they were after. They thought I was that Millie.

Despite all of these suspicions, I was still allowed to continue at NEPA, although I was restricted to unclassified work. How long my job would have continued, I do not know. In mid-November, a temporary staff position opened up at the Association of Scientists for Atomic Education in New York (ASAE), and I got the job. Funded by the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, an organization of eminent scientists with Einstein as its chairman, ASAE’s purpose was to educate the public about international control of atomic energy, as well as about preventive war and security and secrecy in science.

Sixty years later, long after NEPA had been abandoned, I found information about the project on a website, “Race to Oblivion, A Participant’s View of the Arms Race,” created by the late Herbert F. York. York was a scientist-administrator who was at one point in charge of the nuclear aircraft program for the Atomic Energy Commission. In a chapter called “The Elusive Nuclear Airplane,” York writes:

From the beginning the program had an unusually stormy career. In addition to being beleaguered by extremely difficult technical problems, it was surrounded by political controversy and buffeted by various political power struggles. The program budget oscillated; decisions for early flight of one kind or another were made and quickly rescinded; the AEC concerned itself with what was the Defense Department’s business and vice versa; the JCAE, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, repeatedly tried to usurp the prerogatives of the executive branch, and through it all the Air Staff and certain major contractors tried to exploit every little bit of confusion and animosity that arose.

…A number of very difficult problems very soon became evident. It turned out that there were then no materials available which would (1) stand up to the high-intensity nuclear radiation which necessarily existed throughout the interior of the reactor, (2) resist corrosion by the very hot air which passed through the reactor at great speed, and (3) be guaranteed not to leak any of the highly radioactive fission products into the exhaust airstream.

It also soon became painfully clear that there was a very difficult shielding problem. As with other high-power nuclear reactors, it was necessary to surround this one with a heavy shield in order to protect the pilots, and any instruments or other cargo which the airplane might be carrying, from the intense radiation always generated by these devices. The shielding problem is especially difficult in this case because the shield must be light enough to be flown and because it must be pierced in such a way as to allow large masses of air to pass through it at high speed without causing too large a radiation leak.…
A third, very basic set of problems was related to potential operating hazards such as would obviously be associated with a crash landing of such an airplane or even with lesser accidents. While most of the intellectual effort devoted to solving these problems was of the usual serious and straightforward kind, occasionally some bizarre proposals arose. One which was discussed quite seriously was that older men (i.e., men beyond the usual age for begetting children) should be used as pilots so that genetic damage from radiation would be held at a minimum and because older people are generally more resistant to radiation than younger ones.
However, these problems did not daunt those who wanted to have a nuclear plane in flight as soon as possible.…

More than half a century later, I visited Oak Ridge. The mud was gone, the gates were gone. I found an open city, a flourishing, pleasantly green community, well laid-out with many amenities, a center for research involving numerous private contractors, though still a city that contained secrets. As I walked through the downtown, I could find no trace of the dilapidated dormitory I once lived in. It was difficult for me to make any connection between what I had seen in 1947 and what I was seeing now.

Later that day, as I drove on an unfamiliar road far from the center of town, I came upon a small white building with a display of historical material. This was the New Bethel Baptist Church, opened in 1851, closed in 1942 by the U.S. government, and reopened in 1991.

On the walls of the meeting room were photos of and documents about the impact of the Manhattan Project on this remote hill-country. Several of the documents told of how the area was cleared of its preexisting population and farmhouses and outbuildings. In 1942, the total population of the valleys and ridges was no more than three thousand people, many of them small landowners living in poverty. One note read:

Government agents swarmed in and informed residents they must leave their homes and farms immediately. Most were out within a month. Many were forced to sell all their belongings while others simply had to abandon their houses, farms, livestock, and even tools and household goods. Buildings were demolished and fences that formed boundaries to keep cattle from roaming wild were simply cut by the agents as local people looked on bewildered. They were told only that the action was for the government and for the good of the country.
Some were paid as little as eight dollars an acre.

A resident was quoted as saying, “A very sad and dark time to give up the only home and way of life.”

I looked around me at the simple wooden benches arranged in a semi-circle, at the several candles burning on a table. Visible through a window was a small cemetery behind the building. I walked outside, and there I came across something I had never seen before—grave houses. These were little wooden houses built over the graves, some decorated, some completely plain. Common in this area in an earlier time, these tiny one-room houses served as protection for the dead buried in the ground, a home of sorts above a final resting place.

Looking at these grave houses, I thought of the room where I watched the scientists of AORES struggling over what could be done to control the bomb. I thought of the room where I lay inert in a strange bed when my brother George rushed in to tell me of the bomb being dropped. And I thought of the immense mushroom cloud, with its radioactive ash falling upon the city of wooden houses.

Millicent G. Dillon’s “In the Atomic City” is adapted from her recently completed memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere. Her previous books include biographies of Jane and Paul Bowles, as well as the novel Harry Gold, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

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