Valeria Steele Roberson is the granddaughter of Kattie Strickland, an African American who moved to Oak Ridge from Alabama with her husband to work on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Roberson discusses her family’s experience at Oak Ridge. Roberson comments on how Oak Ridge presented African Americans with higher-paying jobs and an opportunity for a better future with the prospect of social and economic advancement, despite pervasive segregation, discrimination, and continued inequality. She tells of how the African American community viewed themselves as equal citizens and wanted to contribute to the war effort. Roberson situates this discussion within the broader context of ongoing wartime politics in the United States. Roberson also discusses housing accommodations for African Americans, recreational activities, and the day-to-day life of residents at Oak Ridge.
Hal Behl and his wife, Reggie, an art teacher, arrived in Oak Ridge in 1945. A member of the Special Engineer Detachment, Behl served as Assistant Supervisor in an Engineering Department laboratory at the K-25 plant. He focused mainly on designing and building laboratory, process, health physics, and quality assurance equipment. In this interview, Behl describes everyday life at Oak Ridge and his experiences renting various rooms around the “Secret City.” He also discusses how his Manhattan Project work helped lead to his postwar career in aerospace and weapon system technology.
Paul Wilkinson got a job at the Y-12 Plant Oak Ridge after graduating college. He supervised calutron work and some of the “calutron girls,” including his future wife, Dorothy. Wilkinson discusses the engineering behind the calutrons and some of the technical challenges they encountered and had to overcome. He also touches upon living conditions in Oak Ridge. He talks about the high level of security, the dormitories and his first house, and the dining facilities accessible to workers. He recalls meeting Frank Oppenheimer and Ernest O. Lawrence, and remembers a few funny stories, including the time a man drove his motorcycle through the dorm hallway.
Seth Wheatley worked on the Beta calutrons at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. He talks about African-American segregation, an often forgotten aspect of life in the city during the project. He discusses worker safety at Y-12 and raising a baby in the secret city of Oak Ridge.
Dunell Cohn was born in Oak Ridge in 1944. Cohn’s father, Waldo, was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in Chicago in 1942 for his work on radioisotopes at Berkeley and Harvard during the 1930s. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to Oak Ridge, where he developed a method to separate the fission products from the nuclear reactor. He also pioneered the radioisotope program at Oak Ridge, producing radioisotopes in large quantities that could then be used for medical and biological research. Dunell recalls what it was like growing up as a child at Oak Ridge and describes his father’s effort to desegregate the town by integrating the public school system. He also remembers his father’s love for music and his role in creating Oak Ridge’s symphony orchestra.
Helen Jernigan was a young woman when she was offered a job working in the recreational facilities in Oak Ridge. Eventually, she moved on to become editor of the local newspaper, Carbide Courier. Jernigan recalls the nightlife young men and women were encouraged to participate in as a break from life in the secret city.
Harry Kamack worked as a chemical engineer for the DuPont Company during the early 1940s, when he was transferred to Chicago to work at the Metallurgical Laboratory. As a chemical engineer, Kamack admits that he did not have much knowledge of nuclear physics, but he quickly learned and was soon tasked with building a Geiger counter. In 1943, Kamack was transferred to Oak Ridge, where he continued work on developing processes for the separation of plutonium at the X-10 Graphite Reactor. In October of 1944, Kamack was transferred again to Hanford, where he continued research on the chemical separations process of the T-Plant.
Carolyn Stelzman worked at the K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge as an operator and leak-detector. She recalls Oak Ridge’s excellent bus system, the rain and mud, and the stress on secrecy.
Lawrence S. O’Rourke began working on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University after he was called up from the Army Reserves in 1943. O’Rourke was among the first group of SEDs who worked at Columbia, where he helped research and develop the gaseous diffusion process for the separation of uranium. After nine months, O’Rourke’s group moved from the Pupin Physics Lab to the Nash Garage Building, where they helped develop the barrier material that would be used at the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge. In 1945, O’Rourke was transferred to Oak Ridge and continued to work on research and development of a barrier material at K-25. O’Rourke also spent time at the Houdaille-Hershey Plant in Decatur, IL where he helped install and train people on how to test the barrier material that was being developed.
Mary Michel worked at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project and discusses living in the “Secret City” and the general social scene, also going into safety procedures at the K-25 Plant. She also discusses her reaction to the news of the use of the atomic bombs against the Japanese.