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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

William J. Wilcox, Jr.’s Interview (2005)

Bill Wilcox was an original resident of Oak Ridge, TN, and served as the Official Historian for the City of Oak Ridge, TN. A chemistry graduate from Washington & Lee University in 1943, he was hired by the Tennessee Eastman Company on a secret project in an unknown location he and his friends nicknamed “Dogpatch.” He worked with uranium, which was referred to only by its codename “Tuballoy.” Wilcox worked at Y-12 for five years and then at K-25 for 20 years, retiring as Technical Director for Union Carbide Nuclear Division. Wilcox actively promoted preservation of the “Secret City” history through the Oak Ridge Heritage & Preservation Association and by founding the Partnership for K-25 Preservation. He also published several books on Oak Ridge, including a history of Y-12 and “Opening the Gates of the Secret City.”

Gordon Fee’s Interview

Gordon Fee is the retired president of Lockheed Martin Energy Systems and the former manager of the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, TN. He began working at Oak Ridge at the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant in 1956. In this interview, he describes his career at Oak Ridge, and shares stories about his work at Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). In particular, he focuses on scientific developments connected with Oak Ridge, including the growth of the Nuclear Navy, the use of radioisotopes in medicine, and more. He also discusses the challenges of trying to explain Oak Ridge’s complex history to the public.

Ruth Huddleston’s Interview

Ruth Huddleston was born in Windrock, Tennessee. During the Manhattan Project, she got a job at Oak Ridge as a cubicle operator or “Calutron girl” at the Y-12 Plant. In this interview, she recounts her experiences at Y-12. She describes the bus ride to Oak Ridge, operating the calutrons, and the emphasis on secrecy. She recalls how she had mixed feelings after learning about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and talks about her career as a teacher and guidance counselor.

Thomas Mason’s Interview

Thomas (Thom) Mason is the President and CEO of Triad National Security, LLC and the director designate of Los Alamos National Laboratory. A condensed matter physicist, he previously served as the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 2007-2017, and as Senior Vice President for Global Laboratory Operations at Battelle. In this interview, Mason describes some of the major scientific projects at Oak Ridge from the Manhattan Project to today, including the Spallation Neutron Source, nuclear reactor development, scientific computing, and nuclear nonproliferation efforts. He also explains why he believes that the science done at universities and national laboratories creates “a fertile ground” for innovation.

Virginia Coleman’s Interview

Virginia S. Coleman grew up in Louisburg, North Carolina. She was a chemist at the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project, and was one of the women featured in Denise Kiernan’s book “The Girls of Atomic City.” In this interview, she remembers arriving at Oak Ridge and her wait in the “bullpen” until she could be cleared to work there. Coleman describes the projects she was involved with and remembers some of her colleagues. She also describes riding the bus at Oak Ridge and her experiences as a social worker after the war.

William K. Coors’s Interview

William “Bill” K. Coors helped construct high-quality ceramic insulators that would be used for the calutrons in the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge, TN, during the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Coors discusses his upbringing, including feeling homesick while away at Philips Exeter Academy. After graduating from Princeton, he took over the Coors Porcelain Company. One day, he received a mysterious phone call from the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, recruiting Coors to quickly provide insulators that would withstand the electric voltage produced by calutrons. He explains why his insulators were the only kind able to withstand the voltage. Lastly, Coors elaborates on the revolutionary practice of using recyclable aluminum cans to hold beer, a process which he helped pioneer in the 1960s.

Donald Ross’s Interview

Donald Ross worked on the Manhattan Project at the University of California-Berkeley and the Y-12 Plant for Tennessee Eastman. In this interview, Ross discusses supervising “Calutron girls” at Y-12. He explains how the electromagnetic separation process for separating uranium isotopes work, and recalls the tight security at Oak Ridge. Ross also describes the social life at Oak Ridge, meeting his wife, and the terrible food in the mess halls. He discusses his views on dropping the bomb on Japan and how his thoughts have changed over time.

Clarence Larson’s Interview

Dr. Clarence Larson, a chemist, began working under Ernest O. Lawrence in his lab at the University of California, Berkeley in 1942. In 1943, he moved to Oak Ridge and was appointed head of technical staff for the Tennessee Eastman Corporation. He later served as director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and as a commissioner on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. During the Manhattan Project, Larson designed a process to recover and purify uranium deposits from the walls of calutron receivers at the Y-12 Plant. In this interview, he explains the importance of this innovation in producing enough enriched uranium for an atomic bomb. He also describes the challenges encountered in the Y-12 Plant’s early days, as well as Lawrence’s leadership skills and unyielding confidence.

Theodore Rockwell’s Interview (2005)

Theodore “Ted” Rockwell was born in Chicago in 1923. As a graduate student at Princeton University, Ted was recruited to work as an engineer at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, TN in late 1943. Rockwell was assigned to the “Tiger Team” at Oak Ridge, which responded to problems that arose in the Y-12 Plant. After the war, Rockwell continued his career in nuclear technology, becoming Technical Director for Admiral Hyman Rickover. In this interview, Ted explains how the electromagnetic separation process of the calutrons worked at the Y-12 Plant and how the gaseous diffusion process at the K-25 Plant worked. He discusses his duties in the Manhattan Project and his work with Admiral Rickover in the years after the war. He also explains why he thinks safety concerns over nuclear reactors, nuclear waste, and radiation are usually blown out of proportion.

Mary Rockwell’s Interview

Mary Rockwell was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma. She had just graduated from high school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in late 1941. After working for the Tennessee Valley Authority for a short period, she was hired as a secretary at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, TN. In this interview, Mary describes life at Oak Ridge during the war and meeting her future husband Ted, who was a graduate student at Princeton working as an engineer at the Y-12 plant. Ted and Mary were married at the Chapel-on-the-Hill in Oak Ridge.