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Colleen Black’s Interview (2013)

Manhattan Project Locations:

In a second interview, Colleen further explains what her job as a leak detector entailed. She also recounts her upbringing during the Great Depression and how rationing affected life in Oak Ridge.

Date of Interview:
August 13, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: We are rolling, okay. I am Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation and it is Tuesday, August 13, 2013. This morning I have with me Denise Kiernan.

Denise Kiernan: I am Denise Kiernan, D-e-n-i-s-e K-i-e-r-n-a-n, author of Girls of Atomic City, here with Cindy and Colleen. 

Kelly: Colleen, we are going to start with an easy question, which is to say and spell your name. 

Colleen Black: Okay, I am Colleen Black, C-o-l-l-e-e-n B-l-a-c-k. 

Kelly: Terrific. What was your maiden name?

Black: My maiden name was Rowan, R-o-w-a-n, Irish. 

Kelly: Great, good Irish names. We like Irish names.

Kiernan: You are here with a Kelly and Kiernan, good company. 

Kelly: Any rate, can you tell us what your birthday was and where were you and where was your family when you were born?

Black: I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, July 21, 1925. I grew up in Nashville; I was the second child in the family. They named me Colleen because Colleen means “girl” in Ireland. I had an older brother. And from then on, I had brothers and sisters about every two years, so we ended up with a family of ten in Nashville, Tennessee. I grew up there for a while and we had a lot of milk delivered to our door in Nashville because we had a lot of children. One day, on the back porch when the milkman delivered the milk, in those glass bottles, the porch fell down. My father said, “That settles it, we are moving, we are going to the farm, we are going to get a farm and get a cow and we will have our own milk and our own vegetables.” 

It was right at the Depression. He was a clerk at the post office, but he moved us all away from Nashville, screaming and hollering, we did not want to leave, but we went to the farm. He read an ad in the paper about beautiful farmland and cool spring and all that junk, and he fell for it. What it did not have was running water, it did not have water in the house, and it did not have electricity. My mother was determined that we were going to have all those things, so she went up and down the road trying to get people to sign petitions that we would get the electricity come in, it was only two miles away. They said, “No, we have enough bills. It was during the Depression, and my daddy and my granddaddy never had no electricity and we do not want any either.” We stayed on the farm for a while and some of my most pleasant memories are on the farm, but it was rough. 

I had just come from a school from the nuns teaching me very strict, to a school that was three-room schoolhouse and everybody just almost all the time together and you did not know what grade you were in. I think in the eighth grade when I graduated there were six in it, and two were my brother and me. Then the house burned a couple of times and I do not know why, but it burned and we moved back to Nashville. In Nashville I went to another Catholic school, got the nuns back, very strict, but it was nice and I had a good time. 

Then when the war came, I guess in 1941, everything changed and in 1942. My brother was drafted, it was tough, tough on all of us. What did we do? Well, we wanted to do something for the war effort and we kept hearing it, but things were getting rough, things were getting rationed. I was very selfish back then. They took the elastic out of my panties because it went for rubber, you could not buy nylon hose because that was going for parachutes, they quit making cars and if you had a car you could not get the gasoline. 

We all decided, it was my mother, like Celia’s mother, my mother decided we would all go to this place in Oak Ridge and get a job and we would bring Jimmy home from the war and we would get everybody back to normal. That is what we did. We came to Oak Ridge, and that was not easy either. You thought the farm was rough; this was pretty rough. We got a trailer and of course there were just nine children with us at the time, because Jimmy was in the service. We had to sleep in shifts and eat in shifts, we worked in shifts. 

I had a little sister who was two or three years old and Mother sent her to nursery school. She could not say “nursery school,” she said “Nazi school.” That was a bad thing, “I am going to Nazi school.” We said, “Oh just tell them you are going to school.” 

We were living in a place called Happy Valley in Oak Ridge, it was originally called Wheat and there were twelve thousand people living in Happy Valley. We had our own post office, our own dry goods store they called it, barbershop, movie house, recreation center, bowling alley. They had everything there and it was probably open so many hours a day. I could walk to my job at K-25. 

K-25 was the big U-building and we did not know what was inside, but they were still building it when I was there. I walked to work, and it was the four to twelve shift at the time, although they had three shifts going around the clock all the time. They put me in the leak-testing department, and I would see all these big pipes come in and we would test them for leaks in the well. We did not know where they were going or what they were going to do, we did not ask; because all the posters said do not tell. 

Everything was a secret, security was tight, we all wore badges and you had to wear them everywhere – to the laundry, everywhere you went you wore your badge. While I was working, I was working for this GI, he said he was from the Special Engineer Detachment in Oak Ridge and they had drafted these guys to come in and help. There was a manpower shortage, of course you know about that, and a lot of the men were gone to the service or working in war plants. They said there were four women to every man in Oak Ridge so I was lucky to even get a date, I guess. Anyway this soldier came in and he was the head over all these girls on the floor, they called it, and he was my boss. Soon I started dating him, and then he took me to the dances and he took me to the PX, the Post Exchange. And the Post Exchange was really a nice place because it had more things that were scarce. You could get soap there, you could get chocolate, you could get ice cream, you could dance, and they had a bar. I was not into that at the time, I was just out of high school, but they had a bar and it was supposed to be from Casablanca. I do not know whether they made a mistake and sent it Oak Ridge, or it was supposed to be in Oak Ridge, but it was a fancy, fancy bar. 

Anyway, we went on through the summer, we danced on the tennis courts, we waded through the mud, we did what we were supposed to do. I moved into the city, it would be more convenient for my dates with Blackie. I moved into a dormitory and ate in the cafeteria. I thought the food was fine, some people since then, they call it bad, but I did not think it was, we were lucky to get it. I guess it was reasonable, you could get a meat, two vegetables, bread, drink and a dessert for sixty cents, I mean back then that was good. I was paying ten dollars a month for a dorm room. 

I could buy things if you could find things, but it was difficult to find things. In Knoxville the clerks were not too happy to see you, they saw the mud on your feet and they thought you were making lots of money out there in Oak Ridge. And sometimes they would say, “We are saving that for civilians.” You could not buy pots and pans and sheets and towels, you could hardly buy anything. 

What else do you want to know about?

Kelly: Those goods you just mentioned, the pots and pans, they were reserved for what Knoxville folks called “civilians”?

Black: All the pots and pans had gone to war. They had scrap drives. Mother had to guard her pots and pans because the little kids would take her coffee pot out, throw it on the scrap drive. But there were drives for everything, paper drive, scrap drive and the rubber drive. And the children were really into collecting for all those drives and they would throw their rubber dolls on that and their brother’s bicycle, if he had one. They were really excited about helping win the war too. 

Kelly: During the war you had nine of your family, children and your parents. How many of you actually were employed?

Black: My mother and father and me and my brother Brian and my little brother, one of the younger brothers, Harry, he worked at the bowling alley. They did not have the automated bowling things; they had to set the pins up every time and then hold their heads so the pins would not fly all over them. Then he was very businessman, he thought. There were apple orchards all around and he would go and pick up the apples and sell them to the people in the trailer camp. They would say, “We cannot use apples, we do not have any sugar to make pies.”

And he would say, “You can fry the pies, you can fry them in mineral oil.” They did not have butter, butter was rationed. Everything was really hard to do back then but he sold his apples, he said, “You could just eat them.” 

Kelly: These were apples that you found, in an abandoned orchard?

Black: Oak Ridge was built on, I guess it was just a farming community and they had apple orchards and peach orchards. They did not destroy those, they were still there, and you could just go and pick them up if you found them. That is what he did. 

Kelly: Tell us about some of the particulars of your job. You walked over to K-25, which was this big U-shaped building. Can you describe how big it was?

Black: Humongous. They say that the K-25 was the biggest building in the world at that time under one cover. I did not know that then, and I did not know what we were doing. And actually I was not in the biggest building, I was in 1401 by the side of the building, it was conditioning things to go into the big building. I did not know that at the time either. That building was so big, and I know my husband could go over there but my badge would not let me go over, he was not my husband then either. Your badge was color-coded, you could go certain places. I could go into the building, I could go to the restroom, the cafeteria, but you could not go anyplace else in the building, not with that badge. 

Kelly: Can you describe a little more about what your job entailed? You get there at four o’clock in the afternoon, and then what did you do?

Black: You replaced the people that were on the shift, we swapped places. We had a station with a great big pump. Millwrights would bring the pipes in from overhead, and they would put them on your pump, on your machine. Then you had another little machine here, you could not tell what that was, what the name of it, what you were pouring into the tanks. Everything was a secret. And I know it is hard to imagine, we did not even talk with each other, saying, “I wonder what this is going to do, what is this for, what is going to go through these pipes.” 

Some of the pipes were huge and you would have to get up and climb on them. The women who worked there, when they came in for the jobs they wore skirts like everybody else, dresses, but we soon learned you wore pants, but that was not very ladylike in those days, in the early forties. You notice all the pictures the women had on short dresses and because of the war, you could not wear long dresses, it came to your knee I think about then. I think the hems had to be two inches because there was a great big fabric shortage because they were making clothes for the military and all the other stuff. 

We climbed around on the pipes and found the leaks and marked them and sent them back if they were leaking and sent them on if they were not. You just did not talk about your job. I mean I do not know what we talked about. 

Kiernan: Can you tell Cindy about the probe? How you used the probe. 

Black: Well attached to this machine was a probe. And a probe is how you found the leak. You could not have a great big lot of helium that was going through this probe, and that is where we found the leak. The helium showed up on the mass spectrometer, so you found it. Then you would have to get the machine time to recover and then you tested it again just to be sure, and then you made sure you marked it on the well where it was and send it off. I do not know what they did with it to this day. 

Kelly: Did they explain enough about the consequences if you missed a leak? That you were very, very careful, or they just told, “You have to be careful.”

Black: They just told me to be very, very careful, they did not tell us what was going in them and why they had to be so tight. Hopefully they all were tight. 

Kiernan: Can you tell Cindy a little bit about the training?

Black: They trained me for two weeks at the Wheat school. I think they did the two weeks so they could investigate your background because we heard from Nashville that all the neighbors were asking questions, but I did not have much of a background, I had not been anywhere except Nashville. 

Kelly: Tell us about Happy Valley. What does it look like today and what did it look like then?

Black: Today it is just all grown over; you could never tell anything was there. In my day it was busy, busy all the time and muddy and the trailers were there. There were no telephones except in the office. This was a JA Jones Construction Camp and most of the people who lived in this camp worked in K-25. In fact, some people did not even know that there was a Townsite. In the city it was called “Townsite.” And a lot of people that came in they came in through the other gates, and they never knew that it was anything because we had everything right there. You were not supposed to ask questions, so they did not. 

Kiernan: Tell about the jars, the slop jars, tell Cindy about that. 

Black: The trailer life. 

Kiernan: The trailer life, tell her about the nitty gritty of the trailer life. 

Black: The trailer life was not exactly fun. We could sleep two in a bed or three in a bed. We did sleep like that and then you did not want to get up. We did not have a bathroom, we did not have facilities. Every morning somebody had to take out, we called it the slop jar, the job of the night or whatever you wanted to call it, and people stood in line to go to the latrine to empty the contents. That is where you got acquainted with a lot of people. 

And it was so funny, I only got up in the morning to get dressed, but so many of the people did not get dressed, in long flowing chenille robes. Going to Oak Ridge there was a highway and on the highway they had clotheslines full of these chenille robes, chenille bedspreads, chenille was very popular then. I always remember one woman had on a chenille robe and I think she thought she looked gorgeous and it had a peacock on the back. I think they thought it was kind of a fashion statement to be in line. Then you could swap recipes and ask where you are from and you just got acquainted with other people in there. Then you could go and do your business at the latrine. By the time you got back home again, you were all dusty and dirty again, but it was a different lifestyle. 

We endured it. You do anything for the war effort. People had given up their homes there in Wheat for the war effort. There were maybe a few houses like that one for the “Nazi School,” nursery school, it was an old house and people just used that. There were also hutments in Happy Valley, and the hutments were a little square box with four men to a hut. I think maybe the black women had huts, but the white women lived in dormitories, White single people. They had latrines also, and some of them did not even have windows, they just had flaps that you opened on the side. The rent was cheap, I believe it was a dollar a week for each man. They just were doing anything to get the laborers in there. It was an experience. 

Kelly: Did you ever go to Coney Island?

Black: Coney Island was the recreation trip in Happy Valley. That is where a lot of people went. After I met Blackie, I did not go to any little things there in Happy Valley. We went to the Townsite, the tennis court. We did play tennis in the daylight on the tennis courts and in the evening we could dance, we did not need lights to dance. That was fun. 

Kelly: What was the music?

Black: The music was by Bill Pollack, he had it piped in. He was another good guy around Oak Ridge. And there were records and played all the swing music and things that we still like to hear. 

Kelly: Did you swing dance?

Black: Swing danced, we jitterbugged and we get all these GI’s and all the guys from other places that really knew how to dance. I mean, they would throw somebody up over their head and down through their legs like they do on the movies, they were doing some of that, lots of dancing. Then they also had a folk dance group that taught folk dancing, and that was fun too. Then they had a square dance group so we did square dancing and folk dancing and swing dancing. 

The other thing we did for recreation was sing-a-longs and today people just cannot imagine how sing-a-longs could be so much fun, but they were. The recreation halls in Townsite and in the Groves Center, they had ping pong, and we had a library in Oak Ridge. I think they did a really good job of keeping the morale up. We had buses to Big Ridge Park. There was a lot to do and Oak Ridgers were so club-minded, they all formed little clubs. A symphony orchestra was formed, that was good, and the Playhouse. There was a lot to do, and it was a lot of fun. 

Kelly: How about athletic teams? 

Black: Yes, every shift had its own softball, bowling team. I mean, they were really competitive. I was not on any of those teams, but it was fun. 

Kelly: Would these teams play different parts? Would the K-25 team play X-10 or Y-12, or was it all within one unit?

Black: I do not know, I thought maybe it was within shifts, but I am not sure.

Kiernan: It may have been, because people used to have trouble finding a time they could all practice together, so you usually played with people who were on your same kind of rotation. How did things change? Tell Cindy a little bit about how things changed when you went from living in the trailers out by K-25 to living in the dorms?

Black: It was much nicer living in the dorms than it was in the trailer. Although we still just had one telephone and that was downstairs. And men were not allowed in the women’s dorm rooms, not even if your father came, they could not visit you in your room or the mother could not visit the men’s dormitory room. They did have a lobby and you could meet your date in the lobby, and it worked out fine. They had a dorm mother. And the firemen were very interested in keeping fires out of it. At that time, a lot of people smoked. I mean, most everybody smoked. I did not but my mother did, so I had to stand in line for cigarettes for her, that I did not like to do. Anyway the firemen would come to the dormitories and they would tie “Do Not Smoke in Bed” on every key that 

everybody had. People still smoked in bed, and if you happened to smoke in bed and caught the bed on fire, then the firemen would take this bed and put it in the lobby of the movie theater as an example “Do Not Smoke in Bed.” I do not know whether it worked or not, but it was there. 

The movie theater was used a lot too, it was used for the movies and for that and it was used for the church. In Oak Ridge there was a line for everything – in the grocery store, and cigarettes and jello and for soap. Even for church they ran out of places to have church services, so they used the schools and they used the theaters. Then the women got angry and they did not want them to use the theaters, because when you go in the theaters there was a picture of Clark Gable right there. You probably do not know who Clark Gable is, but anyway he was a movie star, and they thought their children thought he looked like Jesus. They did not want to have the church service there, but we still did. My brothers and sisters loved to go to church there because they did not have any pews, any kneelers, and it was more comfortable. Life went on. 

Kiernan: Church was a big part of life for you here and a big part of your social life, the church. 

Black: The church was the big part. 

Kiernan: You can tell Cindy a little bit about Father Siener and the potlucks and the chapel and his house. 

Black: Father Siener was our pastor here and he had a house on East Geneva Lane and he also had a chapel there. He had CYO meetings, Catholic Youth meetings at his house, and that is how you got to meet a lot of different people, lots of Catholics that swam at Cecelia. It was always something to do and we had masses at the house or we had masses at the Chapel on the Hill. The Chapel on the Hill was built by the Army, they built two chapels, and one on Chapel on the Hill, one in East Village, but the one on the hill was the most popular. We had that, and after mass we might have a potluck or a dance. 

And it was just—everybody was young, you just cannot imagine that everybody is old now in Oak Ridge, but everybody then was young. Some say the median age was twenty-seven. In fact, we were so young, we did not have a funeral home, and nobody died. We did not have wrecks because we did not have cars, we did not have gas.  A funeral home did come in once and went out of business because nobody died. Everybody was that young and so we all had a great time. Margaret Mead came here and she said, “Something terrible is going to happen to this town, it is the town without a grandmother.” But we do not have that problem now, we have grandmothers and great-grandmothers. It is still a good place to live. We do have some young people too. St. Mary’s is the church that we all went to and we built the new church and we added to it. We have a school and it is still a part of the Catholic life here. 

Kelly: That is great. 

Kiernan: She is a pro. 

Kelly: You are, you are terrific. I could just sit here and listen. 

Kiernan: I know, Happy Valley, Chapel on the Hill, working probes. 

Unidentified Male: Did the folks in Knoxville see you all as military?

Black: I do not know what they saw us as. They saw us as enemies because they thought we made more money and we probably did and that we took all their goods, we probably did. The funny part about it was, in Knoxville, those people came out here and worked here and then went back. Then on Sunday there was still the Blue Law in Knoxville so they would come out to Oak Ridge, they had a badge and go to our movies. It was strange. 

When we first came, my father was not able to get a job because he had quit the post office, which was considered—you could not quit, “essential to the war effort,” that is what they called his job. He had to wait so many days, but they would not give Mother a trailer because she was not head of the household. Women were not head of the households and women did not make as much money then as men. It was a different world for women. I mean in those days, there were just a few fields women could go into, what was it—teaching, nursing, secretary, what else, just a few. Women were not equipped for that, and women went to college to get the MRS in those days rather than to get a career. I mean, you hate to say it, but that is what we did. The war really brought about a lot of good changes, women found out they could work and they could have a different life, they could work and raise a family. In that way, it was really good for us. 

At the time in Oak Ridge and other places too, in Oak Ridge a woman was not considered a head of a house. She could not rent a house or a trailer or anything else and be the head; she just could not do it. When we first came here, my mother was the head of the house because my father had to quit work and get a job while he was waiting for his clearance and his eligibility thing. What did she do? She worked and she found out she could work and she could keep a family and she could do everything and she was making more money that the men were making. It really helped her, and she always said, “When the men come back from the Army I am going to go back home and go back to cooking.” She never did. She got a little taste of being independent and having that money. When we went back to Nashville, she went back to being a secretary that she was before she was married, that was really strange too. We had to wait until my dad could get the trailer in his name before we actually moved in. 

Kelly: Where did you live in the meantime?

Black: In the meantime we moved to Harriman. My mother, she could get a house in Harriman, and she moved to Harriman and we took a bus every day to K-25. That is right, I forgot about that. 

Kelly: How far was that?

Black: Fifteen miles maybe, I do not know.

Kelly: Half an hour?

Black: They had buses that ran. Oak Ridge was great on the buses, and they were free to the work areas. We got a bus from Harriman to K-25. Every shift change, you could do that. People came as far as away as Chattanooga, they had three buses. The in-town buses cost I think a dime or something like that. One of the bus drivers said, “Well we are supposed to be charging a dime but people get on and put in tokens from New York and Chicago and any place they have come from.” That is the way it was. 

Kelly: After your experience of working, did you follow your mother’s footsteps in continuing to work and raise family too?

Black: I did. Blackie and I were married. We found out what the bomb did, and it was dropped on August sixth, and then August the ninth another bomb was dropped. And then on V-J day, it got me worried, Blackie had been kind of serious. 

And I thought, “I am not ready to get married.” But I thought, “The war is going to be over and here I am, Mother is heading back to Nashville, Blackie will probably be shipped out.” I said, “Do you remember that question you asked me a few months ago?” 

And he said, “Yes.” 

And I said, “Well I think yes is the answer.”

We started planning our wedding and we got married that fall. There was no housing for GIs then, he was still a GI, and they had not discharged him. Somebody had a private trailer, they let us use that, but it did not have any heat in it, and it was terrible. And then finally the government said the GIs can get a Victory Cottage, and they were duplex cottages and they were paper thin. You could hear the toilet paper being torn in the next duplex, it was that thin. Sometime in the shower, that is where you put your clothes, it was just tiny, tiny. After that and I was pregnant, we got an E apartment, then we got an A. The more children you had the bigger the house you got. I wanted that big D house and we finally got it, we had eight children and finally got the big D house. 

It was a struggle moving and going through all these different steps. But they had such rules here in order to get a house. You had to be married first, and then it was assigned to you according to your job rank and according to how many children you had. That is why we had one of the highest birthrates.

If you asked people, say, just workers, “What are you making here?” 

They would say, “Ninety-seven cents an hour.”

And you would say, “Oh what are you making?” 

And they would ask a nurse. And she would say, “I think they are making babies here,” because we had such a high birthrate. 

We also had the high marriage rate because people wanted to get the houses. It was a way of life. 

Kelly: You knew many other people who had multiple children. 

Black: Oh yes, well we knew a lot of Catholics and a lot of Catholics had a lot of children, eight, ten, six, eight. My husband was an only child and I was one of ten so it was not supposed to be a good match. In fact, the priest, Father Siener, did not want to marry us. He said, “This is just a wartime romance.” And he knew me in Nashville, so he said, “You will be going back to Nashville with your parents and let us just not do this.” 

I went to the assistant priest and he said, “I will marry you,” so he did, and it lasted. 

Kelly: That is great. How did you feel when you learned there was a bomb that was Oak Ridge contribution?

Black: Surprised is one thing. You are just shocked and you do not know what. There was no TV so you would hear it on the radio, you would read it in the newspaper, you go to the movies and see it in the newsreel. You were just shocked at the devastation. And where we were really glad that the war would be over and everybody was going to get back to normal and get the elastic back in the pants and food back on the table, you really could not believe the devastation, you really could not, it was hard. 

We still thought it was a good idea and I still think it was. I know a lot of the young people do not think it was a good idea, but I think it is something we had to do at the time. In fact, I am proud of being a part of it and that is why we want to get the National Park here too because to think we were part of that history is wonderful. 

Kelly: How do your grandchildren, do they talk to you about this? Do they ask questions? 

Black: For a while they did not, but when Denise’s book came out, they could not believe it. Some of them, when they read it – “I did not know that, well I did not know that.” It is something that you really did not talk about. They enjoyed the book and they are passing it around to all their friends. It is good, they are proud. 

Copyright 2013 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.