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Lucille Whitman’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Lucille Whitman, a native Tennessean, came to work for Tennessee Eastman at Oak Ridge straight out of high school. She tells us about life at Oak Ridge and the secrecy surrounding their work during the Manhattan Project.

Date of Interview:
September 22, 2005
Location of the Interview:


Lucille Whitman: I am Lucille Whitman, L-U-C-I-L-L-E W-H-I-T-M-A-N.

Kelly: Great. And how did you happen to—where are you from and how did you happen to get—

Whitman: Well, I’m a native Tennessean. I came from near Morristown and I came here right after school and I worked as a secretary in—for Tennessee Eastman. And I was located in the administration building. And I handled secret and top secret documents but had no idea what was going on and really didn’t want to know because I didn’t—wanted to make sure I didn’t tell any secrets, something I shouldn’t know, in which—so much of it was technical anyway that I had no idea, you know, I didn’t understand it. 

And, working for Eastman Kodak, Tennessee Eastman, I posed for some pictures that were used for publications and recruitment and I had one picture made in front of a calutron, the only time I was inside the plant. The administration building was outside. So I was posed in front of a calutron as if I were operating it but I wasn’t. I had no idea what it represented or anything. I was just told to be very cautious and not turn any knobs, and I placed my hands on them, but I was scared to death. [Laughter.] I was afraid I would do a lot of damage and he said if I did it would represent a lot of money.

So I went into the plant and put on a uniform and acted as if I were a calutron operator, and I posed for a few other photographs that were used for recruitment, publicity, announcements and so forth. I had no idea what we were doing and was afraid to find out.  I thought, “If I don’t know, I’m not going to say anything.”

And I wore a badge at all times when I was at work or away from the job because you had to be identified. And there was a lot of recreational activities that were fun. I remember having difficulty finding time to sleep because there was so much going on at all times. And when you came home from work you didn’t want to go to bed. 

And I’m—as Graydon said, I met him at a dance at the recreational hall and my date introduced us. And he was a G.I. and I had no idea that I would see him again. He just—my date just wanted me to meet him because he worked with him. And a few years later we were married.

So I enjoyed my work a great deal. It was a lot of fun, even though I worked a lot of overtime, even Sundays. And I knew it was for a good cause and we were told that we would be proud of the fact that we had worked there. And I haven’t regretted it. It was a lot of fun. Very serious, though.

Kelly: So, looking back, do you think that the experience changed who you became or changed your life?

Whitman: I think so. I took my work very seriously and I knew that it was important. And, though I didn’t know what was going on, I was told that I was making a contribution, a very important one, and I thought I should do my best and I tried.

Kelly: Just switching gears from the serious to the silly, do you have any—can you think of any anecdotes or funny incidents that occurred that, you know, might spice up our program here a little? [Laughter.] Give it—reflect a lighter side of the experience?

Whitman: Well, I met a lot of people. As I said, I was photographed periodically. And people say, “Now I know where you worked,” and I never commented because I wasn’t working in those places. And I thought that was very interesting, but…

Kelly: That’s funny. Do you have any of those photographs still?

Whitman: A few.

Kelly: Which one—do you have the one of the calutron? I’d love to have that as you’re describing it. Do you have the one of yourself—

Whitman: It’s out in the lobby here. 

Kelly: Excellent. Perfect.

Whitman: I don’t have a personal copy of that.

Kelly: Yes, well, I can ask Steve if he can get me that. That’s great.

Whitman: That was a result of working for Tennessee Eastman, being in the filmmaking business. That’s why I was doing that. And that was an experience in itself.

Kelly: Who—can you tell me what it was like to work for Tennessee Eastman; what kind of company they were?

Whitman: They were great. They have never had a union.

Kelly: Excuse me, can you start by saying “Tennessee Eastman was great…”?

Whitman: Tennessee Eastman was a great company to work for. They were so considerate and, as a result, they have never had a union because they have treated their employees so well. And when they left Oak Ridge I stayed—I remained in Oak Ridge and worked for Martin Marietta [Energy Systems, Inc.] and I was so sorry to see them leave because I enjoyed them. They were terrific and I even went to Kingsport for an interview one time, and I was offered a job, but I also had a job here and I stayed, remained in Oak Ridge, and I haven’t regretted it. A lot of interesting people, and it’s still a great place to live.

Kelly: That’s great. Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you about that you think I—we should talk about? Or that you remember and you think it’s important for other people to get a feeling for…

Whitman: Well, being a secretary I didn’t have all the excitement that went on in the plant, so it was all office work. I was classified to receive secret information and top secret, which was meaningless to me, not being the least bit technically inclined.

I’ve never regretted coming here or my work. I think it was very important and I’m very proud of Oak Ridge.


Copyright 2012 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.