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Marge Shipley’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Marge Shipley spent her time at Oak Ridge listening to the concerns and grievances of the female mechanics and operators at Y-12. As one of the plant’s counselors, she was responsible for mediating housing disputes and serving as sounding board in the face of workplace frustration or anxiety. She discusses the stories of the employees she knew as well as her own experiences, describing the poverty of the operators who commuted from surrounding towns, working long hours, and counseling young women after the death of their loved ones in the War.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Marge Shipley: As for housing, men would come too, because they would feel that they would get sent for their wives.

Shirely Tawse: What would you do then, take it up with the Tennessee Eastman?

Shipley: I would take it up with Eastman and do what I could. I’d quiet them down if I could. If I saw no reason for their squawks and thought I couldn’t do any better, I’d try to be as diplomatic as I could. I never was cross with anyone.

Tawse: One major thing was that a lot of the women with sick children were fighting because doctors were new and they didn’t have confidence in them. Did you run into any of that?

Shipley: I didn’t run into any to that, or any that really stuck with me.

Tawse: Miss Henderson said that she found that a girl was being afraid of being sterile as a result of operations.

Shipley: I don’t think they worried too highly. We had a constant succession of petty little things.

Tawse: Housing? Food? Somebody worried about their parents?

Shipley: A lot of us were sick, and there was a great deal of very poor food. I myself was sick several times, so I took par egoric in order to stay on the job.

Tawse: Was this because of the heat?

Shipley: I think the refrigeration was bad. My husband and I both worked extremely long hours, since he was in research. I stayed with him and rode, but we has special car arrangements and rode together.

Tawse: Where do you live?

Shipley: We lived in Knoxville on the West side.

Tawse: That would be how far from you?

Shipley: That was twenty miles, but that was nothing compared to some of the operators I knew then. 

Tawse: Tell me some of the extreme examples.

Shipley: I knew one poor lady who lived down in Sweetwater, and I knew others who lived in Madison.

Tawse: How far would that be?

Shipley: I can look it up for you on the map. I’d guess it’s thirty-five or forty miles. Another group came as far as Jellico, which is on the Tennessee border of Kentucky. And that’s a nasty drive because it’s a mountain drive.

Tawse: Would they have their own cars?

Shipley: No. There were buses, but quite often a group of these folks would arrange to ride together. They would get a carload and divide their expenses. One thing that did come up was ride zones and wanting to arrange good rides among themselves.

Tawse: The buses must have been pretty dreadful.

Shipley: I rode a bus one day, the first day I came out to work. I wasn’t used to buses or anything. I had just had all of the shots they give you. That was a terrible day [Laughter].

Tawse: I didn’t realize they gave you shots.

Shipley: Everybody was given shots; it was part of your opening program. I never said a word, but I was sure I was sick that day.

Tawse: What did you have, typhoid?

Shipley: I don’t know. They gave me a bunch of shots, so we were immune to almost anything that we’d be seeing.

Tawse: This is the bus with the seats along the side with the stove in it?

Shipley: I don’t think there was a stove in it, because this was in warm weather. I don’t recall anything like that, but it was a very terrible bus.

Tawse: Some people called them “cattle cars.”

Shipley: Yeah.

Tawse: Would some people have to stand?

Shipley: Yeah, I’m sure they did. I think I did that day. Apparently my husband took a look at me. Since he was on very long hours, I always thereafter rode with him and stuck out his hours, which sometimes meant we went around the clock instead of just the eight hours.

Tawse: What was he doing out here?

Shipley: He was an electrical engineer by training. He’s still out here.

Tawse: At Oak Ridge?

Shipley: Uh-huh, with the thermonuclear.

Tawse: Was he at this time doing engineering work, or counseling, or training?

Shipley: Oh no, he was in engineering. They put him in immediately in research. I would call it gopher work, “ironing out the bugs.”

Tawse: For Tennessee Eastman or for Stone & Webster?

Shipley: Tennessee Eastman.

Tawse: How did you have to go to Tennessee Eastman? Because your husband was there?

Shipley: That was the one doing the operating. Stone & Webster were not operating, they were construction.

Tawse: Union Carbide hadn’t started yet?

Shipley: They were not here. Monsanto or DuPont had the pilot plant in X-10. The Y-12 valley was done by Tennessee Eastman.

Tawse: Didn’t Union Carbide operate in the K-25?

Shipley: They may have operated in K-25, which I had nothing to do with.

Tawse: They hadn’t yet started hiring; it hadn’t gotten that far along. Are there any funny stories that you can think about?

Shipley: I don’t know if these are any good, but I do remember one girl. You remember that we were all told to be very patriotic, and saying that everybody should buy bonds? She was very thrilled because she had bought her first refrigerator. That was one of my first learning processes as to how little folks had. 

Tawse: I’d like to get a few examples of these people that really had nothing and then made a lot of money. They were doing it out of patriotism, but they—

Shipley: Many of these women had no electricity and of course no water of any sort.

Tawse: Do you mean that they had to pump the water?

Shipley: They probably got it from the spring. For instance, the people that we bought our farm from had lived in this very lovely but primitive log house, and they walked down the hill to the spring to get their water.

Tawse: When did you buy that house?

Shipley: We bought our first share of the farm in ’46, and then we bought more in ’50.

Tawse: So the people in living in Oak Ridge at the time were living in this primitive style.

Shipley: When we first bought out there, in order to use a telephone I had to go several miles. Mrs. Brown, from whom we had bought the land, wanted to talk to her mother in Chattanooga. So she got me to drive her in my old truck to a phone in a grocery store about six miles away at that time. There was no service, only a primitive power service. It was not considered proper to put in electric heat. Of course everybody has it now.

Tawse: Was it just pot-bellied stoves?

Shipley: Yes, I guess they all had stoves. There were very few fireplaces, they’d gone out of date, but they did all have stoves.

Tawse: Did corn cob pipe exist?

Shipley: No, not that I know of. One of my nicest contacts that I enjoyed very, very much was meeting with the folks that we bought our farm from. The man was ninety years old when they sold us the farm. I had known him sometime before having bought this little hilltop earlier. I’ve enjoyed their stories because they went quite a ways back.

Tawse: Uh-huh. But there really was a lot of this primitive living right around Oak Ridge?

Shipley: There was that very primitive living. 

Tawse: Were they doing work to put to put in electricity and buy refrigerators?

Shipley: Normally electricity would go along the road; it was a very small amount. It takes a different amount of power to run a stove or electric heat to heat your house than it does to run a refrigerator or an iron. Many got those quite early when you could.

Tawse: This is very interesting. Can you think of other things that people were proud of getting and being able to do for the first time?

Shipley: One real sad thing that happened— I remember sitting down on the floor with a girl who thought her heart was breaking because her brother had been killed. She got the announcement right on the floor.

Tawse: Why did they do that? Break it to somebody at work?

Shipley: They did break the news to someone right there on the floor quite often when some member of their family was gone.

Tawse: Oh, I think that’s so cruel. I’d take them aside or send them home. Did she go back to work that day?

Shipley: I don’t know.

Tawse: Did most of these women have brothers and sisters in the service?

Shipley: I think a good many of them did.

Tawse: And the average age was about twenty or twenty-one, wasn’t it?

Shipley: I think that they were mostly fairly young.

Tawse: These ones that were buying the refrigerators, what work would they be doing?

Shipley: That woman, I think, was a mechanical operator.

Tawse: Would that be a cubicle?

Shipley: No.

Tawse: Oh they disassembled and took it off?

Shipley: Uh-huh. They called them mechanical operators and what they really were doing was mechanical work. Men were scarce and they could teach these girls to clean and to fix parts. A couple of the girls even sorted screws.

Tawse: And they were content with this type of work?

Shipley: They seemed to do quite well and were reasonably content.

Tawse: Some actually learned new welding techniques.

Shipley: Right. There were some lady welders.

Tawse: Was there a hierarchy? Did anybody look down on anyone because they were sorting screws? Was the cubicle operator one of the top jobs?

Shipley: The cubicle girls, I’m pretty certain considered themselves above the mechanical girls. The cubicle girls were always spic and span and spotless. They were very proud to be able to tell exactly how everything should go. 

Tawse: Yes, I got this from Pat. There was a great deal of pride there.

Shipley: The mechanical girls were proud of themselves [in their way too], but I’m just positive that the cubicle girls looked down on them. I enjoyed talking to everybody. A couple of these mechanical girls tried to coach me into becoming mechanical.

Tawse: Isn’t that wonderful. Are you mechanically minded at all?

Shipley: I wouldn’t be surprised if I wasn’t.

Tawse: You’ve been building things?

Shipley: Yeah, I’ve done all kinds of things. 

Tawse: Where did you come from originally?

Shipley: Northern Ohio.

Tawse: You didn’t sound like a Southerner, but you love the South now? 

Shipley: Yeah.

Tawse: Most of the girls say that they came from all over the states, but those that came from outside this area were in the minority, wouldn’t you say?

Shipley: They would be very much in the minority among the working girls. One of the girls in my office where I had my desk was the wife of a construction man. She was a lovely person and I’m sure her home wasn’t here originally.

Tawse: I guess some of the chemists that came from Rochester brought their wives, who would work.

Shipley: I think in general not many of the wives of the officials worked. Primarily, I think I was in the minority, where my husband had a reasonably good job and that I just pitched in.

Tawse: Did you have children?

Shipley: No. I never had any children.

Tawse: So you wanted to get in there?

Shipley: I thought that I might as well.

Tawse: Mrs. Hill had children, didn’t she?

Shipley: I met a rather interesting group of girls among the counselors.

Tawse: They seem fascinating, the ones I’ve met—Miss Henderson, Mrs. Hill. Were they all college graduates?

Shipley: I think there was one or two that weren’t. I kept track of a few of them. There was a Miss Westfall down in Harriman that’s teaching school down there. She was a very lovely and gracious person.

Tawse: What sort of training would you have to be a counselor? Just go and make yourself available to the people?

Shipley: They gave us some rules and gave us a weekly session or so. But honestly, it looked to me, as I watched who was doing a good job and who wasn’t on the job, that if you did very much, you did it wrong. I watched the girls that seemed to do a lot with their job and worked hard. They came and told me wonderful stories at meetings about how beautifully they handled things. Then you got the insight on it from the workers, and it was terrible what they thought about what was being done.

Tawse: They were interfering too much, in their minds?

Shipley: Apparently. The best thing we could do was to give these folks a chance to air their grievances.

Tawse: Sort of being a sounding board?

Shipley: It seemed that that was more important than actually doing anything, to be succinct. I did one thing myself that was against all the rules and got away with it because I didn’t care.

Tawse: What was that?

Shipley: I loaned money. I got all of it back but fifteen dollars.

Tawse: Why would these people need money, if they’re making such a good salary?

Shipley: Sudden emergencies would come up.

Tawse: This would be your own money?

Shipley: It would be my own cash, which was strictly against the rules. 

Tawse: Well you’re very lucky, because I’ve done this and regretted it.

Shipley: I’ve always been a soft touch, and of course I knew better.

Tawse: And your husband knew better [Laughter].

Shipley: I never would tell. This is twenty years later, so I don’t mind, but I got away with that.

Tawse: That’s a very good record, if you had only fifteen out-of-pocket.

Shipley: That was for a girl I felt very sorry for. She’d told a story about it. I think her husband ran away and she wanted it for paying rent or something. I forgot what she wanted it for even. I was quite astounded at how much you could loan and get it back.

Tawse: You seem to have been a very loyal group. They were fascinated with what they were doing?

Shipley: They tried all kind of different experiments and regular counseling program. Some days they’d have them around the clock. Sometimes they’d have one for the building and so on.

Tawse: And the most successful was around the clock?

Shipley: I don’t know, since I was one of them.

Tawse: How long did you work as a counselor?

Shipley: About a year and a half probably, until the end of the War.

Tawse: Uh-huh.

Shipley: They were getting ready to renovate things.

Tawse: Shut down Y-12, I guess?

Shipley: Or change it to a civilian program.

Tawse: Then you got out? You were probably glad to get out of a forty-hour week.

Shipley: It was supposed to be a forty-hour week for women. I think the regulations in Tennessee are such.

Tawse: Uh-huh. But then you had four hours a day commuting. Where would you wait for your husband when he was through with work?

Shipley: At my desk, if I didn’t just go around the building and see folks odd hours, which I found very effective.

Tawse: None of the people were interested?

Shipley: I knew the name, at that time, of every person in the building. I could call them by name. But as I told you, I’ve forgotten them now.

Tawse: Well, this was twenty-five years ago.

Shipley: Yeah.

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.