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Mary Rockwell’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

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.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 2022
Location of the Interview:


Mary Rockwell: My name is Mary Rockwell. Spell it? M-a-r-y R-o-c-k-w-e-l-l.

Cindy Kelly: Very good. What was your maiden name?

Rockwell: Compton.

Kelly: And how is that spelled?

Rockwell: C-o-m-p-t-o-n.

Kelly: Okay. Is there a funny story attached with that?

Rockwell: Yes. My sister, her husband having been head of the Y-12 Beta process, was invited to the parties where some of the dignitaries were. When they had visitors, this woman was introduced as Mrs. Compton. My sister said, “Well, my name was Compton. Where did you come from?”

She looked at her funny and walked away. I wondered what that was all about. Then she later found out that Dr. Arthur Holly Compton was her husband, and the hostess should have introduced her as Mrs. Holly rather than Mrs. Compton. The cat was out of the bag as far as that was concerned. But she did not think anything about it actually because I do not think they were at that point, even she did not know what her husband was doing, other than running the Y-12 project there.

I came from Knoxville out to look for work when the Douglas Dam was shut down. I lived with her and tried to go on to school. But I found the buses that were these long trailer buses going back and forth to Knoxville, even though it was only three days a week, it was so difficult to keep my studies. I met a lot of nice young men and started going to more parties, so the studies were neglected somewhat. I ended up saying, “Well, I guess I will have to quit school for a while and take up later.”

So I did that and I moved out to be with her, because she had a larger house and had room for me. We would go down to Y-12 and we would see people at the cafeteria, Ted among others. We ate lunch together and got to know each other. We went to dances on the tennis courts. We had quite a good time. We did not really think about the war as much other than, as Ted said, we were reminded that minutes counted and we were supposed to keep the secrets and not be too free with our talk.

I was going to school in Pennsylvania, and when I graduated from high school I was not old enough to apply for work with the government. I was just seventeen. I worked for General Electric Company for about ten months and then I was accepted as a typist actually down in TVA. I went down to Knoxville and worked there. I was sent out to Douglas Dam that was being built.

Then when the dam was shut down, I thought I would go out to Oak Ridge. Some of the men I had worked for in TVA were actually in Oak Ridge and in the Alpha Building, where I was sent to work. I first worked in the manager’s office because having had secretarial experience and mostly secretarial training in school, I had taken business courses. I went down and was put in this Alpha Building, where one of the men that I had worked for at Douglas Dam was down there. It was like old home week, it was familiar and it was very nice.

I got more involved with the social activities. Having done a little theater work in high school, I tried out for a play, because we were trying to have some theater there in Oak Ridge. I got involved with social activities. We had tennis court dances and that sort of thing and met a lot of people that were fun to be with. One of our friends was a physicist [Anne McCusick], and she later left and went back and became a doctor and married and lived and went to Baltimore to Johns Hopkins, so we kept our friendship together. We had a number of mutual friends, so that was a benefit.

Even though I had traveled all over the United States going to school in Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, I did not make very many friends in those days because you hardly had time to make friends if you were moving every year to a different school. Our best friends were there in Oak Ridge. It was a pleasant place for me to be, because I was young and had not had a chance to make lasting friendships moving around so much.

Kelly: Did you come as to the Y-12 Plant as a typist? Was that your job?

Rockwell: Yes, well I was secretarial work in general, because at that point people seemed to think I did a good job as secretary and so I was secretary to the plant managers. At one point I was even what they called a “floating secretary,” because when people would go on vacation I would fill in for a couple weeks here and a couple weeks there. It was kind of interesting working for different people.

When I finished, when the war was over, one of the men I worked for in Alpha Building was with Eastman Kodak. He asked me if I would come to Rochester, because they could not find good secretaries, and wondered if I would like to come up there and work. So I went up there for a year and worked there and worked for the head of the color control department there at Eastman Kodak, in the department where Al Kerner was working for his boss, Ralph Evans, who was studying color control because they were having trouble with color control in the film. They were having trouble with their magenta and their cyan. They used me as a model because I happened to have a chartreuse dress that they were experimenting with.

Then I came back because Ted kept saying, “Won’t you come back to Oak Ridge?” It was cold up there in Rochester and it was not a very friendly town. So I went back to my sister’s house since I was just twenty at that time and worked some more in Oak Ridge. My time there was interrupted, going up to Rochester, but I came back and then later in 1947 we were married, as Ted said.

Kelly: Let me pick up on one thing, since you were in Oak Ridge and then left to go to Kodak and you came back again. Were they quite sure that you were not going to be taking secrets with you?

Rockwell: No, that apparently never occurred to them. Well the war was over at that point. In ‘45 the bomb had been dropped. So going up to Rochester for a year and then coming back a year later was not a problem. I do not remember ever being worried about secrets as much as a lot of the people talk about. I just worked there and it did not bother me, the thing about being secret like a lot of people have talked about. But I guess I did not talk that much.

Kelly: In the kinds of secretarial work you did, working for the manager, you must have had to type up some letters?

Rockwell: Well there was so much stuff that was in code. I remember writing about Mae West Shields and Bathtub Shields and the various things that were there. So memos were in code and so I did not really learn that much, I guess, to talk about. We did speculate about what was going on. My coworker in the building said she had read an article about E. O. Lawrence and of course that was Berkeley and she said, “I think it has something to do with what E. O. Lawrence has been writing about.”

We did not really talk about it that much. It was just I think one time that we did that. I would take messages down to the reactor area and would see this yellow gunk all over the place, because they were cleaning up sometimes. I just wondered about that. I did not ask really what it was. I did not really know until later it was the uranium that was spilled out, I guess, when it was going around in the reactor.

Kelly: Talk a little more about what it was like to live in Oak Ridge and where you lived. You were a single woman?

Rockwell: Yes.

Kelly: What was your dormitory situation?

Rockwell: Well, I did not know about the dormitories because I lived with my sister in an F house, which was a three bedroom house. She made one room available for me. She had a couple of children, but there was an extra bedroom. She was always very willing for my friends to come and they used to come and play the piano and we would sing and that sort of thing. Ted put in his book a picture of us around the piano, so we have that with our friends there.

She planned my wedding for me, so she sort of was a substitute mother because my mother was older and living in Nevada, so I did not see her very much. She really filled in. She was eight years older than I. She was a big sister who had always been more like a mother to me. I had that security and the freedom to invite my friends over, so it was very nice.

Of course, my brother-in-law was always trying to match me up with people at work and he would invite them to dinner. I do not know whether he wanted to move me on, get me out of there or not. Anyway, he would invite young engineers over for dinner to meet me.

Kelly: Did he ever meet Ted?

Rockwell: Yes, actually he was one who went to Princeton and knew him at Princeton, but nothing came of that. We just had a lot of close friends that I met. There was a young man from Yale, who was down in our building that was connected with the boat and that was how Ted was invited along on the weekend with him, with the rest of them. We just had a lot of fun. We had the tennis court dances. That sort of thing was what we did in our spare time, and then working with the theater with the director from Chicago who said she had worked with Don Amici. We did the play Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. So I met a lot of new friends in the theater.

Kelly: Tell us about your wedding, when you got married.

Rockwell: We were married in the Chapel-on-the-Hill. And my sister, God bless her, was six months pregnant and she handled the whole wedding. We went in and had our picture made in the Knoxville paper. She made the wedding cake, handled the reception, and sang at my wedding on top of all of that. My brother-in-law gave me away, which I guess he was happy to do at that time. It was a very nice wedding.

My sister just died a few weeks ago. She always wanted to go back to Oak Ridge and never got a chance to, because her daughter was so busy. They were living down in Atlanta and was so busy she did not get a chance to take her up. She was planning to come up and visit me, and she died just before she made the trip. Her daughter did come up to Oak Ridge and brought her family. We went to see our F house and made a tour of Oak Ridge. She met the man that knew him [her father] and she was really delighted, because she had been so busy as an executive to several companies over the years and was always very busy and did not have time to take my sister up to Oak Ridge. She felt very good that was she was able to talk to somebody that knew her father and her children. She brought her children up. So his grandchildren did get that opportunity to go to Oak Ridge.

Kelly: When you came back, has Oak Ridge changed a lot since the war? How is it different?

Rockwell: We got lost, Ted and I, when we went to try and drive around because the Oak Ridge Turnpike had become so big and there was so much. We had been down there before, when Ted had made talks and I was taking pottery lessons from Jane Larson, who had been married to Clarence Larson, who was the head of the project there for a while.

It was just really very different because they had more restaurants. The streets were the same. I guess because we had not been there in so long, it was sort of strange going around. We went back to our little B house that we lived in when we first were married. First we lived in an efficiency apartment, and then we were eligible, when our son was born—our first son was born in Oak Ridge, and we got a B house. We went over to see the B house and it looked so different because they had added something on the front. I said, “I am sure this was our house,” because I remembered where our neighbors lived and where my son would wander around. He was two when we went up to Washington. He was wandering all over the neighborhood. But I said I cannot be sure because it look so different. But we finally decided they had just done so many changes to the house, and that this was it.

Kelly: I think you will have to give me the address. Do you have pictures of the house before and after?

Rockwell: I think we did have the B. I think I did have a picture of the house in there. Actually, the scrapbook I sort of made what I had there and then when I went back, I did not really complete it, I guess. There were a lot things I could have put in and I had not. I put this in the scrapbook and have not had much time to go back and really peruse it.

Unidentified Male: That one paper is loose that says, “Oak Ridge attacks Japanese.” That you can hold up, that was the Oak Ridge—

Rockwell: Yes.

Kelly: Here, you can pass that to me now.

Rockwell: It says, “Workers thrill as atomic bomb secret breaks. Press and radio stories describe fantastically powerful weapon expected to save many lives. Bomb has more power than twenty thousand tons of TNT. Pride is reaction of workers.” We felt proud that we had done the job and been a part of it. They sent letters out, Clinton Engineer Works saying, “Thank you for your part in this.” So it made us feel good that we had played a part in it. It was interesting.

Kelly: You have been to Japan?

Rockwell: Yes, we went over to Hiroshima. It is either Hiroshima or Hiroshima. People say both, but we went and actually they paid Ted’s way and we had a delightful time and they were very nice to us. I was the only woman that was in the crowd. It was very nice to be accepted, because they really do not pay that much attention, I think, to the women over there.

Kelly: What year was this?

Rockwell: Oh dear, when was it? They are very appreciative of anything you do. I am a potter, I have dabbled in watercolors and paints and so forth. After my children started growing up, I had a chance to work in that. I made a little tea bowl and took it to him and every time he sees me he says, “We enjoy the tea bowl so much. My wife and I go into the park on the weekend and we have tea in your bowl and we appreciated it so much.” He was very appreciative of it. They were just very, very nice to us. We spent some time afterwards—well, before we went over there, we went to a radon mine together and had the experience of the radon and found that that was helpful in helping my ankle feel better.

Kelly: Was that during the war or was that after?

Rockwell: At that time our first son was born, he was two when we went to work with Admiral Rickover, he went to Washington. Then our other three children were born in Bethesda, in Chevy Chase. I had three boys and a girl.

Kelly: Tell me stories. Fo you have any funny stories or remembrances about the time that Ted did not dare tell?

Rockwell: [laughter] Well, I do not know, my memory is—some of those things that has faded. I guess the boat rides on Norris Lake were fun. We used to have dinners. There was a group of five women who had a house, a D house, which they made into a dormitory. Anne Bishop was a physicist in Y-12, and they used to have dinner parties there and we would go out together.

In those days, we did not date specifically, as Ted would say. Sometimes he did not know which girl he was having a date with, because we all dated as a group. We did not do a lot of pairing off like they do more these days. We used to have a lot of fun doing picnics and things like that.

I guess I made a chocolate cake one time and I left something out of the cake, left an ingredient out. I remember I did not do much cooking at that point, and I think it did not turn out very well. I am afraid I cannot remember too many instances, other than we used to have a lot of fun singing around the piano at my sister’s house. They knew they had a place that they could come, because when they lived in the dormitories or even in the D house, they did not get to mix very much or get out to the bigger houses.

 Kelly: How did you feel when you read that letter?

Rockwell: Well I thought that was a nice thing to do, a nice thing to have, with all the people that were there.  I wondered whether everyone got one of those letters, perhaps, but I do not know.

Kelly: Actually this letter, maybe you would like to read the first line because I think it speaks to the secrecy that is first and foremost.

Rockwell: Yeah. “To the men and women of Clinton Engineer Works: Today, the whole world knows the secret which you have helped us keep for many months. I am pleased to be able to add the warlords of Japan now know its effects better even then we ourselves. The atomic bomb, which you have helped to develop with high devotion to patriotic duty, is the most devastating military weapon that any country has ever been able to turn against the enemy. No one of you has worked on the entire project or known the whole story; each of you has done his own job and kept his own secret. And so today I speak for a grateful nation when I say congratulations and thank you all. I hope you will continue to keep the secrets you have kept so well. The need for security and for continued effort is fully as great now as it ever was. We are proud of every one of you. Robert Patterson, Undersecretary of War, Washington, DC.” That was August the seventh, was pretty prompt after the event from the War Department in Washington.

Kelly: This article, do you want to read it?

Rockwell: “Atomic bomb workers happy over job. Now that certain numbers of the restrictions surrounding the Clinton Engineering Works near Knoxville have been lifted and the workers know what they are making. They are happy and proud because they were chosen. Here, CEW workers leave one of the divisions after finishing the day’s work.” We are coming up out of Y-12. My building was down that way.

Kelly: How did you get back and forth from the site, Y-12, to where you lived?

Rockwell: A bus. We had a bus system in Oak Ridge and we just took the bus down to the entrance of Y-12 and go in.

Kelly: What were your shift hours?

Rockwell: I did not have a shift, it was just daytime from eight to five, I guess. I did not do shift work. I was shiftless [laughter].

Kelly: Was Y-12 open all twenty-four hours?

Rockwell: Yes, but of course I just worked the daytime because I was just working for the superintendents of the building.

Kelly: That is good. You might as well read this because I think this is just the headlines or something.

Rockwell: “Atomic power discovery seen equal to invention of speech.” That is the one that Ted liked. That was from a London news report.

Kelly: Were there any British at Oak Ridge that you knew of?

Rockwell: Yes I think so, but I did not make any friends or know anybody that was. I guess there must have been some with British background, but I am not sure.

Kelly: This one says [Henry] Stimson visited and praised the project. Do you remember that? He flew down in April of 1945.

Rockwell: Stimson visited and praised project. That was August the seventh right after. “Secretary of War Stimson expressed great satisfaction with atomic bomb progress at Oak Ridge when he inspected the production plants, it was revealed today.”

Kelly: That is kind of an unusual. That is April? 

Rockwell: August.

Kelly: Oh, that is August.

Rockwell: August.

Kelly: Yeah.

Rockwell: ‘45, August seventh, apparently. The Ridge Post Office was a little slot, but that is where you were supposed to put your mail in and not take it off into Knoxville and mail it, because everything had to be inspected when they were sent out.

Kelly: Do you by and large have fond memories of those days?

Rockwell: Yes, I do because they were good times, and I guess because I had traveled so much around the United States going to different schools. I was a Depression child, so that made it necessary for me to live with my brothers and sisters. I lived with my brother in Pittsburgh while he was going to medical school and then I lived with my sister and I even lived in Texas with a friend, going to a Texas school for a while. I was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, which was just outside of Oklahoma City. I was there longer than I was anywhere, with my school years being so interrupted. They were happy times for me.

It was a serious job and I knew that, but we still had fun while it was going on. We did experience that mud of leaving our shoes sometimes so deep in the mud we could not get them out. We had a movie house that we had some movies play at pretty often. It is now a live theater in Oak Ridge. They are doing theater plays in the place where we used to see movies, so that is a change, going back and seeing that things are different. 

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