Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. It is Thursday November 6th. I am in Atlanta, Georgia. I have with me Mr. Tom Forkner. My first question to him is to tell me his name and spell it.
Forkner: How about T-O-M, F-O-R-K-N-E-R.
Kelly: Thank you. So let’s start at the beginning. Maybe you could tell us your birthday, when you were born and then something about your childhood.
Forkner: Well, I was born June 14, 1918, in South Georgia, but I grew up in Avondale [Estates] right out of Atlanta. What now is a four-lane highway was a dirt road then. So Avondale just developed, and that where I grew up. When I was going through school, I got out of high school a little early. And then I went to junior college. I got out of there just by kind of guess work. Then I went to night law school, had a big accident, and I passed the bar. So I was practicing law at twenty-three years old. Then the draft came along. As big as Dekalb County is—that’s one of the big counties around Atlanta—I drew number seven. If it’d been a lottery, I’d been in great shape, but I went from practicing law to peeling potatoes at Fort Mac in about two weeks.
So then they transferred me. I had a chance to go to OCS (Office Candidate School), but you had to sign up for three years, and if you stayed in just as draftee, you served one year, and you were out. So I took the one-year. With seven months, the war broke out. Three and a half years later, I got out. I took my commission, just so I could come out with having had a commission rather being a private. In the meantime, I was sent into CIC, counter-intelligence, and started off doing undercover work. I spent a couple of years doing undercover work, anything from painter to electrician to a major to just all kinds of stuff. And then I had a lot of work that required some top-secret stuff.
And then when I got my commission we were sent to Camp Ritchie, Maryland. That was an overseas pool. Everybody there was headed overseas, and it was just a matter of whether you were going to the Far East or Europe. Everybody wanted to go to Europe. I think there were around 400 – 500 people there.
When they announced the post where everybody would be, I looked on it. There were seventeen names on the side. My name was one of those who didn’t go. The only instructions I had—I had been interviewed incidentally during the time I was there. I’d ask questions, and he’d say, “I can’t tell you that.”
So I said, “Well, let me put it this way. If [I’m] what you’re looking for and I fit, let’s go at it.”
So that’s as far as knew. But then I got these instructions to report to Knoxville, Tennessee. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. Somebody met me when I got off of the train, took me to Oak Ridge. That’s the first time I knew I was at Oak Ridge. So that’s when they gave me the job.
There were a lot of others. I don’t know how many. They were hauling the product from Oak Ridge to New Mexico. It was a fifty-three-hour drive nonstop, two people to the automobile trail car, and two people on the truck were hauling the merchandise. Fifty-three hours switching driving is a long way. We avoided every city—went around every one. They had a special route that had nothing to do with it. They knew the route when they started. So when we came back, you could do anything you wanted to.
One day I was bragging about all of my accomplishments in track. I had a pretty good record. One of the fellows I ride along said, “Little Tuna, I can outrun you.”
I said, “I don’t think so. Stop the truck!”
We were on a little country road. We took off, and he outran me. That ended all of my talking.
My boss was Captain Brown. We had close communication with the civilian group. That’s where my wife worked. At the time, I had just met her, and that was it. But I was twenty-seven then. When I met Martha, three months later we were in a mock wedding. They had a fashion show. She was reported to be the prettiest girl at Oak Ridge. I looked over the group of them in there. I said, “You know, thing is that that girl right over there could be in a show.”
So they just went over to her—all I could see is like that. So we got married in a mock wedding, and ninety days later, we got married for real. We got I guess about seventy years behind us now.
Kelly: What was her maiden name?
Forkner: Martha Bishop. She’s from Gainesville, Florida. She’s got a memory problem now. When she tells about what she did up there, she was secretary to one of the top fellows, but she was Assistant to Oppenheimer. That’s the way she tells it.
Kelly: That’s great! So was your job considered counter espionage, or that was just what you did in the Army before you got into the Manhattan Project?
Forkner: No I did undercover work before I got in there. That took in anything. One of my favorites was if the post was secure, my job was to crash the post, but not slip in. Do it by some maneuver. Go in legally. So I had to make up anything I could to get in and check the security such as you can buy old equipment. You can buy clothes downtown. I took a picture of an officer, pasted it onto an identification [card], pulled up to the door, threw it to them and said “Why haven’t they brought my examination?”
He’d say, “I don’t know anything about that.”
I said, “Well, where is the man who knows?”
He said, “That building right over there.” So I just went right on through.
I did that for several years. That’s when I got my commission and ended up in Oak Ridge.
I got through that. One day I got called in from Oak Ridge, transferred me to New York. I said, “Well, you’ve got thirty people who are more qualified than I am, why would I want to go there?”
The major said, “You go where you’re told to go.”
So I said, “Yes, sir.”
So I went to New York. I was a security officer for the Manhattan District. The funny thing that people would call about uranium—call Washington. Where they were really talking to was where we were. They thought they were talking to Washington, but they were talking to New York. The whole thing just went through. Nobody that I was ever aware of ever said anything at anytime that they should not have.
I had a fellow at Oak Ridge I was real friendly with. We had desks side-by-side. One night he asked me, He said, “Let’s go down to Knoxville.”
I said, “Alright.”
So we went down and had a good time. He was kind of quiet like that night. Next morning I got in, and his desk was cleaned off. He was gone. I’ve never seen nor heard from him since. That’s how secret it was. He had been transferred some place. Even Martha and I, we never talked about it one time until after it was announced.
The only instructions I ever had when we left—I was the only officer on there, so I was in charge of the trip going and coming. The only orders I had were: lose it, and you’d better be dead. So we had a machine gun right over head, and instruction were just don’t lose it.
Kelly: Did you stop on the road ever, I mean, to get something to eat?
Forkner: I was the trail car, and I never knew when they were going to stop. They bypassed all cities. They had a route picked up. I just followed the truck. It was special built, well balanced. It could take a curve; it was hard to keep up with him when we’d get to the mountain areas.
One of the funniest things, at that time, we had communication between the car and the truck. He’d round the curb, and he says, “It’s all clear ahead. Come on around.” [It would be a] blind curve, and people are watching me go around a blind curve on a mountain area thinking that nut doesn’t know what he’s doing, when they’d tell me it’s all clear, come on around. So I’d pass an automobile on a curve. It was just absolutely blind on the other side.
Kelly: Did you have a deadline that you had to deliver this material? Was there a pressure to get to New Mexico quickly?
Forkner: No. It was nonstop except for gas and to eat. Where we ate we had to have the truck. They had the places picked out. I didn’t have anything to do with that. Where you could park right up against the window, and go inside and have your eyes on the product all of the time. They had all of these things figured out because I wasn’t the first one to go. You just never let it out of your sight. That fifty-three hours was pretty grinding. I learned real early that I’d better take the steering wheel after midnight because the other fellow I was with couldn’t stay awake.
Kelly: Did you know the other fellow before you were assigned this trip?
Forkner: No. And I don’t know how many other trips were similar to mine. The only thing I knew, I had one route. I would go there whoever was in it and assigned you stuff, I don’t guess we talked a dozen times except maybe at lunch. Coming back that was a pretty relaxed trip. You could stop wherever you wanted to. But if I remember it now, I didn’t know who was going to be on the trip or who they were or anything.
Kelly: Each trip was different people?
Forkner: Yes. It was. One time, I took it by myself. I don’t know what I was carrying, but I had it in my automobile. I was the only one, but I don’t know what it was. It was kind of about that size. I took a different route, but I had no communication with anybody. When I left Oak Ridge, they didn’t know where I was until I reported down there. And then I was understood they had a bunch of officers at Oak Ridge real nervous. Where did that fellow go?
Kelly: Wow. That must’ve been strange to suddenly be the only one. You have no one to help you on the driving. So how did you do this?
Forkner: I spent the night. I stopped. That was not nonstop.
Kelly: And did you take the package in the motel with you? How did that work?
Forkner: I think I stayed in the automobile. I don’t think I left the car.
Kelly: You just slept in the automobile? Did you have a gun then?
Forkner: Have what?
Kelly: Did you have a gun?
Forkner: Yeah. I sure did. Yeah. I took a different route from the one over the mountain. I was just out of sight until I got it down there, but I was told there were some nervous people at Oak Ridge, when they couldn’t find me.
Kelly: Sure, it was so valuable.
Forkner: But it was quite an experience. I didn’t think too much at the time about it. It was just a job I was doing in the service.
Kelly: When did you realize what it was you might have been carrying?
Forkner: Well, they told me what it was, but when I realized what it really was, was when they exploded the first one [bomb]. I mean, we were talking about a while ago. Talk about these blockbusters that really will just tear up one block. The report was it would do about six, seven blocks, but they wouldn’t do it. So I just figured this bomb was over exaggerated. But truth of the matter, it was under exaggerated. I understand today they’ve got them that are more powerful than that.
Kelly: Oh, yes. Much, much more powerful! Now, when you were living in Oak Ridge, did you live in the barracks?
Forkner: Barracks. Funny thing. I had come out of this kill-or-be-killed school at Camp Ritchie. You’d fight a tiger when you got out of that place. They really brainwashed you into just being a real fighter. So when I got to Oak Ridge in the barracks, I thought I’d gone to heaven. My wife, who I didn’t know at that time, came from a sorority at FSU (Florida State University) in Florida. She thought she’d gone to hell. Move into the same conditions, but where we came from to where we ended up just made the difference.
Kelly: So we heard how you met her. Do you remember some of the things that you did together while you were courting? Sort of fun things to do?
Forkner: Well, when I met her, we got set up for the mock wedding. We had a mock wedding. Then I had a trip, and I had to go deliver a bomb, so somebody else took my place in the mock wedding. So when I got back in town, they were having the regular show, that’s the first time I’d been it. So I went with her in that. After it was over, I told her, I said, “Being we’re officially married, let’s go down to Knoxville and have dinner.”
She said, “Alright.”
On the way down there, and it hadn’t been oh just a few days—I said I want to tell you something that I know now that I’ll tell you later on—I knew I was going to marry that gal. Ninety days later, I did.
Kelly: Wow! So what did you say, and what did she say?
Forkner: She didn’t pay attention. She doesn’t even remember that.
Kelly: Did you get married in Oak Ridge?
Forkner: No. She said she had one promise she had made her mother: that she was going to be married in Gainesville, Florida in a Baptist church in a regular wedding. So I had to drive from New York to Gainesville, Florida, which I did. It was a quite a ways too. It was a really fun wedding. It was a big crowd. She was, as I said, a real good-looking gal. She had a bunch of fellows down there who were after her pretty strong, so I just kind of won out on that one.
Kelly: Wonderful! Were your parents able to come?
Forkner: Yes, they did. And then my brother-in-law was the best man. Let’s see. My mother, dad, brother-in-law, and my sister. We had four of them. That’s the best I remember now.
Kelly: And then did you have to go right back to New York, or were you able to take a honeymoon.
Forkner: No. I had to get back to New York, but I had just been commissioned shortly before that. I didn’t know the difference between a private and officer. A private the day of return is the day of duty. To an officer, the day of return is really you’ve got an extra day in that it was a day of leave. So I drove all night going back to get back on time. My secretary said, “You’re not due back until tomorrow.”
Kelly: How long did that drive take?
Forkner: Well, Gainesville, Florida to New York. We spent the night in Kentucky. I drove through Philadelphia right in the middle of the night. It was two days.
Kelly: So was Martha with you?
Forkner: Oh, yeah.
Kelly: Got a speedy honeymoon. Just drove through the night.
Forkner: I had an apartment at Lexington and 79th, which was a good area of Manhattan. It was $75 that I had to pay. I wasn’t making but $210. I was told recently that that same identical apartment is still there, but the rent is $1,500 a month. That’s how much difference.
Kelly: Wow! $75 to $1500. So do you remember where you worked when you were assigned there? Tell us about it.
Forkner: Seventy-ninth and Lexington, and then I got on a train and came down I think 28th [street]. But you’ve heard of the little church around the corner in Manhattan. Well, my building was right where I could look right down on top of it. So I think that’s 29th [street]. I’m not sure about that. I know it was right on top of the little church around the corner where everybody wanted to get married.
Well you know the funny thing in New York, they came up there one day and said, “Would you like to see a computer.”
I said, “Yeah.”
So they went down to the university. They had a room oh about three times the size of this room. A piece of machinery ran all the way across these big wheels. They said you can put a problem on this end, and five minutes, the answer would come out of the other end. It was like several millions of dollars project. Today you’ve got this little $10 hand thing that will do forty times what that would do.
Kelly: That’s great! And you remember seeing this during the war?
Forkner: Remember what?
Kelly: Did you see this while you were in New York?
Forkner: Yeah. When I was in New York.
Kelly: Yeah, right. Was that Bell Labs? Do you think?
Forkner: It was at the college. That’s all I remember. Somebody drove me there. I wanted to just watch them run this one problem through it. All of these wheels turning and then some answer would come out of the other end.
Forkner: I read something the other day that said of all of the technology we have today, fifty years from now only 1% of it will be used—99% new technology.
Kelly: It’s become obsolete over time.
Kelly: Things change fast.
Forkner: I don’t know who figured that percentage out.
Kelly: So did you know anyone who was involved in the so-called British Mission? There were about twenty British scientists who ended up in the Woolworth building. It was probably not far but not in the same building.
Forkner: No. The only connection I had when we took over Germany—Russia and the United States split stuff that they had. The stuff that the United States had was coming back to New York. I was a New York security officer. So the ship was already docked when I got down there. One of the officers came off, and he said, “Lieutenant, I’ve got a deal for you.”
I said, “What is it?”
He said, “We’ve got all of this stuff from Germany, but in addition, we have twenty cases of the finest wine. It was buried during the war. I’d like to take them off. If you let me take them off, I’ll give you one case.”
I said, “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with that, so I’ll do it.”
That was the finest wine I’ve ever seen.
Kelly: What happened to the rest of it?
Forkner: That was his.
Kelly: That was his. Not a bad deal for him. Do you remember meeting General Groves?
Forkner: I met him twice. He wanted something that they didn’t have in Washington, but they did have it in New York. So he called up there, and I’ve got to assume what happened. He said, “The next person coming down, bring me some.”
And so, whoever the CO [Commanding Officer] was there passed them down to the Colonel and then to the Major. I was the lowest ranking officer there, so it ended up I had that trip to make. So I got on the train, had some kind of oil. It wasn’t a big package, but it was kind of a handful. I went through two or three offices to get to his office. I walked in there. He was behind his desk. I announced what I had and told him.
He says, “Set it in the corner over there.”
I set it in the corner. That was the only time I’d seen him. I did that, and I’m out and gone again.
Another time I was at Oak Ridge. They gave me an envelope, and said take this to Chicago I believe it was. I took it there, and we had to carry $20 in our pocket at all times. So if trips come up unexpected. So I took a trip up to Chicago. He said this has got to go to New Mexico. So they put me on a plane; New Mexico I went. Then they said, “Take that back up to Washington.”
So now I’m gone about two or three days in the same clothes, same everything. He was at the airport fussing because I was holding him up. He had a flight he wanted, but he had been held up. So I said, “I’ve got an envelope here that’s supposed to go to you.”
He said, “Well, let me see what it is.”
He ripped it open, read a little bit.
He said, “Why did they send me this mess?”
He said, “Take that to my office.” That was the only two times I ever met him.
Kelly: He didn’t waste any time. No chitchat there. You have no idea what the content was?
Forkner: No never did. I had no idea. It was sealed. My only thing was to get it to him.
Kelly: When he got it, did he hand it back to you after he opened it?
Forkner: Yeah, [he] handed it back to me. He stuck it back in the envelope and handed it back to me, and said take this to my office. I never pulled it out. I just took it like it was.
Kelly: So then you went back to Washington. At that point you were in Los Alamos?
Forkner: No, I’m back in Washington I guess. Maybe I just went from New Mexico back to Washington where he was.
Kelly: I see.
Forkner: When I got off of the plane and walked up, he was standing there.
Kelly: I have read a lot of accounts of people traveling and most times people took the train.
Forkner: In traveling?
Kelly: Yeah. When they traveled. I don’t know many stories of people taking a plane.
Forkner: It wasn’t allowed on the plane.
Forkner: The product itself was not allowed on the plane.
Kelly: Yeah, not on the plane, but you would travel by plane. You said you did.
Forkner: But all I had was an envelope. I didn’t travel by plane if I had anything.
Kelly: Oh, no. I understand.
Forkner: That had to stay on the ground.
Kelly: I understand that.
Forkner: And they never went through a city. They’d always bypassed all cities.
Kelly: Right. So, was Martha able to get a job in New York City when you moved up there together?
Forkner: No, she just stayed at the apartment. If you’re trying to live in New York on $210/month, it’s a job. We knew everything in New York that was free.
Kelly: That’s good. So do you ever hear from or keep in touch with anybody you knew or worked with?
Forkner: Not the first one. Jim Wright was Martha’s boss and he lived in Knoxville. After the war was over, he was civilian and everybody in his office was civilian. We were at his house. We stopped by to visit his house as we were going through Knoxville.
And he said, “Tom, I want to tell you something, but don’t tell Martha until you’re out of town.”
I said, “Okay, what is it?”
He said, “I was a chicken Colonel undercover all the time you were at Oak Ridge.”
And I thought my Captain Brown was his boss. It was just the reverse.
Kelly: That’s funny. Wow!
Forkner: Now whether he was lying to me or not, I’ll never know. And he had a good responsible job, and a lot of people under him, so it would fit.
Kelly: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about how many people were in security either watching other people or spying?
Forkner: I don’t know. I was in K-25. In his office, he had, I don’t know, I’d say, fifteen to twenty-five people at the desk doing whatever they were doing. In my office, there were about four or five of us. They had an office next door. We didn’t know what they were doing. I really didn’t even know what the fellow next to me was doing. It was tight.
Kelly: So were you on the third floor, or there was an operational floor. You said you were at K-25?
Forkner: I don’t remember what floor I was on. I don’t remember using an elevator though.
Kelly: Yeah, it could be. K-25 actually refers to 100 different buildings because it was a huge complex.
Forkner: Yeah, I know that.
Kelly: Okay, so you could’ve been in some office.
Forkner: I knew it was big, but I didn’t know the size of it.
Kelly: The plant.
Forkner: Yes. There wasn’t anybody to talk about anything except what they did. I couldn’t have helped anybody if they took me to Europe or Germany wherever.
Kelly: Did you find out more about the project in your second assignment when you were working in Manhattan?
Forkner: No. They had two or three fellows. One fellow he was in charge of uranium. Anybody in the United States who found uranium, they’d call what they thought was Washington, but they were actually talking to him in New York. He was in charge of that. There were about six or eight departments. Each one of them had the job they were doing. One of them was a West Point officer full colonel. I asked him one day, I said, “Did you enjoy yourself going through West Point?”
He says, “You don’t go there to enjoy yourself. You just go there to get out.”
Kelly: That’s good. I wonder if he knew Groves there?
Forkner: Well, he probably did. But I don’t know if Groves ever got to New York. He was strictly Washington.
Kelly: I think he started there, and then moved down.
Forkner: You think so?
Forkner: He was in Washington when I was in New York.
Kelly: Do you remember his office?
Forkner: I remember going through it. I spent the night there. At that time, I was not married, but I was engaged. The fellows in the office were kind of making up a little party that night. I got partnered up with Groves’ secretary [Jean O’Leary]. She was real nice, and we just had a good conversation no courting, no nothing, just talking and enjoying one another. I was told that when the promotions came through the first lieutenant, out of 600 names, my name was first. I said well, what good would that do anybody? That means that when you get your three years in and go for captain, you’re the first one on the list. So she did take care of me there.
Kelly: Jean O’Leary. At least that was one of his secretaries, Jean O’Leary. I don’t know if that name sounds familiar.
Forkner: I don’t remember her name. All we did was just have a good time talking.
Kelly: Reportedly, she knew everything that Groves knew. She was the only person who knew nearly as much as he knew.
Forkner: She was sharp. I know that and very pleasant gal.
Kelly: So what did you do after the war?
Forkner: Went back to real-estate office. I was going back into law practice. The first thing I did was took a case in Decatur. After three years, I had forgotten all of my—if you go into court, you better remember all your things you can object to, grounds [on which] you object to it. They just tore me up. I said I’d never go back in the courtroom again, and I didn’t. Shortly after that, my daddy died, so I took over the real-estate company. Then it went from there to the Waffle House where we are now. Where I am now, I still have an office. They just tell me to stay out of the way.
Kelly: Do you want to talk a little bit about your partnership with Joe Rogers?
Forkner: With Joe? I imagine we have a pretty good record. Joe and I were good friends before the Waffle House days. We lived just two doors apart. And then we decided to start this little Waffle House. We started number one. He was boss. He worked for Toddle House. His boss found out that he was involved with Waffle House, so he sold out to me under the conditions that he’d kind of send me some help and show me how to run it. So for five years, I had it by myself. I did not like food business. There was just too much to it really.
So after five years, we had five stores open. I was 100% owner, 100% operator and everything. He’d just come through town and advise me. So I offered him half interest. The bottom of the line, we had $1,700 after all things were paid. I said, “I’ll give you half interest and a salary equal to what’s right there.”
He said, “I’d do that.”
So he came back under those conditions. In the first month he absorbed his salary—not the first year, the first month—he absorbed his salary, and doubled what I’d put in his bottom line. That’s kind of knowing what you’re doing and not knowing. But we had a little office there.
We used a door for the desk. You could get two people in there at one time. That was it. That was my office for five years. When I finally got an office, we made an office side-by-side. Joanne, my secretary, she’d been working for me for forty years. Joe and I had an office side-by-side then, and his office is next door right now. He can’t come to the office because he’s physically disabled.
We’ve got, well fifty-five years—let’s see, however long Waffle is—we still get along good. We had one rule between us. Object any time you want to, but just don’t be ugly about it. The proper terminology was: disagree on anything you want to, but don’t be disagreeable. So we’ve been friends now for a long, long, time, since back in the late ’40s. I guess, two fellows in the business, neither one of us have any ownership—Joe Junior is the major stockholder now.
Kelly: What a wonderful story!
Forkner: It’s been a good ride all the way through.
Kelly: How did your Manhattan Project experience influence the way you lived the rest of your life?
Forkner: I think my undercover work had more influence than anything. In Oak Ridge I did a good job. I never felt like I did a good job at New York, but I got through with it, but I didn’t go into enough detail in each department to know what they were doing. I’d say, I did a good job at Oak Ridge, and I got a passable job in New York.
Kelly: Can you describe your job at Oak Ridge a little bit more?
Forkner: Well the main thing was transportation on the trip. Now exactly what I did when I was in Oak Ridge and when I went out of town, I don’t think there was anything really outstanding about it—no, [there was] nothing particular to that.
Now in New York, I had a security job. I had about fifteen or twenty guards and people around for whom I was responsible in different departments. That’s when I, thinking about it, didn’t do the job I could have done. Going to each department to find out what they were doing. It turned out alright, but I should have known more about each department than I did.
Kelly: Well, they probably wouldn’t have told you. Think about that.
Forkner: Well I knew them well enough to get them involved a bit. Being a security officer, the probably would have told me.
Kelly: Hard to know. You might have found your desk empty, and you’re hauled off someplace else if they get to know too much.
Forkner: That’s right.
Kelly: Yeah. Interesting. Very interesting! So when you learned the result of this huge project was to make an atomic bomb, what was your reaction?
Forkner: I didn’t think it was as powerful as it was. I thought it was going to be powerful, but I had no idea it’d be as powerful. I’m real sure in my mind, there were a lot of us thought the same thing until they exploded that first one. The reaction I got from the people close to it, it was more powerful than they even thought it was going to be.
Kelly: So were you in New York? You must have been in Manhattan when the war came to an end.
Forkner: I was.
Kelly: Yeah. Do you remember the mood in the office? Was everybody celebrating the end of the war? How did they react to that news?
Forkner: Well 90% was just happy to get word they were going to get out. I was one of them. I wasn’t waiting on anybody. But they had guns from the various departments and everything and had a place where they were getting rid of all of the weapons they had. The officers got first choice. So I went down and picked out a couple of shotguns. For just say they were maybe $300. I got them for about $50. So I got two of the real fine shotguns. But they started getting rid of stuff just about as fast as you could.
Kelly: So when were you finally discharged or let go?
Forkner: It wasn’t long after that. I had the latest Buick when I went in, but New York I kept getting parking tickets for being overnight. Being kind of stupid, I was in charge of the parking lot in the building I was in. I was security. I could have made a deal of that, and it didn’t occur to me until after I sold it. But then we got out in January. I bought a Ford. We decided we’d see how far north we could go. So we went on up into Canada. And then we crossed over. We went straight across the United States, and then headed due south. I wasn’t in any hurry to get home then. But we were out.
Kelly: So what was the country like?
Forkner: In New York.
Kelly: Right after the war, what did the country seem like? What impression did you have driving?
Forkner: Well, I had two things. In New York, it’s congested. I didn’t go but just a few miles until I got to the northern part of New York. It was just like in the country. That was the first thing that impressed me. The second thing, we stopped in these cities, and the snow was just everywhere and the safety instructions, wherever we were, said stop at 3:00 p.m., don’t go beyond 3:00 in the afternoon. Have a place where you’re going to stay. One day we didn’t go but fifteen miles. We didn’t like where we were, so we turned around and went back where we started.
We spent the night one of the Senators, Sterling from Maine. He had a place where we could spend the night. We stayed there. Then we just cut across, straight across the United States. They had big ice pond out there. It was frozen over—in Vermont I believe it was. I asked a fellow, I said, “Do you have any skates around there. I’m thinking about skating.”
He said, “Yeah. We’ve got some.”
I said, “Could I borrow one pair?”
And so I got on them, and I had never been on skates in my life. And my wife’s out there they’re watching me. I’d skate along.
I said, “I’m going to put the brakes on like they do in the show.”
I’d put them down, and then I’d fall. I’d get up and I’d do it, and I’d fall. That afternoon I look up, and there is somebody in every window around there.
The mechanic who kept my car said, “Are you that fool on those skates yesterday?
I said, “Yeah.”
I guess what to me was the most interesting, and I had just spent about two years doing undercover work. That was before Oak Ridge. I had one case where I had this German, and his platoon was being shipped overseas and they didn’t want him in there. So he was the sorriest soldier in the Army. My colonel when I was undercover said, “Go down and stay with this fellow, make friends with him, and put your act on and be the sorriest soldier in the Army.” In other words, go down and act natural.
So I went down and made friends with him, and we deserted. So we went to Atlanta. Then from there we went to New York and stayed. He lived in New York. I stayed up there. There’s a book, The House on 92ndStreet—kind of like German town. I was undercover with Beck, and I had to remember who I really am, who he thought I was, and we made up another name in New York who we’d be up there. So I’m down in the middle of German town. I’ve got to remember who I am, who he thought I was, and who we said we were going to be every time I opened my mouth. That’s tricky.
Kelly: So what happened? Did you decide he was spy or untrustworthy?
Forkner: No. The only thing he wanted was to get out of the Army. He wanted to go to Germany. He didn’t want to fight. He just wanted to get out of the United States, but he was perfectly harmless, but he just was a useless individual. So finally I found out that he had no idea of any sabotage or anything like that. So I reported him.
They had a trial, and he got ten years sentence. They asked him about the fellow he was with, and he said, “Well, I don’t know about that. When we got out, we crossed over into Alabama and I got on the bus and went one way and he went the other way and I haven’t seen him since.”
We were together for three months, but they never said a word. We just split, and that was it. But he got ten years. And when the war ended, he got out before I did.
Kelly: That’s a good story. Do you have any idea how many people were in undercover work?
Forkner: I know there were about seven or eight in that department, but what they did I didn’t know. I was reported to be the number one undercover man. I did just one right after another. I never did anything great.
I could find out things when they reported something wasn’t happening. For example, there were a lot of plane crashes down in Orlando, Florida where they were training. They were moving these fellows from single engine to double engine and then to four-engine planes. They’d have them take off and land. Take off and land. So I was a mechanic. I asked an officer one day if I could have a ride. He said, “Yeah. Just be back there.”
So I got on there, and these fellows were killing themselves down there. There were moving up so fast, so they could get them overseas, and that plane hit the ground “boom!” Bounced about four or five times. The instructor didn’t seem to mind, but it scared me to death! I went up to him, and I said, “Now lieutenant, I’ll tell you what. You can have me court-martialed if you want to, but I’m down here on a special assignment. I’m not who you think I am, but I want off of this plane.”
I said, “You can report me if you want to.”
He says, “No. Next time just jump off in a hurry.”
So I went back and made a report that they were just moving people through the flight [school] so fast, they were just killing them. Things like that was real fun for me. But I didn’t like that one.
Kelly: Do you know if they followed up on your report?
Forkner: Well, the only follow-up happened back at Fort Benning, they would have parades and a lot of cars were breaking down. A lot of them they had in the shop too long. They sent me down there to find out why so many automobiles and trucks and things were breaking down. I went in as kind of a trainee. They’d shift me from place to place. I made a full report of what was happening. I tell you I got the information from the mechanics who were working on that, what they thought was wrong. Compiled it all and sent in a good report. I got a lot of compliments. They changed the whole system and what they were doing down there. But I’d go from one of those things to another. That was really more fun than Oak Ridge.
Kelly: It sounds like it would be great fun! Especially since people didn’t know what you were doing. They might be more forthcoming.
Forkner: Well, one time I’d be a private. The other time I’d be a lieutenant. Then I’d be a sergeant. People had to take me to all of those shots for everything. They would dread it so much. I had to do it three times. Overall, I just had one ambition. That was to get out.
I was in New York, and I was standing there looking at the window. It looked like there was some rain, clouds coming in. I was just checking the sky out. The Empire-State Building was about three blocks away. All of a sudden, I saw this plane coming straight at the Empire-State Building. It hit dead on, and the engines went on through the building and came out of the other side. So I grabbed my camera, took a picture of that, and all I got of course was smoke coming up from it. So I said, “Well, that might be a military plane, so I ought to go out and check on it.”
So I went over, got there, and the officers there, I gave them my credential, and I said, “I want to see if there are any military problems to deal with.”
He said, “I’m going on this elevator to the 66th floor. If you want to ride on it, that’s your responsibility.”
I said, “If you go, I’ll go.”
So I went up to the 66th floor. I looked around. I couldn’t see anything. I went back and didn’t have to make a report because I wasn’t even supposed to be there, but the next day I was reading the paper. The plane had come in and split. A part went to sixty-four and a part went to sixty-five. All of the damage was on the floor above me. I never even did see that.
Forkner: That showed you what a good investigator I was.