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The ONLY Photographer Allowed to Photograph the Making of the Atomic Bomb in Oak Ridge, TN

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 26, 2022 3:00 am

The ONLY Photographer Allowed to Photograph the Making of the Atomic Bomb in Oak Ridge, TN

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 26, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Richard Cook tells us the story of how in 1943 the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee was established and went from 58,000 acres of farmland to a town of 75,000 people to beat Germany to the atomic bomb.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

MUSIC In the town that housed the bulk of the work of the Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, there was a single photographer, Ed Westcott. This is the story that led to the end of World War II and the one man that photographed it all.

Here's Arthur Richard Cook with the story. In August of 1934, President Hindenburg of Germany died. Chancellor Hitler moved quickly to consolidate the office of president and chancellor and molded it into a new position as dictator. His new title was Fuhrer.

A national referendum weeks later was approved by 90% of the voters. Meanwhile, in Nashville, Tennessee, Ed Westcott's father, after saving for a year, bought 12 year old Ed his first camera. They found a used mobile lunch wagon, which they renovated into a dark room. Family, friends and neighbors could get film developed for 50 cents a roll. He was largely self-taught.

He started working with portrait studios in Nashville while still a teenager. There were clues in East Tennessee in September of 1942. A press release published in newspapers said the military was building an ammunition testing range outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. This partially explained the condemnation of 58,000 acres by the government. The reports in newspapers were a total lie. Farmers who owned the land were totally in the dark. Surveying crews asked permission to be on their land for a few hours. In November, owners found a single piece of paper attached to the screen front door announcing that the owners of the land had three weeks to vacate the property.

It was being confiscated by the federal government. Many of these families had farmed their land for generations. The farmhouses were bulldozed down in a matter of days after the eviction date.

The ammunition testing range excuse was done on purpose. It discouraged squatters and it worked. The families viewed their farms as a personal Garden of Eden. The land provided for all their needs, both physically and spiritually. Most families never, ever got over the quick, harsh eviction. They were compensated for their land, but hundreds of farmers were looking for new farmland at the same time.

Prices went through the roof. Many of the farmers ended up working at the industrial plants, which were built on their former land. Meanwhile, 160 miles to the west in Nashville, a 20-year-old man had a decision to make. Ed Westcott was a photographer for the Nashville office of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The office was being closed. Ed was offered two options. He could transfer to the Alaskan highway to document the construction of it, or he could go to a new installation outside of Knoxville. Ed had spent all of his entirely too brief life in Tennessee. He had recently gotten married and had a newborn son.

Knoxville it was. He accepted the job in November and would start in January of 1943. His employee number was 29. Little did he know that in less than three years, he would create the most important photographic archive of 20th century American history. Ed said there wasn't much going on when he reported to work. Putting in roads and rail lines was the first order of business. Ed said if this was a war project, it wasn't much of a project.

Ed dove into his work. From January 1943 until the end of the war in August of 1945, he took somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 photographs. In an era where everyone has a camera on their cell phone, that doesn't sound like much. 16 to 21 photographs every single day.

But it was a different time. The cameras were heavy and often he needed heavy tripods to mount his camera on. During the war, Ed had a 4x5 speed graphic, which used roll film with six exposures on each roll. And then he had an 8x10 Deardorfer, which used a single sheet of film for each photograph. If he was shooting inside, he had to use bulky floodlights, which took a long time to set up. And often times for just a single shot. And at the end of the day, he had to go back to his dark room and develop the day's film and print proof sheets.

Then there might be a dance to shoot later that night. Cameras were banned in the secret city. His was the only camera in a town of 75,000. And for a guy with ambition, his side hustle as a photographer was almost a full time job on its own. There were many weddings each weekend.

The fastest growing department at the hospital was the maternity ward. If you needed photos of your first born, Ed was the man. And when we come back, we'll continue this remarkable story of a man, a town and a time. Ed Westcott's story here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Simply go to Geico dot com or contact your local agent today. And we're back with our American stories and the story of the Manhattan Project, the perfecting of atomic weaponry and the building of a 75,000 person town in less than three years. We continue with Richard Cook. The speed and scale of Oak Ridge was unlike anything the country had ever seen. From the time the farmers were evicted until the day Japan surrendered was a mere thousand and twenty days. This top secret installation went from cows grazing pasture land to the fifth largest city in the state and one of the largest industrial complexes in the history of mankind. Splitting an atom was an astonishing new energy source and it was fully realized in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Timing, both good and bad, can be a terribly random thing. In December of 1938, two scientists in Germany discovered a uranium atom could be split and release a massive amount of energy. Barely eight months later, Germany invaded Poland and World War II started. The first perception of atomic power by the world would be during a war. General Dick Groves ran the Manhattan Project.

He was a no-nonsense, impatient taskmaster. His second in command was Colonel Ken Nichols. They were hired in September of 1942. Things happened quickly. They made the decision to step up the process to condemn sixty thousand acres of farmland west of Knoxville, Tennessee. They also obtained from the War Production Board a triple A priority rating.

It was the highest rating possible. There were shortages of thousands of materials during the war. The Manhattan Project would be first in line for anything and everything. Another objective was to borrow from the U.S. Treasury fourteen thousand tons of silver for the industrial plants in Oak Ridge.

That is equal to the weight of nine thousand cars. And finally, they also contracted with a uranium mine owner in the Belgian Congo for twelve hundred and fifty tons of high quality uranium ore. Dick and Ken completed these four vitally important objectives during the first four days on the job. In eighteen months, they built the fifth largest city in the state.

During the peak, a home was completed every thirty minutes. There were over six thousand massive industrial machines separating two isotopes of uranium. Oak Ridge devoured ten percent more electricity than New York City during the war. New York had over seven and a half million residents.

Oak Ridge, about seventy five thousand. For safety reasons, workers lived miles from the industrial sites. These were new experimental processes creating a new type of uranium. There were worries an accident would be catastrophic. So to ferry workers to and from the plants, they built the ninth largest bus system in the country.

A bus arrived or departed from the main terminal every sixty seconds, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Even with the industrial plants, the speed of construction was head spinning. The problems were huge. For every two thousand pounds of raw uranium, there was only fourteen pounds of the precious uranium two thirty five. The plants were named S-50, K-25 and Y-12. The names were total gibberish. They were created to make sure absolutely nothing was conveyed to the workers or the outside world about the purpose of these plants. Normally, after a theory is proved out in the laboratory, a prototype is built to see if the idea is scalable.

There was no time for that. K-25 used a filter method. There was a two percent difference in the size of uranium two thirty eight and the smaller uranium two thirty five. A filter would have holes small enough that the larger two thirty eight could not pass through it easily. But the smaller two thirty five could.

A filter the size of your thumbnail would have over fifteen million holes in it. When they started building K-25, the scientists had not developed a filter which worked. The scientists just kept grinding out possible solutions until they developed one which worked. Much of what happened in Oak Ridge was based mostly on blind faith.

Why such a rush? Only people in the highest echelons of the military, government and science knew the horrible secret which kept all of them awake at night. Hitler had his own atomic weapons program. We knew almost nothing about it.

But what was known was nightmarish. Hitler had a two year head start. This was the original arms race. If Hitler got the weapon first, London would be gone. Moscow most likely too. If Hitler could get an airfield in Greenland, the entire east coast of the United States would be under threat.

The resulting carnage would make the Holocaust look like a tiny blip on a moral radar screen. There were seventy five thousand workers in Oak Ridge. Only two to three hundred workers knew the purpose of the giant industrial site. But all the workers were highly motivated to end the war. They had family and friends dying in distant lands.

The loss of American life during World War Two would equal a 9-11 attack every five days for three and a half years. From the bottom up, workers were pleading with their bosses, what can we do to end the killing? And from the top down, the leaders did their own pleading, faster.

Just work faster. Forces from the very top of the Manhattan Project and the fears of workers on the bottom rung of the labor pool all came together in Oak Ridge, Tennessee unlike anywhere else in the nation. The officials kept the purpose of this place secret, almost against all odds. But there were two aspects of the top secret project which could not be hidden from the workers. One was the scale of what was going on. Nobody knew what it was, but it was the biggest effort they had ever seen in their young lives.

And it would be the biggest effort of their entire lives. The other aspect which could not be hidden was the speed of the effort. Everyone could see it was moving at a blistering pace. It seemed that housing and industrial plants were built almost overnight.

These two elements, speed and scale, made the atmosphere electric. Throw into the equation youth and hormones, and it was the most amazing place in the country. The workers said it was the most exciting time of their lives and the scariest too. The terror and carnage of war was the backdrop for everything. And you've been listening to Richard Cook telling the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and the Manhattan Project, which by the way, this should be a story that every school child knows, right? I mean, how we don't know this story. Well, shame on all of us in the end. In a very short time going from the eviction of farmers to the fifth largest city in a state, most of the people there not knowing precisely what was going on, the folks there, the folks fighting, the generals, the president, had no idea what was going to happen.

And that's why the rush and the speed. When we come back, we continue with Richard Cook, the story of the Manhattan Project here on Our American Stories. And we're back with Our American Stories and the story of the Manhattan Project, America's World War II project that was hell-bent on beating Germany to the atomic bomb. But with the immense size and scale of this enterprise and all the people involved, how the heck did they keep it a secret?

Back to Richard Cook. You can't hide a town of 75,000 people. But what was going on out there? Folks in Knoxville wondered. In other military plants, the narrative was straightforward. Thousands of rail cars of raw materials would be shipped in and thousands of jeeps or tanks would come out.

Or the locals could see thousands of newly finished planes taking off. No mystery at all. Oak Ridge was different. Thousands of rail cars delivered raw materials and nothing, absolutely nothing, was coming out.

Well, something was coming out, but nobody saw it. It was a single piece of grey-looking metal the size of a volleyball. It was made up of 90% uranium-235. Not thousands of volleyballs, but a single one. Over 75,000 workers were working desperately around the clock making a volleyball.

And if they could make one, they might be able to make a second one. In 2020 dollars, they would spend 14 billion dollars on a single 140-pound volleyball. Of course, if this was a Hollywood movie, the entire volleyball would be delivered to Los Alamos, New Mexico in a security convoy. There would be 40 trucks and security guards with machine guns and American flags waving.

It didn't happen that way though. As enough uranium was separated, a military officer dressed in a business suit would be given a sealed briefcase. Inside the lined case was two teacup-sized containers with screw lids nestled in a special carrier. The officer would go to Knoxville, get on a public train, and travel to Chicago. At the train depot, he would meet another officer dressed as a businessman. He would take the briefcase and get on a train bound for Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then he would drive to Los Alamos.

The officer going to Chicago from Oak Ridge never knew where the briefcase was going, and the other officer never knew where the briefcase came from. Sometimes workers went to Knoxville to shop or eat, and they were trained how to answer questions from nosy natives. So, what are you making out there anyway? About 85 cents an hour. What do you do out there anyway? I'm in project management. How many people work out there?

Oh, about half of them. The obsession with secrecy and security was well founded. Officials were deeply concerned that the Germans would learn the extent of the American efforts and would double down on their own program.

Or, more likely, the Germans would infiltrate Oak Ridge and steal industrial secrets about American methods so it could aid their own work. When all workers were hired in Oak Ridge, they went through an eight-hour orientation. Six hours of it was keep your mouth shut, don't talk about your work to anyone, including your spouse, you could be fired, and possibly go to prison for espionage. There were billboards everywhere in town which said, shut up and do your job.

Every six months, there was a refresher course in case you couldn't get the message the other four times. Outgoing mail was opened, read, and portions were blacked out if necessary. One of the tragic unintended consequences of these dictates was that nobody kept diaries or journals. Workers were petrified that military police would find them if they searched their homes.

Oral histories done decades after the war will be the only record of the memories of these ignored heroes. There was something very conflicted about working and living in Oak Ridge during the war. At work, there was little to no job security.

There were prohibitions, procedures, protocols, and security standards. Asking too many questions was a sure way to be fired. Of all the people who left the Manhattan Project, 40% of them were fired. But officials were greatly concerned that the workers would up and quit in droves. They were all strangers. Many of them were away from home and family for the first time.

The secrecy graded some. All the rules at work put strains on others. Sometimes, coworkers simply disappeared. The mythology was that they were reassigned to a radar tracking station in Alaska. You didn't dare ask about workers who disappeared.

It would bring you unwanted attention. Because of all these strains, outside of work, officials were determined to keep the workers happy so they wouldn't quit. To the extent possible, the workers were pampered. Movie theaters were packed. Dance halls were full. Because most of the workers were working rotating shifts each week. Athletic leagues competed around the clock. There was a symphony orchestra made up of volunteers. A playhouse was open, which is still in operation today. If you wanted a special interest club for a hobby, you would tell authorities and they would do the publicity.

At one time, there were eight different orchid clubs. Ed Westcott created a vivid record of the social history of the town. He took thousands of pictures of the industrial plants. Honestly, these are photos only a scientist could love. A machine is a machine. But photos of folks living their lives was where Ed's talents really came to the fore.

Those photos tell a human story, and Ed was a master at that part of the story. And you've been listening to Richard Cook telling this remarkable story of a town that was built from scratch to compete with the Germans to be the first country to create a nuclear bomb. And my goodness, what a complicated place to live and what a complicated place to work. Forty percent of the people who left the Manhattan Project were fired. Secrecy, of course, putting strains on everybody and everything. You certainly didn't ask questions about workers who disappeared.

There were no diaries. People were just too afraid to keep written records. And the oral histories we have are fine and fair, but nothing from the immediate time. But Mr. Westcott's pictures, when we come back, more of this remarkable story of a town, a time, a place and a photographer here on Our American Stories. And we're back with Our American Stories and with the rest of the story of the Manhattan Project, the end of World War II, and Ed Westcott, the only man with a camera in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

But let's go back to Richard Cook for the rest of this remarkable story. There was a sense of expectation in the summer of 1945 among some of the Oak Ridge workers. Some workers got a heads up from their bosses. Something was afoot.

Certainly, Ed Westcott knew something was up. It was toward the end of July of 1945, and he was instructed to print hundreds of copies of 18 of his photographs under press packets to be sent out to hundreds of newspapers across the country and even some foreign newspapers. He printed thousands of photographs.

Ed had, in the last few months, pieced together what was happening in Oak Ridge. He went everywhere and saw almost everything. He wasn't totally sure, but he was mostly sure. In late August of 1945, he was sent rolls of film for military photographers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was after Japan had surrendered. He was the only one allowed to develop the film and print the photographs. It took him three days.

Armed guards were posted outside his darkroom door the entire time. President Truman gave a midday address to the nation on August 6th of 1945. He revealed that the United States had developed a devastating new weapon called an atomic bomb. They had dropped an atomic weapon on Hiroshima, Japan.

It was equal to 15,000 tons of dynamite. Almost as an aside, Truman said the weapon had been developed in Pasco, Washington, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, outside of Knoxville. That is how almost all the workers learned about what they had been working on. Hugh Barnett joined the Manhattan Project while its offices were actually in Manhattan, in New York City. He learned the purpose of the Manhattan Project his first day at work. He moved to Oak Ridge in 1943. In the summer of 1945, it was obvious to Hugh that the project was closing in on the amount of uranium-238 they needed for a weapon. He carpooled out to K-25 each day with four other workers.

They all knew the purpose of their work in Oak Ridge. August 14th was Hugh Barnett's 29th birthday. Hiroshima was bombed on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 9th.

The entire country was on pins and needles, expecting the surrender of the Japanese. Hugh was not celebrating his birthday that day, but he was also on pins and needles, too. Hugh's wife had gone into labor with their first child. They were at the hospital.

It was three blocks from the main town site called Jackson Square. There was no air conditioning, so the windows were open to fight the intense summer heat. Hugh's first son was born at 7 p.m. and the hospital room subsided, but Hugh and Shirley could hear distant cheering outside their room. Hugh wondered how word had spread so quickly about the birth of Lee. President Truman, in a nationwide radio address at 7 p.m., announced Japan had surrendered in World War II. After 65 million deaths was finally over. There was great joy in the hospital room that night and in the entire nation, too. More than a million sing and dance in the streets in the biggest celebration the Windy City has ever seen.

Joy is unconfined. Meanwhile, in Jackson Square, three blocks away, Ed Westcott was taking photos of Oak Ridges celebrating the ending of the war. There is a famous photograph of a huge crowd celebrating, looking directly at Ed, who was standing in the bed of a truck.

Many held up the Knoxville newspaper with a half-page headline which shouted out, WAR ENDS! With that photo, Ed Westcott must have wondered what the future held for him. His job assignment was essentially done. With that photograph, Ed had brought to a close the most important work of his professional life. On that night, he finished the most important photographic archive of 20th century American history.

On that night, Ed Westcott was 23 years old. As it turned out, Ed stayed in Oak Ridge as a government photographer for another 20 years. In 2017, he was nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor. In 2016, the Honor Air Program in Knoxville, which is 25 miles from Oak Ridge, decided to expand their definition of a veteran to include Manhattan Project workers who worked in Oak Ridge. The program flies over 130 veterans each trip to Washington, D.C. to tour the war memorials. This trip is done at no charge to the veterans. They leave in the morning and are back in Knoxville the same evening.

It's a long day for all the veterans and the volunteers who make it all possible. In October of 2016, four Oak Ridgers took the trip. Among them was Ed Westcott.

I was not there for the send-off, but I was there that evening for their welcome home, along with thousands of other people. Warren Buffett, along with Bill Gates, were interviewed by Charlie Rose in 2017. It was a set-up question, but fascinating nonetheless. Charlie asked Warren what he thought was the second most important document in American history. Warren said, of course, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were most important, but Buffett said the second most important document was written by two immigrants to President Roosevelt in 1939.

They weren't really immigrants, but rather refugees from Nazi Germany. One, not quite as well known, was Leo Szilard, a brilliant physicist from Hungary. The other letter writer was a refugee from Germany who happened to be the most famous scientist in the world, Albert Einstein. In Buffett's estimation, these two refugees saved the world. The two told Roosevelt that Hitler was working on developing atomic weapons, and Germany had a huge head start.

If Germany won this arms race, Nazism and Japanese militarism would rule most of the globe. The letter got to the White House in August of 1939, and eight weeks later the earliest version of the Manhattan Project was created. And a very special thanks to Richard Cook for that remarkable storytelling, and great job on this by Robbie, our Cracker Jack producer here at Our American Stories. And Richard is the author and compiler of Ignored Heroes of World War II, the Manhattan Project workers of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and oral history.

And by the way, Ed Westcott on March 29, 2019, passed. He was still taking photographs a week before his death. And you can find his photos by punching in Ed Westcott and the words Oak Ridge into your search engine. There are thousands of pictures out there taken by this one man. The story of a town, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a photographer, Ed Westcott, here on Our American Stories. Music
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 04:15:52 / 2023-02-17 04:26:49 / 11

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