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Oak Ridgers recall life in the Secret City

"I couldn't say anything or talk to anybody about anything...but I listened."

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — Created out of war, the city of Oak Ridge held the key to ending it, but the thousands who moved to the Secret City during the 1940s were in the dark about what it was they were making. 

"I couldn't say anything, couldn't talk to anybody about anything. There was nobody to talk to about it. But, I listened to everything that was said," R.L. Ayers recalled in a previous interview. 

In recent years, the Oak Ridge Public Library and Center for Oak Ridge Oral History conducted dozens of interviews with people who lived in the Secret City in an attempt to preserve and illustrate the city's history. Richard Lord told his interviewer that he had a hunch about the work they were doing. 

"We knew we were doing something that would end the war we believed," Lord said. 

Many young women around high school and college-age went to work monitoring dials on calutrons that are used for separating uranium isotopes. 

Louise Keaton said they called them 'cubicle operators.' 

"I have heard that, usually, the country girls or the hillbilly girls didn't ask a lot of questions. They did what they were asked to do and probably did better than the scientists. That's what I have heard," Keaton said about the importance of the job. 

Lois Gatlin said she felt strange going to work every day, not fully understanding the purpose of her job. 

"It was kind of strange. You were going to do this job, and you know nothing, and you don't know the product, and you don't know what's inside your cubicle," Gatlin said in her interview. 

At the time, the women knew that turning the dials and monitors to high temperatures was good, but if the numbers soared to high, an alarm would sound. 

"There was a red light and a honking horn on your cubicle. If you were getting too hot, they'd go off and scare everybody half to death," Gatlin said.

"They would make terrible noises," Keaton said. 

On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear bomb was detonated at a facility in New Mexico. The fuel came from Oak Ridge, but those who created it and the rest of the world didn't find out until a month later when two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. 

RELATED: "I remember everything" | Blount County woman remembers seeing atomic bomb from Japanese hometown

"I was an engineer on the evening shift, 3 to 11 p.m., and it was up about 10 o'clock in the evening that I heard that they dropped the bomb. The operators, they left their cubicles running, and they just left their cubicles running, and they didn't even clock out," Connie Bolling remembered. 

"My father called my mother and told her to turn the radio on and listen to the news and find out what we've been doing," Charles Vandenbulck said. 

"I said, "Oh! That was a part of what we were doing." You know how things will all come to you. So, that was the first thing that I thought. That's what we were giving our free time for and all of that," Ayers said.

Even after the bombs and The Secret City that helped create them became public knowledge, some in Oak Ridge didn't dully realize the value of their job until they saw pictures by photographer Ed Westcott on display. A snapshot of their role in history. 

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