Cook highlights ‘long overdue heroes’ from WWII Oak Ridge

If you’ve ever run out of gas behind the wheel of your vehicle, especially when you’re far from the nearest convenience store, just imagine consequences far worse than simply being inconvenienced.

Imagine millions of innocent lives dying in agony and world power turned upside down — the race to develop a nuclear bomb before Adolph Hitler and Germany during World War II was critical.

That was the pressure facing 75,000 Oak Ridge employees in 1943, 1944 and 1945 carrying out the Manhattan Project during World War II, only knowing no time was to be wasted — the overwhelming majority not knowing Oak Ridge was the sole “refinery” of nuclear weaponry: the fuel, developing the bomb’s enriched uranium-235 fuel.

While this story has been told, especially in the Knox-Oak Ridge area, countless numbers of times, an author has come forward attempting to glorify the Oak Ridge employees nationally and worldwide, and four workers in particular, as heroes.

“These heroes have been ignored, but over the last couple of years it’s gotten a little better,” said Richard F. Cook, author of “Ignored Heroes of World War II, The Manhattan Project Workers of Oak Ridge, TN,” as featured speaker during The Rotary Club of Farragut’s weekly Wednesday noon meeting, March 8, in Fox Den Country Club ballroom.

“Seventy-five thousand people worked around the clock for three years to make something the size of a volleyball,” Cook said, adding about the top-secret nature of the project, “Maybe 200 knew what they were working on.”

Among those Cook singled out for special praise was Hugh Barnett, 100 years of age, one of four Manhattan Project workers set to take the next Honor Air flight to Washington, D.C. [April].

Operating the K-25 and other plants helped make Oak Ridge “an energy hog,” Cook said. “And because of that, Oak Ridge, Tenn. consumed 10 percent more electricity than New York City during World War II.”

To illustrate the size of K-25 plant, Cook placed its photograph beside a proportionally sized photograph of Neyland Stadium. It dwarfed the stadium.

Moreover, “It was the largest building in the world when it was completed,” Cook said.

At the Y-12 plant, “they borrowed 14,000 tons of silver from the Treasury Department” for use in machines that specifically separated U-235 and U-238, Cook said. “Young girls barely out of high school from the rural South” mostly operated those machines.

However, “The scientists got into a snit because they looked at these girls, who they thought were dumb farm girls, and knew they couldn’t be doing a very good job,” Cook added. “So they had a competition between the girls and the scientists — and the scientists lost.”

The critical point in terms of both secrecy and speed of production was simple: the government “knew if Hitler got the bomb first, that London would be gone and Europe would fall to Germany,” Cook said. “This could not happen. Millions of people would die. … The upper echelon [of government] was going, ‘faster, faster, faster.’”

Housing was built so fast in Oak Ridge, that workers who lived next to an open lot going to work “and coming back in the evening and getting disoriented because there was a home on that lot,” Cook said. “… A home was completed every 30 minutes during the war.”

Because going to Knoxville “was a bit of a chore” thanks to tedious and poor bus service, “workers discovered they had to make their own fun,” Cook said. “They started their own symphony. They had a playhouse, which is still in existence.

“… They were all strangers when they got here, so they had to build new relationships,” Cook added. “It was an exciting time for everybody … and the scariest.”

The Oak Ridge School System had 800 students in 1943, “but in 1944 there were 4,000 and a year later there were about 9,000 students,” Cook said. “The growth was unprecedented, and the kids loved growing up in Oak Ridge.”

Athletically at Oak Ridge High School, “They couldn’t risk outsiders coming in, so there were no home games,” Cook said. “… For security reasons, the opposing team was never given a roster of players.”

Beyond athletics, “For security reasons, the first Girl Scout Troop had to be approved by the FBI,” Cook said to audience laughter.