April 22, 2021

How the US Government Kept a Town of 75,000 Secret


Oak Ridge, Tennessee is a small American town just like any other. They got Walmart, a Dollar General, an Aldi, a thermonuclear weapons development site and two McDonald’s and yet from 1942 to 1945, Oak Ridge, which a the time was the fifth largest town in Tennessee, did not exist and this isn’t like how Canada doesn’t exist.  Oak Ridge did exist but nobody knew about it.

In October 1942, the 1000 or so residents of the area came home to find notes on their door telling them they had six weeks to get out – the government had acquired their land through eminent domain.

In Oak Ridge Tennessee, after all the fences and buildings went up in a matter of months, the recruited workers were told next to nothing. All they knew was that their world would end the war. Spoiler alert, it did, because they were building the atomic bomb in what was known as the Manhattan Project. The names supposedly originated from the fact that the sites were quite similar to New York – they used about the same amount of electricity due to all the machinery, the air was toxic, they had to overpay the residents to convince them to live in bad conditions, and the people all thought they were more important than they were. The bad guys in World Wr 2 were not great so it was pretty important that the US didn’t accidentally leak information to Axis spies. Therefore, the entire 75.000 person town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee was 100% confidential – not even the Vice President knew it existed. When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima that was the first time that all but a select few individuals even knew a bomb existed.

The way the government kept his enormous operation confidential was as ingenious as the technology they were building Oak Ridge did not exist on any map. Houses were built outside the town and brought in to be placed so as few construction workers as possible would enter. Every single piece of mail going in and out was searched and read through not only to make sure there we no details of the work going on within the fences but also to be sure that nobody was including codes that communicated details. There were signs all around the town reminding everyone that what they were doing was secret but, in the government’s mind with 75.000 people, it was inevitable that a few spies would get in. For that reason, almost everyone had no clue what they were doing, the workers literally did not know what they were building. According to one estimate, only a few dozen people knew that the atomic bomb existed before the bombing of Hiroshima even though hundreds of thousands of people at Oak Ridge and other Manhattan Project sites built it. The workers learned about what they were building from the newspaper the day after the bomb dropped.

Each and every individual would have a single task and the only people who knew how it related to other tasks were the few highest-ranked scientists. One individual, for example, was tasked with watching a dial, turning a valve when it reached 100 and that was it. He had no idea why he was doing that. The individual tasks were tiny and mundane – it was like working at McDonald’s except that at McDonald’s what you make kills Americans too. Another individual working in the laundry was told to hold up a machine to each article of clothing and listen for a clicking sound. Little did she know she was checking for radiation using a Geiger counter. Security officers roamed all around Oak Ridge and monitored for anything suspicious. Groups of more than seven and having the same person over repeatedly were considered suspicious so residents avoided that since they knew that, if the security officers were suspicious in the slightest, even if it was unproven, they would get kicked out for good. If a leak was proven, the resident would either be jailed for 10 years or fined the equivalent of $100.000. Overall, the bad guys in this war were really bad so Americans were really into the idea of winning so even those that had a good idea what was going on in Oak Ridge kept silent out of a sense of patriotism – not wanting to let out information that could help the enemy. Throughout this all, however, Oak Ridge had stores and restaurants and even sports teams. Oak Ridge looked like a regular American town – just one that built the most deadly weapon that has ever existed.  If you work at the US Government’s secret contrail factory in Garden City, Kansas, you should start a blog about it but a blog isn’t worth much unless you have a great domain.