cover_story (2006-20)

It’s a whole different world out there today,” says Bill Wilcox, with an emphasis on “world” as if the word itself has taken on some alien connotation. “I was over at the University of Tennessee campus today, and all the students were out. The things they were wearing! And they were all talking on cell phones !”

Resting now in his tidy air-conditioned home not far off the Oak Ridge Turnpike, Wilcox hails from a generation that prefers the kind of telephone that you leave sitting on the kitchen counter when you go out, thank you—the kind that requires a cord and a wall jack and a utility pole towering in the yard outside. And when Wilcox’s phone rings—in that classic, standard-issue landline kind of way, not with a digital-blip reproduction of some dreadful popular song—he answers it, with no caller ID to screen out solicitors whose congress might prove disagreeable or inconvenient.

Still, a cell phone would probably come in handy for a man like Wilcox, who is far busier than the average octogenarian retiree. An active member of the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association, he has become that 150-odd-member organization’s spokesman, resident expert and chief visioner in an effort to preserve a portion of the old WWII-era K-25 site, as a combination museum/monument to the region’s participation in the Manhattan Project, the Herculean wartime production effort that birthed the world’s first atomic bombs. K-25 was one of the city’s three principal MP worksites, and eventually became a hub of the nation’s Cold War uranium enrichment program.

After two and a half years of negotiation, the group procured a memorandum of understanding from the Department of Energy in March 2005 that DOE would preserve the north end of the massive U-shaped K-25 building. (editor’s note: the U-shaped K-25 building is one of several buildings located on the like-named K-25 reservation site. )

A technical and visual marvel, the U was the centerpiece of the site’s gaseous diffusion process to separate fissionable Uranium-235 from the unusable but abundant U-238. Wilcox and other members of ORHPA are proposing to turn that northern section into a museum of sorts, complete with a so-called interpretive center to commemorate K-25, X-10 and Y-12, the three Oak Ridge worksites. It had been scheduled for demolition along with the rest of the nearly mile-long (end to end) superstructure

But as Wilcox himself observes, today’s is a different world altogether from the one that created a teeming wartime industrial hub of 75,000—the city of Oak Ridge’s peek population, circa 1945—from nothing in less than two years, among the scrub and farmland of an unassuming 59,000-acre stretch in the middle of East Tennessee. It’s a world with a different set of priorities, one with little understanding of the desperate urgency that moved a nation to cast off any remaining vestment of complacency and sacrifice for a common cause.

“At one time, there were several other buildings that preservationists wanted to save,” Wilcox says. “But they sort of gave up on those others one by one, because it was going to be costly. The word we’ve come to use has been ‘doable’—coming up with a doable plan, something we can wrap our hands around.”

The obvious candidates for making an interpretive monument happen at K-25 have already declined to participate, other than through certain pre-existing baseline commitments, and promises to provide such indispensable services as “planning and facilitation.”

DOE has around $500 million allocated for the north-end cleanup, and the demolition of the building structure on either side of the U. But its job ends with north-end roof repairs and the last stages of cleanup, probably around the middle of 2009. The city of Oak Ridge has also said its participation will be limited, although the city’s convention and visitors bureau funded a Tourism Master Plan that has taken into account the K-25 building preservation.

One former DOE official connected to Oak Ridge cleanup and rehab efforts says flatly that “the cost of the things they’re talking about will be incredible, and I don’t think DOE will find anyone willing to take ownership of it.”

Wilcox, for his part, remains optimistic: he’s a veteran of the Manhattan Project, and he’s seen big odds before. But he knows it won’t be easy to make the K-25 project float. “It’s going to cost someone big bucks to pay for this thing,” he says. “We think we can make it happen, but it’s far from a certainty.”

Like most of his college buddies, young Bill Wilcox was anxious to contribute to the Allied cause when the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941. But rather than enlisting, he held out, eventually choosing to put his college degree in service of the war effort when he graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. in May of 1943. The pickings were easy for trained chemists, and he found work with Eastman Kodak, one of several corporate war contractors, within weeks of his commencement.

“I asked the Eastman recruiter, ‘What’s the job?’,” Wilcox remembers. “He says ‘I can’t tell you; it’s a secret.’ I asked, ‘Where is the job?’ He says, ‘I can’t tell you; it’s a secret.’ I asked him, ‘How long will it last?’ He says, ‘Until the end of the war.’ But he was still able to convince me that it was important war work.”

After spending a summer in training at the Eastman research labs in Rochester, N.Y., Wilcox was moved cross-country to what looked to be a huge, freshly staked military outpost—an encampment labeled with the benign-sounding title of Clinton Engineering Works—a few miles west of Knoxville, in October of ’43. “Everything was new,” he says. “It was like a big fenced-in army camp, except that it wasn’t filled with soldiers. Everything was wooden, temporary, secret…and very muddy. You always had dirt on your shoes.”

Wilcox’s job was as a chemist at Y-12, one of three main work areas, roughly seven miles apart, on the cigar-shaped settlement bounded by Black Oak Ridge and the Clinch River. The K-25 compound—where, a few years later, Wilcox would be stationed first as a K-25 division director and then as technical director of both Y-12 and K-25—was in the early stages of construction, not to begin production until early 1945, scant months before the war’s end.

Shortly after their arrival from Rochester, Wilcox and a fellow scientist were afforded a limited briefing about the nature of their work. “They shut the door,” he remembers, “shook our hands, and said, ‘You’ll be working with uranium, but this is the last time you’ll hear that word until the war is over. If you speak that word, you’ll be fired, and probably put in jail.’”

Instead, they were instructed to refer to uranium as “tuballoy,” a British code word to be used in speech, in notebooks and on blackboards. And no one officially knew what the uranium was for (though many of the resident scientists made the connection); its purpose was further shrouded by scrupulous compartmentalization of labor, and draconian prohibitions against discussing one’s job. “We signed personal security contracts detailing what we couldn’t talk about, and how we could be prosecuted under the wartime espionage act,” he says.

Like many survivors of that era, Wilcox seems bemused by a contemporary society that, at least from his vantage, takes umbrage at even relatively slight abridgments of personal freedom. He tries to convey some sense of the national mindset during World War II by drawing parallels to the only resonating instance of shared national catastrophe to which the present generation can relate.

“It was like 9/11 every week,” he says. “Everyone knew someone who was killed or wounded. People wanted to do something, and that’s why they were happy to restrain their curiosity.”

Restrain their curiosity, and work fiendishly; with labor proceeding round-the-clock, a makeshift city rose from the brush in a matter of months, including 10,000 family-sized homes, nearly 100 dormitories for singles, 5,000 trailers, 16,000 barracks-style hutments for construction workers, a handful of neighborhood schools and even a smattering of shopping centers.

“The place was swarming, wide open day and night, construction all the time,” says Wilcox. Then he adds, with a hint of the impish grin that on rare occasion breeches his ordinarily staid professorial countenance, “And there were girls all over the place. Lots and lots of girls.”


Somewhere in the years following World War II, the city of Oak Ridge lost that urgent, inexorable collective will that literally fashioned mountains out of molehills within the space of only a few seasons’ passing. The Cold War kept the factories humming for a while, but the downshift was inevitable, what with the Teutonic hordes no longer marching across the Eurasian continent devouring huge swaths of Allied territory, and Hirohito resting contrite and humbled on his throne.

Current DOE operations are conducted at speeds determined by the ponderous grinding of bureaucratic machinery, rather than the brisk marching tempo of wartime cadence. The 700-acre K-25 reservation—now blandly referred to as the East Tennessee Technology Park, to reflect recent reindustrialization efforts—ceased its gaseous diffusion operations in the mid-1980s, near the end of the Cold War. But cleanup didn’t begin in earnest until well into the ’90s. And while local DOE and industrial development officials told a Metro Pulse reporter in 1997 they planned to have the site cleaned and DOE’s exit complete by 2006, their progress to date indicates they will do well to come within 10 years of meeting that deadline.

It’s no sure bet that even the K-25 “U”—though it is the largest building on the compound, it’s only one of dozens—will be cleaned and its wings demolished by 2009, as planned. Construction crews began removing materials three years ago; today, it is viewable only at a distance due to industrial hazards, including the earliest stages of removal of the building’s outer shell. Both of the U’s four-story wings are partially stripped along the outermost walls, with open air spilling into what used to be the top-floor operating area, and exposed interior brick and latticework along the process equipment floor at bottom.

The K-25 U’s selection as the focal point of a proposed Oak Ridge Manhattan Project monument seems to have been influenced by a combination of market research, availability, and the preferences of its most vocal proponents: Wilcox, though initially a laboratory troubleshooter at Y-12, spent the better part of his 43-year career at DOE stationed at K-25.

A study commissioned by the Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau identified K-25 as one of a core group of potential heritage tourism sites, a group that also included the original town center at Jackson Square, the American Museum of Science and Energy, and the Y-12 and X-10 sites. A follow-up study performed by Knoxville public strategy firm Aikens Crisp recommended highlighting the Manhattan Project legacy at all three reservations.

That’s problematic at Y-12 and the old X-10; the former is still a locked-down weapons manufacturing operation, having been aroused from post-Cold War dormancy in recent years. And X-10 is now the site of Oak Ridge National Laboratory which, despite its limited involvement in defense missions, has also been under high-security directives since 9/11.

“The next question is what should you do, and in what order should you do it to capitalize on heritage tourism,” says Aikens Crisp associate George Piper. “We have to recognize that K-25 is the first of the original reservations that can be made available to tourists.”

DOE has agreed to leave standing the 110,000 square foot north end of the K-25 building—in essence, the bottom of the U—a unit that comprises less than 10 percent of the total building space, but a monolithic remnant, nonetheless. In addition, DOE will leave markers indicating the footprint of the entire 40-acre U, with the nearly half-mile-long inner walls on either wing also left standing.

Wilcox’s preliminary sketches call for the finished monument to include the interpretative center on one floor of the preserved building, with exhibits explaining how gaseous diffusion worked; preserved equipment (cleaned and left by DOE) on several floors, including Calutrons from Y-12; a theater; various models and artifacts; oral histories; and a series of history murals painted on both of the surviving wings of the U.

“Some people are visualizing a museum, with lots of employees,” says former DOE official Joe Lenhard, also the founding chairman and an active board member of CROET, the organization in charge of finding industrial lessors for cleaned-up K-25 properties. Lenhard says CROET was approached about taking on the project, but declined, in no small part due to the expense.

“I visualize something much simpler,” he continues. “It’ll cost a dickens of a lot of money just to keep up with the maintenance on that thing.”

And that money probably won’t come from federal or local government sources. Oak Ridge city manager Jim O’Connor notes that, “A big concern is: at the end of the day, who runs the place? Most people take it as a given that we should do it, but how? We’re already struggling with the American Museum of Science and Energy.”

(The AMSE museum, currently operated by the national laboratory, saw its own patronage threatened when DOE indicated in recent years it is seeking to divest itself of the financial responsibility. The city declined to take ownership, and the museum’s future remains in question.)

Barring some unexpected legislative turn of events, DOE won’t participate beyond its present commitments. Steve McCracken, in charge of environmental cleanup in Oak Ridge for DOE, says of the money allocated for K-25 cleanup, “I can only take it so far. I can’t finish the job of getting it to where they’d like for the purpose of making the site attractive for tourism. My role ends with the demolition of the east and west wings, the cleanup of the north tower, and a new roof.”

One option for operating a K-25 interpretive center could be the National Park Service, which is currently in the middle of a congressionally appointed study of all three Manhattan Project sites—Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos—to determine how it might cost-effectively commemorate the birth of the Atomic Age and the end of World War II. But NPS project manager Carla McConnell, though impressed with what she’s seen of the Oak Ridge legacy, admits that the Park Service’s role would likely be more as facilitator than operator.

“We haven’t developed alternatives yet, but I suspect our role would most likely be as a link as to what happened across the different Manhattan Project cities—as an umbrella,” McConnell says. “Would we actually operate any of those sites? I don’t know. That could be problematic. Money looks like it could be an issue.”

But in spite of some very large unanswered questions—large questions with large dollar signs attached—many Oak Ridgers seem determined to see the ORHPA plan to its conclusion. “Is the proposal too ambitious? Maybe so,” says O’Connor. “But if you’re going to do a plan, you should do it to the ultimate, then scale back from there. And this is a very visionary type of plan.

“If somebody asked us, ‘Can you raise $30 million for it?,’ I’d have to say no, probably not. But could we raise $8 million? I don’t know. Maybe we could do that.”

Robert A. Winkel came to work for Union Carbide in 1943. He didn’t know it when he took the job, but Carbide was the company tapped by the defense department to install the gaseous diffusion operation for uranium enrichment at K-25. After a few months of training in the seventh floor of New York City’s Woolworth Building, Winkel transferred to the Clinton Engineering Works Compound in January of 1944.

“They didn’t tell me anything,” Winkel says in a gruff, barking voice. Retired and living in a stylish Oak Ridge home not far from Bill Wilcox, he’s a jowly old walrus, but still tall and straight, younger-looking than you’d expect for a man of nearly 92 years.

“It was just, ‘We have this project, and we want you to work on it,’” he continues. “We didn’t know if we were making chewing gum or what. We took a polygraph about three times a year. You were mostly told to keep your mouth shut.” 

A roughly $500 million project—that’s in 1940s money, the equivalent of several billions today—K-25 represented one of the military’s hedge bets against the success of the uranium-enrichment process employed at Y-12. As fate would have it, the Y-12 calutrons, which separated U-235 from U-238 by means of an electromagnetic field, proved adequate to the task. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August of 1945 contained enriched uranium, only a small portion of which came out of K-25; the majority was produced at Y-12.

But K-25’s gaseous diffusion ultimately proved vastly superior to the calutrons, and became the dominant means of enrichment at the onset of the Cold War. (Y-12 eventually converted to a weapons-manufacturing plant.)

In gaseous diffusion, U-235 is separated from U-238 by passing a gaseous form of uranium through an endless series of porous membranes, or stages, a cluster of which comprised an operating unit called a cell. As the Union Carbide foreman in charge of interfacing with K-25 construction crews, it was Winkel’s job to inspect and finish each of the U-building’s cells prior to its coming online.

“I don’t know how many cells there were, but there were a hell of a bunch,” says Winkel, whose task eventually took him, stage to stage and cell to cell, around the entire mile-long stretch of the U. “They were starting up cells as soon as we finished ’em. It was like starting up a long pipe with dozens and dozens of valves.”

For the record, Wilcox says the U contained 500 stages in all, at six stages per cell.

Like most of those early plant workers, Winkel toiled six days a week, almost inevitably more than eight hours per shift; he didn’t take a vacation during his first three years in Tennessee. But work ethic was only part of the story.

More than the perspiration, Winkel remembers the staggering incomprehensibility of the project at hand, and the brashness with which he and his fellows threw themselves into a task which had no antecedent.

“We were all green, and there lots of things that got screwed up that we had to go back and fix,” he says. “There was a big learning cycle as we went though it, because no one else had done this stuff before.

“People had a different attitude then,” he snorts. It’s a familiar refrain among these stubborn old WWII holdovers—that their generation was called on to stare down the maw of a dilemma the magnitude of which is unseen in this country either before or hence—but it’s one to which succeeding generations have yet to find a satisfactory response.

“They were anxious to do a good job, and time didn’t mean much to ’em. Everybody was pulling on the right rope.”

Wilcox and the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association have pinned many of their hopes for K-25 preservation—too great an allotment, a couple of observers have been heard to mutter, but only off the record—on the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit headed by former DOE cleanup official Cindy Kelly. Founded by Kelly to assist in saving the last surviving Los Alamos Manhattan Project buildings from the bulldozer in 2002, the organization soon thereafter turned its attentions to Oak Ridge and Hanford as well.

The Heritage Foundation has partnered with ORHPA, which will apparently see the lion’s share of a $500,000 heritage grant (from a 2006 congressional appropriation) directed toward K-25 preservation. Los Alamos will receive $500,000 from the same appropriation, while Hanford is scheduled to receive $1 million.

“We’re really still sketching out details of the K-25 plan; we’re by no means ready for the final design stage,” she says. “We’re still looking at cost-effective options, but that $500,000 could certainly help in hiring an architect and design firm.”

The Atomic Heritage Foundation is spearheading similar tourism-oriented projects in both Los Alamos and Hanford. In Los Alamos, the foundation reportedly secured a promise from DOE to preserve as many as four buildings, now planned sites for an interpretive center commemorating the town’s role as an R&D hub and final assembly point for the Manhattan Project. To that end, they’ve also secured a $700,000 grant from a program called Save America’s Treasures, although they’re now faced with the knotty problem of coming up with the required matching funds.

A museum is also in the works at Hanford, where Atomic Heritage is trying to save from demolition the so-called B reactor which produced the plutonium-238 used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The B reactor’s fate is still undecided, despite the pending $1 million heritage grant. “We’re trying to build enough momentum to make it hard for DOE to say, ‘Let’s tear this down,’” Kelly says. “I think before they relent, they want to see the final plan for who would be responsible for the B Reactor museum.”

Oak Ridge officials have estimated the city’s annual tourist visits at about 280,000, and Kelly believes the envisioned K-25 interpretive center could draw 250,000, enough to generate a self-sustaining business plan. But she also acknowledges that heritage tourism is largely dependent not on a single showcase attraction, but on aggregate appeal. “We need a critical mass of attractions (in Oak Ridge),” she says. “The Southern railway, the American Museum of Science and Energy, K-25…”

And in a city of 27,000 with limited resources and a foundering local economy, there are only so many half-million dollars heritage grants to go around.

Bill Wilcox doesn’t remember any glory taken in 100,000 Japanese deaths—by some estimates—resulting from the uranium bomb dubbed “Little Boy” that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6 of 1945, its fissionable materials forged in the calutrons and gaseous diffusion cells of Oak Ridge, Tenn. But he does recall a tidal rush of relief, and some sense of pride, when the Knoxville News-Sentinel ran the eight-inch banner headline days later: “PEACE!”  

It’s one of many fond memories he and a handful of other Oak Ridge Manhattan Project survivors hold over from arguably the most dire and uncertain four years in U.S. history. “It was as pleasant a town as they could have possibly built,” Wilcox says. “Truly, it was a fine place to live.”

Robert A. Winkel echoes that sentiment: he remembers the grueling long workdays at K-25, but along with them, he remembers jitterbugging at Oak Terrace dance hall in Grove Center, attending church in a movie theater on Sunday mornings, and all-night weekend barbecues with whole hogs and cold kegs of 3.2 beer.

“Those were happy memories,” Winkel says in his own brusquely sentimental way. “I enjoyed every day I went to work.”

Whether the proposed preservation of the K-25 north-end building will serve as a suitable commemorative of that time and place is difficult to adjudge, especially for the vast majority of us who weren’t there to see it all through. The U building played a mere supporting role in the drama of the Manhattan Project, as compared to its counterparts at Y-12. But it is also possessed of an Atlasean gravitas, of a size and scope so breathtaking as to render some sense of the sheer desperate ambition of this chapter of the war effort.

Whether it is a financially feasible project is another question entirely. Right now, the will to make it happen seems wholly absent from the ranks of men who have the wherewithal to do so. But Bill Wilcox has hope.

He draws a parallel to the story of how Manhattan Project scientists overcame a crippling copper shortage to engineer the electromagnetic calutrons used for uranium enrichment at Y-12: the best substitute for copper was silver, and the largest available trove of silver was at the U.S. Treasury. But hearts sank when they realized the amount of silver required was worth well over $300 million, or some 14,000 tons.

In the end, Treasury officials were unhesitant in giving over all the silver to the war effort. And after the war, it was returned in full. Wilcox hopes to find an echo of that same spirit of willingness today: “In other words, a happy solution to a very difficult problem.”