In 1942, thousands of workers were relocated to a town called Oak Ridge. Almost a ghost town, Oak Ridge didn’t appear on any map. The workers and their families had to leave their old lives and routines to move to a previously deserted place in Tennessee to do a job they weren’t entirely prepared for. All of them knew what their specific task of the day was, but they completely ignored the aim of their activities. They must have wondered: Why is everyone telling us to keep quiet? Why are we surrounded by guards? In the end, they got to find out the answer to their questions only after their job was done. All along, they were working in a secret WWII program. Their job: Build the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan. All the secrecy and the isolation was meant to keep the enemies and their spies away from the Manhattan Project.
Despite the secrecy, there were records of the activities and the lifestyle within this secret city. Twenty-year-old photographer Ed Wescott was the only one allowed to capture images from this site. And just like the rest of the employees, he didn’t know the true nature of the project until years later. In some of his photographs, he focuses on the contrast between the town before and after being acquired by the US government. For instance, in this picture’s background, we can see an early stage of the K-25 uranium enrichment facility. This place was part of the 60,000 acres and the gigantic facilities that were built to develop the new weapons. The area was specifically chosen for its remote location, easy to hide and to be kept as secret.
Other photographs of the Secret City show the women’s involvement in the project. We’re talking about the 1940s, so, of course, the scientists in the high ranks were mostly men (which is something that still happens in 2023). As for the women, they were given a heavier load of work for less salary than their male coworkers.
Before hiring the workers, the government prepared a strict hiring procedure that included lie detection tests. This photograph looks almost staged, as if they wanted the whole thing to look cartoonish and suspicious. Were they trying to confuse the spies by going for the opposite of subtlety? Of course, all of these pictures have dark undertones. But there’s something glamorous about them. Something that probably inspired the photographer to study the faces of beautiful people participating in something deadly, a flashy surface to cover up the inhumane results.
Speaking of subtlety, here’s the propaganda they used to keep the workers and their family’s mouths shut. Menacing messages like this one were all over town on big billboards: “What you see here. What you do here. What you hear here. When you leave here: Let it stay here.” In an almost deserted town where the people only had each other and their work routines, it’s hard to imagine what they would talk about while looking at these intimidating billboards.
These photographs invite us to imagine what would happen if we were to live in these conditions. Just imagine discovering that part of your youth is connected to one of the deadliest and most important events in humanity’s history. How does it feel to be directly involved with the death of so many people? Probably like nothing if you’re in the dark and you don’t really know what you’re doing. To be sure, we’d need to ask the woman who’s sitting in the foreground of this picture. Her name is Gladys Owens and, according to her statement, she realized what her job was almost fifty years later.
These photographs are fascinating precisely because the people in them look so… normal. In the next photo, the workers are drinking and socializing after a long day of building weapons of mass destruction. Such a powerful image reminds us that ordinary people participate directly in the creation of massive historical events, that they were just getting up every day to do their jobs, just like we do ours.
After all that work, on August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan and the people who lived in the Secret City discovered the purpose of what they were building. This picture shows the way in which they celebrated their previously-unknown achievement. Were all of them happy? Were any of them guilty or conflicted? Perhaps we won’t know for sure, but at least, these photographs as well as other records can help us have a general idea of how they must have felt.
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