Young men seek adventure especially when they are living in a small town, out of school and out of work. That’s true today and it was true in the past. The particular adventure story I’m going to tell you took place in 1937 (my estimate) and one of the young men was my father, Vernon R. Knight. He and his friends, J. V. Averitt, Charles E. Covington, and Hugh Dickson, set off to see the country in an old car that belonged to one of them.
My father never talked about this trip. The only way I knew about it was through a conversation with my aunt, his sister, after his death. We were going through some old pictures. We didn’t know where some of the pictures were taken so we asked her about them. She said, “Those must be from the ‘trip to nowhere.'”
Aunt Sissy went on to tell us about how my father and his friends took an old car and headed west. They drove as far as they could on the money they had, and then they stopped and found work. One place they worked was in the oil fields in Texas. When they had enough money, they started out again.
Somewhere along the road my father bought a camera. This old style camera, that expanded when you opened it up to expose the lens, was always in a drawer in the dining room along with an old photo album. As kids we would take out the camera and examine it with the natural curiosity of children. We would also take out the old photo album and flip through the pictures, amazed at what our parents looked like when they were young.
The first pictures in the album from the “trip to nowhere” were taken at Hoover Dam (known as Boulder Dam at the time). These helped me date the trip. Hoover Dam was completed in 1935. In 1936 the water in Lake Mead was high enough to begin electrical generation. It took some time for water to fill Lake Mead. In my Dad’s pictures, the lake is almost full so I am guessing it was a year or two after completion of the dam.
The next pictures find our young men in the Petrified Forest in Arizona. At that point they would have been along Route # 66. J. V. Averitt told his son, Phil, about how many times they had to patch the tires on the old car. Back then, tires had inner-tubes, that held the air, inside the outer tire. If the tube got a hole in it, they would take the inner-tube out, patch it, then put it back inside the outer tire before re-inflating it.
The next group of pictures are landscape shots. My father probably took them because the terrain was so different from what they were familiar with in Tennessee. These are pictures of the desert alongside the road, possibly in Arizona or New Mexico.
Only a couple of the pictures featured any of the young men. My Dad apparently didn’t want to take pictures of people. After the photos of the desert there are no more pictures from this trip. Did he run out of film? Maybe, but I don’t know.
The only other thing I remember seeing from the trip was a card my Dad sent to his mother to let her know he had made it to the Pacific Ocean. I’m not sure where the card ended up.
I treasure the pictures and this little bit of history about my father when he was an adventurous, young man.
The setting in a novel can provide a unique location for events to unfold. Some authors use real places and real historic landmarks in their books. I recently read “At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen and she used Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness as her setting. Other authors create completely fictional locations to suit their needs. And some create fictitious locations based on actual places. This is what I did in my novel, Kitty’s War.
While doing research for Kitty’s War, I needed a fictional location for the 8th Air Force Second Combat Bombardment Wing Headquarters where the main characters got together. I knew that during WWII the English took over large country houses and estates for use by the military and some of these were assigned to the growing American forces. These estates were ideal for the Air Force because they provided enough space for construction of air fields and temporary buildings for housing and other needs. The large homes were perfect for headquarters.
My image of an English country house was something like Highclere Castle used for the setting of Downton Abbey. I couldn’t use that one so I went in search of houses that were actually used by the military. That’s how I found Elveden Hall. It had a fascinating history including that it had been owned by Maharaja Duleep Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire, during his exile in England. While living there he completely redesigned the interiors of the house to resemble the Moghal palaces in India.
During WWII Elveden Hall served as headquarters for the 3rd Bomb Division, also known as the 3rd Air Division. That made it perfect for my purpose. I made changes so that it is more a fictional location that a real one, such as adding a hospital and air field which were not actually on the grounds and changing the name to Ellingham Castle . For more information about the US Air Force in England during WWII, including a picture of a Women’s Army Corps corporal working at Elveden Hall, follow this link.
I have not been the only one who thought Elveden Hall would make an interesting setting. Several movies have been shot there including “Eyes Wide Shut” where director Stanley Kubrick used the interiors to create a unique atmosphere. This YouTube video of one scene shot there will give you an idea of the interior of this unique house.
Frank W. Towers passed away July 4, 2016, at the age of 99. His beloved wife, Mary, survives him. Mr. Towers served in the 120th Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division during World War II. He landed on Omaha Beach on June 13, 1944, was wounded in Normandy and returned to his regiment to fight his way across France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany until the end of the war.
Frank Towers was passionate about the 30th Infantry Division and about remembering those who fell during the Second World War. He established the website of the 30th Infantry Division organization which I have referred to often. He was quoted in books, spoke at venues around the world and co-founded the Camp Blanding Museum.
I will never forget how Frank’s face lit up when I asked him about how he met his wife. I could tell, as he launched into it, that it was a story he loved to tell. We’d spent hours talking about the history of the 30th, the men he fought with and their exploits during the war, but when he talked about Mary it was evident that she was the love of his life.
In tribute to Frank and Mary Towers, I am posting their story again (originally posted in October 2015). This story was written almost entirely by Frank himself and I was honored that he let me post it here on my website. The story he sent me, a portion of his unfinished memoirs, is longer than what is included here. I hope to post “the rest of the story” about Frank and Mary during the war at a later time.
Frank & Mary Towers – A WWII Love Story
In October my husband and I drove down to Camp Blanding to talk to Frank Towers, a 98-year-old World War II veteran of the 30th Infantry Division. Of the many stories he told us one of the most interesting was in answer to my question of how he met his wife.
In December, 1940, Frank Towers said “Good-bye” to his girl friend and boarded a train to travel from his home in Vermont to Florida as part of Company K 172nd Infantry Regiment 43rd Infantry Division. The 43rd Infantry Division, consisting of the Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine National Guard, had been federalized and sent to Camp Blanding, Florida, for training.
I’ll let Frank continue the story in his own words. (From Frank’s memoirs which is a work in progress.)
“During the preceding months, the local social organizations and churches, wishing to show the hospitality of these local organizations, extended invitations to every unit on the Post, particularly those of the 43rd Division, with “the boys” so far away from home, they wanted to make life as bearable as possible, and prevent some from getting homesick.
Basically, each Company would receive so many invitations, and they were issued out on some unknown basis. Trucks would be at a designated pick-up point on Saturday evening and take the men to these sites from which the invitations had originated. Once inside of the building, there was no going outside, until the truck came for the return trip to Camp shortly after midnight. If one met a girl, and he wished to date her again, he would have to get her name and address and phone, number and from that point onwards, they were on their own.
Many of the guys resented this ‘Censorship” and declined any further invitations, because they could not take the ladies outside and go to other places on their own and probably drink beer. Unthinkable in a religious town like Jacksonville.
No! We were not to lead these innocent young ladies to any such immoral establishments. However, many long lasting romances resulted from these meetings.
After a few weeks of refusal to attend these functions, it was determined that the invitations would be issued on a “volunteer” basis, and if not enough men volunteered, “you were assigned” this as a duty.
The “boys” were all pretty frisky when it came to Saturday night, and they wanted to go where beer was dispensed, not to a “dry bar” of soda-pop and cookies !!
As it turned out, I was “volunteered” to go to one of these social affairs, and I went rather reluctantly, but “it was my duty !! During the course of the evening, I met one young lady that looked rather appealing, and I asked her for a dance. We danced and chatted about home and family, and had a relatively nice evening. The outcome was, I had to have her name and address, so that we could meet again, probably at her home, and meet her family.
After a week or two and some correspondence, I made the solo trip to Jacksonville, to meet this young lady, Mary-Olive Thomas, and her family, all of which went well. After one or two more such excursions, we began to get to know each other better, and enjoyed being together. On the next proposed visit, I found her not at home, but in the hospital. A few days previous, she had been struck by a speeding car, and severely injured with some broken bones, scrapes and bruises. So with a handful of roses, I trekked to the hospital and soon a “bedside romance” began to bud. So with continued occasional correspondence, we kept up our relationship.
In early February we got our “priority” shipping orders to go to Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Miss., to do some advanced training and some marksman training there, then to proceed to Fort Ord, Calif., and await embarkation to the Pacific Theater, to become embroiled in the battles that faced the 43rd Division. This I thought, would end my relationship, with Mary-Olive Thomas, so I forgot about her.
In March, while still at Camp Shelby, Miss., I was called in for an interview by my former C.O., Maj. Tudhope and the Regimental Commander, Col Buzzell, and others, acting as a Review Board, to interview prospective applicants to go to the Officer’s Candidate School at Ft. Benning, GA. Here we were to take further advanced infantry tactics and weapons training, and to become a commissioned officer. I never really got any basic infantry tactical training, and precious little weapons instruction, although I did fire all weapons and qualified with each one, as a Sharpshooter. I was selected and shipped off to Ft. Benning, GA to upgrade my status in life and to become a commissioned officer.
Upon graduation, I became a 2nd Lieutenant, a 90 Day Wonder, and much to my disappointment at the time, I was assigned to Camp Wheeler, GA as a Basic Training Instructor of draftees, just coming into the military for 12 week basic training cycles. Many of my graduating classmates were assigned directly to the 1st Infantry Division, which was preparing to pull off the invasion in North-Africa. That is where I wanted to be at the time! “We’d” win this war and get it over with in a few months. Little did we know of the heartbreak and suffering to come in the next many, many months.”
(During these months of training Frank received a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend in Vermont breaking up with him.)
“Now from the time that we left Camp Blanding, I wrote very little to Miss Mary – there was nothing serious going on, and I was just too busy with my new academics at Ft. Benning, GA, and I just didn’t have time, and neither one of us felt any obligation to write. I really didn’t have time to do much letter writing, as having become a Platoon Leader in M Company of the 13th Training Battalion at Camp Wheeler, I had to do a lot of homework in preparation for the next days’ session of instruction. But, as time went on, I began to feel lonesome, and perhaps homesick, and started writing to her again. As time went on, I made 2 or 3 trips down to Jacksonville to see her.
While at Camp Wheeler, GA, I received my promotion to 1st Lieutenant, and then I asked Miss Mary-Olive to come up to Camp Wheeler to celebrate New Year’s Eve, 1942-1943. I gave her an engagement ring at midnight that night, and we were married there in a military wedding on 1 March 1943. To this girl that I had met in Jacksonville, FL, (Mary Olive Thomas) while I was at Camp Blanding. Here it is 72+ years later, and we are still hanging around together!!”
In our discussion that day at Camp Blanding, Frank continued his story about he and Mary. He said that Mary’s parents didn’t particularly approve of the “Yankee” dating their southern daughter. It didn’t help that he was Catholic and they were Primitive Baptists. That’s why Mary came to Camp Wheeler for their wedding instead of having it in Jacksonville with her family.
At this time (October 2015) Frank Towers is 98 1/2 years old and his wife Mary is 96. They have been together since 1943. Congratulations to them both for their many years together. It is an honor for me to share their story.
As a post script to Frank and Mary’s story, when Frank left Camp Wheeler he was assigned to the 30th Infantry Division and served with them in the European Theater until the end of the war.
Recently my husband and I drove down to Camp Blanding and toured the Camp Blanding Museum located just off Florida State Road 16 at the entrance to the base. Since it was a typically hot and humid Florida day, we spent most of our time inside the museum building. Before leaving we walked around viewing the monuments for each division that trained at Camp Blanding and looking at some of the WWII vintage equipment on display. We hope to return when it is cooler so that we can venture further and see more of the equipment including some more modern tanks, helicopters and planes.
Our original intent was to learn more about the 30th Infantry Division since we knew that Old Hickory had trained at Camp Blanding before going overseas. What we learned was that nine full divisions trained at Camp Blanding before it became a replacement training center.
Camp Blanding is situated in Clay County, Florida, near Starke. The 73,000 acre military reservation, which includes Kingsley Lake, is the training facility for the Florida National Guard as well as a Joint Training Facility for U.S. military, international forces and various other agencies. In 1939 Florida established the base for training the Florida National Guard. At the beginning of World War II the U.S. Army took it over to train the federalized national guard units as well as portions of the regular army.
Once under the control of the federal government, Camp Blanding rapidly expanded so that it could accommodate at least two divisions for training. Construction boomed, employing thousands. As the troops moved in the area soon grew to be the fourth largest city in Florida.
The first housing for the troops consisted of pyramid tents, to which wooden floors and walls were added. Due to the ankle-deep sand, wooden walk-ways were constructed and drills had to be conducted on the paved roads.
In the beginning, the 31st Infantry Division made Camp Blanding its home. The 31st, known as the Dixie Division, consisted of the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida National Guard. With capacity for two divisions to train, the 43rd Infantry Division moved to Camp Blanding. The 43rd, or Winged Victory Division, was made up of the Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island National Guard. Thus streets were named for the respective states, both north and south, and locations within those states. With units from the deep south and the northeast training at the same base, the old north-south rivalries emerged, but remained relatively good-natured.
When the 31st Division and the 43rd Division left Camp Blanding to eventually serve in the South Pacific, the 36th Infantry Division, made up of the Texas National Guard, moved in. They were soon joined by the First Infantry Division, the only Regular Army division to train at Camp Blanding. These two divisions ended up in North Africa, then Sicily and Normandy for the “Big Red One” and Italy for the Texans.
By August of 1942 the 79th Division, an Army Reserve unit, occupied Camp Blanding. And the 29th Infantry Division, also known as the “Blue and Gray” since it was made up of the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and District of Columbia National Guard, arrived in the Florida camp.
It wasn’t until October 1942 that the 30th Infantry Division came to Camp Blanding for training. The North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee National Guard, all components of the 30th, remained in Florida until May of 1943. From Blanding Old Hickory participated in the Tennessee Maneuvers, then moved on to Indiana and Massachusetts where they shipped out for Europe in February 1944. A few days after D-Day the 30th landed in Normandy and fought almost continuously until they met up with the Russians in May 1945.
Two other U.S. Army Reserve Divisions also trained at Camp Blanding. The 66th Infantry Division, called the “Black Panthers,” was activated in April 1943 at Blanding. In June 1943 the 63rd Infantry Division was formed at Camp Blanding. They used the nickname “Blood & Fire.” Both went on to fight in Europe.
In 1943 the Florida base took on a new role as an infantry replacement training center, soon becoming the largest such training facility in the country. With the fighting going on in the Pacific, North Africa and Italy, it became clear that replacements were needed to fill the ranks depleted by casualties, so bases like Camp Blanding became vital to the war effort. And with the capture of prisoners on the battlefields the need for Prisoner of War camps arose. So a portion of the military reservation was converted to a prison camp and eventually housed some 378,000 German POW’s.
The inauspicious Camp Blanding with its pine trees, sand and picturesque lake played a major role in training U.S. troops during World War II. An estimated 800,000 soldiers trained at the Florida base during the war. Although now it has reverted back to its original purpose, we should not forget what the base contributed during the desperate years when the world struggled to defeat the Axis powers.
The Camp Blanding Museum pays tribute to all the divisions who trained here. Exhibits tell of each divisions training and combat experiences. Uniforms, weapons, medical gear, and much more provide the WWII amateur historian ample food for thought. To read more about Camp Blanding’s history, read the article by Jim Ashton on the 30th Infantry Website.
In the book store I purchased a book about the 30th Division and another about Florida’s role in WWII. My husband got another “Old Hickory” hat. He loves wearing the 30th hat with their eye-catching insignia because it spurs so many comments and has started several long conversations on a subject he thoroughly enjoys.
We recently traveled to Savannah, Georgia, and decided to stop in at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum. It is right off I-95 at Pooler, Ga. I’d seen their website but wasn’t sure what to expect. Wow! Were we impressed!
The museum is housed in a beautiful facility that includes the extensive exhibits, research facilities, gift shop and a small cafe. The fees are extremely reasonable, especially since you could spend an entire day and not see all the exhibits. For anyone interested in World War II or in the history of the U. S. Air Force, this is the place to visit.
With the research that I have done on the WWII era for my novels, I probably knew more about the 8th Air Force than most visitors. Both my husband and I have always had an avid interest in the Second World War, the politics, the fighting, the men and women who fought, and those who stayed behind on the home front. We went from exhibit to exhibit looking at the artifacts and reading the explanations starting in the rotunda where busts of important 8th AF individuals include Jimmy Stewart, the actor/movie star who piloted a B-24 on missions over Europe, and Jimmy Doolittle, who gained fame by leading the raid on Tokyo before taking command of the 8th.
The exhibits are set up so that the visitor is led through the war starting with the events that led up to the U.S. involvement. The origin of the 8th Bomber Command in January, 1942, just a month after the United States had declared war on Japan and Germany, at Hunter Field in Savannah, Ga., explains the museum’s location. In February, 1942, the 8th relocated to England where the English assigned them to air fields in southeastern England. Later, in February, 1944, the 8th was redesignated the 8th Air Force, still part of the Army Air Corp. The war would be over before the Air Force would separate from the Army as a separate entity.
In 1942 the 8th began flying missions over German occupied Europe. During the next three years the 8th would suffer more than 47,000 casualties, over 26,000 deaths and its men would be awarded numerous medals including seventeen Medals of Honor.
One of the most impressive exhibits is the B-17 bomber currently being restored named the City of Savannah. The plane takes up an enormous exhibition space. Although it is not open for visitors to climb aboard, just walking under its huge wings gave me goose-bumps. You can see the engines up close, read and watch videos of each crew members responsibilities, step inside a booth to experience the waist gunner’s position, and look in the ball turret to wonder how a grown man could fit in the small space. A B-24’s tail with its 50 caliber machine gun shows the cramped, awkward space occupied by the tail gunner.
I enjoyed sitting in the tent watching and hearing the crew briefings before they embarked on a bombing mission. The equipment, uniforms, various insignia and personal memorabilia of many of the squadrons, both bombers and fighters, were displayed in a series of glass cases. Another fascinating section was the replica of a German prison camp where 8th AF crews that had been shot down were held. Stories of evasion and escape as well as artifacts and pictures of those interred help the visitor understand the experiences of the prisoners.
I don’t want to give the impression that the 8th AF Museum only deals with World War II. Other exhibits tell of Korea, the Strategic Air Command and the conversion to jets. Additional exhibits honor the Tuskegee Airmen, the women of the WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), an art gallery and even the girl scouts.
Outside we found even more. A B-47 Stratojet sits beyond the grounds of the Memorial Garden. A replica of a British chapel provides a place for quiet reflection similar to that available to the men of the Mighty 8th while in England. Out front an F-4C Phantom Jet and a MIG 17-A stand guard.
By the end of our allotted time my husband and I both agreed that we had to come back. We felt we had only skimmed the surface of the vast amount of information available. When we return we will be armed with the names of at least two WWII 8th AF veterans who lived in our home town. We will also plan to stay overnight in one of the nearby motels so that we can spend as much time as possible in the museum.
For anyone interested in World War II, the history of the Air Force or of aviation, this is a must-see museum.
The coming of fall has me thinking about this little one-room school-house that represents an almost century-old connection between my mother’s family and my mother-in-law’s family. Back then the one-room school-house provided the only opportunity for education in rural America. Limited transportation meant the schools had to be close to where the children lived so they could walk or ride a mule or be driven in a wagon. The lone teacher taught students from first grade up to eighth, if they stayed in school that long.
The remains of Spring Valley School is in this picture. It’s located on Salmon Branch (road and creek) in Houston County, Tennessee, not too far from the Humphreys County line. What was once the Spring Valley Church stands in a similar dilapidated state across the road from the school. Then, as now, the gravel road winds its way up the valley alongside Salmon Branch. A ways beyond the school it climbs a dry ridge and then drops down into the upper White Oak Creek valley where it joins the road from Erin to McEwen.
Spring Valley School is about twelve miles from the county seat of Erin. From the late 1890’s to the early 1900’s my grandfather, W. R. Boone, was superintendent of schools in the county. He presided over a school system with from 2,200 to 2,600 students scattered over the small rural county. He also taught school part of that time, as did his sister, Lura. After his marriage in 1900 he and his first wife, Lois, had seven children. Lois died in 1911 soon after their last child, also named Lois, was born. Aunt Wildred was almost three years old when her mother died. My grandfather then married my grandmother, Elvira, who was Lois’ younger sister. By the time W. R. died in 1921 he and Elvira had four children. At the time of his death his oldest child was twenty-one, Wildred was thirteen and my mother, Elnora, was four.
W. R. Boone believed in education, as did his widow. Their children all graduated from high school and some went on to take business and secretarial courses, which was a financial strain after their father’s death. Since at that time a teacher did not have to have a college degree, the older girls took the teacher’s exam and taught school for a time. The school board appointed Wildred Boone as teacher of Spring Valley School on June 27, 1927. (Her name is mis-spelled as Mildred in the historical record.) With the school so far from town, Wildred boarded with a family who lived nearby — the Tates.
My cousin, Dawn, wrote a wonderful story on Ancestry.com about her grandmother, Wildred. I’ll share some of that story here. While staying with the Tates and teaching school, Wildred fell in love with one of their sons, Hershel Tate. On December 17, 1927, the couple eloped. They traveled to Humphreys County and married. The nearest town in Humphreys County is McEwen, but they may have traveled further on to Waverly, the county seat.
In the late 1970’s Aunt Wildred visited the home we built on a hill overlooking Jones Hollow. On the opposite side of that hill along Salmon Branch was the Tate place. Aunt Wildred told me of hiking over the hill from the Tate’s to Jones Hollow to visit George and Hattie Jones. She said she loved visiting the Jones place.
In 1927 George and Hattie’s son Samuel Paul Jones and his wife Louise lived in a little house in Jones Hollow along with their one-year-old daughter, Dorothy Earlene, my mother-in-law. George and Hattie doted on Earlene, keeping her with them as much as they could. So Wildred would certainly have met the baby girl during her tenure at Spring Valley School.
A few years later Dorothy Earlene Jones started school at Spring Valley School where she would finish the eighth grade. She then went on to attend Yellow Creek High School.
After their marriage, Hershel and Wildred moved to Akron, Ohio, and Hershel went to work in one of the rubber plants there. Samuel Paul Jones’ brother, Robert, also went to Akron to work. Hershel Tate and Robert Jones had grown up less than a mile apart. Both went to Akron and worked in rubber plants until they retired.
When we were in Tennessee last fall we drove around some of the old roads near Jones Hollow. We passed the remains of Spring Valley School and stopped so I could snap a picture and capture the place where so many memories were made. Places like this remind me of how small the world is and how our lives are intertwined. Although our families have scattered across the country places like this still tie us together. All of those mentioned from former generations are gone, except for Earlene. And her memories have faded. I hope that stories like this will keep the memories alive for our children and grandchildren.
My research into Tennessee’s contribution to WWII is not complete without a chapter on Oak Ridge, undoubtedly the largest and most significant war project in Tennessee. And the most secretive.
The first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. The uranium isotope U-235 used in that bomb was produced at the Clinton Engineering Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Yet a mere three years before that ominous event the town of Oak Ridge and its massive plants did not exist.
Much has been written about the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. There are the scientific aspects and the military aspects. But my interest lies in the people – who they were, where they came from, how the war affected their lives, what their lives were like at Oak Ridge, and of course the possibilities of romance.
Recently I read two books about Oak Ridge that provided fascinating insight into the town and the people who lived there. “City Behind a Fence, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 1942-1946” by Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson tells of the origin of the town and how the people lived in Oak Ridge. “The Girls of Atomic City, the Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan recounts the stories of several women who worked at Oak Ridge during the war while relaying the tale of the progress of the atomic bomb during the war years. Both books are fascinating and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in Oak Ridge.
In the fall of 1942 the Army Corp of Engineers began acquisition of 59,000 acres in Roane and Anderson counties, about twenty miles from Knoxville, Tennessee. With no negotiation, the Army informed land owners that their land was to be taken for a government project and gave them from two to six weeks to vacate. No information was provided about the project. When Tennessee Governor Prentice Cooper learned of the government actions construction was already under way. He was understandably furious and accused the Army of establishing a New Deal experiment in socialism disguised as a war project. This sentiment persisted among people of the area for years.
All types of workers made their way to Tennessee to work at Site X for the Clinton Engineering Works or one of their contractors. The original estimate of 13,000 residents grew until the population reached 75,000 in 1945 making Oak Ridge the fifth largest city in Tennessee. Recruitment advertising for workers was of necessity intentionally vague. Scientists and construction workers, guards and secretaries, and many more traveled to an unknown non-existent destination to work on a war project. Soldiers preparing to go overseas were reassigned to the project with no explanation. Many young women from Tennessee and the surrounding states sought the good paying jobs without questioning what they would be doing. To these workers the secrecy of the project meant it was important to the war effort.
Johnson and Jackson describe the development of the town of Oak Ridge, with planning for housing, shopping, schools and recreation. As the demands of the project grew the challenges of running a town increased, especially with the tight security. With housing a constantly increasing need and continuously under construction, many workers lived off-site and either drove or rode the extensive bus system to and from work. The Oak Ridge bus system became one of the largest in the entire country. Housing within the reservation consisted of pre-fab single-family homes, small apartments, dormitories, trailers and hutments.
This is only a sampling of the fascinating information in the book “City Behind a Fence.” Definitely worth the read.
“The Girls of Atomic City” is also fascinating and well worth the read. Kiernan tells the stories of several women from different places doing different jobs all brought together in this one very unusual place. The writing style resembles that of a novel with plenty of personal detail and emotions from the viewpoint of the women themselves. Two secretaries, a leak tester, a chemist and a statistician are some of the ladies who tell their stories of a place where the one question they couldn’t ask a new acquaintance was “where do you work?” Limits on what could be discussed didn’t prevent friendships from forming or romances from blossoming.
Kiernan alternates chapters about the women with chapters about “tubealloy,” the code name for uranium. As in a mystery or thriller, Kiernan unveils the story of the scientists, the research and the conversion of theory to production under the pressure of war.
The locals often commented on how much material went into the site and nothing came out, no planes or ships or tanks or anything. Another memorable feature of the town to those who lived and worked there was the mud. Everywhere the workers went, the mud covered shoes and trousers identifying them as being from behind the fence.
Information was so compartmentalized that workers only knew what they needed to do their job. Very few knew the overall purpose of the project and the veil of secrecy prevented any open discussion or speculation. So most were as surprised as the rest of the country when President Truman announced that the bomb had been dropped on Japan and mentioned Oak Ridge’s contribution.
Both books provided me with much food for thought as I craft my love stories during World War II. Don’t be surprised if Oak Ridge shows up in a future romance novel.
On a personal note I will share my small connection with Oak Ridge. In the 1950’s my uncle worked at Oak Ridge. As children my sister and I spent a week with our cousins there and had a wonderful time. We had no idea of the significance of the place. We just knew if was very different from the small town where we grew up. When our parents came to get us, I remember my uncle driving us to the gate. Flanked by fences, guard towers, and armed guards, even to a small child it was ominous and memorable. Our parents spoke of the high security at the facility but it was much later before we understood the significance. A later visit to the American Museum of Atomic Energy explained some of it. I still have my souvenir from the museum – an irradiated dime. They told us the dime would always be radioactive but it would diminish over the years. A simple way to explain radiation to kids. My uncle transferred to the facility at Los Alamos and my sister and I were lucky enough to go there for a visit, too.