This Secret City Shot Up From Nowhere During WWII. Then Years Later Its Deadly Purpose Was Exposed

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Today, Oak Ridge in Tennessee is a seemingly normal city with a population of almost 30,000 people. Yet the community was only founded in 1942, when a mysterious settlement was established during World War II. And the area itself was shrouded in secrecy – that is, until years later, when Oak Ridge’s deadly purpose was finally revealed.

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America entered World War II on December 8, 1941 – the day after Japanese forces had attacked the naval fleet based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This assault ultimately demolished 188 aircraft and damaged all eight battleships that had been based there, while over 2,400 Americans lost their lives and many more were injured.

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And although World War II had been raging for almost two years prior to the ambush at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had generally maintained a neutral position towards the conflict. Now that the country had suffered an attack on home ground, however, it could no longer afford to not get involved.

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So, in the days following the Battle of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. formally entered World War II. Its citizens were expected to support the nation in its mission, too, meaning life would ultimately change dramatically for the average American. Some of these advancements turned out to be more significant than others, though.

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For one thing, America’s need for weapons increased, and armament factories obviously needed workers. But with many men joining the military, the duty of making war-related materials largely fell to women. And so, lots of female citizens became riveters, electricians and welders – for the very first time in most cases.

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American life changed outside of work hours, too. Communities rallied together, collecting scrap metal to help with the war effort, and families had to make do with rations on their clothes, gas and meals. Meanwhile, so-called “victory gardens” sprang up in a bid to feed the nation with home-grown vegetables.

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Yet arguably nowhere in the U.S. changed quite as much during World War II as Oak Ridge, TN. People had first begun to settle in the area – which lies less than 30 miles west of Knoxville – in the late 1700s. And as the 19th century progressed, multiple farms sprang up around the rural region.

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Meanwhile, at around the turn of the 20th century, the area was home to an individual named John Hendrix. An eccentric character, he would apparently hear voices and even claimed to have experienced visions. His most infamous prophecy, however, involved Oak Ridge itself. And the fate that he saw for the city was spookily close to what would actually become of the place during World War II.

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You see, according to local history, Hendrix once forewarned, “Bear Creek Valley someday will be filled with great buildings and factories, and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be… They will be building things, and there will be great noise and confusion, and the earth will shake.”

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Then, around 40 years after Hendrix’s cryptic prediction, the transformation of what would become Oak Ridge began. In November 1942, long after Hendrix himself had passed, his son, Curtis Allen Hendrix, received a letter from the U.S. War Department. And the contents of the note may have come as a surprise.

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Specifically, the letter informed Hendrix that the government wished to take his farm into their possession in little under a month’s time. The farmer would receive $850 in exchange for his 60 acres, too. But the precise intended use of his land would remain a mystery.

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Hendrix was in fact one of 3,000 Oak Ridge locals to have received unexplained eviction orders. Many families simply returned to their homes to find notices pinned to their doors. And to make matters worse, some residents had just two weeks in which to leave.

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The orders therefore angered many citizens of Oak Ridge. And their ire was understandable, since some people were being forced to abandon houses that had been in their families for generations. However, the locals’ subsequent protests fell on deaf ears, meaning they had no choice but to do what the powers that be had asked and leave. But what was the reason for the speedy departures?

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Well, the government had handpicked the Tennessee location as one of the sites on which to carry out a top-secret mission. The place was ideal for the project, as it was both affordable and easily accessible. The recent construction of the nearby Norris Dam meant that water and electricity supplies were reliable, too. Plus, the area was contained by several natural ridges, which provided Oak Ridge with invaluable protection.

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Then the authorities spent an estimated $2.6 million acquiring land in the area. And in March 1943, construction of a new settlement was underway. Officials built the city from the ground up, putting down hundreds of miles of road and creating 44,000 structures in which to house workers.

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After that, all the government had left to do was fill their brand-new city with residents. To do so, it employed steel workers from Pennsylvania and carpenters and machinists from Michigan. Riveters, stenographers and scientists from all over the country began arriving in Oak Ridge, too.

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And in 1943 the secret settlement became formally known as Oak Ridge. The name – which was inspired by the city’s position on Black Oak Ridge – had been suggested by the local workers. And officials liked the moniker, too, it seems. They felt that it gave off a rural feel that would keep “outside curiosity to a minimum,” according to a United States Engineering Department publication from 1946.

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But while Oak Ridge ultimately became home to thousands of workers, the fruits of their labor had to be shrouded in secrecy. And as a result, those employees needed to be trustworthy; one security procedure even required some potential residents to undergo lie detector tests. So, what exactly were Oak Ridge’s citizens doing?

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Well, in one building, women operated complicated machinery that produced a mysterious substance. Scientists located elsewhere, meanwhile, conducted revolutionary experiments in their labs. But while these people labored, the military circled Oak Ridge – a city entirely surrounded by a fence and guarded by armed officers.

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And Oak Ridge’s swift development into a bustling city reportedly left some nearby residents feeling uncomfortable. The heavy – and not particularly subtle – military presence in the area hardly helped matters, either. But for those who called the secret city home, life there was surprisingly ordinary.

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Yes, inside its gates, Oak Ridge had the appearance of a regular American town. In addition to schools for the local kids, there were stores, theaters and restaurants to keep residents entertained. The community also had a library, sports grounds and even an orchestra.

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And in scenes most likely replicated the country over, children played and teenagers socialized in Oak Ridge. All the while, their parents worked hard towards the war effort, although they were ignorant about the precise nature of their involvement. In fact, the only real clue to Oak Ridge’s intended purpose were the large billboards that loomed over the city and warned residents to keep quiet about their endeavors.

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But while Oak Ridge seemed to function like any other community, there was something different about the city. For one thing – and unlike other places in the country – the location didn’t appear on any maps. And as a result, most of America was completely oblivious to its existence.

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But regardless, within just two short years from its establishment, Oak Ridge had grown into Tennessee’s fifth biggest city. In 1945, in fact, the community was home to 75,000 residents – a significant rise in numbers from the 3,000 who had lived there in 1942.

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But what exactly had sparked Oak Ridge’s population boom? Well, the answer to that question lies in the significance of the top-secret work that was being conducted there. And yet residents wouldn’t discover exactly what the results of their efforts had been until August 6, 1945.

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In that month, the U.S. government finally unveiled the Manhattan Project. The program had come about after American intelligence personnel had discovered that scientists in Nazi Germany had been developing a potentially devastating nuclear weapon. Naturally, then, the Americans had decided that they too needed such a resource.

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So, in order for the U.S. to get ahead of the Germans, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Advisory Committee on Uranium. Principally, the group’s role was to research how uranium could be used as a means to harness the power of nuclear reactions. And the committee ultimately discovered that blasts from nuclear weapons released energy of the equivalent of around 20,000 tons of explosives.

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American design and development of such weapons, meanwhile, had first gotten underway in 1943 in New Mexico’s Los Alamos Laboratory. That facility was headed by Julius Robert Oppenheimer – a theoretical physicist who was later dubbed the “father of the atomic bomb” for his work on the Manhattan Project.

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Specifically, Oppenheimer and his team developed two kinds of bombs from their lab in Los Alamos. The first device, which used uranium, was known as the “Little Boy”; a second, plutonium-based device, by contrast, was dubbed the “Fat Man.” And the work that was undertaken at Oak Ridge was crucial to both of these advancements.

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You see, various plants in Oak Ridge took natural uranium and removed uranium-235 from it. And that particular fissile isotope fuels nuclear explosives – not that the Oak Ridge operatives of the machines that produced the material were aware of its power. Even so, the ramifications of the citizens’ work was about to become all too clear.

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In the summer of 1945, Germany was nearing surrender. Their Japanese allies showed no signs of backing out of the war, however, leading to the U.S. giving the nation an ultimatum in the form of the Potsdam Declaration. This statement warned Japan to set up a peaceful and democratic government or else face “prompt and utter destruction.”

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Yet Japan’s emperor refused to accept the terms outlined by the U.S., after which the American military decided that the time had come to put its atomic bombs to use. The Americans chose the city of Hiroshima as the intended target, owing to its dimensions and the fact that it was free of U.S. prisoners of war.

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And with Japan’s surrender still not forthcoming, the “Little Boy” bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6. The blast that resulted, moreover, caused destruction on a level that had never been seen before. Around 70 percent of the city’s structures were obliterated, while an estimated 70,000 people lost their lives on that day in 1945.

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This demonstration of America’s new technology would, it was hoped, provoke a Japanese surrender. But when no such submission came, the U.S. dropped a second bomb – this time a “Fat Boy” – on the city of Nagasaki. This explosive targeted a factory that had been building torpedoes, but it ultimately destroyed the northern part of Nagasaki – killing 35,000 people in the process.

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Then, the day after the attack on Nagasaki – with over 100,000 people dead as a result of the two bombings – Japan finally announced its intention to leave the conflict. August 14, 1945, is the day that the country officially surrendered, and with this act, the war in Asia drew to a close – as did World War II itself.

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But while many people celebrated the end of the conflict, some who’d worked on the Manhattan Project had mixed feelings regarding the ultimate use of the products that they had helped to create. Mary Michel was one such individual. And Michel later revealed her reaction to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when speaking to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

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Michel had worked at Oak Ridge’s K-25 plant as a teletype operator during the time of the Manhattan Project. And in an interview posted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s YouTube channel in 2015, she revealed, “As far as the war effort was concerned, we were vaguely aware of it. And I knew what I was doing in the lab where I worked, but I didn’t know the big picture. I didn’t know how that would fit into the bomb.”

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Michel added, “The night that the news broke that the bombs had been dropped, there was joyous occasions in the streets – hugging and kissing and dancing and live music and singing that went on for hours and hours. But it bothered me to know that I, in my very small way, had participated in such a thing. I sat in my dorm room and cried.”

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Meanwhile, the Manhattan Project and its aftermath led to the coming of the so-called “Atomic Age.” Following the war, other world powers began to develop their own nuclear weapons – each one more powerful than the last and capable of threatening all life on earth.

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But the technology developed by the Manhattan Project scientists has also arguably changed life for the better. Alongside the fact that the technology ultimately ended World War II – albeit with horrific loss of life – nuclear energy now offers a cleaner alternative to burning fossil fuels. Nuclear medicine, meanwhile, has produced MRI machines and led to radiation therapies that can treat cancer. Perhaps, then, that’s a positive legacy for which Oak Ridge can be remembered.

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