Ruth Huddleston was 18 years old when she took a job at a top secret Army facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at the height of World War II. Her task was so highly classified that no one could even tell her what she was working on -- until one fateful day in August 1945. We have her story.
Listen to the episode to hear about Ruth's experiences, which mirrored those of so many other ordinary Americans who were involved in the Manhattan Project.
The Center for Oak Ridge Oral History also has a terrific long interview with Ruth about her life before, during, and after Oak Ridge.
The "Girls of Atomic City" were mostly 18- and 19-year-old women hired straight out of high school to operate the "calutron" uranium separation machines at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. They worked under strict secrecy, without any knowledge of the destructive weapons they were helping to create.
(DIRECT CURRENT SHORT CIRCUIT OPENING THEME)
MATT DOZIER: Welcome to another Direct Current Short Circuit, I’m Matt Dozier.
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In our last episode, producers Allison Lantero and Simon Edelman took you through the first half of our two-part story on the Manhattan Project. That’s the top-secret U.S. effort to build a nuclear bomb during World War II. If you haven’t listened yet, I highly recommend going back and checking it out.
Part 2 of that story is coming soon, but in the meantime, we’ve got another account for you from the same time period -- one that should give you an idea of what life was like for the ordinary people who got roped into one of the largest secret undertakings in our nation’s history.
Ordinary people like Ruth Huddleston.
RUTH HUDDLESTON: I’m Ruth Huddleston and I was a calutron worker at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
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DOZIER: Ruth is a 91-year-old Tennessee native with a sharp mind and an easy smile. She grew up in the small town of Oliver Springs, about 30 miles outside of Knoxville. When World War II began, she was just 14 years old.
By the time she graduated high school in 1944, the U.S. was fighting in Europe and the Pacific. And the war effort was about to arrive on her doorstep. She was working a summer job, with plans to head off to college and pursue a teaching career in the fall, when she heard whispers about a new job opportunity just a few miles down the road.
HUDDLESTON: I was working in a hosiery mill and the girls were talking about it. They said, “We’re going down to Oak Ridge and apply for a job.”
DOZIER: “Oak Ridge” was the Army’s new facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A vast “secret city” of 30,000 people had sprung up there in less than two years, and they needed lots and lots of workers.
Fast. And whether it was out of curiosity, or patriotism, or just a desire to save a little more money for college, Ruth decided to apply.
HUDDLESTON: So I didn’t go with them, but I went home and told my father, and he said, “Well, I’ll just go with you. We’ll both go over there and apply for a job.” So we did. And we both got the job.
DOZIER: The work had something to do with the war effort, but no one could say exactly what. And they knew better than to ask.
HUDDLESTON: I didn’t know what I was going to be doing or anything, you know, I just got a job. They told me to come back a certain day, and I didn’t have any idea what it was going to be.
DOZIER: Ruth was assigned to be a “cubicle operator” on the Y-12 project, although that didn’t really mean anything to her at the time. Her father worked on machinery.
HUDDLESTON: He was a millwright worker, and we rode together. We were lucky that we got shift work and it was together.
DOZIER: Every morning, the two of them would catch a bus that Ruth described as a “cattle car” with two benches in a wooden trailer, over to Oak Ridge, where security was the tightest she’d ever seen.
(AMBIENT XYLOPHONE & ELECTRONIC MUSIC)
HUDDLESTON: We would come to work, and we came to the portal we called it. Guards would get on the bus and check everybody, look around at everybody on the bus, check that we had a badge on, then they let us come on to work. Same thing happened when we got to the Y-12 portal. Then we’d get off and we’d go to the change house and change our clothes and then we’d go up to our cubicle, and we had the same one all the time.
DOZIER: The “cubicles” she’s talking about weren’t like the ones we think of today, crammed into office buildings across America. This was… well, Ruth didn’t honestly know what it was.
HUDDLESTON: It was a machine, and it had all kinds of gauges and meters all across it and handles to turn, and they told us what we were supposed to do. If this hand went over too far on that gauge, we were supposed to get busy and get it back where it was supposed to be, and the same thing on this side, you know, and we would get it back to where it was supposed to be.
DOZIER: Ruth wasn’t the only girl working in this part of the Oak Ridge complex. In fact, almost without exception, the cubicle operators were young women, most of them just out of high school.
HUDDLESTON: There was a few of them in their 20s, one or two in that group. Most of us were 18 or 19.
DOZIER: So every day, Ruth would show up for her shift, go through security, check in with her supervisor, head to her cubicle...
HUDDLESTON: Then we’d get up on our little stool and check everything to see how it was. And then all day we would turn knobs and keep the meters balanced…. If we couldn’t balance it we would call for our supervisor, and they would come and help us. If they couldn’t do it, they would close it down and call for maintenance and they would come, and then we’d start over again. But we had to watch pretty close. We had a short break, and then we’d go back and start over again, and do that all day.
DOZIER: And this whole time, all Ruth knew was that her job was to keep a needle on a dial pointed a certain direction. She had no idea what this machine was, or what the dial meant, or what was actually happening when she turned those knobs.
HUDDLESTON: No, we didn’t know what we were doing. We just were supposed to do what they told us and they said we weren’t supposed to talk about what we were doing to anybody, not even to the ones that were working with us. We weren’t supposed to discuss it, not even our parents at home. It was just supposed to stay there with us.
(SLOW, JAZZY BIG BAND MUSIC)
DOZIER: It’s not like Ruth never socialized with her fellow workers -- these are teenage girls we’re talking about, after all -- they just found other topics of conversation than work.
HUDDLESTON: I talked about my boyfriend, and we talked about things… but we didn’t talk about what we were doing, or I didn’t, and the ones that I talked to didn’t. Because we didn’t know who was watching or listening.
DOZIER: All anyone could tell them was...
HUDDLESTON: We were helping to win the war.
DOZIER: ...and if they failed, the consequences would be disastrous.
HUDDLESTON: And of course we didn’t ask any questions. We just worked.
DOZIER: Life continued like that for a while. Day in and day out, Ruth sat on her stool and watched the dial and turned the knobs, for an entire year. That’s when she heard the news.
DOZIER: On August 6, 1945, Ruth was at her station at Oak Ridge when someone came in and told the cubicle operators that a new kind of “atomic” bomb had been dropped over Japan. Then they said another thing: everyone in that room, including Ruth, had played a role in creating the bomb.
HUDDLESTON: We were told we did. They told that the bomb had been dropped and that we had a part in it.
DOZIER: Ruth said her initial reaction was elation. But that quickly faded.
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HUDDLESTON: I was really happy at the time and excited, but then when I heard later all the people who had been killed. It really, really bothered me because I had a part in killing all those people. And I thought, it’s not as exciting as I thought it was.
DOZIER: In the days that followed, Ruth wrestled with the knowledge of what she’d done. She knew it meant an end to the fighting, and a chance to bring her boyfriend home for good -- but at a horrific cost.
HUDDLESTON: My boyfriend was in the other part of the war over in Germany. And I thought, well, this will get him back. I tried to stop and think about it, because war is war since the beginning of time... And death goes with war. But it still bothers me sometimes to think I had a part in that. But we didn’t know it.
DOZIER: She said that part of her felt betrayed, having been put to work on such a terrible weapon without her knowledge.
HUDDLESTON: I had that thought, but then I thought, they had to do that, to keep from someone else getting it, you know? It required a lot of thinking.
DOZIER: Ruth left Oak Ridge about a month after the bomb was dropped. She had worked there for a little over a year. And… that was it.
HUDDLESTON: Honestly, I didn’t think about working at Y-12. It doesn’t sound possible, but it is. I had a lot of other plans in my life to do, and I did them. I went to college and taught school. Then I went back to college and got advanced degrees so I could be a guidance counselor. It’s what I wanted to do.
DOZIER: She also got married and had children.
HUDDLESTON: My son didn’t know I worked here for a long time. (laughs) I guess I was just used to not talking about it and I put it in the back of my mind. But I’ve talked about it a lot in the last while (laughs).
DOZIER: It was more than six decades later that Ruth finally learned what exactly she’d been doing during all those hours on her stool in front of that machine.
HUDDLESTON: I was reading a book and I realized what I really had done.
DOZIER: The book was “The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan. Ruth read about the “calutron,” a massive electromagnetic racetrack that separated out uranium for the atomic bomb. And she recognized the accounts of the “calutron girls” who were recruited out of high school to sit at massive control panels and keep the powerful magnets in alignment through constant monitoring.
HUDDLESTON: She had it written in the book exactly like we did it. And it helped to go through your mind and realize what you had really done and that it was very, very important at that time.
DOZIER: She also came across the story of a conflict that happened behind the scenes at Y-12. Unbeknownst to Ruth, some of the scientists who developed the calutron had complained that young women weren’t suited to such precise and demanding work. I’ll let Ray Smith, Y-12 historian at Oak Ridge, take it from here.
(UPTEMPO PERCUSSION & ELECTRONIC MUSIC)
RAY SMITH: So Tennessee Eastman was hiring these young girls right out of high school, and the people who invented the calutron from out at the radiation laboratory in Berkeley, California, working for Ernest Lawrence -- they were frustrated with Tennessee Eastman. They said look, we’re in a race with Germany trying to get to this bomb. You need to put scientists and engineers on that complicated equipment -- not those young girls right out of high school.
Well, Tennessee Eastman said okay, we’ll run a contest. We’ll put our young girls on one bank of these calutrons, and you put your scientists and engineers on the other. We’ll let them run for a week, and we’ll see which ones are most productive.
Well you know what happened, at the end of the week the young girls had beat them hands down because they were practicing statistical process control. They were told to keep that meter on a certain spot, let it drift, and then bring it back. Now those scientists and engineers, when they get a problem they go chase that problem and try to fix every problem they found. As you can imagine a system like this is much better to allow it to operate within its control limits, and not to touch it except when it’s necessary. So they went away and let Tennessee Eastman alone, let them hire those girls right out of high school practicing statistical process control without even knowing that’s exactly what they were doing.
HUDDLESTON: When I think back about it -- working here at Y-12 -- it was quite an experience. You think that people can’t keep secrets, but I found out that women can keep secrets. We really did. We did a good job, and it was all women. And that was something, you know, it was a good thing.
DOZIER: Ruth Huddleston was one of the tens of thousands of people who came into the Manhattan Project with no scientific training, or military expertise, or even much formal education. The weapons they helped develop were terrifying in their destructive power, but their collective effort and sacrifice amounted to one of the most incredible scientific achievements in history. And none of it would’ve been possible without people like Ruth.
HUDDLESTON: I’m Ruth Huddleston and I was a calutron worker at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
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DOZIER: If you have questions about this episode or any other episode you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @ENERGY. If you’re enjoying Direct Current, help us spread the word! Tell your friends about the show, and leave us a rating or review on iTunes. We appreciate your feedback.
A big thank you to Ray Smith and Ruth Huddleston in Oak Ridge. Direct Current is produced by Simon Edelman, Allison Lantero and me, Matt Dozier. Art and design by Cort Kreer. With support from Paul Lester, Ernie Ambrose, Daniel Wood, and Atiq Warraich. We’re a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.
We’ll be back in a couple weeks with part two of the Manhattan Project story. Until then, thanks for listening!