The more we travel around the country in our RV, the more I realize how little I know about our history. This trip was no different, and I was very surprised to learn our campground in Tennessee was close to a WWII German POW camp and a nuclear laboratory that was a key component of the Manhattan project. Thank goodness for TripAdvsior or we may have missed these historic sites.
Atomic City – The Manhattan Project In Tennessee
I was shocked to learn that the uranium for the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima was enriched in Tennessee. Prior to this visit I had only heard of the Los Alamos Laboratory, which is where the bombs were developed.
In about 18 months the area transformed from farmland to a secret city that employed 82,000 people.
American Museum of Science and Energy
The museum in Oak Ridge has exhibits on the history of the Manhattan Project, as well as a bus tour of the nuclear laboratory sites.
The Story of Oak Ridge Museum Exhibits
We started our tour of the museum with two short films that explained the history of Oak Ridge as well as the Manhattan Project.
Walking through the museum, I thought the exhibits of the building of this secret city were the most interesting. Sean found the history of the science behind the discoveries here to be more to his liking. Since that part gives me a headache, I’ll tell you about the secret city.
In order to build the facilities needed for this large effort, the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with the unpopular project of evicting about 1,000 farmers and families from 56,000 acres of land under eminent domain. Some families were given just a few weeks’ notice to vacate farms that had been their homes for generations and others had recently resettled in the area due to other government projects. None were happy about having to move again.
They basically built a guarded city in which you had to have credentials to enter. It was a true city though, with schools, seven theaters, restaurants and cafeterias, and grocery stores. A library with 9,400 books, sporting facilities, and churches. Several different types of housing was built for the workforce and their families including prefabricated modular homes, dormitories, and even a trailer village.
Sadly there was segregation at Oak Ridge although FDR had signed an executive order barring discrimination in the defense industries. The army and companies involved justified it by saying it was a necessary practice due to racial attitudes in the area. Black workers had the less desirable jobs and were required to live in small wooden shacks called hutments, unlike housing in other parts of the Oak Ridge community. At 14 feet by 14 feet, hutments were roughly the size of a storage shed and were shared by 5-6 people. Amenities were sparse, with a coal-burning stove, dirt floor, one door and no bathroom. Married black couples were not allowed to live together either.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory Bus Tour
The museum also has a 3-hour bus tour that takes you through the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge facilities. This tour is in high demand, so be sure to sign up online or get there first thing in the morning.
There are several stops along the way including a visit to the X-10 Graphite Reactor, which “went critical” on November 4, 1943, and produced its first plutonium in early 1944. It supplied the Los Alamos Laboratory with its first significant amounts of plutonium. X-10 operated as a plutonium production plant until January 1945, when it was turned over to research activities, and the production of radioactive isotopes for scientific, medical, industrial and agricultural uses. It was shut down in 1963 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
There was also a presentation at the Y‑12 National Security Complex, previously known as the the Y‑12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant where the uranium was enriched for the first atomic bomb. This facility is still in use today, although its mission has changed. Y‑12 played a key part in the production of thermonuclear weapons during the height of the cold war, and it continues to function as the nation’s uranium storage and processing facility.
German POW Camp in Crossville
We learned about the history of the German POW Camp at the Military Memorial Museum in downtown Crossville, TN (right off I-40 about halfway between Knoxville and Nashville).
While the camp is no longer standing, the museum has a model of the camp showing the layout as well as a significant amount of artifacts from the camp itself.
Originally intended as an interment camp for Japanese Americans, POW camp was established on approximately 200 acres of a Civil Conservation Corps site. It opened in November 1942, with 68 Germans captured about 17 days earlier in Casablanca, South Africa. It was one of the first POW camps in the United States and housed more than 1,500 German and Italian prisoners.
Exhibits include German uniforms and flags, a menu and cutlery from the dining room, as well letters written by prisoners. One unique item is an oil painting by Jürgen Sperber, a German soldier, who painted it to reassure his wife that he was being treated well.
In addition to the POW display, visitors to the museum can take in the many other exhibits showcasing memorabilia from the Civil War through today.
Where to Stay