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Crouse women remember creation of atom bomb

CROUSE — During the summer of 1945, three young women from Crouse left home to aid in the creation of the atomic bomb.
They traveled eight hours by bus to Oak Ridge, Tenn, which was also known as “the secret city.” Off from college on summer break, the girls only knew that they were going to help the war effort and make a little money.
“We pictured ourselves going to a really glamorous place to work,” said Kathryn Beam Sappenfield, one of the women.
Oak Ridge had been built in 1942 as a major site of the “Manhattan Project,” a wartime effort that that produced the world’s first atomic bombs.
It took up a 60,000 acre tract of land, which met military requirements for isolation, electric power, water, labor and accessibility to nearby highways and railroads.
The city had shopping centers, businesses and schools. More importantly, it had three manufacturing plants in which the atomic bombs that would eventually drop on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were created.
“It was so exciting,” said Sappenfield. “Nobody knew what we were doing.”
It wasn’t easy for Sappenfield or her two friends, Julia McLurd Harvey and Tillie Eaker, to convince their parents to let them go.
“They didn’t think that was the place for a small town girl,” said Sappenfield of her parents.
The girls pictured Oak Ridge to be a fabulous place full of luxuries such as swimming pools. Instead, the three girls found themselves living in a small dormitory room.
“It was so hot and had no air conditioning,” said Sappenfield. “We would open that window up and hope for a breeze.”
Despite less than perfect conditions, the 19 year olds had a summer to remember.
“It was the adventure of a lifetime,” said Harvey.
Once arriving to the site, they were sworn to secrecy. Each one was given a separate job — blowing glass for test tubes, filing top secret coded documents and typing.
On the walls of their workplace, posters reminded employees to stay silent. If anyone spoke, they were fired.
After work, however, things were a whole lot livelier. Everything in the city stayed open 24 hours, and the young women went dancing, met people from all over the country and Sappenfield even found herself a beau.
“We packed a lot in those four months,” said Harvey.
Sappenfield also developed a curiosity for cigarettes.
“I never smoked, but it looked so good,” she said.
She remembers seeing long lines of people waiting to buy cigarettes on pay day.
“I thought it must be good if you had to stand in line that long to get it,” she said.
As for the work being done at Oak Ridge, there were occasional clues that something unusual was happening.
One day, a truck wrecked and spilled a mysterious fluid on the ground. A crew quickly came to deal with the situation.
“I wondered why they would dig up the pavement and process it,” said Sappenfield.
All questions were answered the day after the first atomic bomb was dropped. Papers announced the news and cited Oak Ridge as the location of production.
“I didn’t think much of it then,” said Sappenfield. “I thought more in later years how horrible it was for that bomb to be made and dropped.”
When the news was announced, the girls were given 10 minutes off work to celebrate.
“We just hollered and jumped around and danced in the street,” said Sappenfield.
The news, however, also made Oak Ridge employees nervous. Many quit their jobs that day.
“They were just afraid,” said Harvey. “They knew how devastating it was.”
The three girls weren’t among the fearful, but they left soon after anyway to return to college.
Eaker now lives in Florida, but she keeps in touch with Harvey and Sappenfield who live in Crouse. They occasionally reminisce about that time in history.
“I still get excited about it after 60 years when I think about it,” said Sappenfield.
by Sarah Grano

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