It was 1945 when Lincoln County childhood friends Julia Dee McLerd, Tillie Brooks and Katherine Sappenfield, each found themselves finished with a second year of college and looking for well-paying summer jobs.
After talking to a local employee with the Employment Security Commission Office in Lincolnton, who promised all three of the Crouse residents good work in Tennessee connected to the wartime effort, the teens accepted the positions, having no idea they had signed up to help build nuclear bombs — bombs that would kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens in a matter of months.
“We were looking for money,” Dee said.
Katherine giggled and agreed with her friend Dee as the two, now 87, sat and reminisced Wednesday about one of the most interesting seasons in their lives.
“College girls are always looking for money and boys,” Katherine said.
The 18-year-old “country girls,” as Tillie called themselves, soon hopped on a bus out of Lincolnton, on their way to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to join thousands of others from across the country at a closely-watched, large-scale government compound in the middle of nowhere. The facility served as a production plant for the bombs’ raw materials, plutonium and uranium.
“We were so young we didn’t even know what uranium was,” Dee said.
Just 25 miles west of Knoxville, Oak Ridge was one of several sites across the country where research and production for the bombs occurred.
Tillie described the site as nothing she had ever before experienced. It was a place in complete contradiction with her passive, rural roots.
“It was like going from a peaceful place to the den of iniquity,” she said.
The United States government dubbed the bomb-making effort the Manhattan Project and commenced work on it in New York in 1939.
Each of the three Lincoln County women spent their days at Oak Ridge completing different tasks in different buildings, never allowed to venture into buildings where they didn’t work.
They shared a cramped room inside a larger barrack that housed only one shower. Tillie compared their living space to a “big closet.”
For Katherine, her first job at the site required that she type numbers on large sheets of paper, but before long, she switched tasks, and started weighing charge bottles — containers filled with bricks of led and uranium, she said.
For hours on end, a guard would hand her bottle after bottle, which she would each weigh and hand back to him for placement in a large vault.
She and her two friends often grew curious about the purpose of their daily work and the larger effort going on at Oak Ridge, particularly when Katherine would witness other workers carrying out strange habits.
She explained how workers often cleaned the floors but saved any “dust” they collected. In addition, facility officials also once spent a lengthy amount of time and effort clearing up an area where a truck had overturned and spilled all its materials.
“They dug up the pavement and made sure to save…all the uranium,” Katherine said.
The women also never spotted any trains or materials exit the compound. Large loads entered daily, but nothing left, increasing both the secrecy and intrigue surrounding Oak Ridge.
Dee also grew curious about her individual daily task of sorting and filing unsealed documents. Never once was she allowed to open an envelope, she said.
Tillie revealed that because of her science background, she was placed in a chemical lab where she spent her days, and sometimes nights, crafting glass test tubes.
The process required that she use a torch with a 3,500-degree flame to bend glass rods into shape. Sometimes during third shift lulls, she and other workers in the lab would make glass animal figurines just to keep themselves preoccupied and awake.
Before entering the lab, each worker had to remove their everyday clothes and put on a clean, white cotton work suit, which was stored in an individual work locker at the end of shift.
If anyone ever dropped a test tube on the ground, workers immediately exited the facility, Tillie said.
However, as far as why she was making test tubes and purifying uranium samples, she had no idea.
“We didn’t know anything about what we were doing,” Tillie said. “I don’t think my supervisor even knew.”
Even with the large amount of mystery surrounding Oak Ridge, often called “The Secret City” or The Atomic City,” the thousands of people living and working there over the years were never more concerned about the specifics of their individual duties over helping their country.
They overlooked a great deal of ambiguity to help friends and family who were fighting for freedom overseas.
“In those days, people were very patriotic,” Tillie said. “In addition to wanting to make money, people wanted to support the war.”
The women always worked eight hour days and three weeks at a time before they would see vacation.
When not at work, the women often frequented one of the site’s numerous recreation buildings, skating, dancing or listening to jukebox tunes, Tillie said.
While sleeping was often times an additional form of recreation for the workers, it was difficult to rest in rooms that lacked both air conditioning and sound proof windows and walls.
Loud sounds from machinery and outside construction work often filled the dorms at all hours.
“They were constantly clearing land and building buildings,” Tillie said, “because they had no idea the war would soon be over.”
It was during one of Katherine’s days off that she met up with family in Knoxville, since anyone who didn’t work at Oak Ridge was forbidden from stepping foot on its grounds, she said.
After explaining a little bit about her secret job, her sister and sister-in-law agreed she should never return once the summer work ended.
“They said it didn’t seem like a good place for me to be,” she said.
It wasn’t until after the first atomic bomb, codename “Little Boy,” dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, that Oak Ridge workers, and all who had been involved in the Manhattan Project over the years realized the purpose of the clandestine plants and work.
The Lincoln County ladies were not at the facility that historic day. Their summer jobs there were over.
Katherine said that for 10 minutes, everyone was allowed to run out into area streets and scream, cry or let out any other emotion that the shocking event produced inside them.
Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb, dubbed “Fat Man,” on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
After returning home from Oak Ridge, each of the women returned to school and pursued teaching degrees, Tillie at Appalachian State University, called Appalachian State Teacher’s College at the time, Dee at Greensboro College and Katherine at Lenoir-Rhyne University, previously Lenoir-Rhyne College.
Earlier this year, the women attended a book signing in Charlotte for Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.
The book, released earlier this year, captures the wartime experiences of women who worked alongside Katherine, Dee and Tillie, at the Oak Ridge plant along with other Manhattan Project locations across the country.
While the women aren’t mentioned in the book, they contributed a great deal to American history.
“I’ll always be glad we did that,” Dee said about working with her friends at Oak Ridge.
Although Tillie noted she learned more about the world that summer than she ever did growing up in Crouse, she wouldn’t have traded that time for anything else.
“It was such an awakening for me because I was so young and naive,” she said. “My eyes were just big with awe from my little upbringing.”
While Tillie now lives in Lakeland, Fla., Katherine and Dee remain in Lincoln County, just down the road from each other.
Friends since the first grade, and all graduates of Lincolnton High School, the women remain close and will never forget the summer that bonded them closer together and shaped their lives forever.