Monday, November 11, 2013

A Hero Unaware

In 1942, the U.S. government began quietly acquiring more than 60,000 acres in Eastern Tennessee for the Manhattan Project --the secret World War II program that developed the atomic bomb. The government needed land to build massive facilities to refine and develop nuclear materials for these new weapons, without attracting the attention of enemy spies. So, it had to be top secret! Not even the 45,000 construction workers knew what the facility was for. Companies, such as Chrysler, Union Carbide and Dupont, who risked their own money and reputations to assist the military in ending the war, were not told anything about the building of a bomb. Yet, they still agreed to help. Secrecy was of the highest priority. The entire area was fenced in and armed guards were posted!

In early 1943, ground was broken for the first production building at the Y‑12 Electromagnetic Separation Plant. It's purpose was to make enriched uranium.

The Y-12 electromagnetic plant units were initially operated by scientists from Berkeley. They were then turned over to operators, some with college degrees, but many with only a high school education. But, in a test to see who was best, those young "hillbilly" girl operators outproduced those with PhDs. One of those "hillbilly" girl operators was my great aunt, Mada Boles. She went to work soon after the facility at Oak Ridge opened and continued to work there in department B12H in the Y-12 plant up until she married in 1948.

I was sitting beside my then-90 year old aunt Mada at her kitchen table one day and we were looking out the window at a whipper wheel that was perched upside down on a feeder. She would sit there, sometimes for hours, watching those birds and when I would visit her, she would ask me to sit there beside her and she would tell me stories about her friends and family. It was on this particular day that my aunt Mada told me the story of how she made the bomb.

This story begins with my grandfather, Elmer Boles who had been on board the U.S.S. Samuel D. Champlain during the Normandy Invasion. When the ship returned home, most of the crew was dropped off on the east coast for a brief leave, while the ship continued on through the Panama Canal to the west coast. Elmer boarded a troop train that went from New York to Oakland, California, where he boarded a ship and set sail for the south Pacific and the Phillipines.

Meanwhile, President Truman had encouraged the country to unite in the war effort, and asked each citizen to do their part. Since my grandmother was busy at home raising the children, aunt Mada decided she would do what she could to assist the troops, and her brother. She had heard of the new government plant opening in Tennessee and how it was to "help" in the war effort, and although she did not have a clue what she would be doing, soon she was heading Oak Ridge.

On August 8, 1945, two days after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, aunt Mada, and the rest of the world, found out what had really been going on at Oak Ridge. On that day, when it came time for her supper break, she did her usual thing, head for the cafeteria. As she sat down at a table, she couldn't help but notice the headline on the front page of the newspaper a co-worker was reading at the next table: "PARTS OF THE BOMB MADE AT OAK RIDGE!"

The news was out! Thirty months after Oak Ridge began its secret work, the success of Y‑12’s mission was announced to the world. Two atomic weapons - the uranium bomb, Little Boy and the plutonium bomb, Fat Man - were detonated, causing the Empire of Japan to surrender and bringing World War II to an end. Y-12, where aunt Mada had worked, had separated the uranium used in Little Boy.

Aunt Mada could not believe what she had read. When her shift ended, she went to her dormitory room, sat down at a table and addressed a post card to my grandfather in the south Pacific. She couldn't wait to tell him about the goings on at Oak Ridge.

The card reached my grandfather's ship a couple of weeks later. He described what happened this way: "It was normal for shipmates to read each others mail because they were so far from home and homesick and the letters served as a sort of newspaper for them. Of course pages that contained close personal matters were not passed around." As Aunt Mada's letter with the news about Oak Ridge began making its way around the ship, soon everyone onboard was saying that "BOLES' SISTER MADE THE BOMB!"

So there you have the story about how my aunt Mada helped bring WWII to an end. When she finished telling me this remarkable story a smile came across her face. We went back to watching that whipper wheel perched upside down on the feeder, but I was entranced by her words. Her story and its climax had taken my breath. My thoughts were racing to a time, a secret time, when the whole world was on edge. In school, I had learned about the Manhattan Project, but I had no idea that my beloved aunt Mada, so small and frail at age 90, was called a hero during WWII. Life sometimes does have it's little surprises.

The photo is from the Y-12 Bulletin, which was published weely at the Oak Ridge facility and shows my aunt Mada and uncle Lester just before they were married. The marriage was the end of aunt Mazda's career at Oak Ridge.

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