The Prophets of Oak Ridge
Dan  Zak,   The  Washington  Post  

Copyright
Diversion Books A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp. 443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1004 New York, New York 10016 www.DiversionBooks.com Copyright © 2013 by The Washington Post All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For more information, email info@diversionbooks.com. First Diversion Books edition May 2013

 

ISBN: 978-1-62681-093-8

   

Chapter 1: Mission
The devil was just over Pine Ridge. From the deserted parking lot on the edge of town, the three servants of God looked into darkness. Their dropoff vehicle, a one-way ride, coasted off in the opposite direction into the summer night. They clicked on their flashlights, pushed through the initial thicket of brush and began their trek, aiming for the black wooded slope First, the house painter: bearded, calm, quiet. Second, the Catholic nun: gentle, grandmotherly, short of breath. Third, the drifter: alert, intense, shouldering supplies. It was, the house painter would later recall, as if the Almighty was guiding each step. Step here, He said, around this thorny bush. Now here, on this loamy berm across a stagnant pond. Then here and here and here. Across about 1,000 feet of open field. Then up an embankment slowly, slowly. They crept across the marshy field, led by some combination of God and Google Maps. Behind them was the city of Oak Ridge, Tenn., 30 minutes west of Knoxville. On the other side of Pine Ridge was Bear Creek Valley — cradle of the Y-12 National Security Complex, the “Fort Knox of Uranium,” birthplace of the heart of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima 67 years earlier. By 3 a.m. on Saturday, July 28, 2012, two career peace activists, with eight years jail time between them, and an 82-year-old nun had reached the first obstacle in their two-hour, one-mile hike toward one of the country’s most secure nuclear facilities. A six-foot chain-link boundary fence bordered a gravel patrol road. Strung along the fence were yellow “No Trespassing” placards threatening a $100,000 fine and up to one year in prison. The house painter gripped a red-handled pair of bolt cutters, fixed the jaws around a link and squeezed. He cut links in three lines, then opened the new flap. No alarm. No patrol cars. The nun went through first. After the two men followed her, they closed the fence with twine, crossed the patrol road and began the 40-degree ascent to the dark crest of the ridge. The crime had started, which meant they were one step closer to justice. One step closer to rattling the Department of Energy. One step closer to assailing the nation’s storied nuclear identity. One step closer to changing their lives and the lives of the people on the other side of the slope — including the first man they would meet once they cut through three more fences and entered the kill zone.

     

Chapter 2: '... and the earth will shake'

John Hendrix, an ascetic who lived in East Tennesse during the early part of the 20th century, was nicknamed the Prophet of Oak Ridge after his death. His grave is located near the Y-12 National Security Complex. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

In those same woods, around 1900, a middle-aged ascetic named John Hendrix gazed up at the sky and heard a voice like a clap of thunder. The voice told Hendrix to sleep in the woods for 40 nights. So he did. And he had a vision of the future, according to “The Oak Ridge Story,” a 1950 book by George O. Robinson Jr. “And I tell you,” Hendrix said to his farming community after his retreat, “Bear Creek Valley some day will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be. . . . They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake.” Hendrix often summited Pine Ridge, Robinson wrote, to pray over the vista of peach orchards and log cabins. “I’ve seen it,” was his refrain. “It’s coming.” In the decades after his death in 1915, in between the end of one world war and the start of a second, the Tennessee Valley Authority remade all of creation. Damming projects along the Tennessee River begat hydroeletric plants, port facilities and the “Great Lakes of the South.” And then, on Nov. 11, 1942, decades after Hendrix’s death, a letter from the government arrived at the home of his son: “The War Department intends to take possession of your farm Dec. 1, 1942. . . . Your fullest cooperation will be a material aid to the War Effort.” The government paid Curtis Allen Hendrix $850 for his 60-acre farm, which would be overtaken by the Manhattan Project, the country’s race to build an atomic bomb before Hitler did. Three thousand homesteaders were displaced by the government, which then built a city from scratch by laying 200 miles of road, constructing 44,000 dwelling units and importing 75,000 workers: steelmen from Pennsylvania, machinists and woodworkers from Michigan, riveters and physicists and stenographers and chemists from coast to coast, a

   

“zealous, active and self-sacrificing cooperation, by hundreds of thousands of Americans in numerous different walks of life … a generation of national effort,” as Robinson described it.. A hush-hush common cause was advanced within a gated 14 square miles termed the “Secret City” of Oak Ridge. The town was forested with billboards that said “Keep mum about this job” and “We will win in ‘44 with your help.” A few were in the know. Most were in the dark but worked with a patriotic urgency. Scores of East Tennessee high school girls were trained to operate the dials on complex machinery at the Y-12 site. They didn’t know that each flick of their wrists aided the gramby-gram production of U-235, the uranium isotope that can sustain the chain reaction of fission necessary to create a nuclear explosion. The science seems simple enough: When a neutron strikes the nucleus of a U-235 atom, the nucleus splits and releases thermal energy and more neutrons, which in turn strike and split more uranium nuclei, and on and on, in an instant, until . . . The biggest boom, from the smallest of particles. Around the clock for 18 months, the Secret City hummed and hustled. Hendrix, his vision borne out, was posthumously deemed the Prophet of Oak Ridge. For most townspeople, the full nature of their mission became clear only in bold newspaper ink on Aug. 6, 1945. “ATOMIC SUPER-BOMB, MADE AT OAK RIDGE, STRIKES JAPAN,” announced the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Wives giddily telephoned their husbands at the plants. Families bought stacks of $1 Knoxville newspapers. “After many monthsof toil and stress and ‘buttoned’ lips … [t]he revelation of the bomb was an exhilarating experience for Oak Ridgers,” wrote George O. Robinson Jr. The bomb positioned the United States as the dominant global power. The next morning, when a Southern Railroad train from Washington arrived in Knoxville, the Pullman porter announced, “You are now entering Knoxville, the gateway to Oak Ridge.” Welcome to the town that stopped the war.

   

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