“I was sent down there to be a shift superintendent. Our first meeting was in the wood pre-fab Army Administration Building. No plant yet, but the powerhouse was almost ready and process equipment was showing up in truck convoys, and here were the plant superintendent and his two assistants—I knew all three of them, had worked with them at the South Charleston plant. I said, ‘We’ve got things turning over, equipment testing, so forth. I know you’re all busy, but we don’t have a shift organization.’ Afraid I was naming my own poison. ‘Just any Tom, Dick or Harry out there as foremen.’”

“They looked at me a few seconds, and the plant super said, ‘How about you picking out four names for shift superintendents.’ Nobody had been sent to be a shift super except me. They gave me till tomorrow. Everything in Oak Ridge had to be done quick. We’d been told our project could shorten or end the war, but nobody knew what we’d be producing or how we’d do it.”

“I came back the next day with four names. First one was Chaz Hoff. One of the assistants said, ‘I don’t know about him.’ I said, ‘If you can’t accept him, I don’t have any other names. He’s our best man by far in South Charleston.’ They took Chaz and the other three.”

“I’d been told in South Charleston and early on in Oak Ridge when there were just bulldozers excavating for the mile-long plant site, that I’d be one of the four shift supers. If I’d named four men, where did that leave me? When they showed up, I was sent to talk to each one individually and then as a group. The next meeting, Army and Carbide men, we were told that what we’d be producing could blow a hole one-mile deep in the earth and five miles in diameter. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, did not exist a year ago and was being built from scratch out in farm country away from towns.

Construction and mud were everywhere. Town and plants were top secret, and nobody below shift supers was to know what was being made. We were to tell nobody, not even our wives, especially our wives. We were not to write home about anything to do with plant operation. And if anybody had any questions, they were to come to me. ‘Me?’ I said, without thinking. The plant super said, ‘Yes, Mitch, you’re now head of the shift organization, and we want you to set it up.’”

“I set it up, and it stayed that way. Later we were told that whenever the plant was put into operation, it could not be shut down. I was to be in charge of keeping the plant operational on all three shifts, twenty-four/seven, as they say today. That’s what three shifts did, regardless of what plant you were operating. You keep the plant producing.”


I had not forgotten dad’s Oak Ridge stories. They were a big part of my growing up. I had just not considered them for many years. The paragraphs above were transcribed from cassette tapes recorded by me in the summer of 1980 when I interviewed mom and dad about Oak Ridge. Of course, I was going to write a book; and I did. Not accepted anywhere, of course. One hundred and sixty-two agents and publishers did not read a single word. Ha! It wasn’t that bad.

Anyway, thirty years later, I turned my material into a family project. I recorded the six cassette tapes on CDs, transcribed Spiral pages by hand and then typed forty single-spaced pages. I made copies and gave them to the families of my two sisters—twelve grandchildren—so that they could begin not considering them for many years—dad’s and mom’s stories of those who had made the way.

The Manhattan Project was all about time. General Groves and Oppenheimer worked by the clock for years. Dad met Oppenheimer twice—“He looked exhausted.” We had to beat the Germans to the atomic bomb, but when the Nazis surrendered, our focus shifted to the Pacific. We had to finish and deploy the bomb to save tens of thousands of American soldiers and Marines from dying on the shores of Japan. This was the official narrative before and after the Japanese surrender.

Top secret work was progressing in numerous locations, and thousands of bosses and workers labored under intense pressure to reach the goal. Dad’s plant, K-25, separated the first stages of uranium-235, which after further refining in another Oak Ridge plant, Y-12, was transported to Los Alamos, where it was fitted into the gun bomb, which scientists there had been designing and testing for months. Neither Dad nor any of the other tens of thousands of workers at Oak Ridge knew about the bomb itself.

Dad was one of the few who knew that K-25 was separating U-235, and he knew of its explosive power, but when the news of Hiroshima broke, he was almost as surprised as anyone else in the country. The Oak Ridge Journal headlined, “Oak Ridge Bombs Japanese.” I know this because I still have the copy of the paper which dad saved. And I still refer to K-25 as “Dad’s plant” because he headed up the 4000-worker shift organization that kept it operating. One night he prevented a terminal process stoppage when the miles-long cooling system was mistakenly shut down. He got it running.

I interviewed Mom and Dad because I wanted to preserve the stories of their war years. Our family was in Oak Ridge for four years during and after the war. Dad worked for Union Carbide in South Charleston from 1927 to 1943, in Oak Ridge into 1947, and then brought the family back to West Virginia and Carbide. As the Cold War began, Dad told me top secret details about the bomb, which he had learned before we left Oak Ridge. I knew how to keep my mouth shut like a true Oak Ridger because I was one. I was born there in the wood-prefabricated Army hospital in 1944. Not a prime time to have a child—Dad, 40; Mom, 35; my two sisters, teenagers who had been ripped out of high school and brought to the strange, muddy town, where everything had just been built. The war outcome was uncertain. Soon I was out playing in the mud; and as we all know, mistakes can happen anywhere, any time.

Did Oak Ridge shape my life? Without getting into categories or supporting details, I’d say it has influenced just about everything I’ve ever thought, said or done. That’s all. I have had a good life, and much of it possible because men and women before me won (the war) and worked their butts off as they never had before.

I am now seventy-nine and dying. I have three different cancers and have been given months, not years. Oh, the days. In two months, if I’m still an Oak Ridger, I will celebrate my eightieth by running a half-marathon, 13.1 miles. I hope. I’ll work my butt off and I’ll probably finish last. I have run them before, but it’s been a while. Now my streamlined training consists of running and napping. It is certainly a stupid thing to do, but so was the atom bomb.

I do have enough energy to prepare my house and belongings for departure. That’s how I pulled the Oak Ridge box out of the bottom of the closet and became obsessed one more time with the lives of my family of eighty years ago. They are all gone now; but I have heard the stories so long, so often, I wanted to hear them again in the voices of Mom and Dad on my CDs.

If Oak Ridge had been an ordinary, pre-existing town in, say, 1942, and was engaged in war production of ordinary ordnance, the everyday events of work and play, love and war, would not—I do not think—have been branded into memory with the intensity and singularity that marked life in Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge workers and families were marked for life. Hiroshima survivors? Winners, but their souls singed from afar. One group got to tell the story, the other suffered as no people ever have. The nostalgia I carry in my head I learned over the years from Dad, mostly. I could not face Hiroshima survivors carrying their melt-burnt faces in their heads. “Oak Ridge Bombs Japanese”?

Dad admitted that over the years he felt some guilt until, not long after my interviews, he and Mom went to Pearl Harbor. Men still buried under water.

Tornadoes can be explained by meteorologists, even predicted. But they do not make sense. Survivors interviewed by reporters often say, “I thank God our family survived.” What? We live on God’s Creation of regularity and randomness. We are creatures of God. Thank Him/Her for tornado survival? That’s way off.

Atomic energy was once “the secret of the universe.” Many design and production advances brought it to light, but now the old bomb is a dinosaur. Scientists who followed found meaning in new devices.
Oak Ridge had meaning. Now I am listening for it in my CDs and typed transcripts for the last time. It is strange enough to bring days from long ago to life again—the voices of Mom and Dad sitting at the kitchen table in our South Charleston home when they were both alive, still my mom and my dad. I am still their son from 1980, from 1944.

Mom or Dad would say, “We must always give thanks for whatever life He gives us.” I always wanted to add, “O. K., I will, even if He makes no sense at all.”

What did you say, Dad? “It was set up and it stayed that way.”


All you need is about ninety-odd pounds of enriched uranium-235 (not available even on Amazon) to fit into a gun bomb, which you can build in your basement. Dreams or nightmares can come true, a kick-start to the sixth major extinction in bio-geological history. A blast from the past, a match for the great conflagration. Old Oak Ridgers might celebrate again. Survivors would not be standing around telling network interviewers, “We thank God for saving us.” Somebody, somewhere, would say, “We are trying to make sense of it.”

When I asked Mom, on tape, about Oak Ridge reaction to the atomic bomb, she said, “Women were all happy that they could leave the damned place.” That makes some sense.
When I asked her, how did people feel about the war? She said, “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

We, now, looking back, did know what was going to happen.


I made my return to the early 1980s to listen to Mom and Dad at the kitchen table make their return to Oak Ridge of the 1940s. I am the only person alive who knows about the important, sometimes critical things they did every day—things lost in the oblivion of time, faded into unimportance and insignificance. I am thankful I got old before I started asking, “Does an important action or decision remain important?” In younger decades I was a seeker of meaning on its slippery slopes. If I found it, I have forgotten where or what it was as I slid down.

Who knows, maybe it was the atomic bomb. It certainly influenced populations, here and there. Some are still alive and remember, almost with nostalgia.

Dad’s K-25 plant was dismantled in the early 2000s. Old Hiroshima taken out in 1945. Opposing ends of the same device. The quick celebration in the new town. The eternal sickness in the old. Both lingering on the planet in people.


Means has published haiku, poems, short stories, novel excerpts and two geological guidebooks–Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains Parks and Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D. C.