Woman has fond memories of 'little mudflat utopia'

Her work helped spawn the nuclear age
Sep. 01, 2013 @ 08:05 AM

Winnefred "Wini" Harding stepped off the bus out of Knoxville at her new hometown in June 1944 and gazed at the scene before her. Miles of prefabricated apartments and dormitories lined the streets, much like a planned community, but buildings appeared to have been thrown up like a movie set. Around them, devoid of grass, the bare earth resembled a mudflat. There were no sidewalks.

Harding was one of 75,000 hired for a job on what most of them knew only as a special project. The end result of the work that drew them to this new, from-scratch town of Oak Ridge, Tenn., was a secret.

For a 20-year-old girl Raised in tiny Mount Dora, Fla., fresh out of Florida State Women's College with BS degrees in chemistry and physics, and eager to pay off her student loans, taking the job was a no-brainer. Oak Ridge opened up the world to her.

"It was a mudflat utopia," Harding, 89, said in an interview on the sun porch of her Lenoir home. "After I graduated, I already knew I was going to Oak Ridge. They didn't tell me anything else, Oak Ridge was a big secret. But the salary was tremendous for that era and time."

Eastman-Kodak would sign her paychecks for the next year while at Oak Ridge.

In 1942, the federal government chose Oak Ridge as the site for developing materials for the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs under the leadership of Army Gen. Leslie Groves. The uranium-separating facility by itself covered 44 acres and was the largest building in the world at the time. Workers wore badges, the town was surrounded by guard towers and a fence with seven gates -- no one lived in Oak Ridge who didn't work on the project -- and employees were told not to talk about their work.

"We worked five days on first shift, five on second and then five on third," she recalled. "We couldn't say anything about what we were doing. They had people there called 'reporters' who were told to be on the lookout for subversives."

She would start her day by putting on a jumpsuit in a change house after taking off her outer garments. She would walk down the hall to her small lab, where she and three others spent hours looking through mass spectrometers, instruments that measure the masses and relative concentrations of atoms and molecules.

"My job was to turn a dial and look for a little white light on a screen," she said. "We had to ignore the first two or three bumps and mark where the third bump hit. We would then analyze the gas in a copper tube and break down the components."

She wondered why the mundane work paid so well. But she and the others became close, and they were saving money. There was plenty to do when she was off -- Oak Ridge had seven movie theaters, 17 restaurants and cafeterias, 13 supermarkets, a library, sporting facilities, churches and even a symphony orchestra.

"We got to where we didn't even think about what we were doing," she said.

That all ended on Aug. 6, 1945, a year and two months after she first stepped off that bus from Knoxville, when the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped a gravity bomb nicknamed Little Boy, packed with 140 pounds of uranium 235, from 31,000 feet over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb destroyed most of the city and killed upwards of 80,000 people. Three days later, another atomic bomb, Fat Boy, fell on Nagasaki, initially killing another 80,000 people. Six days later, on Aug. 15, Japan surrendered to the Allies, officially ending WWII.

The bombings also signaled the end of Harding's work at Oak Ridge.

"I realized we had created something horrible," Wini said. "It bothered me what a monster we had created. In my mind, I thought I'd better go back to school."

During that year in Oak Ridge, Harding paid off her student loans and socked away about $1,000 in her savings account. Schools such as Auburn University in Alabama and Duke University showed interest. She decided to enroll at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where she pursued her childhood dream of becoming a medical technologist. She moved in 1958 to Lenoir, where she eventually became chief medical technologist at Caldwell Memorial Hospital before retiring in 1991.

Fiercely independent, Harding never married. She spends her days now volunteering and sitting in her favorite chair in the sun room at the back of her house on Kentwood Street. At one time, she had a trunk packed full of Oak Ridge memories. Now, the only thing she still has from those days is a residence card issued to people who lived in Oak Ridge, neatly framed behind glass. For a 20-year-old girl from Mount Dora, Oak Ridge was the bomb.

"What more could a girl want?" she said with a wry smile.