Cindy Kelly: Start, my name is Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation and it is Tuesday August 13, 2013 and with me I have Denise Kiernan. Denise would you like to say and spell your name.
Denise Kiernan: Denise Kiernan, D-E-N-I-S-E K-I-E-R-N-A-N and I am here with Cindy Kelly and Celia Klemski.
Kelly: Okay, so Cecelia—we have called you Cecelia—can you please tell us your full name and spell it?
Celia Klemski: Well my full name is Cecelia Dorothy Klemski; I came to Oak Ridge in August—
Kelly: Can you please spell that?
Klemski: Full name, C-E-C-E-L-I-A, that is what I was baptized, Dorothy is my middle name, and K-L-E-M-S-K-I, that is a Polish name that is my last name.
Kelly: And what was your maiden name? Can you say your maiden name and spell it?
Klemski: Oh yes, my maiden name was C-E-C-E-L-I-A Szapka, Polish, it was S-Z-A-P-K-A.
My dad came from Poland and my mother came from Brazil, and they met when he came over. He was seventeen years old, and they met and they married and then they lived in Pennsylvania. And there were six of us children. The oldest one is a priest, he was a priest, he is dead now. But there were six of us children, and we were all raised in the Catholic schools in a little town, coal mining town called Shenandoah, coal mining town. My dad was a coal miner and we went to the Catholic school. We went to high school but my mother could not afford to send me to college so then I took a civil service test and I ended up in Washington without a college education. And then from Washington they sent me to New York and from New York I came to Oak Ridge.
Kelly: All right, we are going to backup just a little bit, could you please first what year were you born, what is your birthday?
Klemski: I was born in 1919, May 17th 1919, I am ninety-four years old, I will soon be ninety-five, and I stayed in Pennsylvania until I was seventeen years old. And then that is when I left and I have not been back there.
Kelly: So you left at age seventeen to go to New York City, is that right?
Klemski: No, first I went to Washington.
Kelly: Oh to Washington, okay. Tell us that story.
Klemski: Oh well when I got there, of course it was right after high school, my mother could not afford to send me to college, that is when I got my job in Washington. And I met some people from different parts of the United States, we formed some very close relationships. We lived in a boarding house together and I was there for I guess about four or five years, when my mother said, “You have got to come home.”
So of course listening to my mother, I went home. I was there two weeks and I could not stand it because there is nothing to do, you know, after Washington there was nothing to do in Pennsylvania. So I asked for a transfer and two weeks later I was in New York. So that is the way all my upbringing came about.
Kelly: What were the offices like in Washington, DC?
Klemski: Oh they were all wonderful, they really were. Everybody I worked for and all the officers that I worked for were good. I worked under temps and then of course later on I of course met General Groves and met quite a few important people.
Kelly: So for whom did you work in New York? Who were you working for in New York?
Klemski: Well I was working with the Manhattan District really, but I worked for temps there and met quite a few people there. I kind of forgotten their names, those in Washington kind of stick with me. But I was only there about nine months, and then they said, “We are moving.” And when they said we are moving, I didn’t know whether I should go. But I decided I wanted to go, and so I came to Oak Ridge so I have been here ever since.
Kiernan: Who was your boss in New York?
Colonel Vanden Bulck?
Klemski: Yes, he was in New York too, yes, then he came to Oak Ridge too, you know.
Oh yeah, in fact when we were up in New York he asked me to go to dinner with him a couple times at his home and so of course I did. And so I got to know him pretty well. And he was a great guy too, and I don’t know what else I could tell you about him except he was a great guy, he really was. All the people I worked for were wonderful.
Kelly: And where was the office?
Klemski: It was on Fifth Avenue. I think it was Fifth Avenue that it was on. It was a big building and there were quite a few offices there. It was an exciting life, it really was, for a little coal-mining girl, you know.
Kelly: How did you get to work every day?
Klemski: I took the train. I walked to the train and I picked up the train and took me to New York, and then I walked from the train to the station and then back again. I took the train from New Jersey to New York.
Kelly: How many other young women did you meet working?
Klemski: Oh, I met a lot of women. When I went to Washington, I met a lot of people from Pennsylvania, all over, who came from—just like I did, you know. Then of course when I went to New York, I met a lot of people there too. But see I haven’t kept in touch with them, because you move away and you know that association is gone.
Kelly: Was it exciting to be in New York City?
Klemski: Oh yes, a couple times we would go downtown. Well, we even went to the—some district there and we were not supposed to be going there, you know. But some of the girls were going, they said, “Come on.” So we went there. That was the only time I went, I did not go after that.
Kelly: Should I ask what was going on there?
Klemski: Well it was just a little frightening, it really was, for a little coal-mining girl, but it was exciting and I am glad I went.
Kelly: So did you go to the Empire State Building?
Klemski: Oh yes, walked up to the top of it, I walked up to the top of that building, I could not believe it but I did. Of course, I was young then.
Yes, all those stairs, I do, I remember that very well. I did not walk down, I took the elevator down, but I walked up those stairs. Of course I was young then see, I was twenty-three, twenty-four, and twenty-five, maybe and now I am almost getting to be ninety-five.
Kelly: So what year were you in New York?
Klemski: Well I went to New York, let’s see. I graduated in ‘37, I went to Washington, I was in Washington about three years, so I was probably about nineteen. I graduated in ‘37 so ‘40, ’41, you know, it was about that time. Then I came to Oak Ridge—well, I came to Oak Ridge, though, well that is not right because I came to Oak Ridge in ‘43.
Kelly: Okay, just a couple more things about New York, if you could think about—what was some of the most impressive buildings you saw?
Klemski: Well I went to Radio City; that to me was exciting. And of course we visited a lot of the big buildings, you know. I can’t even remember what they were, but when I first got there, that was one of the things we did. Tried to get to see all the big buildings that we could and go to the Empire State Building. That was exciting, and that is about all I can remember about that. That was seventy years ago.
Kelly: What about the statue in the harbor? Did you see the Statue of Liberty?
Klemski: Oh yes, and it was something wrong with the statue at one point, and but we saw the Statue of Liberty going into New York.
Kelly: They didn’t light the statue all during the war. Is that what was wrong with it? the torch was not lit?
Klemski: Well I can’t remember that, but I remember at one point we could see the statue and then at another point we couldn’t, but I cannot remember that, I am getting old.
Kelly: You are doing awfully well, you are. Maybe we should talk about how you happen to—well tell me this firs. Can you remember your job, what was your job in New York?
Klemski: In New York, well, I worked for Mr. Tibbs up there in New York and I was really just a secretary, I took dictation and transcribed all the notes and all. I was just a secretary really.
Kelly: They must have given you confidential information.
Klemski: Oh yeah, quite a bit of it. In fact, I think later someone gave me a copy of something that I had transcribed and it was confidential on there and I was not supposed to see it. But somebody had passed it onto me and they were not supposed to, and of course they took it away from me right away, the minute they saw that I had it.
Kelly: Were you aware that there were spies in New York?
Klemski: Oh yes.
Kelly: Tell us about it.
Klemski: They warned us about that, they warned us about that. But see, I didn’t realize it at the time. When you are young, you don’t think of things like that. To me it was exciting being there and I loved every part of it, and loved every part of my career, really.
Kelly: Can you tell us just because people don’t hear my question—can you say what did they warn you about? Did they warn you about spies? Can you say that?
Klemski: No, they never did, except that you had to be very careful who you talked to or what you said. “Don’t say anything about where you are working,” they warned us about things like that, but they never told us anything about spies being around.
Kelly: Why did you have to be careful about what you were saying?
Klemski: I don’t know, that was the first thing they told us when we hired in. “What you hear here, stays here, you do not broadcast it,” in other words.
Kelly: Were there people listening for you to make a mistake or see if you talked about things you were not supposed to?
Klemski: Well I don’t really know because I worked in an office and all the people I worked with I thought were wonderful. I didn’t think of any of them as being spies, but you never know. That was what they warned us about: you never know who you are talking to.
It was quite a career that I have had, for a little coal mining girl.
Kelly: You are doing great Celia. So why don’t you now tell us how you got to Oak Ridge.
Kiernan: So tell her about the train down to Oak Ridge.
Klemski: That was exciting, I loved that because we rode first class, had our breakfast, our meals. To me that was exciting; first time I had ever ridden first class, coming to Oak Ridge.
Kelly: So you and others who were a part of the Manhattan Project office in New York were shipped? Everybody left Manhattan, or most of you?
Klemski: Well no, just some of us, just some of us because I was the only one on the train, as I recall. They took me to the train and put me on the train and said, “We’re going to Knoxville.”
Kelly: Knoxville was on the map.
Klemski: Oh yes, yes they said you were going to Knoxville. When I came in that is where I landed at the station in Knoxville, and then of course a government car picked me up.
Kelly: Can you tell us how you felt? I mean, what was Knoxville like after New York?
Klemski: Well of course New York to me was huge and Knoxville I thought was wonderful. But see I hadn’t been to Knoxville that much, that was my first time. But when I came to Oak Ridge, that was really an exciting time for me.
I had black suede shoes. Everything was mud here.
Kiernan: Where did you get those shoes?
Klemski: I. Miller in Knoxville, I bought those in Knoxville.
Kiernan: In New York, before you left.
Klemski: Yes before I left, that is right and I paid twenty-three dollars for them; I will never forget that is the most I ever spent on shoes, I think, at that time.
Klemski: Yes, well the girl before me stepped out and she stepped into the mud, and I did not want to ruin my shoes. I said, “I am not getting out there,” but I did, they made me get out there. They did not carry me until after I stepped in the mud, and then they carried me in, so it was just an exciting time.
Kelly: Well that was quite an awakening after New York City.
Kiernan: The big arrival.
Klemski: It was.
Kiernan: From Fifth Avenue to the mud, right.
Klemski: Yes, that is right.
Kelly: Where did you live?
Klemski: I lived in the first dorm that was built across from the cafeteria; it was W-1, I think is what they called it. And I lived on the third floor and I got a roommate that I never had met before. Her name was May Belle and she was from Wisconsin and there I was from Pennsylvania. We didn’t match at all, but we lived together for about a year or so. And then she moved off so then after that it was not long before I met my husband and we married.
I married in Oak Ridge, or—I didn’t marry in Oak Ridge, I married in New Jersey, but my brother married me. Then I am still in Oak Ridge, you know, and I love Oak Ridge, I really do.
Kelly: You went through that history very fast; we want some of the tidbits.
Kiernan: That was a quick seventy years.
Kiernan: We want some juicy details.
Kelly: Yeah we want to know how you fell in love.
Klemski: Well I will tell you, I was dating his roommate. There were a lot of young men here but not too many that I could meet. But I met this young man, his name was Lew. And he said, “I am going to Knoxville, I am going to pick up my roommate and he said he is working in Alabama, and with the Ordnance Works, and I am going to pick him up and he is going to work in Oak Ridge.”
Well the minute I met him, that was it. I told Lew, I said, “I am not dating you anymore; I like the other fellow better.”
And he said, “Because he is Polish?”
I said, “No, I didn’t even know he was Polish.”
But he was, he happened to be Polish. But I fell in love with him, and then Lew met my sister and he married her, and of course he is gone now too. Henry died in ‘87 and Lew died shortly after that. But my sister is still living, she is two years younger than I am, and she is in South Carolina.
Kelly: Did they meet at your wedding? How soon did this sudden romance happen?
Klemski: No, I will tell you, she came down to visit me after I met Henry and I started dating Henry. And of course Henry and Lew were very close friends, they were from the same town and they were good buddies. And so when she came to visit me, I was dating Henry and she met Lew, and several months later they were married. So that is the way that came about.
Kelly: So you were married in ‘45 before the end of the war?
Klemski: Yes, well see my brother was a priest and he wanted to marry me, of course. And he said, “I am not coming to Oak Ridge,” he said, “You will have to come home.” So I got permission to go home, and I went to New Jersey, because that is where my mother was living at that time. My dad left the coal mines and they moved to New Jersey. And of course that is where Father married me, St. Stephen’s Church in Paterson in ‘45, January ’45. And he died in ‘87.
Kelly: Did you then move to an alphabet house? Where did you live with your husband?
Klemski: Oh, the first house we had was one of the dormitories that were—it was a four-plex dormitory, we got one of those, and it was two stories.
Kiernan: The E Unit? Are you talking about the E Units?
Klemski: The E, yes, E, you know, where there were four. It was off of Tennessee Avenue and we lived on the second place. And we were not there very long when I got pregnant, and then of course we got an A House up on outer drive. And then when I was expecting my second, third child maybe, I don’t know, we moved to a C House off of the—oh I forgot, I am surprised—but anyway, and we moved to a C House. And then from the C House, then we bought a home in Woodland on Niagara Lane, and that is where we lived until he died.
Kelly: Now we are in the mud of Oak Ridge. What was your assignment? What was your job here starting in 1943?
Klemski: When I came to Oak Ridge?
Kelly: Going backwards a little bit to when you first arrived in Oak Ridge in 1943, so what was your job?
Klemski: I still worked up at the AC Building.
Kelly: What was the name of the building you worked in then?
Klemski: They called it the—oh gosh, now you are testing my memory.
Kelly: Did they call it “The Castle”?
Klemski: Yes, the Castle, yes I think it was the Castle. And I lived in the dorm and I could walk up to the building. And there I worked for Mr. Smitz, and he was my boss at the time. And then before long, I got pregnant and I had to quit work and I did not work up there too long. And I often wished I could have gone back to work, but I didn’t. I raised my children and worked other places.
Kiernan: Tell Cindy about Colonel [Charles] Vanden Bulck.
Klemski: Oh he was a great guy, he really was, he was one of my bosses. Of course, he transferred from—anyway he came to Oak Ridge too, and his wife was wonderful. She had us up for dinner quite a few times after I came to Oak Ridge. This was when I was single. Her name was Gertie and Colonel Vanden Bulck was a great guy, he really was. And they had me up for dinner quite often. We got to be really good friends. So I made a lot of friends in Oak Ridge, I really did.
Kiernan: What did you do for Colonel Vanden Bulck?
Klemski: Oh I just took dictation from him and transcribed some letters that he had gotten and just regular secretarial work, that is all.
Kiernan: Did you ever fill in for his other secretary?
Klemski: Oh yes, Sherry, Sherry was his other secretary and when she was gone I would take her place when she was gone, if she was on vacation or something. Her name was Sherry.
Kiernan: Did you ever meet anyone interesting when you were filling in for Sherry?
Klemski: Well a lot of the officers. I met a lot of the officers, but I couldn’t tell you right now who they were.
Kiernan: How about GG?
Klemski: Oh yeah, by that time I learned to call him “General Groves,” and he was great.
Kiernan: Would you mind telling Cindy about the time when you were filling in for Sherry and GG needed your help?
Klemski: Oh, quite often he would call me when his secretary was gone, and he would call me to take dictation from him and so I took dictation from him. He was a great guy to work for. That is about all I can remember about that now.
Kiernan: What did he look like?
Klemski: Oh he was tall, heavyset, good-looking guy, but I know he was tall, big build.
Kiernan: Did he look neat and tidy?
Klemski: Oh yes, always. A general always looks neat and tidy, don’t you think?
Kiernan: What did he tell you to call him?
Klemski: Well in the beginning, when I first worked for him, he said, “Call me GG,” which I did. Then of course later on then I learned it was General Groves, then I started calling him “General Groves.” But I got to know him pretty well.
Kelly: How did you feel about all the pressure and stress and how did you get the sense from him, General Groves, that he was under a lot of stress?
Klemski: Well that never occurred to me at that time, I don’t know why, I know he was a big shot, because I had two brothers in the Army and I knew he was up there. But I never considered him that much above that I couldn’t converse with him and have a normal conversation with him.
Kelly: So he was friendly to you?
Klemski: Yeah he was, he was a kind man and a very generous man. He was just a real good—and I thought a real good guy. Because some people you meet you don’t like, but I liked him from the very beginning. In fact, I like all the people I worked for, even Mr. Smits; I didn’t like him in the beginning but got to like him later on.
Kelly: How many days a week did you have to work? Five days, six days?
Klemski: We worked Monday through Friday. Of course we were off Saturday and Sunday unless we were called in special duty or something, and it was not very often that I was called in. But some people were called in for special duty, but I wasn’t. But I worked Monday through Friday and lived in the dormitory, ate in the cafeteria. Just regular working girl until I got married.
Kiernan: What did you think of the food?
Klemski: Oh I did not think it was bad at all; even the cafeteria food was not bad. To me it was different because I was born in a Polish family and we had mostly Polish food. But it was very good, it was good too, but it was a different kind of food. That was my first exposure to other foods.
Kiernan: What kinds?
Klemski: You know, a lot of things, sausage, I had never had sausage because my mother made her own sausage, we never bought sausage. We never bought bacon, she made all her bread, she made all the cakes, and so we did not get any of the bakery stuff that all the kids talked about that was so good. And I missed that, so then when I started working I was able to get all that. It was an exciting time to come to Oak Ridge, I think.
Kelly: So what did you wear to work every day?
Klemski: Just regular clothes.
Kelly: I. Miller shoes?
Klemski: No, I didn’t wear—that was the one good pair of shoes I had, others were saddle shoes that—mostly saddle shoes. Because you walked up there to the Chapel on the Hill and it was all mud, so you had to have something serviceable. I didn’t wear many high heels in those days, those I. Miller shoes were my only expensive luxury that I had. That is because I was coming to, I thought, a big city, came to Oak Ridge.
Kelly: Were you surprised by Oak Ridge?
Klemski: I was. When I got to Knoxville I thought, “Oh, this is great.” But when I got to Oak Ridge, that was another story, it really was. When they took me up there to that Castle on the Hill and I stepped in that mud, I thought, “What godforsaken place have I come to?” But I have been here seventy years so I guess I have learned to love it. There was a time when we were supposed to be transferred to Richland, Washington, and then that was cancelled, and I was glad because I was glad to stay in Oak Ridge.
Kelly: So how much did you know about the mission of the Manhattan Project? Did you know they were working on a bomb?
Klemski: Yeah, we knew nothing about it when we came, we knew nothing about it, and of course being the coal-mining region, I knew nothing about it. We didn’t even study it in our classes in high school because I couldn’t go to college, but we did not ever hear about Oak Ridge. So when I came to Oak Ridge it was really a rude awakening for me, it really was, but I have learned to love it because I have been here seventy years so I think it is a great place.
Kelly: So how did you first learn that Oak Ridge was involved in making an atomic bomb?
Klemski: Well of course that was when it all came out. When all the news came out we heard it on the radio and they talked about it, and of course we had a celebration up in the Townsite. That was the first we knew about it because I hadn’t heard about it before then.
Kiernan: You were having a little morning sickness. How were you feeling when you heard about the bomb, where you were at home?
Klemski: Oh no, I can’t remember where I was. We heard the news, everybody got out there, and we could not believe, we could not believe all of this that we had heard. Because it was news to us, because even though we worked for the government we didn’t know anything about it. Or at least I didn’t being the coal-mining girl, I guess it just did not grasp in my memory.
Kelly: So what was your husband’s job?
Klemski: He was a machinist, worked for DuPont, he was transferred from—
Klemski: Maryland, no not Maryland, he lived in Maryland, it was Alabama.
Kiernan: Oh he went from Maryland to Alabama to Oak Ridge.
Klemski: Yeah, and his roommate was transferred to Oak Ridge and then he went to pick him up and we went to the train station to pick him up. That was the first time I met my husband.
Kiernan: Which factory did your husband work in?
Klemski: It was DuPont, it was for DuPont.
Kiernan: Do you remember the name of the building?
Klemski: X-10, that is where he worked, and worked there until he retired. He had a heart attack and then he had to retire.
Kelly: So he had no more idea about what the overall project was for than you did, is that correct?
Klemski: No, because when he worked in Alabama he knew he was coming to Oak Ridge because it was supposed to be the big project, you know, and so he came here and he had no idea either, I do not think. We never talked about it really; it was something you just did not discuss. Everything was secret and you are not supposed to talk about it.
Kelly: So after the news came out, how did you feel?
Klemski: Oh we were relieved that it was all behind us, that we did not have to worry about being secretive and because really at that time we were—everything was kind of quiet and you could not talk about anything, and after that you felt a little freer. It was just a different life, it really was.
Kelly: So were your brothers then pleased that the war was over?
Klemski: Oh yeah, they were all excited about it. The one who was wounded and—they retired him from the Army, he got a medical discharge and then of course he moved to New Jersey. And he got married and they were all happy. But see, my other brother, he was in the Philippines at that time and we could not wait until he got home. And once he got home, then life began to get a little normal again.
Kelly: Did he come home after the bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered or before?
Klemski: No he came after that, it was after that. After, it was all over with practically and he—I cannot remember what year he retired, but anyway he left the Army then. He spent like—my brother Clem spent about fifteen years in the service, and Al only spent about six or seven I think, and then he came home, but he was the younger one.
Kiernan: Did you like going to the dances?
Klemski: Oh yes.
Kiernan: Tell us a little bit about a dance. What was it like?
Klemski: Yeah, at the tennis courts you know.
Kiernan: What was at the tennis courts?
Klemski: Yeah, that is the first place that we had dances was at the tennis courts. And that was exciting. Of course we went there and you did not have a boyfriend, you just danced with everybody else, but it was exciting, it really was. Those were the good old days when you were young. And then later on we used to have them at the Ridge Recreation Hall. But those early days in Oak Ridge were really wonderful, I really enjoyed those, although I am beginning to forget about a lot of it.
Kelly: You are doing good.
Klemski: But I can remember a good part of it, though.
Kiernan: Why don’t you tell Cindy about the time your mom told you to stop writing home?
Klemski: Oh, well see I used to write home and I used to ask about my brothers and she said, “I get those letters,” and she said, “Everything is crossed out, everything is blacked out.” She said, “I do not know what you are writing there,” but she said, “Evidentially they do not want you writing that.” So she said, “Quit writing those letters to me again.” And I was always inquiring about my brothers every time I write because I did not have a phone in those days. I wrote a letter but she finally wrote and said, “I get those letters and they are all blacked out, please do not write those, I can’t understand them.” But they used to black out everything I ask about my brothers. Of course that was in the early days when they were in the service.
Kelly: How did you feel when you found out about that?
Klemski: Oh it kind of made me mad, it really did, to think that they were getting into my personal mail. But it was war and we excused a lot of that, but she told me, she said, “Don’t write those letters,” because she said, “I am afraid you are going to get in trouble.” She was worried about me getting in trouble I think more than anything else.
Kiernan: Were you worried?
Klemski: No I wasn’t worried because I didn’t know they were crossing out my letters. But I was just inquiring about my brothers because I did not phone at that time, my mother did not have a telephone. And so I wrote letters, so she said, “Do not write those letters because,” she said, “they are all blacked out.”
Kiernan: Do you think they could have a place like Oak Ridge today?
Klemski: No never, I do not think. Do you think they could?
Kiernan: Oh I want to hear what you think; I think you are more interesting that I am because you lived here when it actually existed.
Klemski: Yeah well, I do not know, I just hope we never have another episode like I went through with the war and everything and worried about your brothers. It is a different life now, of course; I am old.
Kiernan: What do you think is different about today?
Klemski: Well at least I do not have to worry about war, or right now I don’t, and if I did, none of my children are old enough to go to war. Of course I have two little great grandchildren that will be up there pretty soon, so that would worry me. But all the rest of the family is—they are all getting older like I am. It is a different life, it really is, but I live in Oak Ridge, I have been here seventy years and I love Oak Ridge.
Kiernan: The only other thing I can think is, do you want to tell Cindy about shopping in Knoxville and how some of the people treated you?
Klemski: Oh they were wonderful, people were really nice.
Kiernan: In Knoxville?
Klemski: Yes, they were.
Kiernan: I thought you told me they didn’t want to serve the people from Oak Ridge?
Klemski: Well they didn’t, that is true in the very beginning, they did not. Because I remember one time I went in, I was looking for something and she kept waiting on everybody else, and finally I said, “Well I was here first.”
She said, “Just a second,” she said, “I will get to you when I get to you.”
And so they were not very nice in the beginning but later on they were. Later on I think they realized that Oak Ridge was coming in there to shop and they should have been nice to us. But in the beginning they were not. I know I was treated kind of rough a couple of times.
Kelly: And why is that?
Klemski: Well I do not know, I think we looked different coming in from Oak Ridge. Everything was mud here and I am sure we had mud on our shoes and maybe we did not dress the way they did in Knoxville, I do not know. But there was some reason they knew Oak Ridgers. The minute you came in they knew you were from Oak Ridge.