Nathaniel Weisenberg: My name is Nate Weisenberg with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Friday, December 22, 2017, and we’re here in Washington, D.C. with Mr. Gordon Garrett. And my first question for you is if you could please tell me your name and spell it.
Gordon Garrett: My name is Gordon Garrett. That’s G-o-r-d-o-n G-a-r-r-e-t-t.
Weisenberg: Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell me when and where you were born?
Garrett: I was born in Johnson City, Tennessee. March 13, 1937.
Weisenberg: What did your parents do?
Garrett: My father was working with Alcoa Aluminum in Alcoa before he started in Oak Ridge. My mother actually worked there also. This was at the beginning of the war. My father had a rather famous high school football career, and then an appointment to West Point, which he unfortunately had to turn down. Because during the Depression, everybody needed to have a job to keep the families going. Anyway, he ended up going to Alcoa, and then when Oak Ridge opened up in late 1943/early 1944, he moved over to Oak Ridge at that time.
Weisenberg: Could you tell me your parents’ names?
Garrett: My father was Merrill Garrett, and my mother was Margaret Garrett.
Weisenberg: And it’s Merrill spelled M-e-r-r-i-l-l?
Weisenberg: So they both worked for Alcoa before, in Tennessee.
Garrett: That’s correct. That’s correct, yes.
Weisenberg: Do you know why they joined the Manhattan Project? Was there a particular sort of expertise or knowledge that they had that would have explained why they were chosen?
Garrett: Not really. I think Dad just saw that as a better job. There was no housing or anything when he started, so he had to commute every day by bus into Knoxville, transfer to Oak Ridge. It was close to a two hour trip over and back, which he did for quite a few months before we were able to get housing in Oak Ridge.
Weisenberg: So you were about maybe four, five, six years old at this time. You’re living in Johnson City.
Garrett: Well, by then we had moved to Alcoa. We moved there when I was four or five. Moved to Oak Ridge when I was seven.
Weisenberg: We’ll get into that in a minute. One other question for you right now is, did you have any siblings?
Garrett: I have a brother fifteen years younger than I am. David Marshall Garrett.
Weisenberg: Wow, so you were the only child during those years.
Garrett: Exactly. My parents had two only children, they say.
Weisenberg: Can you tell us what some of your earliest memories are about growing up there before you moved to Oak Ridge?
Garrett: I still remember Pearl Harbor. You know, I was four, almost five years old, because I know my son this morning asked me about it. What I remember is people running around like crazy, people gathering in groups. As a young kid, you had no idea what this was all about, but you knew you had never seen anything like that before. That’s one of my earliest memories, actually.
I also remember, during the war, my parents had bought a soldier’s uniform for me. We were riding in a train up to Johnson City from Alcoa, and I remember the soldiers would go by, and they would salute me because I had an officer’s uniform on. I remember that during the war.
I remember the blackouts. Where we lived in Alcoa, we had to close all the windows – close all the shades and everything. My father was a warden for the blocks around there, so we’d go around at night and make sure everybody had their shades down. To me, the early part of the war – before we moved to Oak Ridge – that’s what it was all about. Alcoa, of course, was a fairly major target potentially if it had ever been a problem. So there was a lot of security around Alcoa.
Weisenberg: What kinds of security would there be? Guards walking around and things like that?
Garrett: You mean in Alcoa?
Weisenberg: In Alcoa.
Garrett: No, you really didn’t see what was going on there too much. There were guards around the plant itself, but not in the neighborhoods.
Weisenberg: So you’re growing up there. What did your parents tell you about the war, or what was going on?
Garrett: You know, we didn’t talk a lot about it, but we did read the newspapers, listen to the radio, and stuff like that. I followed it about as much as any seven or eight-year-old would follow it. I just knew what was going on. I remember D-Day. Everybody got all excited, and of course when they dropped the bomb, Oak Ridge went crazy. People were running around everywhere. Newspapers were a nickel, but they were selling them for a dollar. Everybody said, “Well, finally we know it wasn’t peanut butter they were making out there at those plants.”
During the war, everybody had a lot of fun guessing, “What are they making out there?”
Everybody eventually said, “Well, it must be peanut butter.” It’s funny how I remember that so much. But hardly anybody knew what was going on. I don’t think my father did, but I could talk to you a little bit about my father-in-law, who was much higher up. I think he did know what was going on.
Weisenberg: So that’s a good place to talk about that. Could you tell me a little bit about your father-in-law and his involvement with the project? Then we’ll talk about your father, as well.
Garrett: Okay. My father-in-law was William F. Boudreau. Known as Bill Boudreau. He started in 1943 at Columbia University, which is where a lot of Oak Ridge people did. It was either late 1946 or early 1947 when he moved to Oak Ridge, along with both of his daughters, one of whom I married. Bill never talked much about what he did. He was just not the type to do that.
I do know that he was very much involved. He met a lot of the bigwigs. I remember him talking a little bit about some of the meetings and things like that. He left Oak Ridge for about two years, and was Head of R&D for York Air Conditioning, and then Oak Ridge called for him to come back again. This was probably the late 50’s, somewhere along in there. Bill had a Master’s degree from MIT, and it was in chemistry. I think he knew a lot of what was going on, but he was very tight lipped about it.
Weisenberg: So he never really talked specifically –
Garrett: No, no, he – well, first of all, I didn’t marry his daughter until 1960. So I knew her, but I didn’t know him very well. The things I knew about him was when I would see him when I would go to court his daughter.
Weisenberg: So he was at Columbia and then came to –
Garrett: Oak Ridge, yeah. He was at Columbia about three years I think. My understanding is they basically just shut down the Columbia project and moved everything they could to Oak Ridge. I’m not sure that’s totally true, but that’s what I’ve always been told.
Weisenberg: Maybe you could talk a little bit about what the connection between Columbia University and New York was with Oak Ridge.
Garrett: There’s a lot of connections. For example, Columbia University ran the school system there, and I had several of my teachers in the early grades who were Columbia University graduates. They were all young girls, single, and I know my parents used to invite them to dinner because they knew that they were having to eat all of the cafeteria food and live in dormitories. There was just a lot of things that Columbia seemed to take a lot of responsibility for. Now Clinton Engineering Works, CEW, was really running the town – obviously more so than Columbia – but it seemed like Columbia was a big advisor to them, and things like education was really turned over totally to Columbia.
Weisenberg: Did you happen to know at the time why any of that was? Why you seemed to have all these teachers who had just gone to school in New York? Anything like that?
Garrett: No, again, seven, eight years old. I mean I was aware that they were from Columbia because they would talk about it, but they could have said they were from Georgia Tech. It wouldn’t have made any difference to me or any of my classmates, as far as I know.
Weisenberg: Let’s talk a little bit more about what it was like for you. Your father had been commuting for a while to Oak Ridge.
Weisenberg: At what point did your family decide to move to Oak Ridge itself?
Garrett: As soon as they got a home. I finished the first grade in this Alcoa area, and so in May of 1944, we moved over because we finally got a home. I will never forget coming to Oak Ridge. Riding on a bus, like everybody else did in those days, and the first thing you noticed is that everything looked very, very temporary. Everything was brand new. It was just very strange. There were very few paved roads. Almost everything was gravel. I couldn’t get used to that because you think of gravel roads way out in the country. You don’t think of it in the middle of a city area. Sidewalks were all wooden, and I remember they used to break all the time, so you had to be really careful walking around on the sidewalks there.
You’ve heard the stories about the mud in Oak Ridge. I mean, there used to be signs in some of the stores in Knoxville that said, “If you’re from Oak Ridge, please wipe your feet.” That’s no joke. There really were a few signs like that, and probably for good reason.
Some of those stories from The Girls of Atomic City. I remember some of those girls, and I remember them constantly complaining. Here were these girls – some of them well educated and some of them not – and then, of course, they didn’t know what they were getting into in this mess of a place they came to. There were very few men around. The ones that did were working in the plants, and they were working night and day.
For them, it wasn’t the most happy place, I don’t think. Although they made a lot of personal relationships – I remember some of them talking about that. Some of those relationships lasted for years thereafter. It was a lot of tight knit. My father had a lot of very close friends there, and they remained friends right up to their death. There was a bondage there. If you had gone through everything they went through, which was a lot, there was something, as I say, something to bond with there.
But one of the interesting things I remember about Oak Ridge in the beginning – and you may or may not have heard about this. Did you ever hear about the strange buses we had in the beginning? You know what carries cars, these car carriers? They made buses out of that in Oak Ridge during the war. What they did was they closed it in, they put benches along the side, and they put a coal burning stove up front. Now that didn’t last very long; that probably only lasted a year or two because they couldn’t get enough buses all of a sudden. I can remember riding on those. I’ve never seen anything like it since. It was just an emergency thing you did all of a sudden.
The other thing that always sticks out to me was that everything came from every place else in Oak Ridge. One of the things they wanted to do was not tip off what was going on, so they didn’t order all the toilets from one place, or all of something else from one place. I remember my father-in-law, Bill Boudreau, telling me that in his bathroom, there were pieces from five or six different companies. When he finally decided to retire and called me down to clean out his house, I went into the bathroom there, and instead of having the normal metal or plastic pipes there, there were all kinds of rubber bendable things because he couldn’t find anything that fit. One of the disadvantages of living in an older Oak Ridge home was that you couldn’t get parts. Everything was sort of made do from that.
Weisenberg: I hadn’t heard that before.
Garrett: Yeah. Anybody that lived back in the old days there and stayed in one of the older houses, they knew they had to fend for themselves in some respects.
Weisenberg: So speaking of houses, did your family live in one of the alphabet houses when you were there?
Garrett: Yes, it was a duplex. Wadsworth Circle. I can remember walking to school, Highland View School there. I’d walk in the morning along a road, and the road would be empty. I’d come home at night, and there’d be a dozen, half a dozen houses with the flat tops going in. I mean, literally, you’d go in the morning, nothing, come back at night, and there’d be houses. That always impressed, again, a young kid quite a bit. An amazing thing is how well they were held together, and, as you may have heard, a lot of them were sold, and they became places for people down on the lakes. It became their summer lake house, or something like that. But most of that’s gone.
I remember all the trailers. Everywhere there were trailers. Years later, I came back, went through some of those areas, and where there were roads, the only thing that’s left there now is pavement that might be three feet wide. Then you see miles and miles of fireplugs. It’s really eerie to see that. A lot of that was down close to the K-25 plant, for example, which is where my father-in-law worked, K-25. My father was Y-12 and finished up at ORNL [Oak Ridge National Laboratory]. Of course a lot of those things are torn down and long gone now, but you can still see some vestiges of what things were like back in the ‘40s.
Weisenberg: You talked about the mud and the buses and things like that, but what were some of your other first impressions of Oak Ridge?
Garrett: Well, you knew that there’d been something there before. One of the things us kids liked to do is we’d go out in the woods, and you’d find an old farm house or maybe an old barn, or something like that. It was always fun trying to sort of figure out, “Well, what was this really like?”
And you’d say, “Well, gee. If you go down this holler” – as they say there – “go down this holler, and you’ll find another old house or something.”
Oak Ridge was totally fenced in, and there were also horse mounted police there. So as kids, the thing that was fun to do was to sneak under the fence and then be able to sneak back in again. You thought you were really something. I got caught one time, and they threw me on the back of a horse, took me home and said, “Mrs. Garrett, keep this kid on this side of the fence!” That was the end of my fence going days, but that was one of the things that kids loved to do. At least the boys.
Weisenberg: What were some of your favorite activities when you were –
Garrett: They were smart, as they had all kinds of sports activities. Even for the men – the workers there. I know my father was on a baseball team, he was on a softball team, he was on a basketball team. As for kids, they had a lot of sports activities. They really wanted to keep people busy because there wasn’t a lot of the usual kinds of things that other cities had, so they had to figure them out.
There was a guy named [Carl] “Rabbit” Yearwood. You may or may not have ever heard that name before. He was in charge of recreation in Oak Ridge for probably 25 years at least. His daughter was in my high school class. He, and then Ben Martin, who was originally the football coach and the track coach. His son was also in my class. These were the guys that really got the sports going in Oak Ridge, and that was very, very important. There just wasn’t a lot else to do. There was a little theater there – just not the usual kinds of stuff. The library was tiny, tiny there, so you depended on sports to do that. And there was some unusual sports.
Later on, when I was in high school, I used to play tennis some, but they didn’t have a high school tennis team. I went to the principal and said, “I’d like to start a team.”
He said, “Fine, you’re in charge. I won’t help you in any way. You’ve got to find a teacher to be your coach. You’ve got to do your own scheduling.”
I mean, here I am, a sophomore in high school, and I’m calling schools saying, “Do you have a tennis team? We’d like to play you. When can we play you?” I remember one – in fact it was the Alcoa High School. The guy said, “Is tennis a sport where boys run around in little short white pants?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “We don’t allow that here.” That’s an actual quote. But anyway, I got the team started my sophomore year, and years later, they became state champs. I was always glad for that. I also worked for the Oak Ridger there for three years while I was in high school, and one year later in college. Mostly I did sports, but every time somebody would go on vacation, I’d be in charge of that. I’d have to call the funeral home and things like that. I learned a lot about Oak Ridge just working at the newspaper there off and on for three years.
Weisenberg: You just said you learned about Oak Ridge a lot through when you were in high school on the newspaper and sports. What did it teach you about Oak Ridge specifically?
Garrett: A lot of what I learned was going back through – it was the Oak Ridge Journal, one of the first papers there. I went through a lot of the old papers. For example, I did a sports history of Oak Ridge at one point. Going back to the teams in ’44 and ’45, and so forth. In doing that, I read a lot about what was going on, so that’s one of the ways that I learned about it. Again, in those days, they didn’t have the museum yet, so that’s more or less how I learned about it. The Oak Ridger, of course, eventually came into being, and they would do things on history and some of the books that I’ve brought you here. My father didn’t talk a lot about it, but my mother did. My mother was very active in a lot of projects, helping people in Oak Ridge and around Oak Ridge. She was the one that sort of gave me a lot of what I learned.
Weisenberg: One thing that a lot of people we’ve talked to that grew up in Oak Ridge told us is that it seemed like everybody was doing something. There were a lot of activities going on. It was very community minded, I guess, would be the word. Does that sort of match up with how you remember it?
Garrett: Sure, absolutely. Everybody knew something important was going on, and they were proud of it. It was a very controlled city. You know the stories about how your mail was read, and I remember we only had one phone in the whole neighborhood. There was a major that lived across the street, and because of his rank as a military officer, he had a phone. You had to depend on other people a great deal. Cars were almost unheard of during the war there, so if somebody did have one, you made sure you were good friends with them. Everything was on the buses, so you’d meet people all the time there. It was a lot of camaraderie there, and people knew that something special was going on, and they were a part of it, and they were proud of it.
Weisenberg: You mentioned that your father worked at Y-12. And then later it sounds like at X-10 or at ORNL.
Garrett: Right, correct.
Weisenberg: Your impression was he knew he was working on something but didn’t necessarily know what the point of the project was.
Garrett: He knew it was something to do with atomic energy, obviously, because of where he worked there. He was the calutron supervisor in chemical technology when he retired, so that was pretty much what he did there. He had no idea what they were doing with all of this atom splitting that was going on there. At least I don’t think he did. You know, everybody knew a little part here and a little part there, but they really weren’t allowed to put the parts together. Although, as I said, I think my father-in-law, Bill Boudreau, did.
Weisenberg: Did your dad ever tell you during the war what he was working on or anything about that?
Garrett: No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
Weisenberg: And that leads into my next question, which is about the sense of secrecy there, which is one of the things people always remember. You talked about the incident with the fence. Did secrecy and security feel like it was everywhere? Did you know there were certain things you weren’t supposed to talk about?
Garrett: Well, as kids we didn’t know enough to talk about it, obviously, but you had the signs that you’ve seen many times. “Don’t speak. The enemy is listening” and all that kind of stuff. You saw the soldiers everywhere, and you knew that every time you went in and out, you had to go through a gate and your car was inspected, so you were very much aware that this was a different part of the world than you’d ever experienced before.
If visitors wanted to come see you, they had to go through a long rigmarole, as I’m sure you are very well aware, to be able to get into Oak Ridge to come visit. If you didn’t really want to have a lot of visitors, it was a good plan because you could always say, “Well it’s too hard to get in,” and you didn’t have to worry about putting up relatives or friends in your house.
You were always very much aware how different it was. It didn’t affect you as a kid day in and day out, except for the differentness of the community. For the most part, it was good. Nobody locked their doors. All the houses looked alike. I remember we had this one guy, who was a neighbor, and he’d go out and have a few drinks. He’d come to our door, open the door, wipe his feet, look up, and say, “Whoops, I got the wrong house again.” I mean all the houses looked alike, and nobody locked their doors, so people or kids would go in the wrong house occasionally or something.
Weisenberg: Could you speak a little bit more about your neighborhood and what that was like walking around, almost as if you could kind of draw a picture for us. Were there places you would go by often? Do you remember your neighbors, stores, places like that, you went to often?
Garrett: Well, where we lived, there weren’t any stores or anything close by, but there was something called the Hilltop Villages, which was down next to the gate going to Oliver Springs. I used to go down there on my bicycle, and I would get bread or something very simple. I remember going down there. Oak Ridge was very hilly, so it was great on bicycles. You could zip up and down. I always walked. I walked to grammar school, I walked to junior high school. I even walked to high school. In Oak Ridge, walking was just part of life. The buses were free if you wanted to ride. In fact, sometimes some of us kids would just get on a bus and ride around for something to do. Wait ‘till the bus came back to your house and get off again.
You know your mothers didn’t worry too much about you because they knew how safe you were there. There really just wasn’t the problems that other cities were having. We would go down to the movie theater. Movies were nine cents. We had the Little Atoms Club – you may have heard about that. That was a club for kids, and we’d go see the western movies or the serials. We had a Little Atoms Club Band, and we used to play. There wasn’t a single one of us that could hit the correct note, I don’t think. The kids clapped the most when we got through. But, again, it was an attempt for us kids to have something to do and try to have some degree of normalcy.
They were always out of things. I remember you would go to the store, and they would be out of something. They had a terrible fire. I think it was in ’46 when the A&P store there burned. That was the only national big grocery store in Oak Ridge, and it was out of business for months and months. That was a real problem for the mothers. They had a little local grocery store, like the one I mentioned before, and they were scattered throughout the city, but they were all very small and very limited in what they had. So the wives had to make do. Of course there was always the shortages. You had to have your coupons to get the meat and get the sugar and everything else like that. In many respects the wives were the heroes because they made do with less than what they were normally used to.
Weisenberg: Tell us a bit more about your mother. Did she work on the project as well?
Garrett: No. When she left Alcoa, she didn’t work again. My mother was quite a lady. She did a lot of things – things that are even still there today. She started the first elder care in the basement of the First Methodist Church. She, on her own, went to several major cities. I remember she came here to D.C. She went to Pittsburgh to see how elder care was being handled in those cities, and then set it up. It’s still there today in that same building.
She got involved – as a lot of Oak Ridgers did – with the communities around because there was always a lot of tension. A lot of people outside of Oak Ridge were very jealous of Oak Ridge, so relationships were not all that good. So my mother decided she would get involved. There was a place called Red Bird, where there was a community up there that was very poor, and she went up there and worked for years.
One of the things that she did was very interesting. Tennessee has what’s called county agents, and, in those days, county agents had a lot of authority, and so forth. She was in a county agent’s office, and she saw a lot of quilts there for sale for five or ten dollars. She said, “That’s crazy. I can get more money for that. If you’ll give me a bunch of those, I’ll get them sold for you.” And she did. She started a whole project. I know one woman that knocked a wall out of her house so she could make bigger quilts. What she started became shipping all over the nation. She did a lot of that. At Christmas, she’d always take a lot of flowers up to the churches outside the area, but a lot of Oak Ridgers did that. They knew that the relationships were not good, and if they could do something to make the relationship better, they did.
Weisenberg: Curious if you could say a little bit more about that sort of tension you’re describing. So you were saying that some of the surrounding communities were jealous of Oak Ridge because this community sort of blossomed overnight.
Garrett: Oak Ridge got things others didn’t. Because we’d have steaks sometimes and none of the other communities would, and people knew that. They also knew that the people in Oak Ridge were making more money than they were making. Having better schools. So it was a natural jealousy. Nothing unusual about that. We’d play games, football, whatever, with other communities, and you always felt that they were hitting you a little harder than they hit maybe some of the other schools. And then you couldn’t blame them for that. There’s probably a little bit of that still left there. I don’t know.
I graduated high school there in ’55, and you certainly were still feeling it then. You know Oak Ridge was the first place to integrate [ed. note: Oak Ridge was among the first communities in the South to integrate its high school and junior high schools.] It was two years before Little Rock. Oak Ridge integrated at the high school and I think one other school in the fall of ’55.
So I just missed that, but there were several of us who were on the council at the high school that wrote letters to the editor saying we hoped that the community would come along with this. We got some hate letters out of that, too, by the way. A lot of the community was very much against it, but being a federal community, it was a federal order to integrate, you know. They did that very quickly.
Weisenberg: That leads on to one of the questions that I was going to ask you. You talked about Oak Ridge integrating in 1955. During the 1940s, people have talked about segregation there. What is your sense of relationships between African Americans – there were a lot of African Americans who worked on the Manhattan Project as well – and whites at Oak Ridge during these years?
Garrett: There weren’t a lot of people who actually saw one another. In Scarboro, which is where most of the blacks were living in terrible conditions – I’m sure you’ve seen the huts, and so forth. My late mother-in-law, Eleanor Boudreau, was a nurse. She used to go over there and volunteer because they just didn’t have things they needed. She’d go over there, and mothers could bring their babies and get them checked out, and so forth. But they were all from one area. They mostly did labor kind of work. My impression was very, very few worked in the plants. They had their own village over there. They had their own stores. My impression during the war, and shortly thereafter, was that there was very little. I saw virtually no blacks. Certainly none lived in our area. They weren’t allowed by the government to live in what I would call the main part of Oak Ridge.
Weisenberg: You were saying that the high school integrated in ’55.
Weisenberg: So just after you graduated.
Garrett: That’s right.
Weisenberg: You’ve already talked a little bit about this, but do you have any memories of what that was like? How the community reacted to this? As you mentioned, this was even before Little Rock.
Garrett: I think as much of a problem as it was in Oak Ridge, it was more of a problem outside. I know that Oak Ridge teams took on some blacks. I know that one town would not allow any blacks, so Oak Ridge canceled the game. There were games that weren’t played because of that. Again, all the schools that we played when I was in high school were all white. I think there was more of a problem in communities around us because, again, these were people who had been there, for the most part, forever. Not well educated. It was a relatively poor farming area that became Oak Ridge. So not terribly unusual that people would feel that way, I guess. And it took time, and in time, it became accepted, but it took several years.
Weisenberg: Jumping back a little bit to the war years. Did you notice anything about how the move to Oak Ridge affected your parents?
Garrett: The move to Oak Ridge?
Garrett: Well, first of all, my mother and father were awfully glad my father didn’t have to commute over by bus anymore. They were glad that they finally got some living quarters. It took a while. Everything was so different at Oak Ridge. I remember it took a while to get everything sort of squared away. You had to get permission to do a lot of things that in a normal town you wouldn’t have to do.
If you wanted to get something changed in Oak Ridge, it was really, really difficult. For example, if you felt like the inside of your house needed to be painted, they would tell you, “Well, we’ll have a whole crew come through the whole area.” And they would. I remember there were blocks and blocks and blocks all painted at the same time. They’d just hire painters. Whether your house needed to be painted or not, they came in, and they painted. If you wanted something changed or something done or had a problem with your house, it was very, very difficult. You better be fairly handy if you wanted to get something done in those days. People had better things to do than to go around repairing houses. It’s not that they didn’t do it, but it was just very, very difficult.
Weisenberg: There’s that real sense of – as you were talking about, how this community kept coming together – this sort of sense of wartime urgency. It sounds like what you’re describing is people figuring out of a lot of things on their own.
Garrett: Yeah. You’d find out which neighbor maybe knew a little bit of plumbing, and maybe which neighbor might know a little bit about electrical work. And you sort of checked all that out. That would be different than any other community that I could imagine. Not totally. Obviously all towns do a little bit of that. Oak Ridge just did a lot of it.
Weisenberg: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the friends or teachers that you remember from those days?
Garrett: My second grade teacher was Miss Walker. She was from Columbia University. My fifth grade teacher was Miss Walters. She was also from Columbia. Both were very, very nice, and they were very dedicated. They also knew that this was something new. There was no background. They were just given some books, and said, “Okay, fine. This is what you’re going to teach.” But they couldn’t say to some other teacher that had been there for twenty years, “Well, how do you do this?” Well, you do it how you think you’re supposed to do it. How Columbia University taught you to do it.
So that’s what I remember. They were all very caring, and they were all dedicated. They all seemed to understand this was different, and this was important. This wasn’t like teaching in Hoboken or someplace like that. This was a place that had a mission, and they were part of the community that kept the mission going.
Weisenberg: And your classmates, I guess, were all also children of workers or scientists on the project?
Garrett: Well, I was always told at one time, percentage wise, Oak Ridge had the most PhDs of anyplace in the United States. So I had classmates whose fathers were PhDs, and I had classmates who were plant workers like my father. It really didn’t make much difference, you know. The type of housing you got had something to do with the type of work you were doing. My late father-in-law had a nicer house than my father did because he was further on up.
But when it came to schools, and you were playing ball and everything else like that, there was virtually no differential. Nobody would say, “Well, my dad is a PhD, and your dad’s not” kind of thing. It was pretty egalitarian in terms of the schools. Now there were, I guess, six or seven grammar schools. I’d have to go back and count again. Again, the grammar schools represented the area where you were, so you tended to be a little bit more in places where your father’s background would end up putting you in that school. Of course, once you got to junior high school and high school, that broke away.
A lot of us had very good friends. Some of them I still follow up with today. Some of them have had some problems. Some of them are like my father, who eventually got lung cancer, which was deemed to be from his work there. You’re aware of the [Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act] program where they compensate the survivors. The men themselves, if they’re still alive, which in most cases, they weren’t. And then the survivors of that. An interesting program, but it was never publicized. Those of us who found out about it found out by accident. One of my classmates ended up working in Oak Ridge. He got cancer, he got in that program, and he told me about it. Otherwise, I never would have known about that program. I guess the government decided to keep it quiet, so they didn’t have to pay out so much money.
But the men – I mean, they did crazy things. You’ve heard about it. They couldn’t do it today. They were just learning, you know. As my father would say, it was OJT [on the job training]. When he finally retired, almost everybody who worked for him had at least a master’s degree in nuclear science. He had two college courses, but he learned on the job. As he said, “We learned the hard way.”
He’d come home, and his badge would be red because he had too much juice that day. They’d tell him to go take a shower, go home for a couple of days, and when the red goes off, come back in. You know that was far and away not what they should have done. They should have had shielding and stuff on, but they didn’t know about that in those days. So he paid a price. He and a lot of other men paid a price in their health and had their lives shortened because of the work that they did there. But I don’t think they would have done it any other way. I think they all felt like they helped shorten the war. They saved some lives, and they were happy to do it.
Weisenberg: I was going to ask about how your father felt about that. He obviously knew that it was connected to his work. But, as you were saying, he felt like that sacrifice was worth it in a way?
Garrett: I think 95% of the men in Oak Ridge did. There were always some that didn’t. Some of the scientists there, in later years, turned against it. But you know, through the church primarily, my parents knew several of the pretty high ups there, and then I got to know them over the years, as I became an adult. I never heard any of them say they were sorry for what they did. Most of them felt like they really saved lives by saving the invasion there.
Weisenberg: That leads to my next question, too. You mentioned earlier on the reaction in Oak Ridge to the bombing of Hiroshima. What do you remember from that day?
Garrett: Again, I remember people running around, grabbing newspapers. The newspapers were a nickel, but the people were getting at least a dollar for them, second hand kind of thing. People would buy up a bunch and actually go around selling them in some cases. There was a lot of relief to know what was really going on. There was a lot of pride in realizing that they had developed something that had never been developed before, and it was extremely important to ending the war.
For days and weeks afterwards, the town was different. People were talking more. You’d see people in groups talking and getting together and discussing things, and so forth. That was different from just prior to that. But it was almost, in some respects, the way I remember Pearl Harbor. People gathering around, being extremely excited. Obviously I knew a little bit more about that than I did Pearl Harbor. This was four years later. But you could tell everybody was really happy, really excited, and really proud.
Weisenberg: Is that how your parents felt as well?
Garrett: Absolutely, absolutely.
Weisenberg: When the news came about the Hiroshima bombing, the bombing of Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender in mid-August, how did the people in Oak Ridge react to the ending of the war?
Garrett: Same way, same way. Again, they knew that they were an integral part of what caused the war to end. They took great pride in that and everything. All that happened very quickly, as you know. Just a matter of a few days. So it was almost a continuous celebration in some respects.
Weisenberg: Do you think people have – either you, or your family, or more generally – do you think that people have felt that same way over the years, or have people changed their minds about it?
Garrett: I think nationally, even, a lot of people later questioned it. [Albert] Einstein himself questioned it. I think what caused people to question it later was thinking about other countries getting the bomb, and what it could lead to. I was part of the organization planning the invasion of Cuba that would have happened if [Nikita] Khrushchev hadn’t turned around, and that’s the closest we’ve come to World War III since. All of us were thinking, because at my base we had the H-bomb flying in the B-52s, “Are we going to drop one of those? And if we drop one, what’s Russia going to do?”
I think that kind of thinking caused people to say, “Well, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea.” But once the genie’s out of the bottle, there’s nothing you can do about it. The good news is that the general deterrents that Russia and the United States managed during all the Cold War years prevented anything like that, I guess. Today I don’t know what that situation is. I don’t think any of us do.
Weisenberg: Maybe now’s a good chance if you want to tell us – you served in the Air Force.
Garrett: Yes. I was in the Air Force, active from 1960 to 1963, and then in the Reserves for five years after that. Eglin Air Force Base was where I was stationed. It was then, and maybe still is, the world’s largest air force base. It’s in the panhandle of Florida. I was top secret officer for my squadron, and I got this big piece of paper called Operation Jungle Jim. What happened, as you know, was the Russians were bringing their ships over, we blockaded, and when all that happened, all of a sudden, we had pilots on the F-105s, which were already on our base. They were not allowed more than two minutes from their plane. We had to take people out and dig ditches for you know what.
We had paratroopers come in from, I believe, Fort Campbell. We had to find places to put them. Tents all over the place. We had all kinds of C-130s filled with cannons and all kinds of stuff. The invasion not totally was coming from Eglin, but mostly from Eglin, and it was being directed from Eglin. So the base was going crazy.
One of the things we had to do was to decide what to do with the dependents because we expected – if we started a war with Cuba – they would know that Eglin was the number one place, and they’d start bombing it. We had to decide whether we should move the civilians or not. We finally, after a couple days of discussion, decided we’d probably kill more of them trying to move them to a base that had been closed for five years. We took our chances on what [Fidel] Castro might do.
As you know, that was, I believe, thirteen days that we were in DEFCON 2 – DEFCON 1 being war. I can remember being scared to death because I had a young child, and my wife was pregnant with a second child. Everybody on the base was just extremely tense because we didn’t know, day-to-day, what life was going to be for us there. Sort of like Oak Ridge was, in some respects.
Weisenberg: I was just going to ask what was going through your mind. It sounds like, as you were saying, it was a very tense and scary time.
Garrett: Yeah, it was. Driving back to my on-base housing, I would go by all this every day. I was a procurement officer there, so I was not directly involved in the fighting part of it. We were supportive only, but I would drive by the planes. I would drive by the paratroopers. You’d realize that at a moment’s notice, those guys could be in Cuba in 30 minutes, and a bomb could be dropped there in 10 minutes. Your whole world could change so quickly, and you were sitting there looking at what could change it.
Weisenberg: Changing tack for a minute. Did you meet your wife at Oak Ridge?
Garrett: Yes. We met in the seventh grade. We were married fifty years and knew each other sixty years. She, unfortunately, died almost eight years ago of cancer. I have since remarried a lady that lives in the same community that I live in. But yeah, we knew each other. Oak Ridge High School had a trip every year. We’d go to another high school, and then this high school would come to Oak Ridge, so we did that together. One of the things we did was we went to Evanston High School, outside of Chicago, and we went down to the University of Chicago underneath the football stadium there, which is where they split the first atoms [misspoke: built the first nuclear reactor]. So it had a lot of meaning to those of us from Oak Ridge to be able to see that. But yeah, we’ve known each other a long time. Not unusual. An awful lot of my classmates married Oak Ridge girls. I would say far more than 50%.
Weisenberg: Why do you think that was?
Garrett: Again, it’s almost like you’ve been through something together. You have a little special bond, and a lot of things were done together in the high school. It kept people together more so – I think – than the average high school. I think a lot of kids would have other things they’d go off and do that wasn’t available in Oak Ridge, so you did things together. There was just more of a togetherness, especially those of us that spent a lot of years. I went eleven years there. My wife went nine, I think, because as I said, my father-in-law came down from Columbia a little bit later, but there was a special bond, I think, amongst a lot of us there.
Weisenberg: How do you think growing up in Oak Ridge has influenced or affected your life?
Garrett: Well, I ended up getting two degrees in Political Science. Part of it was my interest in what all went on in Oak Ridge. I think that caused me to be more aware of the world because of Oak Ridge. It made me aware that life can change in a hurry too, and things could be very, very different. Later in my life, I did a lot of international travel, as I mentioned to you, with the Lions Clubs Foundation, and saw a lot of Second and Third World places. You would see some tentativeness there that almost reminded you of some of Oak Ridge in the beginning, because everything was so tentative in Oak Ridge. I think growing up in Oak Ridge caused me to have more interest in what’s going on in the world and the ramifications of some of the things that are going on in the world.
Weisenberg: After Oak Ridge you were in the Air Force. Then if you want to tell us a little bit more about what you did after that.
Garrett: I started to work with Procter & Gamble in marketing. I was a brand manager. I introduced the Bounty paper towels. My last job was to be brand manager introducing that. That was, of course, the number one marketing company in the country, and probably still is. I left there to go to Warner-Lambert. That was the number five advertiser, so I was heavily involved in advertising and sales marketing there.
After that, I managed several companies, and then later in my career, I got involved in buying and selling some businesses. I would be hired to come into a company that had just been purchased and required a turnaround. I did all that until I was 60. That is when I officially retired, and then I was asked if I would be the first professional manager of the Lions Club International, which is the world’s largest eye foundation. I did that for about six years, and it was a good give back time. I enjoyed doing that.
Weisenberg: People often ask what would motivate somebody to work on the Manhattan Project, and often people talk a lot about patriotism and that feeling during the war of needing to contribute to this effort that might end the war. Did you think that’s what really motivated your parents and other people you met and you knew?
Garrett: I think in general there were two things. Number one, you knew you were working on a very important project, obviously. It was a secret city, it was run by the military, it had to be important, number one. Number two, the pay was good. For a lot of people in that area, it was a significant increase in income there because they had a hard time getting workers. My father had to be unemployed for 30 days when he left Alcoa – even though he’s going to Oak Ridge – because during the war, if you left an important war job, you couldn’t go work someplace for 30 days. I remember for 30 days, he just didn’t work, and then he went to Oak Ridge. I think people came there for basically two reasons. They knew it was something important, and they knew it probably had something to do with the war, and it was good money.
Weisenberg: One other question we often ask is if you remember or if your parents ever came across some of the more famous figures of the Manhattan Project. People like General [Leslie] Groves or J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Garrett: I remember seeing General Groves there. Not Oppenheimer. For the most part, when those guys came in, they kept to themselves and not much was made of it. The paper didn’t announce it. In later years, they did, but during the war years, that was not done. There were some of them that came back.
It was a huge ceremony when they opened the gates in Oak Ridge in ’49. Some big movie stars come back. Marie “The Body” McDonald, I remember, was one of them, and a cowboy named Cameron. They put him on a Tennessee walking horse, and he was too tall. His feet almost drug the ground. Some of the famous people came back for some of that.
I was always sorry they did that because it was three months before I would have gotten my badge. You had to be twelve to get a badge as a kid in Oak Ridge, and that was a sign of real pride, you know. “I’ve got a badge.” Well, I never got a badge. I was three months short when they opened up the gates. Other than seeing Groves one time – and I can’t even remember exactly why it was that I saw him – but as I told Dick, his grandson, I do remember seeing him. He was more visible. Oppenheimer, you know, I don’t think he spent a lot of time in Oak Ridge, and then when he did, I’m sure he just met with some of the top scientists. My late father-in-law probably met with a lot of those people but again, he was very tight lipped and never talked much about it.
Weisenberg: In case somebody is not familiar with how the badges at Oak Ridge worked, do you mind explaining those?
Garrett: Well it was a fairly standard badge. You’d have a picture on there, and it would say where you could go. As a kid, basically, you could come into the city, and that’s it. Now the adults would have something on the badge that would say that you could go into these other areas, but even though you had the badge, you couldn’t just walk right in. It was very slow getting in. You’ve probably seen some of the long lines of people trying to get in.
You could tell by the badge how important somebody was, really. You didn’t wear the badge unless you needed to go somewhere. If you were going to leave the town, you put your badge on because you had to show it going out and coming back in again. It was part of realizing you were on a military reservation. Movement was limited; information was limited. As best as they could, they basically tried to make Oak Ridge become invisible. That would probably have been the best thing the military could have done. Obviously not possible, but they tried as best as they could to do that.
Weisenberg: You mentioned you’ve kept in touch with a number of people that you knew at Oak Ridge over the years.
Garrett: Right. Some of them still live in Oak Ridge. Some of them worked in Oak Ridge. Most of them did not. Most of them are like me. Oak Ridge started really winding down in ’47, and they were just laying off people left and right for many years. There really wasn’t much employment left in Oak Ridge growing up there. I looked into it a little bit before I went off to grad school, but most of them have gone elsewhere, but you keep up with them. My best man was a high school classmate. I was his best man. My wife had some close friends also from there. I went back to a reunion. I actually get an e-mail once a month from a lady who was in my class, and she gathers information and that way you can keep up with them. As I said, I went back to one high school reunion back there. Not different than a lot of high schools but maybe a little bit closer.
Weisenberg: I was going to ask how often you’ve been back there.
Garrett: I used to go back a lot when my parents were there, and my wife’s parents were there. Obviously, they’ve all passed many years ago, so now the only reason to go back there is just to make sure that the graves are being well taken care of. I haven’t been back there in several years. I used to go back all the time, of course, and drive around and see all the new housing going in Oak Ridge. That always amazed me to see these nice houses being built instead of the old temporary stuff. I keep some contact with some people, but I haven’t been back there a lot, I must admit. My new wife is not from Oak Ridge, so there’s not as much reason to go back there.
Weisenberg: Is there anything else about Oak Ridge or about your experiences there that you’d like to share with us?
Garrett: I think we’ve pretty well covered it. It was an interesting place. I was very proud to have grown up there; I enjoyed growing up there. I think I learned a lot growing up there, and I still take great pride in it, as my sons do. Both my sons are very involved in the history of it all and would come back and talk to their grandparents about things like that, so both sons have carried on the tradition there, as have my grandchildren, too. I have a granddaughter that’s been back to Oak Ridge four or five times, even after her grandparents had died. So there’s a thread there – if you will – from the past to the future.