The Manhattan Project

Ruth Huddleston's Interview

Printer-friendly version

Ruth Huddleston's Interview

Ruth Huddleston was born in Windrock, Tennessee. During the Manhattan Project, she got a job at Oak Ridge as a cubicle operator or “Calutron girl” at the Y-12 Plant. In this interview, she recounts her experiences at Y-12. She describes the bus ride to Oak Ridge, operating the calutrons, and the emphasis on secrecy. She recalls how she had mixed feelings after learning about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and talks about her career as a teacher and guidance counselor.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 25, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Nathaniel Weisenberg: My name is Nate Weisenberg, and I am here recording this oral history interview for the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is April 25, 2018. I am here with Ruth Huddleston. If you could start by saying your full name and spelling it, please.

Ruth Huddleston: Ruth Huddleston, H-U-D-D-L-E-S-T-O-N.

Weisenberg: Let’s begin at the beginning. Can you tell me about when and where you were born?

Huddleston: I was born on September 8, 1925 at Windrock, Tennessee, a little coal mining town.  

Weisenberg: Did your parents work there at Windrock?

Huddleston: My father had a flour mill for the Windrock Coal Company. He worked there, but then the mothers didn’t work, you know.

Weisenberg: How many siblings did you have?

Huddleston: I had six brothers and me.

Weisenberg: Oh, my goodness.

Huddleston: I was the oldest.

Weisenberg: That must have been very interesting.

Huddleston: Yeah, it was. I was the mother of all of them and still am to three of them. When they have problems, they call me. Three of them have passed away.

Weisenberg: For people who aren’t from around here, could you describe where Windrock is?

Huddleston: It’s about eight miles to the lower part of it. There was an upper part, too. You know, you had to go up the mountain to get there. That’s where I was born, at the top of it. 

Weisenberg: Can you tell me a little bit about what your childhood was like, what some of your memories from your childhood are?

Huddleston: How far back?

Weisenberg: As far back as you would like to go.

Huddleston: I would have to think just a minute. I know there are a lot of things I had to do, a lot of work, because we had eleven cows. It was my job to milk five of them from the time I was about six years old until I was eighteen. I helped my father on the farm. I helped him plant the seed in the spring. I helped him gather them. Then we went to church as a family. I took part in the church. My father was the choir director. I sang in the choir then. After I got through elementary school, I went to high school. At that time, they didn’t have a bus that ran, so my father had to make    arrangements for me to go to high school. By the time I was a senior though, they had a bus that ran.

At that time, we lived at the lower part of the mountain. I was always interested in helping others. I always wanted to help children that couldn’t do things, to help them be able to achieve it. My desire from as far back as I can remember was to teach school. 

I had teachers and they always assigned me children to help. I really wanted to do it. For some reason, they decided when I was in the third grade that I didn’t need to go to the fourth, because I had already taught half of them. So, I was passed to the fifth. Then, when I got promoted to the eighth grade, they decided that I needed to go to high school because I had already done the work of the eighth grade.

To me, that was a mistake. I loved learning. I still do. I like  to learn new things. But socially, when I got in high school, everybody was older than me. It was a problem, but I had to learn to adjust to it because my father was real proud of me, and my mother thought it was great. But to me it wasn’t, you know? I got adjusted. I went on and I graduated from high school. After I got through high school, I went to summer school at the University of Tennessee with my teacher.

Guess what? In September, I was asked if I would go teach at the top of the mountain, grades four through eight. I had them all in one room. I had boys in my eighth grade that were older than I was. But they respected me because, then, parents really got them if they didn’t respect their teachers. Later, those boys became some of my best friends. 

I have to add this. Not too long ago, I was on the river at Oak Ridge here, eating at a restaurant. Somebody that knew my brother came over and patted me on the shoulder and said, “Say, aren’t you Ruth Sisson, used to be?”

I looked at the man, and I said, “Yes, sir.”

He said, “Do you know that you were my fourth-grade teacher? 

That was such a blessing because a lot of them have passed on. But I taught. I accepted that position. You had to ride up a man-car, they called it, to get up to the top of the mountain. Thirty-two miners rode up that man-car with me every morning and back that evening. Then, it was kind of a hardship, but I adjusted to it. I would have time in the afternoon to visit the parents. I think back now, and I wonder what they thought of somebody not quite seventeen years old teaching their kids. I kept thinking about it. I thought, “Now when this year is over, I am not going to teach until I am qualified.” But then I got me a job in the hosiery mill. Do you want me to tell what happened after that?

Weisenberg: Sure, please do.

Huddleston: After I went to work in the hosiery mill,  I had been working a while. Everybody was applying at Oak Ridge for jobs. One day, two or three of the girls said, “Why don’t you go down and apply?”

I said “I think I will, but first, I’ve got to talk to my father about it,” because I didn’t have a way to go, you know. My father went with me and he applied, too. We both got the jobs. I started working at Oak Ridge. That was when I became a cubicle operator, that’s what we called it, but now it’s a “Calutron girl.” This was quite an experience. It was different from anything I had ever done, but it was an experience.

Weisenberg: You and your father, would you commute to Oak Ridge together?

Huddleston: At that time, we did. Shortly after we both went to work, we were on different shifts. They started running a bus up to where we lived. At that time, we didn’t live on the top of the mountain. We had a place there at the lower part of it. At first, I was reluctant about that bus because it was like a cattle car. It was a hook down to the back. We had to ride in that cattle car. Of course, they had seats on each side of it. We got to know a lot of people on our way. It was about eight miles, and we rode it.

When we got to the entrance, we had to stop at the gate. Guards got on. They checked us real well, okayed everything. We had to show our badges. Then we went on to “the portal,” we called it, where we went to work and got off of the bus. When we got off of the bus, they checked us as we got off, they checked us as we went in. That’s when we faced the mud. They had made us some walkways—you had to be real careful because they were narrow—to keep from going in all muddy.

I don’t know how many weeks now that we had to train, and then we were ready. But when we were trained is when they gave us what we had to do, the information. First thing they said, they told us that we were all supposed to leave everything that happened there. We didn’t tell anybody what we did. They meant it. They told us the consequences, the fines, and if they caught us doing something, you would be automatically discharged. Of course, if you wanted to stay you better do that, too.

I know my son likes to tell about one of my granddaughters that’s in Georgia. They gave her an assignment one day about to report on Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They were up to see me, and she was talking about her assignments. “I have got an assignment about Oak Ridge, Tennessee.” 

I said, “I worked there during the war.”

She looked at me because I had never told them anything. They just thought I had been teaching school all that time, but I got to help her firsthand with a lot of her information, which was a treat for her.

Back to when I got cleared to go to work, they took us to this room, and it was filled with what we called cubicles. That was a big apparatus. It was metal. It had all kinds of gauges and meters, all that you had to learn to operate. They told us when it got out of hand, if it went over too far to the right, we had to adjust it to get it back where it’s supposed to be. It went too far to the left, we had to adjust it. Sometimes you couldn’t adjust it. Sometimes you just had to sit there and fool with it. But if you couldn’t, we had a supervisor to come and help us. We both called him, and he came and helped us – or she came. Sometimes you had to shut it down. But we weren’t supposed to tell anybody that we operated those at any time. If anybody asked you what you did over there, we just—I never did answer them, really, because I didn’t know, really.

A few days ago, my daughter asked me this question. She said, “Didn’t you ever think about that thing blowing up if you didn’t get it where you wanted it?”

I said, “Well, sure I thought of that.”  But you just thought and that was all.

Weisenberg: What motivated you to work at Oak Ridge?

Huddleston: At that time, I was kind of curious what kind of jobs they were getting. I thought, “Well, I want something a little better than what I am doing.” So, I just did it. Curious, I guess.

Weisenberg: When you were at the cubicle, were you just sitting on a stool during your shift?

Huddleston: A stool, yes. You had to sit there all day. You didn’t get off too much except to go to the bathroom or to get your drink, because you were afraid to leave it. Just like that it was “out of order,” we would call it.

Weisenberg: How long were your shifts?

Huddleston: Oh, eight hours. We worked rotating shifts, 7:00 to 3:00 and 3:00 to 11:00 and 11:00 to 7:00. We rotated all the time. Sometimes, we worked more than eight hours, especially the last.

Weisenberg: Did anyone explain to you why you were working the extra hours?

Huddleston: No. They just asked us how many of us would be available to work extra hours and everybody was available on my shifts. I think that Ray [Smith] told me there was 22,000 of us on all different shifts.

Weisenberg: Do you remember how many other women would be working with you at the same time?

Huddleston: You mean in that one room?

Weisenberg: Yeah.

Huddleston: There was about twenty of us or thirty of us, I don’t remember for sure. I don’t know if I ever counted them really. You just got your place and stayed there.

Weisenberg: What were your interactions with some of the other people who were in Oak Ridge like? What did you talk about? What did you do?

Huddleston: We just talked about things we did, you know. You know, I have thought about this specially since I started being interviewed. I’ve thought, why didn’t we ever wonder what we were doing? To each other, you know. Why didn’t we talk about it?

I don’t remember ever even saying “I wonder what we are doing.” I don’t remember ever asking anybody that. But I met some real nice people and they were from everywhere. Most of them were eighteen or nineteen years old.

Weisenberg: At this point, did you live in Oak Ridge or were you still commuting from Oliver Springs?

Huddleston: At that time, I was still coming from Oliver Springs. I was still at home.

Weisenberg: What were your impressions of Oak Ridge? You mentioned the mud. Was there a lot of construction? Going around, did it seem like a very busy place?

Huddleston: It sure was. There was construction everywhere. I lived here before they had Oak Ridge, before they started it. I know what it looked like. It was more or less farms, beautiful farms, and pretty homes. If you went to Clinton, Tennessee, you had to go right through where Oak Ridge is right now. It was amazing to see how quick they would get things built. But I did live in Oak Ridge later.  

My husband-to-be was in Germany. He was in World War II. After he came back, and we got married, we lived in Oak Ridge in a trailer. You had to apply. That’s where you started living. We lived in a flat top after we got in the trailer. Then we applied and got a TDU, what they call it, two apartments.

Weisenberg: What was your husband’s name?

Huddleston: My husband’s name? Lawrence Huddleston.

Weisenberg: You were working as a cubicle operator in 1944 and 1945. Did they just tell you that you were working on something for the war effort, and they didn’t give you any more specifics than that? Did you have a sense that what you were working on was going to be used in some way?

Huddleston: For the war?

Weisenberg: Yeah.

Huddleston: That’s what we thought. They didn’t say it would be used. We would be helping win the war, but we didn’t know what on earth we would be helping do.

Weisenberg: Do you remember where you were when you heard about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Huddleston: Yes, I was at work and they announced it, you know. At first you were glad to think the war was over. The first thing I thought was “my boyfriend will be home.”

Then I got to thinking, they start telling all the people that were killed over there. It made you think of something else, that I had a part in it, because that’s what they told us. They said it’s been dropped there, and then they said so many thousands or a million or whatever—I don’t remember. Anyway, I didn’t much like that idea that I had a part in it. But you know, war is war. Ain’t nothing you can do about it but try to stop it.

I still don’t like the idea, you know. But you’ve got to do it. Somebody does.

Weisenberg: How did you think working on the Manhattan Project has affected or influenced your life?

Huddleston: Affected my life? One thing: if somebody tells you something and tells you not to tell it, you are not supposed to tell it, so I don’t. I am much more prone to not tell anything than I used to be. I guess it’s just a habit that I learned. It showed me how easy progress can destroy a whole place, the whole communities, several communities that it destroyed. 

It made so many older people unhappy. My father-in-law, I never did know him, but they built Norris Dam. Well, he had to move from his home he had worked for. He bought a home down on the river right outside Oak Ridge. Well, he had to move from that, and he didn’t live long after that. It made him real sad. Not that that killed him, but still, I think from what I heard, it had a part in worrying him to death, you know. We just have to realize that when you have progress, things change, and we have to change with it.

Weisenberg: When did you stop working at Oak Ridge?

Huddleston: In ’45. I didn’t get laid off. They laid off a lot of them, but I didn’t. I quit because I got married, and my husband didn’t want me to work there. I never did know why, but he didn’t. But he started working there. 

Weisenberg: Then you became a teacher again, is that right?

Huddleston: Oh, yes. I decided if I wasn’t going to work, I was going to go back to school. I thought about it and thought about it. In the meantime, I had a son four years after I was married. After he was born, he was sick all the time, and the doctor told us to get out of Oak Ridge because at that time, everybody had coal smoke, and he was allergic to it. So we built us a house out in the country in Coalfield, Tennessee.

They found out that I’d taught school a year. One of the teachers had to take a leave, and she recommended me to finish her year. So that gave me the idea, “I am going back to school.” I finished her year, and in the meantime, I started going to night classes at the University of Tennessee. I continued on until I got my degree. I started teaching first grade, and I taught it eight years. The superintendent wanted to know if I would like to go to high school and I said yes. So I did.

Then when I got into high school teaching, I decided that I was going to get my master’s degree. I went summer and everything. My husband kept pushing me, because he had these breathing and stomach problems from the war, they said. You know, nervousness and everything. Anyway, he encouraged me: “You go ahead and get that.” And so I did. I got my master’s. I got it, and what I really wanted to do was be a guidance counselor. I was a counselor for 35 years, 29 in one school and six in the other. I did that until I retired. I retired in ’89. 

In the meantime, my husband died. He died after I got into counseling. So, I thought, liking to learn like I did, I thought, “I don’t know why I can’t work on my doctorate degree.”

In the meantime, my daughter got married. She had a little girl and another little girl. About halfway through it, I was enjoying those little girls so much, and I just thought—I was getting older, you know—“Now, what is the use of me learning all this? I mean, going to school now and spending all this money when I could be enjoying those kids.” 

That’s exactly what I did. I retired early, and I have enjoyed them, all of them. I’ve got one boy and five girls besides my great grandchildren—and I’ve got a bunch of them. I’ve got nine. I’ve been retired now ever since ’89. I’ve been a widow for 46 years. I think I’ve lived a good life. I have been happy. That’s the main thing.

Weisenberg: Is there anything else you would like to share? Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that I should have asked you?   

Huddleston: I went into labor two days before the gate opened to Oak Ridge. You had to have a pass to get in and everything. I thought well, “why couldn’t it have been a little bit later? I mean, wait a little while and let him be born the first baby!”  

They kept me in the hospital with this wild blood pressure. The nurses told me the next morning he was born a few minutes before midnight. They said, “Well, he didn’t make it to see Marie McDonald.” She was a movie star at that time. She said he was born so many minutes before they opened the gate.

Lanny Huddleston: I like to say they had they a parade for me after I was born. [Laughter]

Ruth: Yeah, they had a big parade for him, for me. The vice president was there and all those people. Yeah, he likes to tell people that. That’s something I don’t think he knew until all of this started. I learned to keep my mouth shut, you know. [Laughter] 

Lanny Huddleston: Something that she won’t tell you, but I was a teacher. My sister was a teacher. All three of my sister’s daughters are teachers.

Ruth: Well, four of them. One of them is a dance teacher.

Lanny: One of them is a dancer.

Huddleston: The others are teachers. One of them has her doctor’s degree and one of them has her master’s. They have all followed in my footsteps.

Weisenberg: A whole family of teachers.

Huddleston: I had three brothers that were teachers.

Lanny: Because she has inspired all of her younger brothers to go to school, get education. I was pushed to do it— 

Huddleston: Well, I wanted him to do it, and I knew that they were capable. Now, I’ve got a great-grandson that graduates this year. I started on him, but I am not encouraging him to be a teacher.

Huddleston: I didn’t encourage them. I didn’t. In fact, I tried to get him to do some other things, figured he would make more money, but—

Lanny: It’s true.

Huddleston: I started teaching school at $78 a month.

Weisenberg: Seventy-eight dollars a month in 1944? Is that right?

Huddleston: 1943.

Weisenberg: ’43.

Huddleston: But you know, it went a long ways then. I can’t visualize it now.