Secrets of the Manhattan Project, Part 1

By Ray Smith, Y-12 Historian

As early as November 1942, when construction of Oak Ridge first began with the Administration Building, this area was known as the Clinton Engineer Works and was the first site selected for the Manhattan Project.

Some News Travels Slowly

It was not until July 1943 that Prentice Cooper, governor of Tennessee, was officially notified that nearly 60,000 acres of the state had been taken by the federal government. Even then he was not told the purpose.

General Leslie Groves had told Colonel Kenneth Nichols to notify the Governor. Nichols sent an Army lieutenant to Nashville to deliver a copy of the presidential proclamation making the area a military district not subject to state control.

Another secret of the Clinton Engineer Works was the use of the word “uranium.” That word was classified. You could not say it.

German Spies on American Soil

There were several spies known to have been active during the Manhattan Project. German spies were put ashore in New York and in Florida in 1942. The group that landed in Florida proceeded to Cincinnati, where they were to meet with the group that landed in New York. However, the New York group had been captured and confessed, even telling details of the other group. Members of both groups were executed.

Although these German spies passed through East Tennessee, they did so before the Clinton Engineer Works was located here. There were spies in Oak Ridge. Al Slack and George Koval worked here, and Klaus Fuchs may have visited.

The Venona Project

The Venona Project was implemented in February 1943 by the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service to examine communications looking for espionage efforts. Many spies were found through this initiative, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. However, that information was kept secret until July 1995, when the first 49 messages about the Soviets’ efforts to gain information on the Manhattan Project were released.

Two former FBI agents were assigned to Y-12 during the Manhattan Project. They were sent to Oak Ridge to see if there was sabotage involved in the failure of the Calutrons when they were first started up in Alpha 1.

They did not find evidence of sabotage, but they continued to work in Y-12 until the end of the war. No one ever suspected that they were FBI agents.