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Local shares memories of 'Secret City'
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A changing of the shifts at The Secret City in Oak Ridge. Alta Mae “Grace” Stembridge McMahan spent three years working alongside these women.

It has been 75 years since the end of World War II.

Sept. 2, 2020 marked the 75th commemoration of the end of a war that took the lives of over 405,000 U.S. military personnel. In 1945 on that day, Japan surrounded to the United States. 

Alta Mae “Grace” McMahan, 95, remembers the celebration that ensued. 

“They told us that the war was over and we celebrated,” said McMahan, whose maiden name was Stembridge. “I’m sure every American did. It was a happy time. Then, they told us our job was over. We questioned what we were supposed to do, and they said ‘go home’ so we went.” 

The Warren County native was among the 75,000 people who relocated to Oak Ridge for a job and seven from this community. The town offered seven theaters, 17 restaurants and 13 supermarkets. It was established in 1942 and was the production site for the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. 

McMahan was 17 years old when she moved to the secret city of Oak Ridge. This is her story.

“We didn’t know what we were doing at that time. We didn’t know we were helping to build the atomic bomb. All we were told was that it paid well. I was 17 years old and needed to help mom and dad. I was working local jobs, but this paid more so I went.”

In 1942, minimum wage was 30 cents. Salary at Oak Ridge was 79 cents an hour. 

She was assigned to the Y-12 uranium enrichment facility and was a calutron operator. Calutrons were used to refine uranium ore into fissile material. Operators monitored the machines. 

“My job was to monitor the meters. Some would read high and some would read low. I had to know what a good reading was and what we needed to keep an eye on. So, that’s what I did. We were forbidden to talk to each other about what we did. Everything was top secret. My girlfriend that went with me, we didn’t even talk about it in our room at night. We were afraid the walls had ears and someone was listening. They cautioned us that this was secret stuff.”

Signs and billboards were placed around the town that reminded workers to not speak about what they were doing, a warning that some did not take seriously.

“If you talked or asked questions, they sent you home. One day someone was there and the next day they were gone. We didn’t know why, but we assumed they talked. I needed the money to send home, so I didn’t talk to anyone about what I was doing.”

McMahan lived at Oak Ridge for three years.

“It wasn’t until after the bombs were dropped that we were told what we were actually doing at Oak Ridge. We helped to create the atomic bombs. I think we were all shocked. We just didn’t know. When they used it, the war was over. We didn’t know it at the time, when the war ended, so did our jobs.”

Bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagaski on Aug. 9 of 1945. 

Upon returning to Warren County, she returned to behind the counter at The Pan-Am Grill at the Greyhound Bus Station. 

“I left the restaurant and went to Oak Ridge. When I returned, I went right back into the restaurant. I spent most of my life there behind that counter. I guess nobody but me could do it. I was a beauty operator (cosmetologist), too.”

Life in Warren County was different in the 1930s when McMahan was a child. Her first job was at The Brown Hotel. 

“I took a notion that I needed to work to help my mother and daddy. I rode to town with a man who owned a service station. I got out when we got to The Brown Hotel. I walked over to the door and knocked. Somebody came to the door, and I said ‘I want a job.’ He grabbed me and off he went with me. He marched through there and told them to go get me an apron and stuff. That was it. I went to work. I worked at the hotel for a long time. I had several jobs like that. I worked everywhere.”

Children didn’t have the luxury of being bused to school.

“I walked to school. I crossed a swinging bridge. I carried my socks and shoes. I went barefooted until I got behind the school. It was a muddy road and that’s what I had to do. I rinsed my feet off in the water in the ditch and wiped them off with a rag that I carried. I put my socks and shoes on and went onto school.”

Today, McMahan resides at NHC Nursing Home and maintains her sense of humor. 

 “I was 21 years old last year,” McMahan said, with a sly grin after being asked her age. “You’re laughing, so you don’t believe me. I guess I’ve been several 21s. I was born June 1, 1925.”

McMahan reminisces about her time at Oak Ridge – not because she helped create the atomic bomb, but because she helped financially support her family. 

“I went away to work at Oak Ridge to help my mom and dad. My daddy would really bragged on me because I was sending money home to them. My name was Alta, but my daddy always called me Alt. He said, “Alt, I’ve always heard that children never pay for their raising, but you’re one that has.” I felt good that he would brag on me for what I had done for them.” 

Oak Ridge was chosen for the Manhattan Project due to its remote location and perfect population size, among other aspects. Many books have been written and documentaries created about "The Secret City."