The Manhattan Project

Helen Jernigan's Interview

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Helen Jernigan was a young woman when she was offered a job working in the recreational facilities in Oak Ridge. Eventually, she moved on to become editor of the local newspaper, Carbide Courier. Jernigan recalls the nightlife young men and women were encouraged to participate in as a break from life in the secret city.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 6, 2013
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge

Cindy Kelly: My name is Kelly. I am with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. And I am in Oak Ridge, Tennessee today, which is Friday, September 6, 2013. And we are very fortunate today to have Helen Jernigan. And I am going to start by asking Helen to say her name and spell it.

Helen Jernigan: Jernigan. H-E-L-E-N, J-E-R-N-I-G-A-N.

Kelly: Very good. Helen is living in Oak Ridge and she came here during the Manhattan Project. But I want her to start and just tell us a little bit about where she was born, what her birthdate was, and a little bit of her childhood before she got to Oak Ridge.

Jernigan: I was born on July 31, 1925 in Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, which is in Cumberland County, an almost adjoining county to Anderson on the Cumberland Plateau on a farm. And I was just finished my first year in college at Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens, Tennessee when I first came to Oak Ridge. And the reason I came here was with a folk dancing group from Pleasant Hill to entertain at the opening of the Happy Valley Theater. And the Happy Valley Theater was located at the site of the construction of K-25.

Kelly: Can you describe Happy Valley?

Jernigan: It is almost beyond description; Happy Valley is, almost beyond description. It was construction workers and traders and perhaps some other small housing. But I lived in a dormitory, which they called “barracks.” I lived in Barracks Number 11. And this was inhabited by—it was an H-shaped building with men on one side, women on the other. No keys, no locks on the doors. 

No problems because the area was so heavily policed and there was no crime, no crime allowed. And I felt perfectly safe. A little confused because I did not know where I was. I did not know Oak Ridge, Tennessee. At that point, I did not know that name.

But I think the residents themselves, I believe, the construction workers, had named it Happy Valley, maybe sort of in sarcasm. I am not sure. But it was Happy Valley and it had thirteen thousand people living there. Bigger population than the city of Clinton. And Oak Ridge was farther to the east, and of course, the thing most people are familiar with, the history of that whole Oak Ridge project. But Happy Valley was just construction, which went on day and night – bright lights, spotlights on poles and music blaring and activity everywhere all the time.

Kelly: So I am following you, I am watching you dance your folk dance, and then what happened?

Jernigan: Oh, when we came to perform, our fellow performers were Grand Ole Opry stars. And I do not remember all of them but I remember Sam and Kirk McGee, the boys from Tennessee – guitar and mandolin. And they were an act that was famous for years and they shared the stage with us. And I accompanied this team of folk dancers on a piano, which was conveniently there. This was the regular movie theater and there were also, in addition to the theater, the whole amenities were there. There was a post office, a bank, a supermarket, drugstore, and the place where I later worked. Based on our performance that night, I was offered a job. 

And I remember the contractor, subcontractor, who had offered the job had the management of these other facilities – the theater and the recreational facilities. The main recreational facility was called “Coney Island” and it was an arcade with basketball goals and you shot rifles and won prizes, won teddy bears, and won dolls and things like that. And our main prize, which I will tell you later in the story – or maybe right now – was cigarettes. Cigarettes were rationed at that time but not at Coney Island. We had plenty of cigarettes. And I later find out that they were black market cigarettes and the FBI came and got my boss for trafficking in black market material.

By this time, I was safely back in college and not there. But I was young enough to be worried that the FBI would come after me somehow. That was a concern for a little while.

The facilities were just amazing. There was a bowling alley and a duckpin alley and everything we needed in the city. So I never left except a couple of times to come to Jackson Square, which was like going to another city, another town. And it was interesting and I had to have a badge to get – there was this checkpoint between Happy Valley and the main Oak Ridge.

Kelly: So would you say it is about ten miles between?

Jernigan: Yes, about ten miles between Happy Valley and the main part of Oak Ridge.

Kelly: So how long were you there?

Jernigan: Just for the summer at that first time. And then when I had finished the next year of college, I came back to work at K-25 and the facilities were all gone. I mean, they had razed all the buildings and it was just a peaceful area with a pond and fish and lilies, and it was unbelievable. At times, I thought I had dreamed the whole earlier experience. It was so strange to see all that gone and instead was the now administration building there and the huge K-25 building that is so famous.

Kelly: It must have been a shock. I cannot imagine.

Jernigan: And so that began my second phase in Oak Ridge—and now I call it Oak Ridge—and I worked in the recreation department there. And Union Carbide Corporation managed that facility at that time and provided all kinds of recreation for all these young people who were inhabiting Oak Ridge. And we had horseback riding and golf and swimming and every activity you can imagine – horseshoes even. 

And part of my unofficial work in the recreation department there was to encourage this and to attend all these things. So I rode horses and played golf and all those things – sometimes grudgingly. Sometimes it was not my thing [laugh]. I did it to encourage people. 

And I worked, my main job was as editor of the Carbide Courier, which was the plant newspaper. And there were two of us. Actually, I was an associate editor. And you may have, at other times, heard of Thomas X.F. McCarthy, who was the actual editor at that time from Brooklyn, and loved being in Tennessee, as many people who were transplanted here learned to love it.

So we were a weekly paper. We had to be printed in Knoxville. So we went to Knoxville every Friday to print the Carbide Courier. And I should have brought a copy. But that was an interesting job that I had for several years. And I was single and lived in dormitories – various dormitories – increasingly closer to the center of town. So I wound up at Carlyle Hall, which was just right in the center near Jackson Square.

Kelly: Okay, maybe we should go back to Happy Valley a minute more. So there are thirteen thousand people there.

You know, it was heaven for a single girl.

Kelly: So what was the ratio? Were there more men than women or women than men?

Jernigan: Well, probably men than women. Certainly, I believe so. A lot of the single women lived in the area and came in to work from the surrounding area. And then there were a lot of us single women who lived in dormitories here who were from other places. And I used to go home every weekend – or not every weekend, but occasionally. There were buses. Buses went everywhere, free buses. 

Kelly: So did you manage to hold out all those years with all these men, or did you succumb?

Jernigan: [Laugh] I held out. And in later years, I moved into a house. Houses were for married people but I joined a group of nurses who had been given special dispensation because they were nurses in a D house, which was a three-bedroom, two-bath house – a nice house on Taylor Road in Oak Ridge. So I lived there with them for some years and then I married.

Kelly: Mr. Jernigan? 

Jernigan: No [laugh]. I married Ed Fairstein, who was an electronics engineer, and we have had two children. And then I married Harold Jernigan, who was also a native Tennessean, in 1972. 

Kelly: So at any rate, so how old were you when you first came to Happy Valley and were playing the piano that summer?

Jernigan: I was nineteen. In Happy Valley, I had my nineteenth birthday.

As a child, I had studied piano. And I majored in Music and English in college, at Tennessee Wesleyan College. 

Kelly: So both majors came in very handy for you.

Jernigan: Very handy. They came in very handy.

Kelly: You said that during the time you were at Happy Valley that there was construction going twenty-four hours a day. Was there entertainment going twenty-four hours a day for people getting off shifts?

Jernigan: Entertainment stopped at midnight. The construction went on around the clock.

Kelly: Was it close enough that when you were trying to sleep you could hear the banging?

Jernigan: In recent years, I have pondered whether I could sleep through all this and apparently, I could, because I do not remember any insomnia from those years. Or maybe at two o’clock in the morning, maybe they turned the sound off. I am not sure what happened. But it seemed to me, my perception was that this all – certainly the light part – it was lit all night long.

Kelly: So what time did your shift start?

Jernigan: I am sorry?

Kelly: What time did you start work?

Jernigan: Well, my starting time for work was varied. It was probably about ten o’clock in the morning when I started. I was supposed to be a bookkeeper, which I had never really done. But they had to give me something to do besides Coney Island. So I kept rudimentary books and tried to keep my boss from paying out of his pocket. When deliveries would arrive, he would reach for his billfold and I would say, “No, no, we have a checkbook and you are not supposed to do that.” So he cooperated. 

Kelly: Is this the same boss that was getting cigarettes on the black market?

Jernigan: [Laugh] Yes.

Kelly: Hmm, aha. [laughter] At any rate, so I just think it sounds like a lot of fun.

Jernigan: It was. It was lots of fun and I like remembering it now, since people ask me about it. Because there were not many of us who lived at Happy Valley who wound up living in Oak Ridge apparently. All these construction workers may have gone to other jobs in other parts of the United States. And I am sure they did not remain here, many of them. And as you know, Colleen Black and her family lived at K-25. And they, and maybe half a dozen people, are the only people that I know who actually lived at the K-25 construction site in Happy Valley.

Kelly: Of the thirteen thousand.

Jernigan: Mm hmm.

Kelly: Great. So then you finished another year of college. Now that was not the end of it but you just—

Jernigan: It was. We will not call it dropped out, but I did not continue.

Kelly: And they hired you back at Coney Island for the next year?

Jernigan: No.

Kelly: Oh, no.

Jernigan: No, this Coney Island was gone. All traces of Happy Valley were gone. This was like a new place entirely with all the new office buildings and the new large K-25 famous horseshoe building. And it was like starting—like I had never been there.

Kelly: And your dormitory, was that in the east, what is now the K-25 area? Or is it further away? When you came back.

Jernigan: The summer that I spent at K-25 in Happy Valley, there were several barracks at various locations. One was near the powerhouse and there were – I do not know – perhaps eight such dormitories. And actually, I was progressively moved toward the center, which was the center of the commercial area at Coney Island.  

Kelly: Was it as big and developed as Coney Island?

Jernigan: Oh, no, no. It was administration for the recreation department and the main part of Oak Ridge was office buildings and administration building. And I worked, actually, it was a smaller building called the Labor Relations Building and that is where they did things like handling deferments for people who were about to be drafted or who were already drafted to work there because it was such high priority that that came first. And with all of the special engineering detachment people, they were administered from there, as well, I think.

Kelly: Your office was beside the Labor Relations office. What were labor relations like in Oak Ridge?

Jernigan: When I came, actually before I started to work for the Carbide Courier, I was in a small office handling deferments, the paperwork for draft deferments in that office. And there was a labor attorney who shared that office with me and several other people who I suppose took care of union negotiations and matters of that kind.

Kelly: Would you say, just from your observation that things worked pretty smoothly? Or were there tensions in the labor force?

Jernigan: I think not. Union recruiters were allowed to come inside our building, I know I remember. Because I remember one particularly aggressive young woman following me into the restroom. But I think they were peaceful and there certainly were no union, anything like union protest or strikes during that period because everybody was so intent on helping bring the war to an end, whatever we were doing, that the relationship was harmonious. But there was a staff of, I would say, about five people who were experts in labor relations, including the attorney that shared my office. 

But I think everything was quite peaceful. The only thing that they did want to recruit office members – I mean, people who were not actually doing physical kind of stuff, labor. I was being so well treated that I did not join in the effort to organize the people in the office, although my sympathies are with labor.

Kelly: Among the laborers were a number of Afro-Americans who were recruited for the project, I understand. Did you come in contact with the African-Americans that worked on the project? And how was that?

Jernigan: I did not come in contact with African-American people but at Happy Valley, I saw American Indian people who had been recruited from New Mexico or the Southwest as riggers. And riggers have to go in high places. And American Indians – I do not know if this is folklore or fact – but they are famed for being able to be in very high places without fear and with excellent balance. So with that in mind, they had recruited all these American Indians and they, at night, the young men, they were all very young men, would say things to us girls. They would say, “Me scalp ‘em.” [Laughter]

Kelly: To try to scare you, huh? [Laughter]

Jernigan: And so it was all great fun. But I do not remember many African-American employees. I had never thought of that before.

Kelly: Well, you know, this is the first I have heard of Native Americans working at Oak Ridge. That is very, very interesting. Very interesting. Did they perform any ceremonial dances or music?

Jernigan: They did not perform any ceremonial dances or music. They mostly just romped through their in their blue jeans just like everybody else. But they stood out because of their appearance and because of their friendliness. They were very friendly.

Kelly: Great, that is great. Were there any Hispanics that you can think of? 

Jernigan: I do not remember any Hispanic people. 

Kelly: What was the average age, or what was the mix of ages?

Jernigan: Those people who actually lived on the site were, I would say, all under thirty. They had been, youngest age range may have been younger than that. And the people who worked in our little recreational group at Coney Island and the bowling alley and the theater and all the workers who manned those activities were mostly teenagers. I believe that I was the oldest teenager in the group who worked for my boss who managed the recreational facilities.

Kelly: Were some of these other youngsters or teenagers children of construction workers?

Jernigan: No.

Kelly: No?

Jernigan: Mr. Rue asked me to recruit some more from Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. So I did. I brought a cousin and her girlfriend there and they came and worked there for that same summer. And he had brought from his hometown, which was Shelbyville between Nashville and Memphis, he had brought his son and several teenagers from there. So it did not take much experience to do what we did. [Laugh]

Kelly: So you basically sold tickets and ran the games.

Jernigan: Yes, we sold tickets and ran the games.

Kelly: And this lasted until about midnight, you say, every night?

Jernigan: Yes. It was well populated.

Kelly: Okay. What about security clearance? Did you and your cousin and friends have to go through a security clearance?

Jernigan: We all had to go through security clearance and security was very strict. I had invited, at one point, friends from college to come and visit me. So I borrowed mattresses from empty rooms in the dormitory where I lived – or barracks they call it. And the next day, I think the next day after they left, people that I assumed and I believed were FBI people, some sort of security officers, came and said that I have moved government property. And I explained but they said they were supposed to do that. They were supposed to charge me with moving government property. So I moved the government property back to the rooms where it belonged. There were mattresses, two mattresses. And I did not have to go to jail [laugh].

Kelly: Goodness.

Jernigan: Security was very tight.

Kelly: Indeed.

Jernigan: And when I came to work in Oak Ridge proper, my habits were such that I was not careful about having my badge all the time. And sometimes I would get all the way to work and not have my badge so I was continually being scolded for not doing that. I finally shaped up but it took a while to know that you must have your badge all the time. 

Kelly: So in addition to the FBI, there was also a military police force?

Jernigan: I am not sure who these security people were. We just called them, broadly, the FBI because we knew that acronym [laugh] and we assumed that they were, they did not seem to be local guard type people. The guards mostly man the gates, the respective gates, and they would work inside. Military police, I think, were there sometimes. So it may have been military police, it may have been a different kind of security guard.

Kelly: Were you aware of any people or any incidents where somebody was removed from the project because of leaking secrets or whatever?

Jernigan: I knew one man at Happy Valley who was removed because of bootlegging. And perhaps he was removed for going armed because in the ceiling of his car, he had a gun in there. And he suddenly disappeared. He lived in the barracks next to me and I talked to him frequently. And suddenly, he was not there anymore and I think he did not anticipate departure. I think he was deported [laugh].

Kelly: So it may have been the bootlegging. And also were arms not allowed?

Jernigan: No, arms were certainly not allowed. And neither were alcoholic beverages. And of course, there are many stories about how people got alcoholic beverages from outside and smuggle them in, hidden in all sorts of places like baby diaper bags and things like that.

Kelly: I did not know about that either. So you did not even have a weak beer available?

Jernigan: A what?

Kelly: A beer or something like that?

Jernigan: No, there was no beer.

Kelly: Was that true for the entire reservation the entire war?

Jernigan: It was true for the entire reservation and also Clinton was dry. So one had to go to Chattanooga or Oakdale, which is to the northwest of Oak Ridge near Harriman. And they briefly had legal liquor there so there were frequent trips to other places to transport whiskey. And I think that the stories about moonshine – you know, homemade whiskey – I think with apologies to Denise [Kiernan], that did not happen. We were getting regular whiskey, you know, conventional brands from these places. This stuff that we brought in was not moonshine. That is a different story. There were people who made moonshine who lived in this area outside Oak Ridge. And once in a while, somebody would show up with always a fruit jar. It had to be in a fruit jar to be conventional folkloric moonshine. But that was rare. Mostly, these were regular whiskeys and wines.

Kelly: Interesting. How about the chemists? Do you know about the chemists who were using laboratory alcohol to spike up the punch?

Jernigan: Yes [laugh].

Kelly: Yes?

Jernigan: Yes. Some laboratory chemists were bringing home lab alcohol and we mixed that with fruit juice in a punchbowl and drank it and we called it Purple Jesus [laugh]. And it was lethal stuff, which I partook of that very cautiously.

Kelly: That is probably why you are here [laughter].

Jernigan: My liver is intact [laughter].

Kelly: Can be dangerous. So can you tell us more about your work then on the paper and the – What kinds of stories did the paper run?

Jernigan: Sports, a lot of sports stories. And messages from the Union Carbide management and stories about events like they organized quickly. I think they were very wise in having a lot of recreational activities for these young people very quickly. And there were stories about the kinds of things you could learn or attend if you wanted to learn to play bridge or you wanted music appreciation – everything – many, many activities. And there were stories about them. And I did a column in the paper. I did book reviews and I did interviews with management people. And somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that we should not just be writing about managerial employees. So I think I broke the mold a little bit by interviewing a few regular people but that had not happened before so I was pleased that they would let me do that.

We did pretty much what we wanted to do with the paper but it had to be reviewed by security before we printed it.

Kelly: So what were some of the topics that were off limits that you could not write about?

Jernigan: Well, I reviewed a book called – I do not remember – something in the Commissar, which was a book about socialism and communism. And I do not remember the content of the book but somebody nixed that. Otherwise, I wrote about ordinary books and bestsellers and things like that and a few human-interest stories. Pictures, of course, we had a photographer assigned to us and stories about the various components of the whole plant, the whole K-25. K-25 was the name of the whole site and the big building there was also referred to as the K-25 building because it was the cornerstone building, if you will. And so there were various departments that we wrote about, the work that they did. Never getting close to anything secretive, you know, the steam plant and the things that make a regular plant operate.

Kelly: Were you impressed by the size of the operation and all the different facilities?

Jernigan: Yes. 

Kelly: Can you say that?

Jernigan: Most of us thought that it was a weapons manufacturer of some kind but we were thinking bullets and we were thinking missiles and we were thinking, of course, did not think of what it was. We were satisfied with that and not too curious. We were satisfied with our impression that it was for the manufacture of weapons, probably some sort of bullet kind of weapons, and did not inquire further, at least the people I associated with. Maybe others did have more curiosity but that was enough – the fact that it was for the war effort and that we were doing something. 

And also, I remember it was following the Depression, not too long before, and people were glad to get jobs. I mean, there were many people who had the attitude of patriotism but there were many people for whom it was the best job they ever had. So many people in that age group, it may have been the first job they ever had. So there was not a lot of curiosity about what we were doing there.

Kelly: And of course, any curiosity was discouraged.

Jernigan: Right. Never talked about it at parties or gatherings. Never talked, you just talked about what you – you did not talk about your day’s work, that you were glad to be off work like any young people. And that was it. I think that young engineers probably talked maybe – of course, gave more thought to what we were doing but they never talked about it in social situations.

Kelly: So do you think that most people were pretty well adjusted? Or can you remember examples of very young people away from home for the first time who might have been uneasy?

Jernigan: They were very well adjusted. Some of my girlfriends had sweethearts or even husbands overseas. And when one of those GIs would come home on furlough and they had to go, some of them were not really sure they had made the right choice of boyfriends earlier. And I remember one roommate was reluctant to return to the place in Kentucky where her boyfriend was happily on furlough and waiting for her, and she was reluctant to go. She was having a good time in Oak Ridge and had met people she may have liked better.

Kelly: So how did you feel when you learned that the atomic bomb was the product of all your work?

Jernigan: Undiluted happiness. 

Kelly: Can you say that?

Jernigan: The thinking came later when we began to think about what we had done. And I joined a group of people called Engineers and Scientists of Oak Ridge, I guess it was the name. Engineers and Scientists from Oak Ridge. And we were so idealistic that we were promoting world government beyond the League of Nations, which was the worldwide organization for peace at that time. So we had regular meetings and to show you how naïve we were, we wrote a Constitution for the World. And these were mostly scientists, engineers, and we continued to meet for several years and joined other groups nationally. And this was frowned upon by security because it sounded too much like communism for the managerial people. So it sort of faded away and I do not know the particulars of its fading away but we ceased to meet. And some of the principals had moved to other jobs so that was an important reaction to what we had done with the bombs.

Kelly: So that was after the war.

Jernigan: That was after the war.

My initial reactions when the bombs were dropped was relief and happiness that the war was over. No other thoughts at that time filled my mind, although when pictures of the Japanese victims began to come out, it was a sobering moment for many of us.

Kelly: Great. So if you look back over your life, how does the experience, how has the experience shaped your life in any way?

Jernigan: I am not sure. Let me think about that. Perhaps the experience has shaped my life in that I likely would not have become acquainted with such a wide variety of people. And that certainly has been of value in my relationships with people throughout my life. 

Kelly: And you chose to stay here in Oak Ridge. That says something.

Jernigan: [Laugh] I liked it, the work I had done, and did not consider leaving Oak Ridge. There was no decision to stay in Oak Ridge. I had a job and I enjoyed my job and had subsequent jobs after the Carbide career. I left that job actually because the editor had gone on to another newspaper and I assumed that I would assume the role of the editor instead of the associate. There were only two of us. But they gave it to a man. They were pretty chauvinistic at that time – very chauvinistic, I should say. And men were ruling it; there is no doubt of that. So I was unhappy and I left for another job. 

I went to another plant – newspaper, actually, briefly – to the ORNL newspaper. And then I had had a motorcycle accident – I was a passenger – that injured my back and had to have extensive surgery and I resigned because I did not think it fair for them to go on without me when we had just started that paper, just had begun the ORNL. I do not remember what its name was. But they were very kind to me and I thought in fairness, I should go on to another job, which I did.

Kelly: So did you stay in the field? Did you stay working as an adult later?

Jernigan: Yeah, I worked for the Oak Ridger for several years as – we had an action line column in the Oak Ridger called Ask Incky. And the Incky part was for incorporation because this column started for citizen input and questions when we incorporated Oak Ridge. And Incky was spelled I-N-C-K-Y. And it was an action line column where people could call or write in and get answers to any kinds of questions about local matters if they had some problem with the electrical department or the traffic department or anything. Sometimes wildly inappropriate things [laugh]. That was fun and I did that, also, and covered the Oak Ridge City Council and the Anderson County School Board for the Oak Ridger for a while.

Then I ran for public office and the circuit court clerk for Anderson County for the remaining years of my employment. And I served three terms as that elected official and retired.

Kelly: My goodness, great. Is there anything that I did not ask about that I should have?

Jernigan: [Laugh] I do not think so. I will think of it on the way home, of course. [Laugh]

Kelly: I will think about it on the way home, yeah.

Jernigan: But I do not believe so. This has all come as a total surprise to me, the interest in Happy Valley, which was in a corner of my scrapbook, as it were. Which actually, I have no scrapbook [laugh]. A real scrapbook, but it was in the corner of my life that I thought is that real? Did I do that? And never talked about it to people. 

The person I remember talking about it was with Colleen Black. And my next-door neighbor, who is her sister, Jo Iacovino. And when I discovered that they used to live there and Jo told me her stories as a little girl living there, they were the only contacts I had until people like you began to inquire about the – and to discover Happy Valley.

Kelly: Interesting.

Jernigan: And it still has a dreamlike quality, you know, for me because so much has happened and it was so many years ago, my sense there.

Kelly: But your memories [00:57:00] are pretty vivid.

Jernigan: Yes. I remember names of my fellow teenage workers and I remember them individually and their characters. You know, I remember them as well as I do current people. And some of this has been brought about by people like you jogging my memory so that has helped. And I have been asked by all kinds of people like the Lions Club and middle schools and all to speak. And at first, I was even less cohesive than I am today because I thought well, how can I describe this? And I wrote for the Children’s Museum book, These Are Our Voices