The Manhattan Project

Mary Lowe Michel's Interview

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Mary Michel

Mary Michel worked at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project and discusses living in the “Secret City” and the general social scene, also going into safety procedures at the K-25 Plant. She also discusses her reaction to the news of the use of the atomic bombs against the Japanese.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
June 18, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Michel: My name was Mary Lowe, L-O-W-E, and I married John Michel, M-I-C-H-E-L.

Kelly: Great. Is it possible that you can look toward me? So tell me, how and when did you come to Oak Ridge?

Michel: I came in November of 1944.

Kelly: And what had—where had you come from? What brought you here?

Michel: My father had taken a job in Oak Ridge. He was an accountant. And the closest housing we could get was in Alcoa, Tennessee, where the aluminum plant is. So I had to commute from there to Oak Ridge. 

Kelly: So you were—I thought this was a top-secret city, but you commuted on a daily basis in and out?

Michel: Sure did.

Kelly: And when this tape is done, no one’s going to hear my questions, so you have to say something other than just yes or no.

Michel: Yes, well, I didn’t really commute from Alcoa. My first position was at the Jackson Square site in the teletype office. And then I heard that they needed a teletype operator at K-25, so they transferred me—I got a transfer to K-25, and then they assigned me a dormitory room in Oak Ridge.

Kelly: So did you live at the K-25 site in one—either Happy Valley or…

Michel: In Jackson Square—I lived in Jackson Square area in a girls’ dormitory.

Kelly: So what was it like? Describe the dormitory.

Michel: Well, it was my first experience with communal living and I had to get used to not being so private. The showers were—everybody undressed and that mortified me at first. But I got used to that.

And I was working in the barrier plant, 1401 building, and the night shift, which I went on at midnight and got off at eight o’clock in the morning. And there were several of us who palled around together. And one of the group had a car. And we would—when we got off of work at eight o’clock in the morning, we’d all pile in the car and drive up to a nearby lake and swim all day. And this went on, consecutively, for three days and nights. 

By the third night, I was so desperate for sleep, I went to the lab and I said to the girls there, “I would give my soul for twenty minutes of sleep.” And they had a cot in the ladies’ restroom, so they said, “Okay, you go and get on the cot and we’ll wake you in twenty minutes.” When I woke up and walked back into the lab, the day crew was on. I didn’t know anybody. They had played a joke on me. 

My boss was not very happy with that. He said, “Miss Lowe, we don’t sleep on the job here.” And he said, “You won’t do that again.” They were desperate for help. They would have fired me otherwise. But they kept me on.

Kelly: How many women were there working at Oak Ridge?

Michel: I don’t know the exact number, but they were mostly clerical personnel and some lab techs. I don’t think there were many professional women like engineers and physicists. I didn’t meet any of them. I did meet one lady who was a technical report writer.

Kelly: And how old were the women who worked in Oak Ridge?

Michel: Mostly teenagers. There were a few of us who had—a few of them who had graduated college. But I worked mainly with teenagers. Well I was seventeen and we were all right out of high school.

So they transferred me to the day shift because I had trouble sleeping and my health was going down. So they transferred me to the day shift, and when I did that I started going to night school, pecking away at taking courses. And then, after I got married, I continued some with night school.

Kelly: And how did you meet your husband?

Michel: Well, he was working in the same building. And I saw this handsome man and I said to myself, “That’s for me.” But we dated two years and then married.

Other interviewer: Do you want to talk about the ratio of men to women?

Michel: Fifteen men to one woman. 

Other: Say it as a sentence.

Michel: The ratio of men to women: fifteen men to a woman.

Kelly: So how was that as a woman? Were you besieged?

Michel: Overwhelming. There were no problems having dates. You just had to be very discriminating. 

Kelly: Were there—should I go into this or not?

Other: Well, she had a lot of fun.

Michel: I did. We had a lot of fun. And I met people that I ordinarily would not have met, from all over. And I consider myself sort of an amalgam now of all whom I met. It was a growth experience for me.

Kelly: And where were you from?

Michel: Originally Wilmington, North Carolina, down on the coast.

Kelly: So most—were most of the young women then—were they mostly from the southeast area? From Tennessee, or from…

Michel: I think they were mostly from the southeast. I met a few—I had a housemate later on—we got a house together with six girls. And one of those girls was from Providence, Rhode Island. She was our token Yankee. We all got along just fine, had fun. We had a lot of parties.

And my husband, before we were married, when he was a bachelor, he lived in a house with six guys. And we had parties, wonderful parties. And those were the days when a girl was not put on the spot. I mean, you didn’t have to say, “No! No! No!” The men were gentlemen. 

Kelly: Good clean fun.

Michel: Pardon me?

Kelly: You had good clean fun.

Michel: I did, yes.

Other: Now tell them about the dances.

Michel: Well, the government built recreation halls and so we had dances. Almost any night of the week you could go to the recreation hall and dance. And most of it was recorded music, except on weekends we had live music. And we had tennis court dances. This guy would bring his equipment and play records and we would dance on the tennis courts.  

Kelly: Were there a lot of people who would show up for these?

Michel: Oh yes, it was jammed.

Kelly: What was the spirit like? Were people happy to be here? Were they anxious to—because of the war and relatives abroad fighting?

Michel: The spirit was one of freedom. A lot of us had never been away from home before, and we were enjoying our freedom. And, as far as the war effort was concerned, we were vaguely aware of it. And I knew what I was doing in the lab where I worked, but I didn’t know the big picture. I didn’t know how that would fit into the bomb.

Kelly: Were you surprised?

Michel: Oh yes, I was very surprised. The night that the news broke that the bombs had been dropped, there was joyous occasions in the streets, hugging and kissing and dancing and live music and singing that went on for hours and hours.

But it bothered me to know that I, in my very small way, had participated in such a thing, and I sat in my dorm room and cried.

Kelly: You’re the first person who’s told me that. Were you one of the very few people who had that reaction or did other people feel that way?

Michel: I was the only one I knew of.

Kelly: How did your husband feel, or had you not met him at that time?

Michel: No, I hadn’t met him at that time. I met him in 1947 and we were married in 1949. He was from Missouri.

Kelly: So what were some of the worst aspects of your experience?

Michel: The rationing. And the food in the army cafeteria was awful. We called it “Ptomaine Tavern.” It was awful. That’s where I learned to drink coffee because the milk was always rancid.

Kelly: So most of your meals were in this cafeteria?

Michel: Yes.

Kelly: Can you describe some of the things they served up?

Michel: Scrambled eggs and lots of grease, and the usual meats, bacon, sausage, that sort of thing, biscuits, gravy, coffee. Not much in the way of fruits at breakfast time. And then, at dinnertime, they did have fresh vegetables, I will say that for them. ‘Cause this was a great vegetable-growing area outside the plant, they could get fresh vegetables.

Kelly: Did people get food otherwise? I mean, did you eat candy bars to keep your energy levels? Or did people—somehow they made do with the food?

Michel: We suffered. [Laughter.] But we could go to—we had friends in the army who would go to the PX and get candy bars for us.

Kelly: What do you think of the importance of remembering the Manhattan Project? Should this history be preserved? Is this important for people to know about?

Michel: Well, for a long time I had ambivalent feelings about it, but as I learned more about the world situation at that time, I learned that there was a massive army ready to invade Japan, and there would have been many lives lost on our side as well as theirs. And then the bomb was dropped. And even though there was—it was a lot of lost lives… I didn’t like it. And I would not knowingly work on such a thing again. Nuclear energy has its place in medicine and industry, but not for the military.

Kelly: So how—did any other things that you have—that I haven’t asked you about that you think would be—that you want to tell us about?

Michel: There were funny little incidents. I remember one time on the shuttle bus that took us from our dormitory area out to the plant. We had to pass through a guard gate. And the guard would get on the bus and check everyone’s badge. And one night the guard said to me, “You come with me.” And I was scared to death. He took me in the guardhouse and he asked me my name and my address and my phone number, where I was from. And then he let me back on the next bus.

So I reported this to security at the plant, and he was a good friend. He was Mike McDermott, an ex-policeman from New York City, head of security. And he said, “I’ll check into it, Mary.” And he found out that this guy just wanted my phone number. So there were these little tricks that the guys would play on girls.

And one thing that was very interesting, I thought, was they had a meeting in Sumner Hall where they were going to speak to the girls, the women, on sex. And I imagine it would be similar to what the army expects of the men. But it was so graphic. They had a doctor there, and an ambulance, and some nurses. And there were several girls who fainted when they saw the film. 

Kelly: You weren’t watching the R-rated films those days.

Michel: No. [Laughter.]

Kelly: This was a shock.

Michel: It was a shock.

Kelly: That’s interesting. Were there strict rules about boys and girls getting together, or you know, in terms of who…

Michel: Well, in the dorm I had a housemother, and she was very strict. Everything was locked up at ten o’clock. And you just didn’t disobey the order. Now, I saw—sometimes guys would climb in the living room window after hours, but I didn’t participate in that.

Kelly: Well, I know you have to get on. Is there anything else that, you know—how did you—looking back, you say you probably wouldn’t do it again, but, now, how did you feel overall about your role in this, in World War II?

Michel: It was a great growth for me. I matured rapidly in those days, learned a lot. And I’m particularly grateful for the people whom I met. I met incredible people: scientists and engineers and real thinkers of the world.

Other: Why don’t you mention that, you know, your friends that you stayed in touch with over the decades—and that some of them are here now.

Michel: Oh yes.

Other: Talk about that. Say it. Don’t just agree with me, say it.

Michel: Some of the friends whom I made then are still in Oak Ridge. They have chosen to retire here. And I saw a number of them yesterday. A lot of faces were familiar to me, but I couldn’t put names on all of them.

Other: And then what about the friends that came in from California?

Michel: I’m sorry?

Other: What about the Whipples?  Talk about, you know, ways that…

Michel: Oh yes. One of the guys who lived in this—they called it a “D” house—I was dating him. And he was from California—no, he was from Michigan at the time. And they were having a party at the house, and he introduced me to John, who became my husband. But he’s here now with his wife, and we’re just having great times. And I have visited them in California. 

We have great friends. We have friends—we have this reunion, as time permits, usually about every five or six years. We call it the 215 Club. Their house number was 215 Tennessee Avenue. And they call themselves the 215 Club. And they all left Oak Ridge in the ‘40s except John. John stayed on. 

Kelly: That’s terrific. It sounds like we missed out. You guys had a wonderful time.

Michel: I did. There were some scary aspects to it. I remember the first night that I was in the dorm, a girl came in drunk and she was just hitting the walls. And it unnerved me. And I called my mother and I said, “I’m coming home.” She said, “Well, just don’t make a hasty decision, Mary.” So I stayed in. But there was a lot of bad behavior, quite a bit.

Kelly: That’s like having college students. You’re all seventeen and…a potent mix. Great. Well this has been great. I don’t want to keep you from Knoxville, and I know you want to get on your way. Let’s see, we can—is there anything else?

Michel: Well, my particular function was to go downstairs to the basement area, where they had these huge furnaces. And it was surreal to me. I had never seen anything quite as enormous as this furnace, and they were all in a row in an enormous warehouse-like thing.

And my job was to attach a sample bulb to the furnace and withdraw a sample of the uranium, and take it back upstairs to the lab and analyze it. And then, subsequently, about every hour, I would have to go out onto another floor, where they had huge tanks of a liquid—I don’t know what the liquid was—but they brought in these pipes, the piping in the plants, in huge sections, and would put them in the tanks to cleanse them. And then my job was to sample the liquid.

And we had to walk on these high wooden platforms. And I was wearing high heel shoes in those days, and my supervisor took me aside one day and he said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Kelly: It sounds a little dangerous.

Michel: Yes. But we worked with some volatile materials. We were supposed to wear protective aprons. I don’t remember if they were asbestos or rubber, but they covered you fully in the lab, because we would clean the bulbs, after they had been evacuated, with sulfuric acid.

And one girl just didn’t want to cover up her pretty clothes with this apron and she spilled a 500cc beaker of sulfuric acid down her front. And it ate her clothes off and burned her skin. I think she learned a lesson that day.

Kelly: That’s a good story. It sounds like the safety procedures were probably not as stringent then.

Michel: Very relaxed.

Kelly: You want to say that as a sentence?

Michel: The safety procedures were not in effect, that I could notice. We didn’t have masks, and I was breathing fumes off these tanks. And I think I was exposed to radiation. I was tested years later and found that I had lead poisoning, as well as a severely reduced immune system. And that’s not recoverable.

So there were health hazards involved that we didn’t know about. Now, if the scientists in charge knew about it, they didn’t tell us. We were just workers, expendable, to get the job done. And there are a lot of people still living today with very poor health because of that.

I sometimes wonder if my husband died so—he died at 63, which is too young to die. He was a picture of health. But he worked with hazardous materials and he had a massive heart attack. Some of these chemicals and elements that you breathe in destroy the lungs and that will eventually lead to a heart attack.

And I wrote to—let’s see, who—what was the department in Washington? For his records, and they, for a long time, would not send it to me. I wanted his medical records. And finally they sent me a letter which said that his medical records didn’t show any abnormalities.

Kelly: Well, do you have any last comments you want to make about your experience or…Looking back on it, would you do it again?

Michel: You know, it would be awfully hard to replace the benefits that I got from it. In that respect, I would do it again. But if I were asked to work in a plant that produced bombs, I would not.

[End.]