One of my favorite YouTube channels, Half As Interesting, did an explainer about the founding of Oakridge, Tennessee. It was founded in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project.
Like the video shows, security around the facility was insanely tight. Even before computers and digital surveillance, the Manhattan Project was able to structure the project for maximum secrecy.
Very few people even knew what they were working on, or really understood why such security was necessary.
And that’s how my Granddad got interrogated by the FBI as a 15-year-old teenager.
According to the story, he and his family were living north of Knoxville around Kingsport, TN in 1942. They had moved around throughout the Great Depression, and my Granddad was used to picking up summer jobs.
That summer was hiring time for Oak Ridge. They were building an entire city from scratch to support the development of the nuclear bomb. Word was out throughout Tennessee, so my Granddad went down to get a job.
He was hired as a garbage man for the worker housing. He was nowhere near the scientific complex and did not interact with anyone. All the did was get up in the morning. Drive around worker housing. Pick up trash.
He said it was boring but paid really well – especially for a 15-year-old.
Well the summer came to an end and he went back to Kingsport. Every job he’d ever had was seasonal and very informal. So when it was time to go home, he just left. He didn’t do a debriefing or exit interview. He just went home like he’d always done.
A couple of weeks later, he had been out of the house. He returned home to find his Mom sitting in the living room with a very stern FBI agent. He had questioned her all morning – and she had given assurances that Jimmy would be home.
Now keep in mind that my Granddad was 15 year olds and had lived a poor, itinerant life for almost 10 years. Now all of a sudden a Federal agent was sitting in their small house in Kingsport, TN where apparently he’d done some horrible thing that was upsetting his Mom and sending him to jail.
It turns out that when he left Oak Ridge – he had neglected to turn in his badge. That set off alarms that he was a German spy. Immediately, a FBI agent was assigned to track down and personally interview a 15-year-old kid in Kingsport, TN.
The agent questioned him to make sure that he was neither a German spy – nor had even had discussions with any suspicious people. The agent took the badge and headed out.
What boggles my mind – and boggled my Granddad’s mind – was just how thorough and exact that operation had to have been. To have resources to track down a 15-year-old garbage picker in rural Tennessee in 1942 is the dedication to project planning and project security.
The crazy coda to this story is that only 2 years later, my Granddad would be drafted and assigned to the Operation Olympic – one of the first divisions to invade Japan. The atomic bomb of course made those plans redundant.
Either way – it was a crazy, complex time.