Blue Ridge Country May/June 2020 - 26

Leaving a Legacy

Calutrons were named for CALifornia University CycloTRONS. Shown are Alpha Calutrons, the
first stage. The second stage was smaller and called Beta Calutrons.

to the giant calutrons in the next room.
"If the hand on those meters went too
high, we had to get to work and get it back
balanced," she says. "If it went too low, we
had to sit on that stool and watch it. And
if it got to the point where we couldn't
control it, we had a person that we could
call and they would come help us. And if
they couldn't control it, then they had to
shut it down and call for help. I was always afraid to move."
She was also careful to stay tight-lipped.
"They told us that we could immediately
be taken out of our position if we were
caught talking about it," she says. "A time
or two, people disappeared, so we didn't
know whether they'd fired them or what
had happened. I sure didn't want to have
to be one of those."
One thing the women did know was
that strange things happened in the calutron room, commonly called the "racetrack."
"The building had silver electromagnets that pulled bobby pins out of your
hair," said former calutron operator Wynona Arrington Butner in an Oak Ridger
article in 2016. "Screwdrivers would stand
out in your pockets."
Owens, too, shared her own magnet
story with Smith during her 2004 visit to
the Oak Ridge plant after he explained
how the knobs she'd adjusted all day controlled the electrical current that separated
the uranium. "She reached over and patted me on the arm," Smith remembers.

26

BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

"She said, 'I still don't know what I was
doing, but I know if I had any bobby pins
in my hair, they'd just go pf-f-f-t and go
stick to the walls.'"
Adds Huddleston: "If you had a ring
on, it could remove it, so I just never did
go out there. There wasn't any use unless you just wanted to be nosy and see
what was going on. But I did hear of a lot
of people losing their watches and their
belt buckles."
The fact that the calutron operators were kept in the dark didn't detract
from their efficiency. They were, by all
accounts, exceptional workers. So when
Lawrence's Berkeley researchers protested that young women shouldn't be assigned such an important role, Tennessee Eastman arranged a contest, with the
male scientists and engineers sitting on
one side, the girls on the other, monitoring their respective dials. There were,
of course, no female STEM professionals
back then.
"At the end of the week, the young
girls had beat them hands down. They
were making much more productivity
than the scientists and engineers," Smith
says. "The reason was the young girls were
doing what they were told. They were
practicing statistical process control, just
like they'd been trained. These scientists
and engineers, they'd go trying to fix every little thing that was going wrong and
the machine never took a set, so it never
settled down."

The term "Calutron Girl" came decades
later, when Owens spotted an old photo
of herself operating the machines at the
American Museum of Science and Energy
in Oak Ridge. When she pointed it out
to the museum director, he called Smith,
who was looking for original operators to
interview for written archives and videos,
and said, "I've got you a Calutron Girl."
"So we initiated that 'Calutron Girl'
name and it's just taken off," Smith says.
"Those elderly ladies are just tickled to
death."
The calutrons still exist in two of the
Y-12 structures. Building 9731 boasts the
world's only remaining Alpha magnet,
which stands about 20 feet tall. At 10 feet,
the smaller Beta Calutrons can be found
in Building 9204-3. Both buildings are
now a part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The separate K-25
plant contained the modern gaseous diffusion uranium-separation process that
started in 1944 and replaced the calutrons
when they shut down in 1946.
Huddleston went on to marry her
sweetheart, who also worked at Y-12, three
months after the bombs hit Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. She earned her degree and
taught first grade through college freshman courses before spending 29 years as
a high school guidance counselor. She
never spoke about what had happened at
Y-12, not even to her own children.
Then one day about 20 years ago, her
young granddaughter called with a special
request. "Nanny, I'm writing a paper on
Oak Ridge and I wonder if you know anything about the beginnings of it and the
part it had in the war."
Huddleston took a deep breath and proceeded to tell her shocked granddaughter
what it was like to work at the place that
made the bombs that ended World War II.
There are only a few Calutron Girls left,
now in their 90s. Most have passed away;
others have dementia or physical disabilities that prevent them from speaking publicly or granting media interviews. Huddleston, on the other hand, often shares
her story alongside Smith at events that
draw up to 500 audience members.
"They like the idea of how we could
have kept such a good secret," Huddleston
says. "Every group I've been to, it just kind
of amazes them."


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Blue Ridge Country May/June 2020

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