Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 28, 2023

‘Secret City’ vital to story of ‘Oppenheimer’

In the new film “Oppenheimer,” the subject of the biopic gradually fills a large fishbowl with marbles that represent the minuscule amounts of uranium workers in Oak Ridge were laboriously enriching as part of the U.S. government’s Manhattan Project during World War II.

It’s a disarming, simple visual that conveys a complex scientific idea: Once the bowl was full, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s team would have enough enriched uranium to build the world’s first atomic bomb.

These scenes take place at Los Alamos, New Mexico, one of the secret sites of the project and the location where writer and director Christopher Nolan stages many of the events portrayed in “Oppenheimer.”

Oak Ridge is mentioned in passing during the film but is represented visually only by Oppenheimer’s marbles, which do eventually fill the fishbowl. However, the site was actually home to several massive facilities that employed thousands of workers during and after World War II, creating a legacy their families are passing down through stories and mementos.

One such child of the Manhattan Project lives and works in Chattanooga – Rodney Fuller, the director of facilities and safety at the Tennessee Aquarium. Fuller, who’s worked for the aquarium since 1991, has a close connection to the Oak Ridge site, as his parents met and married while working there during the war.

Fuller’s mother, Freddie Armes Fuller (“Armes” was her maiden name), lived with her parents in nearby Morgan County and worked in a cafeteria in the city, which the federal government built for the workers. Her identification badge, which Fuller possesses, sports a photo of a woman of 18 or 19, he estimates. The back of the badge describes her in typed letters as 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighing 138 pounds and having brown hair and eyes.

Fuller, who was born in 1962, renders his memory of her in more vivid detail than the badge.

“Mom was a beautiful, elegant woman, but also every bit a country girl,” he says, a smile in his voice on the phone. “She could ring a chicken’s neck and then put on a dress and be the belle of the ball.”

During the war, guards protected the entrance to Oak Ridge and workers were sworn to secrecy, according to an article published on Explore Oak Ridge (exploreoakridge.com). The article also notes that many of the people who lived and worked in the town were unaware the military was pursing the creation of an atomic bomb; they knew only the details of their specific job.

For this reason, Fuller speculates it’s possible his mother didn’t know the nature of the work being done at Oak Ridge as she presented her badge to gain access and then attended to her duties.

Fuller says he believes the same about his father, Thomas William Fuller, a Chattanooga construction electrician who worked at Oak Ridge while the government built it. Whether his father worked on one or more of the site’s three massive production facilities – the Y-12 electromagnetic isotope separation plant, the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant and the S-50 liquid thermal diffusion plant – he does not know, but it’s possible, he says.

“Dad started out as a laborer at the Chickamauga Dam during its construction. He then studied electricity at a vocational school and went through the apprenticeship program at the IBEW in Chattanooga before going to Oak Ridge,” Fuller recalls. “People today would say he was uneducated, but he could build or fix anything.”

Fuller also can only wonder precisely how his parents met, as he cannot recall hearing the specifics.

“I assume he met her while he was grabbing something to eat and they went from there,” he says. “The city had everything they needed, including movies theaters, so there’s no telling where they first ran into each other.” (The website cinematreasures.org contains a photograph of the Grove Theater, which the government built at Oak Ridge in 1944. The price of admission was 9 cents, which was considerably lower than a ticket to see the IMAX version of “Oppenheimer.”)

Fuller’s familial ties to the Manhattan Project harken back even further than his parents.

Before the government acquired the 59,000 acres on which it built Oak Ridge, the land was home to about 1,000 families residing on farms or in hamlets, notes an article on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information website (www.osti.gov). Fuller’s maternal grandfather, Standish Armes, was working as a sharecropper in the area when the government stepped in and dislocated the residents.

Armes later returned to Oak Ridge to tend to cattle that had been exposed to radiation, Fuller says. “I believe the government was monitoring the animals’ reaction to the radiation, but again, I’m not sure. Thankfully, my grandfather lived until 1965.”

Fuller also had an uncle, H.M. Freels, who conducted research at Oak Ridge beginning in 1944 (the Manhattan project lasted from June 1942 to August 1947), but as expected, the details of the man’s work were confidential. A second uncle drove a bus that shuttled workers throughout the K-25 plant.

Despite these ties to history, Fuller says his family held the whatever secrets of Oak Ridge they knew close to their chests for the remainder of their lives. He attributes this not to their fear of invoking the ire of the government but simply to the character of their generation.

“Back then, you didn’t talk about the things you knew, you put your nose to the grindstone and did your job,” he says. “That generation was special; they did whatever was required of them, and when it was over, they went on with their lives.”

Fuller’s parents eventually made their way to Soddy Daisy, where his father worked at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant until he retired. A foreman over the switchyard and turbine buildings, he died only months before the plant began generating power in 1981. His mother followed his father in death in 2010.

“They were strong, confident people,” Fuller remembers. “Given what they’d been through during the war, they could weather anything.”

Today, Fuller says he can trace his personal values to his mother and father, who were older than the parents of his friends and taught him to stay out of the kinds of trouble in which his peers often landed. Like his father, he also has a knack for building and fixing things, which often comes in handy at the aquarium.

However, Fuller says he laments that his interest in his family’s ties to Oak Ridge was not stirred until it was too late for him to learn more. He says he hopes to preserve what little information his family has by passing it – as well as his mother’s now yellowed badge – down to his two sons.

“It’s a really cool part of a moment that meant everything to our family,” he says. “I hope they treasure it, like I have.”

Today, the legacy of Oak Ridge includes not only the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (sparking Japan’s surrender and ending the war), but also Fuller, his children and his six grandchildren, who exist today because a Morgan County girl and a Chattanooga electrician somehow met among the thousands of people who toiled at a secret government project nearly 80 years ago.

And that’s worth far more than a bowl of marbles.

“Oppenheimer” is showing at the Tennessee Aquarium’s IMAX theater through Aug. 10.