Story and photos courtesy Atomic Heritage Foundation
On April 5, 2017, Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) staff enjoyed meeting four Manhattan Project veterans from Oak Ridge who participated in an HonorAir Flight Knoxville program. The veterans were Velva Irwin, Hugh Barnett, Sarah Archer, and Louise Keaton.
Honor Flights, organized by nonprofits around the country, bring World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the national memorials that pay tribute to their sacrifices. This flight, the 23rd organized by HonorAir Knoxville, carried more than 130 veterans from East Tennessee, including 22 World War II veterans. After arriving in Washington, D.C., the veterans visited the United States Air Force Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, the Marine Corps Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery.
AHF’s Cindy Kelly, Alexandra Levy, and Nathaniel Weisenberg met the veterans after they came off the bus at the National World War II Memorial. The AHF enjoyed speaking with Hugh, Velva, Sarah, and Louise about their Manhattan Project experiences. The organization took photographs and presented each of them with a Manhattan Project National Historical Park T-shirt featuring Oak Ridge.
Honor Flights have 131 “hubs” in 45 states. The program flew 20,558 veterans to Washington, D.C., in 2016. During the past eight years, HonorAir Knoxville has flown 3,200 veterans to D.C.. Each veteran is accompanied by a “guardian”—a friend or family member who helps the veteran during the trip. While the program was initially focused on World War II veterans, Honor Flights have expanded to bring veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam to their respective memorials as well. If you are a Manhattan Project veteran and would like to participate in an Honor Flight, please contact your local Honor Flight program
Velva Irwin and Louise Keaton were “Calutron girls” at the Y-12 Plant, which separated fissile uranium-235 from uranium-238 for the atomic bombs. The Calutron girls served as operators at the electromagnetic separation plant, adjusting the knobs on their “cubicle” machines to keep everything working smoothly. Although they were not told what they were producing, the Calutron girls proved adept at the controls and played a crucial role in the Y-12 Plant’s uranium enrichment process.
Many of the Calutron girls were barely out of high school when they were recruited to work at Y-12. Irwin was only 16. “I’ve talked to people and they’re like, ‘Oh, you worked on the Manhattan Project?’ It’s another century, but to us it’s real,” she said in an interview. “I think it’s marvelous that we get together and we go back in time and try to relate it to the younger generations.”
Keaton was hired to work at Y-12 in 1944, when she was 18. “The readings (on the machines) should be, you know, as high as we could get ’em,” she recalled about her training. “If they got out of control, we operated a knob between them and got them back. And they would make terrible noises.”
Keaton initially shared a flattop house with her sister, who also worked at Oak Ridge, before moving to a dormitory. She worked at Oak Ridge until 1946, when she got married.
Sarah Archer worked as a nurse monitoring the radiation levels of the Calutron operators. She has had a long and distinguished career in nursing. She also worked at Oak Ridge during the Cold War, before spending many years as a nurse with the Tennessee Valley Authority. “You didn’t tell anybody anything,” Archer remembered about her time at Oak Ridge. “You still don’t. I mean, there’s stuff I got to die with.”
At 100, Hugh Barnett is the oldest ever Honor Air Knoxville participant. He graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in engineering. In 1943, he joined the Manhattan Project in New York before transferring to Oak Ridge in 1944, where he worked as the maintenance supervisor at the K-25 plant. He remained at K-25 until 1960. “I was honored to go to Washington with these veterans, a real privilege,” he said.
The HonorAir Knoxville Flight was covered by numerous media outlets, including WBIR, WATE, and the Knoxville News Sentinel. Thanks to Richard Cook and to Dawn Ford of HonorAir Knoxville for helping arrange AHF’s meeting with the veterans.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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