"The Calutron Girls"


Gladys OwensGladys Owens was one of "The Calutron Girls" from January 1945 to August 1945.  She told her story recently to a group of interested historians in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  She visited the actual site where she spent eight months of her life "watching meters and adjusting dials" without knowing what she was actually doing.  She was one of a special group of young high school graduates hired and trained to do only what they were told to do without questioning and without discussion.  She only knew she was doing something vital to her nation and was helping win the war.  Still today she is hesitant to talk about the work done at Y-12 during the war.  Operational Security, while not a term she would appreciate is a practice she still applies to her discussion of work at Y-12.  She related a phrase she still recalls being stated by a manager who closed out the initial training class she attended before going to work at Y-12.  He said "We can train you how to do what is needed, but cannot tell you what you are doing.  I can only tell you that if our enemies beat us to it, God have mercy on us!"  That was enough to cause her to understand the importance of what she was being asked to do and to this day she is reluctant to discuss what she did at Y-12!  Training took, huh.

  Gladys Owens is the young lady on the right above and closest to the camera.  This photograph is one of the most famous photographs made by Ed Westcott and is actually the Calutron Control Room in Beta 2 (Building 9204-2).

Gladys lived in Fostoria Hall located in "West Town" which was near Jefferson Circle. The women lived in dormitories up the hill, men lived in dormitories at the bottom of the hill and the cafeteria was in what was the original home of the American Museum of Atomic Energy. She did not socialize on the job, she remained constantly focused on the meter reading and the necessary adjustments she made to keep the beam current maximized in the calutrons (although she had no idea that was what she was doing). In fact she was not even allowed to discuss her work at all with anyone at anytime. When asked what happened to people who talked too much, she said "I know of people disappearing." One young girl who did not return to her dormitory for her clothes was said to have "died from drinking some poison moonshine."

Her room cost $10 per month. Oak Ridge was a city where everything was open 24 hours a day. Bus tickets were $5 per month. Gas was rationed and people could not get tires, so not many people had cars. She worked seven day rotating shift. She said people were careful not to get in groups and talk as one never knew who was watching and if maybe even someone in the group was instructed to report on any conversations they heard where work was discussed. Even in the movies, Gladys said it was not unusual for people to shine flashlight down the isles to be sure people were not talking about work, or at least that is what she thought they were doing. She said "Everywhere you looked it told you to keep your mouth shut!"

Here Gladys is shown seated as she was 59 years ago, only this time she is in Beta 3 (Building 9204-3), the only building where the original calutrons remain.  This control room actually remains unchanged from 1945.  The controls are identical to what she would have used in Beta 2. 


Gladys Owens seemed to enjoy her visit to the Y-12 National Security Complex and the the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE).  On an earlier visit to the AMSE, she had identified herself to the manager of the museum as being the lady in the famous photograph of "The Calutron Girls" who were primarily high school graduates.  She said she came to Oak Ridge because there were plenty of men at the Army base and her best girlfriend was already working at Oak Ridge.  Steve Stow, pictured with Gladys in the far right photo and who is the museum manager arranged for her to visit Y-12 and the AMSE and to participate in an Oral History interview.

Other Oak Ridge, Tennessee Links:

American Museum of Science and Energy
Oak Ridge Convention and Visitor's Center
Historical Markers in Oak Ridge
Oak Ridge History
Secret City History
John Hendrix and Y-12
Hymn to Life
Back of Oak Ridge and John Hendrix (Prophet of Oak Ridge) book
Secret City The Movie
Bear Creek Valley
Calutrons Plowshares

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