The A Pin

Conducting research during a pandemic is tricky. My scheduled research trip was for the last week of April 2020 to the National Archives in Atlanta. My intention was two-fold, to learn as much about the project as possible in five days and to see if I found any records specifically talking about my grandfather or were authored by him. You see, my grandfather was an engineer who worked first for Stone and Webster in Boston, and then in August of 1944, he transferred to the Tennessee Eastman Corporation and lived in Oak Ridge from August 1944 to July 1945, when he died in the McGhee Tyson airport in Knoxville, TN. His passing, at the age of 48, was a shock to his family and his co-workers. Unlike many associated with Oak Ridge, his wife, and youngest son remained in the Boston area and his older son was serving in the 10th Mountain Division.

By February, the plane ticket had been purchased and the hotel booked. I had researched the route from the hotel to the Archives in case I wanted to walk between the two and I was debating between renting a car and relying on ride-hailing services. Since I planned to be at the Archives every day between the time they opened and the time they closed, a rental car seemed unnecessary but I hadn’t made a final decision yet. 

An archivist in Atlanta had sent me the annotated list for a series titled “Formerly Classified Correspondence Files, 1942-1947” that identified a fair number of the Manhattan Project files related to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that are available for review. I had dutifully saved several electronic copies of the file in more than one location (just in case I had a hard-drive failure), highlighted the files I most wanted to review, and then printed out a hard copy (which turned out to be over 100 pages), to make sure I had the information in as many formats as possible. I find that the paper copy prompts me in ways that the electronic version doesn’t, while the electronic version is searchable which the paper copy isn’t able to do. Plus I had something to refer to if my computer died. So there I was, fairly well organized and all ready to go when everything, including the National Archives shut down.  

By early July I knew that my research would have to be pushed off until 2021. I reached out to the archivist I had been corresponding with to provide an overview of my research goals just in case there was anything available for review. I’m glad that I did, the archivist was able to access information regarding the various employees that were provided to the Army Corps of Engineers for the purpose of distributing the ‘A’, or Atomic Pin, awards, for service during the Manhattan Project era.  These awards consisted of a certificate and metal lapel pin sent to employees who worked for at least six months on the project.”  After some back and forth, the archivist found my grandfather on a list provided by the Tennessee Eastman Corporation.

Manhattan Project “A” Award Pin – Oak Ridge 1945

Although we didn’t know what it was or what it represented, my father kept the “A” pin on his dresser when my siblings and I were growing up. It was awarded posthumously and sent to my grandmother. Unfortunately, I have no idea where the pin might be today. 

Since my grandfather died at the end of the project, just before the bombs were dropped, the family was never able to put together much about what he had done. My father worked for the project as a teenage courier in the Boston office at this time. He never talked much about what his father, or even what he, did, during this time. My father continued working for Stone & Webster until 1956. I suspect he knew more than he felt he could say without violating whatever secrecy oath he had taken. What he did reveal was that his father had two jobs, one a typical engineering role and the other was working to ensure that products (including enriched uranium) would be transported to the various other facilities (Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Hanford, Chicago, UC Berkeley) by train via indirect routes from its source to its destination. 

I’m excited to see what I find when I’m able to get to the National Archives in Atlanta, which I think will be sometime between October and January. 

3 thoughts on “The A Pin

  1. Pingback: 3. Archives Research Part 2 | Anne's Writing Life

  2. Hi Anne, I was researching the Manhattan Project Lapel Pin or Medal and came across your Anne’s Writing Life article about the pin and your grandfather’s involvement with Stone & Webster and the Manhattan Project. Also, I grew up in Dedham, MA, just south of Boston and on US 1. I currently live in Fuquay Varina, NC, a few miles from US 1, about 700 miles from Dedham. I also spent 35 years working in the commercial nuclear industry and 14 years in the Army Corps of Engineers.

    Your article is about 1 1/2 yrs old and I don’t know what you found out in the interim. One of the things I did was to write a book about contacting and contract management based on my years in the nuclear industry managing contracts and projects and released it in 2015.

    During the pandemic, I went and enhanced and expanded my book and released a Second Edition in late 2021. In Volume 2 of the Second Edition, I added a chapter on the US Commercial Nuclear Industry and also an acknowledgement of General Leslie Groves who commanded the Manhattan Project.

    After completing the Second Edition, I began to look into the Manhattan Project and the key individuals, military and scientists, who developed the nuclear reactors and the bomb as well as the contractors who developed the Oak Ridge, TN and Hanford, WA, facilities.

    It is an amazing story to me, and the scientists were also amazing. I suggest you find a used copy of “Now It Can Be Told” by General Groves. TN Eastman ran the Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant at Oak Ridge which enriched the uranium 238 (U238) so it would have more of the Uranium 235 (U235) isotope in it. U235 is the fissionable isotope in uranium. The Y-12 plant separated the atoms of U238 and U235 through centrifugal force and collected the atoms.
    Stone and Webster was a major engineer and constructor of the Y-12 facility.

    Another publication which provides a short but thorough description of the Manhattan Project, and many photos and diagrams of the facilities is a Department of Energy Publication, DOE/MA-0002, published in 2010. This publication is available for download on the internet. If you cannot find it, I can send you a copy. DOE also has a Manhattan Project website.

    I am sorry your grandfather passed so young; I am sure he would have returned to Stone & Webster and been involved in the early commercial nuclear plants in the 1950s and 60s. I have a short article on Stone & Webster in Volume 2 of the Second Edition.

    I am in the process of working on a book about the US nuclear experience from 1920 to 2020 which will include the Manhattan Project and some of the great people who developed nuclear physics and worked on designing the reactors and developing the bomb. It will look at the harnessing of nuclear power to power submarines and ships and the development of the US commercial nuclear industry.

    This December 2nd will be the 80th anniversary of the first time a human controlled a nuclear chain reaction. The human was Enrico Fermi. I will be celebrating with a glass of chianti just like the scientists did on December 2, 1924.

    Please contact me if you have any questions.

    And take care of your grandfather’s Atomic Pin. He took part in one of man’s greatest accomplishments.

    Joe Corey my email is below.

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