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Our National Hero

 Mercer and Elizabeth Wilson

How do you feel about working in a remote area on a top-secret government project that could bring a speedy end to the war?

Mercer Wilson pondered his answer. A 1943 civil engineering graduate from Ga. Tech., he was one of a dozen Army soldiers with engineering degrees ordered to the University of Minnesota for further training under the Army's Specialized Training Program. The question was posed to him February 1944 during a series of interviews and tests. Wilson was agreeable, but skeptical. In the seven months since he had graduated from Tech and gone on active duty, Wilson's Army career had consisted mostly of KP chores. But he thought this might be different, expecially after a friend from Atlanta wrote to say the FBI had stopped by to ask questions about Wilson.

He was right. March, Wilson was aboard a train headed for the Special Engineering Detachment at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Oak Ridge, which as a city did not exist a few months earlier (and, officially, still did not exist), was one of three primary sites for the Manhattan Project. The other two sites were at Los Alamos, N.M., and Hanford, Wash.

Although an Army private drawing government pay, he was assigned to a private company--the Tennessee Eastman Co.--where, in effect, he worked as a civilian. Wilson's job was to "improve the process of uranium isotope separation", he said. In effect, the task was to create a handful of pure U-235--enough for a few atomic bombs. Wilson and a small crew "had one or two productions units, and we could do just about anything we wanted with them. We'd have an idea, and we'd try it. You might call it an empirical type of experimentation."

Their work paid off on July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated over the desert at Alamagora, N.M. On August 6, Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic blast, followed by Nagasaki three days later. Japan surrendered on August 15.

This article was taken from Georgia Tech's WWII and the Tech Connection, Manhattan in Tennessee.