Then, she watched a History Detectives episode in 2009, and it all made sense — the show described the work of young women who were unknowingly involved in enriching uranium for the “Little Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
The duties that were detailed in that episode perfectly matched the description of the work performed by Costa’s mother, 86-year-old Patterson resident Frances Hicks.
Now, the work of those so-called “Calutron Girls” has become famous with the March release of Denise Kiernan’s New York Times best seller “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.”
Hicks owns a copy of the book, which details the history-altering work that she and nearly 75,000 other women were doing in a completely clandestine environment, but she downplays her role in conducting such historic work.
“I’ve always said that all I did was turn knobs,” Hicks said.
Secretive summer job
Hicks had just graduated from high school in Moorehead, Kent. in June 1945 when she applied for work in Oak Ridge, Tenn. at the recommendation of a friend, who also was applying for a position there. Ironically, her friend did not get the job because she was only 17-years-old, and employees needed to be 18 to apply.
Hicks recalled taking a test on atoms, protons and neutrons, but had no idea what the job would entail.
When she finally received the position, she was notified that everything would be top secret. The women lived in off-site two-story dormitories and would be bused to their workstations each day, she said.
“Every place you saw, you didn’t talk about it — not even to each other,” Hicks recalled.
A large billboard in Oak Ridge made it clear that the women on-site were to keep their work to themselves. The sign, which is featured on “The Girls of Atomic City” website, portrays three monkeys covering their ears, eyes and mouth:
“What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here,” the billboard proclaimed.
The women who worked in the Y-12 plant, where Hicks worked, have come to be known in recent years as “Calutron Girls” in reference to the large spectrometers they were operating. They adjusted dials to keep meters above a certain level, Hicks recalled. They had no clue they were enriching uranium that would be used in the atomic bomb, she said.
“We were always keeping it up, keeping it up,” Hicks said of the spectrometer levels. “I didn’t really understand the workings of what we were doing.”
Yet as it turned out, the women were more reliable in their work than scientists who had previously worked with the Calutrons, according to several accounts regarding Oak Ridge. Perhaps, that’s because the women did what they were told and did not experiment with different measurements as scientists might do, Costa speculated.
She and fellow employees realized the gravity of their work during a boat outing on Aug. 6, 1945, when they received the news of the bombing of Hiroshima, followed by the bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
“We all knew what we’d been working on then,” Hicks said. “Anything that secretive couldn’t have been anything else.”
Hicks said she has not thought much about her work during that period, but the feelings she does have are mixed. On one hand, she said the effects of the bomb sounded awful, but she also noted that it led to the end of World War II, where many Americans were daily losing loved ones.
Making a life on the West Side
Hicks stopped working at Oak Ridge after the bomb dropped, and headed back to college in Kentucky, where she met her husband, J.D. Hicks, who served as an airplane mechanic in the Army Air Corps during World War II. After marrying, the couple moved to Vernalis in 1947, where J.D. helped with family farming operations.
The Hicks did not find much success with tomato farming and after one particularly bad summer, they moved to Patterson, where J.D. co-founded H&M Trucking. The company became hugely successful, shipping vegetables for Patterson Frozen Foods and Hunt’s among other companies, Hicks said. Eventually, the trucking company was sold to the Carlucci and Telles families in 1998 and came to be known as CarTel Transport.
Throughout those years, Costa heard occasional stories about her mother working for a top secret government-run facility in Tennessee, but her mother had little information about what they were doing there.
“We all thought it was sort of odd,” Costa said.
When Costa saw the History Detectives episode about Oak Ridge in 2009, everything finally made sense.
“We knew right away that was it,” Costa said. “It showed a picture of women turning knobs, and then we understood that’s what she did.”
Costa said she learned about Kiernan’s book after seeing it mentioned on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” news program.
“Of course, I went out and ordered it to read,” Costa said.
Hicks described Kiernan’s book as “kind of boring” — at least the parts that she has read — though it has reached No. 13 on the New York Times Best Seller list of nonfiction hardback books.
While much has been made of the role of the Calutron Girls, Hicks said she has not kept in touch with anyone she met at Oak Ridge, and she does not reflect much on those days or the historic significance of their work.
“We were young and dumb,” Hicks said.
Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org