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The town that didn't exist

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Artists Victor Stabin of Jim Thorpe and Mary Kocher of Palmerton in front of a painting by Kocher of her daughter's wedding day discuss their common Oak Ridge, Tennessee history. Stabin's father and Mary and her…
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Artists Victor Stabin of Jim Thorpe and Mary Kocher of Palmerton in front of a painting by Kocher of her daughter's wedding day discuss their common Oak Ridge, Tennessee history. Stabin's father and Mary and her husband worked there on the Manhattan Project.
Published May 14. 2011 09:00AM

Two Carbon County artists, who had never previously met and are a generation apart in age, have one thing in common.

They are both connected to the town that didn't exist.

That town, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was one of three principal sites of the Manhattan Project - America's World War II mission to create the atomic bomb. In 18 months Oak Ridge grew from farmland, near the town of Clinton, to a population of 75,000, becoming the sixth largest city in Tennessee. The project was so top secret that from its beginnings to the end of the war, it was never on the map, and the birth certificates of children born there had their birthplace listed as a box number in nearby Knoxville.

The three principal sites of the Manhattan Project were: Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was designed and assembled; Hanford, Washington, where plutonium was produced for the second "Fat Boy" atomic bomb; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where uranium 235 was extracted for the first atomic bomb,"Little Boy."

At Oak Ridge, 13 percent of all the electricity in America was used to 1,152 vacuum magnetic Calutrons to produce 110 pounds of uranium 235, less than a gallon in size, but with more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. The project was so secretive that when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, it was the first time the workers at Oak Ridge knew what they had been working on.

Victor Stabin of Jim Thorpe knew his father worked at Oak Ridge. Mary Kocher of Palmerton and her husband, Richard, both worked at Oak Ridge. Both Stabin and Kocher are well-known in the Carbon County arts community but they had never met.

It was interesting to hear them compare notes.

Stabin's father, Jack Stabin, was 21-years-old and hadn't yet shortened his name from Jacob Stubinski when he was recruited by the U.S. Army and sent to Oak Ridge. Stubinski had tested well for mechanical ability and received training on making scientific instrumentation.

"He learned glass blowing and machining," Stabin said. "He wound up making the instrumentation they needed at Oak Ridge."

In 1943, Kocher was 22-years-old when she and her newly married husband started at Oak Ridge, Mary as a secretary and Richard as an analytic chemist, both working for the contractor, Tennessee Eastman.

They thought it would be an adventure.

Initially, Richard lived in the men's dorm and Mary in the women's dorm. They would meet for dinner in the cafeteria. They were kept apart until Mary received her security clearance from the FBI.

"They asked me if I had a speeding ticket," she said. "They scrutinized everything."

Her clearance was delayed because she couldn't explain why her father didn't immediately apply for citizenship when he arrived in the U.S. in 1904.

After receiving her clearance, physical examination and a"painful" typhoid shot, Mary was assigned to a nasty boss and wanted to quit.

"The next day, I learned that he embezzled from the Red Cross, and he was gone," she said.

After she and Richard were settled in their own home, one evening they received a visit from two FBI suits. It seems that Richard had inadvertently left the lab with his notebook in his pocket.

"It took some undoing to convince these guys that this was not deliberate," Mary said.

Oak Ridge was a closed community and a dry community. Mail was censored, telephones were rare, and nearly everything was examined by guards at the gate. Richard's 80-year-old father lost the schnapps he had secreted in his luggage. Those in the know noticed that the guards did not inspect women's purses or feminine product packages and snuck liquor in that way.

"My husband worked in a secretive lab," Mary said. "He didn't know what he worked on and had to sign a paper not to discuss what he knew."

"My father said that everyone knew they were building a bomb. Nobody talked about it," Stabin added.

After leaving Oak Ridge, Stabin's father returned home to Brooklyn to see his parents. He wasn't able to stay in touch with them when he was in Oak Ridge.

He opened the door and noticed that all the furniture was different. When a strange family came to the door, he learned that his parents had moved six months earlier.

Mary believes that she was working on top secret material.

"I typed sheets with numerals," she said. "You dare not make a mistake!"

These reports were personally signed by Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project.

Mary became pregnant, and delivered her daughter just about the time that the first bomb was dropped and everyone in the world, and especially those at Oak Ridge, learned about the atomic bomb. The war was over. Her husband took a job at New Jersey Zinc in Palmerton.

"When my father was in his sixties, he was in an airport. A man approached him and asked, 'Are you Jacob Stubinski (a name he had not used for many years)? Do you remember me from Oak Ridge?'"

After the bomb was dropped and the war ended, Stabin was invited to continue on the nuclear program.

"I just want to get out of this uniform," he said.

The man told him that he made the right decision - all their pals that stayed on had died of leukemia.

Stabin said that he believed General MacArthur said: "The reason that we are fighting this war is so that our grandchildren can become artists and poets."

Stabin's father and Mary and her husband fought in that war. Stabin and Kocher both became artists.

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