The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

Local News

March 2, 2014

Local man part of nuclear program

— Vermilion County native Denton E. Alexander worked at the massive Clinton Engineer Works in Tennessee in the 1940s. Peak employment at the top secret government installation reached 50,000. Buildings at the complex covered acres, and supplies came in by rail cars, but the product they were making was measured in milligrams and was transported to its final destination by couriers.

Young people, the majority of them women, filled many of the positions at the complex in the Volunteer State, but there was a severe shortage of people educated in the sciences to fill critical positions. To alleviate this shortage, the government decided to reach out to the armed forces and select members from the ranks to fill those posts.

Alexander recalled it was serendipity that made him a part of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. He was serving in the Army Air Corps at the time, and was one of the individuals ordered to go to Tennessee.

Alexander was born on a farm near Potomac-Jamesburg in Vermilion County in 1917. Prior to the war he had obtained degrees from Illinois State Normal and the University of Illinois. When the United States entered the war, he joined the air corps.

He arrived at the massive installation, known as Clinton Engineer Works, in 1943. The complex was located on 59,000 acres near Knoxville. A city was growing around the plant when he arrived, and he recalled there was a sea of mud. Construction at the site continued non-stop, and at its peak reached 75,000 workers. The buildings that housed the production facilities were substantial, constructed of brick and concrete, but many of the workers were housed in tiny structures known as “hutments.” Up to four people were placed in these buildings of less than 300 square feet.

Alexander noted there was abundant security at the installation, and people were warned not to talk about what they were doing there to anyone, including their co-workers. He was informed the plant was enriching uranium, but noted he was never told what it was to be used for, and it was never discussed. His own theory was a new fuel was being developed to be used by the military. He worked at the Beta process where fuel was enriched to weapons grade.

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