Manhattan Project to be remembered

Madison Martin

A cross-department reception and lecture will be given this evening regarding one of the most significant government projects in history.

New York Times best-selling author Denise Kiernan will be traveling to the Hill to give a lecture on her biography “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” on Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Van Meter Hall auditorium.

The nonfiction book highlights the Manhattan Project: the U.S. government’s effort to create the first atomic bomb. One of the plants was located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, less than 200 miles away from Bowling Green.

“Everybody’s heard about the Manhattan Project, the first reaction at the University of Chicago, right, and they all know about Los Alamos where they fired the first test explosion,” Robert Dietle, the head of the WKU history department, said. “The link between those two is through Oak Ridge.”

The School of Journalism and Broadcasting, history department and Potter College of Arts and Letters came together to sponsor the event, which provides a multifaceted look at the origins and results of the Manhattan Project’s cataclysmic use of force.

Kiernan’s novel notes the involvement of women in the operation — women who had no knowledge of what they were working on in the Oak Ridge plant.

“They were simply told, ‘Here’s your task, this is what you’re doing, this is war work,’ but at no point were they told they were in the process of producing a weapon of destructive power that had never been seen before,” Dietle said.

The lecture will be accompanied with a reception in Mass Media and Technology Hall’s atrium and gallery, where images by photographers Ed Westcott and Joe O’Donnell will be displayed.

Curated by Tim Broekema, photojournalism professor and chairman of the Gallery Committee, the gallery displays over 50 photographs that depict the Oak Ridge plant’s operations as well as photographs of the atomic bombings and aftermath in Japan.

“[As photojournalists], we’re not just shooting for tomorrow; we’re shooting for what we remember,” Broekema said. “The historical importance of what we do today may reveal itself decades from now, and you know, that’s kind of what I’m seeing with these images, the historical importance of those images.”

Westcott was the U.S. government’s photographer in the 1940s and one of the only people permitted to have a camera in the Oak Ridge plant. O’Donnell, a retired Marine and photojournalist for the United States Information Agency, was among the first to land in Japan immediately after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Nashville resident Kimiko Sakai, O’Donnell’s wife, approached Broekema regarding the Japan photos and asked if he wanted to do a gallery at WKU.

O’Donnell’s images, which Broekema drew from, were originally displayed in the Tennessee State Museum. Broekema curated Westcott’s pictures too, and after negotiations, a lecture from Kiernan was added.

“The gallery is really honoring Ed and Joe,” Broekema said, “Denise’s keynote … adds a third dimension to this whole presentation to get a historic understanding of what happened in our neck of the woods, because I dare bet most people don’t know about Oak Ridge. I know I didn’t.”

Although the gallery will house the photographs until late November, a special pre-lecture reception with comments from Provost David Lee and family members of the photographers will begin at 6:30 p.m. Each of the events is free.