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Imagine, if you will, that you are a 20-year-old photographer working for the Nashville office of the Corps of Engineers in 1942. You are told to report to East Tennessee to photograph a new construction project near Knoxville called the Clinton Engineer Works. Upon arrival you are given a badge and told you can go anywhere on the site but cannot tell anyone what you see, hear or photograph. This is what happened to Ed Westcott as he documented the secret Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. After the war he stayed on as the primary photographer at Oak Ridge and was still taking photos around town until last month when he died at age 97.
Having grown up in Oak Ridge in the 1950s, I developed a keen interest in our history and its role in World War 2 and later. The Westcott photos depicted the people of the town in all aspects of the work and daily life. He included top scientists and engineers, technicians, coal yard workers and kids playing around the temporary houses. So when we started working on the Secret City exhibits for the new Tennessee State Museum, I knew we would rely on his archive to show what life during the war years was like.
We selected images to display all kinds of Oak Ridgers, most of whom had no idea what they were making and how it would help end the war.
I am especially proud that I got to meet Ed Westcott on his 90th birthday and was then able to show how his work was important to our state’s history. A couple of weeks ago, his daughter Emily and his son-in-law Don Hunnicut came to see the new Secret City exhibits. I think they were pleased.
Born in Chattanooga on January 20, 1922, Westcott grew up in Nashville, attending Andrews High School and Watkins Art School. He studied photography at Photo Craft Studio, Shadow Art Studio, and interned with the National Youth Administration. As his obituary in Oak Ridge Today tells us, he got his first camera at age 13, a French Foth Derby bought for him by his father. A year later, he photographed his first president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as his motorcade passed through Nashville. He would go on to photograph seven more presidents in his long-storied career.
Ed Westcott was a legend in his own time. The history of Oak Ridge and the atom bomb project cannot be written without him.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory - History
American Museum of Science and Energy
New York Times Ed Westcott Obituary
Photos: Credit: Ed Westcott/U.S Dept. of Energy
Nick Fielder graduated from Oak Ridge High School in 1960. He was the Tennessee state archaeologist from 1983-2007 and is currently assisting the State Museum with collections.