Ed Westcott, a Singular Eye at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, Dies at 97

By Anonymous

He was the government’s official photographer at Oak Ridge, Tenn., a secret city where uranium was enriched for the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

ImageEd Westcott, a Singular Eye at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, Dies at 97
CreditCreditUnited States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge

Ed Westcott, a photographer who documented life in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the secret city where uranium was enriched as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb during World War II, died on March 29 at his daughter’s home in Oak Ridge, where he also still lived. He was 97.

His daughter, Emily Hunnicutt, confirmed his death. Mr. Westcott had a stroke in 2005 that limited his ability to speak.

Not then on any maps, Oak Ridge during the war was a huge company town of 59,000 acres about 25 miles west of Knoxville. Ringed by barbed wire, it had factories dedicated to bomb production, homes for tens of thousands of workers and their families, a 300-mile network of roads, and schools, stores, restaurants, theaters, parks and a library. Those who left town were searched for firearms on their return. People who talked openly about their classified work faced fines or prison.

ImageEd Westcott, a Singular Eye at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, Dies at 97
Ed Westcott chronicled the work done at Oak Ridge. Here, in one of his best-known photographs, from 1944, women sat at their stations in the calutron, where uranium isotopes were separated. CreditEd Westcott/United States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge
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Mr. Westcott took many aerial photographs of Oak Ridge, like this one in 1947.CreditEd Westcott/United States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge

Within that hush-hush world, Mr. Westcott took his camera wherever he could, chronicling the construction of its many plants (which had names like K-25 and Y-12), technicians at their stations, workers leaving their shifts, and even guards searching a Santa Claus at a gate. Mr. Westcott was the only person authorized to use a camera in Oak Ridge.

One of his best-known pictures shows women monitoring the controls of a calutron, which was used to separate uranium isotopes. Like the other workers, they were unaware of the government’s goal of building the first atomic bomb.

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A shift change on Aug. 8, 1945, two days after Hiroshima was bombed and one day before Nagasaki was destroyed.CreditEd Westcott/United States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge
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The Oak Ridge High School football team during a practice on Aug. 30, 1944.CreditEd Westcott/United States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge

He depicted the everyday life of a self-contained world: children clambering on a nursery school jungle gym; black workers in their grim segregated housing; a high school football practice; customers lined up for food rations food at a grocery store; music lovers attending an Oak Ridge Symphony concert; and teenagers playing Ping-Pong.

“Ed’s photographs are a treasure trove for people interested in what it was like to live in secret cities and who these people were,” Cindy Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Westcott was one of three official photographers at the Manhattan Project’s secret locations. The others were at the weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, and at Hanford, Wash., where plutonium was produced.

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Mr. Westcott was the only person authorized to carry a camera at the Oak Ridge facilities.CreditUnited States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge
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J. Robert Oppenheimer at Oak Ridge. He led the Manhattan Project's weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M.CreditEd Westcott/United States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge

“They were all put in this bizarre situation — photographing, for purposes they had no idea of, a cataclysmic event,” said Esther Samra who co-wrote, with Rachel Fermi, “Picturing the Bomb: Photographs from the Secret World of the Manhattan Project” (1995). “So they went about their days, photographing the things any press photographer would photograph.” (Ms. Fermi is one of four grandchildren of Enrico Fermi, who directed the first controlled chain reaction using nuclear fission.)

But even if Mr. Westcott was documenting a city that the public could not see — and moreover was often being told what not to shoot — there was a point to the picture-taking, especially for Lt. Gen. Leslie R. Groves Jr., the director of the Manhattan Project.

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Fences topped by barbed-wire surrounded Oak Ridge, where people were searched for firearms when entering and where public discussion of the secret work being done there was subject to punishment.CreditEd Westcott/United States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge

“Groves planned to extract maximum publicity benefit from the project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if and when it succeeded,” Richard Rhodes, whose book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (1986) won a Pulitzer Prize, wrote in an email. “For that, he needed photographs, again, within the limits of security. Thus, Westcott’s assignment.”

Indeed, two days after attending the successful test of the atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, General Groves had Mr. Westcott come up to Washington to photograph him in his office. The picture became part of a publicity packet that was distributed to the press after Hiroshima was bombed on Aug. 6.

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Mr. Westcott's official I.D. badge for Oak Ridge.CreditUnited States Department of Energy at Oak Ridge

“He seemed high strung and nervous,” Mr. Westcott said in an interview with the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean in December 1945. “There were all sorts of telephone calls and secret conversations. After the official news was released later” — about the bombs’ being dropped — “I was told that the general had been talking to Dr. Oppenheimer and making arrangements to deliver the atomic bomb to the air forces and have it dropped on Japan.”

Three days after the blast at Hiroshima, the entire front page of the local newspaper, The Oak Ridge Journal, was devoted to articles about it. Along with a banner headline — “Oak Ridge Attacks Japanese” — was one of Mr. Westcott’s photographs of General Groves.

Thousands of his negatives were stored at Oak Ridge, and then at the National Archives in Washington, before they were declassified years later.

He also developed aerial reconnaissance photos of the devastation wrought by the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as armed guards waited outside his darkroom.

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Mr. Westcott in his darkroom in April 1945. Months later he would process film depicting the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.CreditUnited States Department of Energy, Oak Ridge

James Edward Westcott was born on Jan. 20, 1922, in Chattanooga, Tenn., and grew up in Nashville. His father, Jamie, was an accountant at the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. His mother, Lucille (Green) Westcott, was a homemaker.

Ed’s interest in photography took him as a teenage amateur to Nashville in the early 1930s to shoot, for himself, a whirlwind appearance by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He soon learned to develop pictures and built his own darkroom. After high school, he worked at local photo studios and for the National Youth Administration, taking pictures of the Works Progress Administration’s efforts in Nashville.

He joined the Army Corps of Engineers in early 1942, photographing the construction of hydroelectric plants, dams and military bases in the Southeast. Later that year he was asked by the Corps to choose between two new postings: Alaska or what would become Oak Ridge. He chose the latter because of his knowledge of east Tennessee.

When he arrived, there was little to suggest the massive complex it would become.

“We came under an underpass, which was called ‘Elza,’ and then they said, ‘This is the project,’ ” he told The Tennessean. “I didn’t see anything going on and didn’t see how it could be a project.”

Mr. Westcott moved into a small prefabricated house — a model called a Cemesto A — with his wife, Edith (Seigenthaler) Westcott, and his son, James Jr. When the Wescotts had more children, they moved into a larger, Cemesto D, house, which he modernized and lived in for the next 65 years.

Oak Ridge — which would become a thriving city (minus the barbed fencing) — was used after the war for government research under the United States Atomic Energy Commission, and Mr. Westcott remained as the official photographer. In 1966, he turned to documenting the commission’s activities at its headquarters in Germantown, Md. He returned to live in Oak Ridge in 1977, where he also did some local photographic and darkroom work until his wife took sick. She died in 1996.

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Mr. Westcott in an undated photograph. His final pictures, taken a few days before his death, were of a ribbon-cutting at the Oak Ridge History Museum, which is filled with his photographs.CreditDepartment of Energy in Oak Ridge

In addition to his daughter, Ms. Hunnicutt, Mr. Westcott is survived by his sons, James Jr., William, John and David; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

In his later years he became a revered figure in Oak Ridge, where a street and shopping center were named for him. The local congressman nominated him for the 2018 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and “Ed Westcott Day” was proclaimed there when he turned 96.

A few days before his death, he attended the grand opening of the Oak Ridge History Museum, where his photographs are on display. His pictures of the event were his last.

“He photographed the ribbon-cutting,” Ms. Hunnicutt said. “He had a wonderful day.”

Correction: 

An earlier version of this obituary misstated the location of Oak Ridge, Tenn. It is about 25 miles west of Knoxville, not east.

Correction: 

An earlier version of a picture caption with this obituary misstated part of the name of the museum where Mr. Westcott took his final pictures. As the obituary correctly states, it is the Oak Ridge History Museum, not the Oak Ridge Historical Museum.

Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” @RichSandomir

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Ed Westcott, a Singular Eye at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, Dies at 97

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