Bombs and Birdcages: Tennessee’s Nuclear Past is Close to Home

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

As Oppenheimer continues to be a big box office draw, the threat of nuclear war might seem remote to many moviegoers. The creation of atomic bombs and the threat of worldwide nuclear war feels like the past and has nothing to do with our lives today, or even our personal history.  However, the threat of nuclear war was very real during the lifetimes of many Clarksville residents. If you were born before 1990, then you lived during the anxiety-inducing Cold War and through the real-world consequences that came from J. Robert Oppenheimer’s success in creating the world’s first atomic bomb. 

Oppenheimer and his colleagues were excited at the possibilities of a nuclear bomb, hoping the mere existence of one would end all wars. Unfortunately, that’s not how world events panned out. The Bomb did not end war, but it certainly changed the nature of conflict and how countries engage each other. The implications of what the atomic bomb could and would do horrified its creators, just as it has countless other citizens of the world. In a very real way, nuclear war still threatens to be just one aggressor away.   

World War II and the creation of the atomic bomb hit close to home for many in Clarksville and Tennessee in general. Tennessee played a vital role in the world of nuclear war. 

The building of Camp Campbell in 1942 brought World War II close to home for Clarksville residents, but two secret locations in Tennessee were extremely important in the United States’ nuclear arms programs.  

The Elza Gate was the site of the public opening of Oak Ridge in 1949.
U.S. Department of Energy/Ed Westcott

Oak Ridge 

Three hours southeast of Clarksville, just outside Knoxville, is Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Once home to top secret factories, laboratories and an entire secret city, Oak Ridge was an integral part of the Manhattan Project. If you’ve seen Oppenheimer or are familiar with the Manhattan Project, you may already be aware that Oak Ridge is one of the three sites where materials were created to develop the atomic bomb. Specifically, Oak Ridge produced enriched uranium for the creation of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The area was selected by General Leslie Groves because of its proximity to railroads and highways, but also because of its rural location and valleys that would serve as an ideal setting in the case there was a nuclear accident. 

Oak Ridge is open to tourists today.  Visitors can check out a few different museums and National Parks committed to preserving the history and legacy of Oak Ridge’s crucial tasks in developing an atomic bomb before the enemy could. Oak Ridge continues to be the site of nuclear research facilities today as well.  

An artist’s rendering of nuclear weapons loading at the railhead at Clarksville Base, where nearly all weapons exited the base when it closed in 1969. There are no known photographs of operations in the top secret Q area of the base.
Don F. Pratt Museum

Clarksville Base 

Ft. Campbell, Kentucky is among the largest Army posts, the home of the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division, and one of the first army posts to deploy troops in wartime. Many Clarksville residents know Ft. Campbell as a maker of random loud booms, helicopters and a pretty sweet 4th of July fireworks display… but did you know it once hosted a top-secret naval base containing a third of the country’s nuclear weapons guarded by Marines?   

The end of World War II brought an uneasy peace among the most powerful nations on Earth, and rather than destroying or disabling the nuclear weapons in existence, the United States instead made more nuclear weapons and stored them in several secret locations. Clarksville Base was one of these secret locations; so secret in fact that the people guarding the facility didn’t even know for sure what they were guarding, nor did any Clarksville residents suspect that they lived near one of the nation’s biggest nuclear weapon stockpiles. Although the Birdcage – the affectionate nickname given to the base, due to its enclosure in an abundance of chain link fencing – ended operations in 1965, it once topped the Soviet’s list for sites to destroy first in the event the Cold War turned hot. If the Soviets had attacked Clarksville Base or if a nuclear accident had happened there, Ft. Campbell and a large portion of Clarksville would have been devastated.   

In recent years, the Army has opened Clarksville Base to tourists. The site is considered historic for its role in the Cold War. A trip to the Don F. Pratt Museum will provide you with the information you need to locate The Birdcage on Ft. Campbell and check it out. The Birdcage and Clarksville Base refers to not one building, but a series of weapon silos inside of bunkers built into hillsides and a network of underground tunnels. Visitors should check in at Gate 4 before proceeding onto Ft. Campbell. 

The Customs House Museum & Cultural Center has the Cold War on display. See a Cold War-era Geiger counter up close and learn more about Clarksville Base and Ft. Campbell in the Becoming Clarksville exhibit in Heritage Hall. You can also hear more about Clarksville’s Atomic Age in a Clarksville Community Network episode here on YouTube. 

Featured photo: An artist’s rendering made for the Don F. Pratt Museum depicts what a Clarksville Base bunker area would have looked like when the facility was active | Don F. Pratt Museum

Meghan E. Gattignolo
 is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters. 

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