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Remembering Ed Westcott Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

29 March 2019

During World War II, the top secret Manhattan Project produced the first nuclear weapons that would eventually end the global conflict. Ed Westcott was the only photographer allowed to document the project being conducted at the Clinton Engineer Works at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where most of the work was done.

He passed away Friday at the age of 97.

By the time he was 23, he'd already captured over 15,000 images of the project. Many of which are held in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The 29th person hired onto the project, no other photographer documented the history of the nuclear age as thoroughly.

It's no surprise he was nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The surprise is that he never received it.

But then, only three photographers have ever received the medal: Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land, Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams.

He wanted Oak Ridge to be remembered.

Born in 1922 in Chattanooga, he grew up in Nashville. After graduating from high school in 1939, he got a job as a photographer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in his home town.

His assignments were to shoot images of site selection and military camp construction, airports and dams in Tennessee and Kentucky. He was once sent on a secret mission to photograph a classified location in Middle Tennessee slated to become a prisoner of war camp.

Having proven himself at age 20, he was offered the Manhattan Project assignment. He photographed the 59,000-acre site as the X-10, Y-12, K-25 and S-50 plants were being erected but he also took time to document the lives of the employees who worked there.

He wanted Oak Ridge to be remembered.

He had married Esther Seigenthaler in 1940, beginning a marriage that endured for 56 years until her death in 1996. They had five children: Emily, William, James Jr. "Jim," John and David.

Oak Ridge historian Ray Smith remembered how Westcott celebrated the end of the war, an event confirmed by the local papers:

When the papers finally came out, Ed drove his truck down to the gathering as people were celebrating and waving at him, holding up the newspapers with that iconic headline "War Ends." He climbed into his truck bed, mounted his tripod and, using his personal camera and film, snapped the exemplary shot that truly captures the relief and excitement the country was bubbling over with at the time. Ed wasn't even on duty when he took that picture, another sign of just how devoted he is to our city, making sure all the memories and important moments are documented for future generations to treasure.

In later years he documented the peaceful uses of atomic energy and photographed portraits of seven U.S. presidents.

Westcott's photographs are exhibited at the American Museum of Science and Energy and the Oak Ridge History Museum, as well as the Y-12 History Center in the New Hope Center at the Y-12 National Security Complex.

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