We are sad to report the passing of our friend and Manhattan Project veteran Thomas Forkner Sr. on April 26, 2017. He was 98 years old.
Forkner was born on June 14, 1918 in Hawkinsville, Georgia. For most of his childhood, his family lived outside Atlanta. After receiving his law degree from the Woodrow Wilson College of Law, Forkner was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941. He worked as a counter-intelligence agent before being recruited to the Manhattan Project.
During an interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation in November 2014, Forkner discussed a conversation with an officer concerning his secret assignment. “I’d ask questions and he’d say, ‘I can’t tell you that.’ So I said, ‘Well, let me put it this way. If I’m what you’re looking for and I fit, let’s go at it.’”
He described arriving in Tennessee without knowing his role in the Manhattan Project. “Then I got these instructions to report to Knoxville, Tennessee. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. Somebody met me when I got off the train, took me to Oak Ridge. That’s the first time I knew I was at Oak Ridge. So that’s when they gave me the job.”
Forkner held positions at both Oak Ridge, Tennessee and at the Manhattan Engineer District headquarters in New York. His primary responsibility while stationed at Oak Ridge was to transport valuable products from the Tennessee facility to Los Alamos, a drive that took over 53 hours. It was a non-stop trip with two drivers per truck. Forkner recalled that they drove a special route which avoided every city along the route. While working at Oak Ridge, he met his wife, Martha Bishop. In New York, he held a security position at the headquarters of the MED. He was in Manhattan when the war ended.
After the war, Forkner returned to Georgia, where he worked for his family’s real estate company. In 1955, he opened the first Waffle House with his partner Joseph Rogers. The restaurant chain has become iconic, with over 1,500 locations across the country.
Later in life, Forkner became a serious golfer. He was listed as a top 10 senior golfer by Golf Digest four times and was inducted into the Georgia Hall of Fame in 2007.
For more about Forkner and his many accomplishments, read his obituaries in the New York Times and the Washington Post. You can listen to his oral history on our Voices of the Manhattan Project website.