The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
- 402 pages
- The bustling background noise of coffee shop or cafeteria sets the mood for this engaging story of the Manhattan Project’s fast-paced presence in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
In 1903, a Tennessee mountain man by the name of John Hendrix told of a vision he’d seen of “great buildings and factories…[that] will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be.” His contemporaries hearing him at the local store just humored him, but forty years later, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, saw the construction of an entire town to support the enrichment of uranium.
Oak Ridge was birthed into the rural Tennessee mud by the War Department’s midwife for the Project, eminent domain. The vacated lands were molded into factories for enrichment of “Tubealloy”, prefabricated “cemestos” (a mix of cement and asbestos) houses, dormitories and cafeterias. The community’s planners had projected population figures revised upwards at a stroke, as the nuts and bolts of the Manhattan Project came there. The thousands of people who would come to live there needed schools for their children, medical facilities and stores. They would want public spaces for exercise, recreation and worship, and so the planned community devoured more and more land, all planned by government contractors and fenced with barbed wire. Yet the Townsite suddenly built there didn’t technically exist: it did not appear on maps, and mail addressed to “Oak Ridge, TN” would be returned with the message that “there is no such place”. Even Tennessee’s governor at the time was not informed of the community until ground had already been broken.
Hundreds and eventually thousands of young women were recruited from high schools and secretarial pools for positions throughout the top-secret facilities. Some were secretaries. But many more worked the dials and knobs for enrichment of “Tubealloy” without really knowing what they were doing (their supervisors didn’t really know, either). All they knew was that they were helping in the war effort. The engineer in charge of Tubealloy enrichment found that rural girls fresh from high school achieved better quality Tubealloy than the PhD scientists who had insisted only they were qualified to work those large machines: the girls did what they were told and didn’t mess around, while the scientists constantly tinkered with the protocol, attempting to optimize their results.
To bring her book down to a more manageable scale, Kiernan follows about half a dozen women’s personal experiences in Oak Ridge. A married African American mother who sends money from her housekeeping position home; an efficient young secretary already in the federal government; a chemist who never asked where her samples came from or where they were going—their recollections provide a rich description of their time in Oak Ridge. Kiernan has been careful in her selection of women to highlight so she can discuss racism and sexism a social elements in play within the Oak Ridge crucible as well as the larger American culture of the 1940s. For example, unmarried women were herded into dormitories with dorm “mothers” who kept tabs on their comings and goings for their purity’s sake. Housing available to black employees was even less appealing; essentially single-gender shacks with a heating stove in the middle and a night watch that harassed female residents there. While not the main theme of her book, Kiernan understands that avoiding these topics would diminish public understanding of what took place in that setting.
Oak Ridge residents learn that they have participated in the production of Fat Man and Little Boy in the same moment that every other American does: by listening to Truman’s radio address following the bombing of Hiroshima. When the collective astonishment begins to subside, things begin to change in Oak Ridge. Now, housewives can chat while hanging up the laundry. It’s still possible to ask too many questions, but much of the tension is relieved. In short, the government is no longer pretending that Oak Ridge doesn’t exist or that they don’t have nuclear capability.
This book delighted me with its uniquely civilian perspective on a topic—America’s foray into atomic weaponry—that is almost always treated from a military or political standpoint. Internally, patriotism and a desire to bring loved ones home from overseas conflicted with shock or horror at the deaths of thousands in an enemy state (especially having participated in their deaths, in the case of the Oak Ridge employees). Radio and news reels brought a degree of immediacy to this world-changing event that the public could not hold at arm’s length with much success. Although out of scope for this particular book, the “Atomic Age” hoopla of the late 1940s and the 1950s began instead.
One final note: observe that I have not listed where the book’s appendix begins in the first bullet point, as has been my custom. In this case, I believe it to be essential reading. The appendix here is an epilogue of sorts, complete with photos, offered to the curious reader for some closure about these women’s lives post-Oak Ridge. I would have come away feeling less satisfied if I hadn’t read it.