The girls of Atomic City The untold story of the women who helped win World War II

Denise Kiernan

Book - 2013

In this book the author traces the story of the unsung World War II workers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee through interviews with dozens of surviving women and other Oak Ridge residents. This is the story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in U.S. history. The Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942. One of the Manhattan Project's secret cities, it did not appear on any maps until 1949, and yet at the height of World War II it was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. Their jobs were shrouded in mystery, but they were buoy...ed by a sense of shared purpose, close friendships, and a surplus of handsome scientists and Army men. But against this wartime backdrop, a darker story was unfolding. The penalty for talking about their work, even the most innocuous details, was job loss and eviction. One woman was recruited to spy on her coworkers. They all knew something big was happening at Oak Ridge, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb "Little Boy" was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb. Though the young women originally believed they would leave Oak Ridge after the war, many met husbands there, made lifelong friends, and still call the seventy-year-old town home. The reverberations from their work there, work they did not fully understand at the time, are still being felt today.

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 940.53082/Kiernan Due Feb 28, 2024
New York, NY : Simon & Schuster 2013.
Main Author
Denise Kiernan (-)
1st Touchstone hardcover ed
Item Description
"A Touchstone Book"
Physical Description
xvii, 373 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., map, ports. ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. 317-347) and index.
  • Introduction
  • Principal Cast of Characters
  • Map-Clinton Engineer Works, Tennessee, 1943-1945
  • Revelation, August 1945
  • 1. Everything Will be Taken Care of: Train to Nowhere, August 1943
  • Tubealloy: The Bohemian Grove to the Appalachian Hills, September 1942
  • 2. Peaches and Pearls: The Taking of Site X, Fall 1942
  • Tubealloy: Ida and the Atom, 1934
  • 3. Through the Gates: Clinton Engineer Works, Fall 1943
  • Tubealloy: Lise and Fission, 1938
  • 4. Bull Pens and Creeps: The Project's Welcome for New Employees
  • Tubealloy: Leona and Success in Chicago, December 1942
  • 5. Only Temporary: Spring into Summer, 1944
  • Tubealloy: The Quest for Product
  • 6. To Work
  • Tubealloy: The Couriers
  • 7. Rhythms of Life
  • Tubealloy: Security, Censorship, and the Press
  • 8. The One About the Fireflies ...
  • Tubealloy: Pumpkins, Spies, and Chicken Soup, Fall 1944
  • 9. The Unspoken: Sweethearts and Secrets
  • Tubealloy: Combining Efforts in the New Year
  • 10. Curiosity and Silence
  • Tubealloy: The Project's Crucial Spring
  • 11. Innocence Lost
  • Tubealloy: Hope and the Haberdasher, April-May 1945
  • 12. Sand Jumps in the Desert, July 1945
  • 13. The Gadget Revealed
  • 14. Dawn of a Thousand Suns
  • 15. Life in the New Age
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
  • About the Author
Review by Booklist Review

Atomic-bomb history includes works about the communities of workers attached to the main installations where the first nuclear weapon was built. Kiernan's contribution covers Oak Ridge, Tennessee, site of enormous factories built to separate uranium isotopes. A type of oral history, Kiernan's account derives from her intensive interviews with 10 women who, in their youth, labored in a range of occupations at Oak Ridge, from janitor to machine operator to secretary to engineer. With surrounding scaffolding of the scientific fundamentals and the 1942-45 technical development of the bomb, the narrative runs as a collection of individuals' life stories that recall circumstances of recruitment and the spartan conditions at Oak Ridge, on and off the job. Some commonalities of experience include the secrecy in which the women worked and the discrimination they endured (racial segregation in the case of the janitor; sexism in the cases of white women workers). Kiernan snugly fits original research into the creation story of Oak Ridge and should engage readers interested in both women's history and the background of the atomic bomb.--Taylor, Gilbert Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

During WWII, Oak Ridge, Tenn., was one unlikely epicenter of the Manhattan Project, the top secret program that produced the atomic bomb. Selected in 1942 for its remoteness, the area, "a big war site" hiring at top dollar, immediately boomed; from across the U.S., tens of thousands of workers streamed in-many of them women looking to broaden their horizons and fatten their purses. Fully integrated into the system, women worked every job, from courier to chemist. They found an "instant community" with "no history," but also "a secret city... [and] a project whose objective was largely kept from them." Living conditions were Spartan-urine samples and guards were intrusive constants-but the women lived their lives. Kiernan's (Signing Their Lives Away) interviewees describe falling in love and smuggling in liquor in tampon boxes. But like everyone else, those lives were disrupted by news of Hiroshima. "Now you know what we've been doing all this time," said one of the scientists. Many moved on; others stayed-Atomic City had become home. But for the women of Oak Ridge, "a strange mix of... pride and guilt and joy and shame" endured. This intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history will appeal to a broad audience. 16-page b&w insert. Agent: Yfat Reiss Gendell, Foundry Literary + Media. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Kiernan (Signing Their Lives Away) writes compellingly of the women who toiled in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Living and working with thousands of others in a secret city built almost overnight, those involved in the "Project" were unaware that they were contributing to the most revolutionary scientific discovery of the 20th century. Moving between the individual narratives of the women workers and the story of the development of atomic fusion, Kiernan emphasizes the secretive nature of the work yet gives readers a greater understanding of the larger historical context. The endnotes provide comprehensive information about primary sources consulted as well as oral interviews Kiernan undertook with surviving workers. However, no complete bibliography is included. VERDICT This work complements Russell Olwell's At Work in the Atomic City: A Labor and Social History of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Kiernan capably captures the spirit of women's wartime opportunities and their sacrifices in what is ultimately a captivating narrative. Recommended reading for popular history fans.-Kathryn Wells, Fitchburg State Univ. Lib., MA (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A fresh take on the secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. Kiernan (co-author: Stuff Every American Should Know, 2012, etc.) examines the construction of what became known as Oak Ridge, Tenn., a city built as part of the atomic bomb program. She has worked intensively with surviving women members of the work force and with local residents to put together the oral history on which this account is based. In the two years after the federal government took ownership of around 80,000 acres of mountain woodland and farm sites, the population rose to 75,000, and consumption of electric power from the nearby generating plant outpaced New York City. Many of the workers recruited were young women from farm backgrounds whom project administrators judged to be particularly suitable to the kinds of work that needed to be done, under the veil of secrecy that was imposed. The security and discouragement from talking about work becomes a pervasive feature of Kiernan's narrative. Those who violated guidelines were speedily removed, never to be seen around the site again. The author parallels her account of the construction of Oak Ridge with chapters on the development of the science that made nuclear fission possible, and she shows how Oak Ridge became a city and community after the war. An inspiring account of how people can respond with their best when called upon.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The Girls of Atomic City Introduction There have long been secrets buried deep in the southern Appalachians, covered in layers of shale and coal, lying beneath the ancient hills of the Cumberlands, and lurking in the shadow of the Smokies at the tail end of the mountainous spine that ripples down the East Coast. This land of the Cherokee gave way to treaties and settlers and land grants. Newcomers traversed the Cumberland Gap to establish small farms and big lives in a region where alternating ridges and valleys cradle newborn communities in the nooks and crannies of the earth. Isolated. Independent. Hidden. In 1942, a new secret came to this part of the world. The earth trembled and shook and made way for an unprecedented alliance of military, industrial, and scientific forces, forces that combined to create the most powerful and controversial weapon known to mankind. This weapon released the power present in the great unseen of the time, unleashing the energy of the basic unit of matter known as the atom. Author H. G. Wells might have called them Sun Snarers, the people who descended upon the valleys and ridges. "And we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and--lifeless--lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy . . . ," Wells wrote in his 1914 book, The World Set Free. This lesser-known title by the War of the Worlds author describes the harnessing of the power of the nucleus: "And these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them." Wells wrote this long before the neutron was discovered, let alone fission, and his work began to popularize the phrase "atomic bombs" before those devices ever took form beyond the author's pages. But years earlier, people in the mountains claim another prophet lay on the ground, overcome with visions of a project that would bring the snaring of the sun to the hills of Tennessee. They say a prophet foretold it. A general oversaw it. And a team of the world's greatest scientific minds was tasked with making it all come together. But it was the others, the great and often unseen, who made the visions of the Prophet and the plans of the General and the theories of the scientists a reality. Tens of thousands of individuals--some still reeling from the Depression, others gripped by anxiety and fear as loved ones fought overseas in the most devastating war any of them had known--worked around the clock on this project, the details of which were not explained. For the young adventurers, male and female, who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, doing their part meant living and working in a secret city, a place created from the ground up for one reason and one reason only--to enrich uranium for the world's first atomic bomb used in combat. Roots have always run deep here. They were dug up and scattered when the strangers with the project came to the foothills of the Cumberlands, but the newcomers, too, could not resist the pull of the earth and dug their own roots down deep into the Tennessee clay, soaked by mountain rain and baked by a thousand suns. Permanent. Enduring. Many of these workers on this secret project hidden in the hills were young women who had left home to fight the war in their own way. They left farms for factories willingly, wrote letters hopefully, waited patiently and worked tirelessly. A number of these women--and men--still live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, today. I have had the fascinating and humbling privilege of meeting them, interviewing them, laughing and crying with them and hearing firsthand their tales of life in a secret city while working on a project whose objective was largely kept from them. Over the years they have graciously given me their time and suffered through repeated questions and what must have seemed like insane requests to recall moments from their day-to-day activities roughly 70 years ago. They did so happily and enthusiastically and never, ever with even the slightest bit of bravado. That is not their style. I did not only learn about life on the Manhattan Project. I also found myself taken aback by their sense of adventure and independence, their humility, and their dedication to the preservation of history. I wish I could include each and every one of them in these pages, but I cannot. I hope those who find themselves only in the acknowledgments will accept my thanks in place of my prose. I feel exceptionally lucky to know those who continue to live on, and miss those who have passed since I began working on this book. Without them, this sun-snaring--this Manhattan Project--would not have achieved its objectives, and because of them a new age was born that would change the world forever. These are some of their stories. --Denise Kiernan, summer 2012 Excerpted from The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.